Friday, September 26, 2014

The Psychology of Forgiveness

Psychology of Forgiveness and
 Christian Spirituality

Forgiveness has become faddish in recent years as numerous mental health clinicians became aware of the benefits of forgiveness to mental and general health. Books and seminars promise pathways to help people forgive and reap the benefits in better health. Adding to the interest is the fit of forgiveness with Christian teaching—still the dominant faith in the US where much of the forgiveness research has been conducted. The research findings are indeed encouraging but an eagerness to apply a new discovery can often lead to misapplications and exaggerated expectations. Forgiveness is not a panacea.

I recently (September, 2014) summarized research on the psychology of forgiveness and Christian spirituality for the journal, Encounter. In this post I will summarize some key points. Here’s the link to a copy of the complete article, Psychology of Forgiveness, where you will find more details and complete references. You will find other publications on the Academia page.

If you are new to the study of forgiveness or haven’t looked at the history, I recommend two books. Simon Wiesenthal’s book, The Sunflower, is a classic. Simon tells the emotion laden story of a Nazi soldier’s request for forgiveness (Link to Sunflower Project Page). He then includes numerous responses from many persons so we learn how people view the concept of forgiveness. The link to the recent focus of Christian forgiveness can be traced to Lewis Smedes of Fuller Theological Seminary. Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (1984) is a must read.

What is forgiveness?

Like most people, psychological scientists disagree over definitions. Even when they reach a consensus, they can end up with ideas that are different from the public perception. Forgiveness is a relational concept. Here's a definition from an article that distinguishes between a state and a process (Sutton & Thomas, 2005, pp. 33-34).

Forgiveness is a multidimensional intrapersonal relational concept. It is a reasonably stable, motivational state that exists when a person experiences positive cognitive, affective, and/or physiological responses toward offenders and/or their transgressions. The state of forgiveness follows a choice to forgive that occurs sometime during the forgiving process. 

Forgiving is a multidimensional, motivational process that reflects overall increasing positive changes in cognitive, affective, and/or physiological responses toward offenders and/or their transgressions. The process has a starting point following a transgression. The process may be interrupted or reversed. The process may or may not result in a stable state of forgiveness.

We can also think of forgiveness as a personality trait or disposition. Some writers refer to this as forgivingness. The idea is that some people routinely forgive more than others-- as if it were part of their character. Here's a quote from Sutton & Thomas (2005, p.34).

Dispositional forgiveness is a personality trait that reflects a tendency to respond to many transgressions with positive cognitions, affects, and/or physiological states within a short time

Speaking of forgiveness only make sense if a person has been deeply hurt and the bad feelings connected to that hurt persist. Forgiveness is one way of dealing with the hurt feelings and the sense of injustice surrounding a hurtful event.

When someone lies about you, beats you, or commits any of number of horrible acts, it is not easy to get past the hurt. Forgiveness is one way to let a hurt go. Other ways to address the injustice is through a justice system where penalties can be applied to the offender or by way of revenge. Many find the justice system and revenge unsatisfying in terms of reversing the harm done. Many live with the hurt feelings but this inside burial does not work well. Bad feelings flare up from time to time. This holding on to a range of bad feelings has been called unforgiveness by Enright (2001) and Worthington (2006).

Unforgiveness is about the past.

Unforgiveness traps people in the past.

Psychologists mostly view forgiveness as an intrapersonal process. From a psychological perspective, the focus of forgiveness is on the internal process required to let go of the damaging emotions, thoughts, and behavior patterns associated with the complex of unforgiveness. But to most people, forgiveness is something that happens between persons. Following a hurt, the offender is supposed to apologize and the victim is expected to forgive. Of course that often does not happen. And to make matters worse, in times of conflict, any two people can be both victim and offender as each person may say or do things that hurt the other. In real life, forgiveness is complex.


As you will see in the article, I cite studies that show health benefits for young, middle aged and older adults. Forgiveness has been linked to levels of stress, well-being, and depression. Forgiveness can promote successful aging, better relationships, purpose in life and personal growth. Forgiveness may also be a risk factor in mortality.
Unconditional forgivers had lower mortality risk 
(Toussaint, Owen, & Cheadle, 2012).

Forgiveness Interventions

There are two models that appear helpful for a number of people. Both models are friendly to people of the Christian faith. I briefly reviewed the  four phase model by Robert D. Enright and the five-step REACH model developed by Ev Worthington. These scientists and their colleagues have published studied providing evidence supporting the helpfulness of the procedures in helping people forgive specific offenses. Keep in mind that working through the steps of these models is designed to help victims let go of the inner problem of unforgiveness.

YouTube video of Ev Worthington and his REACH model.


Researchers are well aware of the problem of interpersonal relationships. Forgiveness within a marriage or close relationship is more complex. Success will require reconciliation as well. At some level, many people need to get along with others who have hurt them. The issues of safety and trust are key to understanding reconciliation. Worthington offers a model to work through reconciliation as well. In this context, research on effective apologies and confession has been helpful. Also, the work of John Gottman on relationship repair is applicable (See Healthy Marriages). Finally, Christians will find the work of Gary Chapman useful as they improve interactions based on an awareness of different modes of relating he calls love languages.


I cover the topic of self-forgiveness, which has gained a lot of attention. Self-forgiveness is clearly different because each person is both the offender and the forgiver. Worthington believes you can work through his REACH model and has written a book to show how this can be done. Research is under way and looks promising. I hypothesize that Christians may find it useful to focus on receiving God’s forgiveness rather than forgiving oneself. It may be more straightforward to focus on letting go of self-blame for one’s mistakes than to do whatever is required to take on dual roles of offering inner forgiveness to oneself.


I cover a few other topics, which you can read about in the Psychology of Forgiveness article.
Forgiveness between groups- expressing forgiveness as when groups have been in conflict
Forgivingness- meaning a pattern of forgiving
Restoration- restoring offenders to positions they held before an offense was committed- e.g., criminals, fallen leaders

You will find more references to the research studies at the end of the article. Click the link for the full article with references.
Sutton, G. W. (2014). Psychology of forgiveness: An overview of recent research linking psychological science and Christian spirituality. Encounter, 11Academia 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., & 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. (The journal has been renamed, Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health.) Academia Link

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