October 27, 2013
In every marital and other relational counselling that I do, the need for one act glaringly stands out almost without exception. It is the act of forgiving. It is possibly the thorniest and most difficult thing that a person is asked or required to do.
The reasons for holding on to anger are aplenty, but the ONLY act that sets our spiritual wheels forward, that helps us live a full life, is the act of forgiving – all the time, every time.
There are three people a person often finds himself struggling to forgive: others, God, and self.
What exactly is forgiveness? It is an act to let go of vengefulness, resentment, bitterness and anger towards the person who has hurt you. To forgive does not mean to deny the wrong that was done, or to make that wrong any less. The wrong cannot be changed, but letting go brings tremendous changes in the one who forgives. A person who forgives is less hostile, enjoys relationships, and experiences personal wellbeing.
When the Israelites were on the threshold of crossing over to the land of milk and honey, their faith in God’s promise faltered, just when they were on the threshold of crossing over. Instead, for forty long years, they remained in a place called Kadesh Barnea, cursing Moses and God for having brought them there. This was after they had experienced wonderful miracles along the way, including the parting of the Red Sea, which is probably the greatest to be found in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible. Many died and never saw the promised land.
Forty years may sound a bit exaggerated, but it is not. There are homes that are locked in longer periods of bitterness. Many even take bitterness to their grave. How often have we seen couples locked up in the land of Kadesh Barnea of their own creation. All it takes is an act of forgiveness to experience a relationship of milk and honey, but spiritual sloth and pride locks them in the doldrums of heartaches and seething frustration. A heavenly domain is turned into hell, as anger burns everyone it touches.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, one of the greatest orators of the Catholic church, had said that “anger and reason are compatible.” In other words, behind anger there is always a cause. Every time we feel like forgiving, the manipulative devil reminds us that we have a reason not to. This slight provocation is all we need to justify our anger. But, we don’t have to be the victims.
The Holy Bible says, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” This is, indeed, a powerfully grim reminder of the danger of carrying forward anger to the next day. The Holy Bible further explains why we should reconcile immediately. It says, “Do not let the devil get a foothold.” The more we delay forgiving someone, the more complicated matters become, and pride begins to take a firm foothold. God does not want us to repress our anger, but then how can we express it? The Holy Bible has provided the answer in saying, “Be angry, but do not sin.” Be angry at the deed, but not the person.
I have often seen that an angry person remembers every single detail of the hurtful incident. He remembers the time, the place, the people who were there, the words that were spoken, the posture of the person insulting him, and so on – even after many, many years have passed. This has nothing to do with his sharp memory. It is just that the person plays the incident so many times in his mind that he is able to recall everything. It does not matter whether the person who has hurt him is dead. That is the consuming power of anger; it seeps into our very bones.
The evil that anger poses transcends homes, and pervades streets, towns and even countries. Unless there is forgiveness from all sides of the conflict that has plagued middle eastern nations, leaders – who have lost children to the conflict – will continue to blow their enemies in revenge and the bloodshed will continue, until perhaps one day no man will be found standing. Japan moved on after two atomic bombs were dropped on their cities because they could forgive America.
Dr. Ravi Zacharias, one of the most eminent and learned defenders of the Christian faith, and my personal favourite, once met with one of the co-founders of Hamas. He told the man that unless everyone accepts the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to wash away our sins of unforgiveness, we will continue to sacrifice our children for prestige, power, revenge, and we will still not find peace. The Hamas leader, who himself has lost children in the bloody conflict, was visibly moved and his eyes glistened as he fought back his tears. The fact is, if one person has lost a son or a daughter on this side of the border, then there is another person on the other side who has suffered the same loss. Both have suffered losses, but even one person forgiving can make all the difference. It can stop the bloodshed.
In our own little family domains, unless Jesus’ message of forgiveness is practised, we will never be able to find peace. For all the money we might amass, for all the power we might attain, unless the soul is at peace, nothing really will ever matter.
When life seems unfair, even God needs to be forgiven. Those who have forgiven have been able to move on and accomplished feats that once looked outright impossible. Jessica Cox was born without hands and far from restricting her, she has achieved so many distinctions in her life. She even flies a small aircraft, apart from doing almost everything a person endowed with a complete set of limbs would. Without forgiving an “unfair” God, she would be enslaved hopelessly in anger and bitterness.
While medical science is fully aware that there is a close connection between the health of the body and the condition of the mind, many doctors don’t want to be direct and hardly even ask a patient if there is an anger issue. This is extremely unfortunate, but then allopathic treatment is far from holistic. Sadly, the present generation of medical students and young doctors themselves are grappling with so many personal issues. Alcohol and drug abuse is so common among them and, ironically, these very people are supposed to help patients achieve well-being.
Medicine only momentarily alleviates pain, but a forgiving attitude helps us enjoy a sense of well-being that no medicine can give us.
Research is now confirming the link between unforgiveness and cancer, and many other health conditions. For thousands of years, spiritualists have encouraged people to forgive, but few listened. Here are just few of the excerpts and all coming from the modern, scientific world:
"Chronic unforgiveness causes stress. Every time people think of their transgressor, their body responds. Decreasing your unforgiveness cuts down your health risk. Now, if you can forgive, that can actually strengthen your immune system." [Virginia Commonwealth University]
"Forgiveness could boost the immune system by reducing the production of the stress hormone cortisol." [Rockefeller University]
"When you hold onto the bitterness for years, it stops you from living your life fully. As it turns out, it wears out your immune system and hurts your heart." [Stanford University Center for Research in Disease Prevention]
In great centres like the Divine Retreat Centre in Kerala and elsewhere that attract thousands and thousands of people of all faiths every week, healings are experienced after reconciliation and forgiveness. Even cancers lose their grip over the powerful act of forgiveness. This is not a coincidence because God does not listen to our prayers when the heart is pounding with hatred. Here is what the Holy Bible says in the book of Mathew 5:23-24, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” God wants our offerings, but there is a clear precondition that the heart needs to be cleansed of all malice.
I was giving a talk to men my age on the topic of forgiveness. One man in the gathering of about 25, spoke vociferously for a good ten minutes about his wife, viciously berating her in front of the others. I was afraid that he would get a heart attack. I went up to him, placed my hands on his shoulders and asked him to take a deep breath. When we are filled with anger, we are unable to suppress it for too long. Eventually, it will show in one form or another.
Many people assume that a person who controls his anger is very patient. This may be far from true because it could just as well be that the person is repressing it. People with repressed anger are often in denial. When we feel that it is useless talking about our hurts, we then begin to internalize the anger. People with repressed anger just want to show others that nothing can make them angry; it is a false sense of control. The evil of anger needs to be met head on. At the same time, venting anger without backing it up with forgiveness does not heal any wounds. People are known to talk about someone to a person about their feelings. They feel ‘light’ for a few days and then they talk about it to another person and it keeps going on and on.
The usual questions vehemently posed by an angry person are: Why should I forgive? How can I forget? How can I ever forgive the wrongs done to me? Should I forgive even if the offender does not apologize? How can I ever forget?
Perhaps this story best illustrates and answers these and many other questions. I had gone to meet a nun and I happened to mention to her that I was planning to write on forgiveness. She abruptly asked if I had the time to come with her to meet someone. We took a rickshaw ride to meet a young woman at a shelter and the nun had given me no warning of what to expect. I was introduced to a woman whose face had been disfigured with acid by her jilted lover. He had told her, “If you don’t marry me, you will never marry anyone?” His ravaged soul could think of nothing but destroying her.
Not wanting their family’s name tarnished, the young woman’s parents asked her to leave their house. She had lost everything. The nuns who sheltered her taught her tailoring to help sustain herself in the future, but above all they taught her to forgive. She relived that horrific moment for five years and even suffered nightmares. Then one day she forgave the man. She felt the crushing weight of a huge boulder lifting off her chest. Weeks later, she was able to ask God to give him peace and good health. She told me that even if she wanted to, she could never forget because he had scarred her face for life. But, she added, that the memory of the event, of that man, was not painful any more. She said, the moment she wished the man peace from her heart, God blessed her with the same peace.
Another person she had to forgive was herself, as is so often required. We loan someone money and when the person does not return it, we get angry with that person. Eventually, we end up angry at ourselves for loaning the money. In this woman’s case, she often blamed herself for falling in love with that person. Forgiving herself was far more difficult, but eventually she won that battle, too.
Lewis Smedes has said it so well, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
If a person has a cynical view of life, then he is only mirroring problems with himself. We cannot give anyone happiness when we are ourselves are struggling with it. Human beings are endowed with the will to choose. Why live a life of hurt and scorn, when we have a choice?
Jesus had every reason to tear apart his tormentors, and yet from the cross He said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” What He said is very compelling and needs reflection. If anger and reason are compatible, then we also need to find a reason to forgive. In almost all cases, we get stuck with anger because we cannot find a reason to let go. If the devil shows you the reason to hold on to your anger, then Jesus shows us one way to release it. He magnanimously provided one blanket reason for the many wrongs He suffered when He said, “They do not know what they are doing.”
In much the same way Jesus did, we need to give people who have hurt us the benefit of doubt.
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