Forgiveness has long laid the foundation for spiritual well-being in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But scientific research now suggests its healing power may extend beyond the sacred realm. Research shows links between forgiveness and physical and mental health.
While this may come as some surprise to secular scientists, psychologist Dan Shoultz says God has created the need to give and receive as an important part of our makeup as human beings.
“We were designed by God to not hold onto anger, revenge, bitterness, and resentment,” Shoultz says. “When we do, it’s destructive to our being, leading to a slow and insidious breakdown of the entire system.”
Because of this reality, he says that unforgiveness and its psychological baggage of hostility and bitterness can put people at risk for mental illness such as depression and anxiety—not to mention stress disorders and related physical ailments.
A small but growing body of evidence also suggests that forgiveness—particularly for severe hurts—plays a role in lowering depression and anxiety, says Michael McCullough, director of research at the National Institute for Healthcare Research. It’s also been linked to small increases in self-esteem. Bolstered by evidence that vengefulness could carry heavy physical health risks, more scientists are taking a serious look at forgiveness and how it impacts the whole person, McCullough says.
Thoresen, a professor of education, psychology, and psychiatry at
Thoresen believes forgiveness education, couched in terms of stress management and conflict resolution, could open the extraordinary potential people have to resolve perceived hurts and offenses.
Though forgiveness may have ties to better health, research indicates that motive may play an important role in determining the actual benefits. The short of it: If you forgive just to gain benefits for yourself, you’ll likely truncate the process and fall short in terms of real benefits, according to McCullough.
McCullough has found that empathy, the ability to develop understanding for the offender’s situation and sympathetic emotion for the offender, serves as a key motivation for genuine forgiveness.
Stepping Stones to Freedom—
Five Stages of Forgiveness
Christian psychologist Dan Shoultz has helped a number of people through the process during his 16 years in private practice. He identifies the fives steps of forgiveness as:
1. Recognize the true depth of an injury.
“When people try to forgive without going through this stage, they minimize the injury,” Shoultz says. “Forgiveness by minimization or overlooking is not true forgiveness.”
2. Grieve over your losses.
Often people are afraid to touch their pain, but he believes actually feeling the depth of the sadness and pain is the only way to keep it from continuing to dominate life by simmering below the surface.
3. Examine perceptions you have created about the world because of the injury.
“Often people make broad sweeping judgments about life, particularly after a major injury,” Shoultz says. “These often faulty core beliefs can keep them bound in unhealthy patterns.”
Together, these first stages may take several months, particularly if the injury is a serious one. It’s a mistake, he says, to assume that forgiveness is a onetime event, hinging on a single choice.
4. Learn empathy skills.
In order to follow through with genuine forgiveness, he says people must be able to identify with the perpetrator on a human level. They, too, respond out of their own problems, pain and fears, which lead them to the hurtful choices they make.
5. Challenge prevalent myths about forgiveness.
Shoultz tries to help people realize they can forgive and maintain their integrity. Forgiveness doesn’t mean relationships must be completely restored or that a person won’t feel angry about a sinful offense.
Shoultz says these five stages lay the foundation for the final work of forgiveness. It involves several steps, such as recognizing that vengeance belongs to God; realizing that holding on to anger will lead to further damage to yourself; understanding how great God’s forgiveness for humanity is through Christ; choosing to let go, interrupting destructive thoughts and putting productive ones in their place; turning to others for help in the process; and praying that God will give the strength and power to forgive.
Forgiveness takes commitment, focus, and dedication. No one who has ever walked the road will ay it is easy. But in forgiveness, one exchanges anger, bitterness, hatred, depression, and perhaps health problems, for joy, peace, and freedom—not a bad trade by any standard.