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Prayer encourages forgiveness

Forgiveness prayerAll too often when people think of prayer, they think of asking for a material product from a divine power. People pray for cars or houses or even just good old-fashioned cash. While asking the divine for worldly goods is interesting in and of itself, psychologist Nathaniel Lambert (Florida State University) and colleagues wondered about the effects of praying for the well-being of others, and found that praying for others leads to an increased willingness to forgive them.

The psychologists hypothesize that praying for the needs of others will trigger “unselfish love and concern,” which will in turn facilitate forgiveness. In other words, selfless concern would mediate the relationship between prayer and forgiveness. To test this, the researchers conducted two studies.

In the first study, the researchers investigated whether praying for one’s romantic partner would increase one’s willingness to forgive him or her. They divided 52 undergraduates into an experimental group that would pray for their partner, and into a control that would instead think about their partner’s physical features and talk about them to an imagined parent. Both groups would complete the Gratitude Questionnaire, a questionnaire that measures motivation to retaliate, and questions involving prayer frequency and religiosity.

After controlling for gratitude, religiosity, prayer frequency, and sex, the participants in the prayer condition had higher forgiveness scores than those in the control condition. This result is striking considering that the experimental group only prayed for their partner once during this experiment. Of course, gratitude, religiosity, prayer frequency, and sex hardly exhaust the possible reasons for a correlation between prayer and forgiveness. The result could be do to the positive thoughts that come from prayer or simply do to the fact that the target of forgiveness is one’s romantic partner.

The second study aimed to resolve both of these problems by controlling for positive thoughts and by shifting the person to be forgiven from a romantic partner to a friend. If mere positive thoughts do not increase forgiveness, and if prayer correlates with increased forgiveness of friends, then prayer’s association with forgiveness can be verified and generalized beyond romantic relationships.

Unlike the first study, the second study divided its undergraduate participants (only those who indicated they felt comfortable with prayer participated) into three groups. The researchers gave each group a unique assignment that each member would complete and log daily for four weeks. The first group, the experimental group, received the following instructions: “Over the next 4 weeks, we would like you to set aside at least one time each day to pray for the well-being of your friend. Keep track of how much time you spend doing this as we will ask you to report it for each day.” They also received a sample prayer. The researchers gave the second group a similar task: simply pray. They didn’t have to pray daily for anything in particular. The final group received instructions to think positive thoughts every day about their friend. Measuring forgiveness would expand to include avoidance (giving someone the cold shoulder, for example) in addition to retaliation. All participants would complete this survey on forgiveness as well as on selfless concern and on level of engagement in the study.

As expected, those who prayed for the well-being of their friend reported higher forgiveness scores, while there was no significant difference between those who prayed generally or who thought positive thoughts. Additionally, praying for a friend’s well-being also correlated with increased selfless concern, leading the researchers to conclude that selfless concern mediates the relationship between prayer and forgiveness.

At the very least, some correlation, if not causation, exists between prayer and forgiveness. People who pray for others may not have their prayers fulfilled in the sense that the people that they pray for receive new cars or houses. On the other hand, their prayers aren’t a complete waste either, from the perspective that those praying will be more readily able to forgive the people they pray for. It appears that, in this sense, some prayers are answered.

For more, see “Motivating Change in Relationships: Can Prayer Increase Forgiveness?” in the journal Psychological Science.


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