Forgiveness is generally defined by psychologists as a “conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve it.” It implies an intentional ‘mindset’ towards letting go of the hurt and shift our focus from it in order to move on. Forgiveness is in essence an abstract concept expected to be applied to various practical life situations, hence why it is so difficult to understand and controversial in its application.
Forgiving means that we don’t dwell on the specifics of an offense in words, thoughts and action by not seeking revenge, and whenever safe and possible to do so, seek or agree to reconciliation. We can seek forgiveness if we are the perpetrator of an offense or we can grant forgiveness if someone’s wronged us. All of us, at some point in our lives will have been in either of these positions. Sometimes, we might need to forgive ourselves, so forgiveness is not always based on a two-way relationship.
Understanding forgiveness is not easy and exercising it is even less so. We might all have some notion of what it means to forgive but scenarios and circumstances giving rise to situations requiring the application of forgiveness are so varied that ways to forgive are not one size fits all.
From a tender age, most of us are told to forgive but hardly ever taught HOW to do so. Most people agree that some things are easier to forgive than others, but most don’t know how far-reaching their own ability to forgive can be. Our perception of the deepest hurt or the most unimaginable atrocities or injustice is subjective unless it affects us personally. Our personality, our genetic make-up and our background including our spirituality all contribute to our ability and willingness to forgive someone who’s wronged us, and therefore, everybody’s opinion on forgiveness is different.
Many people who can’t forgive feel this way because of the false assumption that forgiving someone who’s hurt us is like saying that what they did is ok, or admitting we were wrong and we should not have felt hurt perhaps, or simply because we feel that forgiving will make us appear weak before them or others. All of this could not be further from the truth. Forgiveness does not have to mean any of that! It does not endorse the wrongdoings of our oppressors and it certainly does not mean we are weak. Quite the contrary in fact, it takes huge mental strength to forgive and that’s why it is so admirable. Consider Nelson Mandela, who, following 27 years of imprisonment for his objection to Apartheid, also tortured many of those years, called for forgiveness and reconciliation upon his release from prison.
Why should we forgive? The general consensus is that forgiveness is good, but why? Do we do it for ourselves? Do we do it for our oppressors? Other than the obvious moral reason that it is the right thing to do and for the restoration of peace and harmony, it is worth considering the effect of unforgiveness on a person. The mental state of being unforgiving is often accompanied by feelings of resentment and anger, sadness and disappointment and can sometimes cause further mental ill health. Feelings of anger and hostility are for example associated to higher stress levels which is linked to coronary heart disease. Neda Gould, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine conducted some conclusive research showing that engaging in acts of forgiveness helps the body to turn off the stress response associated to unforgiveness which chronically leads to ‘wear and tear’ of the body (Howard, 2016). Practising forgiveness has also been linked to the reduction of blood pressure levels.
These health benefits of forgiveness alone are a definitely good enough reason to choose forgiveness, even if those who have wronged us aren’t sorry.
So how do we forgive? Exercising forgiveness is first and foremost a choice. We must choose to forgive. However, making that choice is not something that happens quickly in response to being short-changed, hurt, discriminated against, insulted, mistreated, abused or violated. Choosing to forgive any of these actions is not easy. It might not happen straight after a crime has been committed. It may take a while for us to process the events and the situation we’re in as a result. We need to allow space and time for our feelings and emotions to travel their natural track of upset and anger, sadness and disappointment, until they naturally come back to their healthy place of peace.
Forgiveness is therefore also a process. Only after allowing the negative emotions caused by the hurt and the pain we’ve experienced, to follow their natural course can we start directing our efforts to a shift in focus from the actions of our oppressors onto other things, allowing our minds to heal through the acceptance of what has happened.
Forgiveness may also require us to exercise compassion and to look at the bigger picture, sometimes understanding what might have caused our oppressor to do what they did. Charles Mutua Mulli from Kenya was 6 years old when his parents abandoned him. He became a street kid and had to fend for his life. Following his conversion to Christianity he ended up doing very well and had a typical ‘rags to riches’ story, becoming a millionaire. Meanwhile, his heart had been hardened by the trials he’d gone through and he resented his alcoholic father, holding him responsible for his family breakdown as a child which led to his abandonment. When he left a business meeting to find his car had been stolen once, he loathed the homeless until he remembered that he once was one of them. He was filled with compassion and started to welcome homeless children into his home. When it became full, he started a charitable organisation raising homeless children. He became father to the fatherless. Had he not forgiven those who stole his car, his father and himself for loathing the homeless, this would not have happened.
More than a choice and a process, ultimately forgiveness is a gift. Not only is it a gift to our oppressor but it is also a gift to ourselves and a gift to the world. It is beneficial to our health, it is the only way to peace and harmony, whether internal or external and it has the power to heal and turn around hearts and situations to produce the best outcomes.
In the same way that we should consider forgiveness as a gift in our daily lives, can we also consider biblical forgiveness. Jesus is a gift to mankind and the world so that everyone can experience the grace and the mercy of God. Forgiveness is a dynamic, you give it, you receive it, it breeds growth and maturity. We are told that God is merciful, and we are called to “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave” us (Ephesians, 4:32).
Jacqueline Howard, “Forgiveness and your Health: What Science Says About the Benefits”. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/05/health/forgiveness-health-explainer/index.html