In the church, we like to tell forgiveness stories. Like the one about the son who forgave the teenagers who murdered his mother. Or the father who forgave the driver who killed his daughter. Or the survivors of the Rwandan genocide who forgave the perpetrators. Or the Amish community that forgave the school shooter. We are, after all, in the business of forgiveness.
We also know that forgiveness is really hard—not just for heinous acts, but even the simpler ones can leave us holding grudges. It is hard to let go of wrongdoing and to make it right. We need help.
That help can come in many forms. Of course, it begins with Scripture and the Holy Spirit working in us and the saints that support us. But it may also come in the form of . . . science? Yes, science. That son who forgave his mother’s killers? That’s psychologist Everett Worthington, who became a leader among a growing cadre of researchers using science to help us understand forgiveness.
The Benefits of Forgiveness
We have learned much about forgiveness in the last 30 years. Scientists have observed rudimentary forms of “proto-forgiveness” in animals like primates. But most of the studies are of humans.
Many benefits correlate with forgiveness, including happiness and decreased levels of depression and anxiety. What may be less obvious are the physical benefits. Grudges are associated with increases in stress, blood pressure, and heart rate. Grudges also appear to compromise our immune system. In other words, unforgiveness is bad for your body, and over time, potentially lethal.
Research also has shown that forgiveness benefits marriage, relationship, youth, workplaces, and even entire societies—as in Rwanda and South Africa. Forgiving the other is good for us.
But for Christians, forgiveness is not just, or even primarily, about the benefits for ourselves. Forgiveness is oriented to the other—the forgiven one—offering to them what God has offered us. So there is a bit of a tension in this research. Yes, kids who forgive have higher levels of well-being, but that’s not why we teach them to forgive.
Another leading researcher, Bob Enright, struggles with this tension. He writes:
“Is forgiving for the self or for the one who offended? In its essence, in the definition of what forgiveness *is,* we see that to forgive is for the one who offended and not for the self. Forgiveness is an insight and action deliberately engaged for the other’s good. That one’s initial motivation may be for a self-seeking (not a selfish) reduction in pain does not alter the definition of forgiveness. That the scientifically-supported consequences of forgiving are emotional relief for oneself does not alter the definition.”
He goes on to describe the paradox of forgiving: “As you reach out to another (or others) who hurt you, it is you who so often experience benefits.” But, he insists that despite this paradox, forgiveness is a moral virtue that is focused on the other. Despite the benefits, we must not lose this orientation.
- What are the benefits of forgiveness?
- 17 things we know about forgiveness.
- Robert Sapolsky summarizes proto-forgiveness in primates.
- Greater Good Science Center has a great archive of research on forgiveness.
- An online academic bibliography of forgiveness research from 2008-2019.
- Worthington’s story is powerful in both spiritual and secular form.
- Workbooks for Worthington’s 5-step REACH model and the 6-step version for self-forgiveness.
- You might also consider Bob Enright and Fred Luskin’s models of forgiveness.
- Is forgiveness for the self or for the other?
- Worthington’s forgiveness resources for ministry and preaching.
My point in raising the science of forgiveness is not merely to highlight the benefits. Rather, it is to bring attention to the empirically validated steps to cultivate forgiveness. Several researchers offer them as noted in the ministry resources. The best known is probably Worthington’s 5-step REACH model (linked above):
R = Recall the hurt, face it, and do not treat yourself as victim or the other person as a jerk.
E = Empathize with the other person, put yourself in their shoes, and even role play a conversation.
A = Give forgiveness as an unselfish, altruistic gift, freeing the other person from any burden.
C = Commit to the act so it lasts, by writing a note to yourself as a tangible reminder.
H = Hold on to forgiveness, re-reading that note to counter any doubt.
In my experience, most pastors and ministries don’t know about this work, and they certainly don’t teach forgiveness using this method. Here we have science that can help us forgive—and to do so even better. This is science for ministry at its best. But the church needs to know about it first.
So let’s spread the word. If you know a pastor or ministry leader that may not be familiar with this research, please forward this email to them. Or send them one of the links you found useful. Help them understand how this science can help the Church offer the forgiveness that was first given to us in Christ Jesus.