Forgiving what we can't forget
Charles Jantzi is assistant professor of psychology. He is involved in his church as a youth leader together with his wife, and he works part time as a therapist at Philhaven Behavioral Health in Mt. Gretna, Pennsylvania. One of his primary areas of interest within the field of psychology is how different means of communication have an impact on friendships and families.
Early in my career as a therapist I discovered the importance of forgiveness as I worked with a middle-aged man and helped him to process his anger towards his father, who had died a number of years before. I will never forget how this man talked about the rage that flared up each time his car lights would illuminate the beautiful house he had purchased as he pulled into the driveway after working late again. His rage was the result of his father’s repeated statements that the man would never be successful. These statements drove him to become successful to prove his father wrong. By the time he became successful, however, his father had died and never saw the fruits of his success, including the beautiful house. As I struggled to help this man find a way to forgive his father, I began to think seriously about the process and implications of forgiveness. I also realized just how difficult forgiveness is and how much time and energy bitterness consumes in our lives.
Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness often compared forgiving others to the releasing of others from a financial debt. Interestingly, those whose debts are forgiven are those who cannot pay. Those who faithfully make their payments are rarely offered loan forgiveness. Hurt and injury, realities which require forgiveness, also involve a debt—a debt that cannot be repaid.To forgive does not mean that we deny the pain or that we condone what the person did. Rather, forgiveness involves acknowledging the hurt (the debt), perceiving the size of the debt, and then deciding to no longer demand repayment of that debt (revenge and bitterness). This does not mean that we forget what happened but, rather, when we do remember, we remind ourselves that it is a debt for which we have agreed not to demand repayment. To insist that we must forget the event as evidence that we have forgiven will only result in more pain and frustration. God can choose to forget—we cannot!
Over the past 20 years, psychological researchers and theorists have given increased attention to interpersonal forgiveness. Two interesting studies done in the early 2000s found that when people were asked to review painful memories their heart rates and blood pressures increased. When these people were later asked to think about forgiving the hurt, their heart rates and blood pressures decreased. Psychologist Everett Worthington Jr. found that the failure to forgive has been associated with higher occurrence of stress-related disorders, lower immune function, and more frequent cardiovascular disease than that in the general population. Other psychological studies have linked forgiveness to decreased levels of depression, anxiety, and anger. Forgiveness has also been linked to higher levels of self-esteem, more effective coping, and higher levels of interpersonal competence.
It would be great if I could say that the life of the man I mentioned earlier was trouble free after he forgave his father. It wasn’t, as he had other struggles to deal with. However, it was wonderful to see how he was no longer captive to rage for his father every time his car headlights illuminated his house. He was finally free!
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