The Scientific Case for Forgiveness
September 3, 2015
People call me Science Mike. Christian turned atheist turned Jesus follower. Spiritual & skeptical. I roll with @TheLiturgists. Host of @asksciencemike.
The Bible makes me think Jesus was obsessed with forgiveness. He never stopped talking about the need to forgive others. His parables spoke of a God who was forgiving, and expected His creations to be forgiving as well.
Jesus portrayed forgiving others as essential to living life abundantly.
Jesus and science are in complete agreement on that matter, as studies have given scientific evidence for many of the things the Bible tells us about forgiving others.
When You Forgive, You Heal Faster
Scientists have found that victims of severe abuse who forgive their abuser receive measurable improvements in psychological and physical health. When compared to control groups, the forgivers healed faster and more completely.
But there's a catch—forgiveness isn't a one-time, leave-it-all-behind moment. It's a continual process.
Specific techniques vary across practitioners, but the basic model is the same. Scientists shows us that our brains can't forgive people who've hurt us until we grieve the pain we've experienced, work to understand the perspective of our abuser, decide to forgive them and then work toward some level of acceptance or compassion toward the one who wounded us.
You can't forgive and forget—our brains don't work that way. You can only learn to move on without wishing harm on the one who harmed you.
Unforgiveness Physically Limits You
Have you ever been hurt so badly by someone that you can't stop thinking about them? People who've hurt us live in our heads rent-free, showing up in our mind's eye when we have coffee with friends, enjoy nature or spend time with our family.
Sadly, research suggests that holding a grudge against one who wounded us doesn't affect them, but instead impairs us. This impairment can manifest itself in surprising ways.
Ruminating over the one who hurt us takes cognitive energy, and affects our brains and bodies. It raises the levels of stress hormones in our bloodstream, and can elevate our blood pressure and contribute to weight gain. It even affects our ability to focus and form new memories.
Holding onto hurt creates a fog around your mind and a weight on your body. This is less of a metaphor than you'd think, because in one study scientists found that people could actually jump higher after consciously forgiving someone. Another study showed that people who thought about a grudge viewed physical tasks are more demanding.
When we don't forgive others, we put ourselves in mental, emotional and physical bondage. The person who hurt us may have put us in a cage, but we're the only ones who can set ourselves free.
Forgiving Doesn't Mean You Accept Further Harm
Studies have show that forgiveness is effective and beneficial even in the most severe cases of abuse, trauma, oppression and neglect. Both our faith and modern science emphasize the importance of forgiving others for transgressions—no matter how badly we were hurt.
But, it's important to define forgiveness well. Forgiveness is accepting what happened and moving on without wishing harm on the one who hurt you. It is not placing yourself in situations where you will continue to be hurt or abused. You can forgive someone and still maintain necessary boundaries in a relationship. In cases of severe abuse, that boundary may need to be no further contact.
When Jesus spoke of "turning the other cheek" to an "evil one," those words weren't just an admonishment to non-violence. Jesus quoted the law, and then described radical submission to possible legal interpretations. This approach revealed personal and systemic brutality for what it was, be it physical, economic or legal.
"Turning the other cheek" is not an admonishment to stay in an abusive situation.
As science shows, it’s good for you to forgive an abusive parent or spouse. It's freeing to let go of resentment toward an unhealthy friendship, but there's no nobility in allowing those patterns to continue. In cases of persistent abuse, the best way to forgive someone is to walk away.