Choosing to Forgive

for the week of April 29, 2002
by Rubel Shelly

Jesus had a great deal to say about forgiveness. It wasn't that he taught only about our need to be forgiven or about God's ability to forgive. He did that. But he also spoke about the importance of humans learning to forgive each other.

"When you are praying, and you remember that you are angry with another person about something, then forgive him," Jesus said. "If you do this, then your Father in heaven will also forgive your sins" (Mark 11:25-26, New Century Version). In another place, he taught the same thing: "Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don't condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you'll find life a lot easier" (Luke 6:37, The Message).

Guess what? New research confirms the teaching of Jesus about the value of forgiving others, refusing to nurse a grudge, and letting go of slights and wrongs. A study by Dr. Kathleen Lawler, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee, affirms that people who refuse to forgive report more stress, more illness, and more visits to the doctor than people who show grace to others.

"Forgiveness is not just a religious concept but is something that we can and should strive toward," says another forgiveness researcher, Dr. Carl Thoresen of Stanford University. "We all have the capacity to forgive but [it] takes time because it is the most courageous act one can do."

There are some appropriate cautions here: (1) Some behaviors are wrong, and it is morally right to be offended by or angry about them. (2) It is not sinful to feel the negative emotions brought on by betrayal, violation, or injustice. (3) It takes some time to name a wrong, grieve it, and move toward forgiving it. (4) Forgiving doesn't mean forgetting an offense or reconciling with the offender.

All this having been said, the truth remains that harboring anger, trying to get even, or otherwise nursing a grudge is toxic to the human spirit. It not only robs one of peace of mind but can even cause damaging physical effects.

The researchers insist that forgiveness is a choice to separate the offender from his or her deed and deciding to let go the negative feelings for that person. The mystery, says Lawler, is to find a motivation adequate to prompt forgiveness.

Christians can draw on this one: "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:32).

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