There are many important subjects to research when it comes to Christian counseling, but I believe that there is one subject in particular that ranks much higher than the majority. This is the subject of forgiveness. This is an attribute that every Christian is supposed to have in their life, and yet few ever operate within its power. But when they do, I believe they will find that this topic is freeing, life giving, and restorative—even if it is an incredibly difficult to do at times.
Forgiveness is one of the things that we as Christians are commanded to do. In the same way that Christ forgave us, we are to forgive those around us, lest we be handed over to our torturers (Mt. 18:23-35) or unforgiven by God Himself (Mt. 6:14). We are to forgive one person over and over again should they transgress against us, even up to seventy times seven if need be (Mt. 18:21-22). It truly is a big deal, and if we do not treat it like one, we will find our lives full of bitterness, depression, and pain.
“But why forgive?” asks the secular world. “Surely there is a better way to deal with those who have wronged you rather than release them from the anger they deserve?” It is an odd concept to most, and it can hardly be understood without Jesus Christ as the focal point. This is partially because there is a literal power within Christian forgiveness. It is the work of the Holy Spirit
This spiritual work has been seen time and time again in a person’s life when they truly forgive. And the power becomes more tangibly seen especially in the charismatic realm. Don Dickerman writes of a girl in who was abused in “all kinds of ways imaginable by everyone in her life… She still had anger, bitterness, and resentment toward all those who abused her throughout her life” (61-3). After this assessment, Dickerman led her through a demonic deliverance, part of the process being “repenting of unforgiveness, anger, bitterness, hatred, resentment, and kindred sins” (63).
It is also not uncommon for the Holy Spirit to release people from sickness and physical infirmities after they have been led through forgiveness. This reminds us of Jesus’ warning to the man He healed at the portico: “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you” (Jn. 5:14). It even reminds us of the disciples’ accusation towards the blind man: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (Jn. 9:2).
But healing can come from forgiveness in other ways as well, especially in the realm of emotion. One study, for example, found “evidence of robust individual differences in the forgiveness-anger relationship… Thus, it is possible that some individuals exhibit a significant relationship between forgiveness and subsequent reductions in anger” (Wilkowski, 836).
I would suggest that one of the reasons there is a difference between forgiveness and anger-reduction in individuals is because some people’s forgiveness may be more genuine or complete than others. Sometimes we can say the words “I forgive you” and not truly mean it; just when like a child says “I’m sorry” when their parents force them to. Sometimes we can truly want to forgive and even say the words out loud, but still hold onto something deep inside that we really haven’t given over. Forgiveness can at times be partial and incomplete, but any release of the bondage of unforgiveness in a person’s life (even if partial) is at least a step in the right direction and brings them closer to freedom.
Another possibility I would suggest for this difference in anger reduction is related to what I said earlier (this may not be the case very often, but I will suggest it nonetheless). I think there is at least a possibility that a person may continue to suffer anger after forgiveness has taken place, due to demonic oppression—especially in those who have suffered extreme situations, such as sexual or physical abuse. Since deliverance from spiritual forces is not widely thought of (or even accepted) by many Christians, I think there is a possibility that counselors may lead someone through all the steps of forgiveness, all the while leaving behind an oppressive and angry spiritual force for a person to suppress rather than be freed of.
I think another reason for the difference in anger reduction is the method in which forgiveness is achieved. I have found in my own life that by confronting the person I am angry with (whether by email or face to face), I am much more able to forgive in full. I have attempted to forgive these same people mentally before I ever confronted them and the difference is astonishing. When all I do is forgive with my mind, I leave a rather large portion of pain within me. It is not that I have not truly forgiven a person, but rather that I have left the situation in a state that screams for attention. I have no physical situation of forgiveness to call upon—just a metaphysical state of mind to think of. But when we at least attempt to mend a situation rather than solve the issue with our mind alone, the burden is lifted with much greater ease.
That is not to say, however, that every situation can be mended. If a transgressor has passed away, then the state of forgiveness will more or less have to be mental. But I think that that in even some of the most extreme situations, at least writing a letter to a transgressor could prove incredibly beneficial to the forgiveness process. It may even move the transgressor into a better life, which is something we should be able to hope for if we have truly forgiven them. That does not mean that we have to trust the person or that we should even ever be around the person again (pending on the extremity of the problem), but I think there’s always room to attempt to make amends.
Another study found that “forgiveness can be effectual in promoting well-being because it is associated with the ability to monitor one’s affective state and self soothe, thereby making it more likely to relate in prosocial ways” (Sandage, 175). This statement shows that the act of forgiveness itself was built to free and restore us. Not only can it reduce our anger, but it can also improve upon our personal life. God is a joyful God who is looking to bring joy to our lives (despite what some may think). For that reason, it only makes sense that He would command us to forgive others because the freedom that the cross represents is found when we do so. It is then that we are able to enter into the joy that the resurrection brings.
When we live in unforgiveness, we build an invisible barrier between God and ourselves that makes it difficult to access joy and its source. Breaking down those walls obviously requires us to forgive, but depending on the situation, it may also take God’s help. So often we tend to think of ourselves as a one-man team and we forget that we have the strength of the Holy Spirit on our side. We are the ones who built the barrier between God and ourselves, but He wants to break it down just as much as we do. Therefore, we must learn to ask for help and allow God to lead us through the process of forgiveness.
So far, we have addressed all of the positives of forgiveness and we have yet to see any of the negatives. And while I would like to address a few problems that tend to show up in forgiveness, I still want it to be clear that it is a necessity in the Christian life. That being said, let’s take a quick look at some of the problems that might arise due to forgiveness.
At times forgiveness can cause a continuation of sin. This is something that every Christian has at least realized in relation to God. He loves us unconditionally and will always forgive us when we do wrong. And while it is totally and completely unacceptable, there are times in many people’s Christian walk, where they may allow themselves to do something sinful knowing that God will forgive them. Now I imagine that most Christians really feel the pain of their sin after having intentionally done so, and so their repentance is real. But should we return with a fake apology, we have not really repented or searched for forgiveness, but have rather, like a dog, returned to our vomit and have even lied down in it. This same struggle we have with God can also be a struggle within forgiving marriages as one journalist discovered:
…forgiveness may increase the likelihood that offenders will offend again by removing unwanted outcomes for those offenders (e.g., criticism, guilt, loneli- ness) that would otherwise discourage them from reoffending. Consistent with this possibility, the current 7-day-diary study revealed that newlywed spouses were more likely to report that their partners had engaged in a negative behavior on days after they had forgiven those partners for a negative behavior than on days after they had not forgiven those partners for a negative behavior. Interpersonal theories and interventions designed to treat and prevent relationship distress may benefit by acknowledging this potential cost of forgiveness (McNulty, 787).
I believe that there are two things we should take away from this study. The first is to realize that the problem here is really within the offender. It is the same way with our relationship with God. The problem is not that God is too forgiving, but rather that we take advantage of His love. We decide to continually live by the flesh rather than by the Spirit and deny ourselves the decency and discipline to live correctly. Forgiveness is not an issue—flesh is. Flesh is not familiar with forgiveness, so when someone extends it to us out of their spirit, it may be abused.
The second thing we can take away from this study is that forgiveness does not always have to be void of consequences or lack conflict. There may, of course, be some situations in which we can move to forgiveness immediately (such as one’s spouse forgetting to the trash out once or twice or seventy times seven times), but there are also issues of greater offense that may not be truly comprehended without conflict. If one’s partner has done something truly offensive, forgiveness still needs to come, but with depth.
There is no reason not to discuss the pain and emotion linked to transgression. This takes us back to what I said earlier about mending a situation with someone from the past. Bringing it up and talking about it helps. It may hurt very much to address the situation (whether the situation is present or past), but it should be addressed and not pushed aside or deemphasized. Or as one article states, “The concept of forgiveness as a response to a transgression is not the same as overlooking or excusing an offense” (Schultz, 104). We may need to use the sharp edge of emotion in our forgiveness, but we who are spiritual should always look to restore anyone caught in trespass in a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1).
As stated earlier, forgiveness is one of the most important subjects we as Christians can address in counseling. Not only does it stand as an important topic by itself, but it is also connected to almost every counseling situation you will be in. If someone is not coming to counseling because they need to forgive someone, it may very well be that they need to forgive themselves for something, which is sometimes just as hard. But it is through the spiritual power of forgiveness that we are able to offer freedom, life, and restoration, which are all reasons for Jesus’ death. When we deny each other these liberties, we deny each other (and ourselves), Christ.
Dickerman, D. (2009). When pigs move in . Lake Mary, Fla.: Charisma House.
McNulty, J. K. (2010). Forgiveness Increases the Likelihood of Subsequent Partner Transgressions in Marriage. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(6), 787-790.
New American Standard Bible
Sandage, S. J., & Jankowski, P. J. (2010). Forgiveness, Spiritual Instability,Mental Health Symptoms, and Well-Being: Mediator Effects of Differentiation of Self. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2(3), 168-180.
Schultz, J. M., Tallman, B. A., & Altmaier, E. M. (2010). Pathways to Posttraumatic Growth: The Contributions of Forgiveness and Importance of Religion and Spirituality. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2(2), 104-114.
Wilkowski, B. M., Robinson, M. D., & Troop-Gordon, W. (2010). How Does Cognitive Control Reduce Anger and Aggression? The Role of Conflict Monitoring and Forgiveness Processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(5), 830-840.