The unburdening of forgiveness

Updated: Oct 16, 2018


Two thousand years ago, in rural Palestine, a Jewish Nazarene Rabbi was praying and was overheard by one of his apprentices. The apprentice - clearly in some way intrigued and drawn in by the prayer of the Rabbi - asked for a lesson on how to pray like that. The rabbi's response contained a simple, short prayer that has been so profoundly impactful and compelling that people having been praying that prayer ever since.


Besides gravestones; in majestic cathedrals; in infested public toilets; in addiction meetings; in weddings and funerals and birthdays; in crowds and lonely corners; in moments of deep, dark doubt and in moments of mystical unexplainable spiritual encounters; in silence and in song, and with simple spoken words.


Followers of Jesus often refer to this prayer as the Lord's Prayer. [1]


(btw... if you haven't seen it yet, watch this moving 1 min video from the Church of England on the Lords prayer that curiously was actually banned from theatres in 2015)


In the middle of this ancient liturgy, we find this ostensibly innocuous line:


...forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

I wonder if many people just sort of assume that prayers from Jewish rabbi's from thousands of years ago are surely outdated, and irrelevant for our lives today. Particularly all this focus on sin and forgiveness. It's 2018! Isn't this perhaps a really outdated way of looking at the world? Haven't we moved on? Evolved? Progressed?


In 2014, a research team led by Xue Zheng published a scientific study which blew my mind when I heard about it. Using two tests, they showed the physical effect of forgiveness as opposed to holding a grudge.


In the first test half the participants wrote about how they had recently forgiven someone for a serious offence. This was the 'forgiveness group'. The other half wrote about a serious offence for which they had not forgiven - the 'unforgiveness group'. They were then asked to express how steep they perceived a specific hill to be.


Sounds simple (and pretty dull) so far, right?


But... fascinatingly, a first group (the forgiveness group) perceived the hill as not as steep as compared to the other group (the unforgiveness group).


The two groups saw the same hill.


And yet the group that had forgiven, and then had thought about that forgiveness, actually saw the hill in a less challenging way than the other (grudge-holding) group!


Wait... what...?!? Seriously?


Forgiveness here showed to significantly affect the way people see and experience the same reality.


Similarly, the second test in the study showed forgiveness to actually affect how high people could jump! Somehow, through the mysteries of the body and brain and whatever else, removing the (immaterial, emotional) burden of offence, and choosing to forgive someone, they were more physically able and could jump higher - almost as if an actual physical weight had been taken off their shoulders...


Xue Zheng summarises her study's findings:


"Our research shows that forgivers perceive a less daunting world, and perform better on challenging physical tasks."

Perhaps, then, there is something intrinsically true in that ancient old prayer about the depths of the human soul. Something that's not so dated at all. Something that we're still discovering and exploring.



Nelson Mandela, who of course had a powerful and transformative story of reconciliation, said this about forgiveness:




"Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies"

I've recently reflected on how millions of people have found repeating this simple Jesus prayer to be undeniably transformative and beneficial. I think it's such a powerful idea to have a rhythm of prayer that contains within it, a regular moment of stopping and considering if there is any unforgiven offence harbouring within my soul. The process built into the structure of this simple prayer means that I appreciate God's incredible forgiveness of my sin [3], and pretty much in the same breath, consider if I need to outwork that very type of forgiveness for someone else. This Jesus prayer is naturally humbling, as we see the unmistakeable connection and similarity between the sin of those who have offended us, and our own 'sin'.


I think this prayer is as challenging

and compelling

and transformative

and beautiful

and necessary today as it was two thousand years ago.


Imagine a world with more of us praying like this more often - forgiving more fully and 'drinking less poison'.


I wonder what the 'mountains' in front of us might look like then?


1 - Luke 11

2 - Study available here.

3 - I think "Sin" here as in "culpable disturbance of shalom" - where my brokenness means I miss the perfect mark of what God has for me, and I work against Jesus' way (or God's kingdom) of peace and love.