Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

The Church as Forgiving Community; an Initial Model

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

The Church as Forgiving Community; an Initial Model

Article excerpt

Recent empirical studies have shown that forgiveness interventions decrease anxiety, depression, and anger, and increase self esteem, hope, and positive affect. We propose a three-tiered holistic psycho-educational approach called "The Forgiving Communities," that targets three interdependent categories: the family, the school, and the Church. The goal of The Forgiving Communities is to deepen individuals' (and society's) understanding and personal practice of, and growth in forgiveness. We posit here an initial model of the Church as Forgiving Community, consisting of multiple levels of forgiveness education intended to cultivate a culture of forgiveness and the expectation that forgiveness is part of the congregation's existence. The model targets the leadership of the congregation and every level of programming, from infancy through late adulthood.

It is in the ancient pages of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament where the concept of interpersonal forgiveness first finds its shape. From the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers (Gen. 50) to the forgiveness demonstrated by the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the Scriptures paint a picture of forgiveness relevant not only in the divine-human relationship, but also in person-person relationships. This interpersonal nature is spelled out more explicitly in Pauline thought, where Christ's followers are urged, in their desire to pursue holy communal living, to forgive one another because they themselves had been forgiven by God through Christ (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).

The essence of a forgiving response, as seen in the biblical texts above, is the cessation of resentment and the implementation or the resumption of a beneficent response toward an offender. Enright & Fitzgibbons (2000) define forgiveness as follows: People, upon rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they willfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which they have a right), and endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the hurtful act or acts, has no right) (p. 24).

To forgive is not to condone, excuse, forget, or even to reconcile (see Enright, 2001; Worthington, 2005). To forgive is to offer mercy to someone who has acted unjustly.

Though forgiveness has been part of the Church's message and mission for millennia, it began to draw interest from social scientists only twenty years ago, when Smedes (1984), and Worthington and DiBlasio (1990) introduced the topic. A key feature of the social scientific work was the development of process models, or detailed descriptions of how people actually go about forgiving others. The two most often-cited models are Enright's process model and "Worthington's REACH model. In Enright's model the forgiver moves through four phases: uncovering anger (acknowledging the pain and exploring the injustice), deciding to forgive (exploring forgiveness and making a commitment to work toward forgiveness), working on forgiveness (refraining and developing empathy and compassion for the offender and hearing the pain), and the outcome (healing is experienced) (Freedman, Enright, & Knutson, 200.S). On the forgiveness journey, one progresses at his or her own pace through 20 forgiveness guideposts, often skipping some and revisiting others. In a series of studies, using the gold standard of randomized, experimental and control group designs with follow-up testing, Enright and colleagues have shown strong evidence for the emotional health benefits of using a road map to learn to forgive someone who was deeply unfair to the participant. Participants with a wide variety of hurts have experienced statistically significant reductions in anger, depression, anxiety, grief, and post-traumatic stress symptoms and statistically significant increases in forgiveness, self-esteem, hope, positive attitudes, environmental mastery, and finding meaning in suffering (Holter, Magnuson & Enright, in press). …

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