(RNS) — Psychologist Everett Worthington had been a forgiveness expert for more than a decade when a young man smashed through the windows of a house in Knoxville, Tennessee, on New Year’s Eve, 1995, and brutally murdered Worthington’s mother with a crowbar.
Forgiveness was no longer an academic exercise.
“I was really angry, and I remember pointing to a baseball bat against the wall and saying, ‘I wish whoever did that were here. I would take that baseball bat and beat his brains out.’”
Tossing and turning the next night, Worthington found himself mulling through his own five-step REACH forgiveness model: Recall the hurt, Empathize with the offender, give an Altruistic offer of forgiveness, Commit to forgiveness, Hold onto forgiveness.
“I was able to forgive him,” Worthington said in a recent call with Religion News Service. “I think it was both a decision to treat him as a human, and also an emotional replacement of some of the resentment and hurt with a complex set of feelings. I felt regret of my own willingness to murder someone if they had been in front of me, and also a sense of relief that comes from forgiving somebody.”
That flooding sense of relief is more than an emotional kickback. As Worthington, now an emeritus professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, readily explains, unforgiveness can weaken your immune system, hike up your heart rate, increase stress hormones and even interfere with your sex drive. But what unforgiveness puts out of whack, forgiveness restores to equilibrium — all while improving relationships, psychological wellbeing and spiritual health.
Worthington and a team of international researchers are sharing the perks of forgiveness via a new global study that uses the same forgiveness model he did back in January 1996, which includes the REACH steps and delineates two important types of forgiveness.
Decisional forgiveness is the choice not to seek vengeance against the person who wronged you, and emotional forgiveness is replacing negative, unforgiving emotions toward the wrongdoer with positive emotions, including empathy and compassion.
“My goal, when we started off, was to really participate in the global mental health movement. Mental health problems are so troublesome worldwide,” Worthington explained.
Presented at a Harvard conference last week and funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, it’s the largest-ever forgiveness study of its kind. The randomized trial assessed 4,598 users in Hong Kong, Ukraine, South Africa, Colombia and Indonesia who completed the workbook independently over a two-week period. The study found that participants experienced reductions in unforgiveness, in anxiety symptoms and in depression when compared to randomly selected groups who had not yet received the workbook.
Though Worthington is Christian (he has belonged to Mainline, Catholic and evangelical communities), the workbook is secular, allowing for broader reach.
“Basically, the workbook is a kind of stimulus for doing exercises that help them practically forgive, which is just overlayed on top of their usual religious and spiritual practices,” said Worthington. “It’s not that the secular workbooks cut out the religious aspect, it actually may potentiate it.”
The manual isn’t designed to help users forgive unnamed evildoers like oil tycoons or whoever invented Coke With Coffee. Instead, study participants were required to work through a specific interpersonal conflict.
In Ukraine, site director Sergiy Tymchenko said most chose to address instances of betrayal or injustice between family or friends. Though his team specifically recruited from communities impacted by the crisis that erupted in the region in 2014, “We almost didn’t have any stories connected with the war, or if it was connected with the war, it was only in some indirect way,” he said.
The workbooks walk users through their chosen transgression, first by helping them identify it, then by delineating the two kinds of forgiveness, unpacking the psychological, physical and relational benefits of forgiveness and ushering participants through the five REACH steps.
Since the workbooks can be completed sans-therapist and in under three hours, they’re almost universally accessible. Andrew Serazin, president of the Templeton World Charity Foundation, added that the workbooks are available for free download in five languages and said they could be an on-ramp for those squeamish about more direct mental health interventions.
“I think this really represents a super important step in having a multiplicity of tools and different approaches in the conversation. This is how change happens. Step by step, you build up a suite of options for people to use and work with,” he said.
For some would-be participants, the taboo on mental health extended to the topic of forgiveness. Hong Kong site director Man Yee Ho, also an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong, noted that while local community leaders and pastors were on board with the study, the “forgiveness” branding made it a tough sell to their constituents.
“We emphasized interpersonal relationships rather than only forgiveness. But people still think, ‘why do I need to forgive?’” Ho said in a Zoom call from Hong Kong. “People still hold some bitterness quite strongly, especially when there is ongoing conflict between different parties. If people hold more extreme social or political ideas, they may not be ready to get involved in the project.”
She said participants required convincing that forgiveness benefits the forgiver, and, as the study explains, that it does not mean to excuse, forget or even to reconcile.
“Forgiveness, conceived of simply as replacing ill-will towards the offender with good-will, can take place even while still pursuing a just outcome, and also without necessarily restoring the relationship,” according to the study.
Ho said it was critical to consider the local context when pushing forgiveness. Not only is Hong Kong still reeling from massive anti-government protests, there’s also, Ho added, a broader culture of suppressing negative emotions and not talking about conflict.
“After the study, some of the participants came to me and said, ‘thank you.’ This workbook really helped them restore their relationships,” she said.
“I think it’s really important for people in Hong Kong, in Chinese culture; they have to have the courage to face the interpersonal problems,” she added.
At Tymchenko’s site in Ukraine, Russia’s invasion halted the final phase of the project: a forgiveness awareness campaign. Tymchenko said his Christian education and research center, Realis, rapidly pivoted from promoting forgiveness to providing humanitarian aid.
“Of course we couldn’t speak now in Ukraine about forgiveness. People here, they’re still experiencing trauma,” Tymchenko said.
But, he said, when the war is over, the REACH workbook could prove indispensable.
“We have big work ahead of us and are grateful that we have this tool that will be good — an important tool for the mental health of Ukrainians and the Ukrainian nation,” said Tymchenko. “I hope God will use this preparation in the future for us to bring positive changes in society.”