Prayer and forgiveness: Can psychology help?

Prayer and forgiveness: Can psychology help?

Culligan, Kevin

CHRISTIAN PRAYER REQUIRES that we forgive one another. “When you stand in prayer,” Jesus instructed his disciples, “Forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your Father in heaven may in turn forgive you your transgressions” (Mk 11:25). Jesus also included this teaching in the “Our Father,” now the daily prayer of Christians: “Father,… forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is in debt to us” (Lk 11:2-4; Mt 6:9-13).

Despite Jesus’ teaching, many Christians committed to living a prayerful life-including persons who daily practice various forms of contemplative prayer, such as Christian meditation, centering prayer, and Christian insight meditation-choose to remain in a state of unforgiveness. On retreats, for example, I hear comments like: “I don’t care what Jesus says, I just can’t forgive my wife for the affair she had with my best friend. It still hurts too much”; “Am I really supposed to forgive the man who brutally raped my daughter? He ruined her life!”; or, “How can anyone even think of forgiving Timothy McVeigh?” Less dramatic stories reveal secret resentments over offended pride or broken promises. Whether the cause is great or small, many sincere Christians cling so tenaciously to past hurts that they appear to disbelieve Jesus’ lesson in his parable about the unforgiving servant: “That is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt 18:35).

Obstacles to Prayer

An unforgiving heart is probably the single greatest obstacle to a vibrant prayer life. Many devout Christians wonder why their prayer life never deepens. When they complain about difficulties in prayer, they often recount distractions, inability to concentrate, meaninglessness, lack of feeling, and dryness. These problems are real, as spiritual guides well know, and deserve full attention. Yet, I suspect that boredom in prayer-whether vocal, mental, liturgical, or contemplative-may often be symptomatic of an unconscious resistance to face our hidden anger and resentment over past hurts, which deepening prayer challenges us to confront.

Persistence in unforgiveness, however, takes its toll on us. Spiritually, as John of the Cross would quickly point out, attachment to a hurt arising from some specific past event blocks the inflow of hope into our lives. With faith and love, hope is the normally expected fruit of Christian prayer, especially contemplative prayer. The deepening of these virtues in our lives both heals and transforms us. Until we forgive, we cannot be healed and transformed-no matter how hard we pray-because unforgiveness blocks the flow of God’s healing and transforming love into our hearts. Clinging to past hurts and grievances also has distinct emotional and physical consequences. For example, unforgiveness, because it blocks hope, can set the stage for depression, which is so widespread in America today. Unforgiving persons also tend to show more symptoms of anxiety, paranoia, and narcissism. They are likely, too, to suffer from psychosomatic complications, heart disease, and have less resistance to physical illness.

Still, letting go of past hurts is not easy. Without wanting to, we can become obsessed with those we think have harmed or betrayed us. Mentally, we say “I forgive you” but then find ourselves carefully avoiding them. We take secret delight when we hear them ridiculed or see them fail. In guiding persons trapped in unforgiveness, I often explain to them that their condition is a symptom of sclerocardia, the biblical hardness of heart (Mk 7:14-23; 10:5; 16:14). This is the most devastating of all human diseases, and I counsel them that “prayer alone” can free them (Mk 9:29). Lately, though, I have been rethinking this advice in light of what some psychologists are discovering today about forgiveness. There may be much more besides prayer that Christians can do to release themselves from their bondage to past grievances.

Psychology and Forgiveness

In recent years, American psychology has taken a welcome turn away from its long preoccupation with the causes and treatment of mental and emotional disorders. It is now paying closer attention to understanding and promoting the inherently healthy human traits that enhance the quality of life for both individuals and society. In his 1998 address to the American Psychological Association (APA), the association’s president, Martin Seligman, challenged his colleagues to reorient their discipline toward a “new science and profession of positive psychology,” which he maintained can become the “Manhattan Project” of the social sciences. Encouraged by Seligman’s vision, many psychologists today are studying such qualities as moral responsibility, altruism, humility, courage, gratitude, and creativity. In the past, these attributes were often interpreted as unconscious adjustments to hidden, deep-seated emotional conflicts that were rooted in early life. Now these qualities are more likely to be regarded as independent dimensions of a healthy personality, with their own dynamics and laws of development that make for a fuller, richer life. Among these more positive human characteristics that contemporary psychology is exploring is forgiveness.

A quick search of the APA’s electronic databases turns up more than two hundred studies written during the last five years-including over seventy doctoral dissertations-in which forgiveness is a main variable under investigation or a significant factor in the study’s outcome. The APA, in the last two years, has published two books by Robert Enright, a leading researcher in the psychology of forgiveness, entitled Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope (with Richard P. Fitzgibbons) and Forgiveness is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Given the APA’s practice of publishing only a limited number of select professional titles each year for the many diverse disciplines within psychology, two works on forgiveness evidences the association’s own commitment to positive psychology.

More recently, at the APA’s annual national meeting in August 2001 in San Francisco, the division for the psychology of religion (Division 36) listed in its program twelve separate presentations on forgiveness. One two-hour symposium, “Forgiveness as Positive Science: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications”-cosponsored with the division for personality and social psychology (Division 8)-attracted a standing-room only gathering of approximately one hundred and fifty psychologists. They heard the results of empirical studies that showed that such variables as culture, religion, personality, and social-economic status greatly affect our readiness to forgive. However, the most impressive example at the APA convention of how far the interest in forgiveness has progressed in contemporary psychology was a four-hour, continuing professional-education workshop entitled “The Psychology of Forgiveness: Research and Practice.”

The Stanford Forgiveness Project

Led by Carl Thoresen and his associates from Stanford University’s School of Education, this workshop introduced forty-five psychologists to what the convention program described as the “basics of forgiveness training, using the Stanford Forgiveness Project as a model.” The Stanford team began this project in October 1998, with a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Since then, they have shown “how social cognitive processes create grievance stories” and “how maintaining grievances/hurts/resentments negatively alters psychological and physiological processes.” They have demonstrated the personal benefits of “letting go” of one’s grievance stories and, most importantly, are developing intervention procedures to help people move from unforgiveness or harboring hurts and grievances to the actual practice of forgiving others.

The workshop’s forty-item bibliography was yet another indicator of how forgiveness has captured the current attention of social scientists. All but one of the listed sources were written in the last ten years, the older reference being to “The Cognitive and Emotional Uses of Forgiveness in the Treatment of Anger”-a 1986 groundbreaking article by Richard Fitzgibbons in the journal Psychotherapy. In Exploring Forgiveness-a 1998 book of essays published by the University of Wisconsin Press-Enright and Joanna North point out that this interest in forgiveness is in marked contrast to the little work done before 1990 when published writings on forgiveness in academia appeared on the average of one every ten to fifteen years.

Several working definitions of forgiveness guide the Stanford researchers. One comes from Enright and his colleagues in Exploring Forgiveness. They say interpersonal forgiveness is a

willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgement, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her.

Interpersonal forgiveness

* is not pardoning, condoning, excusing, forgetting, denying, or even reconciling;

* does not, as Thoresen emphasized, condone violence, abuse, or injustice;

* does not release others from the consequences of their behavior.

* is essentially a unilateral, private choice, a necessary first step in freeing oneself from carrying the heavy burden of resentment over past hurts;

* sets the stage for such future possibilities as reconciliation and restoring broken relationships, although psychological forgiveness, in itself, does not require this;

* focuses on forgiving others, not on asking others for their forgiveness or on forgiving oneself, although clearly these are all related.

Forgiveness Is a Process

Forgiveness, thus defined, is more a process than a onetime decision. This process first involves an “uncovering” phase in which we become aware that we are unconsciously nourishing hurts arising from past events, or we awaken to the emotionally corrosive effect that anger-over past injustices done to us-has on our present behavior. Next-in the “decisions” phase-we attempt to understand the true meaning of forgiveness and choose to act on this understanding. Then begins the “work” phase. We consciously try to view our offender positively in a new light and to think of this person more compassionately and empathically. We also begin the interior work of recognizing and letting go of our resentments in their first movements within us and of refuting irrational thoughts, such as, “Every person is morally obliged to treat me according to my own standards of respect and justice.” Finally, in the “deepening” phase, we attempt to expand our vision of life to see meaning in suffering, to accept that life is not fair, and to find new possibilities for spiritual growth arising from perceived past injuries. By such practices, forgiveness gradually becomes an enduring attitude and a habitual reaction to negative interpersonal experiences.

This process of fashioning a forgiving heart can be easily learned. The Stanford group teaches participants, in six one-hour sessions, simple visualization and behavioral modification techniques that enable them to see

* how their minds create and maintain grievance stories from past negative experiences,

* how they damage themselves psychologically and physiologically when they continually replay these stories,

* how they can give up their grievances by taking them less personally and looking at the offending person in a more positive light.

Although some participants choose to hold on to past hurts and not forgive their offender, the majority, who decide for forgiveness, improve measurably in their emotional and physical health and in their interpersonal relationships at home and at work.

To test the effectiveness of their approach, the Stanford staff in January 2000 invited five women from Northern Ireland to participate in their project. Three were Protestant and two were Catholic. Each had suffered “catastrophic losses” in their country’s “troubles.” Sons of four of the women were killed in the conflict. One mother’s son was mistakenly murdered by a gunman from her own side. Obviously, these women carried deep hurts and resentment from the violence they had suffered and from their tragic losses. When invited to spend a week “learning to forgive the person who had murdered the person close to them,” the women agreed to participate in the research, although they did not anticipate a change in their attitudes. They acknowledged that a week in California would be a pleasant break from Northern Ireland in winter but warned the researchers not to expect them to alter their feelings of anger or resentment. Surprisingly, after a week of forgiveness training, the women showed significant improvement on measures of degree of hurt, depression, forgiveness, and stress, changes that held up when they were retested six months later following their return to Northern Ireland.

Even with these positive findings, the Stanford team modestly admits that their research is only in its infancy and there is still a great deal psychologists have to learn about forgiveness. Nonetheless, the Stanford Forgiveness Project demonstrates that anger and resentment over past hurts can give way to more positive feelings, thoughts, and actions. Persons can learn to move

* from hating their offenders to loving and caring for them,

* from ruminating angrily about past offenses to understanding and empathizing with their offenders,

* from avoiding people who have harmed them to communicating directly with them and making efforts to restore broken relationships.

Fortunately, these promising discoveries are now being publicized in books like Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice by Michael E. McCullough, Kenneth Pargament, and Carl Thoresen, and Fred Luskin’s recently published Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. The latter book describes the Stanford forgiveness research, including the Northern Ireland Hope projects.

Forgiveness and Prayer

Psychologists study forgiveness from a scientific rather than a religious perspective. Their primary aim is to understand the psychological dynamics of a human activity that has vast potential for improving the quality of life for individuals, communities, and societies. Yet, the implications for religion are obvious. The Stanford Forgiveness Project teaches its participants how to “reduce resentments, give up grudges, stop harboring hurts, let go of vengeful ideation, and stop blaming others”-the very lessons Christians must learn if their prayer is to deepen.

As a spiritual guide, I have found new resources-in the psychological literature on forgiveness and in the APA’s forgiveness workshop-to help praying Christians who struggle with anger and resentment over past hurts. I still encourage them to pray for healing, but now I can also invite them to examine the phases of the forgiveness process to see what lessons they might draw from it. I can recommend Enright’s self-help book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, with its step-by-step advice for resolving anger and restoring hope. I can suggest that they read on the web, at, the impressive results of the Stanford research. In the end, God’s grace alone enables us to forgive from our heart someone we believe has terribly wronged us. However, we might better dispose ourselves to receive this grace by practicing some of the methods psychologists are now teaching their clients in psychotherapy and their students in classes, seminars, and workshops around the country.

The events of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath are again reminding Christians that forgiveness is a necessary element of their prayer. For the goal of Christian prayer is not only self-transformation but also the transformation of society. Forgiveness may ultimately be our most powerful weapon for breaking the dreadful cycle of violence we witness today in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and our own country. Enduring peace (intrapersonal, interpersonal, national, and international) demands justice. But is justice possible without the merciful love that Jesus taught in the Gospels and that St. Therese Martin-our most recent doctor of the Church-rediscovered for our age in a late-nineteenth-century Carmelite cloister in France? And is merciful love possible without forgiveness? For centuries, monotheists–Jews, Christians, and Muslims-have resorted to killing others as a means of resolving conflicts, righting wrongs, and addressing grievances. This might change if Christians can show that forgiveness and merciful love, not violence and death, are the prerequisites for achieving justice and peace. This change can begin in the heart of each praying Christian.


As Kevin Gillespie shows in his recent Psychology and American Catholicism, American Catholics during the last century have assimilated much from modern psychology that has enhanced our teachings, pastoral practices, and ways of living our faith. A more positive psychology in the century ahead promises even better gifts for Catholics, ones that will surely benefit our spiritual lives. Already the psychology of forgiveness is contributing to a more vital prayer life.

Who among praying Catholics might especially profit from the work psychologists are now doing on forgiveness? I believe that all who share the responsibility for helping the Church in the United States grow as a praying and peacemaking community can benefit from their efforts. I would especially suggest that bishops, priests, seminary educators, Catholic schoolteachers, formation directors in religious orders, spiritual guides, retreat directors, DREs in parishes, and directors of continuing education and ongoing formation for clergy and religious should become familiar with this work on forgiveness and incorporate it into their ministry.

Recommended Readings in the Psychology of Forgiveness

Robert D. Enright and Joanna North, editors. Exploring Forgiveness. With a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Robert D. Enright. Forgiveness is ac Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. American Psychological Association, 2001.

Fred Luskin. Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. HarperCollins, 2001.

Everett L. Worthington, Jr. Five Steps to Forgiveness: TheArt and Science of Forgiving. Crown Publishers, 2001.

Kevin Culligan, OCD

Kevin Culligan, OCD, a priest-psychologist and longtime member of the American Psychological Association, lives in Chicago at the Edith Stein House of Studies. He is coeditor with Regis Jordan of Carmel and Contemplation: Transforming Human Consciousness (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 2000). [See review on page 117 of this issue] Occasionally he helps in guiding eight-day retreats in Christian insight meditation.

Copyright Spiritual Life Summer 2002

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