Forgiveness and Mental Health


forgiveness (Photo credit: cheerfulmonk)

The Bible speaks frequently of forgiveness. Jesus taught that we should pray “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12) and explains, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15) Sometimes forgiving others can be very hard, especially when they continue to sin against us, time after time. Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive another, and Jesus answered “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). As John R Rice once wrote: “By the time you have forgiven 490 times you will be in the habit of forgiving and out of practice in holding grudges.” [1]

We know that we are sinners who have been forgiven by God. We know that all of us have sinned and stand worthy of death, and that we who believe have been forgiven those sins by the action of Jesus. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-4)

Do we forgive others as God has forgiven us?

Some of us have had terrible things happen to them, awful abuse and exploitation, been the subject of violence, intimidation and other tremendous evils. I will not sit here behind a screen and tell you that you must forgive whoever hurt you. I do think that the Bible tells us to forgive, and does so for a reason, but I cannot tell you that you must. Neither can I tell you when you should forgive – there is nothing that I know of which demands immediate forgiveness of sins against yourself.

I would like to explore a little further, having been reading some psychological literature on the subject.

What Forgiveness Is, and Is Not

According to the APA, “Forgiveness is a process (or the result of a process) that involves a change in emotion and attitude regarding an offender. Most scholars view this an intentional and voluntary process, driven by a deliberate decision to forgive. This process results in decreased motivation to retaliate or maintain estrangement from an offender despite their actions, and requires letting go of negative emotions toward the offender” [2] They note that this occurs while the victim acknowledges that they were treated badly, not as a sort of wilful blindness to what has happened.

We are not forgiving if we condone what has happened (if we fail to see that the action was wrong), nor when we excuse the action (when we do not hold the offender/group responsible) nor when we pardon someone (which can only be done by a representative of a society, such as a judge) or when we forget the offence (choosing not to think about it or removing it from consciousness is not the same as forgiving it).

Psychological Benefits of Forgiveness

The American Psychological Association notes that assorted studies have shown these positive benefits of forgiveness:

  • aids psychological healing through positive changes in affect
  • improves physical and mental health
  • restores a victim’s sense of personal power
  • helps bring about reconciliation between the offended and offender [3]

A Christian book I own puts it this way: “People who forgive reported decreased psychological distress, including fewer feelings of restlessness, hopelessness, and nervousness. Young adults who reported high levels of self-forgiveness were more likely to be satisfied with their lives. Older adults who reported high levels of forgiveness for others were more likely to report increased life satisfaction.” [4]

Lynda Eliot, in her book, “An Invitation to Healing”, writes of stewing over a sin committed against her by a neighbour, replaying the incident over and over in her mind until, in one moment she heard the voice of God through her friend who said “Do you know we become like the people we think of the most?” We give the person who sinned against us power when we let them capture our thoughts, let them invade our minds and let the effects of their sin continue to haunt us. It is as though (and I am using the same book as in [4] for this illustration) we are in Tolkien’s world, and we have Sauron’s ring, but we are not strong enough to use his own weapon against him, for we will become like him. We can defeat him using his ring – but only by becoming like him, and evil. Lack of forgiveness will eventually make us similar to the one who wounded us, we need to break the cycle.

Forgiveness Therapy

In the brochure from the American Psychological Association I have been reading it talks about something they call Forgiveness Therapy. This consists of four phases:

  • Uncovering: The victim identifies the harm done to them, and looks at the effects it has had on themselves, including distorted thinking.
  • Decision: The victim tries to gain an understanding of what forgiveness is, and makes a decision to forgive the offender.
  • Work: The victim tries to understand the offender’s perspective and might develop compassion and empathy for them. They note that, as the victim has decided to relinquish anger against the offender, they will bear increased pain and, through that pain might develop a sense of generosity toward the offender.
  • Deepening: The last phase involves thinking about our own past offenses, acknowledging human vulnerability and finding new meaning. In this phase they relinquish resentment and move beyond seeing themselves as a victim. [5]


I believe forgiveness is a good thing to do, both from a Christian and a non-Christian standpoint. From the secular point of view, it is a mentally healthy practise, enabling us to let go of past hurts and move on with our lives. It is an action we choose and lets us control our own mental health. From a Christian point of view first of all we have the fact that God tells us to forgive others, because we too have been forgiven. We cannot withhold forgiveness from our neighbour, and yet seek it for ourselves from God. The Bible is quite clear that we are all equal in our condemnation, all equal in being sinners, and all of us need forgiveness. Part of our obtaining that forgiveness from God is that we forgive others, as we strive to be like him. The parable Jesus spoke in Matthew 18:21-35 about the unmerciful servant explains this further. I cannot, and should not seek to tell you that you must forgive – I seek to forgive those who sin against me when that happens, but I have not had the terrible things done to me that some people have. There is no requirement that we forgive immediately, it may be a process you must work through. Please consider it – and talk it through with friends, family, pastor or therapist. I am firmly convinced that it is a good thing – never mind something the Bible says – to do.


[1] Campbell, R. F. (1988-). Preach for a year (183). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications.

[2] American Psychological Association, (2006). Forgiveness: A Sampling of Research Results. Washington, DC: Office of International Affairs. Reprinted, 2008.

[3] ibid.

[4] Wilson, J. L. (2009). Fresh Sermons. Fresno, CA: Willow City Press.

[5] American Psychological Association, ibid.


  1. says:

    wonderful… would like to share the following…


    Before we can live together in an eternal community, we must be assured that there is nothing within us or others that might escalate or evolve into problems in the future. After all it would not be paradise if we continue to bring up all of our old issues among one another.

    When we leave the earth…we go through our life review. We are encouraged to seek our own justice and atonement by going to the parties we have hurt in our lives and asking them to tell us what they want from us in order to make amends. People out there, Solamenta will await the arrival of those on earth that they have committed transgressions against… if they are not already out there in order to make their amends; provided that is, if they are inclined to do so. For example… it’s a humiliating experience for a man to go to his best friend from the earth and confess to him that he had an affair with his wife, stole something from him, cheated him, talked behind his back etc. This is one of the reasons that many wives and husbands don’t continue their relationships out there.

    Forgiveness is a concept, granted it is a sterile and morose concept but nevertheless, it has flourished in spite of the fact there is little if any strength behind the words “I forgive you”. These words mean in essence, let’s forget about it. Forgiveness is a concept that has outlived its time!

    Instead, let’s consider a more logical approach to resolving our differences….

    Hated enemies who find themselves fighting on the same side, become brothers on the battlefield because they are necessary for each other’s survival. When we understand from a logical perspective that you and I are necessary for each other’s eternal survival, we no longer need to say the words, “I forgive you,” but rather, “I understand how badly we need each other”!

    • Thanks for commenting. Not sure you’re right about forgiveness having outlived its time – I believe forgiveness can be powerful, a means of setting ourselves free from the hurt that has been done to us. Rather than living in a world where people are essentially good to one another because they need each other, I would rather live in one where we forgive our enemies out of love for our neighbour and our God, and acknowledge the sinful things we have done against others too.
      Your vision of the hereafter is interesting, but I tend to hold to a more biblical view of what is to come, and try not to speculate beyond what I have been told.
      Thanks for leaving a comment!

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