The Value of Forgiveness

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As children, we are consistently taught to apologize after our wrongdoings, and to accept an apology from someone who has acted wrongly against us. This simple construction of behavior based on the concept of forgiveness, we are taught, will ultimately heal all wounds and mend all hurts. Later, as adults, we learn the common saying, “forgive and forget” as a way of dealing with distress or suffering. Both concepts rely largely on marketing the importance of forgiveness in an effort to overcome hardships and heal ourselves. As it turns out, both assertions may have merit.

According to a 2012 study by Daniel Goldman & Nathaniel Wade, forgiveness is important in reducing anger and increasing one’s overall well-being following a hurtful act or situation. The study they conducted looked at the outcomes of people working through an angering event, comparing whether or not the participants worked specifically on finding forgiveness or merely on anger-reduction strategies (e.g. deep breathing, relaxation methods, etc.) against a control group. The study found that the group working with a forgiveness-related focus ultimately ended up with a greater reduction in (desires for) revenge, levels of hostility, and psychological symptoms as compared to the group focusing on anger-reducing strategies. Additionally, the forgiveness group members showed a lasting effect in increased empathy that was not present in the anger-reduction or control groups.

One of the researchers, Nathaniel Wade, states, “[Forgiveness] Interventions seem to be very effective at helping people not only cope with anger and work through those negative feelings, but also to move the person to a ‘better’ place of acceptance and even human flourishing.” Wade’s study emphasizes the importance of achieving forgiveness after being wronged because it does not only reduce unconstructive or potentially damaging thoughts and behaviors but also works to increase positive behaviors and feelings within oneself. This research serves an important tool to spread the message of forgiveness, in that it may not be entirely beneficial to simply work on reducing anger. In the future, when trying to cope with a hurtful experience of some kind, it may be valuable to keep in mind that you do not always have to forget, but research shows you should definitely work on forgiving.

By Lauren Vieaux
Lauren is a junior Psychology and Human Development major with a minor in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin- Green Bay.  She plans on attending graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology.

Anger at God

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What happens to one’s relationship with God when they experience significant adversity?  Do they pray for support with their personal struggles?  Do they embrace the notion that the Lord works in mysterious ways?  Or, do they become angry with God?  In a recent article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a team of researchers led by Dr. Julie Exline, completed a series of fives studies that dealt with predictors, prevalence, and individual differences in anger toward God.  Dr. Exline said she became interested in the topic of anger at God when researching interpersonal anger and forgiveness: “It occurred to me that people could also become angry at God. For those with religious commitments, the topic is interesting in part because it is often seen as taboo.  For the nonreligious, the topic can also be interesting because anger toward God can be part of a process of disaffiliating with religion or deciding not to believe in God.” 

With this in mind, Dr. Exline and her colleagues designed a study to indentify how prevalent anger toward God truly is and if there are differences between age, gender, and religious affiliation.  Their first study explored a national sample of almost 1,500 men and women and found that anger toward God was reported most by young, white, highly educated, women.  That said, more than 60% of participants surveyed described some anger at God.  Dr. Exline states that this is one of the primary messages to be taken from the study: Quite simply, “many people experience anger toward God”. 

Studies two and three looked at the types of incidents that led to anger toward God and the other types of emotions people felt in these situations.  Dr. Exline found that “people tend to get mad at God for the same reasons they get mad at other people”.  However, the following types of incidents seem to cause the greatest anger toward God: bereavement, illness or injury, interpersonal problems, accidents, and personal failures.  Anger was a common emotional response to these situations but positive emotions were reported as well suggesting, as Dr. Exline points out, that “people can be angry at God while still feeling love or respect toward God”. 

The fourth and fifth studies focused on the emotional responses toward God following specific types of losses.  In the fourth, it was the death of a loved one.  Participants in this study again reported more positive than negative emotions toward God.  However, certain circumstances led to greater anger toward God.  Specifically, participants were more likely to be angry with God if participants held God responsible for the loss, if the deceased was younger, and/or the death was sudden.  Finally, in the fifth study, the researchers looked specifically at emotional responses toward God when diagnosed with cancer.  Here, they found that older cancer patients were less angry at God and the participants who were most angry at God were those who identified their cancer type as severe.  Likewise, participants who thought of themselves as victims reported greater anger.

Dr. Exline identified the take home message of the study as being that “if you’re angry at God, you’re not alone.”  She also wanted to reach out to those readers who may be “interested in sharing their own relevant experiences” as she and her colleagues are “still seeking participants for several online studies. Any English speaker aged 18 or over is welcome to participate at http://psychology.case.edu/research/god/index.html.”

By Jennifer Meiselwitz
Jennifer Meiselwitz is a 2011 graduate of the Human Development and Psychology departments at the 
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  She plans on attending graduate school to earn an advanced degree and, ultimately, become a college professor. 

Five Questions with Forgiveness Expert, Dr. Everett Worthington

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Dr. Everett Worthington is a Professor of Psychology and expert on forgiveness at Virginia Commonwealth University.  He earned his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Missouri-Columbia.  He has written more than 25 books and over 250 articles and chapters on topics related to forgiveness, marriage, and other family topics.  In 2009 he won Virginia Commonwealth University’s Award for Excellence in recognition of his teaching, research, and service.  You can learn more about Dr. Worthington at www.psychology.vcu.edu/people/worthington.shtml.

1.  How do you define forgiveness?

There are two types of forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness is a statement about one’s intentions about future behavior–intending to NOT seek revenge and TO treat the person as a person of value. (One can make a decision to forgive, and yet one might still harbor negative emotions toward the offender. Emotional forgivenessis the emotional replacement of negative unforgiving emotions (e.g., resentment, hostility, anger, and fear) by positive other-oriented emotions (e.g., empathy, sympathy, compassion, and love). The replacement can be fast and powerful (in a strong, moving emotional forgiveness) or herky-jerky and occurring in small increments. People say they have completely emotionally forgiven strangers and people they don’t want to stay in contact with if they have replaced all negative emotions and got back to feeling nothing toward the person. If the offender, however, is someone they value and want to continue a good relationship with, they must eliminate the negative and build a net positive emotion back toward the person. Importantly, forgiveness happens inside a person (decisions in the head; emotions throughout the body, including the brain).

2.  What do you believe are the most important elements of the forgiveness process?

The most important part of forgiving is, once a decision to forgive is made, experiencing some positive emotions toward the person (e.g., empathy, sympathy, compassion, or love).

3.  What suggestions do you have for people who are trying to forgive someone?

Forgiveness usually takes time. Don’t think you can do it instantly. You can make an instant decision to forgive, but emotions change over time and are often two steps forward, one backward. I have created free leader manuals and free participant manuals that lay people can use to lead or participate in forgiveness groups. There are explicitly Christian manuals and there are secular manuals that don’t mention religion. We have done research that shown that either type works and helps people forgive. Get them at www.people.vcu.edu/~eworth/. If someone wants to lead a Christian-oriented group, I also have a 2-hour training DVD that I will provide free (although I ask for $4 for postage and handling that goes to my academic department to cover its costs). The training DVD shows me leading a Christian group for trainers. I intend to make a secular training DVD this summer, and it ought to be available some time in the fall. I teach people to REACH Forgiveness. R=Recall the hurt without grudge or feeling victimized. E=Emotional replacement, usually by empathy or compassion toward the person who hurt you. A=give an Altruistic (for the good of the other person) gift of forgiveness. C=Commit to the forgiveness your experience. H=Hold on to the forgiveness if you doubt you’ve forgiven. I explain these in the Christian book Forgiving and Reconciling (InterVarsity Press) or the secular book (Five Steps to Forgiveness).

4.  What do you think is the most common misconception about forgiveness?

(a) People confuse forgiving (which occurs inside a person’s skin) to telling someone you forgive. A person can say, “I forgive you,” and be lying or setting you up to take advantage, or be insincere, etc. Or a person can forgive you, but find that if he or she does NOT tell you, you can be manipulated. (b) People confuse forgiving with reconciling. I can forgive without having to go back into a relationship with someone. For example, a woman could forgive someone who physically abused her, but she does not have to return to live with him. Forgiveness happens inside people’s skin, but reconciliation requires the offender to be trustworthy and is about restoring a relationship. That obviously takes two people (whereas one person forgives or doesn’t.) (c) Forgiveness is not opposed to justice. Forgiveness happens inside a person, so I could forgive someone who murdered my mother. Justice happens socially and societally. So, even though I forgave the murderer, I can still hope to see him caught and go to trial for the murder. Therefore, forgiveness (internal) and societal justice do not contradict each other because they are in opposite spheres–internal versus societal.  A slightly different thing happens within my internal experience. Internally, my SENSE of injustice if I’m wronged might be high. The higher it is, the harder it is for me to forgive. If something brings justice into the situation (such as my offender apologizes), it lowers my sense of injustice and thus makes it easier to forgive. Thus, internally, justice and forgiveness work in tandem.

5.  If there was one thing you would like people to understand about forgiveness, what would it be?

I’d like people to know that there are documented physical benefits, mental health benefits, relationship benefits, and sometimes spiritual benefits to forgiving.

Forgive and Forget? Maybe It’s Not That Simple

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Just about everyone would admit that at one time or another, they have been provoked in a way that made them want revenge.  In fact, according to new research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it is much easier to be consumed by thoughts of revenge than it is to forgive.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Ben Wilkowski, said he was motivated to do this study because his prior research showed that “individuals low in trait anger recruit cognitive control resources in hostile situations”.  In other words, people who become angry more often are worse at employing cognitive control strategies; what Dr. Wilkowski defines as the resources needed to “override inappropriate thoughts, feelings, and desires”.  The current study, then, was designed to explore more specifically how cognitive control in hostile situations would predict aggressiveness and forgiveness.  As described by Dr. Wilkowski, “participants who showed evidence of recruiting cognitive control resources within hostile situations were more capable of setting aside the desire for revenge and of forgiving the person who angered them.  By doing so, these individuals became less angry and less aggressive.”

The primary message of the study to Dr. Wilkowski is that forgiveness isn’t easy.  He argues that “when someone has wronged you, it is all too easy to be consumed by the desire for revenge….   In the same way that balancing a checkbook or sticking to a strict diet requires psychological effort, so does forgiveness.”

By Ryan C. Martin