Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Responding to Our Own Transgressions: An Experimental Writing Study of Repentance, Offense Rumination, Self-Justification, and Distraction

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Responding to Our Own Transgressions: An Experimental Writing Study of Repentance, Offense Rumination, Self-Justification, and Distraction

Article excerpt

This between-subjects experiment focused on offender responses to their past interpersonal transgressions in self-identified Christian undergraduates (55 M, 85 F). Participants completed pre-post measures for one of four randomly assigned 20-minute writing conditions: repentance (i.e., writing about constructive sorrow, apology, restitution, behavior change), offense rumination (i.e., negative wallowing), self-justification (i.e., externalizing blame, minimizing costs), or distraction (i.e., daily details). Offense rumination and repentance writing included the most cost-oriented language; rumination had the most negative emotion language. Mixed within (pre vs. post) X between group ANOVA interactions yielded theoretically meaningful results. Repentance reduced self-condemnation and regret while increasing conciliatory motivations toward the victim (to apologize, make restitution, and seek forgiveness). Offense rumination was associated with remorse and se If -condemning isolation from the victim and God. Se If -justification reduced remorse and self-condemnation, and exaggerated perceptions of divine forgiveness. Implications for the interrelated literatures on interpersonal offenses, confession, apology, restitution, repentance, forgivenessseeking, and self-forgiveness are addressed.

How offenders respond to their own acts of interpersonal offense has implications for the well-being of victims and themselves in community and before the face of God. Offenders may 1) repent of their actions, 2) ruminate negatively on their offense, 3) justify the transgression by externalizing blame and minimizing its significance, or 4) distract themselves from focusing on the offense. Each of these responses has connections with both psychological and theological literatures. The goal of our experiment was to learn from psychological research findings and to consider connections with both psychology and theology on related themes: confession, apology, restitution, remorse, self-condemnation, forgiveness-seeking, and self-forgiveness (Augsburger, 1996; Exline, Root, Yadavalli, Martin, & Fisher, 2010; Fisher & Exline, 2010; Hall & Fincham, 2008; Narramore, 1984; Smedes, 1996). These themes, in turn, are related to two core features of justice and grace that are often implicit in the literature: truth-telling and transformation. Healthy responses to offenses - by offenders and victims alike - depend upon an accurate understanding of the offense and an approach to it that transforms destructive outcomes into constructive and prosocial ones.

Repentance

Repentance in the Christian tradition can be summarized as remorse, restitution, and renewal - a change in the direction of one's life (Augsburger, 1996). It hinges on an honest understanding of the problem and involves constructive sorrow for one's transgression, which Narramore (1984) distinguishes from self-condemning punishment. This echoes themes in 2 Corinthians 7:10, in which godly sorrow produces repentance that leads to salvation but not regret; whereas worldly grief is linked to death. Narramore (1984) explains that constructive sorrow is a desire to change that is motivated by loving concern for others, whereas psychological guilt - what Tangney and Bearing (2002) refer to as shame - is self-punitive and destructive toward oneself. Christian college students were able to distinguish Narramore's (1984) concepts of godly sorrow and psychological guilt in scenarios based on whose actions and attitudes were in focus for the transgressor, the changes made, and the transgressor's attitude toward God (but not attitude toward the self), and this distinction was facilitated by Christian maturity (Sasseti et al., 1990). Factor analytic research by Sasseti, Sasseti, Lloyd, and Johnson (2006) has also distinguished godly sorrow and psychological guilt items. Sorrow items, however, split into behavior and spiritual items, with behavioral sorrow associated with forgiveness-seeking. …

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