Saturday, October 6, 2012

Why Do You Forgive?

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. 


  1. Good post Christine. I never knew all the positive benefits can have on the person doing the forgiveness. I do think we need to be careful though what our motives are in forgiveness. I do not think the Scriptures teach to forgive because it is beneficial to us, but because it is the Christ like thing to do (Col 3:13). We have been forgiven such a great debt, we ought to be able to forgive the lesser debt against us (Matt. 18:23-35). I am not saying you are wrong. Your post was great. All I am saying is we need to be careful not to make our benefit in forgiveness the motivation for forgiving.

  2. Christine, Zach,
    I agree with both of you.

    Zach, as a Christian Ephesians 5: 1 tells us to "be imitators of God...and live a life of love..." (NIV). Forgiving is a command from God as Colossians 3: 13 spells out and it is beneficial for the restoration of broken relationships. So I agree with you that forgiveness is the Christlike thing to do.

    Christine, if I am understanding your article, you are not saying that what we receive from forgiving is the main goal, but in a clinical environment, teaching someone to forgive has benefit not only in restoring broken relationships, but in bringing healing to the one doing the forgiving.

    I look forward to your responses.

  3. I believe this is such an important topic for us to really examine before becoming counselors---how will we help our clients recognize that forgiveness does not mean forgetting, or allowing oneself to be repeatedly abused, wronged, or abandoned? The question I begin to think about as I read this post is that if we promote the freeing properties of forgiveness for the forgiver, are we encouraging authentic Christ-like forgiveness---His forgiveness of us is not selfish. I think Steve and Christine both make a point to note that the personal benefits gained from forgiving are just added perks to forgiveness and shouldn't be the main goal of forgiveness. If I am interpreting that correctly I am in agreement---sort of like how exercising's goal may be to make one get healthy but as a result you find you also look pretty darn great in that old pair of jeans you fit in added perk of forgiveness is what you get in the forgiving.

  4. Christine,

    As was stated in your article, forgiveness essentially releases the prisoner. Thus, anybody can often relate that the prisoner is not the person who committed the wrongdoing but the man holding back forgiveness. Time after time unforgiveness creates seeds of hostility, anger, and sometimes depression in the victim that often blooms into destructive behaviors; yet, the persecutor has essentially been free all along.

    As a personal example, I have personally witnessed the positive effect that forgiveness had on the people of Rwanda post genocide. Although forgiving somebody who has killed your entire family seems almost preposterous and enraging, these beautiful people seemed to be physically and mentally thriving more than the people still struggling with this concept of forgiveness. Especially when we visited one of the many genocide memorials, one woman in particular was still evidently crippled in despair, sadness, and anger.

    Essentially, yes God commands us to forgive, and we must obey. But, I think God also understands the healing process and the benefits of forgiveness in our own lives.

  5. Christine, I believe it is important for us to forgive as Christ has forgiven us. (The song was powerful!!!) Forgiveness is a powerful tool. I am reminded when Christ was on the Cross and although he had not done anything to deserve the punishment He received, He still said, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" Luke 23:34. You asked a question, why does a person forgive? personally, I forgive because I feel better when I forgive and because scripture teaches that forgiveness allows us to move forward in God. A few years ago I was in a tragic car accident. We were hit by a drunk driver and to this day I have never met the man who hit us; however, I had to forgive him for what he did. He was an absent party, but I still felt better when I forgave him, even though I did not see him.

  6. Christine,

    Yes, in this world injustice and all manner of hurt and anguish surround and encounter us on the daily. Growing up I was taught (tacitly) that forgiveness is my duty to another regardless of whether I committed the transgression or not. Forgiveness became a vile word to me after a while to say the least. I will never forget how liberating it was for me to learn that not only is forgiveness not a duty (it is a gift), but I can be the recipient of it without being pilloried. The truth of your post even now resonates with such liberation in its timbre as to remind us all that we are free to both give and receive grace, mercy, and repose. Thank you for such a wonderful post.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.