Forgiveness is Good For Your Health
Growing up in Church praying “kyrie eleison,” I knew it intuitively. Forgiving another individual always felt good. Confessing anger and resentment was always a spiritual gift. It was, at the time, a very private thing, more personal than public, more redeeming than rhetoric.
Today, forgiveness is less religiously hardwired. Scriptures address it, Pope Francis has elevated it in his declaration of the Year of Mercy, and our priests and ministers give it a proper amount of air time from the pulpit. The Pope’s call is to make mercy and forgiveness a living evidence that the Church’s mission is to be a witness to compassion. His emphasis on mercy and forgiveness is well-timed and welcome for a culture in search of meaning. But did you know that forgiveness is also an evidenced practice for good health?
Your physician does. Doctors see the impact of refusing to forgive in a patient’s stress, elevated blood pressure and in many self-destructive behaviors. The carrying around of anger and hurt is just not good for the well-being of your soul or the health of your body.
More than 20 years ago, the World Health Organization, generally seen as the global authority for matters of health and disease, reported that “health professionals have the duty, if not obligation, to inform others of the health consequences of hatred, bigotry, and anger and to urge them to tolerance and reconciliation.” That sounds as much spiritual as it does medical.
Since 1980, over 1200 studies have been undertaken by a critical mass of researchers in the arena of spirituality and health. All but 128 studies have pointed favorably to the positive impact of one’s spirituality on one’s health. Some of them have been published in the Journals of Behavioral Medicine, the Journal of Personal Relationships, and the Journal of Health Psychology. Each demonstrates the coping and emotional value of forgiveness in lowering blood pressure and protecting against the negative effects of stress on mental health.
Finally, a recent study by the Fetzer Institute found that 62 percent of American adults say they need more forgiveness in their lives.
At Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in Colorado Springs, a Spiritual Well Being survey offered to area churches as part of the Healthy Church Initiative seeks to identify what issues might be affecting the health of its church members, physically and spiritually.
A summary from 18 congregations, with over 4500 participants, reveals that forgiveness and acceptance are currently major issues for their congregations. In response to a question about social conditions that most impact their health, 20 percent chose “fractured relationship” and over 30 percent identified feelings of inadequacy/trying to live up to the expectations of others as most impacting their health.
These fractured relationships and feelings of inadequacy are often associated with a lack of forgiveness, either from others or themselves. In fact, in response to the question “the best medicine of my soul would be . . .” 23 percent chose forgiveness. Are the implications significant? YES. So what can you do?
The answer does not require a provider visit or diagnosis, or a prescription, not even a trip to a Walgreens for anything over the counter. It simply requires the admission of one’s humanity, both proud and fragile, and the reality of a God who repeatedly picks us up and hits the “start over button” again and again. In the mandate of Ephesians 4, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgives you in Christ.”
It is no longer the time to stand against, but to stand together with health professionals everywhere. In the words of the late theologian Tom Droege, “Studies in body-mind interaction too numerous to ignore are forcing medical students to reconsider the adequacy of the biomedical model that has for so long dictated both theory and practice. At the same time, studies lifting up the “faith factor” in healing make it clear that religion has reason to reclaim its ancient heritage of healing both body and soul.”
In moving forward toward forgiveness, a few learnings are humbly offered:
1) Forgiveness does not mean denying our hurt. Forgiving someone accompanies the acknowledgement of the hurt and the pain it caused.
2) Authentic forgiveness is more than an intellectual experience. It is a spiritual and emotional act.
3) Forgiveness is not conditioned by the response or change of the individual who violated our trust. It comes without conditions.
4) Forgive the person while acknowledging that some acts are inherently inexcusable. By their nature, wounds often hold us hostage and may never be completely forgotten.
5) Forgiving is not always forgetting. Some acts hold lessons to learn from and build upon.
6) Don’t forget to forgive yourself. We all make mistakes. We all live with some need for redemption.
Choose to forgive — and choose to be healthy.
(Lawrence G. Seidl is Group Vice President of Mission & Ministry, Centura Health, Penrose-St. Francis Health Services)