Eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope was right: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” There is absolutely nothing quite so freeing as the feeling of forgiveness. When we truly forgive, we unburden ourselves of anger and resentment that has been eating away at us. When we forgive, we feel our heart and spirit soar.
There’s no doubt that forgiveness is divine—it’s also hard.
Forgiveness refers to the cancellation of a debt or offense. It involves the elimination of anger and ill will to someone who has wronged us in some way. Forgiveness is difficult to define—most people who experience forgiveness describe a sense of peaceful indifference toward a situation or person that formerly triggered an emotional response. Forgiveness is more of an emotional shift than a physical act.
Most people confuse the terms forgiveness and reconciliation, but they are not the same. Forgiveness only requires one person—you can experience forgiveness without reconciliation, but not vice versa. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves, not the other person. Forgiveness does not mean we excuse or condone the behavior; it means that we choose to stop harboring anger and resentment over the situation.
The Effects of Unforgiveness
Unforgiveness is defined as being unable or unwilling to forgive and it can have negative consequences for our health. Research indicates that individuals who harbor resentment and ruminate on past wounds trigger a physiological stress response in the body. Over time, this chronic stress—and the consequent flood of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol—has a dramatic impact on the immune system.
Unforgiveness creates chronic stress and anxiety that can erode the immune system and have lasting consequences. Put simply, anger and hatred eat away at us from the inside. Unforgiveness does nothing to harm the other person. Holding on to unforgiveness is sort of like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
There is no magic formula for forgiveness. The first step toward forgiveness is the motivation and desire to forgive. After that, the process can be somewhat of a mystery. Many psychologists have published step-by-step programs to lead people toward forgiveness, but the truth is that forgiveness requires a softening of the heart that comes from quiet contemplation and time.
Some people find it helpful to write in a journal or to write a letter that they never intend to send. Others find solace in prayer. Some people experience success with “exposure therapy” during which they are exposed to a similar stressor/trauma over time in order to desensitize them.
It’s not important how you forgive—it’s just important that you do. Each person has their own process, their own journey, toward freedom. Sometimes the journey is short and other times it’s arduous and long. Often, it’s helpful to seek counsel with a therapist or spiritual advisor.
If you can find it in your heart to forgive, you’ll be giving yourself the gift of peace and freedom. Your heart will soar—and so will your immune system.