2 UNDERSTANDINGS OF THE CONCEPT OF FORGIVENESS
2.1 PSYCHOLOGICAL DEFINITIONS OF FORGIVENESS
2.2 ARGUMENTS AGAINST FORGIVENESS
2.3 THE PROCESS OF FORGIVING - A MODEL
2.3.1 UNCOVERING PHASE
2.3.2 DECISION PHASE
2.3.3 WORK PHASE
2.3.4 OUTCOME / DEEPENING PHASE
2.4 CHRISTIAN UNDERSTANDINGS
3 PUBLISHED RESEARCH ON FORGIVENESS AND MENTAL AND PHYSICAL HEALTH
3.1 FORGIVING AND ITS EFFECT ON MENTAL HEALTH
3.2 FORGIVING AND ITS EFFECT ON PHYSICAL HEALTH
4 REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY
4.1 EMPIRICAL RESEARCH VERSUS THEOLOGICAL INQUIRY
4.2 EMPIRICAL RESEARCH - A NEW APOLOGETIC?
4.3 EMPIRICAL FORGIVENESS RESEARCH - MOTIVATION TO FORGIVE?
4.4 VIRTUOUS BEHAVIOURS - POSITIVE HEALTH EFFECT?
4.5 GREATER HEALTH BENEFITS FOR BELIEVERS?
5 PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON THE MATTER OF FORGIVENESS
While the concept of forgiveness is known to any Christian in the world, it is new to use this concept within psychology and psychotherapy. Physicians (Phillipps and Osborne, 1989) working with cancer patients and therapists (Kaufman, 1984; Fitzgibbons, 1986; Hope, 1987) who were looking for ways to efficiently reduce anger, recognized the utility of forgiveness.1 Since the last 20 years some American psychologists, psychotherapists and also medical doctors researched on this subject and many studies could show the effects of forgiving an offender to either mental and physical health.
The forgiveness-research is doubtlessly auch für die christliche Spiritualität und Verkündigung von Belang2, because psychology can show that forgiveness is not only a matter of theological research and that there are other possible motivations to forgive than religious ones.
My work will describe some of the most important psychological studies of forgiveness in relation to mental and physical health. Furthermore I will describe some questions of the Christian community faced by the fact that the central faith proclamation is matter of empirical psychological and medical research.
2 Understandings of the concept of forgiveness
2.1 Psychological definitions of forgiveness
A working definition3 of forgiveness is the one drawn by J. North (1987): Although the forgiver does not deny himself/herself the moral right to have an resentment toward his/her offender, he overcomes this resentment by trying to feel compassion, benevolence or even love toward the offender, knowing that the latter has definitely no moral right for such a merciful response. The feelings of the forgiver toward his offender are changing in two different aspects: firstly negative feelings are decreasing (like anger, resentment, etc.) and a positive feelings (like compassion, love, etc.) are increasing.
Basing on this premises Enright et al. (1991) expanded the definition as follows: While North is concentrating on the changes of the forgiver’s feelings towards the offender, Enright et al. also included changes in the judgments (how the forgiver thinks about the offender) and the behaviour (how the forgiver acts toward the offender) in the forgiving process. Also with judgements and cognitive components (like with feelings) it is possible to note a cessation of negative condemning judgements or negative behaviour (like revenge) and the presence of positive judgements or behaviour (like helpfulness, overtures toward reconciliation). In sum Enright et al. describe forgiveness as a matter including six components:
- Absence of negative affect
- Presence of positive affect
- Absence of negative judgement
- Presence of positive judgement
- Absence of negative behaviour
- Presence of positive behaviour
2.2 Arguments against Forgiveness
In literature4 you can also find arguments against interpersonal forgiveness: one of this arguments is that forgiving leaves the forgiver open to further abuse. Looking at the definitions above, it’s easy to see, that this is an invalid argument. It is a confusion of reconciliation and forgiveness. Forgiveness is one persons stance toward another, whereas reconciliation occurs when two people come together in behavioural way and both parties do their part to respect the other. Though the forgiver can see, that the other shows no sign to offer respect and there’s no chance to reconcile, the forgiver can reduce the negative and increase the positive responses toward the other. It’s important to say, that forgivers are not blind to the offender’s faults, but the forgiver protects himself against hatred and resentment that can increase anxiety or depression widthin oneself, and so forgiveness is in fact a way to protect oneself.
2.3 The process of forgiving - a model
It’s undisputable in literature that the possibility of forgiving an offender must mature during a process. To describe a general pathway people follow when they forgive someone Robert Enright has developed a model5 of this process, that has 20 steps which are organised in 4 distinct phases. The steps may be differing from individual to individual, some may experience only some of the steps, some may experience even more steps. I’ll try to give a brief description of the four phases of Enright’s concept:
2.3.1 Uncovering Phase
During this phase the individual shall become aware of the emotional pain the offender has caused to him or her in a deep and unjust way. Because of the deep injury the individual may have feelings of anger or even hatred toward the offender. The confrontation with these deep negative emotions might burden the individual seriously. In this phase it will be necessary to decide on an appropriate amount of energy to process this pain but still function effectively. When anger, hatred and all the other negative feelings are brought out into the open, healing can start to occur.
2.3.2 Decision Phase
In this phase the individual shall realize that focussing on the suffered injury and on the injurer will cause more pain to oneself than necessary. Appending the injury is an additional burden and no way to solve the problems. So the individual begins to understand that a change to more positive feelings, judgments and behaviour would be the better way to process the suffered pain. So the individual starts to realize that forgiveness is the best strategy to heal the injury. He/she is not ready to completely forgive his/her offender but he/she has decided to explore forgiveness and to take initial steps toward full forgiveness.
2.3.3 Work Phase
Being in this phase of the process of forgiving the forgiver will start the active work of forgiving. He/she may start to think about different aspects that might have been the reason for the injurers actions. He/she might start to understand that the injurer had a bad childhood and see this as a reason for the injuring actions. He/she might put the injury in context to pressures the injurer had to face when acting so injuriously. It’s important to say, that this new way of thinking about the offender is no excusing of the offenders responsibility for the offense(s), but a way to better understand him/her and to see him as a member of human community. This new way of thinking may be connected with the try to feel empathy with the injurer or to feel compassion toward him/her. Also included in this phase is the heart of forgiveness: the forgiver accepts the pain that has resulted from the actions of the injurer That must not to be confused with any sense of deserving the pain. It’s only an important step to bearing the pain, and bearing the pain means that the injured person doesn’t pass it to other persons, including the injurer. Now the individual may begin to show good will toward the injurer and reconciliation may or may not occur.
2.3.4 Outcome / Deepening phase
In this phase the individual starts to realize that forgiving is an emotional relief to himself/herself and that the pain he/she is suffering has got a meaning. It’s paradox but true: by giving the offender mercy, compassion and love the individual helps himself/herself. That’s a understanding the forgiver may gain, and through compassion for self and others and active input in the society the forgiver will start to feel a new sense of life.
2.4 Christian understandings
In the Christian religion forgiveness is a central theme. Looking in the Old Testament (We cannot have eternal life and heaven without God’s forgiveness: “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared6 ) and coming to New Testament (e.g. Jesus’ command to forgive seventy times seven in Mt:18) forgiveness is at the centre of the gospel message and shape of Christian identity.7 Forgiveness is at one side a gift of God and on the other side (how it is mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer) we should grant forgiveness and we will receive forgiveness granted to us by God. Jesus Christ is an example for Christians in the whole world. He taught us to forgive our offenders and God our father will forgive us our faults. So this is the example Christians should follow. This view of forgiveness shows us that forgiveness will have a positive effect for us and tells us that it is good and right to forgive others. But what the Bible cannot tell us is what is going on within us humans when we forgive and what effect forgiveness has on us and our health! This knowledge is now given to us by the actual empirical psychological and medical research.
1 Subkoviak, Michael J. et al: Measuring forgiveness in late adolescence and middle adulthood, in: Journal of Adolescence, 1995, 18, 641
2 Grom, B.: Forgiveness: die Bereitschaft zu vergeben. Ein aufstrebendes Thema psychologischer Beratung und Forschung, in: Stimmen der Zeit, 220 (2002), 640-643
3 Subkoviak, Michael J. et al: Measuring forgiveness in late adolescence and middle adulthood, in: Journal of Adolescence, 1995, 18, 642
4 Subkoviak, Michael J.: Measuring forgiveness in late adolescence and middle adulthood, in: Journal of Adolescence, 1995, 18, 642-643
5 Enright, Robert and Reed, Gale: A process model of forgiving, in: http://www.forgiveness- institute.org/ifi/whatis/process_model_of_forgiving.html (fetched 04 February 2003)
6 Ps 130
7 VanOyen Witvliet, Forgiveness and Health: Review and reflections on a matter of faith, feelings, and physiology, in: Journal of Psychology and Religion, 29 (2001), 213