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The Faith (& Science) of Forgiveness

“Love holds no record of wrongs.” 1 Corinthians 13:5

What was your first reaction to reading that verse?

Did your memory grab you by the consciousness and catapult you back to a grievous hurt you suffered in your past?

Or did your conscience remind you of a time when you hurt someone, and they’ve yet to forgive you?

Perhaps it made you think of all the other quotes out there, telling us what love does and doesn’t do.

Regardless of your first reaction, I think we can all agree with the idea that “love holds no record of wrongs” is challenging.

And understandably so. After all, some of us have had some pretty tough things happen in our lives. Maybe those things happened when we were children. Or maybe in our adult life, but regardless of when they happened, many of us have suffered painful experiences at the hands of another. Often that someone was a person who should have loved us well; someone charged with our care.

So, when we read a verse like “love holds no record of wrongs” it’s understandable that we might feel the ire rising within us. Our visceral reaction is quick, often accompanied by thoughts like “they don’t deserve my forgiveness” or “they don’t deserve to be let off the hook.” And I get it.

But let me ask you a question” Do you deserve to be let off the hook?” I hope your answer was yes.

Because if it was, then we can take another look at our verse in question and explore another meaning it may hold. When we see with our healthiest perspective, we can admit that forgiveness is a form of freedom. It's more for the one doing the forgiving than for anyone else.

And if we apply that thinking to our verse, then “love holds no record of wrongs” can be seen in this way:

“loving ourselves means we hold no record of wrongs done to us by another.”

Yes, it’s still difficult. Yes, it may take some help to process through our experiences in order to get to the place of forgiving. And no, forgiveness does not mean we give the person another chance to cause us further harm.

But it does mean that we get to be free.

We get to put down the weight of what we’ve been carrying. We get to live a life no longer tainted by the actions of another. We get to take back the power they held over us when we were holding on to unforgiveness.

Here’s something important to consider. Unforgiveness means we will inevitably find ourselves rehearsing the harm done to us. Every time we do, we place ourselves physiologically in virtually the same position we were when the harm originally happened. This in turn can cause literal brain damage- shrinking important areas of the brain like our hippocampus and some areas in our prefrontal cortex. This happens because those stress chemicals released each time that we revisit our hurts are damaging to our brain over time. And what’s worse is that when we live in a state of rehearsal, we aren’t free to experience new ways of being and thinking.

So, while we’re considering our theme verse and forgiveness and freedom, I’d like us to consider another verse too.

“It is for freedom that Christ set us free.” (Galatians 5:1).

For freedom? That’s not some hyper-spiritual statement, applicable only to our eternity. It’s a freedom intended to be experienced and expressed in this lifetime. Here and now. It fits with how we are wired and how we function best within the context of healthy relationships, safe and free to express ourselves and grow.

Now- In case you’re tempted to tune out because of our emphasis on Scripture here, let’s take a deeper look at how science seems to confirm what the Scriptures are telling us. According to studies published by Johns Hopkins and other researching/teaching institutions, the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health. Among other benefits, forgiveness helps reduce pain, improve sleep, improve blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And if you’re thinking, “it’s too late. I’ve held this grudge forever.” Research also points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as we age

However, the implications of holding on to unforgiveness are significant.

“There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,” says Karen Swartz, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Chronic anger (the kind we experience on ‘low simmer’ every time we recall a wrong that has been done to us) puts us into a fight-or-flight mode. This can also put us at greater risk of developing PTSD (which again, can cause some damage to certain regions of the brain).

Holding onto and rehearsing our hurts cause numerous changes in the body like increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and lowered immune response. The consequences of those changes are increased risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, and other disease states.

Forgiveness, however, calms our stress levels, leading to improved health. I don’t know about you, but I think that giving ourselves the opportunity to experience a kind of calm that can improve our overall health sounds like an act of love to me.

As you think on the benefits of forgiveness, it might be helpful to consider what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not the same thing as justice. It isn’t letting someone off the proverbial hook. It also isn’t merely letting go, either. Depending on the offense, there can be many layers to our forgiveness. To force ourselves through all of them at the same time would mean to cause ourselves further harm. Yes, we need to take the steps, but we need to give ourselves time too.

And here’s something even more interesting… if we can’t think of an offense done to us in which we have yet to extend forgiveness, but suspect we are carrying the weight of unforgiveness, there is a chance that what we’re really holding on to is something I call secondary unforgiveness. In other words, we might be holding a grudge against someone for what was done to a person we care about. And in some cases? That can be the most challenging type of forgiveness to extend. We want justice for our loved ones above mercy. Perhaps even more than we want it for ourselves. In either case, the unforgiveness is just as toxic and just as oppressive.

How about you?

Are you holding on to unforgiveness of any kind today? Are you afraid your forgiveness means you are letting someone else off the hook? If so, it’s unlikely you will be able to find the deeper level of freedom you deserve in this life. Remember that the result of unforgiveness is similar to drinking poison in the hopes it will make someone else sick.

Get the help you need to let go of the heavy, toxic burden that unforgiveness puts upon you. Give yourself the gift of freedom starting today.

For more on forgiveness, we recommend the following resources: The Art of Forgiveness by Lewis Smedes; Radical Forgiveness: A Revolutionary Five-Stage Process to Heal Relationships, Let Go of Anger and Blame, and Find Peace in Any Situation Collin Tipping and The Book of Forgiving by Desomond Tutu and Mpho Tutu. You can find these books and more

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