Faith and forgiveness

Many of us will have heard the phrase “To err is human, to forgive divine”, but personally internalising and scientifically measuring that forgiveness between people and as religious experiences is an ongoing field of research. Prof Frank Fincham has spent the last few years working on that field, looking at the relationship those who seek forgiveness, those who grant it, and those seek forgiveness from a higher power.

Read more about Prof Finchams work at Research Outreach, and through his own academic archive.

Original publication:
https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2019.1579361


Will:
Hello, I’m Will, welcome to ResearchPod. In this episode: many of us will have heard the phrase “To err is human to forgive divine”, but personally internalising and scientifically measuring that forgiveness between people, and as religious experiences, is an ongoing field of research. Dr. Frank Fincham has spent the last few years working on that field, looking at the relationship between those who seek forgiveness, those who grant it and those seeking forgiveness from a higher power. Dr Fincham, Hello. Thank you so much for joining us. If you could tell myself and some of the listeners at home a little bit about yourself, some of your background.
Prof Fincham:
I’m a psychologist by training, having done my undergraduate and graduate work in South Africa before doing a PhD at Oxford university in England. Since then, I have been at numerous universities in the United States punctuated by brief spell at Cardiff university as well. My research has focused on the area of close relationships and more specifically cognitive processes and conflict between couples. Well, when couples have conflict, they tend to blame each other. It’s the other person’s fault. Well, how do we get beyond that? One of the ways in which we can get beyond that is to forgive the other person. And Ruth Bell Graham, a humorist from the 1930s, characterised marriage in the following way. He said it was the union of two forgivers and you know that if you are in a close romantic relationship you are going to be hurt and forgiveness will become an option for you. So I began to study forgiveness. Most recently, my research has now shifted to an area that’s seen very little inquiry, divine forgiveness.
Will:
Just to explain some of the terms that are being raised here. When you say to forgive someone or to seek forgiveness, what would be I guess the dictionary definition of that? Because I’m sure we’ve all asked for forgiveness, we’ve all given forgiveness, but maybe there’s a little bit of nuance around that if it’s just allowing or accepting an apology or is there any more detailed expression within forgiveness?
Prof Fincham:
Well, Forgiveness is something that can occur within the person and it doesn’t necessarily have to involve communication with the other person. There are dangers associated when you start communicating with the other person about forgiveness. But let me go to your question and say that when somebody commits a transgression against you or wrongs you, our natural response is one of either anger or fear which can lead to seeking retribution or seeking avoidance of the person who wronged us. So forgiveness has been studied mainly in terms of a reduction in those negative States that occur when you are wronged by someone and the context of her relationship. However you need something that will motivate you to possibly repair the relationship. And so I have suggested that we also need an element of Goodwill towards the person who wronged us so that the possibility of later reconciliation may occur.
Prof Fincham:
Now going back to the issue of communicating forgiveness, it is a very tricky thing because if you do it badly, you can come across as lording it over the wrongdoer and putting them down, which wouldn’t help with the forgiveness process. Also, there is this danger and this is one that a lot of people do not appreciate with forgiveness. If we say I forgive you, it doesn’t mean that it is done. That’s why it makes sense to say, I will try to forgive you. I acknowledging that it is a process that takes time. And the problem when you say I forgive you to someone is that they immediately think, Oh, it’s all done. It’s over. We can just move on. Well, it just doesn’t work that way. The negative feelings that can be provoked by being wronged, take time to work through. And so when I say to somebody, I forgive you, what I’m really saying is I’ve decided to forgive you and I’m going to try to get over the negative feed.
Prof Fincham:
It’s a process. So if those negative feelings flare up again, it doesn’t mean that I lied to you about for giving you. Whereas the person who did the wrong might think, well, why are you bringing it up again? You just lied to me. You said you forgave me. So we have to be very careful. And he stopped communicating about forgiveness. And I suppose that takes on an extra level of nuance when divining forgiveness into the discussion. Well, divine forgiveness has certain unique characteristics that interpersonal forgiveness doesn’t have. And so we would do well to not just assume that we know what divine forgiveness is from what I’ve described in the last few minutes,
Will:
My experience, personally, with the descriptions and the communications around divine forgiveness have been very centered around the Christian idea of a divine power with unconditional love who will forgive unconditionally if you simply ask for forgiveness. There’s some different versions of that where it has to be earned with either prayer or some kind of reflection. How much of your own research into divine forgiveness is picking apart these different ideas of a divine experience and then that translating into different models of forgiveness, I suppose.
Prof Fincham:
one of the things I’m working on right now is how best to try and assist that. We haven’t yet done much research on divine forgiveness. And so how do we assess people’s experiences, their understanding of divine forgiveness? We’re at the, we’re at the starting line. What people have typically done up to now is they’ve simply ask people to ask the question, to what extent do you experience God’s forgiveness when you do something wrong? Something of that nature,
Will:
Which is fairly interpretive for any respondent.
Prof Fincham:
Yes. The problem though is that while everyone can understand what that means and it have no difficulty in responding to it using single questions to measure anything is fraught with difficulty and those single questions are not considered to be a reliable way of assessing something in research. But that being said, we do have some data already on divine forgiveness and I’ll be happy to share that with you as we talk further.
Will:
If you could tell us a little bit about the methodology that’s expanding beyond this single question survey, then,
Prof Fincham:
in my own research, I’ve tried to include multiple items and assessing divine forgiveness so that I’m not just asking a single question about forgiveness. Usually at this point it’s three or four questions. Things like I’m certain that God forgives me. We’re not seek his forgiveness. Knowing that I’m forgiven for my sins gives me the strength to face my thoughts and be a better person. And another question like how often have you felt so given by God? That’s a three item measure that I used in one of the studies I’ll be talking about. Is it optimal? Certainly not. But it’s better than a single arm.
Will:
How many people were involved in the questions?
Prof Fincham:
Typically we have somewhere between two or 300 people in both, which is a reasonable size sample, but the numbers vary depending on which study we talking about. But let’s go with the most recent. First, I suppose the most recent study has looked at interpersonal forgiveness, self forgiveness, and the bond forgiveness and how relate to an index of wellbeing. In this case, depressive symptoms, each individually has been associated with depressive symptoms and so it was important for me to put them all together and say, well, if they’ve each been associated, do each of them do work for us or is just measuring one form of forgiveness enough if we want to understand the relationship between forgiveness and oppression, which incidentally, when it comes to interpersonal forgiveness is negatively related to depressive symptoms.
Will:
All right, so I was about to ask if that was related to seeking forgiveness or not seeking any resolution.
Prof Fincham:
Most of the research on interpersonal forgiveness has focused on the forgiver, not the wrongdoer, so there’s very little I can say about the wrongdoer in the behavioral research on interpersonal forgiveness, but of course when it comes to the bond forgiveness, the picture changes in that the person does often seek God’s forgiveness and that’s one way in which earthly forgiveness and divine forgiveness differ. But we are jumping a little ahead. What I did was look at the relationship between self-forgiveness and depressive symptoms. Now we know that by its very nature, depression tends to be negatively related to self forgiveness. The more depressed you are, the less likely you are to forgive yourself. And I was able to document that in my study thereby replicating lots of previous findings, but she has with a twist comes in. What if we look at self forgiveness and divine forgiveness in relation to feeling depressed?
Prof Fincham:
Well, something very interesting happens. What happens is what is technically called an interaction effect. That is the way in which self-forgiveness and depressive symptoms are related varies as a function of the bond forgiveness. So for people who are very low in self forgiveness, feeling forgiven by God lowered the depressive symptoms compared to those who didn’t feel forgiven by God. This is at low levels of self forgiveness. Now let’s switch over to higher levels of self forgiveness at higher levels of self forgiveness. Divine forgiveness played no role. So it didn’t matter whether you felt forgiven by God or not. If you were very high in self forgiveness, you had the same level of depressive symptoms. Whereas at lower levels of self forgiveness, divine forgiveness really mattered. So it’s a more nuanced relationship. So you may say, well if self forgiveness is so important, how can we increase self-forgiveness? Well, you could argue that feeling forgiven by God, modern fact increased self forgiveness. I sit out to study that in one study and was able to show that there is indeed a robust relationship between feeling forgiven by God and forgiving the self. After all, if God forgives me, surely I can forgive myself.
Will:
Was this a longitudinal study following up on people who had described divine forgiveness and then tracking their experience of self-forgiveness?
Prof Fincham:
Correct. So what I was able to show is the temporal ordering of these two things. Now what we are interested in in science is understanding mechanisms and causality. The way we go about studying causality is usually by doing experiments, but it’s very hard to manipulate people’s beliefs in divine forgiveness. For example. The second best is to look at the way these things are related over time because generally causes precede effects. So what we did was we measured both of these things at an initial point and then seven weeks later we measured both of them again and we look at the relationships between them across time. And what we were able to show is that divine forgiveness predicts later self forgiveness, taking into account the initial level of self forgiveness. So if you can picture that earlier, divine forgiveness, predicting later, self forgiveness. Now what about the opposite?
Prof Fincham:
Earlier yourself forgiveness predicting later divine forgiveness. No, it doesn’t predict at all. It only predicts in one direction over time. So this is consistent with a possible causal relation. Well, what about bidirectional effects? We did a certain kind of fancy modeling that showed when you looked at the bond directional effects between the two. In fact you only found one direction of effect and that direction was from the bond forgiveness, just self forgiveness. These are the only data that exists so far showing that divine forgiveness actually precedes self-forgiveness at a later time, which is consistent with the idea of it being a closer relationship, but notice it is not conclusive. It is only consistent with that causal inference, so we have to become creative and try and do some experimental work which will show this effect. I did in fact do something that speaks to that.
Prof Fincham:
If you asked people about divine forgiveness first and then ask them about self forgiveness as compared to not asking them about divine forgiveness and then asking them about self of goodness, does it make a difference? This is a simple experiment and yes, indeed. I found that if we asked people about the bonds of goodness fist, I got higher levels of self forgiveness being exhibited. Then if I hadn’t asked him about the bond forgiveness first, well you can see how you can extend this now and awesome about self Oh goodness and see if that increases divine forgiveness. No other thing, I think we are not triangulating on the idea that the effect is from divine forgiveness to self forgiveness rather than the other way around
Will:
and that does make a kind of psychological sense that in whatever journey someone is going through of seeking or developing forgiveness that self-forgiveness would be the last step of that and divine forgiveness if it does occur would maybe be an inciting step in that. I’m interested to see how that chronology lines up with, as you mentioned in interpersonal forgiveness, if there’s another human being who can grant or maybe even deny forgiveness
Prof Fincham:
that I have not investigated yet, but remember in this conversation that we had talking about people who believe in the existence of a higher power in what we commonly call God, so we don’t go on to generalize this to everyone in the world. Only the 68 to 84% of the world that professes a religious faith. That’s over 5.8 billion people. So if my work only applies to 5.8 billion people, well I’m more than happy.
Prof Fincham:
So let’s move on now to where we started, which had to do with all three forms of forgiveness. What happens when we put them all together because they have tended to be studied somewhat independently of each other with divine forgiveness, hardly receiving any attention. In the study I described earlier, put together self forgiveness and divine forgiveness. And you saw how there was a nuanced relationship when they were both used to predict depressive symptoms. Now what happens if we throw in interpersonal forgiveness, which also has been related to depressive symptoms. So each form of forgiveness is negatively related to the process. And so the more forgiveness you experience, no matter what it’s formed, the less you have in terms of depressive symptoms. So generally speaking, forgiveness can be therefore seen as a good thing when it comes to this index of wellbeing. Depressive symptoms, all three of them are related to depressive symptoms.
Prof Fincham:
When you look at them individually, when you put them all together in an analysis. So you controlling for the other two forms of forgiveness and the relationship between the third form of forgiveness and depression. Well each of them provides you with unique information. Each of them is related to depressive symptoms in the presence of the other two and this takes a particular form in that the strongest relationship as you might expect is for self forgiveness. But that doesn’t mean that interpersonal forgiveness isn’t still related to depressive symptoms. It is. And when you take into con self forgiveness and interpersonal forgiveness, guess what? Divine forgiveness still provides you with the yet more information when it comes to depressive symptoms, although it must be said that divine forgiveness in the presence of the other two forms of forgiveness has the least amount of information that it tells you about depression.
Prof Fincham:
So self forgiveness gives you the most in the presence of the other two interpersonal forgiveness, this intermediate and divine forgiveness tells you the least about depressive symptoms in the presence of the other two. So now we can go back and we can say, well, what’s the relationship between these things over time? Well, I did that study. I then looked at what happens when we look at the three of them over the course of about eight weeks, and what I found was this, I replicated the findings for the initial point in time showing that all three of them were giving us unique information about depressive symptoms, but when we not try and predict up to eight weeks later controlling for the initial level of depressive symptoms, it was only self forgiveness and interpersonal forgiveness that predicted later depressive symptoms. In other words, now divine forgiveness dropped out of the picture.
Prof Fincham:
Now why might that be? I don’t know the onset, but I can only speculate. It could be that we hit some kind of ceiling effect because most people who believe in a God, at least a Christian God believe in a forgiving God, and so they rate high levels of divisiveness. In fact, we know from other research that if you look at the rating given to three separate questions, one about self forgiveness, one about interpersonal forgiveness and one about the bond for goodness, you get the highest scores on the divine forgiveness item, so there’s less variation among people. And in order to find relationships with other things, you need variation. And that’s what the personal and interpersonal forgiveness and depression scores. That’s correct. And this and this. Well, that’s my speculation.
Prof Fincham:
The other thing is that divine forgiveness itself may not be as straight forward as we think because we know from lots and lots of research going back decades that people have different mental representations of God that typically fall into two domains. Two broad conceptions have been found – a kindly or benevolent God, that is a forgiving, loving merciful God. And on the other hand, a wrathful or authoritarian God, one who is critical, punishing or stern. So if people have these different representations of God, they may not provide answers to questions of divine forgiveness that should be interpreted the same way.
Will:
That makes a lot of sense. If there’s any element of that makes a lot of sense. If there’s any element of fear of punishment or retribution of some kind coming instead of the forgiveness then very much affect anyone’s relationship with well anyone divine or otherwise.
Prof Fincham:
Exactly. And I would, I would argue that we all have each of these views to some degree represents. So from a Christian perspective, for example, is it the God of the old Testament or the God of the new Testament? Well both from a Christian perspective exists and it’s just a matter of relative emphasis.
Will:
Did you find there was any particular variation amongst the questionnaire respondents if they did come from non-Christian backgrounds?
Prof Fincham:
I haven’t investigated that question so I can’t answer it. This research on the bond forgiveness is really at the starting line and so we’d just be getting to build up some kind of systematic series of studies. There have been a number of studies on divine forgiveness, but they tend to be scattered around focusing on the single question that they give rise to a very incoherent and non systematic literature where findings don’t build one on the other. So what I’ve been trying to do in talking to you today is show how a more systematic approach allows you to see further. It’s like a ladder. The more rungs you build on the ladder, the further you can see it’s so far the research on the bond forgiveness has all been at the first rung and each person as building a different ladder. So we have all these letters at the first round. I’m trying to build one letter with multiple rungs
Will:
Are there any plans for further research in this area? And if so, how are you planning to expand the scope?
Prof Fincham:
Well, one of things that I am working on right now is a conceptual analysis of divine forgiveness so that we can better understand what it is we’re trying to measure. What I’m suggesting in the current paper is why not start with the view of forgiveness that we find in the scientific literature on forgiveness, which by the way is booming, really booming. I took this approach when I wrote a conceptual paper on self forgiveness at the time when self forgiveness wasn’t a very popular area of studied and took the interpersonal forgiveness models and translated them into self forgiveness models. So what I’m suggesting now is let’s do the same thing for divine forgiveness while recognizing of course that there are elements of divine forgiveness that are unique for one thing, only God can forgive sin for another thing. We have to take into account people’s eschatological beliefs when we are studying divine forgiveness.
Prof Fincham:
If we want to study it fully, when people have a concern with for God’s forgiveness, this has implications not only for their temporal earthly life, but also for that eternal life. You don’t find that concern with the eternal life in earthly forms of forgiveness, the unlock earthly forgiveness, major faith traditions portray a God whose forgiveness is perfect. What this means for me at a minimum is that divine for goodness nullifies the wrong doing. This is not something that occurs an earthy forgiveness when someone wrongs you, yeah, on earth. That doesn’t mean when you forgive them that they never wronged you. In fact, you remember the wrong and it’s despite remembering the wrong that you forgive them. Remember, like JFK, president of the United States said, forgive your enemies, but remember their names. So you don’t forgive and pretend something bad didn’t happen. You forgive. And you remember. So the old adage, forgive and forget is very misleading. Forgive and remember. And that is why Mahatma Gandhi said that forgiveness is not a sign of weakness. Another common myth about forgiveness, Mahatma Gandhi said that only the strong can forgive. And now you understand why he said that because you forgive and fill knowledge of the wrong that was perpetrated against you and with the expectation that you should have had better treatment from the person who wronged you. And despite that you decide, forgive them
Will:
Very much the position of power in that debate of moving forwards for a better shared outcome than going back to those negative emotions you mentioned at the start.
Prof Fincham:
Yeah, but that’s a very hard thing to do. And as humans we every now and then fall back into those negative emotions when we are reminded of the hurt, although over time hopefully those negative emotions become weaker and weaker. In fact, there is even one study in the literature that shows that people who believe that they have totally forgiven someone still exhibit some levels of unforgiveness or anger towards the person. They may be small levels but they still.
Will:
Can’t get rid of that memory, huh?
Prof Fincham:
Yeah. We are humans. We are not saints
Prof Fincham:
Another feature of divine forgiveness that we have to take into account if we want to study it more fully is that when we are forgiven by God, the act of divine forgiveness is one that involves reconciliation. We are what people say, reconciled with God. In earthly forgiveness, Reconciliation is different from forgiveness. Reconciliation is something that occurs in a dyadic process between two people where forgiveness kind of within you, whether you reconcile with someone will depend on whether it is safe and prudent for you to reconcile with them. There is nothing wrong with forgiving someone and at the same time breaking off any further relationship with them. Those two things are quite distinct. So there’s a lot for us to chew on if we want to truly gain a more complete understanding of how people’s experiences of divine forgiveness, affect what they do on Earth.
Will:
and if anyone listening at home does want to follow up on this ongoing research, what would be the best way for them to find out more about it and your work?
Prof Fincham:
I have a webpage that I keep up to date. It’s meant for academics, although any person with some education doing hopefully get something out of it. It’s just my name .info. That’s Fincham, F I N C H A M. dot info. It contains my papers on everything I do research on, as well as copies of some talks. For example, one of the areas that I’ve done research on is on prayer and relationships and there’s a short video where the scribe, some of that work on prayer, which is a topic for another conversation. But I can briefly summarize that by saying that I have shown quite convincing that praying for your own romantic partner has beneficial fix for your partner and for the relationship and in fact your partner without knowing that you are praying for them will rate you as a more forgiving person. Prayer in your own words where you ask for good things for your partner, not focusing on how they should change.
Prof Fincham:
That’s not asking for good things, that’s just expressing your impatience and in fact we have done an intervention study where we taught people how to pray in this way. We have shown that the effects on their relationship a year after are still evident because what do you do when you pray for your partner is you go back to the original positive feelings and goals you had for your relationship. When you’re praying for good things for your partner, it’s very hard to be angry with someone who you are lifting up in your prayer. So we taught people anytime they started to feel angry with upon it, that was a song that they needed to pray in this way and it apparently had positive effects, but let’s not get sidetracked into that. Well, we’ll put that link in the podcast description.
Will:
Was there anything else that you would like to mention or discuss whilst we’re on the line?
Prof Fincham:
I do want to emphasize the fact that this work is secular research is not based on any particular faith orientation or agenda regarding religion. Because I’m in the business of science and in science, we have to look at psychological theories and behavioral theories and not theology. All my work is described in terms of secular ideas, but I hope that it is complicating to people of faith that the secular work has yielded results that are consistent with what they might believe from a theological perspective. And I think that to me is quite amazing.
Will:
Thank you so much for your time today.
Prof Fincham:
You’re welcome, and thanks for doing this. Appreciate it.
Will:
Goodbye.

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