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Thinking Man on Couch

Science of Forgiveness

Did you know?

There is actually a science in forgiving. Thanks to many, especially renowned clinical psychologist Everett Worthington and thousands of studies and trials, we can examine what techniques work best when seeking freedom from a past transgression. 

3 levels of forgiveness:

1) Decisional
Deciding by an act of will regardless of feelings. 

2) Emotional

Replacing negative unforgiving emotions with positive other-oriented emotions.

3) Spiritual

Deliverance from guilt and its consequences. Power to change the nature of the offense by regeneration. Changes the offender, offended, and offense to a standing of righteousness. My sin AND the consequences are gone!

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Start Here

How do we respond to being hurt? Often, it is with blame:


  • Blame others

  • Blame ourselves

  • Blame God


“Someone owes me. Someone must pay for this … in terms of suffering.”


Stress and coping theory of forgiveness can be understood this way. The stressor is the offense and the offender that is dealt with, or coping with, this stress in many ways including:


  • Anger

  • Blame

  • Resentment 

  • Revenge

  • Self-hurt and suicide

  • Abuse of others and/or ourselves including with alcohol and drugs

  • Forgiveness


There are many legitimate options to deal with injustices; forgiveness is just one. More on this from Mark Goodman with a video HERE.


Don’t wait for apology, restitution, or remorse. That is justice, not forgiveness.


Understanding the “injustice gap” can be a real key to helping people understand why they might be having difficulty forgiving. People can make a sincere decision to forgive, but still be upset (emotional unforgiveness). Saying, “I forgive you” is not the same as forgiving. Forgiveness can be done without reconciling. Forgiveness takes time.


The lesson might be, if, for no other reason, one would be well advised to forgive for one's own sake. However, we also know that forgiving for the reason of benefiting the offender by relieving some of the debt that the offender incurred by transgressing will pay additional benefits. 

Think of it this way: You have a room in your house full of nasty things that affect your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. 

Decisional forgiveness is making a conscious decision to finally clean out the room of all the bad things. This alone is a great step and should be applauded.

Emotional forgiveness is replacing the room with good things, good memories, and a feeling of happiness that you are once again using all you have without the pain, shame, and blame of what the room once was.

Spiritual forgiveness is all of the above, but further from forgiveness (cancellation of the consequences of the offense) to remission (higher level) for the deliverance from guilt and its consequences with justification (just as if it never happened) as a gift from God as a miracle of His grace.

Decisional Forgiveness

Decisional forgiveness involves deciding to forgive a personal offense and letting go of angry and resentful thoughts and feelings toward the person who has wronged you.

  • Need to (typically because of religious beliefs)

  • Want to (where we start on the path)


Decisional forgiveness is important in repairing and reconciling relationships. 

Emotional Forgiveness

Emotional forgiveness involves replacing negative emotions with positive feelings like compassion, sympathy, and empathy.


Research shows that emotional forgiveness is where most health benefits lie. This type of forgiveness can reduce our stressful reaction to a transgression—and stress has been shown to lead to a suppressed immune system and an increased risk for cardiovascular issues.


Emotional forgiveness also keeps us from ruminating over the wrong that was done to us, and rumination can be harmful, too: It has been associated with a number of mental health problems, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression.

Source: Dr. Everett Worthington

Spiritual Forgiveness

Those who promote justice have the hardest time.


Individuals primed with forgiveness reported more forgiveness and those in the justice group. Individuals in the forgiveness condition who were more religious were more forgiving than individuals who are less religious. However, religious commitment was not related to more lenient moral judgments of actors in the justice prime condition.


Evidence supports the hypothesis that religious/spiritual individuals are more forgiving because religious teachings emphasize the importance of forgiveness must be considered weak.


Participants in the prayer intervention group displayed the greatest increase in empathy. These results suggested focusing on prayer and relating to God help facilitate forgiveness add strength to the link between religious/spiritual and forgiveness through empathy found.

Dr. Everett Worthingon on the
science and types of forgiveness

The Science of Forgiveness

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