Forgiveness: It's Worth Your Mental HealthPublished May 31, 2008
How could she have been so malicious?! She knows she did it on purpose and intended to hurt me. I am absolutely outraged and the sight of her just makes my blood boil. The worst part about it is she just goes around and acts as if nothing happened between her and me. Did she forget? Is she completely out of her mind? The very thought of her and I think ill will toward her. I seethe with anger, resentment and frustration. It is as if I am imprisoned by her. What can I do to get rid of these feelings? I actually know what I need to do because I'm Christian - forgive. But it is so much easier said than done. This scenario is so familiar to anyone who has been, at one time or another, hurt by someone. As a Christian one would think that forgiveness is such a simple thing to extend to another. Yet if one has been a victim of another's hurt, he or she knows that it is certainly a monstrous feat to extend forgiveness. Forgiveness is "an inner process by which the person who has been injured releases himself or herself from the anger, resentment, and fear that are felt and does not wish for revenge" (Konstam et al. 254). But what role does forgiveness play in a person's mental health? Forgiveness can cause stress and anxiety, which lead to adverse effects on one's mental health.
The Bible, on several occasions, from the Old to the New Testament, speaks blatantly about forgiveness, which leads us to believe that it is more than a suggestion. In the Lord's Prayer, Matthew 6 verses 9 - 13; it states "Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." When one goes to God in prayer and ask forgiveness of Him, he or she must keep in mind there cannot be an expectation of receiving a gift from Him if there’s no willingness to give the same to another. Forgiveness is a gift that all can give. It was not given to only a select few, but everyone was born with the ability to forgive. Conversely, God would not have mandated to forgive if the ability had not been there to do so. Mark 11 verses 24 - 26 states, "Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. And when ye stand praying forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses". Here again Jesus emphasizes the point of forgiving those who have caused the hurt prior to asking of Him forgiveness. Interestingly, it seems therefore that this forgiveness must be done prior to asking/requesting of God one’s desires.
King David points out that one with a pure heart shall receive the blessing from the Lord (Psalm 24: 4-5). To have a pure heart means there can be no ill-feelings, anger, malice, resentment and hatred in one's heart when going to the Lord to ask anything of Him. This is why He admonishes His children to forgive or clean their hearts prior to going before Him. If not, then there’s a risk of not getting the heart's desires and receive from God what He has for His child. Paul reiterates this theme when he writes "put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgive one another, if any man have quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye" (Colossians 3.12-13). The attributes Paul lists (kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, and longsuffering) are all contrary to the symptoms of unforgiveness (anger, resentment, hatred and revenge) and therefore should have no place in the heart of the child of God. How can these diametrically opposing characteristics dwell in the same place? One will certainly overpower the other, and the wrong one could be debilitating. Therefore, it is in the best interest of an individual to extend forgiveness sooner rather than later.
Forgiveness must be granted as soon as one can in order to maintain a healthy mental wellbeing. "Unforgiveness is viewed as a 'cold' emotion characterized by resentment, bitterness, and perhaps hatred, along with the motivated avoidance or retaliation against a transgressor" (Cosgrove and Konstam 4). Harboring these feelings "[is] destructive to our being, leading to a slow and insidious breakdown of the entire system" (Kitchen 35). Kitchen further states that "because of this reality,...unforgiveness and its psychological baggage of hostility and bitterness can put people at risk for mental illness such as depression and anxiety--not to mention stress disorders and related physical ailments" (35). The following is an example of how unforgiveness can affect the mental wellbeing of an individual:
Rae Wolf saw firsthand how holding onto a grudge turned a stressful job situation into a full-blown health problem. After she was told she had fibroid tumors, her doctor told her stress could exacerbate the problem. As logistical coordinator for a major event, her job was stress-laden even on a good day. Still, she had no serious problems until she felt her superiors began to unfairly treat her by making capricious changes and demanding she redo long-approved work. She began bleeding profusely. Her doctor told her she would have to take it easy or she might have to be hospitalized. ‘At first I thought it was just the stress that made me sick, but when I talked with my doctor, I realized that it was the anger’ Wolf says. ‘I knew I had to forgive those who mistreated me or I would suffer even more.’ (Kitchen 35)
This situation outlined depicts the negative effects that unforgiveness wreaks on one’s mental health. Before allowing one’s mind to get to that state of unhealthiness, forgiving in a timely manner is best. Genesis 50 verses 17-21 tell of Joseph’s encounter with his brothers after their father’s death. “So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass as it is this day, to save much people alive. Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them and spake kindly unto them”. What Joseph’s brothers did to him (Genesis 37) was more than enough to justify Joseph renouncing them, being bitter, angry and resentful toward them. However, that is not the path that Joseph took and in the scripture referenced, Joseph did not wait and mull over the decision to forgive his brothers when they asked for his forgiveness. He did so immediately realizing that there was a bigger purpose to the situation. It is never in one’s best interest to allow time to pass so much so that he or she lets the symptoms of unforgiveness fester in his or her heart. The effects are detrimental both mentally and physically.
Relative to how soon one should forgive is how often one should grant forgiveness. Peter asked “Lord how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times? Jesus saith unto him I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (Matthew 18.21-22). Four hundred and ninety times to forgive just one person? Yes, four hundred and ninety (490) times. That means that forgiveness is a gift that humans have in abundance and it is free for the giving as many times as it warrants. Furthermore, there will be many who will offend and continue to offend but the child of God is equipped with a limitless resource of forgiveness to bestow on the offenders. Think of the amount of pent up anger, frustration, hatred, resentment one harbors if they do not utilize their number of forgiveness. Imagine holding on to four hundred and ninety times worth of hurt and not extending forgiveness. The results sound injurious and even deadly. But how does one go about forgiving?
Forgiveness must be done methodically. It "is a process that occurs over time, from which the individual who has been injured becomes less angry, resentful, fearful, and interested in revenge" (Konstam et al. 254). Personally speaking, I have attempted to just haphazardly get up and say in my heart that I'm going to forgive the person who injured me. Okay, it's done. They are forgiven. Not so fast. A day later, I'm right back where I started. Just a thought of the person and what they have done regurgitates bitterness, anger and resentment. "Forgiveness is not a facile tool" (Journal of Psychosocial Nursing 6). In other words, forgiveness cannot be done effortlessly and in one fell swoop. Though it is a gift to be given and we innately possess it, there is a way to give that gift. So what exactly is the process of forgiving? Scott Heller states the first step in forgiving is "not to deny or repress the anger, hurt, or shame. Accept that it's there, and commit yourself to doing something to help" (A20). The anger is blatant, so suppressing and denying it will not help the situation.
The second step he posits is to "choose not to nurse a grudge or to seek revenge. Make the choice to forgive" (A20). At times it is so easy to sulk and be angry that it seems it's an achievement and something to take pride in. That proverbial pity party is one it seems everyone enjoys attending or even hosting it at one point or another, yet is can be so damaging.
The next step is a very crucial one and admittedly not one that many people tend to take or are simply ignorant of. "Learn empathy skills, [because in order to] follow through with genuine forgiveness...people must be able to identify with the perpetrator on a human level. They, too, respond out of their own problems, pain and fears, which lead them to hurtful choices they make" (Shoultz 37). The importance of this step lies in the fact that the offended can take a step back and look at the situation in totality. Most crucially, is the fact that he or she can assess the situation from the offender's point of view or walk in that person's shoe, so to speak. This is when a better insight is gained and some understanding gleaned as to why the offender did what was done in the first place. This will elevate one's sensitivity toward the offender and alleviate the anguish, anger, bitterness and hurt that the offended feels. Then "decide to offer goodwill, generosity, [and] mercy" (Heller, A20). Doing so will help the offended shed the weight of the negative feelings that encumbers him or her because of unforgiveness. It is then on to reconciliation, or is it?
There are a few who take the position that reconciliation is an optional step in the forgiveness process. It is normal practice to extend forgiveness but hold the offender at bay. Typically the relationship is not restored. But is this what God wants? Biblically speaking, we were given the ministry of reconciliation as Paul states "And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation"(2 Corinthian 5.18-19). God made the ultimate sacrifice by giving his son Jesus to be slain for mankind’s sins so that they can obtain forgiveness and be reconciled or restored back to God. God yearns for a relationship with us so much so that He did what was needed to be done to bring that relationship together. "In forgiving, the individual puts the past behind in a way that permits the continuation of the relationship, even though the relationship dynamics may change" (Cosgrove and Konstam 7). In other words, though the offended has forgiven the offender and has started resumed a relationship with the offender, the relationship isn't necessarily the same as before, though that is also not impossible.
Forgiveness is a gift given by God for His children to freely give. If forgiveness is not given, like an inflamed human appendix, if not removed, it ruptures and causes adverse effect to the human body, possibly even death. Forgiveness plays a vital role in mental health. Stress, anxiety, resentment, bitterness and hatred are symptoms of unforgiveness, which are all harmful to one’s mental health. Forgiveness is a process, yet one must be sure to extend forgiveness quickly and limitlessly. It "takes commitment, focus, and dedication. No one who has ever walked the road will say it is easy. But in forgiveness, one exchanges anger, bitterness, hatred, depression, and perhaps health problems, for joy, peace, and freedom--not a bad trade by any standard" (Shoultz 37). As John puts it "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth" (3 John 1.2). The benefits of forgiveness far greater outweigh the health risks that unforgiveness poses.
- Cosgrove, Lisa, and Varda Konstam. “Forgiveness and Forgetting: Clinical Implications for Mental Health Counselors.” Journal of Mental Health Counseling 30 (2008): 1-13.
- Heller, Scott. “How to Forgive: One scholar’s views.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 17 July 1998: A20.
- Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services. 38 (2000): 6 “Effects of forgiveness on health and relationships”.
- Kitchen, Allison. “Forgiveness: A Key to Better Health.” Vibrant Life Jan/Feb 2001: 34
- Konstam, Varda., et al. “Forgiving: What Mental Health Counselors Are Telling Us.” Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 22 (2000): 253-267.
- Shoultz Dan. “Stepping Stones to Freedom—Five Stages of Forgiveness.” Vibrant Life Jan/Feb 2001: 34