Choosing to forgive is a hallmark of the Christian faith. Previously, I discussed the importance of forgiveness in the lives of believers. Today, I’ll be diving into the consequences of refusing to forgive. Unforgiveness damages all aspects of you as a person: spirit, soul, and body. Read on to better understand why choosing not to forgive is one of the biggest barriers to experiencing abundant health.
Unforgiveness is Sinful
The word of God instructs Christians to forgive repeatedly (See Luke 6:37, Matthew 6:12, Mark 11:25, Ephesians 4:32, and Colossians 3:13).
The entirety of God’s redemptive plan of salvation hinges on forgiveness. Because of that, it is not hard to understand why God sees a refusal to forgive others as a grave sin. In fact, he calls unforgiveness “wicked” in the ‘Parable of the Unmerciful Servant’ in Matthew 18:32.
The Greek word used for wicked, ponēros, is translated as hurtful, evil, depraved, degenerate, malicious, and diseased. It also strongly conveys moral culpability and guilt.
“it means “depravity, iniquity,” or “malice” and malice means to do evil with purpose, desires, and doing so with intent. Doing anything with malice means that it is an intentional commission of a wrongful act and is absent from any justification for the person committing it. It is done with the intent to cause harm to others (most of all God) and is a conscious violation of the law that injures an individual or individuals…the person committing the wickedness stands guilty as a convicted criminal of harming others and themselves because it is done intentionally (with malice) and indicates the depravity of the individual.
It Leads to Spiritual Bondage
The criminal nature of unforgiveness explains why Jesus twice used the analogy of such an attitude leading to imprisonment in the New Testament.
- Matthew 5:23-26 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. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
- Matthew 18:34-35 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Jesus obviously wasn’t talking about unforgiveness leading to physical imprisonment in either of these examples. He was talking about it leading to spiritual bondage.
The Lord’s explicit commission was to free captives from spiritual prison (Luke 4:18). The Christian’s adversaries, Satan and his demonic forces, are the jailers who hold prisoners in bondage through physical, emotional, or spiritual sickness.
Refusing to forgive adversely impacts your fellowship with God, leaving you vulnerable to the enemy’s attacks. A spirit of unforgiveness is an open invitation for demonic oppression, which is why Paul stated in Ephesians 4:26-27 “And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil.”
Unforgiveness Causes Emotional and Psychological Damage
Besides setting ourselves up for spiritual bondage, unforgiveness can also significantly damage our emotional health. The author of Hebrews warned that a root of bitterness can defile many (Hebrews 12:15). Not only can unforgiveness damage you personally, it has the potential to ruin those in proximity to you as well.
In Holding a Grudge Can Make You Sick, Ashley Abramson writes…
Loren Toussaint, PhD, professor of psychology at Luther College in Iowa, has extensively studied forgiveness and its effects. While unforgiveness, by definition, might seem like merely a lack of forgiveness, Toussaint says it’s more like a mix of several potentially harmful emotions.
“With unforgiveness, you’ve actually cooked up a brew of bitterness, hostility, and revenge, a unique combination of emotions that surround your experience of being wronged, and that are virtually indistinguishable from stress,” he says. “And anything that triggers the stress response isn’t good for you.”
Perceiving we’ve been wronged or ruminating on anger keeps us in a state of fight-or-flight, where the brain triggers autonomic defense responses in the body (like a racing heart, slowed digestion, and sweaty palms).
Scientific studies show that anxiety, depression, low self esteem and hopelessness can all result from prolonged states of bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness. Additionally, these damaging emotions are also tied to self-alienation, distrust, and social introversion – all of which are catastrophic for building and sustaining healthy relationships.
Unforgiveness Destroys Your Body
Even the medical community recognizes the damaging physical effects of unforgiveness. Holding on to hurts can negatively affect your immune system, your cardiovascular system, your endocrine system, and your nervous system.
In the article by John Hopkins Medicine ‘Forgiveness: Your Health Depends On It’, it states…
“There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,” says Karen Swartz, M.D., director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions.
The heart in particular is vulnerable to the anger and hostility resulting from an unforgiving spirit:
- A study done in Finland showed that hostility is a major risk factor and predictor of coronary artery disease. High-hostility scorers were almost three times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than low scorers.
- A twenty-five-year follow-up study involving 255 University of North Carolina medical students, found that those who scored highest in hostility on a standard personality test were nearly five times as likely to die of heart disease as their less hostile classmates. They were seven times more likely to die by the age of fifty.
- In a similar study conducted among law students, those with the highest levels of hostility had more than a fourfold risk of dying within the next twenty-five years.
From all angles, a spirit of unforgiveness is an incredibly damaging health proposition. The health consequences of retaining anger and bitterness as a result of harm you’ve experienced are severe. Thankfully, all of these ill effects can be avoided or even reversed by fully forgiving others from your heart. In the final blog of this series on forgiveness, I’ll walk you through exactly how to forgive, so that you can walk in the freedom of God’s grace.
Now that you understand what’s at stake, who do you need to forgive from your heart?