Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Dec 18, 2019

Believing in Divine Forgiveness May Affect Well-being

by Frank D. Fincham
Woman with hands in air and birds flying around her

Both forgiving other people and forgiving oneself contribute to successful relationships, as well as to better physical and mental health. For example, research shows that self-forgiveness helps alleviate feelings of depression. Is the same true for divine forgiveness—does believing that you are forgiven by a Supreme Being or higher power affect your well-being? 

This question is important because a large majority of the world population, between 68% and 84%, say that 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 a study to determine whether self-forgiveness and divine forgiveness are independently related to well-being.  To do so, 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 administered two measures of well-being, one involving depressive symptoms and the other satisfaction with life. Finally, we also measured how religious participants were.

As we expected, 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 in predicting depressive symptoms.

Specifically, at lower levels of self-forgiveness, feeling forgiven by God made a difference in how depressed people felt. 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 seven 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 behavior 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.

Frank D. Fincham was a Rhodes scholar who obtained his doctoral degree is social psychology at Oxford University. A Fellow of six professional societies and the recipient of numerous awards for his research, he has published over 300 peer reviewed articles.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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