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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