Forgiveness is an important part of a full and healthy life

Published: Saturday, March 30 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

Sam Cox battled a porn addiction several years ago and his wife, Trudy, was so mad and betrayed she could hardly bear it, but she never thought about leaving, but instead, they've worked on forgiveness and been able to emerge stronger than ever Tuesday, March 19, 2013, in Midvale.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

MIDVALE — Trudy Cox knew she'd never leave her husband Sam even as she stared with disbelief and revulsion at the unexpected, vile images on the screen of the computer they shared. Her Sam — 75 then, a Mormon missionary as a young man, a family man, a rock — caught by pornography?

She fled to a little river that she loved near their home. The refuge gave her no peace. She sobbed and raged and sobbed some more. Later, she marched him to their church for counseling and confession.

She was by his side as he worked the 12 steps of addiction recovery. She went to the parallel program for spouses. She stood by him as he was stripped of church callings and membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as he rebuilt a shattered reputation. It would take five years to earn much of it back.

But she seethed quietly for the longest time. Forgiveness, she said, is the tough part of trial. It would come only later and after great struggle.

There's a reason that making amends — the asking for and giving of forgiveness — is the ninth step in 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. The heart and head need time.

Science and religion sometimes butt heads, but on this they agree: Forgiveness is an important part of a full and healthy life. Virtually all major religions and probably most if not all minor ones embrace that message, which takes on special importance on Easter for Christians who follow Christ's teaching, "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

Brain vs. heart

Forgiving wrongs is part decision, part emotion, said Everett L. Worthington Jr., a noted expert on the topic of forgiveness, who teaches psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. You can decide not to seek revenge or that you're going to treat someone as valued. The emotional is harder — replacing negative emotions with positives like empathy, compassion and love.

"There's an injustice gap and the size of the gap is proportional to how difficult it is to experience forgiveness," said Worthington, whose book "Moving Forward, Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past," will be released soon.

Research proves forgiving matters. Worthington, the American Psychological Association and other experts see major consequences in physical, mental health, relationship and spiritual realms for hanging onto grievances. "The research says if you are holding onto unforgiveness, grudges and revenge motives, you're going to experience a lot of fall-out in your life," he said. Half the time, forgiveness adds positive experience; for the rest, it moves negative to a more neutral position so life can go on.

Coloradoan Diane Bucci's autistic son Mikey committed suicide in a store while in a delusional state. "I can tell you, the reason we have to forgive, whether it's forgiving God, a loved one, ourselves or life in general," she says, "is because we cannot move out of that 'pause' moment of misery/anger/grudge-holding bitterness until we forgive."

Worthington listed ways people overcome feelings of unforgiveness — getting revenge, seeing justice done, seeing the offender get consequences, condoning what happened, justifying or excusing it. "But the only thing you can do that can push you into positive areas is forgiveness."

The "how" of forgiving

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