Does Forgiveness Make You Healthier?

There is a story about two friends who were walking through the desert, when at some point they had an argument and one friend slapped the other friend in the face. The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything, he wrote in the sand: “TODAY MY BEST FRIEND SLAPPED ME IN THE FACE.” They kept walking until they came upon an oasis, where they decided to take a bath. The one who had been slapped got stuck in the mud and started to sink.  However, his friend immediately went to help him and got him out. After he recovered, the saved friend wrote on a stone: “TODAY MY BEST FRIEND SAVED MY LIFE.”  The friend who had slapped him and then saved him, asked, “After I hurt you, you wrote in the sand, and now, you write on a stone, why?” The friend replied: “When someone hurts us, we should write it down in sand, where the winds of forgiveness can erase it away, but when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone, where no wind can ever erase it.”

Forgiveness involves giving love first, before the other person makes amends.  Forgiveness involves giving up the desire to see “justice” done, canceling the debt that is owed, and forgetting about the debt (more on that later).  The opposite involves rehearsing an offense in your mind or harboring a grudge, along with a desire for revenge.

Forgiveness has health consequences, both mental and physical.  Scientific research has documented what happens when people fail to forgive: increased risk of psychiatric disorder, greater difficulty adjusting to stress or sickness, social introversion in men and social dysfunction in women, chronic anger and irritability, increased depression and anxiety, and increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse.  There is nothing good in rehashing unforgiving thoughts over, and over again.  This is like drinking a poison every day and hoping the other person gets sick.

Here’s another story that illustrates what happens when we don’t forgive.  The primary way that a bear defends himself and obtains food is by hugging hard. He holds his prey so tightly to himself that it finally dies.  One day a starving bear was walking through a campsite. He noticed a kettle over an open fire, with the lid bouncing as the heat was bubbling up. Smelling the wonderful stew inside, he went over to the kettle, took his big arms, put them around the kettle and hugged it tightly as he walked away with it.  Well, the kettle was practically red hot. At that point, the bear had a choice. The bear’s only defense was to hug tighter—finally to his undoing.

Just like the bear, when we hug our anger and hold it tightly to us, we hug it tighter to our own undoing.

Indeed, the consequences to physical health can be deadly.  Systematic research has documented the physiological changes that occur in the body when people are harboring a grudge or unforgiving.  They include an elevation in blood pressure, worsening cardiovascular function, decrease in immune functioning and increased susceptibility to disease, and increase in stress hormone levels such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, resulting in slower healing.

Forgiveness also has consequences.  Mental health benefits include a sense of release and freedom, greater happiness, a sense of warmth, decreased feelings of stress, an expansion of positive emotions, greater sociability and extraversion, and increased altruism and concern for others.  Physical health changes documented include a reduction of physical illness, a lowering of blood pressure, less heart disease, and decreased physiological indicators of stress (reduced stress hormone levels).

What influences a person’s capacity to forgive (not all are created equal in this regard)?  (1) The degree of hurt or harm (2) Age (younger people are less able to forgive), (3) Personality and temperament (based on genetic factors – not all are equal in this regard), and finally, (4) Degree of religious involvement.

The Judeo-Christian scriptures emphasize the importance of forgiving.  For example, in the middle of the Lord’s prayer it says,  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us” (Mathew 6:12).  Later in the book of Matthew, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?  Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seven times seventy times” (Mathew 18:21-22).  Finally, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “’It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’“ says the Lord.  In other words, He who has all the facts will judge and pass out justice.

There has been considerable objective research on religion and forgiveness, especially over the past 10 years.  In our systematic review of this research in the Handbook of Religion and Health, 2nd edition (2012, forthcoming), we identified 40 studies that examined relationships between religion or spirituality and forgiveness.  Of those, 34 (85%) found that religion was associated with greater forgiveness.  Religion, particularly when “intrinsic” in nature, provides individuals with the motivation and tools to forgive.

There are a few simple steps that may help with forgiveness.  First, think about the mental and physical consequences of not forgiving; is it really worth it?  Second, consider how short life is.  How many more years of life are any of us likely to have on this planet?  Do you want to waste those years rehearsing a grudge? Third, seek to empathize with the perpetrator.  Longfellow said, “If we could only read the secret history of our enemies we would find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Fourth, consult the scriptures on forgiveness for your particular situation; what would God want you to do?  Finally, pray for strength to forgive – it is never easy.  Furthermore, you may have to forgive over and over again.  This doesn’t mean allowing the perpetrator to hurt you over and over again.  The scriptures encourage us to love our neighbor as ourselves, implying that we are commanded to love ourselves and that includes protecting your “temple of the Holy Spirit” from harm. The following are some resources that may help further:

Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-By-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope (Enright, 2001, APA Press).

Five Steps to Forgiveness:  The Art and Science of Forgiving

(Worthington, Crown Publishers, 2001)

Anger Kills: Seventeen Strategies for Controlling the Hostility That Can Harm Your Health

(Williams, Harper & Row, 1998)

Harold G. Koenig, MD


Harold G. Koenig, MD, MHSc., completed his undergraduate education at Stanford University, his medical school training at the University of California at San Francisco, and his geriatric medicine, psychiatry, and biostatistics training at Duke University Medical Center. He is board certified in general psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and geriatric medicine, and is on the faculty at Duke as Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Associate Professor of Medicine, and is on the faculty at King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor. He is also a registered nurse. Dr. Koenig is Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, and is considered by biomedical scientists as one of the world's top experts on religion and health.

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  • Pargontwin

    I have found point #3 to be the most helpful.  It was taught to me when I was only six years old; “Try to imagine what may have made the person do what he did.”  At an age when your imagination is at its most active, it’s an incredibly easy thing to do. 

    Unfortunately, today we have a tendency to think a small child is too young to understand abstracts.  But even a child as young as 3 has a greater capacity for understanding than we give them credit for.  The younger we teach our kids things like forgiveness, the better equipped they will be to practice it when they get older.

  • DMW

    Forgiveness can also be “an enabling behavior!”  Oftentimes one must rely on prayers and discernment for many of those who hurt us view forgiveness as a sign of weakness ready to be pounced upon.  I believe forgiveness should be possessed as both an attitude and a behavior but oftentimes we, as individuals have to “discern” the given situation and practice NOT throwing pearls to the swine and moving on by shaking the dust off our shoes!  Justice IS NOT revenge and asking God for Justice ahead of forgiveness is seen as Good by God!  Remember the Bible phrase and song we sing in church….God hears the cries of the poor?  Forgiveness should never replace the combination of discernment and common sense because in most instances people, situations, crises are clouded over by demonic attitudes/behaviors!

  • Adam1

    I guess this is why my wife is so healthy–she’s forgiven me more times than I care to count.

  • It takes a certain sensitivity to feel the deep hurt of an injustice done to oneself. It is interesting that people who exhibit an almost manic anger can also manifest great energy and life force. Even though the pain they cause others with their unbridled rage is tremendous, they themselves hold no memory of the ones they have willfully hurt. Consequently, they do not suffer from the ill effects of harboring grudges. With things being as twisted as this, it would be in one’s better interest to give up any desire of seeing anyone “brought to justice.”