By Guest Columnist Dr Daniel R. Altman
I still remember that day—a powerful moment as I watched emotion wash over a teenage boy in my office when he came to realize he was forgiven. This is not always the outcome. I have also had to work with caseworkers to find a new home for a teen because his offense was great, the pain too hard to cope with, and bitterness and anger too powerful. The family no longer wanted their boy.
As believers, we know the power of forgiveness. Each of us has experienced God’s mercy and grace. Even so, forgiving those who offend us is quite a different experience. Forgive: the willful choice to let go of a demand for payment or requital. Forgiving is an unnatural response with a beautiful outcome. The result can be life changing, despite how difficult the process can be.
Forgiveness is not easily given. While God forgave with one act, it is a continuous process for us requiring divine intervention. Sometimes the process can take years. Old feelings of resentment creep back in as we reflect on past hurt and pain. At such times, we have to work again at forgiving—even “seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). This is a process that may not be fully realized until, many years later, we find we have peace about a previously hurtful situation.
Christians forgive out of obedience and in response to the forgiveness we have experienced. Colossians 3:13 tells us to “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32 calls us to “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” What a great gift God has given! How great to share that gift of forgiveness with others. C.S. Lewis said, “To be Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
Social scientists have found that forgiving others can be beneficial to our mental health. Forgiving others has been associated with increased commitment in close relationships. It has been linked to better conflict resolution skills and decreased hostility. It can help us become more compassionate. It can be beneficial to physical health, decreasing the impact associated with bitterness and anger. In addition, forgiveness of self can help change addictive behaviors (such as substance abuse and pathological gambling).
There are some things that help as we work toward forgiving. For the Christian, prayer is a powerful tool (Philippians 4:6). Interestingly, social scientists have found that prayer can help increase our ability to forgive others. We can reflect on the forgiveness we have been offered and on our new identity as forgiven people. We can attempt to understand the offender without excusing his or her behavior. Journaling often is helpful in resolving personal pain, too.
While the process may be difficult, the end result is rewarding. The freedom and peace found in forgiveness is priceless. Lewis Smedes said about forgiveness, “You ride the cosmic crest of love. You set a prisoner free and you discover the prisoner you set free was you.”
Dr. Daniel R. Altman practices forensic psychology in Fort Worth, Texas, performing psychological evaluations for courts, juvenile departments, and private attorneys. He and his wife, Laura, have two children, Franklin and Olivia.