It was until recently that I fully began to understand the dual purpose of forgiveness. You see, as a child I thought it to be something we did for others. My thought process was something like ‘God forgives me for my wrongdoings, and so I am also suppose to forgive others for their wrongdoings’. I looked at forgiveness as something one did for the benefit of the person needing forgiveness. Now while being told they are forgiven is certainly helpful for the transgressor, being able to forgive another is equally as important for the forgiver. This is especially true in the case of unilateral forgiveness, in which the forgiver forgives an absent party.
Authors Worthington and Scherer (2004) explain that forgiveness can be used as an emotion-focused coping strategy. And since forgiveness is a biblical concept, it is also considered a religious coping strategy. The process of forgiving involves a combination of positive emotions, such as love, compassion, and empathy, against the negative emotions of unforgiveness. Unforgiveness, if left untreated can turn into anger, which is known to have a negative impact on physical health, namely cardiovascular problems. However, if the coping strategy of forgiveness is implemented, it can help to reduce the stress associated with unforgiveness. The authors share that forgiveness has found to have five direct influences on our physical health. These are, (1) it might reduce hostility, (2) it could affect the immune system at the cellular level, (3) it could affect the immune system at the neuro-endocrine level, (4) it could affect the immune system through release of antibodies, and (5) it might affect central nervous system processes. Along with the physical advantages of forgiveness, the act of forgiving also leads to increased social support, less stressful marriages, and increased relationship skills. Altruistic forgiveness also provides emotional and mental healing for the forgiver. It releases the forgiver from replaying the event in their mind, and from holding the injury against the offender. Ultimately, through forgiveness the individual is able to find freedom.
In the article InterpersonalForgiveness as an Example of Loving One’s Enemies, Worthington, Sharp, Lerner, and Sharp (2006) point out that transgressions are inevitable. As part of the fallen world we live in, you will inevitably get hurt and hurt others. Your feelings might get hurt, your trust might be betrayed, and unjustified acts might be committed against you. However, because wrongdoings are inevitable on this earth, God has made it clear as to how we go about them – we are to forgive unilaterally. Therefore even if the offender doesn’t ask for our forgiveness, we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). The benefits to the forgiver are huge. So why do you forgive? Do you do it because that’s how you were taught as a child, or do you see it as a command from Scripture that is in place to help not only the offender, but also to set the forgiver free. Just like the song in the link above says about forgiveness, ‘The prisoner that it really frees is you’.
Worthington, E. L., & Scherer, M. (2004). Forgiveness is an emotion-focused
coping strategy that can reduce health risks and promote health resilience:
Theory, review, and hypotheses. Psychology and Health, 19(3), 385-405.
Worthington, E. L., Sharp, C. B., Lerner, A. J., & Sharp, J. R. Interpersonal
forgiveness as an example of loving one’s enemies. Journal of
Psychology and Theology, 34(1), 32-42.