Forgiveness and Health: Review and Reflections on a Matter of Faith, Feelings, and Physiology

Article excerpt

Empirical research on the links between forgiveness and both mental and physical health is burgeoning. This article reviews current research, with reflections on how Christians might engage this literature. It considers Christian and psychological conceptualizations of forgiveness, reviews the published literature on forgiveness and mental and physical health, addresses theoretical and interpretive issues, and reflects on ways that Christians may thoughtfully consider the contributions and limitations of empirical research on forgiveness and health.

While forgiveness has long been at the heart of the Christian faith, empirical research has only recently examined its links with the emotional heart and the cardiovascular system. Several factors have encouraged both therapists and researchers to focus on forgiveness and health. One has been Lewis Smedes' (1984) Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve. Smedes masterfully made the ethereal concept of forgiveness concrete, framing it in ways that stirred the imaginations of theorists, therapists, and theologians alike. A second has been Robert Enright's 1994 founding of the International Forgiveness Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Enright and colleagues have published several empirical studies on forgiveness and health (Al-Mabuk, Enright, & Cardis, 1995; Coyle & Enright, 1997; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Hebl & Enright, 1993), as well as books designed to help people forgive (Enright, 2001; Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). A concurrent and third influence has been the program of for giveness research conducted by Everett Worthington, Jr., Michael McCullough, Steven Sandage, and colleagues who have published forgiveness intervention research (e.g., McCullough & Worthington, 1995; McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997; see Worthington, Sandage, & Berry, 2000) and four books that address mental and physical health within broader examinations of forgiveness (McCullough, Sandage, & Worthington, 1997; McCullough, Pargament, & Thoresen, 2000; Worthington, 1998a, 2001). A fourth factor has been the Campaign for Forgiveness Research, initiated by the John Templeton Foundation in 1998. Having funded dozens of proposals, this competitive grants program has the promise to multiply the number of published studies on the links between forgiveness and both mental and physical health related variables.

The burgeoning body of forgiveness and health research raises important questions for Christians to consider. First, how is forgiveness defined? Second, what are the published empirical findings on forgiveness and mental and physical health? Third, in light of this research, what additional theoretical and interpretive issues should be considered? Fourth, how might Christians thoughtfully consider the contributions and limitations of empirical research on forgiveness and health? This article will address these four questions in turn.

COMPLEMENTARY UNDERSTANDINGS OF FORGIVENESS

Christian understandings of forgiveness begin with Scripture. The word forgiveness brings to mind memorable biblical texts, such as the prodigal son, Jesus' command to forgive seventy times seven, and the parable of the unmerciful servant. Christian understandings of forgiveness are rooted in the transforming message of the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Forgiveness is at the center of the gospel message and shapes Christian identity. It permeates practices of piety, and is emphasized in the Lord's Prayer, Christian creeds, and the sacraments. When efforts to embody forgiveness as Christian communities and individuals fail, we repent and ask for God's forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift of God's grace, even as it simultaneously involves our own choices and responses as granters and receivers of forgiveness. Our choices and responses directly involve the spiritual, social, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physiological aspects of our selves (all of which are integrally related). …

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