Which Contributes More to Forgiveness, Sympathy or Free Will?
Article by Michael McCullough (2013)
Read the Full Article

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 that while our “biological programming” towards sympathy can sometimes make forgiveness an instinctually effortless process at other times forgiveness requires practicing the more difficult task of exercising “free will.” This distinction, according to McCullough, is significant in understanding occurrences when our sympathy-informed roads to forgiveness are complicated (e.g., the transgressor does not apologize), therefore necessitating a reliance on our theological or philosophical motivations for choosing forgiveness.

Why are some harms easy to forgive and others hard to forgive? To answer this question, sympathy and free will turn out to be very relevant indeed. – Michael McCullough

What is the Theology?

The Scriptures often testify to the complexity behind choosing forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-35)  while also reminding us that forgiveness is essential to Christian relationships (Prov. 17:9).  Sermons can utilize this research to launch deep discussion behind the complexity of practicing forgiveness by introducing biological and/or evolutionary realities. In addition, sermons might explore the importance of having theological or philosophical frameworks such as, yet not limited to, “free will” in navigating the process of forgiveness.

What to Consider

  • In his article, McCullough assumes that forgiveness functions as a way of reconciling two persons. How does this understanding compare to other conceptions concerning the purpose of forgiveness, such as simply releasing oneself of one’s own anger?
  • What possibilities does a distinction between free will and sympathy create in choosing forgiveness in your life and ministry?
  • How do you think your congregation would define their theology or forgiveness?
  • In your life and ministry, when is forgiveness easy, or a natural process driven by sympathy? When is forgiveness a difficult set of choices purposed toward reconciliation?

How to Go Deeper

  • Preach a sermon (or sermon series) on a theology of forgiveness. Take time to explore how your church doctrine, tradition, and experience inform your theology of forgiveness.  
  • Make space for yourself and your parishioners to reflect on the question of why some harms are easier to forgive while other harms are much more difficult to forgive.
  • Hold a prayer service in which members of your congregation can learn to put their theology of forgiveness into practice.
  • Make space in your church service, or in small groups, for members to share testimonials about their own difficult path in receiving or offering forgiveness.

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.

Related Research

Forgiveness

Research on the Science of Forgiveness: An Annotated Bibliography”

The Power of Forgiveness at Work
Article by Brooke Deterline (2016)
Read the Full Article

May 1st, 2017|6 Comments

What is the Science? While the benefits of forgiveness are widely supported by two decades of research, a recent study seeks to demonstrate the positive impact of forgiveness within the specific context of [...]

The Three Parts of an Effective Apology
Christine Carter (2015)
Read the Full Article

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 [...]

How to Overcome Barriers to Forgiveness
Article by Linda Graham (2014)
Read the Full Article

December 16th, 2016|3 Comments

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 [...]

Which Contributes More to Forgiveness, Sympathy or Free Will?
Article by Michael McCullough (2013)
Read the Full Article

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)
Read the full Article

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 | 2017-01-04T14:29:01+00:00 December 14th, 2016|Forgiveness, Research|2 Comments

About the Author:

Michael Wiltshire serves as an assistant pastor at Rose City Church in Pasadena, CA. He holds an M.Div from Fuller Theological Seminary (2016) and a B.S. from Cornerstone University, double majoring in Biblical Studies and Youth Ministry. While studying at Fuller Theological Seminary, he co-led the Fuller Faith and Science student group and worked in residential community. Michael is passionate about pastoral care, and is dedicated to exploring how preaching, practical theology, and organizational systems can empower churches to care well. A Michigander at heart, Michael enjoys cloudy weather and the NBA.

2 Comments

  1. matt@ncstudycenter.org August 8, 2017 at 12:32 am

    I wonder if sympathy and free will might be more intertwined than this article seems to suggest?

  2. matt@ncstudycenter.org August 8, 2017 at 12:33 am

    Other commenters: Do you think sympathy and free will are exclusive in terms of human motivation for forgiveness? Or might they both factor into a human being forgiving another human being?

Leave A Comment