By Rachel Kornfield Becker, MSW, LSW
Last Friday March 23, 2018, the Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute (PPI), the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PTS) and the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Center (PPC) co-sponsored a seminar called The Uneasy Task of Forgiveness: Biblical and Psychological Views. The speaker spent decades running psychological research on forgiveness. Dr. Everett Worthington’s research uncovered that forgiveness happens in direct proportion to the amount of time spent on it. As a result, he provides a variety of free workbooks to help people spend time in that process: http://www.evworthington-forgiveness.com/.
Dr. Worthington intrigued me by stating a difference between psychology and theology’s contributions when it comes to forgiveness. Theology can provide a moral mandate to forgive – Jesus does so repeatedly. Psychology cannot. On the other hand, Jesus never tells us how to forgive. Psychology can provide some helpful details about how human beings process the world when it comes to forgiveness.
Among other things, psychological studies clarify our use of terms. Decisional forgiveness is “an intentional choice not to get even, the choice to treat the person who harmed you as a valuable human being.” Emotional forgiveness on the other hand is “the replacement of negative unforgiving emotion with positive other-oriented emotions.” Reconciliation is the healing of relationship that may or may not result from forgiveness.
Dr. Worthington sees decisional forgiveness as a Christian moral mandate. However, emotional forgiveness and reconciliation, while desirable, are not mandated. Why? Because they do not depend simply on an act of volition. When our body encounters someone who caused us harm, it has an automatic biological step-up in awareness and readiness that we interpret as anger, anxiety and fear. These negative emotions do not go away just because we want them to.
Reconciliation depends not just on us but on the other person. Forgiveness opens the possibility for it on our end assuming the other person is not engaged in repeatedly harmful behavior. However, what happens also depends on the choices and willingness of the other party. Therefore it is not mandated.
So how do we go about forgiving? Dr. Worthington provides five steps using the REACH acronym:
Dr. Worthington related emotional forgiveness by putting it into chemistry terms like the PH (potential hydrogen) of a liquid. You start with a highly acidic liquid (negative emotions) and slowly drip a basic solution into it (positive emotions). Over time you will eventually get a neutral pH and over more time if you keep at it you’ll get an alkaline solution. I appreciated the level of intentionality and gradualness expressed in this process.
But why forgive at all? Isn’t it so much more satisfying to take revenge or hold on to hurt feelings? Dr. Worthington eloquently expressed how revenge occurs in ever increasing cycles of harm – it will never lead to a state of peace. He also shared extensively about the psychological, physical and relational benefits to the person who forgives. For more, see his publication which brings together results of over 1000 studies on how forgiveness impacts our well-being.