The Power of Forgiveness

When you hold on to a grudge, who really suffers?

by Heather Carr

In October 2006 the Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, dealt with the fatal shooting of five young girls in a one-room schoolhouse. Many of us looked on in wonder as this community forgave the shooter and embraced his family. The Amish community demonstrated the amazing ability of humankind to forgive, even in the most trying of circumstances.

Forgiveness was a tough choice for those people. It’s tough for us as well but something we must do if we’re going to survive spiritually, physically, and emotionally. If we choose instead to begrudge the wrongdoing, the stakes will be higher than we realize.

Divine call

Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 6:14, 15. He says that forgiving an offense is not merely a nice thing to do; it is a requirement in God’s eyes that affects our relationship with Him:

“If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (NIV).

Through our example, we open the door for others to accept the life-giving forgiveness offered through Jesus. Extending forgiveness, especially when the task seems impossible, allows the heart of God to shine through our actions.

Defining a grudge

When we face an emotionally difficult situation, extending forgiveness can be a real challenge. It may seem impossible to see beyond our grief at all. If the pain begins to take over our lives, a deep-seated resentment, or grudge, may form.

A grudge goes beyond the usual process of emotions when something doesn’t turn out as we’d planned. It results from allowing our initial negative reactions to consume us. Anger, confusion, or sadness dominate our thinking and crowd out positive feelings, like joy and peace.

Cues

A grudge develops as we replay our hurt repeatedly in our minds, leaving us overwhelmed by a sense of injustice or by the feeling that we cannot change our situation.

Experts suggest looking for these cues to determine if you’re holding a grudge:

  • You think about your painful past more than your present-day life. [1]
  • You feel physically or emotionally upset when you think about the offense. [1]
  • You replay the situation repeatedly in your mind. [1]
  • You have a chip on your shoulder. [2]
  • Family and friends avoid you. [2]
  • You are easily angered. [2]
  • You abuse drugs or alcohol. [2]
  • You plot revenge. [2]
  • You think the worst about people or situations. [2]
  • You feel life is meaningless. [2]
  • You feel hopeless. [2]

Physical health

Holding on to a grudge doesn’t hurt the offender; it hurts us. In recent years researchers have discovered that unforgiveness affects physical health: the function of the immune, nervous, and cardiovascular systems; higher blood pressure; increased headaches and backaches; stomach problems.

Refusing to let go of a painful experience causes our bodies to relive it. The physical impact is the same whether the event is recent or took place many years ago. “When we think or feel something intellectually or emotionally, part of that experience is a physical experience,” says Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Forgiveness Project at Stanford University.

According to Dr. Luskin, author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness, the mind-body connection is the link between forgiveness and health. A long-standing resentment or grudge is “going to have an impact on you physically through the stress response, and then the physical is going to have an influence on your mind by telling you how much this painful experience has harmed you.”

Emotional health

Our bodies aren’t the only things to suffer when we’ve been wronged; our emotions take a beating as well. Negative feelings like hopelessness, depression, and anxiety can overwhelm us.

But research has also shown that making the decision to forgive the hurts of the past allows us to release those negative emotions and replace them with joy, hopefulness, and improved self-confidence. Forgiving allows us to focus our energy on the positive aspects of ourselves and the world around us.

First steps

Admitting that you’re holding a grudge is tough. Letting go of that grudge can be even tougher, especially when the offense is great. As with many challenges in life, it takes only a few small steps to move in the right direction. Try these steps experts recommend to get you moving:

  • Understand what specifically caused you to become upset. Why do you feel the way you do?
  • Share your feelings with someone you trust. Loved ones may be able to shed some light on the situation for you and provide much needed support.
  • Make a commitment to forgive. Forgiving is not always easy, especially if the offender isn’t interested in receiving forgiveness. But through practice and patience, you can work through it.

Hurdles

As you head down the path to forgiveness, you’ll likely find a few hurdles along the way. These struggles may be heightened if the offense caused you great pain. Here’s a quick look at some common concerns when attempting to forgive and how Dr. Luskin recommends overcoming them:

  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean you condone the actions of the person who hurt you, nor that you’ll reconcile with the person. Forgiveness does mean that you’ll find peace regardless of your situation.
  • You don’t have to forget in order to forgive. You may still remember what happened, but you’ll remember it differently — in a way that allows you to move forward.
  • You don’t have to wait for someone to ask your forgiveness in order to offer it. Sometimes when you’ve been hurt by a stranger or by someone who has since passed away, waiting for the person to ask forgiveness will prevent you from forgiving at all and will block you from the benefits of a forgiving lifestyle. In many ways, forgiving isn’t about the person who hurt you; it’s about you.

Healthy habits of forgiving people

Overcoming these hurdles is a huge accomplishment, but your hard work needn’t stop there. To fully realize the benefits of forgiveness, Dr. Luskin recommends making forgiveness a lifestyle. Putting these healthy habits into action will help you make the transition from pain to freedom.

Live in the present. You can’t change the past, but you can control your reaction to it today. Acknowledging that your pain is a result of something that took place in the past will help you move forward.

Look for the silver lining. If you feel upset, try to focus your attention on something that brings you joy, like family, friends, places, or fun activities.

Put your time and energy into something positive. If you’re tempted to revisit the pain of the past, try redirecting your energy into something that will have a positive effect on your life today, such as volunteering to help others cope with the pain of a similar experience or working toward a life-long goal.

Live with a thankful heart. Instead of dwelling on your pain, look for the beauty in the world that surrounds you. An attitude of appreciation will help heal the hurts of the past.

Tell a new story. When you think about your past experience, tell your story in a way that emphasizes your triumph over adversity, not your tragedy.

Follow the example of others. Approach someone you know who has been through a similar situation and come through it victoriously. Or join a support group.

Finding peace

Living a forgiving lifestyle enables us to maintain a sense of peace through difficult situations. In forgiving, we relinquish our desire for revenge and acknowledge God’s control over our situation.

Many examples of extending forgiveness are in the Bible, from Joseph’s acceptance of his brothers’ plea for forgiveness after selling him into slavery (Genesis 50:17) to the greatest example, Jesus. As He was dying on the cross, crucified though guilty of no offense, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Many times this is the case in our lives as well. People may not know what they’ve done to hurt us. They may have started out with good intentions. We will know we have truly forgiven when we feel peace despite what they did. The desire for revenge or need to speak against the offenders will be replaced with sympathy, gentleness, and compassion.

When it comes to forgiveness, the choice remains ours. May we go the way of Jesus and reap the benefits.

Scripture quotations are from New International Version.

References

1. Dr. Fred Luskin. Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness (Harper San Francisco, 2001), pp. 77-92, 211

2. “Forgiveness: How to let go of grudges and bitterness – MayoClinic.com. (07 April 2009, www.mayoclinic.com/health/forgiveness/mh00131

“How can the Amish forgive what seems unforgivable?” (12 June 2009, www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-10-01-amish_N.htm>)