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The Psychology of Forgiveness

Ancient Wisdom | Modern Minds

Exploring Psychology in the Bible, Week Four

January 28,2024

Rev. Megan Collins

When they were little, I used to be able to tell stories about my kids in church. Now they are adults so I’ve had to resort to telling stories about my dogs. 

As many of you know, we have two labrador retrievers, Cami and Stella. Stella is 3 years old and in our family because we panicked when Covid shut down the world and we got a puppy. Cami is our 11 year old chocolate lab, who we got back in Ohio. Cami is the sweetest dog in the world.

For the most part, she does what she is told. She rarely barks. She doesn’t jump. She walks well on her leash.

But once a month, we need Cami to take her heartworm medication, and all bets are off.

For those of you with dogs, you’ll know that once a month you have to give them this pill. It’s just one little pill, once a month. It protects them from something horrible called heartworm. Heartworm affects a dogs’ lungs and heart. It’s devastating for them and can even be fatal.

But Cami doesn’t think this little pill is good for her. She doesn’t think we are trying to help her stay healthy. I think she believes we are trying to poison her. At first, we tried just giving her the pill to eat. Keep in mind this is the same dog that I have seen eat a rock without hesitation. But as soon as the pill was in her mouth, she spit it out and walked away. Then we tried coating it in peanut butter. Cami took the pill into her mouth, swished it around to get off all the peanut butter, then spit it out. I tried wrapping it in pepperoni. She carefully pulled the pepperoni off and left the pill behind.  Once I even concealed the pill in a ball of rice. I threw the ball of rice into the air and Cami caught it in her mouth. Then without chewing, she held the rice in her mouth and looked at me out of the side of her eye, thinking. She spit out the whole ball, glared at me and walked away.

We know the heartworm pill is what is best for Cami. It’s what she needs. But the problem is she just doesn’t understand that she needs it. She doesn’t like it, and she won’t do it. There is no convincing her. Despite all evidence to the contrary, all the walks and belly rubs and toys, Cami believes that we are up to something. All she can see is we are asking her to do something she doesn’t want to do. What she doesn’t understand is that we know it’s hard, but we also know it’s essential for her. 

There are several things in the Bible that God asks us to do, that maybe we don’t want to do. A lot of these things are, like Cami and her heartworm pill, things God knows are good for us but we refuse to believe we need. But there is one in particular thing God tells us to do  that we really don’t like.  It’s actually one of the things that I get the most push back about when I preach on it.

We don’t understand why we need to do it.  

We don’t see how it is necessary.

Some of us just won’t even consider it.

Yet it’s absolutely critical for our health.

It’s forgiveness.

God tells you to forgive other people, but sometimes, you just can’t. We’ll do all the other things God. We will help the poor. We’ll pray more. We’ll be honest and kind and even volunteer in the church nursery but forgive? Forgive that person for what they did to me? No way. Not even if you wrap it in peanut butter and pepperoni.

If God just knew what they had done to you, God wouldn’t ask you to forgive them. We know God forgives but that’s God. We are just sinful, broken humans. God can’t really expect us to do this. Why is it on you to forgive them, anyway? They are the ones who messed up, not you. It shouldn’t be on you to deal with it. 

The Bible is clear on this one.

We are told to forgive.

Colossians 3:13 says “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

Then in Ephesians 4:32 “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Then in Mark 11:25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone”

To make matters worse we have verses like Matthew 18:21-22

“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Over and over again the Bible says it. Forgive one another. 

But why? Why is God asking us to forgive? Why is it so important that we forgive other people for what they have done?

Let’s take a side track into psychology for a minute. We are in this series Ancient Wisdom, Modern Minds, where we look at Biblical truths and the modern field of psychology together. Psychologists have spent a good deal of time studying forgiveness. Robert Enright is one of these psychologists, and he has studied it for almost 40 years. Here is what he learned. 

Forgiveness isn’t just something we do for someone else. When you  forgive someone, it changes you. When you forgive, it reduces things like anxiety and depression. It lowers your blood pressure and cholesterol. It makes you sleep better. It strengthens your immune system. It increases your self-esteem, increases measures of hope for the future. Over time, it leads to better skills in problem-solving and decision making and emotional health. It turns out, forgiveness is good not only for the person you are forgiving. It’s good for you. Then let’s think about the Bible. The big story of the Bible is that God loves you, that God has always loved you, that God wants what is best for you. 

Matthew 6:8 says “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” 

Romans 8:31-32 “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”

That’s how much God loves you. God knows what you need without you even asking. God gave everything, even God’s own Son, because of that love for you. That same God, who loves you that much, has told you to forgive. 

God knows that holding onto your anger can eat you alive.

You know this too, if you’re honest with yourself. 

Like a heartworm taking root, anger and resentment can spread through you.

It’s there all the time, weighing you down.

You nurture and feed your grudge letting it grow and even consume you.

Or you forget for a time but it’s still there, lurking below the surface, running in the background. 

You don’t have to ask to be free from that weight you are carrying around. God knows. 

God has offered you a solution. This one thing you can do to be free from it: forgiveness.

God wants you to forgive them, not just because you are told to, not just to be a better person, not just to be more holy, not just to be nice to people, but because it’s what you need to be free, to be whole. 

God loves you too much to let you get stuck in your resentment and be in pain. God has offered you a way out, forgiveness. 

God won’t force you to forgive someone just because it’s what’s best for you

It’s a choice each of us have to make.

Back to our dog Cami for a moment. No matter what we have tried, we can’t get Cami to take her heartworm medicine voluntarily. We have tried everything. We talked to our vet, and now, once a month, Dave has to calmly come up to Cami, and gently open her mouth. Then he puts his hand down her throat with the pill, closes her jaw and massages the pill into her stomach. For several hours Cami looks at Dave like he has absolutely lost his mind.

We hate to do it, but we know it’s what she needs.

Maybe it would be easier if God would force us to forgive. If God could sneak up on us and without warning force us once a month to let go of all the resentments we are carrying. 

But instead, God gives us a choice. 

You can choose your anger and resentment, or you can choose to be free.

The good news is you don’t have to do this all at once. We are going to talk about some steps you can take to forgive in just a minute.

But first let’s talk about...

What forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness does not mean letting the other person off the hook. You can forgive someone and still let them face the consequences of what they have done. 

Forgiveness does not always mean full reconciliation. You can forgive someone without going back to the same relationship you had before with them. 

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Instead it means remembering what happened, but without that feeling of rage. It’s like seeing a scar years later and you remember the injury but you don’t feel the pain anymore. 

Ultimately forgiveness is not just about the other person. It’s not about whether they deserve it. It’s not about if they are sorry. It’s also about you, and the healing God can do in you.

Forgiveness is offering grace, and, in the process, finding healing for yourself too. 

So what’s the first step? Dr. Everett Worthington is a psychologist and professor who has been studying forgiveness for nearly a decade. He suggests the REACH approach to forgiveness.


I love that acronym because forgiveness feels like something we have to reach for, not something that comes and falls in our lap. Let’s take a look: 

R: Recall the hurt.

To heal, you have to face the fact that you’ve been hurt. Let yourself feel all the feelings. Be angry if you need to be. Try to avoid thinking horrible things about the other person, which I know, is really hard. But think back through what happened, and then make a decision to try to forgive them. This is also the part where you have to let go of your daydreams of getting them back. 

E: Empathize 

Okay, so I really don’t like this one. I did a lot of reading this week about forgiveness, and the importance of doing this came up across the board. If you feel yourself bristling at the idea of having empathy for the person that hurt you, I did too. But stick with me, because apparently it’s an important part of the process. Worthington writes:

“Empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s chair. Pretend that the other person is in an empty chair across from you. Talk to him. Pour your heart out. Then, when you’ve had your say, sit in his chair. Talk back to the imaginary you in a way that helps you see why the other person might have wronged you. This builds empathy, and even if you can’t empathize, you might feel more sympathy, compassion, or love, which helps you heal from hurt.”

I’d add to Worthington’s comments here that love might be a stretch if the person did something truly horrible to you. There is a difference between forgiving your spouse for hurting your feelings, and forgiving someone who did something truly atrocious. 

One way as Christians we can lean into this step is simply to pray for the person. You don’t have to pray for an abundance of riches, but just pray for them. Lift them up to God. 

A = Altruistic gift

This is not an actual wrapped present. But at this step you remember that your forgiveness is a gift. Not only can forgiveness heal you, but it can be a selfless gift to the other person. Why would you want to give someone who hurt you a gift? But think about a time someone forgave you. Think about how free and light you felt. You can give that gift to someone else. Remember, don’t have to reconcile with them to forgive them. If you are in a position where you feel like a victim, taking this step gives you some power back. You, and only you, are the one who can decide to give this gift to someone else.   

C = Commit.

The first three steps may take some time, even years.  But when you are ready, commit to forgiveness. You are going to write it down. Literally write down “Today, I forgave [person’s name] for hurting me.” This will make it stick and keep you from coming back to it. 

H = Hold onto forgiveness.

Even if you try to let go, you will come back to it, right? Even when we do our best to forgive, you’ll have times when that resentment might bubble back up in you. When you’re like “wait a second, remember when . . . .” and then you’ll feel those feelings again. That’s when you go back to the note. Read it. Stick with it. You chose it once. You can choose it again. 

Now, maybe you are listening to these steps and thinking “there is no way. I cannot possibly forgive that huge thing that happened to me.”

You’re right.  You can’t go from zero to 100 on this.

So set aside that big thing you are holding onto for a minute. Let’s start small.

Try this process with a very small offense first, to get good at it. It’s like a muscle you have to strengthen. 

Let’s start with the guy who wouldn’t let you in in traffic this morning. 

So first, recall the hurt. He saw you, You know he did. He looked you right in the eyes. But he just kept inching forward and wouldn’t let you in so you were stuck for an extra ten minutes. 

Empathize - Maybe he was running really late and was worried he was going to get fired. Maybe he had a sick kid in the car. Maybe he didn’t actually see you. 

Altruistic gift - I am going to forgive him and if I see him in traffic tomorrow, I’ll do the same to him! I’ll cut him off! No - I will do my best to be forgiving. Maybe I’ll even give a little nod.

Commit - I’m going to put a post it with “Today I forgive random guy in the jetta for cutting me off in traffic.” on my steering wheel. 

Hold onto it - and I’ll read the post it everyday.

It’s a silly example, but you get the idea. Start with the small things: your spouse forgetting to get the things you needed from the store, your kids breaking your favorite coffee mug, your boss being grumpy in a meeting, your neighbor blowing their leaves onto your yard. Practice and practice and practice with these things so you can move toward that big grudge you are carrying around with you. Practice on the small things before you need to forgive someone for the unforgivable. 

Dr. Worthington, who developed these steps, had been studying forgiveness for nearly a decade when he was faced with the worst possible opportunity to put all of this to the test: His mother was murdered in a home invasion. True story. Though police were confident they'd identified the perpetrator, the man was never prosecuted. There was no justice. This is what he said in an interview after it happened:

"I had applied the forgiveness model many times, but never to such a big event. As it turned out, I was able to forgive the young man quite quickly. Developing this skill took years of practice. I had a professor in grad school that gave me a B, and it took me 10 years to forgive that guy."

Forgiveness for the big things takes a lot of practice first on the small things. 

When God forgave us, it happened all at once. 

But for us, we need a little time to get the hang of it. So we practice these steps, and we pray for God to help us. We remember that forgiveness isn’t just a command. It’s what God knows we need in our lives. 

Many of you have someone that you are struggling to forgive. 

You have someone who has hurt you.

You have someone who has made you angry.

God invites you to forgive them, not because it’s easy and not because they deserve it.

But, if you choose to do it, you might find the freedom and healing you have been looking for. 


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