Is Vengeance Better for Victims than Forgiveness?
Article by Jason Marsh (2015)
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What is the Science?

After victimization, many people desire vengeance. In well-publicized atrocities, such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing or the 2012 Colorado movie theater shooting, prosecutors, the public, and victims’ families often desire punishment to the fullest extent of the law – that is, the death penalty. But recent research shows that vengeance is not the surest way to achieve peace of mind. Rather, research suggests that forgiveness, understood as “deliberately letting go of feelings of anger and vengeance toward the offender,” is the best way to ultimately find peace and freedom from the hold the offense and offender have on the victim. Forgiveness takes time and involves many steps. However, its psychological, emotional, physical, and spiritual benefits might make one take another look before choosing vengeance.

Forgiveness: “deliberately letting go of feelings of anger and vengeance toward the offender—a way to stop ruminating on the offense and free yourself of the power it has over you.”

“It’s an act of transformative empowerment… that allows someone to move forward.”

– Loren Toussaint

What is the Theology?

This research affirms what Christians have proclaimed since the beginning. Some of Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NRSV). Jesus extended this to his followers, telling them, “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14). Yet this does not negate our feelings for vengeance (see Psalm 137!). Rather, it invites us to move beyond vengeance and follow in the footsteps of such forgivers as Esau, Joseph, David, and Jesus. Sermons can bring in the science of forgiveness to demonstrate ways forgiveness might provide healing for the ones offering forgiveness as they follow in the ways of Jesus.

What to Consider

  • What is forgiveness? How does your definition of forgiveness align with the definition of forgiveness given by Jason Marsh (quoted in the key terms above)?
  • Is there a time in your life when you forgave somebody when it was really difficult to forgive? What was that process like? How long did it take? Has reconciliation between you and the offender taken place?
  • Is there a time in your life when you were unable to forgive somebody? What was that process like? Do you foresee ever being at a place where you can ultimately offer forgiveness to that person?
  • What are times when you have victimized somebody and needed to receive forgiveness? Are there still people to whom you need to apologize and ask forgiveness?
  • What is the connection between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others?

How to Go Deeper

  • Read John 13:5-20 and hold a foot-washing ceremony. Emphasize the presence of Judas at the table and how Jesus even washed the feet of the one who betrayed him. Open this up as a time of reconciliation where people might give or receive forgiveness.
  • Preach a series on magnanimous forgivers in the Bible. You might consider using the stories of Esau forgiving Jacob (Genesis 33:1-17), Joseph forgiving his brothers (Genesis 45:1-15), or David forgiving Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9).
  • Read Psalm 137 (or another imprecatory psalm such as Psalm 5 or Psalm 140) and place yourself in the shoes of the Psalmist. Make space for parishioners to lament broken relationships and offenses committed. Invite parishioners who are ready to forgive those who have offended them or ask for forgiveness from those they have offended.

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

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May 1st, 2017|6 Comments

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February 3rd, 2017|4 Comments

What is the Science? Often the catalyst for receiving forgiveness is offering a good apology. Yet, in her article “The Three Parts of an Effective Apology,” Christine Carter suggests that all apologies are [...]

Is Vengeance Better for Victims than Forgiveness?
Article by Jason Marsh (2015)
Read the Full Article

December 16th, 2016|5 Comments

What is the Science? After victimization, many people desire vengeance. In well-publicized atrocities, such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing or the 2012 Colorado movie theater shooting, prosecutors, the public, and victims’ families [...]

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What is the Science? Forgiveness is a difficult thing. It can take a great amount of time and work to arrive at a place where we can let go of hostility and [...]

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Article by Michael McCullough (2013)
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December 14th, 2016|2 Comments

What is the Science? Psychologist Michael McCullough suggests that when humans consider forgiving others they instinctively engage in one of two distinct systems for arriving at forgiveness: sympathy or free will. McCullough argues [...]

How Grudges Hurt Your Health
By Joanna McParland (2016)
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September 27th, 2016|4 Comments

What is the Science? Research has long suggested that if a person carries a prolonged grievance they risk adverse health effects. Now, a new study suggests that one’s determination to hold a grudge [...]

By | 2017-01-04T14:28:12+00:00 December 16th, 2016|Forgiveness, Research|5 Comments

About the Author:

Zach is currently a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary researching the role of leaders in congregational change. His calling in life is to train and equip pastors to faithfully lead local congregations. When not studying, he'll most likely be watching Sporting Kansas City score goals or hiking with his wife and two kids.

5 Comments

  1. Weabz May 26, 2017 at 5:47 pm

    I think you’re dead on here in your review of the article: ”

    This research affirms what Christians have proclaimed since the beginning. Some of Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NRSV)”.

    The research does just affirm what we know from Scripture, so man’s wisdom has discovered nothing new.

  2. Weabz May 26, 2017 at 5:53 pm

    Actually, now that I think about it what’s the point of even bringing “scientific research” into the discussion or a sermon? Why would I need or use science to preach or teach on forgiveness? Scripture is clear and sufficient on the topic and the scientific definition or understanding adds nothing to what we already have.

    It just seems like we are trying to hard to reconcile two things that don’t necessarily need it, at least concerning this specific topic.

    The science aspect is helpful to know but not something to bring into the discussion unless it comes naturally or by request.

    • Zach Ellis June 6, 2017 at 5:39 pm

      Good point! We definitely don’t need to bring science into every discussion or sermon!

      I do think it can help on the right occasions, though. It can affirm what we already know is true, which brings credibility to Christianity (not that we would stop forgiving if a study came out saying forgiveness was not better than vengeance!). I think it can also help clarify forgiveness. The Bible undoubtedly is the primary source of revelation upon which our definition of forgiveness is based, but we live in a different world. Scientific research such as the one this article summarizes can help us understand what forgiveness might look like in 2017, which we can then bring into the conversation with our theology of forgiveness. So it may not always be appropriate, but I think it definitely has its place under the right circumstances.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Weabz June 8, 2017 at 4:58 pm

        Yes sir. I agree completely. However, I think your comment “which brings credibility to Christianity” is part of what’s a struggle for Christians. We try and “prove” our faith or reveal or explain “evidence” of God, Creation, etc. when we don’t have to. Our faith is credible because of the witness of the Holy Spirit. Appealing to the sciences or “man’s wisdom” while it can be helpful in some cases, essentially it is unnecessary because the Gospel alone is enough and the only thing we need. When people believe (truly believe) then everything else follows by faith and the work of the Holy Spirit in that person.

        And a side note: not suggesting you don’t believe that as well but more likely we are just “passing each other” because of the nature of commenting without “tone, inflection, etc”

        I guess I just find as the Lord continues to grow me in wisdom and faith, the less “proof through man’s wisdom” seems to matter. Not that science is unhelpful or useless, it’s not. It’s a wonderful gift from God, but I think a more proper understanding is:

        “God (Christian worldview) gives credibility to science”

        Not the other way around

        • matt@ncstudycenter.org June 28, 2017 at 1:57 pm

          Science has profoundly shaped the social imaginary we live in; I believe highlighting convergences between biblical teaching/wisdom and modern scientific findings does have apologetic value

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