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"Because of My Faith, I Have Forgiven People Who Have Hurt Me Deeply."

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

This is the seventh in a series of articles examining Gallup's nine items of spiritual commitment.

The nine items that Gallup has discovered best measure the spiritual commitment of individuals in congregations (see "How to Measure Spiritual Commitment" in Related Items) can be divided into those describing attitudes (four items) and those describing behaviors (five items). Last week, I explored the first behavioral item: "I spend time in worship or prayer every day." (See Related Items.) This week, I'll explore the second behavioral item, "Because of my faith, I have forgiven people who have hurt me deeply."

The graph below shows responses to this question on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "strongly disagree" and 5 being "strongly agree."*

The importance of forgiveness in human relationships is just now being explored in secular psychological circles, but the world's great religious traditions have long understood its importance and power:

  • According to Jewish ethicist Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, among Jews, "granting forgiveness is actually one of the most important things we can do, and one of the most important privileges which God grants us."
  • For Christians, the mandate to forgive is notably emphasized in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." (See Matthew 6:12, New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989.)
  • For Muslims, according to the Islamic mission publication Al-Risala, "the Prophet Muhammad taught his followers that the individual who pardons his enemy, even while having the power to extract revenge, will be nearest to God in the Hereafter."
  • Hindu scriptures also place an emphasis on forgiveness, "the man of wisdom should ever forgive, for when he is capable of forgiving everything, he attains to Brahma. The world belongs to those that are forgiving; the other world is also theirs." (See Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Section XXVIII.)
  • Buddhists, too, recognize the importance of forgiveness in the doctrines of "loving-kindness and compassion" (maitri and karuna).

Given these traditions' emphasis on forgiveness, it should come as no surprise that a majority of Americans who are members of religious congregations find that the source of strength to forgive comes from their religious faith. However, many cultural stereotypes portray congregations and faith traditions as punitive and demanding, holding up a list of "thou shalt nots" and punishing those who break the rules. Despite these stereotypes, most congregation members see their faith communities as places of forgiveness, where they not only are forgiven but also learn how to forgive.

But the tendency to forgive does vary among different population groups.

Only 49% of men strongly agreed with the statement, "Because of my faith, I have forgiven people who have hurt me deeply," compared to 64% of women.

Protestants are more forgiving than Catholics: 60% compared to 53%.

Forgiveness seems to come easier to people as they grow older. Fifty-four percent of 18- to 39-year-olds strongly agreed with this item, compared to 62% of those aged 60 and older.

Likelihood to forgive also varies significantly among racial/ethnic groups: 55% for white Americans, 61% for African Americans and 75% for Hispanic Americans.

It appears that spiritual leaders still have some work to do in helping all their members find the power of forgiveness.

Key Points

Leaders of faith communities should continue to emphasize the importance of forgiveness, help their members experience forgiveness for themselves and help them discover how to forgive others. Men and young people appear most likely to find the act of forgiveness challenging, and may particularly benefit from spiritual counseling in this regard.

The SE25 items are protected by copyright of The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ, 2001. All rights reserved.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 729 adult members of a church, synagogue, or other religious faith community, aged 18 and older, conducted October through November 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3.6%.


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