Saturday, November 30, 2013



“May integrity and uprightness protect me, 
because my hope,
 is in you.
        Psalm 25: 21 NIV

Social media sites are full of pictures of parents and grandparents beaming as they hold new babies. Thousands of years ago, the Psalmist declared his hope in God. It is fitting that Jesus comes as a baby. Hope is a forward looking activity. What better way to hope in the future than to see a newborn full of possibilities? Of course, at the time of his birth few foresaw what would unfold for Jesus in the next few decades. Yet some came with hope-- there were shepherds and wise men. Christmas is a time to reflect on hope.

To nurture the possibilities within any child, parents must devote considerable time and energy and personal resources. Parents are often tired and seek assistance from family and friends. Nurturing hope is an investment in the future. And for Christians, hope lives on beyond the lifespan.

In some cultures, the emphasis is on individuals and what they can accomplish if they work hard. Other cultures emphasize group effort and teamwork. In Christian culture, the metaphors are often about family. A family that includes God. Hope is bound up in joint efforts to pursue kingdom goals. Christians are known by their love, which is often expressed in meeting the needs of the poor and ministering to those who are ill. Christians are quick to forgive and encourage those who feel hopeless.

As I write, many people in the Philippines have suffered great losses. In my current hometown, an agency motivated to help people in need is aptly named Convoy of Hope. It was encouraging to see that they were on the move when Typhoon Haiyan hit. On their web page they have a motivating phrase, "A Driving Passion to Feed the World." It takes a great team of staff, volunteers, and donors to offer hope to others.

Hope in Two Parts

Hopeful people focus on goals

The late C. R. Snyder studied hope for years. Hope seems to have twin dimensions. He called the first hope dimension, pathways thinking. Hopeful people focus on goals. And goals can be short-term or long-term. People with a high level of hope generate new ways to reach goals when a particular pathway is blocked. Hopeful people sometimes join with others in the pursuit of common aims. Hopeful people persist in the face of adversity.

Hopeful people are motivated

The second dimension of hope is agency thinking. Agency thinking is about motivation. Hopeful people feel empowered to accomplish their goals. Hopeful people can say with Paul, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13, NIV).

Hopeful people are usually happy and joyful. Hopeful people are more forgiving and compassionate. The barriers in life become challenges to overcome. Hope works like an inner cycle that propels us forward. Hopeful thinking links to positive feelings and action. Accomplishments encourage us to do more and increase our sense of hope.

Parents help children become hopeful when they help children see the connection between hard work and positive outcomes. Snyder believed that for children to become hopeful they needed a strong attachment to their parents. Attachment is a significant part of what it means to love another.

It’s not surprising that the advent themes of hope, joy, love, and peace are bound together and presented to us in the form of a baby who holds out the promise of hope for the future. It is also fitting that in our calendar, the common goal-setting that occurs at the New Year is only a few weeks away. Advent is a great time to enjoy the present and consider what lies ahead with a sense of hope-- God is with us. Immanuel.

My hope is, in You Lord

All the day long

I won't be shaken by drought or storm

peace that passes understanding 

And I sing

My hope is in You, Lord

Aaron Shust- My Hope Is In You

Aaron Shust sings My Hope Is In You

C. R. Snyder held a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. He was a psychological scientist at the University of Kansas until his death in 2006. He published on many topics including hope and forgiveness. You can find a list of books and articles about hope on the linked web page.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thanks! Grateful Living

12 Facts About

Grateful People

The American Holiday of Thanksgiving is a good time to focus on gratitude. Gratitude is a common human emotion and a virtue among adherents of many religions.

Christians are encouraged to count their blessings and offer thanks each day.

In psychology, gratitude is a positive emotion expressed toward those who have given some gift or benefit. In the case of religious people, the gift can come from God.

It’s no surprise that there is a positive correlation between religiosity or spirituality and gratitude.

The Grateful Living
12 --What’s true about grateful people—
compared to those who are low on gratefulness?

1.  Higher positive feelings
2.  Higher life satisfaction
3.  More vitality
4.  More optimism
5.  More generous
6.  More helpful
7.  More likely to attend religious services
8.  More likely to practice their faith
9.  Less interested in material goods
10. Less likely to judge success in terms of
11. Less envious of others
12. More likely to share

Research Notes

Gratitude journals work. People who kept a weekly gratitude journal felt better about their lives, were more optimistic, reported fewer physical symptoms and exercise more than those in other groups who recorded hassles or neutral life events.

Making a gratitude list helps personal goal attainment.

Young adults who performed daily gratitude exercises had increased alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to people in other research groups—people who focused on hassles or comparing themselves to others who had less.

Writing letters of gratitude increased happiness and life satisfaction and decreased depressive symptoms.

A four-week gratitude program resulted in higher life satisfaction and self-esteem compared to people in a control condition.

Both gratitude and forgiveness were linked to well-being in a sample of people receiving psychotherapy.

Women appear to gain more from gratitude than men do. Compared to women, men were less likely to feel and express gratitude. Men were more critical when evaluating gratitude and overall benefited less than women did.

Women who were breast cancer patients benefited from gratitude when they were open to others. Gratitude promotes high-quality relationships.

Happy Thanksgiving

MORE PSYCHOLOGY & RELIGION                             follow on twitter 


Algoe, S.B. & Stanton, A.L. (2012). Gratitude when it is needed most: Social functions of gratitude in women with metastatic breast cancer. Emotion, 12, 163-168. DOI: 10.1037/a0024024

Emmons, R. A., & Crumpler, C. A. (2000). Gratitude as a human strength: Appraising the evidence. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 56-69.

Emmons, R. A., & Kneezel, T. T.(2005). Giving thanks: Spiritual and religious correlates of gratitude. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 24, 140-148. 
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.

Froh, J. J., Bono, G., & Emmons, R. A. (2010). Being grateful is beyond good manners: Gratitude and motivation to contribute to society among early adolescents. Motivation and Emotion, 34, 144-157.
Froh, J., Sefick, W. J., & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being.  Journal of School  Psychology, 46, 213-233.

Kashdan, T.B., Mishra, A., Breen, W. E., & Froh, J.J. (2009). Gender differences in gratitude: Examining appraisals, narratives, the willingness to express emotions, and changes in psychological needs. Journal of Personality, 77, 691-730. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00562.x

McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82-112-127. 
Rash, J.A., Matsuba, M.K., & Prkachin, K.M. (2011). Gratitude and well-being: Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention? Applied psychology: Health and well-being, 3, 350-369. DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01058.x

Toepfer, S.M., Cichy, K., & Peters, P. (2012). Letters of gratitude: Further evidence for author benefits. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 187-201. DOI: 10.1007/s10902-011-9257-7

Toussaint, L. & Friedman, P. (2009). Forgiveness, gratitude, and well-geing: The mediating role of affect and beliefs. Journal of Happiness Studies, 10, 635-654. DOI: 10.1007/s10902-008-9111-8

Tsang, J., Ashleigh, S., & Carlisle, R.D. (2012). An experimental test of the relationship between religion and gratitude. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 4, 40-55.  DOI: 10.1037/a0025632

Saturday, November 16, 2013

How God works: A Sunday short

How God 
Oral Roberts 1958, UPI
and helps

“God spared my life for a reason,” Dave testified following a close brush with death by a tornado.*

“My husband’s not expected to live; please pray,” pleaded Becky as she posted from her husband’s hospital room.*

            Christians have long believed in the power of prayer. Perhaps it is better theology to say many Christians believe in the power of God to cause a change in people or in the natural world in response to prayer. Beliefs about prayer and how God works can make a difference; as I suggested in a previous post.

All God beliefs
In classical Pentecostal traditions, believers claimed divine healing as a right. Something guaranteed by God to those who believed. As a boy, I went to a tent meeting put on by Oral Roberts not far from my home in Southern New Jersey. I recall lines of people waiting for a miracle. Throughout history, some people seemed to have a spiritual gift of healing. Naturally, people rejoice when their pain and discomfort disappear. People toss crutches and get out of wheelchairs. Dramatic to say the least. But people who were not healed were made to feel horrible. Perhaps there was unconfessed sin in their life. Maybe they did not have enough faith. Rarely did people consider it wasn’t God’s will. And sadly, some died.

All nature beliefs.
Some Christians believe the miracles reported in the Bible were just for a special time or purpose. We live in a natural world governed by the laws of nature that God set to work thousands or millions of years ago. People should still pray that God’s will be done on earth. But there is no place for personal prayer that God would do a miracle in one’s life.

God and nature.
In more recent years, Christians pray for healing but they also pray that God would guide the hands of surgeons or give wisdom to physicians so they can make the correct diagnosis or recommend the best treatment. When people get well, God gets the glory. People rejoice and are thankful. When people continue to do poorly or die, some feel betrayed by God. Some are deeply saddened but eventually learn to accept, what happens is God’s will. In this view, Christians do not see God and science as incompatible. God is present and heals in different ways.

On Tuesday, 12th November, I illustrated these approaches for a class I teach by using a table. In the left column are three common attributions people make about the cause of healing or protection from death—was the healing by God, by nature, or by God and natural means? In the other three columns are labels for correct or erroneous beliefs. Each conclusion of correct or error is based on a combination of a theological belief about how God really acts and personal beliefs (attributions) about how people were healed. Of course, we may wonder how does anyone really know what God did?

God acted alone
God acted through
God did not act
by God
by nature
by God+ nature

I suspect these ideas might apply to other faiths as well but I think it best for those in other faith traditions to offer their contributions to understanding how people view healing and God.

Mental health is different.
On Thursday, 14th November, I spoke with a psychologist colleague, Matt Stanford, of Baylor University. At a local forum, he presented some of his research and ideas about how Christians take different views of mental health compared to general health. I was reminded of one friend who said Christians need to get over the idea that we are different above the neck than below the neck. Mental health is different for many Christians. Conditions like depression and anxiety are not illnesses. Instead they are the results of personal sin or spiritual failure. The cure is prayer and bible study.

            I actually addressed some of these issues in a previous post about religion and health. Matt Stanford reminded me of the statistics. I reported a study from LifeWay on 18th September when Rick and Kay Warren spoke about their son’s suicide in an interview with Piers Morgan. Almost half of all conservative Christians (born again, evangelical, fundamentalist) agree that Bible study and prayer ALONE can help people with a serious mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Anecdotal evidence indicates many have been advised to stop taking their medication or stop seeing a psychologist or counselor.

Some concluding thoughts
  • Understanding the official theology of a particular Christian faith may not help understand how individual Christians believe and act.
  • Christians have different beliefs about how God acts.
  • Christians who depend on God for all their needs can come across as super-spiritual-- sometimes revered as saints and sometimes viewed as nuts.
  • Christians who view God as having set up the universe but not active in daily affairs are not viewed as true Christians by evangelicals unless they make efforts to quote scripture to support their beliefs.
  • If you have a mental illness, your odds are about 50% that a conservative American Christian will believe you only need prayer and Bible study to get well.

I see no compelling reason to find beliefs in God are incompatible with scientific evidence. As I have posted before, I view people in a holistic manner having five interactive dimensions, which includes the spiritual dimension. And we live and act in a social environment. It may be helpful for some to include God as a part of their total social environment. One who is present through time and across settings.

* Fictitious characters created for illustration only.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Here’s to your health…maybe

Religion & Health 

Religion &

Laura attends church but her sister Ashley does not. Who is likely to live longer?

Jo announced her husband has been cancer free for two years! And she thanks God for healing in answer to prayer.

Research suggests people who attend church live longer. And many offer testimonies of healing in response to prayer. Not surprisingly, the stories are enough to peak the interest of medical and psychological scientists. Is there more to faith than superstition? Are there measurable effects linked to religious or spiritual practices? I take a look at some of the evidence. And follow up on a previous post about prayer.

We know there are some studies showing a relationship between biopsychology and spirituality. I like to use questions to carve out issues.

1. What biopsychological changes, if any, occur when people practice their faith?
2. What is the evidence for a link between spirituality and general health?
3. What is the evidence for a link between spirituality and mental health?
4. What type of relationship exists between spirituality and biopsychology?

What do all the terms mean?
You can probably guess that scientists use words like religion and spirituality in different ways. So, the answer to the question about terminology will depend on how the scientists use the words in their research reports. Let me suggest some guidelines for those new to this area of study.

Religiosity: a way of practicing faith tied to the beliefs and practices of an organized religion—for example, prayer, fasting, meditation, baptisms.

Spirituality: a relational concept—the nature of a relationship between people and their sense of the sacred. In a recent article, I drew on the distinctions by Don Davis and his colleagues who clarify the term spirituality based on the understanding of the sacred. I have included other terms at the end of this post.

1. What biopsychological changes, if any, occur when people practice their faith?
Andrew Newberg M D (neurology) has studied a large number of people who pray in tongues and meditate. He finds changes in the frontal lobes associated with such prayer. He also reports on mystical experiences and near death experiences (NDE). See youtube video.

A number of people have observed a connection between seizure activity and reports of heightened religious experience. Example: Devinsky & Lai, 2008. Also See Dr. Coles for one example.

There is some evidence linking attendance at religious services to reduced cardiovascular diseases. This includes lower risk factors such as systolic and diastolic ambulatory blood pressure and fasting glucose.

There is some evidence that forgiveness reduces stress related indices such as cortisol levels and biofeedback measures.

There is some evidence (noted under forgiveness) that the practice of forgiveness may link to changes in the limbic system components regulating anger.

There is evidence that during Muslim Dhuha prayer, prostrate posture is associated with increased alpha wave activity as measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG). Alpha wave activity has been linked to relaxation. Study by Doufesh and others (2012).

2. What is the evidence for a link between spirituality and general health?

There are some reasonably consistent findings linking attendance at religious services and a reduction in mortality.

There is some evidence suggesting that a variety of religious practices reduce stress and anxiety and thereby enhance general health and well-being. These practices include prayer, meditation, participating in community with attendant support, forgiveness, confession, and expressions of compassion toward others.

Gratitude is a common component of spirituality. Gratitude has been linked to increased exercise and fewer physical symptoms. Many benefits were obtained for a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease. See Emmons lab for more about gratitude and health.

Hope is another components of some religious traditions. For example, Christians hope in a future restoration that is both personal and for all of creation. Research on hope has been linked to increased tolerance of pain. Also, hopeful children are more likely to follow doctor's orders. Much of the work on hope can be found in publications by C. Richard Snyder (now deceased) and his colleagues.

The practice of male circumcision, a religious practice for some, has been linked to positive health benefits in some studies according to the CDC.

3. What is the evidence for a link between spirituality and mental health?
There is some evidence linking attendance at religious services to less substance abuse- alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

There is some evidence linking spiritual practices such as forgiveness and compassion to lower anxiety and stress and increased resiliency, hope, and peace.

Pietrini and others have studied brain correlates of responses to anger inducing stimuli using positron emission tomography (PET). The brain area involved is the limbic system tied to emotional responses and linked to the medial orbitofrontal cortex. It appears possible that ruminating about anger-inducing situations increases not only negative emotions but also interferes with the capacity to reason and elicit more peaceful responses. Additional work using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) holds promise for the effectiveness of forgiveness interventions to address biologically based emotional responsiveness.

Recently, Loren Toussaint (2012) and his colleagues studied a representative sample of the US (N = 1,232). The people were ages 66 and older. The used a number of forgiveness measures and found that conditional forgiveness of others was a significant predictor of mortality after controlling for religious, socio-economic and health behavior variables. Using a mathematical model, they find that conditional forgiveness of others influences physical health, which in turn influences mortality.

In addition to the link between gratitude and physical health, Bob Emmons and his colleagues have found links between gratitude interventions and positive mental health status such as positive moods and optimistic responses as well as increased attentiveness and energy. See Emmons lab for more on the positive effects of gratitude interventions.

4. What type of relationship exists between spirituality and biopsychology? And what are the research problems?

  • When a relationship is found, we often do not know the causal direction of the relationship. And we are not even sure what would happen if the researchers measured the variables in a different way.
  • The experimental evidence is sparse.
  • Most studies rely on self-reported survey responses, which do not necessarily represent what people actually do.
  • Most studies are correlational, which leaves open the question of what caused what?
  • In some cases, different researchers used different measures so it is hard to make comparisons across studies. For example, there are many measures of spirituality, forgiveness, and health.
  • Most studies have poor controls and offer only suggestions at potential relationships without explaining what aspect of spirituality might work within a person to produce either beneficial or harmful effects.
  • When a relationship has been documented, the direction of the benefit is often not clear. For example, the causal relationship could be one of the following:
1. Better health can yield high levels of spirituality.
2. High levels of some aspect of spirituality (e.g., prayer) can yield better health.
3. There may be cyclical patterns in which health status and spiritual status continually interact.

Is there a downside? Does religion or spirituality ever lead to negative health outcomes?
Yes. There is a downside. Here are a few examples.
Some people refuse medical treatments on religious grounds. When a highly effective procedure is denied people die or suffer pain.
Some people take actions based on religious beliefs that destroy the lives of others as in war or based on beliefs that God has ordered the death of a particular person or group of persons.
Some parents hold religious beliefs that compel them to mutilate the genitals of girls (WHO).
Some religious practices of male circumcision lead to death or infection. See for example, The Jewish Chronicle.
Some people attribute some forms of mental illness to demon possession, which would lead to prayers for deliverance rather than medical treatment. 
Some people attribute some forms of mental illness to lifestyle choices or personal sin. This becomes a problem if a serious mental illness is not treated.

Other spirituality and health links
Some religious beliefs influence choices related to sexual activity and reproductive health. The beliefs influence the probability of a woman becoming pregnant and under what conditions, if any, she may end a pregnancy. Other beliefs relate to health choices affecting fertility options, sexual orientation, and sexual activity.

The future is exciting. There is a greater openness and respect developing between people of faith and scientists interested in learning more about the connections between spirituality and many facets of health.

Most people on the planet practice some sort of spirituality. In fact, most people are connected with one of the major religions. So it becomes important to understand how spirituality connects to well-being.

In recent decades, many scientists and clinicians have seen enough potential benefit to warrant continued study to learn more about the health benefits and risks of spirituality.

There is a possibility of bias in this and my other posts. 1. I am a Christian. 2. Most research on the Psychology of Religion has been done with Christians in the USA and other Western countries. The research has gradually expanded to include people from other faith traditions.

Read more news on the Psychology of Religion on Facebook or follow me on twitter @GeoffWSutton 

More terms related to Religion and Biopsychology

Religious spirituality- when the sacred is religious
Humanistic spirituality- when the sacred is humanity
Nature spirituality- when the sacred is nature
Transcendent spirituality- when the sacred is beyond the physical body- for example spirit
Biopsychology- the study of the interaction between the brain and behavior. Essentially, all of psychology is biopsychology in that all behavior is linked to biological structures and processes.
NDE- near death experiences
Neurotheology- the study of the relationship between spirituality and the human brain.
Theobiopsychosocial model-- a term I constructed to capture the idea that people are holistic beings— we have several dimensions: Spiritual, cognitive (thoughts, beliefs, mental images), emotional (feelings, motivations), physical, and behavioral (observable behavior patterns), which operate within a social context.
Health—I use the word health to refer to one’s general wellbeing with an emphasis on those aspects normally addressed by physicians, nurses, and psychologists in western cultures. When only referring to the brain-behavior states or disorders I will use the common term, mental health.

Additional Sources

 Berg, C.J., Rapoff, M., Snyder C.J., & Belmont, J.M. (2007). The relationship of children’s hope to pediatric asthma treatment adherence. Journal of Positive Psychology, 176-84.

Bergin, A. E. & Richards, P. S. (2000). Religious values and mental health. In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.).  Encyclopedia of psychology, Volume 7, (pp. 59-62). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Davis, D. E., Hook, J. N., Van Tongeren, D. R., Gartner, A. L., & Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2012). Can religion promote virtue? A more stringent test of the model of relational spirituality and forgiveness. The International Journal of the Psychology of Religion, 22, 252-266.

Hill, P. C. & Pargament, K. I. (2003). Advances in the conceptualization and measurement of religion and spirituality: Implications for physical and mental health research. American Psychologist, 58, 64-74. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.58.1.64

Holt-Lunstad, J., Steffen, P.R., Sandberg, J., & Jensen, B. (2011). Understanding the connection between spiritual well-being and physical health: an examination of ambulatory blood pressure, inflammation, blood lipids and fasting glucose. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 34, 477-488. DOI 10.1007/s10865-011-9343-7

Newberg, A. & Newberg, S. (2010). Psychology and neurobiology in a postmaterialist world. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2, 119-121.

Synder, C.R. et al. (2005). Hope against the cold: Individual differences in trait hope and acute pain tolerance on the cold pressor task.  73 Journal of Personality, 287-312.

Thoresen, C. E. & Harris, A. H.S. (2004). Spirituality, religion, and health: A scientific perspective. In J. M. Raczynski & L. C. Leviton, (Eds.), Handbook of clinical health psychology, Volume 2: Disorders of behavior and health (pp. 269-298). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Toussaint, L L, Owen A D, Cheadle, A. (2012). Forgive to live: forgiveness, health, and longevity. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 35, 375-386. DOI 10.1007/s 10865-011-9362-4
Worthington, E. L. Jr., Witvliet, C V O, Pietrini, P. Miller A J 2007 Forgiveness, health, and well-being: A review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30, 291-302. DOI 10.1007/s 10865-007-9105-8

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Relationship Betrayal & Barriers to Forgiveness


Betrayal & 

Barriers to 


On 6 November, Sarah Pulliam Bailey of RNS posted a story about the resignation of Christian Leader, Doug Phillips following an extramarital relationship. From time to time we read about stories of prominent religious leaders and relationships that have gone awry. Using graphic language, biblical prophets refer to the Israelites acting like prostitutes in their betrayal of their relationship with God. In this post I consider several weapons that hurt relationships and six types of barriers to healthy relationships.


NINE Weapons of Relationship Destruction (WRD)

I hope that as I list some WRD items -- barriers to forgiveness in relationships -- that you will recall other barriers from your own experience and share them as comments so we can all benefit. 

Couples deal with a myriad of exchanges that they often overlook but some rise above others as powerful stimuli. In addition, a number of smaller offenses can stick to each other to form a monster that seems to emerge from nowhere and catches people off-guard. We should keep in mind Gottman’s (1994) finding that 69% of all marital problems can be classified as perpetual and recurring.

69% of all  marital problems are perpetual and recurring (Gottman)

I have been thinking that many of the powerful offenses in a relationship have to do with betrayal. Let’s consider some of those events in a couple’s life together.

1. Relationship betrayal due to Self-Love: Time for personal pursuits can crowd out time together (Online gaming, sports, hobbies, music, reading, work)

2. Relationship betrayal by failing to nurture: The powerful negative ratio building described by John Gottman. Insults and complaints increasingly exceed positive comments. Be sure to check out his concept of contempt as the major WRD in relationships.

3. Financial betrayal: Many people struggle to pay bills. When a partner consumes excess resources, trust can be irreparably harmed (Irresponsible hidden purchases, persistent overspending, gambling).

4. Interpersonal betrayal: Some people seem to have time for everyone else but one’s spouse or close friend (e.g., parents, children, ministry, coworkers, other friends).

5. Emotional betrayal: In romantic relationships, one partner can develop an attachment to another person, which competes with love for one’s spouse or partner. This betrayal is felt and much worse than an excessive devotion based on duty to an ailing family member. Some find this worse than a one-time sexual betrayal.

6. Family and parenting: It is no secret that couples argue about parenting tasks and methods. Criticisms can reach a tipping point that impairs both the marriage and the capacity for effective parenting.

7. Capacity to cope with special needs: People vary widely in their capacity to cope with spouses or other family members who have special needs. Special needs vary widely and include such challenges as dementia, end-of-life care, and a limiting chronic illness.

8. Sexual betrayal: The obvious insult of infidelity is too common and often leads to irreparable damage.

9. Abuse and violence: Again, these concerns are very serious and may interfere with reconciliation leaving us with a focus on intrapersonal forgiveness. That is, we need to forgive the hurt but reconciliation may not be a safe option.




I use a multidimensional model when assessing personal problems or thinking in general about human functioning. I use the acronym SCOPES to refer to the six dimensions of the model, which I described in a previous post (August 25, 2013). At the heart of the model are the four familiar dimensions that define how we respond to life events or COPE (Cognitive, Observable behavior, Physiological, Emotional). I add two S dimensions for the Spiritual core of our being and the Social context in which events take place. Because people are whole persons, we will usually have to consider multiple dimensions at the same time.

Spiritual barriers
Blaming God or the Devil: Attributing life situations to God or the devil.  The problem may be bad theology and/ or persistent problems of figuring out how much personal responsibility each person has in a relationship.

Questioning God: It is easy to understand why people want answers when things go wrong. We seek to understand what went wrong; however, why questions can lead us astray when we seek for answers then feel compelled to create an answer. Sometimes we just cannot explain life’s complexities. Sometimes, we learn years later how a set of circumstances came about. Sometimes asking why is an invitation to develop a lie-- a fabricated story that distracts us from dealing with the relationship problems.

“Asking why invites a lie”

Spiritual Transference – For Christians, the relationships with God and family are primary so it is easy to transfer (i.e., generalize responses) feelings and attitudes toward God or toward others onto the other person in our relationship. That is, angry feelings toward God may be transferred to a friend or member of the clergy and vice versa.

Instant miracles- Some Christians believe that God will answer their prayers without delay. A belief in instant healing can interfere with forgiveness when emotional forgiveness takes longer than expected. Pastors still advise congregants to "forgive and forget" as I and a colleague once witnessed following a massacre in Africa.

Deliverance without personal work- This is something like a belief in instant forgiveness but the difference is that God does all the work. In deliverance thinking, people have a limited role to play in the spiritual battles between Jesus and Satan. This belief continues to be held among believers in many countries.

Cognitive barriers (mostly thoughts linked to an attitudinal barrier)
Trust: “I can never trust him/her again.” This can generalize as: “I can never trust another man/ woman again.”
Entitlement narratives: “I deserve better treatment.” People are here to serve me and meet my needs. This core belief can lead to thoughts of justice and revenge.
Justice: “What he/she did was just plain wrong!” “He/ she deserves to be punished.” The call for fire and damnation.
Revenge: “He/ she better watch out.” Thoughts and fantasies of ruinous destruction accompanied by that gloating feeling.
Memory: “Do you know what he/she did?” A belief in one’s memory of events as perfect and if people only knew what I knew, they too would be impressed with the wicked and unfair treatment. Our brain searches for other associations with the offenses and the negative thoughts we are processing. Our memories are imperfect and only retain a part of an experience. Different people present at an event recall different details.

Hindsight is 20/200

Duty: I must forgive. If I don’t forgive, God will punish me. A belief that a quick pushing aside of a hurt is required of a Christian, which can lead to stifling unrecognized emotions.
Victim narratives: I get what I deserve. I should have said that. If only I did what he/ she asked he/ she wouldn’t have been so mad at me. A victim’s narrative prevents an objective appraisal. As the narrative continues, the problem of unforgiveness deepens.

Observable behavioral barriers: Patterns of verbal and nonverbal behavior
Verbal behavior-- things people say
You will pay for this. You better watch your back.
 Personal insults- numerous offensive words designed to hurt, belittle, embarrass. Recall Gottman’s findings on contempt and things like hostile humor, name calling, and mockery.

Nonverbal behavior-- things people do
Active avoidance: Leaving, hiding from a painful stimulus- the burned hand on the stove effect. It is hard work to promote healing a relationship when one person walks away.
Passive avoidance: isolation, withdrawn (think depression; too much stress to face)
Active aggression: Hitting in many ways; destruction of property
Passive aggression: Lateness for events; Low participation in spouse’s events, sex strike

Physiological barriers
The physiological response to stress has been fairly well documented. There is of course some variation from person to person.

Common stress factors
Dysregulated (increase/decrease) sleep and appetite
Increased blood pressure and heart rate
Stomach distress
Muscular effects- tightness
Neurological responses- headaches, migraines

Neuropsychological effects
            Deficits in attention and concentration possibly involving dopaminergic pathways
            Deficits in memory possibly associated with serotonin and the hypothalamus

Emotional barriers
Emotional pain is at the core of our being, which we experience in associated words, images, behavior patterns, and palpable changes in our body. We describe these powerful and primitive emotions as hot states of anger, uncomfortable states like anxiety (including fear and dread) and cooler smoldering states like deep sadness and depression. Research shows that trait anxiety is a particular problem in forgiveness and reconciliation.

Social barriers
There are several aspects of social space that function as barriers to forgiveness and reconciliation. As I write this post, we in Christian cultures are approaching Christmas. Obviously, a major spiritual event but the expectations are for family members to be together in peace and harmony. Factors of time and space can turn Christmas and other occasions into barriers.

The first dimension is time. People focused on past hurts are mired in the past and unable to function effectively in the present or consider the future. This time problem can obviously vary from person to person but in the extreme, a person almost seems to live in the past. 

There are several dimensions of social space that people occupy sequentially during a day. Other locations vary by the week, month, or holiday season. Many have a home and visit extended family. Many have friends. Most go to work or school and some do both. Within each social space are people who serve to enhance or degrade a person’s life experience. People affect us as we affect them. People can serve as barriers to change. And people can serve as bridges to recovery.


            I would like to leave you with a sense of hope and encouragement. I believe many people find their way to forgiveness as they pray and meditate or benefit from wise counsel from friends or authors of many helpful books. Others report success by working through the steps of forgiveness with a counselor, pastor, or spiritual adviser. In previous posts I have suggested ways to improve relationships such as effective apologies and the ideas about healthy marriages from Gottman's research.

Related forgiveness posts

Babcock, J. C., Graham, K., Canady, B., & Ross, J.M. (2011). A proximal change experiment testing two communication exercises with intimate partner violent men. Behavior Therapy, 42, 336-347.
Kirchhoff, J., Wagner, U., & Strack, M. (2012). Apologies: Words of magic? The role of verbal components, anger reduction, and offence severity. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18, 109-130.
Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce: The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Luskin, F. (2002). Forgive for good: A proven prescription for health and happiness. New York: HarperCollins.
Pennebaker, J.W. (2011). The secret life of pronouns: What our words say about us. New York: Bloomsbury.
Sutton, G. W. (2010). The Psychology of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Integrating Traditional and Pentecostal Theological Perspectives with Psychology. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds.). Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Restoration: Multidisciplinary Studies from a Pentecostal Perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.
Sutton, G. W. & Mittelstadt, M. W. (2012). Loving God and loving others: Learning about love from psychological science and Pentecostal perspectives. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 31, 157-166.
Sutton, G. W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Restoring Christian leaders: How conceptualizations of forgiveness and restoration can influence practice and research. American Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 8, 29-44.

Thomas, E. K. & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious Leadership Failure: Forgiveness, Apology, and Restitution. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 10, 308-327.

Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2006). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. New York: Brunner-Routledge.