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Religion and mercy: Who is most likely to forgive?

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Maybe a caveat should be added before saying this line from The Lord’s Prayer, asking a second round of forgiveness for failing to meet divine standards.

Many religious people count on God’s forgiveness, but it is far more difficult to put aside human feelings of bitterness and resentment to pardon others.

New research, however, shows the two spiritual goals are related. Individuals who believe that a loving God forgives them are far more likely to turn around and absolve others, several studies indicate.

In one study, for example, older people who felt they were forgiven by God were approximately two and a half times more likely to feel that transgressors should be forgiven unconditionally than older people who did not feel they were forgiven by God.

Trust in God’s forgiveness, studies find, also may make it more likely for individuals to forgive themselves, a process that seems to make it easier to extend mercy to others.

Accepting God’s forgiveness and pardoning others also is associated with substantial health benefits as anger, fear, shame and guilt over the sins of others and personal transgressions dissipate, research indicates.

Among the takeaways for religious leaders and people in the pews are that an active faith appears to promote forgiveness. And how human beings perceive God say, as a loving father who forgives them unconditionally or a distant sovereign who judges them — makes a difference in the way they treat friends, co-workers, relatives and neighbors.

“The kind of God we teach about matters,” researcher Daniel Escher of the University of Notre Dame says.

The road to forgiveness

Forgiveness is a deeply personal issue, and no one standard can be applied to individual situations. Many people find forgiving others lifts heavy burdens of anger and resentment from their hearts. Some, such as victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse, find forgiveness offered too quickly or easily may seem hollow. It could also be potentially harmful if it prevents them from acknowledging their own suffering and makes them less able to distance and protect themselves from transgressors.

In general, however, forgiveness is linked to better mental and physical health. Research has shown people who scored high on forgiveness scales had significantly lower levels of blood pressure, anxiety and depression, and relatively high self-esteem and life satisfaction.

An emerging body of research also offers insights into the religious beliefs and behaviors associated with the ability to forgive others and oneself.

Individuals who have a personal relationship with God, believe God forgives them and carry religious beliefs into their relationships and dealings with others are far more likely to forgive others and to forgive themselves, Escher found in a study using data from the 1998 General Social Survey.

Frequent prayer and religious service attendance also each have a large positive relationship with self- and interpersonal forgiveness, Escher reported. The study further pointed to long-term effects of religious practice, with those affiliated with a religious tradition since age 16 showing a greater likelihood to be forgiving.

“What seems to matter in promoting forgiveness … is that a person adheres to a religion or a denomination; on the whole, the religiously unaffiliated have less of a propensity to forgive,” he writes in the current issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Obstacles to forgiveness

Not all beliefs and practices lead to forgiveness.

Older adults who believe they are forgiven by God are more likely to forgive others right away than are older people who do not believe God has forgiven them for their own transgressions, researchers found using data from a 2001 study of more than 1,100 people.

Those study findings also indicated setting conditions on forgiveness, such as requiring acts of contrition, was associated with greater psychological distress. Researchers Neal Krause of the University of Michigan and Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas at San Antonio reported their findings in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

“Those that forgive unconditionally are the ones that seem to have better mental health,” Krause said in an interview. “You get the hurt behind you.”

How people are treated at church – whether their fellow worshipers model compassion or judgment – also seems to make a difference. In a separate study of older adults reported in the Review of Religious Research, Krause found results suggesting participants who were more satisfied with the emotional support they received from church members were more likely to forgive themselves than those who were not satisfied with the support they received.

Overall, the research seems to support the effectiveness of efforts to promote forgiveness. Attend a typical service and you are likely to hear prayers and sermons and experience rituals urging people to confess their sins and offer forgiveness to others.

But some researchers also note what worshipers are less likely to hear is encouragement to accept divine forgiveness for their own transgressions.

Religious leaders may want to consider ways to incorporate rituals encouraging individuals to accept forgiveness of their own sins into more aspects of services, Escher said.

Perhaps even a prayer that goes something like: Forgive your neighbor as yourself.

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