FORGIVING: GOOD SCIENCE AND DEEP CHALLENGE

In the positive psychology movement of the last two decades, forgiveness has been studied extensively with thousands of articles published on the topic, with a particular emphasis on the power of forgiveness to add benefit to the forgiver. Lowered blood pressure, better sleep, feeling happier, reduced lower back pain, even jumping higher! Yep, there’s a study about even that.

So we should forgive those who hurt us for our own good. And yet many of us struggle with apply this. We slip into thoughts about the other person’s bad actions and we easily name their injustice with a simplistic label, “She only considered herself!” This accusation of self-centeredness by the offender is ubiquitous. And yet, as we consider forgiving, the recommendation from the psychological literature points us in the very same direction! Forgive her because it will benefit you. This self-beneficial motive is compelling and even true, but a deeper understanding of human nature may be needed to help us commit to the difficult mental and emotional task of forgiving.

The words of Jesus are indisputable when it comes to forgiveness: forgive as we have been forgiven (Matthew 6:12 is only one example). We know that deciding to forgive doesn’t immediately relieve us of the complex feelings that are associated with being hurt, but there is another important consideration for those of us who desire to integrate Christian spirituality with our psychological health and practice. ‘Forgive as you have been forgiven.’ We need to know we are forgiven by God first in order to forgive well. This is a very different starting point. I’ll say more about this in future posts. This is a complex challenge to consider without falling into blaming ourselves falsely or blaming others simplistically. For now I leave you with this little thought: when someone hurts you, remember your experience of God’s unconditional love reaching to you when you ignored, doubted and even avoided that love. If that’s unclear for you, allow yourself to wonder about that primary experience for followers of Jesus.

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