Over the years, many of my patients have evidenced how dearly the hanging onto an old grudge has cost them. It seems that lack of forgiveness for emotional wounds accelerates the aging process.
In fact, it has been well said that holding onto and old grudge is like drinking poison to make your enemy sick.
Common examples of grudge inducing scenarios include traumatic sexual experiences, abusive parenting, abandonment, or the damage resulting from irresponsible behavior, such as a drunk driver. The bitterness that results from such painful life episodes can keep the wounded from fully engaging in relationships. This results in loneliness, distancing within families, and emotional trauma.
No one questions the benefits of resolving old disputes or getting beyond old feelings of hurt and their life robbing consequences, but such action can be very difficult for the one who has been wounded. This is partly from a lack of understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, and what it actually entails.
Many people wrongly assume that forgiveness somehow condones the hurtful action, or lets the perpetrator off the hook, or means that everything is now ok with the wounded person.
This is not the case.
Forgiveness is not denying or minimizing the hurt, and it is not forgetting that you were wounded. It certainly is not excusing the bad behavior, nor is it allowing the offender to escape the just consequences of his action.
In contrast to these often mistaken beliefs, forgiveness is actually more for the benefit of the wounded than the offender. Forgiveness brings about our own healing.
If you have an emotional wound from someone who hurt you, consider the following questions.
• When did it happen?
• What is it costing you in relationships now?
• Do you think it is impacting your emotional or physical health?
Many people hold onto old hurts for years after the event, and often long after the offender has gone out of their life. Is this true for you? Then consider this: the offender had power over you then. Are you giving it to him now? Would you like to take back the power over your own life and relationships?
The path to healing old wounds is forgiveness.
As cruel as it may sound, wallowing in victimhood and receiving sympathy may feel sickly warm and comforting, but it will not bring healing or a return to a full life.
So, how do we forgive?
First, think about what you would like to have changed. It is a good idea to communicate with God about the results you want before proceeding.
Having done this, it is also a good idea to reduce some of the emotional intensity associated with the traumatic event. A study by the Mayo Clinic showed that this can often be done with the following exercise: Write about the hurtful event for as long as it takes, not stopping to pay attention to correct punctuation or spelling. Just keep writing until you feel you have completely told all that happened, including how you felt afterwards and how you feel about it now.
Another useful exercise is writing a letter to the perpetrator. This is not to be mailed, but to express all of your negative feelings about what happened.
If neither of these avenues seems to reduce the intensity of your feelings, you may need to seek professional counseling. Many larger churches now offer this.
It is worth noting that the Bible speaks frequently of God’s forgiveness. This continuous mention of forgiveness throughout scripture is tied to the idea that as God forgives us, so should we imitate him by forgiving others. This is difficult, if not impossible, without God’s help, and may require a lot of time and prayer, but the health benefits are worth it.
I close with the words of a Jewish concentration camp survivor, who later became a Christian: “Go forgive a Nazi…how can you? You can’t. Only in Jesus…only through him can you forgive. And I’m saying to the people, ‘Be selfish. Forgive and get healed.’ Because, you see, when you don’t forgive, and you keep the bitterness in you, and you keep the unforgiveness, you are with the people you don’t forgive in the same cell, in the same jail. But when you forgive, so the Lord puts you aside, and he deals with the people who have hurt you, and believe me, his vengeance is much more severe than what you could do!”