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The Science of Forgiveness

The Science of Forgiveness

Easter is the ideal time to reflect upon the concepts of transgressions and forgiveness. Forgiveness is foundational to Christianity – through Christ, we are forgiven by God and called to extend forgiveness to others. As a researcher and professor for many years, I’ve continually been struck by a beautiful fact: the science of forgiveness actually supports and complements a Scriptural theology of forgiveness. God has created us for forgiveness, even thoughtfully designing physiological benefits when we both extend and receive it.

From a theological perspective, Jesus’ atoning death on the cross and subsequent resurrection show us what forgiveness looks like at a macro-level – we are told that our sins have been forgiven and we can be restored to a right relationship with God. And this has profound implications for us at the micro-level. Just as we have been forgiven, we are called to forgive those who have hurt us.

My favorite parable in Matthew 18:21-35 illustrates this well. In this parable, a servant is forgiven a massive debt by his king but then wrongfully refuses to forgive a much smaller debt that is owed to him. This is used to show that we, who have been forgiven much by God, should not withhold forgiveness to those who offend us.

We know the theological view of forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity, but what does scientific research say about this process?

The topic of forgiveness is a relatively recent area in the field of psychology. For many years, little research focused on this important topic. However, in recent decades, psychologists have begun to examine its benefits. Granting forgiveness has been shown to be associated with better health and well-being, increased relationship satisfaction, as well as increased trust, and commitment between the victim and the transgressor. Furthermore, research shows that granting forgiveness is associated with lower stress, anxiety, and depression.

Forgiveness-seeking has also been associated with lower levels of negative emotion and restored relationships. In all, the science of forgiveness has found many physiological and psychological benefits to both granting and seeking forgiveness. This scientific evidence can be coupled with a theological view to give us a fuller view of forgiveness.

Of course, there is a danger when we focus too much on the clinical benefits of forgiveness. As Christians, we are not called to seek and grant forgiveness because it makes us feel good. Instead, we are called to forgive because we have received forgiveness from God. However, it is noteworthy to point out that the process of forgiveness has positive emotional, mental, and psychological outcomes for us.

It seems that God has created us and our world in a way that encourages the forgiveness process – and that is something we should all celebrate.

In my own life, both personally and professionally, both the theology and psychology of forgiveness have significantly impacted me. While in graduate school I became much more invested and serious about my faith, and it was during that time that I began to appreciate the massive gift of grace that God extends to us. As I considered this, I found myself more capable of extending forgiveness to others, including my biological father. My parents divorced when I was young, but even before that experience my father did not have a positive impact on my life. These hurts were still with me into my early adulthood. Yet as I understood more about God’s forgiveness, I truly felt a release of this resentment and even felt prompted to write my father a letter to communicate that I had forgiven him. Beyond my personal life, this greater understanding of forgiveness contributed to my interest in researching the psychology of forgiveness and has even shaped the research questions I have investigated.

I think it’s beautiful that God ordered our world so intentionally that science can now complement what we already know Biblically. That’s why this Easter, as we contemplate God’s grace and forgiveness, our reflections ought to cause us to consider our own behavior. How might we seek forgiveness for our transgressions against others and how might we extend forgiveness to those who have hurt us? How might both psychology and theology assist us in embodying forgiveness more fully?

Let us rejoice this Easter – and all year long – that God has given us psychological tools as well as the theological guidance to maintain and strengthen our relationship with Him and each other. May we exemplify Colossians 3:13, which reminds us to, “Bear with each other and forgive one another… Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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