What’s at the Core of Forgiveness?

Why is forgiveness important? This author discusses the benefits of forgiving others.

Forgiveness is good for you. According to the Mayo Clinic, it can lead to improved self-esteem, a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, less anxiety and stress, fewer symptoms of depression, and improved mental health. 

Anyone who has held a long-term grudge or experienced resentment or bitterness as a relationship has fallen apart, whether over seemingly trivial matters or deeply harmful actions, knows the costs of being unable to forgive. We know what an obstacle it is to our flourishing and freedom. It can consume our thoughts, wreak havoc on our bodies, torment our emotions, and weigh heavily on our souls. 

For those who have been willing and able to choose forgiveness, we know how freeing and radically transformative it can be. And that should tell us something. But it isn’t just for our own benefit — and it shouldn’t only be motivated by that.

Forgiveness cannot simply be about self-interest. 

If forgiveness is viewed exclusively through the prism of self-help and motivated by the desire for greater individual autonomy and pleasure, it loses its true essence.

Forgiveness at its core is about living in the right relationship with others. Other people can never be incidental, mere instruments for our individual well-being. They too have hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. When we forget or ignore this — and that our flourishing is tied up in the flourishing of others — we may engage in actions that seem sensible but that are actually harmful and ultimately frustrate our deepest desires. 

Forgiveness is a manifestation of genuine love.

Human beings are social by nature. When our relationships or communities are riven with enmity, we all suffer. Conversely, communities flourish when solidarity is present — and solidarity is rooted in love. 

We have a natural impulse to value solidarity, seek communion, and embrace love. But this can be quickly discarded when we are hurt, we feel too vulnerable, or we are worried someone is taking advantage of our good will. 

And the reality is that those who forgive others are at times vulnerable to these things. Perfect communion is not present in this world, so love leaves us exposed. But what is forgiveness without love?  Real forgiveness necessarily entails willing the good of the other. So to love inevitably means to forgive, which means to be vulnerable. 

Forgiveness is a choice — one we’re called to make again and again.

When we have been slighted in a small way (and perhaps overreacted), it can be hard to recognize our own complicity or how our own ego has made things worse. It takes humility to accept these things — and to recognize our own desperate need for mercy and forgiveness. The older we get, the more apparent it should be how often we harm others — whether intentionally or not. To restore relationships, we need to be forgiven. And recognizing that should help us to realize that this is true for everyone. We all stumble, we all fail. Only love and forgiveness have the potential to restore what was broken.    

When someone has harmed us in a serious way, the challenges are greater still. Other natural impulses seem to frequently kick in at times like these. It seems unjust to forgive. It feels like we are wrongly letting someone off the hook or even condoning their inexcusable actions. It seems perfectly reasonable to refuse to forgive. 

But we can still choose love. We can choose to reject vengeance, even as we seek justice. We can reject hatred, even if the relationship cannot and must not go back to how it was before. We can still be the person we wish to be and forgive, even if the other person will no longer be a part of our life. 

We can do all of this, not because it helps lower our blood pressure or serves another self-interest, but because we have all experienced love and been redeemed by love — and seen its remarkable power. We are not forever bound by our frailty or mistakes. Transcendent love can make us whole and free. And we can turn around and spread that love, transforming the world and being who we were made to be. 

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