A Christian Counselor’s Perspective on Forgiveness
Part 1 of a 3-Part Series
Every one of us has been hurt by another person’s words or actions. Maybe your best friend forgot your birthday, your dad criticized your career path, you were bullied as a child, or your spouse had an affair. Whether it involves a big or small offense, it hurts to be wronged. We are all familiar with the gut-wrenching pain that strikes in the pit of our stomachs when we have been mistreated, especially by someone we love. This pain can leave behind emotional wounds of rejection, fear, betrayal, and insecurity. Just as a physical wound becomes infected if left unattended, so an emotional wound can become contaminated with feelings of resentment, bitterness, and revenge without the healing of forgiveness. Often, instead of choosing forgiveness, we drink the poison of unforgiveness. This is the first article in a three-part series forgiveness. It discusses the destruction that ensues when we allow unforgiveness to live inside of us.
What is Unforgiveness?
Unforgiveness is a state of emotional and mental distress that results from a delayed response in forgiving an offender. It is characterized by indignation, bitterness, and a demand for punishment or restitution. Unforgiveness creates a domino effect that negatively impacts every part of us, including our emotions, thoughts, behaviors, body, spirit, and relationships. With unforgiveness, time does not heal all wounds ̶ in fact, time further worsens and infects emotional pain. Unforgiveness is like carrying around a huge weight. The longer we carry a grudge, the heavier the burden becomes. In the absence of a timely response, the roots of unforgiveness only go deeper, further entangling us. In sum, feeding on unforgiveness is toxic.
Negative Effects of Unforgiveness
Hating someone is drinking poison and expecting the other person to die from it.
– Nelson Mandela
Unforgiveness creates an emotional storm of distress in which feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, insecurity, and fear surface. Unforgiveness also creates a hardened heart. The hardened heart feels anger, resentment, bitterness, and hatred toward the offender. Negative emotions come flooding back when you see the person who hurt you, or when you hear the person’s name. The offense may even have become all-consuming ̶ to the point where you have lost enjoyment in life and lack direction and purpose.
Unforgiveness takes up a lot of “mental space.” You replay the unfair situation over and over again. Like an old movie reel, you analyze each clip of the injustice. You may create speeches in your mind, detailing what you will say in a confrontation with the offender. Perhaps you daydream about how to get even. When we ruminate on offense, a snowball effect occurs. Not only do we dwell on the current offense, but we also start to unearth and review negative life experiences in the past. We start to feel trapped and consumed by our own negative thoughts, unable to get away from them.
Pain Becomes the Identity of the Unforgiving Person
Unforgiveness comes to affect your judgment and perspective because you view the world and yourself through the lens of hurt. You perceive every wrong you encounter as a personal offense against you. A sensitivity towards rejection starts to develop and you expect not only the offender, but also others, to dismiss you. Pain becomes the identity of the unforgiving person.
Unforgiveness affects our character and integrity as grudges do not bring out the best in us. You might complain and gossip to your friends about the person who offended you. You may start to exaggerate the details of the story, or even tell lies to gain sympathy and supporters. You might mock, accuse, or be quick to start a fight. Perhaps you give the offender the silent treatment, refusing to talk to them or holding them emotionally hostage with a cold attitude and harsh words. You might notice that you continually have thoughts of revenge, lack compassion, and enjoy the offender’s misfortunes.
Unforgiveness Spreads like Cancer
Unforgiveness cannot be contained but spreads like a cancer, affecting other relationships and situations. It strains all relationships. For example, your spouse or coworkers may be tired of hearing the same story over and over again, leading to an experience of loss in your close relationships. Your friends may avoid you because your bitter attitude is starting to repel them. Unforgiveness may have made you irritable, causing you to treat others poorly. It is hard to love others when we have hate in our hearts. Your feelings of distrust may make it difficult for you to connect with friends or family. You may start to withdraw from people in order to protect yourself from being hurt again.
Unforgiveness also compromises our physical health. Research has shown that unforgiveness is connected to high blood pressure, weakened immune systems, reduced sleep, chronic pain, and cardiovascular problems. Because unforgiveness hinders the body’s ability to heal, forgiveness exercises are now being included in cancer treatment plans for patients.
Unforgiveness Comes between You and God
Unforgiveness affects your spirit and your soul, hindering your spiritual growth and fruitfulness. You may feel spiritually dry, stuck, or stalled in your spiritual life. Unforgiveness builds a wall between you and God. Fear replaces peace and imprisonment replaces freedom. You may feel tormented by the injustice, but God feels far away. You may feel less sensitive to the Holy Spirit. You might even feel angry with God, which may cause you to avoid or run away from Him.
Christian Counseling to Break the Shackles of Unforgiveness
If you harbor unforgiveness, this means that you have been deeply hurt. Your pain should not be dismissed ̶ and it has not gone unnoticed by your Father in heaven. Christian counseling is a place where you can find your voice, tell your story, and discover the pain that has so deeply impacted your life. Trauma can make you forget your worth, but therapy can help you to reclaim your value. This pain no longer needs to traumatize you and the way out of the torment is forgiveness. Forgiveness is the key out of the emotional and mental prison. When you choose to forgive, you untie yourself from the shackles that connect you to the violator. This decision will enable you to begin the road to recovery. If you need help in processing your story of pain and learning to forgive, I would love to help you find freedom and peace again.
“Prisoners Catch the Nick,” courtesy of tiverylucky, FreeDigitalPhotos.net, ID 100299558; “Unhappy Young Woman.” courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, FreeDitigalPhotos.net, ID 100137119; “Silhouette of a Man,” courtesy of markuso, FreeDigitalPhotos.net, ID 10027894