The Healing Power of Forgiveness

By Barbara Boatwright, Ph.D.

Many years ago, Mary (not her real name) was referred to me for therapy by her family physician, who was concerned that she might suffer from agoraphobia (marked fear and avoidance of a situation that causes anxiety should an incapacitating event occur and no help or escape is available).  She was so fearful to leave her house that she had become increasingly isolated and almost home-bound. A middle-aged and otherwise healthy woman, Mary suffered from such debilitating migraine headaches that she feared if she was away from her house when a migraine hit, she would not be able to function well enough to get herself home. In taking her history, she mentioned that she was estranged from some of her family members over a dispute that had been going on for years. As Mary was a professing Christian, we spent some of the session discussing the concept of forgiveness, and how God’s command for us to forgive those who wrong us is actually for our benefit.

LB-Forgiveness-2x1.jpg

Mary and I discussed how unfair it feels to let someone off the hook especially when we believe they are clearly in the wrong! I shared with her a quote someone once said that “unforgiveness is like drinking poison and thinking that it will hurt the other person.” Stated another way, it is akin to a man bitten by a rattlesnake who was so determined to kill the snake that he died before he could get to the hospital. Unforgiveness hurts us! Untended wounds and offenses lead to resentment that fertilizes bitterness and fuels hate. Holding on to an offense and thinking of ways to retaliate may give us a temporary sense of control and empowerment but it never brings resolution or reconciliation. At the extreme, disenfranchised people with strikingly similar histories of unresolved pain lash out to hurt others, and sadly, they populate increasing numbers of stories we see on the nightly news.

Often, the person who wounds us may not even know it, may not care, or perhaps has actually chosen to do harm, so we think, why forgive them?

“Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise up and walk’?" Luke 5:23

Many scientific studies now attest to the healing power of forgiveness and conversely, the stressful toll of harboring resentment on our emotional and physical health. Regardless of the other person’s stance or awareness of their wrongdoing, our choice to forgive ushers in the power of God to heal and transform our lives and the lives of others. When we decide to forgive, we surrender our right to personally retaliate and can then walk in freedom from the poison of resentment and its’ destructive consequences. Forgiveness is always the first step in restoring brokenness within ourselves and in our relationships.

How is it that Charleston did not become another Ferguson, Missouri or one of the many other cities since wracked with violence in the wake of massacres such as our own Emmanuel Nine tragedy? Dylann Roof has yet to express any regret for his horrific actions, and he may never do so. In the immediate aftermath of the mass murders, grieving family members of the victims made the radical choice to forgive, and in the outflow of their mercy toward the guilty, there was simply no place for hate to land. Riots did not occur, and an unprecedented outpouring of love vanquished racial divides.  A few faithful people unleashed the power of forgiveness into Charleston that literally was heard and recognized across much of the country and the world. What would happen if more of us decided to follow the example of these courageous families and chose to forgive the wrongs of others as a way of life?

So what happened with Mary?  She determined to practice forgiveness in her daily life. Shortly after our meeting, Mary began to run into people who had hurt or offended her over the years. She took the risk to choose to release them for wounding her, and asked their forgiveness for having harbored resentment in her heart against them. You see, if we have been hurt or offended enough to need to forgive someone, we have already sinned in our own reaction to them, and need forgiveness ourselves.

"And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you." Mark 11:24

A month later, I saw a different Mary in my office. Not only had she not suffered from a single headache since she purposed to forgive, but to her amazement, she had experienced a spontaneous physical release from a frozen shoulder that had plagued her for years, with no medical treatment! Mary joyfully moved her arm with full range of motion to demonstrate the unexpected physical healing.  She was also enjoying outings with friends - no longer imprisoned by her thoughts or in her home. The emotional and physical release that began in small acts of forgiveness encouraged and empowered her to begin to tackle the broken relationships in her family with real hope for future reconciliation.

Jesus’ work on the Cross ushers in the gift of forgiveness for every one of us. Once we receive that gift and offer it to others, we wield a mighty force that will transform us, our relationships, our communities, and the world.

Article also seen in September 2016 edition of The Carolina Compass