The Bible teaches that forgiveness is good for the soul, but it turns out that what is good for the soul is good for the body as well. Medical research is increasingly showing a strong correlation between forgiveness and improved health. According to an article at John’s Hopkins:
Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.
Too often people withhold forgiveness because they misunderstand what it means. They think it means minimizing the wrongness of what others have done or coming to the conclusion that it’s “All okay, no big deal.” Therefore, they view holding on to the grievance as a way of living honestly or setting the record straight. To forgive would let the other person “win.” But forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person. It doesn’t even require their participation.
Forgiveness is not about letting people off the hook or allowing them to take advantage of us. If, for example, you have forgiven an employee for theft and given him a second chance, but the crime happens again, it would be possible to fire that employee while still forgiving him. You must protect the integrity of your business, but you can forgive in the sense of letting go of resentment and hostility for that person.
Forgiveness is not an action performed in a single moment, like checking something off a list. It is a way of being or a way of approaching the world. It means you have a forgiving heart that wants to error on the side of making peace. Better to occasionally get duped or hurt in the cause of peace than move through life constantly suspicious and guarded. You might make it through life without ever getting taken advantage of, but it will come at the cost of cultivating a hard heart.
Holding onto grudges and reliving past hurt is a full time job. Protecting our ego is hard work. That is why Christ called his own life easy: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”(Matthew 11:30). When we read the Gospels, Christ’s life seems anything but easy, but he didn’t carry the mental and emotional burden of keeping track of whose fault it was and who started it. He asked us to try it out: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
Many think their hard situation is a special exception to the need to forgive. “If only it were as simple as an employee stealing money! But my situation is toxic!” But our health doesn’t care about excuses, and it doesn’t make exceptions for so called “justified” anger and resentment. Our body doesn’t say, “Ah, well, this anger and judgement is completely understandable, so we’ll make sure it doesn’t affect our health.” Whether you think your anger is justified or not, your body will suffer.
Grudges, resentments, anger–these are not just concepts, but actual dark energies that reside in our body. When Christ healed people, he was not merely mending physical ailments; he was, at least in some cases, removing these energies: “Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk?” (Mark 2:9)
It has been said that lack of forgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. That isn’t just a nice metaphor. Resentment and anger really are poison to not only our souls, but our physical bodies. If spiritual reasons to forgive seem too abstract or unrealistic, then at least try to forgive in the interest of your health.
Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers,” a story of one soul’s journey into the afterlife to discover the truth of forgiveness and redemption, available here.