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Forgiveness: A Pathway to Wellness

Health and Wellness, Mind

By Jaci Cress, director of spiritual care at Adventist Health in Walla Walla

Easter MessageChristians all over the world will be celebrating Christ's life, death, and resurrection this Easter season. Many people use the holiday as an opportunity to reflect on spiritual themes like grace, new life, and forgiveness.

Of these, forgiveness is a topic that comes up over and over in the Bible, in religious communities, and, perhaps surprisingly, in studies about health. Scientific research shows that forgiveness is beneficial for one's physical health and wellbeing.

Health Benefits of Learning to Forgive

Fred Luskin, a forgiveness researcher with a doctorate in counseling and health psychology from Stanford University, approaches forgiveness as something that can be taught. Luskin's research shows that learning forgiveness leads to:

  • Increased physical strength
  • Increased sense of hope
  • Greater self-worth
  • Enhanced positivity
  • Better ability to solve relationship problems.

His research also shows that forgiveness can decreases hurt, anger depression and blood pressure.

In addition to Luskin's research, A 2005 Journal of Behavioral Medicine study showed that forgiveness is associated with a whole range of health measures, including use of medications, sleep quality and low energy.

Helpful Hints in Your Journey Toward Forgiveness and Health:

  1. Forgiveness is a process of surrender and re-surrendering. Forgiveness is not something that happens overnight, nor is it always a one-time thing. Forgiveness requires an individual to continue to choose forgiveness even when the negative feelings resurface. These old feelings do not mean that you have not truly forgiven the person, but that you are still healing.
  2. Forgiveness does not mean that you are weak. Forgiveness does not mean you don't know how to stand up for yourself. On the contrary, it can actually be an act of great courage and strength. Mahatma Ghandi once said, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong."
  3. Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. A common misconception is that if you forgive someone that reconciliation or a mended relationship naturally follows. This is not always true nor should it be. It is possible to forgive and not reconcile with the person who hurt you. It is also possible to forgive someone but not trust them. While sometimes forgiveness does end in repaired relationships, this is not a requirement of forgiveness. In fact, sometimes it would be unhealthy for us to include this person in our lives and expose ourselves to more potential pain.
  4. Forgiveness does not require any apology. In fact, there may never be any acknowledgment that any wrong was done. It is still possible to forgive someone who does not want our forgiveness or ask for it.
  5. Forgiveness does not mean no consequences. Sometimes the most gracious thing we can do for people is to forgive them and then hold them accountable for their actions.
  6. Practice reframing your story. Reframing your story, or retelling it, is an important part of your journey of forgiveness. This does not mean minimizing your story or denying that it happened, it just means telling it or framing it in a way where you are no longer the victim but the hero. Where you are courageous and strong for choosing forgiveness!
  7. Forgiveness means letting go. Learning how to forgive may also mean practicing the discipline of not being easily offended. When we are able to let things go, we save ourselves a lot of time and energy that could be spent elsewhere.
  8. Forgiveness allows us to take the power back. When we hold a grudge we may feel like we are in a position of power and superiority because this person owes us something. The opposite is true. When we are unable to forgive, we are controlled by that anger, resentment, and grievance against us. True forgiveness allows us to take some of the power back and regain control over our lives, our health, and our emotions and does not allow that person or those circumstances to rule our lives anymore.

If you are struggling with forgiveness you are not alone. There are no easy solutions to overcoming anger and embracing forgiveness. But when we are able to learn and practice forgiveness our physical health will improve, our mental health will be impacted, and our spiritual life will flourish.