Can Forgiveness be a Therapeutic Benefit to the Victim and Remain its Integrity as a Theological Virtue?
- Fields of Study
1. Introduction and Hypothesis
What is forgiveness? Many scholars are right in saying that forgiveness is difficult to define, and indeed, the definition widely varies across both academic disciplines and in personal practice. For example, forgiveness within theology has often been described as a gift to offenders and a duty for victims. This is because, in the first place, God has given the world the gracious gift of forgiveness in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, in imitation of this divine gift to human beings, Christians are likewise commanded to offer forgiveness as a gift to others who have sinned against them. In fact, Jesus suggests in the Lord’s prayer that we may ask God for forgiveness because we also forgive others (cf. Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4). Therefore, as Anthony Bash summarizes, “the Christian Scriptures regard the practice of interpersonal forgiveness as a prerequisite of salvation, and as evidence of salvation” (Bash 2015, xii). It is undeniable that—however construed—forgiveness is central to the Christian faith.
With that said, forgiveness is not strictly a Christian phenomenon. Jon Coutts notes that especially within the last century “more and more people have found the idea of forgiveness profoundly pertinent to interpersonal and sociopolitical affairs” (Coutts 2016, 11). More particularly, the concept of forgiveness has been increasingly studied and developed within the discipline of psychology. Mark McMinn notes that from the early 1980s to 1990s, there was a 300 percent increase in the number of journal articles published on the topic of forgiveness (McMinn 1996). While there are many ways that forgiveness may be conceptualized in psychology, one of the primary ways in which forgiveness has been utilized is to help victims to release the heavy emotions of anger and resentment so that they may move forward in healthier and happier lives. At a basic level, psychologists have observed that “forgiveness has been associated with better mental health and physical functioning” (e.g. McCullough and Witvliet 2002; Toussaint, Williams, Musick, and Everson 2001), and this is important for many victims who have low self-esteem and mental health issues after experiences of wrongdoing (Gulliford 2004, 88). In light of this correlation, therapists and counselors may help clients to forgive their wrongdoers—not out of a sense of religious duty—but for the victims themselves to benefit psychologically. Forgiveness, in this sense, may include an offer of mercy towards someone (i.e. the wrongdoer) who does not deserve it, but it is, perhaps, primarily for the sake of the victim.
What are we to make of these views of forgiveness? While these descriptions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they certainly seem to be at odds with one another. For theologians, the call to forgiveness is often universalized regardless of a victim’s circumstances. Moreover, if forgiveness is to be authentic and enacted in imitation of Jesus’ forgiveness, then one’s motivation must be pure and selfless. Thus, some theologians will argue against a therapeutic definition of forgiveness altogether. Coutts suggests that “[i]n confluence with trends of individualism and consumerism, forgiveness has increasingly been marketed in church and world as a therapeutic means to the ultimate end of maximized personal health and spirituality,” and this is problematic in his view (Coutts 2016, 99). Similarly, Gregory Jones asserts that forgiveness is often viewed as too costly for Christians; “consequently, they seek a cheap, therapeutic forgiveness in its place” (Jones 1995, 36). Neither Coutts nor Jones deny that therapy has a place for victims of wrongdoing; however, they suggest that forgiveness as it is conceptualized within the discipline of psychology must be appropriated “critically” and not whole-heartedly adopted within the Church (Jones 1995, 36). For them, forgiveness must maintain its shape as that which is offered in imitation of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness towards the world, and thus, as Bash pithily summarizes, “[f]orgiveness, then, is a moral issue with psychological implications; it is not a psychological issue with moral undertones” (Bash 2015, 46).
On the other hand, psychologists may take issue with the way that the Church views and preaches forgiveness. In recent years, there have been problems with the Church preaching forgiveness to victims without simultaneously holding wrongdoers accountable for their offenses. In these circumstances, forgiveness is presented as if it is purely a decision that the victim must come to, regardless of whether or not their offenders repent. As we shall see, this places an extraordinary burden on victims in the wake of wrongdoing and may take a toll on their mental health and/or isolate them from the Church. One psychologist suggests that because forgiveness is highly valued in religious communities, “[m]embers of these communities may feel pressured to forgive quickly, perhaps before they have had an appropriate amount of time to process the hurt. Forgiving too quickly or unconditionally may also put individuals at risk for future exploitation” (McElroy-Hetzel, Davis, Ordaz, Griffin and Hook 2019). For many psychologists, forgiveness ought to be conceptualized in a way that accurately takes into account the lived experiences of victims and offenders—as a process which is cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and physiological. Moreover, in therapeutic practice, forgiveness should not be demanded but viewed as one coping strategy among many for victims of wrongdoing.
In the remaining portion of this puzzle, I will attempt to outline the ways in which theology and psychology may dialogue with one another in constructive ways concerning the definition and practices of forgiveness. I will argue that each discipline will ultimately need to have their own definitions of the term based on their prior commitments, but I will contend that each discipline may have more to offer the other than originally expected.
In order to do this, I will first discuss a view of forgiveness expounded by Anthony Bash, who is both sensitive to the call of Scripture and thoughtful about the ways that psychological therapy may complement a Christian view of forgiveness. In the second section, I will summarize a number of findings from psychologists that support the view that forgiveness is highly individualistic and ought to be tailored to the specific context in which wrongdoing occurs. Finally, I will suggest a few concrete ways that both theologians and psychologists may contribute to the implementation of forgiveness in their distinctive fields.
2. Fields of Study
2.1 A Biblical Scholar’s Theology of Forgiveness: An analysis by Anthony Bash
As I have suggested, there are many definitions of forgiveness, and these definitions vary not only across academic disciplines but within the field of theology as well. Moreover, as a New Testament scholar, Bash notes that there is not a uniform description of forgiveness within the Christian Scriptures (or the Hebrew Bible). Because there are twenty-seven books that compose the New Testament, which are written by a variety of different authors, it would be unfair to flatten their unique voices into one definition of forgiveness (Bash 2015, 6). Bash also contends that the Scriptures do not say everything that needs to be said about how to live a Christian life. For him, “when it comes to forgiveness in the twenty-first century, for example, there is therefore no reason why we should not continue to reflect on the meaning of the Christ-event. We may perhaps thereby develop some new insights into what it means to forgive” (Bash 2015, 10-11).
Nevertheless, Bash begins his description of forgiveness with an analysis of a few Greek words that have been used to mean something like forgiveness. As he points out, there is not a precise word for forgiveness, but instead, the New Testament authors use a number of metaphors to describe what forgiveness is like. He concisely summarizes three aspects of forgiveness from three particular words:
From the language used in the Christian Scriptures, we can say that: 1) Aphiemi and aphesis imply that a victim personally and relationally lets go of having been wronged; 2) Charizomai suggests that a victim, even though having been wronged, gives a gift of undeserved favor to a wrongdoer; and 3) Apoluo implies that a victim offers release from wrongdoing to a wrongdoer. (Bash 2015, 28-29)
This is the basis of his definition of forgiveness; however, he readily acknowledges that in practice, giving and receiving forgiveness can often be complicated. Moreover, he rightly suggests that the New Testament fails to address how we are to forgive, and it does not acknowledge the often-times long journey that forgiveness requires. Additionally, “[t]hey also fail to recognize that precipitately insisting that a person forgive before the necessary psychological groundwork has been completed may sometimes reinforce the trauma” (Anthony and Melanie Bash 2004, 46). With that recognition in mind, Bash continues to develop a nuanced theology of forgiveness that allows for the consideration of one’s specific circumstances.
He spends a large portion of his texts defending the notion that forgiveness does not and should not be unconditional, for it is not always virtuous to offer forgiveness. More specifically, his view of forgiveness includes the necessity of repentance from one’s offender. With that said, he suggests that unconditional forgiveness may be attractive because “insisting on repentance before forgiveness raises some very difficult issues. First, who determines how much repentance is necessary? Second, who determines how the wrongdoer is to demonstrate repentance? Third, who determines whether what is required of the wrongdoer is reasonable or not? Fourth, who determines when the preconditions for forgiveness have been met?” (Bash 2007, 64). Even with these issues, however, Bash insists that forgiveness is not a requirement of the victim. For him, there are three primary reasons for this stance. In the first place, offering forgiveness to an unrepentant offender may fail to properly hold the offender accountable for their offense. In other words, “the effect of forgiving an unrepentant wrongdoer may be to leave the wrongdoer free to escape accountability as a personally responsible agent; it may also deny the wrongdoer both the incentive and the opportunity to right the wrong” (Bash 2015, 34). If a moral evil is to be taken seriously and addressed as such, then to offer forgiveness to an offender without their repentance is actually unjust. Moreover, a victim deserves to have the wrongdoing acknowledged for their own healing.
The second reason that Bash provides for why forgiveness should not be unconditional, and why it is not a moral duty, is that “sometimes it is not possible to forgive, and it cannot be a moral duty to do the impossible” (Bash 2007, 102). In this statement, Bash nods to the reality of psychological trauma that victims may experience as a result of wrongdoing. He rightly recognizes that some wrongdoings will incapacitate victims either physically, psychologically, or both, and affirms that in those scenarios, God will offer compassion to the victim instead of holding them to an impossible standard (Bash 2015, 88).
The third and final reason why forgiveness should not be unconditional, or characterized as a moral duty, is because “it is not a moral duty to give a gift (such as the gift of forgiveness), because a gift, by definition, is a voluntary act that one does not necessarily have to do” (Bash 2007, 102). With that being said, Bash immediately adds that the divine gift of forgiveness to the world is a transformative experience. In other words, when we recognize the loving sacrifice that Jesus accomplished for us in his forgiveness, then we are permanently changed by it. He argues that Jesus’ forgiveness towards the world ontologically changes human beings “so that they themselves can forgive in the same way that God forgives. It is impossible, argues Paul, to live God’s way without God’s power. It follows, as a corollary, that to forgive God’s way is also impossible without God’s power” (Bash 2007, 98-99). This aspect of Bash’s account leaves hope for individuals that change is possible from something outside of themselves. When one is swallowed by the emotions of anger, grief, and confusion, one may place themselves back into the narrative of God’s unconditional love for the world and the promise of restoration to come. It also reminds victims that forgiveness does not need to be achieved by their own power, but in God’s strength, and alongside the compassion and encouragement of God’s people.
This sentiment is ultimately how Bash concludes his analysis of forgiveness. He contends that “even if we cannot precisely define forgiveness and say what it is, forgiveness is recognisable when it takes place. We can probably say that to ask for forgiveness is to appeal to the victim to believe in what the (now repentant) wrongdoer can become. To forgive in response to such an appeal is an act of love that offers hope for the future” (Bash 2007, 172). The future to which Bash refers, moreover, may not only point to the immediate reality in which we inhabit but may also allude to the eschatological life that is to come, when God will reconcile the world to Godself in full. I would contend that this is a distinct aspect of forgiveness that the Church may offer the world. Gregory Jones puts it well:
[t]heology has priority in establishing the determinative context in which the relations are understood. It locates our understandings and practices in the context of God’s eschatological salvation and our redemption from sin. That is, theology locates our lives in a particular narrative, the narrative of the triune God’s dealing with the world and with human beings. That narrative is learned and lived in and through the practices of the Church. (Jones 2001, 252)
In sum, then, Bash maintains that forgiveness ought to be a conditional offer that is determined by the specific circumstances of the victim and offender. However, one’s circumstances are always and already encompassed by Jesus’ forgiveness of the world. In this way, even if one cannot offer forgiveness in this lifetime, we may still have hope that all things will be reconciled in the life to come.
With this in mind, we will now turn to a psychology of forgiveness.
2.2 Psychological Studies of Forgiveness: Factors that Impact One’s Ability to Forgive
As I suggested in the introduction, there has been an enormous rise in the study of forgiveness from a psychological perspective in recent decades, and these studies will be approached from many different subdisciplines within psychology. Due to the limits of time and space, this section will only address a few approaches to forgiveness which highlight the individualistic nature of forgiveness. In other words, we shall see that one’s capacity to forgive often depends on a variety of different factors including age, personality, culture, and the response of the wrongdoer.
We will first turn to a discussion of personality and age in relationship to a person’s capacity to forgive. In a number of studies, scholars have examined individuals with each of the Big 5 personality traits—neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, and openness—and found that certain personality types will be greater predictors of whether one is likely to forgive or not (Hodge, Captari, Mosher, Kodali, Hook, Davis, and Van Tongeren 2019). They found that people with the trait of neuroticism were the least likely to forgive and that agreeable people were most likely to forgive, with the other three traits having small positive associations with forgiveness. In the conclusion to the study, Hodge et al. suggested that there are few important takeaways for interventionists. In the first place, they argued that “individual personality differences should be acknowledged when promoting forgiveness. For example, if an individual is high in neuroticism, an interventionist might recognize that self-forgiveness has the potential to be an especially difficult area for the individual to grow in” (Hodge et al. 2019). Second, they suggested that interventionists would do well to address both the category of forgiveness (i.e. state or trait forgiveness) and the target of forgiveness (i.e. the self, others, or the situation). Finally, they found that moderators such as age, gender, and ethnicity may also be important factors that relate to whether one is able to forgive or not. In sum, when one is trying to help a victim to forgive, it ought to be tailored according to their unique circumstances and characteristics in order to be effective (Hodge et al. 2019).
With regard to one’s age, psychologists Rachel C. Garthe and Samantha Guz have found that because of the complexity of forgiveness as a process—one that is both cognitive and emotional—individuals may not be able to truly forgive until they have reached full cognitive development (or are close to it) (Garthe and Guz 2019). They argued that there are three primary developmental factors that need to be taken into account when thinking about forgiveness: self-regulation, coping strategies, and socialization processes. With regard to the first, they have observed that “adolescents continue to develop cognitive abilities to appraise situations, control emotional reactions, and cope effectively when faced with conflict. Research has found that self-regulation continues to develop from age 18 to 25, with most research suggesting that mature self-regulation is attained towards the end of one’s twenties (Arnett 2015;Garthe and Guz 2019). Although there have only been a few studies done connecting self-regulation to forgiveness, these scholars posit that the existing research is promising.
Individuals also learn a variety of coping strategies as they become older, which may include the practice of forgiveness. Surprisingly, Garthe and Guz argue that “we may not see true forgiveness until adolescence, or even until emerging adulthood, where emotion regulation and problem-solving coping strategies become more prominent” (Garthe and Guz 2019). Additionally, both self-regulation and coping strategies are linked to one’s social development and the role models that individuals had as children. “Children rely on their caregivers to model how to react in situations (Thompson and Goodman 2009), and caregivers who support and demonstrate self-regulation enhance their child’s ability to self-regulate (Hadwin and Oshige 2011)” Garthe and Guz 2019). Simply put, if an individual’s caregiver did not model self-regulation or productive coping strategies when one was a child, then one may find this difficult to do even as an adult. Once again, these researches advocate for a more targeted approach to forgiveness that takes into consideration the specific experiences that a person has had that may make forgiveness challenging for them.
Finally, we will turn to a few psychologists who suggest that the process of forgiveness is largely impacted by the offender’s response. For them, this is a somewhat obvious but underexplored hypothesis. Green et al. argue that,
[f]orgiveness and relational repair are complex, unfolding processes that are highly dependent on the post-transgression behavior of the perpetrator. Just as it is impossible to fully understand a student’s learning without knowing anything about the teacher or their relationship, it is impossible to understand forgiveness in its relational context without knowing the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of both victim and offender. (Green, Reid, Coy, Hedgebeth and Kneuer 2019)
They are right to suggest that it will be more difficult for a victim to forgive their offender if the offender has not apologized or attempted to make amends, for this acknowledgement can be helpful to their personal healing and thus their ability to extend a gift of forgiveness back to the offender. They also contend that in on-going relationships, such as those in the work place, “repeated offenses can alter the view of the prior apology, which now may be seen as less sincere or effective” (Hui, Lau, Tsang and Pak 2011;Green et al. 2019). However, when there are power dynamics at work in the relationship, this may make forgiveness more complicated. One may be motivated to forgive, even if the perpetrator offers a less-than-ideal response because of the benefits that staying in relationship with the offender may offer. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the workplace and in family relationships. Thus, the researchers conclude that the particular relational dynamics between both victim and offender ought to be studied in order to maximize the satisfaction that both parties receive in the process of forgiveness and amends. As I have suggested, this perspective again supports a view of forgiveness as being a highly contextual process which is dependent upon the power dynamics and motivations of the individuals involved in the process.
With a brief overview of these studies in place, we will now turn to a discussion between a theology and psychology of forgiveness.
Now that we have outlined a view of forgiveness as presented by Anthony Bash and a few psychological perspectives on forgiveness, we will bring these scholars into discussion and attempt to find ways in which they may enhance the other. We will turn to the issues that we addressed in the introduction and see if we may be able to come to any resolutions after a more in depth study of each perspective. In the first place, we will remember that some traditional theological accounts of forgiveness will take issue with therapeutic contexts which seek to help a victim’s mental health but do not facilitate moral growth for individuals. These theologians will hold to a view of forgiveness that emphasizes the motivation of the victim—it must be selfless, self-sacrificial, and unconditional if it is to be in imitation of Jesus’ forgiveness towards the world. In order to address this concern, we will first highlight that this view is not held universally by theologians. As we have discovered upon Bash’s analysis, there are a number of biblical scholars and theologians who argue that even the Bible supports a view of conditional forgiveness. Moreover, Bash points out that even if one did universally forgive others, it may be for the wrong reasons (Bash 2007, 102). It could be that they forgive out of weakness or fear. In these instances, it would be greatly beneficial for the victim to see a therapist in order to heal and come to a position of wholeness in which one would be able to offer forgiveness to an offender for the right reasons.
From a psychological perspective, we have discovered that there are many factors that may impact a victim’s decision and/or capacity to forgive. Because of this, therapeutic contexts may help victims of wrongdoing more than theologians have originally expected because psychologists will be able to expertly approach the topic of forgiveness—knowing the ways in which people have been helped or hindered by previous experiences. While Christians may maintain the conceptualization of forgiveness as a moral construct, they may adopt the therapeutic practices of psychology in order to effectively change behavior and in a way that is kind and compassionate towards those who have experienced wrongdoing. Moreover, an understanding of the trauma that victims may undergo as a result of an offense will help clergy to be more compassionate towards victims and to adjust their expectations of forgiveness as needed. Though a victim’s subjective experience need not dictate entirely how one should act in moral decisions, it is important to take into consideration for their physical and mental well-being.
On the other hand, we discussed the concern of psychologists who have observed how some theologians rush victims into forgiveness without a sufficient amount of time or adequate support to help them through the physical and/or emotional issues that come with an experience of wrongdoing. While the Church has much to learn on this front, we have also discussed the benefits of the Church’s preaching on Jesus’ forgiveness for the world. This story in which we find ourselves may help victims to ground themselves in something objectively true when the symptoms of trauma become overwhelming. Moreover, theology offers hope of the life to come, in which all things will be restored and reconciled. Therefore, if forgiveness is impossible for victims in this life, they may rest assured that God will bring about justice and transform the world by his forgiveness. This is a unique perspective that the Christian Church can offer to victims of injustice.
In addition, psychologists may learn from theologians about what it means to challenge victims, even in times of great difficulty. For those who have harmful coping strategies or unceasing vengeful attitudes after an instance of wrongdoing, it may be necessary to challenge the victim to reform for both their own sake and the sake of those around them. Like the Church, therapists, too, ought to find the balance between being compassionate and spurring a person on towards greater moral reform, even if not in a religious context.
I do not wish to present the two disciplines as perfectly existing without tension or conflict. Though I have argued that they have much to offer the other, there will be moments where psychologists and theologians will not be able to see eye-to-eye. As Jon Coutts summarizes particularly well, “there is no sense denying that the demands of such forgiveness and reconciliation may appear scandalous and foolish apart from faith. It is often very clear that only in faith and hope of Christ does self-forgiving and forgiving commend itself” (Coutts 2016, 170). Likewise, psychologists have a multi-faceted view of human beings as cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and physical persons whose responses to wrongdoing are complicated and highly contextual. There will be plenty of times when the Church gets lost in the idealization of who we ought to be that it forgets who we are. Moreover, it may be tempted to place human responses to wrongdoing (such as anger, grief, or confusion) into moral categories when such responses are natural and need not be indicative of one’s moral status. Thus, I would suggest that the disciplines of psychology and theology may retain their own definitions of forgiveness as they continue to develop them within their respective fields, but it is also evident that there is much that each may offer the other.
In this theological puzzle, I have summarized a few conflicts in the ways that psychologists and theologians conceptualize forgiveness. I have suggested that upon deeper analysis, these problems are not as glaring as they once appeared, and that theology and psychology may greatly complement one another on the study of forgiveness. While this topic continues to surge in interest amongst both disciplines, I would suggest that they work together to find ways to make the world a healthier place through the practice of forgiveness. For in giving forgiveness, we find that we are freed from the burdens of resentment and anger, and in accepting forgiveness, we learn to receive the lavish love of others when we feel we least deserve it. Both expressions are dignifying to humanity.
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Bash, Anthony. 2015. Forgiveness: A Theology. Euegene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
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Coutts, Jon. 2016. A Shared Mercy: Karl Barth on Forgiveness and the Church. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
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Jones, L. Gregory. 2001. “Healing the Wounds of Memory: Theology & Psychology on Salvation & Sin.” In Care for the Soul, edited by Mark R. McMinn and Timothy R. Phillips, 241-253. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
McCullough, M. E., and C. V. Witvliet. 2002. “The Psychology of Forgiveness.” In Handbook of Positive Psychology, edited by C. R. Snyder and S. J. Lopez, 446-458. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McElroy-Hetzel, Stacey E., Davis, Don. E., Ordaz, Ana C., Griffin, Brandon J., and Joshua N. Hook,. 2020. “Measuring Forgiveness and Self-Forgiveness Descriptions, Psychometric Support, and Recommendations for Research and Practice.” In The Handbook of Forgiveness, 2nd Edition, edited by Everett L. Worthington, Jr. and Nathaniel G. Wade. New York: Routledge.
McMinn, Mark R. 1996. Psychology, Theology, and Spirituality in Christian Counseling. Wheaton, IL: Tyndall House.
Toussaint, Loren L., Williams, David R., Musick, Marc A., and Susan A. Everson. 2001. “Forgiveness and Health: Age Differences in a U.S. Probability Sample.” Journal of Adult Development 8: 249-257. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1011394629736.
 I will note here that although this is a common description from New Testament scholars and theologians alike—that we are ontologically changed upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ—it is a claim that is largely underdeveloped in terms of what this might look like subjectively.
Cite this article
James, Hannah. 2022. “Can Forgiveness be a Therapeutic Benefit to the Victim and Remain its Integrity as a Theological Virtue?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 11). https://www.theo-puzzles.ac.uk/2022/07/04/james/.