Many of us know the Lord’s Prayer by heart and have recited countless times the phrase “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:9-13, NIV). Forgiveness is an integral part of living a life of faith, and we are called to forgive one another and to accept God’s forgiveness in our lives. As it turns out, researchers have examined forgiveness and concluded that its benefits are not only for the ones who are forgiven but especially for those who forgive. In fact, scientific studies suggest that those who readily forgive others experience better mental health and longevity. Here are some examples:
• After analyzing data from more than 1,200 people over the age of 25 who participated in the Religion, Aging, and Health Survey, researchers found that an attitude of forgiveness toward others is associated with a decreased risk for all-cause mortality. People in this group who forgave the most had less chance of dying from any cause compared to those who did not forgive.1
• In a study of young, middle-aged, and older adults, forgiving oneself was associated with less psychological distress (feeling nervous, restless, hopeless, worthless, and sad); however, this benefit was stronger for older adults (65 years old and older) than for younger ones (younger than 45 years old).
• In the same study, older adults who forgave others had higher scores of self-rated health than younger adults.
• In a study of more than 10,000 Seventh-day Adventists who suffered abuse or neglect as children or who witnessed abuse, those with the highest scores of forgiveness reported better mental health than those with low forgiveness scores.2
These studies tell us that there are age differences when it comes to forgiveness. Younger adults seem to engage in forgiving themselves, and they benefit from it with less psychological distress. Older adults tend to have higher scores in forgiving others and, as a result, they experience better self-rated health and have the strongest effect when compared to younger adults related to forgiving oneself and reduced psychological distress.
It is important to understand what forgiveness means in the above studies. Some people may think it is about reconciling with the offender or excusing someone’s bad behavior.3 However, forgiveness does not mean condoning, excusing, reconciling, or forgetting. The definition of forgiveness used by most researchers is “giving up one’s right to retribution and releasing or letting go of negative affect directed toward the offender.”4 When one forgives, one may never forget what happened, and forgiveness will not excuse the other’s behavior. Reconciliation is ideal but in some cases may not take place. That is okay. One may still forgive even if the trespasser is no longer alive. The benefits are real no matter what.
Nearly everyone has been hurt by someone else’s actions or words. But in holding grudges, we may be the ones who pay most dearly through higher levels of anxiety, hypertension, depression, substance abuse, and so on. On the other hand, “forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32, NKJV) is a much healthier response. God will lead you down the path of physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. Let’s embrace His forgiveness in our lives and offer this gift to others.
1 L. Toussaint, A. Owen, and A. Cheadle (2012). “Forgive to Live: Forgiveness, Health, and Longevity” in Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 35(4):375- 386.
2 K. Reinert, et al (in submission). “The Role of Religious Involvement in the Health Outcomes of Adventist Adults Survivors of Early Traumatic Stress” in Journal of Health Psychology.
3 T. W. Baskin and R. D. Enright (2004), “Intervention Studies on Forgiveness: A Meta-Analysis” in Journal of Counseling and Development. 82:79-90.
4 Toussaint, et al (2001). “Forgiveness and Health: Age Differences in a U.S. Probability Sample” in Journal of Adult Development, 8(4):249-257.
Katia Reinert is director of the Health Ministries Department for the North American Division.