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The Science of Forgiveness

Well, the conference took a different turn today. We talked about forgiveness — not exactly a topic you’d think would arise at a science and theology conference! Our discussion was led by Dr. Everett Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University who has researched and written a lot on this topic. Here are a few of the highlights along with my comments.

1. Everett provided neurological evidence that we’re hard wired for revenge. Experimental subjects about to engage in revenge have the pleasure pathways of their brain activated. This undoubtedly can be explained on an evolutionary model, but I have to believe this is a result of the fall. This is downright diabolic!

2. Everett provided evidence that proves that holding onto anger and resentment is disastrous for a person’s mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical health. We pay terribly for every moment we refuse to forgive. I say AMEN to this. This undoubtedly is why we find in the NT that forgiveness lies at the heart of the Good News. Also, it sheds further light on my first point, for it means that revenge feels good in the moment (activating pleasure neuro-pathways) but kills us in the long run.

3. Everett made a strong distinction between “Decisional Forgiveness” — where a person just decides to forgive without any emotional change — and “Emotional Forgiveness” — where they actually experience a changed disposition toward the one they’re forgiving. He held that one could do the former without the latter.

I agree, but only if the former is understood to be the first step toward the latter. If someone “forgives” without taking steps to get out of their hatred or resentment for the person they “forgave,” I don’t see how their forgiveness is genuine. It’s no different than a person who says “I love you” to an enemy because they’re supposed to, but who REALLY continues to despise them. This is not only disingenuous, it can become demonically pathological in that it deceives people into thinking they’re forgiving and loving, when in fact they are not. This is why religious systems that focus on behavior (oughts and shoulds) are so damaging to people.

4. Finally, we spoke a lot about how the atonement relates to forgiveness. I suggested that a major obstacle to western Christians (especially evangelicals) walking out Kingdom forgiveness is that many have a worldview in which forgiveness doesn’t really happen. That is, many see the atonement as an act whereby the Father unleashes his wrath against sin on his Son, punishing the Son for what we humans do. This, it is believed, is what allows the all-holy God to forgive and embrace us sinners.

Now, there’s many problems with this view, but the one that concerns me right now is that this model depicts a God who never really forgives. Suppose you owe me $100 but can’t pay it. If I won’t let you off the hook until I get my $100 from someone or another, I never really forgive the debt. I got my payment. So too, if God won’t forgive unless someone or another (his Son) pays off the debt, then God never really forgives. He gets his payment. (For an alternative way of understanding how Jesus died as our substitute, see my essay in Eddy and Beilby, The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views [IVP, 2006]). Since we all tend to become the God we worship, I worry that this model of God and his role in the atonement hinders people from freely forgiving.

Walk in freedom. Forgive as you’ve been forgiven — freely.


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