REACH for Forgiveness
Getting hurt by others is a part of living and loving. Nobody is perfect, and at one point or another, somebody else’s imperfection is going to swing in your direction. Interpersonal pain has the potential to be the most excruciating type of pain out there, and it’s easy to dwell on the wrongs others have committed against us. Some people have deep wounds caused by terrible events that have inflicted serious and long-term damage. Trauma is nothing to minimize and will often take more time and work than other wounds to heal.
Still, no matter how deep the wound inflicted on us by someone else, research suggests that we make matters worse for ourselves when we hold on to our hurts and choose not to forgive those who have offended us. Though forgiveness is a difficult variable to test because it is primarily a spiritual virtue with no concrete definition, scientific studies have attempted to deduce the benefits and detriments of replacing (or not replacing) anger and vengeance with positive (or neutral) feelings toward a transgressor. What those studies have proposed is that, both physically and mentally, unforgiveness is detrimental to our health due to the stress response it triggers in our bodies. Middle-aged individuals that ruminate on past hurts have, on average, higher blood pressure, more heart problems, and higher incidences of depression and anxiety than their forgiving peers. Conversely, in one small study tracking anger and heart health, those that took a class on forgiveness reported less anger and better myocardial function at follow-up than their counterparts that did not attend the class. Those that make a habit of forgiveness also report greater satisfaction with life.
At this point, you may be thinking, “So what? If I knew how to forgive, I might try it. If I could, I would.” Nobody is saying forgiveness is easy. Even small slights and minute injustices can be difficult to surmount, not to mention extreme hurts and repulsive wrongs. How then, do we begin the journey back to peace when our wounds are still gaping?
His 76 year-old mother was murdered
Everett Worthington, Jr. is one of several pioneers in forgiveness research. He had been scientifically studying the role of forgiveness in health and relationships for six years when he found out his elderly mother was violently killed by an intruder to her home. Worthington reported to the Los Angeles Times that he was grateful to have studied forgiveness for so long before having to personally experience and put into practice what he had learned. While coming to terms with a wrong committed against us is nearly always easier said than done, Worthington produced a 5-step model for forgiveness that may help us in our quest to free ourselves and one another from the burden of unforgiveness. It even comes in an easy to remember acronym:
REACH for Forgiveness
- Recall the hurt. To forgive, we need to remember how we were wronged. Decide to look at the problem realistically and admit the pain it caused. Talk with somebody you trust and grieve what you have lost. Ask yourself if you are ready to forgive. If so, make the decision to move to step two.
- Empathize with the aggressor. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If it helps, imagine yourself talking with the other person about how they hurt you. In return, imagine the other person talking to you about why they may have chosen/acted to harm you in the way they did. If you can’t empathize with the other person, perhaps you will find yourself feeling more sympathy, compassion, or love toward them.
- Altruistic gift. Remember a time when you wronged someone and experienced forgiveness, and remember how you felt when you received that forgiveness. Perhaps it was a co-worker, spouse, or friend that chose to forgive. Perhaps it was Jesus on the cross. Even though the person that hurt you may not “deserve” forgiveness, choose to give the same gift that you have previously received to the person who has wronged you.
- Commit to forgiveness. Once you’ve decided to forgive, write a note or journal entry to solidify your choice. It can be as simple as, “Today, I forgave _____ for _____.” Alternately, telling a trusted support person that you forgave can reinforce your commitment.
- Hold on to forgiveness. When old memories creep up, we may be tempted to question whether we really did forgive. When these moments happen, we can reread the note we wrote to ourselves or talk to the support person we trust.
(For more information on this forgiveness model, explore here.)
What forgiveness is NOT
Some people speak ill of forgiveness because they see it as a band-aid for painful memories or a way to sweep legitimate injustices under the rug. If we talk about what forgiveness is, a conversation about what forgiveness is not is just as important. Forgiveness is not:
- A call to reconcile. In some cases, like in healthy marriages, reconciliation will naturally follow forgiveness. However, in other cases, reconciliation is neither helpful nor appropriate. We can still forgive even if we never speak to the offender again.
- Letting the other person “off the hook.” Forgiving and forgetting are not the same. For example, forgiving a murderer does not mean dropping all formal legal charges against him (or her). Consequences follow actions, and everybody can expect to be held accountable for their behavior.
- A virtue to be forced. We can choose to forgive, but we cannot force ourselves to get to a point of forgiveness before we are ready. Otherwise, on top of harboring anger toward our aggressor, we may end up feeling guilty or shameful for our seeming inability to “do as we ought.” Genuine forgiveness comes from a heart that is willing to hand over the hurt it feels. Nobody expects that to happen over night.
Forgiveness may seem like an upside-down concept. Why should we offer kindness to somebody else when we have not received similar kindness from them? One of the most beautiful (and most difficult!) aspects of belief in God is that our model for action is not found in this world. We have a different model to follow – the model of Christ. In several places, Scripture describes God as merciful, gracious, and forgiving – slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:31; Psalm 86:5). Because we have experienced this love and mercy in unending proportions, we are able to give it to others. As Ephesians 4:32 states: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” This doesn’t mean forgiveness will all of a sudden become easy, but it does mean that the grace we have received is more than enough to fill our empty spaces and overflow into the lives of others.