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Europe - Reflecting on the motto of the General Chapter: a psychological approach

Towards the General Chapter 2015:
Contributions of  the European Dehonian Theological Commission

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Forgiviness and mercy.
A psychological approach

Br. Javier López, scj

Conflict within relationships in the religious communities is inevitable. At one time or another, religious members of a community might inadvertently make a hurtful comment, forget to pick up the journals (or something else), leave the gas tank empty or whatever. Most religious resolve such conflicts on an ongoing basis, leaving little emotional residue to negatively impact their lives. However, examples of more devastating relational conflicts include mutual disqualifications, mistrust, major lies, drastic unilateral decisions, seek revenge, withdraw and other similar humiliations and betrayals. These conflicts frequently leave lasting emotional scars on community functioning, particularly in regards to psychological closeness, if religious are unable to have mercy and forgive each other and effectively resolve their conflicts.

Psychology has put no attention on mercy, nevertheless, the psychological literature recently has reflected a growing interest among clinicians in using forgiveness as an intervention to help groups and individuals seek new beginnings in previously damaged relationships, resolve long-standing relational problems, and let go of anger and bitterness. Forgiveness can be considered a specialized form of “Mercy,” which is a more general concept reflecting kindness, compassion, or leniency toward a transgressor.

From a psychological perspective some authors posit that the concept of forgiveness has been used since antiquity in the religious community as a vital factor in healing and restoring relationships between people. According to Peterson and Seligman “Forgiveness” represents a suite of prosocial changes that occur within an individual who has been offended or damaged by a relationship partner[1]. When people forgive, their basic motivations or action tendencies regarding the transgressor become more positive (e.g., benevolent, kind, generous) and less negative (e.g., vengeful, avoidant).

Because attempts to forgive may not always be born out of purely altruistic concerns, and definitions of forgiveness vary, it is important to present our view of forgiveness and to distinguish it from what it is not. It is important a view of forgiveness that distinguishes it from pseudoforgiveness. For example, it is important not to confuse granting forgiveness with forbearing, denying, ignoring, minimizing, tolerating, condoning, excusing, forgetting the offense, or suppressing one's emotions about it[2].

Modern scholars and scientists affirm that the concept of forgiveness is distinct from reconciliation. Forgiveness is understood as an unconditional response to another’s injustice and is seen as an inner change that does not require the forgiver to go back to the potentially harmful relationship with the offender[3]. Forgiveness entails two words (“for” and “giveness” in English, “per” and “don” in Spanish, “per” and “dono” in Italian, etc.); so anytime some religious says I forgive you, what really happens is that the person gives someone for the sake of giving. Forgiveness implies give a gift.

Religious with a strong disposition to forgive would endorse statements such as the following: “When someone hurts my feelings, I manage to get over it fairly quickly”; “I don’t hold a grudge for very long”; “When community members make me angry, I am usually able to get over my bad feelings toward them”; “Seeking revenge doesn’t help people to solve their problems”; “I think it is important to do what I can to mend my relationships with community members who have hurt or betrayed me in the past”; “I am not the type of person to harm someone simply because he or she harmed me”; “I am not the type of person who spends hours thinking of how to get even with community members who have done bad things to me”, etc.

Nevertheless, forgiveness requires successfully implementing complex, intrapersonal processes, several of which seem to be influenced by developmental factors. This process is not automatic and often does not occur in a linear or timely fashion. If people have had many years of relational hurt, it is plausible to consider that one expression of “I forgive you” or “I’m sorry” would not repair the hurt. Unlike the other communicative acts of love and gratitude, which are recognized as acts or expressions, the concept of forgiveness not only involves the sense of need for resolution and the formulation of resolution strategies, but also requires the injured party to view the offender’s behavior in context. Nevertheless, at the end of the forgiveness process, when people are most forgiving, the injured religious are able to move away from blaming their partners, feel more at peace with their understanding of the betrayal, and are able to move beyond the betrayal. Forgiveness of transgressions can restore intimacy after a transgression has damaged emotional ties.

The need to forgive also encompasses a discovery process. Forgiveness also appears to be a complex and critical intrapersonal and interpersonal process in the healing of mind, body, and spirit. Like any process there are a variety of stages that must be worked through for healing and wholeness to be accomplished. For persons who have become estranged, forgiveness is one of the most critical processes for facilitating restored relational and emotional well being. However, as suggested, forgiveness is not a simple issue of ‘will power’ or merely ‘letting go’ but rather a complex process that when fully experienced can usher in a deep healing process within and among persons. Human frailty and imperfection are unavoidable. Human beings make mistakes. The truly important issue is not whether errors will be made, but how communities cope with them when they occur. The issue of emotional intelligence and the ability to bring an empathic understanding are critical[4].

As a result, several theoretical forgiveness models have been developed to promote forgiveness. Research groups headed by Enright and Worthington have led the way in investigating the efficacy of these interventions. Enright’s treatment model contains 20 steps, which are summarized in four phases: Uncovering (negative feelings about the offense), Decision (to pursue forgiveness for a specific instance), Work (toward understanding the offending person), and Discovery (of unanticipated positive outcomes and empathy for the offending person)[5].

The other primary research group has conducted research organized around Worthington’s REACH Forgiveness model. Each letter in the acronym REACH represents a major component in the forgiveness process. In the first step of this model, people recall (R) the hurt they experienced and the emotions associated with it. Next, people work to empathize (E) with their offender, take another’s perspective, and consider factors that may have contributed to their offender’s actions. This is done without condoning the other’s actions or invalidating the often-strong feelings the offended person has as a response. Third, people explore the idea that forgiveness can be seen as an altruistic (A) gift to the offender. People learn that forgiveness can be freely given or legitimately withheld and recall times when others forgave them. Fourth, people make a commitment (C) to forgive. This includes committing to the forgiveness that one has already achieved as well as committing to work toward more forgiveness, knowing that it is a process that often takes time to fully mature. Last, people seek to hold (H) onto or maintain their forgiveness through times of uncertainty or a return of anger and bitterness (e.g., if they get hurt again in a similar way)[6].

Much of the theological work focuses on prescriptive issues such as the moral appropriateness of forgiveness, whereas psychological research is descriptive in its focus. Many of the forgiveness studies and articles to date have emphasized potential benefits of forgiving. For example, a number of studies emphasize potential benefits of forgiveness for mental health and physical health[7].


[1] Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. NY: American Psychological Association & Oxford University Press.

[2] McCullough, M., Pargament, K., & Thoresen, C. (Eds.). (2000). Forgiveness: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Guilford Press.

[3] Enright, R. & Coyle, C. (1998). Researching the process model of forgiveness within psychological interventions. In E.L. Worthington (Ed.), Dimensions of forgiveness: Psychological research and theological perspectives (pp. 139- 161). Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press. Kim, J. J., & Enright, R. D. (2014). Differing views on forgiveness within Christianity: Do graduate-level theology students perceive divine and human forgiveness differently? Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 1, 191-202.

[4] McCullough, M., Pargament, K., & Thoresen, C. (Eds.). (2000). Forgiveness: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Guilford Press.

[5] Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping clients forgive: an empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association

[6] Worthington, E. L. (2001). Five steps to forgiveness: The art and science of forgiving. New York, NY: Crown.

[7] Witvliet, C.V.O., & McCullough, M. E. (2007). Forgiveness and health: A review and theoretical exploration of emotion pathways. En S. G. Post (Ed), Altruism and health: Perspectives from empirical research, (pp. 259-276). New York: Oxford University Press