There is an old saying that “when you forgive, you set a prisoner free—that prisoner is you.” Forgiveness is defined as “giving up resentment, granting relief from payment, or ceasing to feel resentment against an offender.”1 Forgiving an injury or injustice is an active virtue that requires a conscious decision to part with angry, hostile, bitter feelings associated with the wrongs committed against you. It is a process of emotional release that can be difficult but is nonetheless essential to spiritual, mental, and physical well-being. “Forgiveness is not a quick fix,” cautions Robert D. Enright, Ph.D. It is a “matter of willed change of heart, the successful result of an active endeavor.”2 Is there someone you need to forgive?
Anger, hostility, resentment, and bitterness are associated with numerous physical and psychological ailments—including a shortened lifespan. Often unforgiving people not only hurt others they also hurt themselves, either psychologically or physically. Hurting people hurt other people. Unforgiving people often have a hard time forgiving themselves of the wrongs they have committed, and are riddled with denial, guilt, and shame.
Motivational speaker Zig Zigler says it’s a dangerous thing to drive a car by looking in the rear-view mirror.Yet people who journey through life dwelling on past wrongs and injuries are doing that and, in the process, consistently drive by current opportunities and bypass their hope of a better future.
On the other hand, growing evidence shows that people who are inclined to forgive others enjoy better mental and physical health than those who hold grudges, unless they are repeatedly excusing someone who is abusive.3 Refusal to forgive is most common among people with high anger and fear levels and low self-esteem, but easier for people who manifest humility.4 Humility is the opposite of pride. It is the absence of a spirit of revenge. It is the ability to reflect objectively and give consideration to the needs and perspective of others. But humility is not accepting responsibility for or condoning the bad actions of others.
Is it possible to break the chains of anger, blame, guilt, self-hatred, revenge, and lack of forgiveness? Is it possible to experience the freedom of forgiveness when sexual, physical, or emotional abuse has occurred? Can peace fill the soul when you have experienced trauma, violence, treachery, or abandonment? Can you forgive yourself when your life has been riddled with drug or alcohol abuse, or compulsions and character traits that have hurt yourself or others?
It has been said that “to forgive is divine,” and indeed it is. The Bible tells us to “forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (See Luke 6:37.) We all fall short of perfect love, so God calls us to forgive others the wrongs done to us. We have no promise that this life or the people in it will be fair. Sin wouldn’t be sin if it didn’t hurt the innocent. God has promised that He will balance the accounts of all, for He is a God of justice as well as love. In the meantime, He wants us to be free from the pain of harboring hatred, toward ourselves or others.
The steps to experiencing forgiveness are simple and straightforward:
First, face your anger. Recognize the feelings that are altering your attitude and behavior.
Second, ask God to give you the gift of forgiveness for the wrongs you have committed, and determine to make things right as far as possible.
Third, decide to forgive those who have hurt you. Ask God for the grace to leave others in His hands, and claim the promise that He will compensate you, or make up the difference, for any hurt done to you. (See Isaiah 61:7.)
Fourth, actively forgive. Acknowledge your pain, but allow the experience to deepen your own wisdom, compassion, and empathy for others. Act on your new decision by the way you speak and behave.
Fifth, discover release from the emotional prison of unforgiveness. Realize that you are not alone, and that those who hurt are usually hurting people themselves. Use the experience of forgiveness to help others, and use the negative experience to grow in wisdom and develop a new purpose in your life.
Book excerpt from Living Free.