Sunday, December 28, 2014

Goal Setting and the Meaningful Life

Before You Write Another Goal

Goals, Meaning, and Faith

Have you thought about goals for the new year? The question annoys some and engages others. And some use the occasion of a calendar event to assess their progress on life goals. Goals add meaning to life. Goals reflect a sense of purpose – so it’s no surprise that research on goals and purpose would include a study of the role of religion or spirituality. Even if you are not familiar with the scientific study of religion, you would probably find it easy to see that religion or spirituality, however defined, offers people a sense of purpose in life and ways to connect various life events so they make sense. Perhaps this is behind the popular book by Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life? And on the downside, as I have written elsewhere, there is a purpose driven death—seen in those who sacrifice their lives for a religiously motivated goal.

A favorite reference for writers on meaning and purpose is Victor Frankl and his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl wrote about three routes to a meaningful life (Galek et al., 2014, p. 1):

Victor Frankl: Three paths to a meaningful life

1. Create a work or perform some action
2. Experience something or have an experience with someone
3. Adopt an attitude to cope with “unavoidable suffering”

     (This is sometimes called the meaning triangle)

Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have studied human needs related to meaning. Galek et al. summarize his focus on four basic needs.

Roy Baumeister: Four basic needs that lead to meaning.

1. We need to believe that life has meaning.
2. We need to believe that we can meet life’s challenges and reach our goals.
3. We need to believe we have worth.
4. We need to believe our actions are good and justified.

Kathleen Galek of  The Spears Research Institute in New York and her colleagues in various places studied the subject of religion, meaning, purpose, and mental health in a survey of 1453 U.S. adults. Their article provides an excellent summary of the relevant research and many interesting analyses of this extensive survey. The article is far too large to summarize here; however, I will adumbrate a few findings and include the reference below for those interested in details.

Three Ways to Link Faith, Meaning, and Mental Health

1. Religious commitment was significantly linked to fewer mental health symptoms.
2. Meaning and purpose in life were significantly linked to fewer mental health symptoms.
3. Meaning and purpose in life interact with religious commitment to explain mental health symptoms.

The interaction effect is important. Highly religious persons reporting a lack of meaning and purpose in life experience significantly more symptoms of social anxiety, paranoia, and obsession than either people who were less religious or those who were highly religious but who felt their lives had meaning and purpose.

Setting Goals: Four Ideas

1. Setting goals compatible with one’s faith enhances spiritual well-being and mental wellness. For example, a believer who commits to prayer and the study of scriptures enhances their identity as a spiritual person and increases their capacity to face the challenges of life from a faith perspective.

Self-help books and the support that comes from sermons and friends help in times of distress.

2. When a highly religious person is overwhelmed and finds little sustenance in their faith then their distress will be worse than those who never had such faith or those who can see the link between life events and their faith.

Millions of religious people suffer pain and loss each year. Looking back over the past year can be painful. And the idea of setting goals for another year can seem so futile. The whole experience of review and goal setting makes matters worse. Offering religious words of encouragement increases anger and despair. Clergy and friends would do well to keep quiet and demonstrate their faith in supportive actions.

3. Think about the ideas of Frankl and Baumeister when writing personal or career goals.

4. Psychotherapists would do well to read the Galek et al. article and think about the role of goal-setting in therapy and the importance of religion and spirituality.

I often read clinician notes indicating that the client did not find religion or spirituality relevant. I suggest that therapists may not be assessing the role of religion and spirituality in sufficient depth. People who struggle with depression and anxiety may not see how their faith can make matters better or worse. In the U.S., most people report they are Christians and for a substantial percentage of those, their Christian beliefs are important.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” ― Viktor E. FranklMan's Search for Meaning

Related Posts


Galek, K., Flannelly, K. J., Ellison, C. G., Silton, N. R., & Jankowski, K. B. (2014). Religion, Meaning and Purpose, and Mental Health. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, doi:10.1037/a0037887

Related Articles

Sutton, G. W. (2014). Psychology of forgiveness: An overview of recent research linking
psychological science and Christian spirituality. Encounter, 11Academia Link 

Sutton, G. W. (2007). [Review of the book Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths by C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez]. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 26, 273-274.   Academia Link

Sutton, G. W. (2007). [Review of the book StrengthsQuest: Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career, and beyond by D. Clifton & E. Anderson]. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 26, 82-83.   Academia Link

Sutton, G. W. (2010). Spirituality and health: Considering spirituality and religion when planning
strategies for psychological assessment and treatment. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 38,
132-133. Academia Link

Sutton, G. W., Jordan, K., & Worthington, E.L., Jr. (2014). Spirituality, hope, compassion, and
forgiveness: Contributions of Pentecostal spirituality to godly love. Journal of Psychology and 
Christianity, 33, 212-226. Link to Researchgate 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Flash mob greets Maria and Jesus

A Merry Christmas Story
Jesús Born Reports Lucas

Back in the day, Cesar Augusto declared that everyone should have healthcare and all working families should have a path to citizenship. The deadline to sign up was 24 December. This happened when politicians did not get along. And everyone went online to register for healthcare.
Those who were not citizens were to make sure they paid their taxes and completed a citizenship application.

José and María, his pregnant fiancé who needed healthcare, could not even afford internet service. Anyway they bundled up and began their taxing trip into town to use cousin David’s line. David was out. Exhausted, they decided to stay at the Holly Day Inn, where they could get online. “Sorry guys, we’re full,” said Clark. José noticed a sign on an office door and asked if they could use that room. The kindhearted Clark nodded his head. Then María exclaimed, “omg, I’m like having a baby.” So Clark called 911. And María gave birth. She wrapped him in Holly Day Inn towels and put him on the floor of the Manager’s office.

Exhausted but joyful, María and José tweeted the good news. Angela retweeted it and began texting her pastor and friends (fortunately, they had sms service). “Where?” They replied. “Mangers place, Holly Day Inn, near David’s house.” 

Soon a flash mob appeared. Everyone was saying, “omg.” Gloria, a large angelic woman was married to Gabe. They both gave a shout out to God and called for peace. When the twittersphere calmed down, everyone said let’s go check it out. 

So they raced to the Manager and found María and José and their baby. Everyone pulled out their small screens and spread the good news.

The story of the poor family spread round the world. The wealthy Maji family decided to visit and bring special gifts. Meanwhile, the local government, frustrated with Cesar, devised their own plan to round up illegal immigrants and deport them. The Maji had some problems with the TSA but after questioning and giving detailed personal information, they found their way to the family home. They brought gold cards and other special gifts. But in the night they got a message that they were under NSA surveillance so they left early and used a different route. 

Meanwhile, María and José decided to take Jesús and leave the country. Technically they were illegals. And they were afraid the government might not honor previous decisions. Although they had relatives in the area, they did not want to be separated from their newborn baby who brought such joy to them and all their family and friends.

Merry Christmas!

Geoff W. Sutton  @GeoffWSutton  

Revised from 2013

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Joy to the World vs. Joy Aborted


In the next five minutes, 8 or more mothers will lose their unborn child in the U.S. The joy of welcoming a baby into the world will be lost. Many mothers have lost a child more than once. Christmas is a season given to celebrations of joy and focused on gifts to children. But many families feel a deep sense of loss. Christmas without children can mean days of sadness.


We met at breakfast and passed around the picture of my granddaughter before she was born. The beauty of an ultrasound photo brings joy and confirms hope for millions of parents and grandparents. She and her sister have been sources of great joy. Sadly, millions of parents and grandparents will not experience this joy. In fact, many mothers and fathers suffer in silence as they struggle with the loss of a child they may have wanted for years. The term miscarriage sounds so dispassionate. Miscarriage makes the loss of a pregnancy like another medical event instead of the death of a child.

But medical technology has brought children to life in ways never seen before. Knowing that one is pregnant with a wanted child brings hope. Seeing a moving baby via ultrasound brings joy and confirms hope. My child is alive and well! Modern fathers say, “we are pregnant.” They are bonded as well. But many couples lose their child.


“We are going to have a baby!”
             Announcements stream across social media.

In the U.S. women report some 4 million pregnancies each year. Estimates vary but 15 to 20% of these unborn children will not be born. The language for the cultural experience of pregnancy is changing to reflect a sense that a mother is with child. And as noted above, many fathers share the experience.

We seem to be in an extended cultural transition when it comes to the role of children in contemporary industrialized cultures. Family sizes have shrunken to 1-2 children. Having huge families to help with a family business is no longer a part of industrialized societies. In fact, raising children in western cultures is expensive—if one is to keep up with social expectations.

Some successful children give back to their parents but many depend on their parents late into life. More and more, children are valued for their contribution to a sense of family—people bound together in the journey of life with a common set of values and the potential to make the world a better place. Of course that does not always happen, but babies offer promise and parents and grandparents invest heavily in the next generation.

As noted above, the language surrounding having children has changed. Advances in technology provide moving images of an unborn child. We see recognizable bodies in motion and we hear a beating heart. We are convinced this is a child—not a fetus or some other clinically distant term. People are having a baby—it’s not just a pregnancy. Miscarriage and abortion is not terminating a pregnancy—a child dies. Moreover, medical technology has advanced in saving the lives of unborn children that would have died in decades past.

I suspect that the current trend will continue. Increasingly, the unborn child will be viewed as a family member and expectant parents will keenly feel the loss when a child dies.


Most religions are prolife. Some religions permit abortion in special circumstances. In the U.S., the prolife movement has been quite successful in their quest to protect the life of the unborn child. But where are they when millions of unborn children die each year?

More and more churches have responded to the need to provide homes for pregnant mothers who have been encouraged to keep their children. But where are the churches when parents lose these unborn children? My wife and I received cards, some calls, and a few visits when our parents died. People who have been part of a community for a long time usually draw large crowds when they experience the loss of a loved one. The loss of a child is a huge tragedy. And the support is usually generous as well.

So where are the churches when an unborn child dies?
After all, haven’t conservative churches been actively preaching that the unborn are children?
Don’t these parents feel the loss?
Don’t these parents grieve?
Don’t these parents need to mourn?
Why are there no funerals or memorial services?
Where are the graves?
Where are the markers?
Why the disconnect in caring for families when people die at different ages?
Does caring for a child in the womb count as being a parent?
Must your child be alive to still be considered a parent?


Fortunately, parents are opening up about their losses and receiving care from family, friends, and healthcare professionals.

1. Some parents seem to benefit from support groups.

2. Some parents benefit from naming the unborn child and holding a memorial service.

3. Some parents benefit from cultural practices honoring the death of any family member—planting a tree, donating to charity, giving cards and memory gifts.

4. Some light candles and honor their loss in the U.S. on October 15, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.

5. Churches who believe that the unborn are children can demonstrate this belief in the way they support any member who grieves a loss. And they may need to rethink how they honor parents on mother’s and father’s day.

6. Church members already help grieving families. An awareness that parents of unborn children also grieve can motivate congregants to include them in their circle of help.

7. Churches can be places where parents who lost their bundle of joy can find a measure of joy in caring for others.

There are many ways to bring joy to those who grieve.

And on a personal note, we too lost an unborn child. It was a time when mothers and fathers kept such events quiet. Times are changing for the better. 

Restore the Joy

References and Resources

A recent article in TIME magazine. Someone I Loved Was Never Born

A related TIME article about miscarriage.

Day of Prayer for the protection of unborn children

African American Faith resources for bereavement

How one couple dealt with shocking news about their unborn child. ABC news

One mother's story ABC Good Morning America 

Article for clinicians on complicated grief following loss of an unborn child NCBI

If you have resources to share, please add them with links in the comments section

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Black Lives Matter Love Your Neighbor


Many in the U.S. will honor Black Lives Matter Sunday. This is an important opportunity to celebrate the love theme of advent by making it clear that the lives of Black citizens really do matter. Black leaders have called for a day of prayer and lifting up the significance of black lives and black communities.

Christians are supposed to be people characterized by love for others. Obviously, many fall short. This weekend can be an opportunity for redemption. All Americans can show their respect for and love of Black Americans on Sunday, throughout the Christmas season, and in the years to come. Despite a Civil War in the 1800s and Civil Rights actions in the 1900s, racial prejudice and racial inequality persist in the 2000s. There's more work to do.

Whites need to understand that racial inequality has not ended. This Sunday is an opportunity to realize the work begun in the Civil Rights era has not been completed. Discrimination persists in the labor market. Having a white-sounding name increases your odds of a call back in response to a job application compared to those with a black-sounding name. In a Chicago study, car dealerships offered significantly lower prices to white men compared to offers to black men, white women, or black women.

LOVE  Mourns With Those Who Mourn

Learning that a friend was murdered is a terrible experience for anyone. Celeste Johnson (2010) looked at how African American girls dealt with the murder of a friend. Dealing with the death of a friend or relative may be more difficult for teens because they have a greater understanding of the permanency of loss and a longer relationship with the loved person than do children. And they do not yet have the stability, experience, or developed worldview of adults.  For teens and for others, the loss of a friend due to homicide evokes two major responses sets: coping with the distress of separation (sadness, longing) and coping with murder as an unexpected traumatic event (disturbing images, avoidance, and an excessive startle response). When people do recover, they sometimes show more maturity. Johnson studied the responses of 20 African American teens ages 16-19. Their recover was marked by religious and spiritual themes. Many began by questioning God and proceeded to finding meaning. Some spiritual meanings expressed—things happen for a reason, he’s gone to a better place. The girls remained connected to their friends. For example, “I know that he’s still here with me” or “…I know I’ll see ‘em again one day.”

LOVE Understands Pain
Many Black children from poor urban settings experience or are exposed to acts of violence. These children are likely to report symptoms of PTSD, depression, aggression, substance abuse, and delinquency. They often have poor school performance and engage in risky sexual behavior. But it is important to note that the research findings are mixed. The experience of violence is not always linked to acting out in violent ways. Children deal with trauma in different ways depending on the type of trauma. In one study of 6th to 8th grade Black students, boys exposed to nonviolent trauma were likely to have PTSD and depression. Girls were more likely to have PTSD. Girls were most influenced by personal victimization, which predicted not only PTSD but also depression and acting out. The active symptoms common to trauma victims indicates the importance that relationships have on many of these children. The presence of trauma symptoms suggests they were not so desensitized to all kinds of violence. The sample size was 403. Those reporting family violence (e.g., pushed, grabbed, shoved, threw something, slapped, hit, kicked etc.) 43%, those exposed to other violent trauma (e.g., family member badly hurt, robbed, killed raped etc.) = 71% and those with a close relationship to someone who experienced nonviolent trauma (hurt or killed in an accident) = 75% (Jenkins et al., 2009). See the article for more details.

LOVE Builds Friendships

Similarity is an important basis for friendship selection. Adolescents select their friends based on activities and interests that they consider important. A common finding is that academic orientation and substance use are frequent criteria for similarity. However, studies comparing friendship among African Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans find more diversity among African Americans (Hamm, 2000).

Contact between Black and Whites improved attitudes when their partners were present (Welker et al., 2014).

Perhaps Black and White Christians share some similarities based on a common faith. It is important to state the obvious: White Christians have kept Black Christians out of their churches and ministry for much of U.S. history (e.g., Olena, 2010). Yes, I know times have changed. My point is, that we must be vigilant to affirm all people are created in the image of God. Given that Christianity is the dominant religion in the U.S., the call to value Black lives ought to be motivated by love.

Coming Together NY Times Story 13 December 2014

Hamm, J. V. (2000). Do birds of a feather flock together? The variable bases for African American, Asian American, and European American adolescents' selection of similar friends. Developmental Psychology, 36(2), 209-219. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.36.2.209

Jenkins, E. J., Wang, E., & Turner, L. (2009). Traumatic events involving friends and family members in a sample of African American early adolescents. American Journal Of Orthopsychiatry, 79(3), 398-406. doi:10.1037/a0016659

Johnson, C. M. (2010). African-American teen girls grieve the loss of friends to homicide: Meaning making and resilience. Omega: Journal of Death And Dying, 61(2), 121-143. doi:10.2190/OM.61.2.c

Olena, L. (2010). I’m sorry my brother: A reconciliation journey. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds.) Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studiesfrom a Pentecostal perspective. 89-106. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

Mostert, J. & van der Spuy, M. (2010). Truth and reconciliation in South Africa. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds.) Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration:Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. 145-176. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

Welker, K. M., Slatcher, R. B., Baker, L., & Aron, A. (2014). Creating positive out-group attitudes through intergroup couple friendships and implications for compassionate love. Journal of Social And Personal Relationships, 31, 706-725. doi:10.1177/0265407514522369

Friday, December 5, 2014

Seasons Greetings: Peace or Violence on Earth


Imagine greeting people with a blessing of “Violence” as in, “Violence to you and your family.” Of course violence has been a part of life for millennia. And we often hear that peace is fragile in some part of the world. But we hope for peace. And some of us work for peace.

In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, peace follows justice. That makes sense. We hear news stories of violent protests following a legal decision that seems unjust. Peace follows justice. Injustice disrupts peace. Future peace is predicated on evidence that the offended people will be treated justly.

The image of peace created by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah strikes us as strange. What kind of world would it be if a wolf and a lamb could eat together without the latter being the meal? A wise lamb would flee from the presence of a wolf. In the Bible, many texts admonish people to live righteously and justly. True, biblical notions of justice involve right relationships with God. But they are also about right relationships with other persons, regardless of their ethnicity. People who count as strangers (Leviticus 19:34) deserve to be treated fairly.

And for Christians, peace is often a theme for the second Sunday of Advent. Peace is a theme for the season.


There are spiritual and psychological aspects to developing inner peace. People on the verge of death are sometimes encouraged to “make peace with their maker.” Most of the world’s people are religious. And they are concerned with life beyond life. Peace with God requires an appreciation of justice. When people sense they have done wrong they wish to be forgiven. Faith provides a path to forgiveness. Forgiven people sense an inner peace. But often they need the help of a member of the clergy or a clinician to accept forgiveness and let go of the troubling and unsettling inner disturbance. Anytime is a good time to “let it go.”

Whether religious or not, self-forgiveness works. And self-forgiveness seems to follow the same process of learning to forgive others. Here's a link to a book on self-forgiveness and a research study: Moving Forward.


People who work for justice are working for peace. The scales of justice is an image that implies that a balance is needed. People need to be treated fairly within their society. Special treatment of one group or another is unjust. People constantly seek benefits for themselves and their kin or group. If they win special favors, they foster injustice and seek to disrupt peace. Peacemakers support just and equitable treatment of all persons.

Reconciliation is one process that can restore peace following a disruption. The reconciliation process is built on trust. Words alone will not build trust. Trust happens one day at a time. Every act of good faith builds trust. Every violation of a commitment to fairness and equality destroys trust. I have written about reconciliation before.


Here are some suggestions about promoting peace. Do share more in the comments section.

1. Promote peace by emphasizing improvements in policies and practices that foster justice for all persons in a community or workplace.

2. Resist the urge to characterize all of a person's life based on a few or even many failings.

3. Consider mercy when justice is required.

4. Take a stand against violence and protect the vulnerable.

5. Consider the possibility that people can be transformed rather than assume people will never change.

6. Learn conflict management skills.

7. Seek support when dealing with difficult people.

8. Practice self-forgiveness to experience inner peace.

9. Practice forgiveness of others to lessen internal distress.

10. Consider the possibility of reconciliation when others appear ready to rebuild trust.



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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Four Strategies for Building Hope

Developing Hope

Following a night of rioting homes and businesses are destroyed. Anxiety reigns supreme as those motivated by anger and revenge destroy hopes and dreams. Leaders are needed to restore hope. Rebuilding cities and homes offers hope. Psychotherapists help people rebuild their lives. Spiritual and secular leaders alike offer people hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Without hope life is reduced to mere existence.

Hope springs eternal. Hope is a future-oriented motivation. Hope involves our thoughts, feelings, and actions. And for most people, hope is also spiritual.

Many religions encourage people by offering hope. People hope that God will work out the problems of their lives as long as they are faithful. People hope for supernatural interventions and guidance in their prayers.

Hope is often the first theme in the four weeks of advent-- a time when Christians prepare for the coming of Jesus as a child. Newborn babies in the arms of mothers, fathers, and grandparents adorn the web. Babies represent hope.

Many religions encourage the faithful to offer hope to others in the form of gifts of time, service, and basic needs. We may reasonably wonder if the homeless are also hopeless. Warm clothes, a warm shelter, medical care--there are so many ways that giving products and services also gives hope.

Hope keeps people motivated in the pursuit of goals. Many discomforts and bad experiences can be overcome when hope remains alive.

Most children in countries with mega-economies have no need to hope for food and clothes. They have enough and more. They may hope for a toy they do not have, a special treat, or desirable gift. They may tantrum when wishes are not fulfilled. Hope is surely relative to one's life situation. But hope is a near universal component of human nature.

Disease and death disregard wealth and age. Children and adults hope a loved one will live longer or recover from a serious illness. And many hope they will see their loved one again in a new life after this life. Many faiths offer this kind of hope.

What else is hope connected to?

In a recent study of Christian University students, my colleagues (Kayla Jordan and Ev Worthington) and I found that hope was positively linked to compassion, forgiveness, and service to others. And those with higher levels of hope experienced less anxiety in their relationship with God. None of these should surprise us. But the links suggest a possible interrelationship. The students' sense of hope (nonreligious hope measure) was linked to their relationship with God and their relationship with others--specifically compassion and forgiveness. Hopeful people are more compassionate and more forgiving.

Hope is a powerful motivational force that can be nurtured.

How can people build hope?

1. Practice forgiveness. See other posts and many books to help you through the process. Forgiveness, like hope, allows people to focus on the future. Forgiveness closes a painful past event. Hope orients us toward future goals. Forgiveness allows hope to grow.

2. Show compassion by helping others. Focus on the joy of helping others rather than on avoiding guilt feelings due to crass pleas for funds at Christmas time. It is well-known that people are more inclined to give during Christmas holidays. The classic English tale, A Christmas Carol, illustrates the conversion of Scrooge into a man full of compassion for the needy. In giving to others, compassionate people offer hope to rebuild lives.

3. Offer hope by demonstrating that others can count on you to follow through on commitments. In the Hunger Games story of the Mockingjay, Katniss becomes the face of hope and the Mockingjay becomes a symbol of hope. People rise with hope, not just because a leader has been chosen and a symbol is on display, but also because people sense they can count on Katniss to lead them to a better life. Many are discouraged when political, community, church, and family leaders fail.

4. Meditate on stories of hope. Read about people who have risen to the occasion to offer a model of hope for others e.g., Malala Yousafzai,  Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill. Fictional characters like Katniss in the Hunger Games also teach lessons of hope.

The words of an ancient prophet still embody hope.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.Jeremiah 29:11 NIV



Hope and Marriage

Optimism and Marriage


Nelson Mandela


Sutton, G. W., Jordan, K., & Worthington, E.L., Jr. (2014). Spirituality, hope, compassion, and forgiveness: Contributions of Pentecostal spirituality to godly love. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 33, 212-226. Link

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving path to an enriching Spiritual Journey

Thanksgiving and Faith

 Amidst the advertisements reminding us that Christmas is a few weeks away, millions in the U.S. will pause to celebrate Thanksgiving. Ideally, people will share a traditional meal with family and friends. It will be a time to experience joy and express gratitude. The tradition carries images of people who had lived in North America for centuries sharing a feast with new arrivals from England. Like a giant gold-framed antique painting, joyful people are forever portrayed in quaint clothes celebrating a harmonious relationship. Christian children learn the English offered thanks to God for their survival and for the harvest.

Admittedly, for millions in the U.S., it will not be a joyful occasion. And many might be more in the mood of expressing their sadness and disappointment rather than conjuring up some thankful trope to answer the recurrent question: “And what are you thankful for?” So it is with any feast day round the world. Some people are seemingly always thankful and others find the downside in every event.

So, apart from a prayer of thanks, how can thanksgiving be a spiritual experience? I have a few ideas. Thanksgiving fits nicely with a line of Positive Psychology research focused on gratitude. In a previous post, I identified 12 characteristics of people who are high in gratitude. And I listed research findings supporting the value of developing gratitude such as the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal. Here I want to consider how gratitude fits as a spiritual experience.

1. Gratitude Connects People
The Hebrew Bible contains a collection of psalms (e.g., Psalms 118, 138) illustrating the expression of thanks to God. Christians also celebrate these psalms and add their own scriptures (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:18) to show the importance of thanksgiving. For Jews and Christians, a loving attitude toward others is a natural expression of loving God. Muslims living in the U.S., also report that Thanksgiving is compatible with the natural expression of thanking God for His blessings. 

Loving others often includes expressions of gratitude for who they are and the way the other people in our life contribute to our well-being. These connections are deeply spiritual. Although atheists obviously do not avow belief in a god, their connections to family and friends via expressions of gratitude can indeed be spiritual as well.
Thankful people build positive connections.

2. Gratitude Helps Make Life Meaningful
Religion and spirituality have been notoriously difficult to define in a way that captures the experiences of people throughout the world. Most human beings express belief in supernatural beings and engage in rituals they consider sacred, special and holy. At this point in my understanding, I like the approach of Ray Paloutzian and Crystal Park (2013) who view religion and spirituality as part of our human capacity to create meaning. It seems as if people everywhere ask questions about life. People seek meaning. And religions offer people prepackaged ways to organize many of life’s events.

So where does gratitude fit in? When people express gratitude they are appraising the people and events in their life. They are thankful for family and friends, places to live, jobs, and many many other things. Expressing such values is an act of assigning meaning. People who are thankful to be united with a family member or good friend find that person makes life more meaningful. 
Giving thanks creates meaning.

 3. Gratitude Motivates People to Pursue Spiritual Goals
To increase expressions of gratitude can indeed be a spiritual goal in itself. But taking the time to express gratitude can also be motivating. We witness this when we see people donate time, possessions, and money to promote the well-being of others. In the U.S., people who are not busy preparing to host a large Thanksgiving Day gathering often take time to help a local charity feed and clothe those in need. And for those of us who are Christians, it is a timely reminder that the Christian holiday round the corner, Christmas, is a time of giving gifts. Gratitude is linked to generosity. 
Gratitude is part of spiritual growth and development.

4. Gratitude is Linked to a Positive Approach to God
In goal theory, psychologists have explored how people may be oriented toward goals by approach or avoidance incentives. Some Christians have a positive approach toward God. They desire to be in his presence and come with thanksgiving in their hearts. Gratitude is part of their approach motivation. Others act out of a sense of duty and express fear of what God might do to them if they fail to live according to his commandments. This fear based motivation characterizes the avoidance orientation. In their summary of recent research, Robert Emmons and note that the spiritual goals might be similar.

 People with both approach and avoidance orientations may want to minister to the disenfranchised around the world but they are oriented toward their goals by different motivating trajectories. The approach orientation is linked to a more satisfying spiritual experience and may be linked to finding more meaning in the experience. Those who maintain an approach orientation toward God and in their spiritual goals experience less anxiety and do not struggle with the negative effects of the avoidance orientation. An avoidance orientation is linked to anxiety and worry, a biased recall of negative information, more negative feelings, and lower self-esteem. In short, avoidance motivations are linked to a lower sense of well-being. 

For more information, see the recent review of research, Gods and Goals, by Robert A. Emmons and Sarah A. Schnitker (2013).

Here’s a quote illustrating the gratitude-approach orientation:

 Enter his gates with thanksgiving
 and his courts with praise;
 give thanks to him and praise his name. 

(Psalm 100:4, NIV)

Thanksgiving can be the starting point of an enriching spiritual journey. 



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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. & Schnitker, S. A. (2013). Gods and goals: Religion and purposeful action. In R.F. Paloutzian & C.L. Park. (Eds.). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.) pp. 3-22. New York, Guilford.

Paloutzian, R.F. & Park, C.L. (2013). Recent progress and core issues in the science of the  psychology of religion and spirituality. In R.F. Paloutzian & C.L. Park. (Eds.). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.) pp. 3-22. New York, Guilford.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Four steps to reconciliation


Years ago, a former slave reconciled with his captors and used his position to help them and their family survive. You may have heard the Hebrew story of Joseph—a man favored by his father and despised by his brothers. He was sold to traffickers and ended up a servant to an Egyptian leader where he was sexually harassed, place in prison, and forgotten for years. After his wisdom and leadership was recognized in prison, he was freed and placed in a government position. During hard times, his brothers came to purchase grain. Joseph recognized them but they did not recognize him. He tested them, which induced fear but later, he revealed himself, and provided for their well-being. From time to time, I have heard pastors use the story as a basis for a sermon on forgiveness. But it’s not about forgiveness. There’s no evidence of forgiveness at all. All we observe are degrees of reconciliation among the family members. And near the end of the story, when the father dies, some brothers come to Joseph in fear that, with the father gone, Joseph would seek revenge. What we do see are examples of key elements of what reconciliation means. (See Genesis chapters 37 to 50 for the biblical story.)


As you might guess, people disagree on how to define terms like forgiveness and reconciliation. From a psychological perspective, reconciliation is an interpersonal concept. Here’s a quote from Sutton and Thomas (2005, p. 35).

Reconciliation is a new state of closeness that exists between or among people who were separated because of a transgression committed by one or more of those persons. The state is characterized by prosocial behaviors.

I think it important to keep in mind that the new state of reconciliation will not necessarily be the same as the relationship before the offense. People change as a result of an offense and people change during the process of reconciliation. It is possible, that the new relationship could be somewhat better if one or both persons make personal changes that stimulate a better relationship. Of course the nature  of the offense can make a significant difference in how well the reconciliation progresses.

Like other relational concepts (forgiveness, restoration, love), reconciliation takes time. We can speak about the process of reconciling, which might go on for years. Here’s a definition of reconciling from Sutton and Thomas (2005, pp. 35-36).

Reconciling is a process of building a relationship between or among people following a transgression that caused a disruption. Reconciling includes various verbal and nonverbal
behavior patterns that suggest no significant transgression will recur.

Reconciliation can be a lifelong process. When people sincerely wish to repair a damaged relationship, they can take incremental steps to demonstrate trust. Sometimes the progress is interrupted. People have a hard time changing and people make mistakes, but progress can be made, and people do learn to work or live together following disruptions.


For some people, there is no difference. The pastors who use the Joseph story to speak about forgiveness hold a commonsense view held by many, that forgiveness entails reconciliation. In fact, some research conducted by my fellow students found that a substantial number reported that forgiveness included reconciliation. Researchers Aquino, Tripp, and Bies (2001) considered reconciliation as a behavioral manifestation of forgiveness.

In general, I support the position of my colleagues who recommend we think of forgiveness and reconciliation as related but distinct concepts. Here’s an example. You can imagine forgiving a person for something they did years ago. But perhaps you did not get around to forgiving them until recently. Meanwhile, the person died. You can still let go of the bad feelings associated with the memory of what they did. You no longer have to put the event out of your mind when it comes up. That's forgiveness. But there is no possibility of reconciliation with the deceased—at least not in the ordinary idea of working together again.

Here’s another example. Suppose a couple divorce and remarry other persons. Eventually they forgive each other for the hurts they experienced together. Maybe they learn to genuinely like each other again. But if they are focused on their new marriages, there is no reasonable possibility of reconciling as wife and husband. We could argue that being friendly is a type of reconciliation and I would agree, but it is clearly not the same as a reconciliation that restores a marriage.

Finally, people who have been abused by a spouse or other person may learn to forgive the abuser for reasons of personal well-being, but reconciliation would not be a wise move. Too many people have returned to their abusers only to be hurt again. Forgive, yes. Reconcile? Maybe.

Reconciliation is an external event that takes place between two or more people.

Forgiveness is an internal event that brings inner healing.


Actually, forgiveness seems to help promote reconciliation. It is easy to see why. If one or both people separated due to an offense learn to forgive, they are predisposed to respond favorably toward the other person. And in a disrupted marriage, it is important to work on both forgiveness and reconciliation for the well-being of each spouse and the quality of the relationship.

In reviewing the work of others (See references below) I find a few steps are likely helpful. And it is probably a good idea to work with a trusted counselor or member of the clergy to keep the reconciliation process on track. 

Step 1. Assess. The first task is to assess for readiness, which includes assessing safety. As I mentioned before, the risk of abuse or further offenses can only make things worse if not actually dangerous. Each person needs to be ready to reconcile. People are different. One person can be ready much sooner than the other. One person may never be ready.

Steps 2 and 3: Test and Trust. The next steps are two steps that are interconnected—test and trust. As in the Joseph story from long ago, people still need to test each other in small ways. When people pass reasonable tests, they learn, or relearn, trust. Trust is a relational concept. Trust is not all or nothing. Trust is a matter of degree. Sharing a meal, working on a project, or doing anything together, can build trust.

Step 4. Undo the harm. At some point in the process, when enough good will has been re-established, an effort to undo the past should take place. This can be a series of meetings or counseling sessions in which the parties feel safe to reveal the hurts, express feelings, offer apologies, and express forgiveness. See a previous post to learn more about effective apologies.



  Pickwick       AMAZON




Aquino, K., Tripp, T. M.,& Bies, R. J. (2001). How employees respond to personal offense:
         The effects of blame attribution, victim status, and offender status on revenge
          and reconciliation in the workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 52-59.

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.  doi 10.1037/a0028092

Pop, J. L., Sutton, G.W., & Jones, E.G. (2009). Restoring pastors following a moral failure: The effects of self-interest and group influence, Pastoral Psychology, 57, 275-284.  doi 10.1007/s11089-008-0162-x

Sutton, G. W. (2014). Psychology of forgiveness: An overview of recent research linking psychological science and Christian spirituality. Encounter, 11 Academia Link

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., McLeland, K. C., Weaks, K. Cogswell, P. E., & Miphouvieng, R. N. (2007). Does gender matter? An exploration of gender, spirituality, forgiveness  and restoration following pastor transgressions. Pastoral Psychology. 55, 645-663. doi 10.1007/ s11089-007-0072-3 Online Link n11144j1655536l2/

Sutton, G.W., & Thomas, E. K. (2005). Can derailed pastors be restored? Effects of offense and age on restoration. Pastoral Psychology, 53, 583-599. doi: 10.1007/s11089-005-4822-7

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Keeping Faith on Veterans Day Honoring the Armistice

Armistice Day/  Veterans Day, & Spirituality

8 March, 2012, Normandy France, Geoff W. Sutton

A century ago, 1914, The Great War was underway. Two years later, on 21 February 1916 the Battle of Verdun began. Using the code name, Judgment, the Germans attacked the French at Verdun in an effort to “bleed France white” (von Falkenhayn). The graphic descriptions left by the soldiers remind readers of the horrors of war. The numbers of dead soldiers at one battle is mind-numbing—133,000 French and 120,000 Germans. War is a spiritual experience of the worst kind. War is hell.

On the fields of Belgium and France, soldiers noticed signs of life. Men remembered birds in the sky. Close to the release of German gas, a woman gave birth (April 22, 1915). And despite the devastation, others appreciated the flowers in the Spring.

 In 1915, a Canadian soldier, John McCrae, penned the famous lines:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Wake up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In 1918, Moina Michael reported a spiritual experience as she read McCrae’s lines. She especially noticed the last verse. And she determined not to break the faith. Monia Michael was familiar with veterans and the effects of war on those who survived. A famous relative (General Francis Marion, aka Swamp Fox) had fought in the U.S. colonial war for independence. Her family, longtime residents of U.S. Georgia, fell on hard times in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. She began work as a teacher. She was in Europe with friends when war broke out in 1914.

After returning to the U.S., she began volunteer work for the YMCA. At a YMCA conference in New York, two days before the armistice of 11/11/1918, she had a spiritual experience as she connected with McCrae's poem. She began wearing a poppy at the conference, which inspired others to do the same. She campaigned to have the poppy recognized as an official remembrance of what the soldiers had sacrificed. Her ideas were carried to France by Madame Anna E. Guérin. In the years to follow, several Western countries followed the practice. The poppy not only represented a remembrance of those who gave their lives, but it also served as a reminder of those survivors who were disabled and those civilians harmed by the effects of war. (Link to more on the story.)

In war, ordinary people carry out the decisions of political leaders. The writings of soldiers in the line of duty reflect how hard it is to make sense of daily existence regardless of the sacred cause. For soldiers in the trenches and on the barren plains of war, the basics acts of life—eating and drinking—take place among the dead. The plea to keeping faith with our warriors is answered every year when people take time to honor those who died for us. Spiritual experiences are of course quite personal, but a few lines of a poem and a small poppy flower illustrate the power of symbols to affect the emotions of millions of people in many nations. Even hardened warriors can be moved to tears as they remember fallen friends. Only life makes sense of death.

Symbols make life and death meaningful when they connect us to the lives of real people.

The death of veterans gives life to others.

The supreme sacrifice is aptly named--what else can a person give that is so meaningful?

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