We are each born with high value standards, one of which is the need to forgive when we take offense. The failure to forgive constitutes a tremendous stress on us which can result in very real health problems. Other methods of coping with stress such as relaxation, hobbies, and exercise overlook this fundamental truth. While they may help us feel better on a temporary, limited basis, any approach which neglects forgiveness cannot be fully effective at eliminating stress and is at best a distraction or cover-up.
I confess that when I first heard this, it bothered me. I had been a grudge-holder most of my life. The concept of ‘unearned forgiveness’ went against my grain. It felt like I was doing something nice for people who didn’t deserve it — as if I was saying, “It doesn’t matter what you did to me or whether you’ll do it again. Let’s be friends.” But that’s not what forgiveness is. Here’s how I explain it to clients:
When something offends us – when it hurts our feelings or make us angry – we have the choice whether or not to take offense. It happens so fast, so reflexively, that we may not even realize we have a choice but we do. And most often we choose to take offense.
Once we’ve taken offense, our first response is usually to retaliate or ‘get even.’ We tell the other person off, we get physical, exclude them socially, sue them, gossip about them, and so forth. We think it will make us feel better to see “justice” done, but surprisingly, retaliation makes us feel worse. The reason is that it’s beneath our innate value standards to return evil for evil, and living beneath our value standards is always stressful.
Some people are not retaliators by nature. Instead, when they get offended, they “swallow it” and do nothing outwardly. But instead of forgiving and forgetting, they think about it over and over again and it festers inside them, sometimes to the point of causing very serious physical health problems.
There’s a third option for dealing with offense that few of us even consider: forgiveness. We have a lot of trouble with forgiveness because we don’t understand what it means. We think it means letting someone get away with something as opposed to justice being done. or condoning wrongdoing, or giving a free pass to hurt us again. This is NOT what forgiveness is.
Forgiveness is not a justice process. It is simply the act of allowing the offender the free agency to be less than perfect and letting the Lord be the judge. It’s letting go and not internalizing the negativity.
Often we hold onto our anger or hurt because we think it somehow punishes the offender, as if our negative feelings had any impact at all on him at all. The truth is, we’re the ones hurt by those feelings, not him, which is why we benefit from forgiving. As discussed above, we are born with a value standard that requires us to forgive when offense is taken. We cannot discard or lower that standard; our only two choices are to live up to it and feel at peace, or live beneath it and feel stress. Forgiveness enables us to put the issue to rest and prevent the negativity from causing problems for us.
Forgiveness does not change the fact that the offender will stand accountable for his actions in the final analysis, just as we will for ours. Justice will inevitably be served, but not necessarily by us or on our timetable.
Forgiveness does not mean we have to like the people who’ve hurt us, or choose to socialize with them. Nor does it require us to put ourselves in the position of letting them hurt us again. It doesn’t mean that we can’t hold them responsible to remedy the damage they’ve done, when appropriate. It doesn’t mean we can’t pursue justice through appropriate channels, even legal means if the situation warrants it. Suing for revenge, however, as opposed to for justice, or pursuing revenge in any other fashion would be inconsistent with forgiveness.
Often, the person we find it hardest to forgive is our self. In fact, when the need to forgive oneself shows up during the Stress Evaluation, it often come as a surprise to the client. Subconsciously, we seem to feel that if we make ourselves suffer enough, we can “pay” for our wrongdoing, which is impossible. In any case, the same principle applies to offenses we commit against our self as to those committed by others: the failure to forgive is stressful to us.
One of the most useful aspects of Graf Stress Management its clarification of whom we need to forgive and exactly what for, which are not always clear to our rational minds. In particular, when a lot of time has elapsed since the offense, we may not even realize that stress remains and needs to be resolved. Even in the case of recent events, what we think offended us may not be what actually offended us, according to our intelligence.
Again and again we see that nothing brings more peace of mind and relief from overwhelming, debilitating stress than the simple, humble tool of forgiveness. When properly applied where needed, it can result in dramatic physical and mental healing as well as peace of mind and increased energy levels.