Forgiveness Can Be Good for Your Health

By Rusty Wright

Got lingering anger, stress or high blood pressure?  You may need to forgive someone (or to be forgiven yourself).

That’s the conclusion of an increasing number of social scientists.  Religion has long held that forgiveness is an important component of a fruitful life.  A recent Christianity Today article outlined secular research that also supports its personal and societal benefits.

Thirty years ago, Kansas psychologist Dr. Glenn Mack Harnden searched in vain to find studies on forgiveness in the academic digest Psychological Abstracts.  Today there exist an International Forgiveness Institute and a ten-million-dollar “Campaign for Forgiveness Research” (Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu are among the ringleaders).  The John Templeton Foundation awards grants in the field.

Harnden says forgiveness “releases the offender from prolonged anger, rage and stress that have been linked to physiological problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, hypertension, cancer and other psychosomatic illnesses.”

Enemies Forgiving

He’s big on this theme.  When I ran into him in Washington, DC, recently, he spoke enthusiastically about attending an international gathering in Jordan that saw forgiveness between traditional individual enemies like Northern Irish and Irish Republicans, Israelis and Palestinians.

University of Wisconsin psychologist Robert Enright and his colleagues discovered that “forgiveness education” may have helped college students who felt their parental love reservoirs were low to develop “improved psychological health.”  Self-esteem and hope increased while anxiety decreased.

Daily life brings many sources of conflict: spouses, parents, children, employers, former employers, bullies, enemies, racial and ethnic bigots.  If offense leads to resentment and resentment grows to bitterness, then anger, explosion and violence can result.  If parties forgive each other, then healing, reconciliation and restoration can follow.

Racial Animosity

I shall always remember Norton and Bo.  Norton, an African-American, was bitter toward whites.  Bo, who was white, called himself a “Christian” but seemed a hypocrite for his disdain for blacks.  One day in an Atlanta civil rights event in the late 1960s, Bo and his buddies assaulted Norton by clobbering him with sandbags.  Animosity ran deep.

Several months later, my roommate spoke with Norton about faith and knowing God personally.  Norton placed his faith in Jesus and believed he was forgiven.  He experienced what Paul, a first-century believer, described in the New Testament: “…Those who become Christians become new persons.  They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone.  A new life has begun!”

Meanwhile, Bo began to realize his hypocrisy and placed God back in the “driver’s seat” of his life.  Three years after the assault, Nort and Bo unsuspectingly encountered each other at a conference on the Georgia coast.  Initial tension melted into transparency and forgiveness.  By week’s end they were publicly expressing their love for each other as brothers.

Forgiveness and the Holocaust

Earlier this year, Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel sang Germany’s praises for observing remembrance for Holocaust victims.  But he urged the German parliament to go farther, to seek forgiveness for the Third Reich’s behavior.  “We desperately want to have hope for the new century,” he declared.  Recently German President Johannes Rau asked the Israeli Knesset for forgiveness for the Holocaust and pledged to fight anti-Semitism in Europe.

Forgiveness can be contagious.  It can make an important difference in families, neighborhoods, workplaces and nations. A good relationship takes two good forgivers.

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

Copyright © 2000 Rusty Wright