Franciscan Spirit Blog

Free Yourself by Forgiving

Letters that read let it go | Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

In the stillness, when the silence seems mystical and we are by ourselves in a comforting place, we can sometimes hear the whispers of higher things. One of these is forgiveness. But make no mistake: although its voice is soft, forgiveness brings us power and strength beyond comprehension.

There are many who think forgiveness is a sign of weakness. But nothing is further from the truth! This quality comes from a highly evolved soul—one that knows we can pardon others’ hurtful behavior while removing ourselves from additional suffering.

Forgiveness is basic to the heart of Christianity. In a very real sense, our willingness to forgive reflects the quality and depth of our connection to a loving God.

Healing the Pain of Anger

Everett L. Worthington Jr., PhD, a psychology professor and author who has dedicated his career to the study of forgiveness, writes, “Forgiveness isn’t just practiced by saints or martyrs, nor does it benefit only its recipients. Instead, studies are finding connections between forgiveness and physical, mental, and spiritual health, and evidence that it plays a key role in the health of families, communities, and nations.”

In fact, according to Mayo Clinic experts, forgiveness results in healthier relationships, greater spiritual and psychological well-being, and less anxiety, stress, and hostility. It can also lead to lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, improved heart health, and higher self-esteem.

Forgiveness is within every person’s reach, but it is impossible to experience forgiveness without some willingness on our part to embrace it. In other words, to forgive is a choice, and some of us need to go through the pain of not forgiving before we’re ready for its healing effect.

Why is it painful not to forgive? Because without forgiveness, hatred keeps us bound to the things we loathe. We see the sad effects everywhere: conflicts over territory in the Middle East, hate crimes committed against racial minorities, feuds within our own families.

We give up our power to whatever we hate. Hate also breeds retaliation, causing injury, destruction, sorrow, and more hatred. Anger only leads to more of the same, and entire lifetimes can pass beneath this dark cloud of negativity.

Unlike the gentle tones of forgiveness, the voices of hatred, vengeance, and bitterness are loud and adamant, noisily grabbing our attention with promises of immediate gratification and causing us to say and do things we feel guilty about later on. Who of us hasn’t given in to reacting to others when they do or say something upsetting?

Without even thinking about it, sometimes we shout out harsh retorts or sarcastic comments when we’re provoked. Unfortunately, acting out our anger sometimes yields shortterm rewards, such as a false sense of power and superiority. Bullying, too, can also make us feel mighty and in control. Certainly, we can think of people in our lives who misguidedly become so focused on directing and manipulating others that their rigidity and self-centeredness overshadow the importance of treating others with humanity.

In its extreme form, intense anger demonstrated by tantrums, yelling, and physical aggression can be a physiological stimulant that accelerates our heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension. These sensations can actually be a “high” to some, who unconsciously look for a fix again and again.

Antagonism can take up so much of our time and emotional energy that it becomes a distraction from dealing with other less compelling feelings and problems. Things we might unconsciously wish to avoid are those non-glamorous aspects of being human, such as fear of close relationships, anxiety in social situations, lack of motivation, and feelings of failure.

Working to Forgive

Forgiveness is rooted in healthy self-love. To find it, we must turn our attention inward instead of outward. Besides being willing to forgive, we sometimes have to work on changing our attitudes. Depending on how gravely we feel someone has injured us, this process can take time. The good news is that if we persist, we will always succeed in forgiving.

Even if we can’t forgive someone right away, we’ll feel better by taking small steps. The process of forgiving is like opening a window inside a stuffy room. Just cracking it open a little lets in cool, fresh air.

Popular syndicated columnist and author Sidney J. Harris wrote: “It’s surprising how many persons go through life without ever recognizing that their feelings toward other people are largely determined by their feelings toward themselves, and if you’re not comfortable within yourself, you can’t be comfortable with others.”

Harris was acknowledging that forgiving others is difficult or impossible until we have learned to forgive ourselves, because our attitudes toward others and the world are inseparably bound to our feelings of self-worth.

What is it in ourselves that needs forgiving? The answer will be different for each one of us. It may be time for honesty. What are the things about yourself that have been harmful to others? Come clean about these things. Write and talk about them, take responsibility for them, and make amends if needed.

A simple example might be reacting with outrage toward someone who hit your new car. However, if you have hit someone accidentally in the past, it may be easier to understand and forgive that person. Or perhaps you’ve been overly critical of subordinates you manage on the job, but now you find yourself resentful toward a boss who is complaining about your work.

It is much more likely that you’ll regard your boss with compassion if you’ve taken responsibility for hurting others with this same behavior. Through daily experiences like these, we can develop the healing quality of empathy, which paves the way for kindness and forgiveness.

Keep in mind that facing some of our less admirable characteristics is a direct hit to our egos, and developing humility is far from an overnight pursuit. This is a process, so it is important to be gentle with yourself along the way. In many cases, it is ourselves to whom we owe the greatest amends.

Another benefit of examining and taking responsibility for our own characteristics— positive or negative—is that we become better able to take care of our needs rather than expect or wait for someone else to do this for us. When we have unreasonable expectations of others, we are usually disappointed at some point, setting the stage for anger and resentment.

Maybe your kids forgot to acknowledge your birthday, or your best friend is preoccupied and doesn’t call. You could spend the day stewing about being slighted, or you could spend that time doing something positive for yourself!

In certain cases, anger can be deep and longlasting. To finally reach the place where we’re ready to forgive can take a long time, but feeling years of bitterness melt away is nothing less than a life-transforming event.

The toughest part is to develop more love and acceptance of yourself. When you do, the ability to forgive others comes naturally. And though we will still get caught up in resentments, there are tools we can practice to move past them more quickly.

One thing you might try the next time you get mired in anger is to pray. Practicing this whenever negativity overwhelms us, we’ll find that these feelings loosen up and disappear after a while.

Spiritual Help Is Limitless

Eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope said, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” In these few words, Pope expressed that the act of forgiving requires more than just our mortal ability. As human beings, we make mistakes and hurt each other. That’s where the anger and hate come from in the first place.

Without something more powerful than our own limited mental and emotional capacities, we frequently aren’t able to forget or let go of that which has caused us pain. This is why we must reach out for spiritual help. Once we do, we are ultimately granted the strength to forgive.

Our faith endows us with an awareness of God as our source. We put that faith into action when we ask God for the ability to forgive. Many profess to believe in God without truly understanding the two truths most critical for spiritual growth: God has infinite power over the world and every single one of its troubles, and God is a loving force that cares about us deeply as individuals.

We have confidence that God will help us to attain stronger love and forgiveness, which are repeated as major themes in Scripture: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, . . . as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection” (Col 3:12-14).

The capacity for love and forgiveness is something most of us are born with. Soon, however, life, people, and painful circumstances begin chipping away at us, teaching us to fear and to build protective shells around our core. If we didn’t have to create these insulating layers between ourselves and the world, we would all be free to trust, love, and forgive each other.

Perhaps the true challenge and goal of our lives is to find our way back through all that accumulated defensiveness and hatred to reconnect with our whole, authentic, and forgiving selves. Seen in this way, the return journey is worth every step we make in that direction.

Ways to Find Forgiveness

Give yourself time. We all need a period of time following a conflict to allow our emotions to cool down. Time gives us the gift of perspective and the opportunity to choose a better response—or perhaps no response—to any situation.

Feel your feelings. We should acknowledge and honor each of our emotions—even the most uncomfortable ones such as disappointment, anger, hatred, and desire to retaliate.

Ask for help. If we have difficulty letting go of negative feelings, it’s always good to reach out to other people whom we trust to share those feelings. Above all, ask for help from God, the ultimate source of forgiveness.

Take responsibility. Look for your role in any conflict. Make appropriate amends for any wrongdoing on your part.

Do a good deed. Nothing helps our outlook more than doing something kind for someone else, particularly for someone who has wronged us. Try doing something good for them—perhaps without even telling them about it—or simply hold them in your prayers.

Shift the focus. It is good practice to find a few positive attributes of the person who has wronged us. Making lists of all the things in our lives for which we are grateful is never a waste of time.

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