I knew a young man that was out working in his garage and his wife said she was going to McDonalds to buy lunch for them. They said goodbye to one another and the young man worked on and waited. After a while he started to realize his wife should have been back by now. He went in the house and saw a note from his wife explaining she was leaving him. He instantly felt hurt, anger, rejection and betrayal.
Probably most of us have been hurt by another to some degree—maybe not as severe as a spouse leaving us, but none-the-less hurt. As humans we feel a sense of injustice has been done when we are hurt by others. It is natural to want to right the wrong and restore justice. Yet, as Christians we are told by the apostle Paul,
“Dear friends, never avenge yourselves. Leave that to God. For it is written, ‘I will take vengeance; I will repay those who deserve it,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19 NLT).
That may seem like a hard command to obey when you feel violated by someone. That statement/command may sound absurd to some of us. Instead of softening the blow of this command he goes on to state,
“Instead, do what the Scriptures say: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink, and they will be ashamed of what they have done to you.” Don’t let evil get the best of you, but conquer evil by doing good” (Romans 12:20-21 NLT).
Are you kidding me!? Not only is Paul telling me I cannot right my wrong, but I am supposed to love my enemy too!? One may think these ideas are ridiculous and even unhealthy. In the past, some psychologist believed that religion—especially Christianity—was the cause of most psychological disorders. Some thought commands like the one to forgive another were nothing but guilt-ridden statements by guilt-promoting religious nuts. Modern psychology is thankfully dropping those ideas. In fact look at an article from the Mayo clinic’s web site regarding the advantages of forgiveness (not holding a grudge).
What are the benefits of forgiving someone?
Letting go of grudges and bitterness can make way for compassion, kindness and peace. Forgiveness can lead to:
- Healthier relationships
- Greater spiritual and psychological well-being
- Less anxiety, stress and hostility
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- Lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse
One thing to keep in mind; God gives us commands for our good. His commands are not to make our life more miserable—though at times we may believe they do. That is because we, like a child, don’t see the big picture. We give our children the “house rules” for their safety and because we care about them. Do they see it that way? Not usually. Often we hear, “You’re not fair!” Or “That rule is stupid! When I grow up I will not have any rules in my house!” etc…. That is because they don’t see the bigger picture. So God gives us instructions to forgive one another and not take justice into our own hands and like a child that doesn’t see the big picture we become angry. Legitimate questions arise: But why? Isn’t he a “just” God? Shouldn’t he want justice done? The answer is several-fold. Some of the reason he does not want us to take on the role of judicial punisher (avenger) are thus:
- We, as humans, do not know the right balance of justice and mercy—only God knows that.
- Humans do not know the right type of punishment to hand out that would be completely just. The man in the story above may want his wife locked up for 90 days in jail or he may want her to suffer physical pain. Are either of those completely just?
- What about timing? I may want to inflict justice (revenge) now! In doing so, would I be taking away precious time from the person that harmed me? Time that often gives the person a chance to think about what they’ve done and apologize. Many times—especially in marriages—couples take revenge right away and the other person counter-attacks and this turns into a cycle in the relationship. Many times when a person is left to think—and pray—they start to look at the hurt they’ve caused and seek to make it right.
These are just some of the reasons it is important for us humans to take the law into our own hands so to speak. (of course this is in regard to personal hurts that do not break our civil or criminal laws).
What if forgiveness?
One writer says that , “. . . a simple psychological definition of forgiveness: Forgiveness is the refusal to hurt the one who hurt you” (Richmond, Raymond Lloyd (2010-11-28). Anger and Forgiveness (p. 70). Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.. Kindle Edition). The writer from the Mayo Clinic staff says, “Generally, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge” http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/forgiveness/MH00131
Notice that a choice of the will is involved not a FEELING. I can choose not to take revenge even though I am still very hurt and angry with the person that hurt me. Instead of sending the flaming email that berates and rips the person to shreds with my words I may write it then CHOOSE not to push the send button. (Writing it, but not sending is actually therapeutic).
What forgiveness is not:
Forgiveness is not forgetting the incident. It is not pretending I don’t have hurt or anger about the situation. It is not RECONCILIATION. To reconcile is good, but unfortunately it does not always happen, but forgiveness CAN always happen because that is something I (we) are have in our control. Reconciliation involves the person that inflicted the pain being sorry and making changes to not hurt again. The inflictor may never apologize. That is hard to take, but again, forgiveness can still happen. I can still choose not take revenge.
Why is forgiveness also a psychological preferable choice?
In his book “Anger and Forgiveness” Dr. Richmond explains that the reason forgiveness is “psychologically preferable to holding a grudge” is “because the bitterness of a grudge works like a mental poison that doesn’t hurt anyone but yourself (p. 71). That is so true! How many times have I spent time and energy scheming up ways to hurt a person that hurt me? I used to work with a man that harbored a grudge against his ex-wife for more than 20 years. This took an enormous toll on his spiritual, emotional and psychological well-being. This person was in the hospital with terminal cancer and I went to visit him. He had been looking back on his life and was realizing the cost his unforgiveness had on his family and his life. When the subject of forgiveness came up his countenance changed from reflective to rage. He said he will “NEVER forgive that %$#@$$%%%!” Unfortunately he died holding on to the grudge. He died an angry, bitter and stressful person. The sad thing is his ex-wife was not suffering; he was!
It seems wise to put all the emotional energy into taking steps toward forgiveness because that brings us well-being and stop putting energy into holding grudges—which brings us distress.
There are many resources regarding forgiveness. One place to start—beside the scriptures—is this web site: http://www.thepowerofforgiveness.com/index.html
– Dave Chatel, MA, LLP