Frank D. Fincham explores an essential question about well-being: Is divine forgiveness good for your health?
Both forgiving other people and forgiving oneself contribute to successful relationships, as well as better physical and mental health. For example, research shows that the tendency to forgive others promotes relationship well-being, and in romantic relationships such as marriage, it is associated with greater commitment, better conflict resolution, and relationship satisfaction. Our research also shows that forgiveness is associated with better cardiovascular functioning.
The tendency to forgive
We have shown that the tendency to forgive others is related to decreased oxygen consumption by the heart, increased coronary blood flow, and more night-time dipping in blood pressure, all of which are good for cardiovascular functioning. Incredibly, the cardioprotective effects we found are similar in size to those of known beta blockers.
Interpersonal and self-forgiveness also promote mental health. For instance, they can help alleviate feelings of depression. Is the same true for divine forgiveness – believing that you are forgiven by a Supreme Being or higher power?
This question is relevant because a large majority of the world’s population, between 68% and 84% of its inhabitants, say they are religious. In many religions, divine forgiveness is a core belief and a source of great comfort in everyday life. Yet divine forgiveness is relatively unexplored in scientific research.
So, we conducted research to determine whether interpersonal forgiveness, self-forgiveness, and divine forgiveness are independently related to depressive symptoms. To do so, we asked 574 young adults to complete measures of each of the three types of forgiveness then used these measures to examine the relationship between forgiveness and depressive symptoms. We also measured how religious participants were so that we could determine whether divine forgiveness per se, rather than level of religiosity, predicted depressive symptoms.
Religiosity and divine forgiveness
Religiosity was strongly related to divine forgiveness – the more religious people were, the more they believed they were forgiven by God. Greater religiosity was also associated with fewer depressive symptoms. We, therefore, examined whether interpersonal, self, and divine forgiveness were related to depression independently of religiosity. Interpersonal, self, and divine forgiveness were each associated with fewer depressive symptoms.
To ensure that our findings were not idiosyncratic to the measures or participants used, we conducted a second study. Using 446 young adults and different measures, we obtained the same pattern of results with each forgiveness measure independently predicting fewer depressive symptoms even after we had accounted for the effect of religiosity. Although encouraging, these studies do not address well-being per se.
It is important to distinguish well-being from the mere absence of distress just as health is not simply the absence of illness. We, therefore, turned to examine this question next. Because self-forgiveness showed the strongest association with depressive symptoms in both studies, we decided to focus on it and divine forgiveness.
The answer: Two studies
We asked 345 young adults between 18 and 25 years of age to answer questions about self-forgiveness and divine forgiveness, then used these measures to examine the relationship between forgiveness and well-being. We used two measures of well-being one involving depressive symptoms and the other satisfaction with life. Finally, we also measured the religiosity of the participants.
Again, religiosity was strongly related to divine forgiveness – the more religious people were, the more they believed they were forgiven by God. More religious people were also more satisfied with their lives and less depressed.
But what about forgiveness? Both higher self-forgiveness and feeling forgiven by God were related to greater life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms. But that is not the end of the story because self-forgiveness and divine forgiveness acted synergistically (i.e. interacted) in predicting depressive symptoms.
Specifically, at lower levels of self-forgiveness, feeling forgiven by God made a difference in experiencing depressive symptoms. For people who were less likely to forgive themselves, a sense of divine forgiveness resulted in fewer depressive symptoms. However, when people were self-forgiving, experiencing divine forgiveness was not related to their depressive symptoms. So, divine forgiveness is strongly related to depressive symptoms when people are less likely to forgive themselves, but the association weakens when people are more self-forgiving.
Given these findings, it is reasonable to ask whether perceived forgiveness by a deity promotes self-forgiveness. In a separate study, we addressed this question by looking at the relation between self-forgiveness and divine forgiveness over time. We found that feeling forgiven by God predicted greater self-forgiveness 7 weeks later. The reverse was not true – greater self-forgiveness was not followed by a stronger sense of divine forgiveness. This pattern suggests that divine forgiveness may influence self-forgiveness but not vice versa.
These novel findings remind us of something important. For most of the world’s population, religious beliefs are a core motivating feature of their lives. Consequently, we will not fully understand human behaviour without addressing how perceived forgiveness from a deity impacts people’s thoughts, emotions, and actions.
For further reading:
Fincham, F.D., & May, R.W. (2019). Self-forgiveness and well-being: Does divine forgiveness matter? Journal of Positive Psychology, 14, 854-859.
Fincham, F.D., & May, R.W. (in press). Divine, interpersonal and self-forgiveness: Independently related to depressive symptoms? Journal of Positive Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760. 2019.1639798
Frank D. Fincham was a Rhodes scholar who obtained his doctoral degree at Oxford University and is currently an Eminent Scholar at Florida State University. A Fellow of 6 professional societies and the recipient of numerous awards for his research, he has published over 300 peer reviewed articles.
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