“They can be like a sun, words. They can do for the heart what light can for a field.”
—St. John of the Cross
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Cleaning Up Your Past

© 2014 by Jennifer Read Hawthorne

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
Mohandas Gandhi

Many of the physical aches and pains we carry around with us have their roots in the past—whether physical or emotional events caused them. It might have been a sprained ankle at age six that gives you trouble in sports later. Perhaps you experience an unexplained fear when a parlor game calls for drawing—the result of a teacher’s comment that your art project in the third grade wasn’t good enough. Most would prefer to leave those kinds of memories in the past, and that’s fine—unless they’ve continued to walk with you right into your present and are adversely affecting the way you think and act today. If that’s the case, then it may be time to take care of your past.

Taking care of your past usually means forgiving someone for an injustice or wrong we perceive they “did” to us. It may be easier said than done, but it’s well worth it. Forgiveness has become “a hot new way” to manage anger, cut stress, and improve health.

A large and growing number of books is devoted to learning how to forgive. Many contain inspiring stories, such as the famous one of Nelson Mandela, who, after serving twenty-seven years in prison for his political beliefs, invited his prison guards to his inauguration as president of South Africa.

Countless others who have been deeply wronged have reported that they could find no peace until they found forgiveness. And author Catherine Ponder says it can even be a technique for becoming rich. All in all, forgiveness has such far-reaching benefits that it seems we would all want to practice it every day.

I decided to give it a try. I asked myself what needed to be forgiven from my past. Two people with whom I had invested a significant amount of money came to mind immediately. They had not paid me back as they had agreed, and I resented it. And I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to forgive them.

But deep down I knew that forgiving someone doesn’t mean that what they did was okay or that we should let ourselves be treated unfairly. It means to stop feeling victimized and stop making others responsible for our lives. In blaming the couple with whom I had invested money, I was sidestepping my own responsibility. I had given them my money, and now I was giving them the power to determine my happiness. No wonder my back ached.

Yes, research has found that forgiveness can reduce chronic back pain, decrease stress by up to 50 percent, increase energy, and improve mood, sleep and overall physical vitality.

Perhaps even more striking are the divine revelations resulting from forgiveness. One such remarkable example is the story of writer and evangelist Corrie ten Boom. Corrie, her father and her sister were imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during WWII for harboring Jews in their home in Holland. Though her father and sister died in the camps, Corrie survived. She wrote of her experiences in her book The Hiding Place and spent the latter years of her life traveling the world, speaking of her life and her faith.

Late in her life, Corrie met face-to-face with one of the cruelest German guards she had encountered in the camps. He had humiliated and degraded her and her sister on a regular basis, frequently jeering at them as they stood in the delousing shower. Now he stood before her with hand outstretched and said, "Will you forgive me?"

She writes, "Woodenly, mechanically I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me and I experienced an incredible thing. The current started in my shoulder, raced down into my arms and sprang into our clutched hands. Then this warm reconciliation seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. 'I forgive you, brother,' I cried with my whole heart. For a long moment we grasped each other's hands, the former guard, the former prisoner. I have never known the love of God so intensely as I did in that moment.”

Whether you’re looking for divine revelation or just a better night’s sleep, it seems that forgiveness may be an important key. As Corrie ten Boom later said: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to discover the prisoner was you.”