Giving up the Grudge: Social Scientists Discover the Healing Power of Forgiveness

In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s documentary on the Holocaust, a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising talks about the bitterness that remains in his soul over how he and his countrymen were treated by the Nazis: “If you could lick my heart,” he says, “it would poison you.” Researchers are finding that this Holocaust survivor’s sentiment is not necessarily metaphorical.

While the biblical practice of forgiveness is usually preached as a Christian obligation, social scientists are discovering that forgiveness may help lead to victims’ emotional and even physical healing and wholeness. Academic interest in person-to-person forgiveness is relatively new. As recently as the early eighties, Dr. Glen Mack Harnden went to the University of Kansas library and looked up the word ‘forgiveness’ in Psychological Abstracts. He couldn’t find a single reference. This earlier neglect is being remedied at a startling pace. Former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former missionary Elisabeth Elliot, among others, are co-chairing a $10 million “Campaign for Forgiveness Research,” established as a non-profit corporation to attract donations to support forgiveness research proposals.

In May of 1998, the John Templeton Foundation awarded research grants for the study of forgiveness to twenty-nine scientists. Some of the projects now being funded include Forgiveness After Organizational Downsizing; Forgiveness in Family Relationships; Secular and Spiritual Forgiveness Interventions for Recovering Alcoholics; The Effects of Forgiveness on the Physical and Psychological Development of Severely Traumatized Females; Forgiveness, Health, and Well-Being in the Lives of Post-Collegiate Young Adults; Challenges to Forgiveness in Marriage; and Healing, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation in Rwanda.

Through these and other studies, researchers are trying to determine the parameters of how the spiritual act of forgiveness can promote personal, interrelational, and social well-being. Dr. Harnden is enthusiastic about the personal benefits of forgiveness. “It not only heightens the potential for reconciliation,” he says, “but also releases the offender from prolonged anger, rage, and stress that have been linked to physiological problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, hypertension, cancer, and other psychosomatic illness.”

Robert Enright, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is president of the International Forgiveness Institute and thus at the forefront of interpersonal forgiveness research. Together with philosopher Joanna North, Enright writes about forgiveness’ benefits to society. “It is an obvious fact that we live in a world where violence, hatred, and animosity surround us on all sides….We hear much about the ‘social’ causes of crime–poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy, for example. We sometimes hear about the need for tolerance and cooperation, compassion and understanding. But almost never do we hear public leaders declaring their belief that forgiveness can bring people together, heal their wounds, and alleviate the bitterness and resentment caused by wrongdoing.”

Enright and North believe that “forgiveness might be useful in helping those who have been affected by cruelty, crime, and violence, and…might play a valuable role in reconciling warring parties and restoring harmony between people.”

The Studies

In 1990, a young mother of three pled for her life after being confronted by an assailant wearing combat fatigues. “Please don’t shoot me,” she whimpered. The murderer cold-heartedly fired anyway, fatally killing the woman. The assailant made so many mistakes in covering up her crime that had the situation not been so tragic, it would have been comic. She sloppily disposed of her clothing and weapon. Colorado Springs police had her in custody within twenty-four hours. Shortly thereafter, they also arrested the victim’s husband after determining that the two had been having an affair.

Sydna Masse lived behind the murdered woman. When she heard about the killing, she responded with hate and rage. “I had a dead friend and now lived behind three motherless kids. I felt I had every right to hate the murderer who caused this.” Sydna grew “physically hot” when the murderer’s name–Jennifer–was even mentioned or her picture was flashed on television. “For awhile, I couldn’t even read the newspaper articles,” she admits. Sydna’s hate wasn’t a solitary affair. “The whole city and state hated her,” she says. Jennifer’s life sentence did little to ameliorate Sydna’s passion. “There was no relief in her sentencing.

That’s the thing with hatred and bitterness–it eats you alive. Every time I passed the house, I missed Diane and became angry all over again.” Shortly after Jennifer received her sentence, Sydna began going through a Bible study which included a chapter on forgiveness. Sydna prayerfully asked God who she needed to forgive, and in her words, “Jennifer’s name came right to my head. I literally did a whiplash and protested, ‘No way I can forgive her. She killed my friend! She killed a mother of three!”

In spite of her reluctance, Sydna finally acquiesced and wrote a carefully crafted letter to Jennifer, expressing her forgiveness. She was caught by surprise by what happened inside her. As soon as Sydna dropped the letter into the mail, “a weight lifted. I felt like I was losing twenty pounds. That’s when I learned that anger, bitterness and unforgiveness keeps you from experiencing the depths of joy.” Sydna’s experience is right in line with what researchers are finding for a wide range of demographics.

In Drs. Coyle’s and Enright’s 1997 study (University of Wisconsin-Madison) on forgiveness as an intervention goal with post-abortion men, researchers sought to determine whether men who identify themselves as having been hurt by an abortion can benefit from a “structured psychological intervention designed to facilitate forgiveness.” The psychological processes involve twenty delineated steps, including confronting anger, a willingness to consider forgiveness as an option, acceptance of the pain, and the participant realizing that he has needed others’ forgiveness in the past. After leading subjects through this process, researchers found significant decreases in clients’ anxiety, anger, and grief.

Al-Mabuk, Enright, and Cardis published a study in 1995 (Journal of Moral Education, Vol. 24, No. 4) examining forgiveness education with college students who judged themselves to be parentally love-deprived. The college students who underwent the more rigorous program had “improved psychological health,” including improved self-esteem, hope, and lowered trait anxiety.

In a study among elderly females, Hebl and Enright found that there was a significant decrease in depression and anxiety among those who participated in their forgiveness program (although the control group experienced some of the same benefits). Furthermore, the researchers found that the elderly women who participated in their study not only used forgiveness skills to reconcile with a single person, but “also to consider more deliberately forgiveness as a social problem-solving strategy.”

Numerous other studies are in progress, many of them headquartered at the unlikely address of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW).

The Father of Forgiveness Research

Dr. Bob Enright of UW is the undisputed father of forgiveness research. He was raised a Roman Catholic, “fell away” from the faith, entered it once again through Methodism, took a journey through evangelicalism, and now is back in Catholicism. He describes himself as an “evangelical Catholic, if there is such a thing.”

In 1985, Enright had finally climbed to the top rung of his profession. He was a full tenured professor, “sitting at the top of the heap,” he says, but getting bored with the mainstream of research on which he focused. “The field of moral development was not going anywhere,” he says. At that time he was bringing in the customary one or two grants a year, but finding nothing that was exciting enough to keep him sufficiently engaged.

“I was enduring a tremendous dissatisfaction with the way I thought my field was going. We were not reaching out to every-day people the way I hoped we would. I wanted to find something in the area of morals that could be of tremendous benefit to others. I took it so seriously that after a sabbatical in 1984, I dumped all my research over a cliff, so to speak, and boy am I glad I did.”

As Enright wrestled with how moral research could actually benefit others, his Christian background ignited a small fire. “I kept asking myself, ‘if the social sciences are supposed to be part of the helping profession, and if the wisdom of the ages–the Hebrew-Christian Bible–is replete with wonderful stories about the success of person-to-person forgiveness, why haven’t the social sciences never thought to study forgiveness as a primary investigation?’” It was his academic “aha!” moment.

When Enright looked into the research literature, he was shocked at the complete absence of any empirical studies examining such a practice. “I was very naive,” he remembers. “I thought there would be something, but there literally was not one study published on the topic [of person-to-person forgiveness] in the social sciences. I would occasionally see the word, but no study focused on it.”

As soon as Enright embarked on his new field of endeavor, he was struck by the dichotomy of his work’s reception. “Everyday people” were intrigued and delighted when he raised the topic. But the academic world was entirely a different matter. “Academic eyes would glaze over ninety percent of the time. Nine percent had hate-filled eyes. One percent was delighted.” The gatekeeper of research is funding, so Enright began applying for grants. His first idea was to go into prisons and help prisoners learn how to forgive others who had wronged them, with the long-term view that by doing this, prisoners might experience empathy for their victims. It was sort of a back-door approach to help prisoners understand how their actions can plague others. The response couldn’t have been less encouraging.

“During one interview, I had a wonderful, hour-long talk with a man who held an editorship from a major psychology journal. Afterwards, he confided to me, ‘This is so creative and important, I’m going to rate this number one.’” Three months later, however, the rejection letter arrived. Enright called the editor, who was “rather embarrassed and very hesitant.” When pressed, the editor admitted, “Bob, once I got into the group meeting, they completely and thoroughly trashed your idea.”

“What did they say?” Bob asked. “People were angry. ‘You should never give money for research with prisoners to teach them how to forgive!’ they said. ‘If anything, prisoners should ask forgiveness of us!’” Enright was discouraged. “I thought, that’s been the problem. We’ve never tried it the other way. I wanted to prime the pump by having prisoners learn to forgive first and then maybe they’d ask for forgiveness themselves.”

The next year, Enright applied for the same grant with essentially the same project. This time, the interview with the preeminent psychologist took all of ten minutes. “Bob,” he warned, “you do know you’re going to have trouble for the rest of your career with this study of forgiveness, don’t you?” For nearly a decade, Enright endured the academic equivalent of a “shunning.” He didn’t receive a single dollar of grant money, which is academia’s way of saying, “Whatever this man is doing isn’t very important.” “It was very embarrassing,” Enright admits. It is even more surprising that Enright stayed with it, considering that the school at which he teaches isn’t particularly interested in the Christian tradition.

“There isn’t a single course on Christianity, per se, at the university,” Enright points out. ” You can major in various religious beliefs, but as far as I know, you can’t take a course on Christianity.”

A fellow believer found out what Enright was doing and exclaimed, “How could you study a topic like forgiveness at the UWM, of all places? You’re either stubborn as a mule or you’re Holy Spirit inspired.”

“I think it’s probably both,” Enright laughs today. “Without tenacity, you couldn’t do this sort of thing.”

After Enright worked for a decade receiving little attention and no money, The Chicago Tribune catapulted him and his brainchild–the International Forgiveness Institute–into the public’s awareness (just as the Los Angeles Times broke the story on Billy Graham over fifty years ago). A reporter wrote an article on Enright and his institute (which at that time was more an idea than a reality), placing the story in the women’s section. The article elicited over 300 calls. “My wife [Nancy] wanted to put the phone out in the woods!” Enright quips. “We realized we were on to something, and [the calls] forced our hand to get the institute going.”

Enright started publishing a newsletter, set up a web site, and kept publishing findings in his field. Finally, the funding caught up to the public’s interest, and with the aforementioned grants, forgiveness research is now a relatively lucrative field of endeavor. “God has a sense of humor,” Enright explains of the grants freely flowing to his fellow academics.

In fact, just recently, the Mendota Mental Health Center, a world-renowned mental health institute, approached Enright about an intriguing idea to help rehabilitate criminals. “Perhaps we could teach them how to forgive first, and then see if that builds empathy for them to seek forgiveness?” Enright responded that he thought the idea was definitely worth exploring.

The Spiritual Father of Forgiveness Research

A book that caught Enright’s attention early on was Lewis Smedes’ 1984 publication Forgive and Forget. “Prior to Lewis Smedes in 1984,” Enright says, “if you collected every theological book about person-to-person forgiveness [as opposed to divine-human forgiveness], you could hold them all in one hand.”

Dr. Mack Harnden was also motivated by Smedes’ seminal work. Fifteen years later, he still can pinpoint the day. “On April 20, 1985, I heard Lewis Smedes speak in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on the topic of forgiveness. That speech directed the future course of my life because I felt that forgiveness is the core, most significant factor in both spiritual and psychological healing.”

Initially, Dr. Smedes set out to write a general book on the theological aspect of forgiveness, but soon discovered that “almost everything that was written about forgiveness was about how God forgives sinful people and how they can experience his forgiveness.” As he reflected on the Gospel, it occurred to Smedes that “forgiving fellow human beings for wrongs done to them was close to the quintessence of Christian experience. And, more, that the inability to forgive other people was a cause of added misery to the one who was wronged in the first place.” Wanting, then, to focus on person-to-person forgiveness, Smedes felt he might receive some help from “the literature of psychology,” but soon discovered that psychologists were apparently even less interested in the topic than theologians had been.

The questions Smedes went into his writing with were: “How does forgiveness work? What goes on in one’s mind and spirit when she sets out to forgive someone? What happens after forgiveness? What good comes of it?” He found that in the past, “Human forgiveness had been seen as a religious obligation of love that we owe to the person who has offended us. The discovery that I made was the important benefit that forgiving is to the forgiver. And this is where I think the link between the psychological research and my book is.”

This is precisely the thought that has captured the imagination of social scientists. Smedes presents a real-world view of forgiveness. Rather than seeing the aim of forgiveness as exclusively reconciliation, it becomes a matter of self-preservation. “Ideally,” Smedes says, “forgiving brings reconciliation, but not always. Reconciliation depends on the response of the person who injured someone and is forgiven. But that person may tell the forgiver to take his forgiveness and shove it down the toilet. Indeed, there is never a real reconciliation unless the wronged person first heals herself by forgiving the person who wronged her. “Does that render forgiveness invalid? Not at all.

The first person who gains from forgiveness is the person who does the forgiving and the first person injured by the refusal to forgive is the one who was wronged in the first place.” The same element of forgiveness that seized the attention of social scientists elicited criticism from some theologians. “Some theologians have said my book is an example of egoistic faith,” Smedes admits. “They refer to it as ‘therapeutic forgiveness.’ Yet the very thing that some theologians have criticized in my approach has been taken up by the healing community as a highly significant and promising mode of healing, perhaps the most important element of all.”

Smedes believes that “untold pain is brought about in the world by people’s unwillingness to forgive and the corresponding passion to get even. All you have to do is look at Yugoslavia today and you know that that’s true.”

The Process of Forgiveness

Though Sydna Masse forgave Diane for murdering her friend, she did so initially out of a sense of obligation. “What I didn’t expect was what I got in return,” she says today. Just days after mailing her letter to Jennifer, Sydna received a response. “I’m sorry for killing your friend,” Jennifer wrote. When Sydna read these words, “It hit me like a thunderbolt. I didn’t realize I needed to hear that.” But she did.

As a pen-pal relationship grew, Sydna realized that what she once viewed as an obligation–forgiving Jennifer–ended up ministering to her in some profound ways. She admits that if she hadn’t forgiven first, Jennifer never could have repented to her, as Jennifer didn’t even know Sydna existed. Ironically, Jennifer began ministering to Sydna through her letters. “For some reason, her letters always came on dark days for me. Jennifer became one of my greatest encouragers.”

Over time, Sydna began to consider Jennifer a friend “just as much as I had considered Diane a friend.” Though Sydna’s process was undertaken without the assistance of a psychological model, the results she experienced are what many researchers are after, though there are real problems to overcome. For instance, how can you measure that forgiveness has really taken place–which you need to do to establish that its attainment produces concrete benefits?

This is the concern of Dr. L. Gregory Jones, Dean of the Divinity School and Professor of Theology at Duke University. While encouraged by the appearance of forgiveness as a topic of research, Dr. Jones has some concerns.

He has seen some studies that are very well done, but he has also seen others that use “a largely disembodied therapeutic model of forgiveness that focuses on isolated individuals–the kind of self help discussion that may have made forgiveness a fad in contemporary culture but will lack the staying power, conceptually and theologically, for it to last over time.” Jones adds, “Forgiveness studies need to focus on people in relationship, both on the need to forgive and on the need to be forgiven.

This is, I think, one of the major features of Christian forgiveness that is lacking in a lot of popular descriptions of forgiveness. They focus only on the need to forgive, where Christian forgiveness emphasizes that we need consistently to understand our need for forgiveness.” In the “more problematic” studies, Jones says, “forgiveness is assumed to have happened simply when someone uses words of forgiveness.” He doesn’t believe it’s that simple. “Forgiveness is not an all or nothing affair. It involves the healing of brokenness, and involves words, emotions, and actions.

If persons continue to have feelings of bitterness toward another, there may not be the fullness of forgiveness, but that doesn’t mean there is no forgiveness. Rather, the persons are involved in a timeful process.” The “better studies,” according to Jones, recognize forgiveness as a “complex process.” “There are lots of forgiveness backsliders,” he points out. This brings us to the basic and crucial point. What exactly is forgiveness?

In the study by Al Mabuk, Enright, and Cardis, forgiveness is defined as “one’s merciful response to someone who has unjustly hurt. In forgiving, the person overcomes negative affect (such as resentment), cognition (such as harsh judgments) and behavior (such as revenge-seeking) toward the injurer, and substitutes more positive affect, cognition, and behavior toward him or her.”

Forgiveness is distinguished from justice “in that the latter involves reciprocity of some kind, whereas forgiveness is an unconditional gift given to one who does not deserve it.” Many of the researchers work off a standard twofold definition: forgiveness is releasing the other person from retaliation and wishing the other person well. Smedes prefers a tripartite definition. “The first thing one does in forgiving is surrender the right to get even with the person who wronged us,” he says. “Secondly, we must reinterpret the person who wronged us in a larger format.”

This, Smedes says, is to help us avoid creating a “caricature” of the person who wronged us. “In the act of forgiving, we get a new picture of a needy, weak, complicated, fallible human being like ourselves.” Smedes’ third step is “a gradual desire for the welfare of the person who injured us.” Jones points out the traditional difference between Christian and Jewish notions of forgiveness. “Jesus tells his disciples that they are authorized and sometimes obligated to forgive in his name. For Jews, only victims can forgive.”

Harnden adds that “forgiveness does not preclude the enforcement of healthy and natural consequences on the offender….Whenever an individual offends another, the offender gives up a certain degree of power in determining his or her own destiny with the power being given over to the offended.” This is something with which Smedes would agree. “Some people view forgiveness as a cheap avoidance of justice, a plastering over of wrong, a sentimental make believe. If forgiveness is a whitewashing of wrong, then it is itself wrong. Nothing that whitewashes evil can be good. It can be good only if it is a redemption from the effects of evil, not a make believing that the evil never happened.” It is the element of fighting evil that has some social scientists looking at forgiveness as a political tool, one that was put to good use in Yugoslavia.

Arresting the Violence

“It’s one thing to believe in miracles, it’s another to be part of one,” says Roy Lloyd, a founding board member of the International Forgiveness Institute and the broadcast news director for the National Council of Churches. Lloyd was part of a fifteen-member delegation that traveled to Yugoslavia during April of 1999 in a successful attempt to get three captured American soldiers released. Though the media widely portrayed the “rescue mission” as a Jesse Jackson media stunt, it was actually co-led by Jackson and Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. Some years ago, Lloyd and Campbell had several discussions about the role of forgiveness in healing social wrongs in the wake of church burnings.

One young man, who had been convicted of setting fire to a church, was visited by several pastors during his imprisonment and ultimately made a profession of faith. Upon his release, he returned to the church and publicly asked for their forgiveness. The church members surrounded the man and prayed for God to bless him. Following this experience, both Campbell and Lloyd were eager to apply the principles of forgiveness research to the problems in Yugoslavia. Campbell and Jackson’s delegation transcended religious lines– Mainline Protestant Christians, Roman Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims all took part. “A number of our basic premises were very important,” Lloyd says.

“All throughout the trip you heard people from our delegation saying that the cycle of violence needs to be broken and that past injuries shouldn’t dictate the present or the future. Forgiveness is first of all a gift that you give to yourself. You shouldn’t allow something that happened to you or your ancestors long ago to continue injuring you. The most important thing is wishing the best for yourself as well as for others. In that process, you and those with whom you interact are freed from what has been, and can envision what might be.” Lloyd heard both Campbell and Jackson voice these sentiments on several different occasions, but he became slightly disillusioned by a media that he describes as “narrow minded and lazy.”

On one occasion, Jackson urged reporters to pay careful attention to a rabbi within the delegation, but as soon as Jackson stepped away from the microphone, “the television lights went off. They had their soundbite and didn’t want anything more, even though they were missing a major part of the story.”

That “story,” according to Lloyd, is the role forgiveness played in helping to address the problems in Kosovo. “In meetings with the foreign secretary of Yugoslavia and other political leaders, we made points about how the violence needs to stop in Kosovo. We applied the principles of forgiveness research–that people are responsible, but that we shouldn’t look at others as enemies, but rather as friends if we want to break the cycle of violence.

Forgiveness of deeds long past needs to take place rather than repeating them. We need to envision the best for ourselves and for others, and in that everyone will find a peaceful future.” When members of the delegation met with Milosevic, they were well aware that negotiations weren’t really possible. “We had nothing to offer,” Lloyd admits, “other than a religious, spiritual, and humanitarian approach.” Without political leverage, the leaders spoke of the importance of forgiveness and doing the right thing.

“Our delegation told Milosevic that he was treated so poorly in the press because of what he had done. If he wanted to change the press, he had to change his ways.” According to Lloyd, all nine of Milosevic’s top advisors (several of whom had met with the Campbell/Jackson delegation) spoke with one voice: “Let the soldiers go.” Milosevic ultimately agreed with his advisors, but then it was his turn to practice forgiveness.

“On the very day [Milosevic promised the soldiers' return], a busload of ethnic Albanians was hit by a bomb while crossing a bridge, killing dozens,” Lloyd remembers. “And then [NATO] bombed the ambulance that was going out to help them.” In spite of these events, Milosevic stayed true to his word. Lloyd says that the released soldiers practiced their own brand of forgiveness. “Each of the three young soldiers were very religious,” he points out, “and one of them, Christopher Stone, wouldn’t leave until he was allowed to go back to the soldier who served as his guard and pray for him.”

In spite of the political ramifications surrounding the delegation, according to Lloyd the fifteen members called themselves “the Religious Mission to Belgrade.” When Jackson finally received the news of the soldiers’ impending release, he held off reporters long enough to gather the delegation together for group prayer. While Lloyd advocates forgiveness, he still believes justice needs to be done in Yugoslavia. “Milosevic has done terrible, evil things,” he says. “One can forgive him, but one can also call for him to indeed be tried in the Hague for crimes against humanity.”

Enright is enthusiastic about Lloyd’s work. “I don’t know of any other instance,” he says, “where a social scientific research program has been able to use its findings to break into US history, and in such a positive way.”

Stories such as this one also reinforce Harnden’s belief that forgiveness has great -potential to solve many social problems, including crime. Retaliation or pursuing vengeance, he says, “often leads to the perpetuation of increasingly more severe retaliatory/violent response.” At an American Psychological Association meeting, Harden suggested that forgiveness, not retaliation, “represents the most strategic intervention in reducing violence in our society.”

Harnden points out that other methods have surely failed. Between 1960 and 1990, for instance, welfare spending increased by 631%, but violent crimes also increased–by 564%! Worldwide trends in violence are no more encouraging. Harnden quotes from research conducted by Don Shriver when he says that from the 1500s to 1800s–a period of four centuries–a total of 34.1 million were killed in war. In the last century alone (the 1900s), almost three times that many (107.8 million) have been similarly killed.

“Forgiveness stops the ongoing cycle of repaying vengeance with vengeance that appears to contribute to the perpetuation of an increasingly violent society,” Harnden says.

Thus for international, national, and even personal issues, researchers are finding that a practice taught by Jesus Christ two thousand years ago may be our most effective tool and response. “Forgiveness is a concept, a process, and a technology whose times has come,” Dr. Harnden told the American Psychological Conference in 1996. “It transcends religion and philosophy and will hopefully someday find its rightful place of prominence in the social, political, and healing arts as well as within the biochemical and neuropsychological sciences.”

Jones, for one, is “very encouraged” by the significant increase in forgiveness research. “The more we can find authentic modes for articulating Christian forgiveness beyond the bounds of the church the better off we all will be. We just need to make sure that the forgiveness being described and conceived is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

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