The Role of Forgiveness in the Recovery of Physical and Mental Health
Source: Ministry, International Journal for Pastors, January 2017
Author: Don Mackintosh, MDiv, BSN, chairs the Weimar theology department, is the lead pastor of the Weimar campus church, chaplain for the Nedley Depression Recovery program, and director of the HEALTH program, Weimar Institute, Weimar, California, United States.
We live in a very painful world, filled with hurt, anger, bitterness, resentment, and perhaps, worst of all, an unforgiving spirit. Unless brought under control, these emotions can wreak havoc in our lives. How can we rein in these destructive feelings? This article argues that perhaps the best way to control and manage such powerfully negative emotions is by understanding and practicing the art of forgiveness. How can we help people learn the importance of forgiveness?
When trying to identify and under-stand a person’s emotional pain, I sometimes ask the individual to complete the following open-ended statement: “Once upon a time some-thing happened that really upset me, and to this day I have not let it go. This is how that decision has impacted my life . . .”
This simple method of focusing on the issue of unforgiveness is often quite revealing.
The path to forgiveness
Of course, if we were to just leave people with a list of their grievances, we would be of little help. We must, with God’s help, lead them on a path to forgiveness, healing, and hope. Here is where religion plays an important role: its emphasis on forgiveness and its accent on restored relationships are positive factors in the improvement of mental health.2
True Christian ministry must involve forgiveness, and those who embrace true forgiveness experience lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. They will experience a greater likelihood of experiencing significant post-traumatic growth.3 Even in situations where the possibility of forgiveness may seem remote, research indicates there is hope. Researchers monitored Caucasian female incest survivors who “attended weekly individual sessions for an average of 14 months focused on forgiving their abuser. Compared to a control group, they showed gains in forgiveness and hope together with significant decreases in anxiety and depression.”4
A similar intervention was used with female victims of spousal emotional abuse.
“Their increased ability to forgive was associated with considerable improvements in ‘depression, trait anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms, self esteem, environmental mastery and finding meaning in suffering.’ These gains were maintained eight months post-treatment.”5
Mind and body
The physical benefits of forgiveness have also been clinically documented, and include the following:
Heart health improvement.
“Healthier ratios of both total to HDL cholesterol and LDL to HDL cholesterol. Given both their psychological (lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression) and physiological findings, the authors of this study concluded that ‘forgiveness may be associated with reduced risk for future cardiovascular events.’”6
Blood flow improvement.
“Patients who showed anger-induced reductions of blood flow to the heart (myocardial perfusion) were given 10 weekly individual psychotherapy sessions focused on forgiveness. Their post-intervention and 10-week follow-up measures for myocardial perfusion showed marked improvement compared to a control group.” 7
Blood pressure improvement.
An “8-week psycho-educational training model for forgiveness was provided to 25 patients suffering from stage-1 hypertension. Those who scored high on preintervention anger expression measures showed both reductions in the expression of anger and significant decreases in blood pressure after the 8-week course.”8
It is interesting to note that, while the benefits of forgiveness in general were significant, it was the specific sense of feeling forgiven by God that produced the greatest health-related improvement. Three related dimensions of forgiveness were examined, finding that “feeling forgiven by God had the strongest forgiveness-related health-mediating effect while self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others also contributed to the positive physical health effects of religiosity.”9
What is forgiveness?
While forgiveness can undoubtedly bring physical healing, this leads to another question: What, exactly, is forgiveness? Ann C. Recine, Joan Sthele Werner, and Louis Recine state, “A consensus definition may be emerging with the following three elements: Forgiveness is a process that takes time. It involves a ‘letting go of . . . a negative response following an offense.’ Through forgiveness, a positive response towards the offender emerges.”10
Often people who have been traumatized feel that if they forgive those who have injured them, they will somehow release that individual from the consequences of their action. If they are to move forward, it is helpful to share with them the errors of this way of thinking.
The following is what biblical forgiveness is not:
1. Biblical forgiveness is not absence of anger. The Bible includes many passages where the emotion of anger is acknowledged and expressed. Psalm 109 is especially helpful, as it describes not only the anger of the psalmist but also the depressive-like symptoms that accompany such anger.
2. Biblical forgiveness is not absence of consequences. This is a major concern to those who have been injured or traumatized. “Thou answeredst them, O Lord our God: thou wast a God that forgavest them, though thou tookest vengeance of their inventions” (Ps. 99:8, KJV). If biblical forgiveness is not the absence of anger or consequence, then what is it?
3. Biblical forgiveness is allowing God to be in control of the consequences. “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19, KJV).
4. Biblical forgiveness is avoiding our natural negative response and deliberately choosing a positive response. “See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men” (1 Thess. 5:15, KJV).
5. Biblical forgiveness calls for blessing and praying for those who have injured us. “Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you” (Luke 6:28, KJV).
6. Biblical forgiveness calls us to not gloat but, rather, to grieve when those against us stumble and fall. “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth” (Prov. 24:17, KJV).
7. Biblical forgiveness leads us to love and pray for those who have traumatized us. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44, KJV).
8. Biblical forgiveness calls upon believers to seek to live at peace with those who have wronged them. “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18, KJV).
9. Biblical forgiveness motivates us to come to the assistance of our enemies when they experience practical difficulties. “If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again” (Exod. 23:4, KJV).
10. Biblical forgiveness is following God’s example of forgiveness. “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses” (Matt. 18:35, KJV).
On the path
How can people be assisted, in a practical manner, in moving forward on the path toward forgiveness?
1. Focus on their physical condition. In the Nedley Depression and Anxiety Recovery Program, this goal is accomplished through physician-directed exercise, massage, and hydrotherapy; proper nutrition; and a high volume of water intake. These modalites assist in improving circulation in all parts of the body, including (and most importantly) the frontal lobe of the brain.
2. As their frontal lobe is strengthening, educate them in the brain’s “executive function.” Executive function has been defined as “a group of cognitive control processes working together to regulate and shape behavior, thoughts, and feelings in a goal-directed manner.”11 Researchers have discovered that “the stronger the executive function, the greater the likelihood of forgiveness.” 12 Their experiments showed that “executive function promotes forgiveness by controlling rumination.”13
3. Facilitate the healing process by making them aware that writing interventions can enhance their ability to forgive. Researchers gave writing assignments to three groups of people dealing with the consequences of a transgression. They gave one group “the counterintuitive assignment to write about the benefits of a transgression they had personally experienced, while other groups wrote about the traumatic aspects of a recent transgression, or about a nontransgression topic.”14 Those journaling about personal benefits showed a greater gain in their ability to forgive than did the other two groups. These results suggest that writing exercises focused on “benefit-finding may be a unique and useful addition to efforts to help people forgive interpersonal transgressions through structured interventions.”15
As individuals reframe the toxic relationships or traumatic events of their lives in this manner, they are often able, over time, to be released from the negative rumination that has crippled them. A number of biblical stories indicate that this kind of reframing occurs, such as Joseph’s statement concerning the trauma that his brothers put him through by selling him into captivity: “Ye thought evil against me,” he said, but then as a result of the reframing he had done, he was able to say, “but God meant it unto good . . . to save much people” (Gen. 50:20, KJV). Likewise, the apostle Paul, who went through many harrowing experiences, was able to reframe them, putting them into proper context by saying that “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, KJV).
4. Assist those engaged in the battle against thoughts of anger, bitterness, and revenge by encouraging them to identify such thoughts and, then, to burn them physically in a group setting. The imagery of the Old Testament sanctuary system, where those who had sinned would symbolically transfer their transgressions to an animal and the sanctuary itself, as well as the New Testament practice of baptism and foot-washing, gave us this idea. Interestingly enough, recent research confirms the value of such approaches. Researchers discovered that “by physically throwing away or protecting your thoughts, you influence how you end up using those thoughts. Merely imagining engaging in these actions has no effect.”16
5. Share stories from Scripture and history that show the power of forgiveness. The testimony of those who have endured unspeakable trauma and abuse demonstrate how healing the Christian message can be when one is grappling with the past. Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom’s description of a challenging act of forgiveness is especially apt in demonstrating this, as it pulls together many of the concepts we have mentioned in this article. Facing the German guard responsible for the death of hundreds, including her sister, in that brutal concentration camp, ten Boom recalls, “And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.
“‘Jesus, help me!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so, woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’”17
It appears that ten Boom’s rumination over the past trauma was disallowing her to express forgiveness until she, through prayer and frontal lobe function, was able to choose to move forward with the decision (an act of executive function) to forgive from her heart the one who had so traumatized her.
It is by the contemplation of such stories that the forgiving spirit of Christ, which has motivated such forgiveness, begins to be more fully appreciated. When people like ten Boom, who experienced significant trauma, recognize that “Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves”; as they realize that “He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share”; and as they grasp the reality that “He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His,”18 they see the healing power of God’s forgiveness and begin to be healed through a contemplation of His healing love. As they consider that the wounds He experienced and the death He died was for them, their hearts are healed,19 and they are empowered, as ten Boom was, to extend that healing love to others.
6. Finally, in light of Christ’s constraining love,20 pray the following prayer: “Dear Jesus, I thank you for your love for me and for your forgiveness of me. I choose to have the same Spirit, and to forgive. Continue to fill me with your Spirit, so I can be like You.”
Forgiveness plays a pivotal role in the recovery of physical, mental, and spiritual health. As pastors and leaders, in association with church members, we need to lead people through the steps above. When we do so, many will experience God’s love. As this happens, His forgiveness comes in like a tide from the sea with power to raise every stranded ship.21
Published in Mosaic newsletter, 2019 Q4, Fall issue
1 This article was based on a lecture from HEALTH—a four-month, comprehensive health evangelism program for the professional and those taking the religious studies major at Weimar Institute.
2 “Across all five faiths, a greater degree of spirituality was related to better mental health, specifically lower levels of neuroticism and greater extraversion. Forgiveness was the only spiritual trait predictive of mental health after personality variables were considered.” University of Missouri-Columbia, “Spirituality Correlates to Better Mental Health Regardless of Religion, Say Researchers,” Science Daily, August 20, 2012, www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2012/08/120820132332.htm.
3 G. Buck and D. Lukoff, “Forgiveness III: Psychological Research on Forgiveness,” Spiritual Competency Resource Center course, accessed August 14, 2016, www.spiritualcompetency.com/scrcQuiz .aspx?courseID=60. The summaries presented by Buck and Lukoff are based on the following sources: J. P. Friedberg, S. Suchday, and V. S. Srinivas, “Relationship Between Forgiveness and Psychological and Physiological Indices in Cardiac Patients,” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 16, no. 3 (2009): 205–211; L. L. Toussaint et al., “Why Forgiveness May Protect Against Depression: Hopelessness as an Explanatory Mechanism,” Personality and Mental Health 2, no. 2 (April 2008): 89–103, doi: 10.1002/pmh.35; Rebecca Stoia-Caraballo et al., “Negative Affect and Anger Rumination as Mediators Between Forgiveness and Sleep Quality,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 31, no. 6 (December 2008): 478–488, doi: 10.1007/s10865-008-9172-5; and Jessica M. Schultz, Benjamin A. Tallman, and Elizabeth M. Altmaier, “Pathways to Posttraumatic Growth: The Contributions of Forgiveness and Importance of Religion and Spirituality,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2, no. 2 (May 2010), 104–114, doi: 10.1037/a0018454.
4 Buck and Lukoff, “Forgiveness III.” The summary presented by Buck and Lukoff is based on S. R. Freedman and R. D. Enright, “Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal With Incest Survivors,” Journal of Consultative and Clinical Psychology 64, no.
5 (October 1996): 983–992. 5 Buck and Lukoff, “Forgiveness III.”The summary presented by Buck and Lukoff is based on Gayle L. Reed and Robert D. Enright, “The Effects of Forgiveness Therapy on Depression, Anxiety, and Posttraumatic Stress for Women After Spousal Emotional Abuse,” Journal of Consultative and Clinical Psychology 74, no. 5 (October 2006): 920–929, doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.74.5.920.
6 Buck and Lukoff, “Forgiveness III.” The summary presented by Buck and Lukoff is based on Friedberg, Suchday, and Srinivas, “Relationship Between Forgiveness and Psychological and Physiological Indices in Cardiac Patients.”
7 Buck and Lukoff, “Forgiveness III.” The summary presented by Buck and Lukoff is based on Martina A. Waltman et al., “The Effects of a Forgiveness Intervention on Patients With Coronary Artery Disease,” Psychology and Health 24, no. 1 (2009):11– 27, doi: 10.1080/08870440801975127. Emphasis added.
8 Buck and Lukoff, “Forgiveness III.” The summary presented by Buck and Lukoff is based on D. Tibbits et al., “Hypertension Reduction Through Forgiveness Training,” Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 60, nos. 1–2 (2006): 27–34.
9 Buck and Lukoff, “Forgiveness III.” The summary presented by Buck and Lukoff is based on K. A. Lawler-Row, “Forgiveness as a Mediator of the Religiosity-Health Relationship,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2, no. 1, (2010): 1–16.
10 Ann C. Recine, Joan Sthele Werner, and Louis Recine, “Health Promotion Through Forgiveness Intervention,” Journal of Holistic Nursing 27, no. 2 (June 2009): 115–123, doi: 10.1177/0898010108327214.
11 Tila M. Pronk et al., “What It Takes to Forgive: When and Why Executive Functioning Facilitates Forgiveness,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98, no. 1, (January 2010): 119, doi: 10.1037/a0017875.
14 Buck and Luckoff, “Forgiveness III: Psychological Research on Forgiveness,” Spiritual Competency Resource Center.
15 Michael E. McCullough, Lindsey M. Root, and Adam D. Cohen, “Writing About the Benefits of an Interpersonal Transgression Facilitates Forgiveness,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 74, no. 5, (October 2006): 887, doi: 10.1037/0022-006X .74.5.887.
16 Ohio State University, “Bothered by Negative, Unwanted Thoughts? Just Throw Them Away,” ScienceDaily, November 26, 2012, researchnews osu.edu/archive/matthoughts.htm.
17 Corrie ten Boom, “Guideposts Classics: Corrie ten Boom on Forgiveness,” Guideposts, November 1972, www.guideposts.org/inspiration/stories-of -hope/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on -forgiveness.
18 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn, 1940), 25.
19 Isaiah 53:5
21 I don’t take credit for this phraseology but cannot recall were I heard or read it.