Usually when we think about forgiveness, the focus is on the person being forgiven. When we forgive a financial debt, the debtor benefits. Forgive a friend who has wronged us, and they feel better. Yet when it comes to forgiveness, the person doing the forgiving can reap rewards as well. The mental health of cancer patients who practiced forgiveness improved. The health benefits of forgiveness are being studied as well. So how do faith, forgiveness, and health intersect?
Forgiveness and Faith
While forgiveness is a cornerstone of most religions, their approach varies. Probably one of the most common mantras on forgiveness is Christ’s exhortation to “Turn the other cheek.” Challenging legal precedents dating back nearly 1800 years to Hammurabi’s Code, he exhorted followers that, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
While the homily may be noble in intent, in literal practice it suggests that a battered wife should continue to tolerate abuse or a child should willingly submit to bullies. Yet most Christians see it not as acceptance of further punishment or betrayal (which can be resisted). Rather they view it as more about avoiding revenge and trusting the will of God than actually allowing ongoing physical harm. Likewise, the will of Allah plays a central role in Islam’s teachings on forgiveness where those who have wronged us are “to be pardoned” just as He will pardon people on the Day of Judgement.
Yet when it comes to the type of forgiveness recognized for consistently delivering ongoing mental and physical benefits, Judaism and Buddhism provide clear pathways. In Jewish teachings, there is the familiar “it-takes-two-to-tango” approach: If we are wronged by another, they must make amends before we can offer forgiveness. Thus they practice a form of repentance or atonement called “teshuvah”––a central theme of Yom Kippur.
For example, if someone dents your fender, it’s appropriate to expect them to pay for repairs before accepting their apology. For behavioral slights, they should first take steps to avoid repeating the same mistake. Only after doing teshuvah can they ask the offended party for forgiveness. And here’s the thing; the other person isn’t required to offer “mechilah” or forgiveness if the apology is insincere or the other person hasn’t righted the wrong.
Unfortunately, many of us get hung up on this transactional form of forgiveness. You say “I’m sorry,” you right the wrong, and I accept your apology. Yet there is a deeper form of forgiveness that not only doesn’t require the offending person to say “I’m sorry,” it doesn’t even require them to be an ongoing presence in our lives. Instead it is the acceptance that people are imperfect. They make mistakes. Connected with the belief that only God is perfect, this second kind of forgiveness, selichah, is about empathy and perspective. It doesn’t require embracing the person who wronged you. Instead, it is about acceptance and not holding on to anger or sorrow. Buddhism also emphasizes the benefits to the forgiver because it frees you from anger or even hatred. In the 21st century, medical research has demonstrated the benefits to this approach.
Forgiveness and Health
Emotions can produce measured physical changes. When we get angry, it triggers our fight or flight response. Our body becomes awash in the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol even as our heart rate accelerates and our blood pressure climbs.
Usually this fades quickly. However, slow simmering can have long-term consequences. The longer you are angry, the higher your heart rate and blood pressure. Over time it can lead to cardiac disease, depression, diabetes, and numerous other issues. Actively forgiving another person, even if they aren’t in your life, has the opposite response. It can be calming, almost meditative. A recent study of nurses showed that those who forgave others enjoyed “improved psychosocial well-being and reduced psychological distress.”
Like many studies, the one on nurses couldn’t come up with a clear connection between forgiveness and improved health. Yet recent examinations of multiple studies have shown a correlation if not a causation. In other words, more forgiving people may be naturally healthier while those who are adept at learning forgiveness strategies may also have better physical health. Still after reviewing 128 studies on the effects of forgiveness, a 2019 research paper concluded that there was “… a significant positive relationship between forgiveness of others and physical health.” Examining multiple studies on cancer patients, the authors of “Forgiveness and Health Outcomes in Cancer Survivorship,” noted that “Religious and spiritual beliefs including forgiveness are an important aspect of cancer survivorship…” concluding that “[m]ost studies reported a positive association between forgiveness and mental health.”
Forgiveness isn’t easy. Still, it can be a learned behavior. The Mayo Clinic recommends starting from a place where you recognize the value of forgiveness and acknowledge what needs healing and who in your life needs forgiving. Joining a support group may help as well. Whether it’s a resolution for a new year or awareness of how anger and resentment is holding you back, taking the time to forgive can make a huge difference in your life.
Written by John Bankston
- Anger – how it affects people
- Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It
- Forgiveness of others and subsequent health and well-being in mid-life: a longitudinal study on female nurses
- A meta-analysis of the association between forgiveness of others and physical health
- Forgiveness and Health Outcomes in Cancer Survivorship
- Why is it so easy to hold a grudge?