© Glowimages - model for illustrative purposes only
“You must have an utterly forgiving spirit.”
These are beautiful but demanding words from the pen of Mary Baker Eddy, a woman who exemplified them in her own life.
For instance, she not only forgave a woman who had an affair with her husband, but at her rival’s request she also persuaded the woman’s husband to forgive his unfaithful wife, restoring peace to their troubled home.
Finding such a ‘forgiving spirit’ within ourselves can be easier said than done when some festering resentment refuses to let go of our thoughts, or if a casual slight from a relative or colleague plays over and over in our heads like a stuck record.
If the spirit is willing but the flesh weak, it can be useful to have a role model to inspire us to push back the borders of what we perceive to be possible.
Widow Maureen Greaves offered just such an inspiring example in her response to two young men who killed her husband Alan on his way to midnight mass last Christmas Eve.
Speaking outside court after the pair were jailed Mrs Greaves said she felt justice had been done for the ‘evil acts’ that had robbed her of a man ‘driven by love and compassion’.
She quickly moved from the ‘acts’ to the ‘actors’ who had murdered her husband. She said: “He would not want any of us to hold onto feelings of hate and unforgiveness. So in honour of Alan and in honour of the God we both love, my prayer is that this story does not end today.”
Instead, she hoped the killers would come to ‘understand and experience the love and kindness of the God who made them in His own image and that God’s great mercy will inspire both of them to true repentance’.
Such a calm and measured reaction to traumatic loss shows forgiveness is possible even under the most trying of circumstances. And while no-one could suggest the motive for such love was in any way self-centred, yet the evidence is growing that finding ways to forgive is a vital means to maintain or regain health.
Answering the question “What are the benefits of forgiving someone?”, the Mayo Clinic offers quite a list: healthier relationships and greater spiritual and psychological well-being; less anxiety, stress and hostility; lower blood pressure; fewer symptoms of depression; and a lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse.
Contrastingly, “persistent bitterness may result in global feelings of anger and hostility that, when strong enough, could affect a person’s physical health”, according to Canadian professor of psychology Carsten Wrosch. Constant bitterness can affect everything from organ function to immune response and vulnerability to disease.
So that inner voice, or a perceptive friend, telling us to “Get over it!” might not only be offering us a moral compass, but sound health advice, too.
In taking our ‘turn the other cheek’ medicine the vast majority of us, fortunately, won’t face as daunting an ask as Maureen Greaves. But in confronting any demand to absolve others - even if only in the privacy of our thoughts - the widow’s wise words offer a key starting point. Seeing someone we feel has wronged us “in the image of God” encourages and enables a forgiving attitude towards them. Viewing life through such a spiritual lens can bring us an inner peace that is far less conditional on the thoughts and actions of others.
Indeed, it can do more than that. In following the leadings of her ‘utterly forgiving spirit’, Mary Baker Eddy discovered that a sense of herself and others as created in the image of the divine was not just the basis for a forgiveness that supports health but a therapeutic approach to health itself. She found she could deal effectively with health crises of her own and of others through an understanding of this spiritual identity as being a primary, rather than a subsidiary, aspect of individuality. After road-testing her system of healing for several years she recorded it in a book called Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.
Her conviction, articulated over 100 years ago, that cultivating loving qualities such as forgiveness is a vital aspect of healthy living is a fact that is being increasingly recognised by the medical profession today. A string of studies in recent years has evidenced the value of this sort of mental maturity in achieving individual wellbeing.
So how do we find the desire and strength to let go of negative traits like anger and resentment?
Perhaps we, too, first need to see ourselves as that divine image. Then we could well begin to find that an ‘utterly forgiving spirit’ is actually more natural to us than holding an unhealthy grudge.
Tony Lobl is a Christian Science practitioner