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The healing power of forgiveness

POSTED: July 2, 2014 5:09 p.m.
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Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi

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In my work facilitating support groups for people in crisis, I have become acutely aware that forgiveness promotes recovery. However, it’s not just crises that bring about the need for forgiveness. I’ve seen many people who haven’t been through tragedies look as if they are the “walking wounded.”

There are many circumstances in our lives that require forgiveness. Perhaps one’s internal wounds stem from a divorce, maybe one hasn’t gotten over being fired years ago, or perhaps it’s more serious, such as being sexually abused by a trusted person. Whatever the cause, the fact is that we can’t go through life without being hurt by someone or some group of people.

Interestingly, research is beginning to show that forgiveness is related to optimal health. That is, a person who has difficulty letting go of past hurts may never be able to attain a high level of wellness. The ability to forgive appears to affect one’s overall health.

Although angry people feel more powerful when filled with revenge and hostility, they’re not. In fact, Dr. Sam Kaplan describes his surprise when he found that one of the four major themes of the behavior pattern which carries a low risk of heart disease (type “B” behavior) is that these people learn to be more forgiving. Specifically, he states that they learned to judge themselves and others less severely, which rendered them remarkably less angry and hostile.

Dr. William Pettit found that forgiveness led to a reduction in chronic pain, cardiovascular problems and violent behavior. Likewise, Dr. Judith Strasser reported that physical health in older adults was positively correlated with the ability to genuinely forgive and feel differently toward that person.

Our mental health, in particular, benefits from forgiveness. Dr. Suzanne Freedman and Dr. Robert Enright found that incest survivors who underwent forgiveness-oriented interventions with a psychologist reported higher levels of hope and lower levels of anxiety and depression than a control group. In another study, researchers found that the forgiveness levels of young adults who felt love-deprived by their parents were associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem, and more positive views of the parents.

Perhaps the most important benefit of forgiveness is that it restores a sense of personal power to the victim. If we’re victimized, it’s as if we’re actually continuing to give “power” over ourselves to anyone we refuse to forgive; we’re allowing the offender, in essence, to control our emotions.

We need to forgive so we can move forward in life. An unforgiven hurt binds us to a time and place we did not choose; it holds us trapped in a past moment and in old feelings. A recent study by Dr. Kathleen Row on 64 college-age women who experienced betrayal and a feeling of being truly hurt by another person found that women with a higher level of desire for revenge also reported higher symptoms of illness. In these cases, health-promoting closure can never truly take place.

Keep in mind that forgiveness is a kind of pardon we give someone or some group of people without demanding restitution. It takes place inside us and does not depend on whether or not the offender seeks forgiveness (he/she may not even be alive). Thus, forgiveness is more an inner action of the will than any external act.

Yes, it’s easier said than done. In working with people on this, I have found many who think forgiveness can never occur. My response is two-fold. First, we must remember that the person is being forgiven, not the act.

Second, even if we’re not willing to forgive now, it’s a start to be willing to be willing! We don’t need to know exactly how we’ll forgive yet, but it’s a loving and courageous act of the will to change the one thing we can control — our attitude.

Consider the consequences of “unforgiveness.” Unforgiveness gets in God’s way of dealing with that person. Remember the Chinese proverb: “The one who pursues revenge should dig two graves.”

A Holocaust victim who lost his wife, child, and parents to the Nazi death camps of World War II told researchers he forgave because he chose to not bring Hitler with him to America.

In its essence, forgiveness is about getting our heart right with God.

The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, installed member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield, GA.

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