What Unforgiveness Does to Your Brain

We’ve all been deeply hurt in some way…a betrayal by a spouse, a behind-your-back criticism from a friend, hateful judgment from someone at church, a false accusation by a co-worker, unfair treatment by a boss or a parent. And the deeper the hurt, the harder it is and the longer it takes us to forgive. But sometimes we simply don’t forgive. We harbor a grudge. Resentment builds in our hearts. We nurse the offense. As a result, we remain prisoner to our pain and we harm our brain.

broken brain

When someone hurts us, it’s natural and normal to feel pain. God created our brains to help us survive when we feel threatened. It’s called the fight-flight-freeze response generated in our emotional centers, primarily mediated by two almond shaped clusters of brain cells called the amygdalae.

When the amygdalae are activated, a series of bio-chemical processes begin. The adrenal glands that lie on top of our kidneys release the stress hormone cortisol into our bodies and the brain releases neurotransmitters into the brain. Those in turn activate part of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. When this system is activated, among other things, our attention gets highly focused on survival, our digestive system stops, our pupils dilate, our saliva glands slow, our blood pressure and heart rate increases, and our muscles are readied for action. Our body prepares itself to fight, flee, or freeze.

This process can happen whether or not we are in real danger or whether or not someone really hurts us or we simply perceive that they did.

Unforgiveness can keep our bodies and brains in this state of high alertness and leads to these unhealthy results.

  • Rumination: we nurse and rehearse the hurt which reinforces our negative emotions and burns the event and pain even deeper into our neuropathways. When we’re not focused on a task, our inner self-talk will often default to rehearsing the painful situation.
  • Diminished memory: when we remain stressed for longs periods of time (i.e., we refuse to forgive), cortisol actually causes our brain to atrophy, especially our memory center called the hippocampus.
  • Amplified negative emotions: prolonged stress also amplifies our amygdalae’s sensitivity making us even more susceptible to further hurt and pain.
  • Schadenfreude: this concept describes the secret pleasure we feel when we see those who have hurt us experience misfortune themselves. It actually causes our brain to produce the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. It actually feels good to see bad things happen to those we don’t forgive. It’s the opposite of praying for your enemies which Jesus commanded us to do.

So, unforgiveness not only keeps us chained to our offender but it profoundly affects our bodies and brains.

So what can we do? Consider these insights to forgive those who have hurt you.

  1. First, admit the pain. When we name a painful emotion (not stuffing or rehearsing it) we actually decrease that negative emotion’s intensity.
  2. Journal. Processing our pain through writing it down can lessen the pain and help us gain better perspective. However, don’t let journaling become another way to rehearse and reinforce your pain. Through journaling seek to gain God’s perspective and healing.
  3. Begin to choose to forgive the person. Notice that I used the word ‘begin.’ Some offences can be quickly forgiven. Some may take a long time to fully forgive. Forgiveness is a process. The deeper the pain, the longer it takes. It’s not so much forgive and forget. Rather, true forgiveness is more like remembering it less and less.
  4. Draw deeply from God’s grace. At the root of the Christian faith lies grace, receiving God’s grace and extending it to others who have hurt us.

The Apostle Paul reminded us in Colossians 3.13 to forgive others as Jesus has forgiven us.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

What insights have you learned about forgiving others?

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What I Learned from Kids who Survived Cancer

My youngest daughter, Tiffany, has survived a brain tumor and multiple brain surgeries. As a result, she has a heart for hurting people. A few times a month she takes her dog LuLu to hospice care to visit patients.  A few years ago for several summers she served as a counselor at a camp for kids who survived cancer. Each year that camp would invite the kids, counselors and family to a dinner/dance the day after U.S. Thanksgiving. That year I took Tiffany. After dinner, Tiffany, the other counselors, and the kids took to the dance floor. That’s when, as I fought back tears, I jotted down these insights that I learned from these kids who survived cancer.

Cancer Word Cloud Concept with great terms such as disease, chemo, survivor, patient, doctor and more.
  • We all yearn for a place where others accept us “as is.” All these kids had this in common, they battled cancer. Many that night carried the obvious evidences of that battle–bald heads and puffy faces due to chemo, wheelchair confinement, or visible scars from surgery. But these things didn’t matter to them. It was as if they were oblivious to each others’ physical limitations. They accepted each other “as is.” (Jer. 31.3, I have loved you with an everlasting love.)
  • We all need moments when something transports us away from thoughts about our problems. One rule the camp rigidly enforces is, “We will not talk about our illness.” That same spirit carried over into the comments by the director that night as she spoke of joy, hope, and future. That same spirit pulsated from the dance floor as these kids jumped, danced, and twirled to the beat of the music and the direction of the rotund DJ. (Phil. 4.8, Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.)
  • God’s image that He implanted into every human heart shows itself when we sacrificially give ourselves away to others. Each camper is assigned an adult that spends 24/7 with that child during camp. At this dinner the adults sit next to their ‘companion,’ as they are called, and they joyfully dance with them on the dance floor. One counselor Tiffany introduced to me had served 15 years straight. Her effervescent personality oozed love for these kids. (Gal. 6.2, Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.)
  • God wants us to celebrate each other’s milestones with great joy. Each year at the dinner they play Pomp and Circumstances as the camp’s high school seniors march to the podium. This year only one made it. Two others couldn’t attend due to their illness. The high school senior whom the group celebrated that night had attended camp 13 years straight. Although surgery scars marred her face, she walked across the room and held her head high for she had not only survived, but thrived. After she received her ‘diploma’ the DJ began the dance music and this senior, dressed in her graduation robe, became the center of attention. The kids rushed into a circle as they danced and celebrated her milestone. My thoughts drifted back to when Tiffany graduated from high school. We weren’t sure that she would make it that night because the effects of her brain surgery often left her unable to stand on her own. The teachers had assigned a big football player to stand at her side and help her if needed. But, with a sense of great accomplishment, she walked across the platform on her own and received her diploma. I rejoiced. Then I cried. (Rom. 12.15, Rejoice with those who rejoice.)

I never expected to learn about acceptance, thinking about the good, sacrificial service, and celebration from kids who had cancer. Yet that night I committed, for Tiffany’s sake, to stay as long as she wanted so she could relish those magical moments with people who accepted her unconditionally.

Modifying the line from My Fair Lady, “I could have danced all night,” I could have stayed all night as Tiffany danced all night.

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What Mac & Cheese Taught me about the Needs of Others

A very successful businessman inadvertently taught me a lesson about paying attention to other people’s needs … with macaroni and cheese.

Macaroni and cheese in an individual casserole dish with bread crumbs

Several years ago I ate breakfast at my favorite diner with one of our church’s key leaders. He owned a flourishing business and gave quite generously to our church. As I enjoyed the blue plate special of eggs, pancakes, and Canadian bacon, I asked him how business was faring. He described one recent experience with a potential client that brought a smile to my face and a fresh reminder that I must pay closer attention to other people’s stories and needs.

He had scheduled a lunch with a local company CEO and remarked that she ordered only salad and mac & cheese. I thought that a bit odd as did he until he said, “She explained that her favorite food was mac & cheese.”

He then described a second luncheon with this same CEO at this office that he had scheduled for the next Monday. The menu that day? Mac & cheese from six different restaurants.

From a business perspective he ordered this novel lunch menu hoping to make a good impression on a client that might garner him more business. But I thought to myself, What a creative and thoughtful way to touch a person’s life.

His kind gesture may not have brought him new business, but I’m convinced that this CEO will never forget his thoughtfulness. My friend simply paid attention to someone else’s unique interests.

As I drove back to the office after that breakfast and mulled over this mac & cheese luncheon, God impressed these thoughts on me.

  • Do I pay close enough attention to the leaders, friends, and spiritual seekers in my life to discover their unique interests?
  • Do I consider those interests as invitations from God upon which I could capitalize to become a better tool in God’s hands to minister to them?

I don’t think I will ever see mac & cheese in the same way again.

How have you met other people’s practical needs after discovering something unique about him or her?

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3 Ways Leaders can Deal with their Shame

Shame is a powerful and often silent killer of our soul. It has afflicted many pastors and ministry leaders. Edward Welch, author of Shame Interrupted (a great book) defines shame in this way. Shame is the deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did, something done to you, or something associated with you. You feel exposed and humiliated. Or, to strengthen the language, you are disgraced because you acted less than human, you were treated as if you were less than human, or you were associated with something less than human, and there are witnesses (Kindle loc 177-180). So how do we deal with it. Here are some thoughts.

Upset boy against a wall

3 Ways Leaders can Deal with their Shame

  1. Realize where shame comes from. 
    • It comes from our own sin.
    • It comes from sins others commit against us.
    • It comes simply by association (i.e., someone in your family commited something scandalous and you feel shame because of it).
    • It comes from our humanness (i.e., when we realize we don’t have what it takes to achieve our goals in life; this is often true for pastors when they realize they may never pastor a big church).
  2. Take comfort in God’s perspective on shame.
  3. Make four critical decisions.
    • Turn to his face in repentance. Read the amazing story of Isaiah’s encounter with God in Is. 6.1-7 for the biblical basis of my thoughts below.
      • When we feel shamed, we don’t want to look someone in the face. We want to avoid them. However, Jesus wants us to come into his presence and look Him in the face to deal with our shame caused by our own sin. He wants us to confess and repent. Psalms 34.5 says, Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.
    • Receive his touch of forgiveness.
      • Jesus often physically touched the outcast, broken, and shamed. Human touch can often melt away shame. Jesus wants us to experience his touch of forgiveness and cleansing
    • Drink deeply of His Spirit.
      • In John 4 we read the familiar story about the woman at the well. When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for water, he crossed many shame barriers: rabbis did not talk to women, Jews did not talk to Samaritans, and Jews did not contaminate themselves by eating or drinking with non-Jews. He offered her life-giving water from His Spirit. God’s Holy Spirit can wash away our shame as it did for this woman.
    • Feast at his table of acceptance in the church community.
      • After Peter denied Jesus, he felt great shame. Yet, after Jesus’ resurrection and after Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him, he had a meal with Peter and the other disciples which pictured his being welcomed back into community. Shame can melt away when we experience real community in the church.

Shame stings, but it need not be deadly. Although people and circumstances around us may still shame us (and it hurts), Christ can release us from its destructive power.

1Pet. 2.6 For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”

What has helped people you know deal with their shame?

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The Wounded Pastor

Woundedness. A condition this side of heaven we all will face from time-to-time. Pastors are not immune. I’ve been hurt and you probably have been as well. If you’re wounded right now because of what someone in your church or family said or did, what should you do? Consider these five critical choices that can help you deal with your hurt.

wounded heart
  1. Recognize and acknowledge your basic behavioral response when you get hurt.
    • God wired our brains to act quickly when we feel threatened. Two small almond shaped cluster of neurons (brain cells) called the amygdala lie deep in the brain. When we feel danger or threat (i.e., someone hurts us), they enable us to respond quickly. Although they are quick to respond, they don’t differentiate very well between a real tiger in the woods (real danger when we need to run to keep from getting eaten) and a paper tiger (someone in your church who said something hurtful to you).
    • Here are the four basic responses to hurt. When we become aware of the one that is our predominant reaction, we can then become more proactive to not let it get out of hand.
      • Fight: we react, become defensive, yell, scream, refuse to yield
      • Flee: we physically or emotionally cut ourselves off from others, become passive aggressive, quit talking, shut down
      • Freeze: we don’t take any position, we stay neutral and don’t do anything when we should do something
      • Appease: we people please, try to keep the peace at any price, compromise convictions, enable the person to continue in his or her hurtful behavior
  2. Act as if.
    • Jesus said in Luke 6.27 that we must love our enemies. The word for love is the word agape, a love that is not based on the merits of the other person. This love is not something that happens to you (i.e., like someone who ‘falls’ in love). Rather agape love is a choice of our will superintended by the Holy Spirit that allows us to love the offender even when we don’t feel like it. It is an ‘act as if’ kind of love.
  3. Guard your tongue.
    • When someone hurts us it’s easy to lose control over what we say in return. Jesus says in Luke 6.28 that we must bless those who curse us. To bless is the opposite of cursing. It is using our words in a God honoring way rather than in a vindictive or a ‘tit-for-tat’ way.
  4. Wish the best for your offender.
    • Again in Luke 6 Jesus makes some astounding statements about how we should treat those who have hurt us: turn the other cheek, bless them, pray for them. When Jesus makes these statements he’s not prohibiting self defense. Neither does He imply that we should pray that our offender would continue in his or her hurtful ways or that they should necessarily get their way. Rather, He’s saying that as we pray we pray for God’s best for that person. Often their greatest need is for true repentance so that they can experience God’s forgiveness. John Piper aptly explains what it means to pray for and wish the best for our offenders.
      • Prayer for your enemies is one of the deepest forms of love, because it means that you have to really want that something good happen to them. You might do nice things for your enemy without any genuine desire that things go well with them. But prayer for them is in the presence of God who knows your heart, and prayer is interceding with God on their behalf. It may be for their conversion. It may be for their repentance. It may be that they would be awakened to the enmity in their hearts. It may be that they will be stopped in their downward spiral of sin, even if it takes disease or calamity to do it. But the prayer Jesus has in mind here is always for their good.

  5. Lean into Jesus.
    • Jesus commands in Luke 6 may seem like nonsense statements. If you’ve been deeply hurt, these first four choices are impossible on willpower alone. It takes supernatural strength to respond in a godly way to those who hurt us deeply. When we lean into Jesus and respond appropriately to such hurt, we act most like God. When we lean into Him, the Holy Spirit will give us the strength we need to not yield to our default responses. Rather, He will give us the wisdom, stamina, and strength to respond to our offender in a God honoring way.

What has helped you deal with hurts in ministry?

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