“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” – Alexander Pope
Have you ever felt like you just didn’t want to forgive someone? If we are honest, most of us have been there. I don’t mean struggling with not being able to forgive, I mean lacking the desire even to try.Perhaps the pain is too raw or the wound too deep. Perhaps the guilty party has no remorse, no real understanding of the damage they inflicted. Perhaps the apology that was offered seemed insincere or inadequate. Whatever the case, sometimes it just feels better to withhold forgiveness. But is it?
Forgiveness has become a hot topic in the counseling world, gaining more clinical attention as people wrestle with how to find it, why it matters, and what it means. In this article, I want to try to persuade those of you who have been wronged that you should at least want to forgive, whether or not you feel able to do so.
The difficult task of actually forgiving will be a future step and one that we won’t look at in detail here. Why focus on such a trivial detail as the simple preliminary step of wanting to forgive? I’m glad you asked.
The Value of Desire
One thing I have learned over the years as a counselor is the importance of actively desiring the goals you hope to achieve. This may sound like an obvious truth, but it is worth emphasizing. Just as Jesus asked the invalid by the pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6), I often ask people whether or not they want to actively participate in their healing. The desire to do so is vital because it sparks the action that must follow.
Jesus instructed the man by the pool to “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” (John 5:8). I love the way He invited the man to become an active participant in his own healing! It took real courage and desire for the man to obey, and he certainly would not have been healed (or his healing would have been irrelevant) otherwise.
What does all this have to do with forgiving someone? Forgiveness is actually a type of healing, not just for the guilty, but for the forgiver as well (more on that later). What I want to point out here is that forgiveness only happens as an act of the will. It cannot be forced, it can only be freely given. In other words, the desire to forgive is necessary for forgiveness.
Let me see if I can sweeten the deal a bit. I want to make the idea of forgiving others more appealing to you. As anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of forgiveness knows, it is an incredible blessing and a relief to obtain it. Being forgiven feels like a weight lifted off your shoulders or a fresh start; it often produces an overwhelming sensation of joy and freedom in the forgiven.
You would think that such a sacrificial act of kindness would leave the forgiver feeling resentful and deflated, but paradoxically, forgiveness blesses the giver as it is offered. As the great Scottish poet George MacDonald reminds us, “Forgiveness is the giving, and so the receiving, of life.” How can this be so?
One of the most touching passages on this topic in literature is Shakespeare’s portrayal of “the quality of mercy” in the play The Merchant of Venice. Mercy can be defined as undeserved compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. Shakespeare’s verse eloquently describes the beauty, power, and benefits of mercy, calling it “an attribute to God himself.”
In the play, Shylock demands his “pound of flesh” from Antonio as the penalty for failing to repay a business loan. According to the terms of their contract, this is the agreed-upon punishment and motivated by revenge, Shylock is determined to carry out justice. Knowing that taking a pound of his flesh would likely kill Antonio, the young Venetian heiress Portia, disguised as a male lawyer, offers Shylock the following plea for mercy on him:
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.”
– William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I
These poetic words urge us all to consider the great mercy that we received from God, and to allow our own prayer for mercy to “teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.” They also point out that we are most like God when we are merciful to others. Forgiving blesses the forgiver by bringing out the image of the divine in him or her.
That is why it can be truly said of mercy: “Tis mightiest in the mightiest.” For those who want to carry out Christ’s assignment to be the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), forgiving offers a practical way of doing so. It brings the light of God to bear on this dark world.
Health Benefits of Radical Forgiveness
At this point, you may be wondering what the tangible benefits of practicing divine forgiveness could possibly be. I’d be willing to bet that you have not given much thought to the toll that unforgiveness takes on your mind and body.
There is a growing body of clinical research that demonstrates the devastating physical and mental effects of harboring negative emotions, including chronic anxiety and excessive production of cortisol and adrenaline (the body’s primary stress hormones), leading to numerous health problems.
In an article written for Medical Daily, Lecia Bushak references examples of several international studies done on the physical benefits of forgiveness:
“Research has shown time and time again that our minds and bodies are linked: stress and depression can breed fatigue, while a positive outlook on life can provide us with an increased amount of energy. Willpower and determination can make us run faster and longer.”
A new study expounds upon the link between mind and body; it shows that holding a grudge may not weigh only on your mind but also upon your physical person. Published in Social Psychological & Personality Science, the research states that the act of forgiveness – pardoning someone who has done you wrong – can not only metaphorically lift a burden off your shoulders, but it can do so physically, as well.The authors of the study, from Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, had 46 undergraduate students participate in two experiments.
The first involved half of the students writing about “a time when they were seriously offended by another person, and ultimately forgave them.” The other half of students were asked to write about a similar incident, but one in which they never forgave the person and continued to view them negatively.
After each writing exercise, the students in both groups walked to a certain point on a nearby hill and were asked to estimate its slant. Interestingly, those who had written about their experience of forgiving someone estimated the hill to be less steep than those who were still thinking about their negative feelings towards someone they hadn’t forgiven.
In the second experiment, 160 undergraduate students from Erasmus University and the National University of Singapore were divided into three groups. The first wrote about an experience in which they were harmed by another person but forgave them; the second wrote about a similar situation but one in which they didn’t forgive the person; and the third wrote about a “recent interpersonal interaction” that didn’t necessarily involve harming or forgiveness.
They were then tested in an “ostensible physical fitness task,” in which they were measured by the height of their jumps. The researchers found that the students who had written about forgiveness jumped higher on average than those who focused on the negative feelings involved with not forgiving someone.
However, the jumping difference between those who forgave and those who simply wrote about a neutral interpersonal interaction was minimal: proving that it was the act of holding a grudge that was “weighing” people down.”
Another article written by the staff at the Mayo Clinic identified an abundance of life benefits produced by forgiveness. The authors of the article found that forgiving others can lead to improved health and peace of mind, leading to effects such as:
- Healthier relationships
- Improved mental health
- Less anxiety, stress, and hostility
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- A stronger immune system
- Improved heart health
- Improved self-esteem
“If you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude, and joy. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being…
“The act that hurt or offended you might always be with you, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help free you from the control of the person who harmed you. Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy, and compassion for the one who hurt you…Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life.”
Considering the practical health benefits of forgiveness brings to mind this insight by author Lewis Smedes: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” Perhaps God had our best interest in mind after all when He called on us to forgive.
The Call to Radical Forgiveness
What is God’s forgiveness like? For one thing, it is perfect, like all His attributes. It is greater and more powerful than all the evil in the world and is extended to all people regardless of the magnitude of their sin.
The prophet Daniel tells us that “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him” (Daniel 9:9). In the Psalms, we are told over and over of the compassion and forgiveness of God (“You, Lord, are forgiving and good, abounding in love to all who call to you” Psalm 86:5).
We need to be careful not to assume that because God’s forgiveness is perfect, it is therefore easy, for it cost Him everything. Although grace is free to us (Paul calls it “the gift of God” in Ephesians 2:8), it was purchased at the infinite cost of God’s Son (see Matthew 26:28).
You and I may recoil at the idea of displaying this type of radical forgiveness because all forgiveness has a “cost”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great World War II martyr, and theologian, described it this way:
“If you’ve ever really forgiven somebody, forgiven some real wrong, all forgiveness is suffering. If you say I forgave and I didn’t suffer, it wasn’t really that serious a wrong. But if you have ever really truly been wronged, and you have forgiven it, then you have suffered. Because all forgiveness is a form of suffering.
“If someone has wronged you deeply, there is an indelible sense of debt, an injustice, a feeling you can’t just shrug off. And once you sense this deep injustice, this debt, there are only two things you can do. One is you can make the perpetrator pay, you can find ways to make the perpetrator suffer and pay down the debt. Or two, you can forgive.”
What would make a person want to forgive despite the temporary suffering it requires? Besides the many benefits already mentioned, we ought to be motivated by the desire to obey the will of our Lord. The Word instructs us to “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).
This is more than just a gentle suggestion. As Martin Luther reminds us, “Forgiveness is God’s command.” Certainly, forgiveness is not complete until it is received, but we must do our part in releasing the bitterness and anger we have against the guilty, trusting God to see that justice is done in the end.
I hope you can see that in telling us to forgive, God is ultimately looking out for our best interest. I have tried to show some of the benefits of forgiveness for the forgiver, in hopes of awakening a desire in your heart to take the next step.
If you would like to begin the process of actually practicing radical, divine forgiveness, God will enable and empower you, and a Christian counselor can walk with you and guide you along the journey. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you are ready to begin this important work.
Bushak, L. (2015, January 7). How Forgiveness Benefits Your Health: Forgiving Wrongdoers Can Expand Physical Fitness. Retrieved from https://www.medicaldaily.com/how-forgiveness-benefits-your-health-forgiving-wrongdoers-can-expand-physical-fitness-316902
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017, November 4). Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/forgiveness/art-20047692
Operto, T. H. (2016, January 1). Forgiveness. Retrieved from http://www.worksofmacdonald.com/exploring-the-biblical-basis-for-macdonalds-prac/2016/1/1/forgiveness
Shakespeare, W., & In Evans, G. B. (1974). The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Chicago
Williamson, S. (2014, July 25). Bonhoeffer on forgiveness. Retrieved from http://beliefsoftheheart.com/quotes/bonhoeffer-on-forgiveness/
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