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How Forgiveness Heals You

Original ARTICLE

Behind our wounds are people and events that caused that pain. Part of the healing process is accepting that bad things have happened to you and forgiving those who harmed you. However, learning to forgive isn’t easy, but studies show it can improve your sense of well-being and physical health. Forgiveness also supports your journey to freedom.

In this course, we’ll examine what forgiveness is, what it isn’t, and offer supporting steps for what can be a very steep climb.

Forgiveness Is Hard

A healing journey requires that each of us examine our past. For most people who struggle with escapist behaviors, like compulsive pornography use, that examination can be painful. We don’t want to touch those raw nerve endings that represent our pain. People in our past caused us harm or didn’t provide the physical, mental, and emotional nourishment we needed in our developing years. For simplicity, we’ve received whacks and lacks—things done to us or things we needed but didn’t receive.

Forgiveness means dealing with emotions.

Because we received these wounds typically in our formative years, we lacked the physical, mental, or emotional ability, knowledge, or experience to guard our mind, body, and spirit. And all three have been wounded. It’s unfortunate, but no one was available or willing to show us the healthy way of dealing with our emotional discomfort. Instead, we needed to come up with our own coping strategies to do so.

As we develop the courage to pull back the layers of these wounds, it’s common to feel sadness, bitterness, shame, anger, and resentment. Commonly, people want payback, resolution, or justice—even revenge. Others want to stuff the past into a little steel box and bury it in the backyard. All of these are appropriate emotions that you may experience. But forgiveness is incredibly freeing … when done well. Forgiveness unloads the anger and bitterness that shrouds and deadens our healthier and happier selves.

Scripture confirms this for us. “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15). What’s more, scientific studies show forgiving offers huge rewards for one’s health, such as reducing heart attack risk, physical pain, depression, and anxiety. It improves sleep, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure. Also, when we release resentment and anger, we are less likely to seek self-soothing behaviors, like porn, alcohol, and over-eating.

Forgiveness is a process that takes time.

But too often, we haven’t been given adequate guidance about forgiveness. We are told to “forgive and forget.” That typically leaves us trying to absolve the past, but anger and animosity boil over with our next triggered memory.

It’s so easy to remain in a vicious circle of forgiveness and fury, release and resentment when utilizing that erroneous approach to forgiving. We need a better path forward and a recognition that just like recovery, forgiveness is a process and a journey taken one step at a time. Forgiveness is rarely one-and-done.

What Do I Get From Forgiving?

Let’s continue with a selfish question. “What’s in it for me?” After all, we have been hurt. Shouldn’t we get something out of forgiving others for what they did to us? It’s not the proper Christian question to ask, but let’s face it, we want to know all the same. What is the benefit for me to let someone off the hook?

Forgiveness is physically and mentally healthy.

Findings from the Stanford University Forgiveness Project found that uncomfortable thoughts and feelings associated with unforgiveness put a person in a fight or flight mode, which changes a person’s heart rate, blood pressure, and immune response. This contributes to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, depression, and other health issues. On the other hand, thoughts and feelings associated with forgiveness calm stress levels and lead to improved mental and physical health. People report higher self-esteem, better moods, and happier relationships.

Virginia Commonwealth University professor Everett Worthington found in his studies that feelings of unforgiveness raised levels of cortisol, a hormone dispersed in response to stress or a threat. Too much cortisol contributes to weight gain, muscle weakness, inflammation, diabetes, and other health problems.

The physical benefits of forgiveness increase as we grow older. A Luther College study led by psychologist Loren Toussaint found a significant relationship between forgiving others and positive health among middle-aged and older Americans. Study participants also reported less psychological distress and feelings of nervousness, restlessness, and sadness. Worthington and psychologist Michael Scherer found unforgiveness can compromise our immune system by throwing off normal levels of important hormones. This imbalance disrupts how our body fights off infections, bacteria, and other physical ailments. Our inability to forgive others makes us ill, whether we are aware of it or not.

Forgiveness is spiritually healthy.

Secular studies show that those who practice forgiveness feel they experience greater forgiveness from God and a greater connection to him. These secular studies affirm the value of what the Bible teaches us about forgiveness, our well-being, our connections with others, and our relationship with God.

Still, despite the evidence of science and biblical teaching, we are often held back from forgiving. What are the struggles that keep forgiveness at bay, and what does the Bible say about it? Sitting quietly and self-reflecting, can you sense the physical, mental, or emotional distress that unforgiveness may be causing you? Did you expect there would be physical and emotional benefits to forgiveness? Which ones stood out to you?

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