Top 5 Powers of Forgiveness

What to Know About Forgiveness

What Is Forgiveness?

Other than a keyword in the chorus to Don Henley’s 1989 classic, “The Heart of the Matter,” forgiveness is also one of the most powerful abilities humans possess. We are capable of so much because of the way God made us. In His image, we are able to reflect His heart and his qualities. His power to forgive is infinite and unwavering, and while it may be far more difficult and complicated for us, in forgiveness I see the divine in humanity, feel connected to my faith, and trust that God knew exactly what He was doing when he designed us. Because of God’s love, our hearts are capable of so much–letting go of anger, freeing ourselves from the past, believing in second chances, and even hope.

Forgiveness is more than we were taught on the playground. For a long time I thought of forgiveness as one of two things.

1. Big forgiveness = The forgiveness in the Bible, when God opts not to smite someone for breaking a rule or when Jesus dies on the cross for the sins of all mankind for eternity.

2. Little forgiveness = When the teacher says to one kid, “Say you’re sorry,” then waits expectantly with eyebrows raised for the other kid to say, “It’s okay.” Little forgiveness is always followed by a forced hug, a waste of precious seconds of recess.

But forgiveness is not just our ticket out of Hell or the fastest way to get back to the jungle gym. It’s, frankly, a thing of great power.

What Can Forgiveness Really Do?

There are more ways that forgiveness benefits us than we have time to chat about, but here are some of my favorites.

1. Decreases stress. When you’re carrying around negative feelings about someone and something they did, it’s not fun. Every time you think about it, your brain clocks that as stress. Getting to a place where you can move forward reduces that feeling of stress. Less stress, studies show, improves our lives by a lot.

2. Improves mental health. See above! When you cut down on stressors, your mind doesn’t have to overcome as much to maintain a healthy perspective. Research shows that having a mindset of forgiveness leads to an increase in your perception of positive experiences, feeling more in tune with your spirituality and mental well-being, and even finding or sensing your purpose in life.

3. Is empowering. When you forgive, you are saying, “This offense no longer has power over me, because my heart and mind are stronger than that.” When you realize that you don’t have to be held down by the past anymore, that you are capable of moving forward despite what others have done, it can feel incredibly powerful.

4. Is relieving. When you’re still in the pain, hurt, and anger stage, it can get exhausting to carry the weight of the other person’s actions every minute of every day. When you forgive you become free of that. You get to drop it--it’s not your job but theirs to worry about what they’ve done. If you’re having trouble letting go, it’s okay to ask for help. Talking to a friend or therapist can be helpful. You can also try asking God, “Hey, I’m pooped but I’m not ready to let go all the way… could you just hold onto my worries for a minute while I take a nap?” You’ll feel lighter, and that will give you the energy to figure out what’s next.

5. Gives us a fresh start. Sometimes we get stuck. You get the idea in your head that you can’t do XYZ because of the past. Maybe you think, “I would never want to be a parent,” because you’re in too much pain from your parents’ mistakes to even imagine that possibility. Maybe you think, “I can’t go to school because then I’ll see her, and I’ll feel shame.” Maybe you think, “I can’t have a healthy relationship because I’m too messed up from my last one.” Forgiveness turns the page. No matter what’s written in the previous chapters of your life, today’s page is clean and uninfluenced by what’s come before.

What About the What-Ifs?

Knowing the power of forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re automatically prepared to forgive. There’s a lot that goes into the decision to forgive, and it’s fair to have questions or concerns.

  • What if I’m not ready to forgive?
    • This is not a race! While it’s true that the sooner you forgive, the sooner you’ll feel those benefits, you also can’t force yourself to forgive before you’re ready. If not today, perhaps tomorrow.
  • What if the other person isn’t sorry?
    • Remember that your forgiveness isn’t just about them. You don’t even have to tell them they’re forgiven to forgive them. The practice of forgiveness is also about you letting go of the past and releasing the burden of your pain so that you can move on. You don’t deserve to sit in discomfort, twiddling your thumbs until they ask for forgiveness. If they ever get around to saying sorry, you can tell them you’re way ahead of them.
  • What if the offense is unforgivable?
    • Again, take your time. When you are still feeling great hurt, grief, and anger from the offense someone else committed, it’s almost a guarantee that forgiving them feels unimaginable. Again, you don’t have to do it today, or even this decade. Remind yourself that forgiveness is ultimately about you, not the other person. When you focus on the emotional benefits you’ll be receiving from forgiving them, it may start to become conceivable that you can forgive.
  • What if I’m no longer in contact with the other person?
    • Again, forgiveness is more about your heart than theirs. If it’s possible or healthy to have a conversation with them, that could be healing for both of you, but that is not a deal breaking ingredient of forgiveness. Whether the other person has passed away, moved away, or you’ve decided to cut off contact, you can still forgive. 
  • What if I try to forgive, and it doesn’t work?
    • Forgiveness is a journey. It doesn’t happen overnight. Some even refer to forgiveness as a “practice.” Similar to a gratitude practice, practicing forgiveness strengthens your forgiveness “muscle” over time. The more you practice, the more forgiving your mindset. If you find yourself slipping back into anger or pain due to someone you thought you’d forgiven, go easy on yourself. Practice forgiving today. At first, you may have to forgive someone every day, hour, or even minute if that is what it takes. 
  • What if the person I need to forgive is myself?
    • We’ve all made mistakes and hurt people we love. Sometimes we may get the chance to hear them say, “I forgive you.” Other times, that won’t be possible. Even if you get to ask for their forgiveness and receive it, you’ll still need to forgive yourself so that you don’t become weighed down by shame.

Forgiving Doesn’t Have to Mean Forgetting

Sometimes, even after forgiveness, nothing will ever be the same between you and the other person. You can release the emotional burden of the pain they caused you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t set new boundaries with that person based on their behavior. For instance, you can forgive someone and break up with them. You can forgive someone and go zero-contact with them. You can forgive someone and choose not to hang out with them anymore. In an article for VeryWellMind, Elizabeth Scott, PhD says, “Think of taking your hand away from a hot burner on the stove—it remains hot, but you move away from it for your own safety.” You don’t have to hold a grudge against the stove, but you also don’t have to touch that burner anymore.

If you’re struggling with the idea of forgiving someone, remember that it doesn’t need to happen overnight. It also helps to remember times when you have been forgiven. Remember when your mom forgave you for forgetting to take out the trash? Or when you totally forgot it was your sister’s birthday? You are loved despite your mistakes, and nobody demonstrates that better than Jesus. Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” The HopeLine has resources that can help you explore this further, and their Hope Coaches are always here to chat about HOW to forgive. I also highly recommend checking out India Arie’s 2006 version of “The Heart of the Matter” after you listen to Henley’s–pure gold, both of them.

- Cara Beth

Forgiveness can be tough to navigate, especially with so many opinions and emotions at play. Read about what forgiveness is and is not for more help with forgiveness.

Cara Beth Graebner
Cara Beth Graebner is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago, Illinois. With a degree in creative writing from the College of Charleston and a Master of Fine Arts in Playwriting from Western Michigan University, she's been living by her pen for many years. She loves the way words come together to bring light into dark places, which is the goal of every piece she writes for TheHopeLine and other clients. When she's not writing, she's probably snuggling her 2-year-old pup, reading a book, or gardening.
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