The science of forgiveness

Maddi Dayton
Forgiveness isn’t easy for anyone, but recent science has shown forgiveness is integral to recovering from tragedy.

Christians have believed in forgiveness as a major tenant of living a quality life for centuries. Now a growing body of work from the scientific community shows that forgiveness is integral in recovering from tragedy.

In recent memory, public examples of granting forgiveness have been paraded across the feature sections of several media. Locally, the families of UCSO Sgt. Cory Wride and Chris Williams publicly forgave those who were responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.

These examples, though accompanied with tragedy and heart break, paint a striking picture of Christian forgiveness: following the mandate to forgive and love enemies for the sake of one’s own salvation. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints especially have stark commandments to forgive offenders, knowing that “he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord” and “it is required to forgive all men,” as found in the D&C 64:9-10.

But that is often easier said than done.

“Often we get a little glib and we do a wave of the hand and say ‘forgive and let it go.’ It’s not that easy. It often takes work,” said Dean Barley, director of the BYU Comprehensive Clinic, which offers counseling and psychological services for couples and families. “What people misperceive as an event may be a process that takes a continuing set of choices to keep alive.”

In his work with survivors of sexual trauma, Barley uses a definition of forgiveness from noted University of Wisconsin professor, lecturer and writer on forgiveness, Robert Enright.

According to Enright’s book, “Forgiveness is a Choice,” forgiveness is determining that one has been treated unfairly and then, “willfully abandon(ing) resentment . . . which they have a right, and endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence.”

Barley said this is an important principle to make the process of forgiveness easier. “Once you figure out what forgiveness is and isn’t, people are often more willing to engage because they feel like they are letting someone off the hook. But what they are really doing is letting themselves off the hook.”

He said he recognizes steps within the process of forgiveness. These steps are not only normal, but essential, and people ought not to devalue their efforts if they fall back into feelings of anger.

First, the offended must go through an uncovering process. The person gains insights into how the injustice has affected his or her life by recognizing that he or she may not be the same after the trauma, looking at current coping mechanisms, recognizing feelings of shame and anger are natural but controllable, and developing a desire to resolve these issues.

Second, one makes the decision that they will forgive the offender and to commit to it externally. Barley said it doesn’t need to be a grandiose show. He recommends that those seeking to forgive commit to themselves in a journal and with a confidant, maybe a mental health professional or ecclesiastical leader. Another tool he often recommends is writing letters that articulate feelings and desires and then leaving them unsent.

Third is a deepening phase, where the offended takes steps to deepen the commitment to forgive the offender by connecting with others. The connection with others helps the offended know that he/she is not alone and that there was a need to forgive others in the past. This includes an awareness of gained benefits of forgiving the offender.

He said people in chronic pain or positions of suffering often find beneficial insights when they seek for the good in the situation, such as additional understanding of self, a deeper understanding of God and knowing who true friends are.

Barley mentioned the story of Amy Biehl as an example of empathy. Amy Biehl was a white American student who worked in the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. A mob of black Africans swarmed her car on her way home. She was struck in the head with a brick and stabbed to death. Four men were arrested and convicted but eventually pardoned, with Biehl’s parents endorsing the pardoning. Biehl’s parents met and even hired those convicted of their daughter’s murder.

“They (Biehl’s parents) learned that these young people were in essence freedom fighters and they had been taught since they were teeny-weeny the best way to get any change around here is to kill a settler, which means kill a white person,” Barley said. “To us what seemed like an act of murder was an act of a freedom fighter. Once they understood these people and the oppression they were under, they were able to forgive.”

But Barley offers cautions about what people perceive as requirements for forgiveness, emphasizing that justice and reconciliation are not requisite to have the benefits of forgiveness.

“Whether God forgives them or they get justice or not from the system is irrelevant to the question of ‘do I forgive,'” he said. He said observing justice in various systems simplifies the role of the offended by separating themselves from judging the offender and focusing on themselves exclusively.

Reconciliation requires two parties to “make up” and make attempts at a normal relationship. Barley said this is at times dangerous, especially for survivors of sexual abuse or other massive trauma such as the murder of a loved one. Forgiveness is a process that can happen regardless of what the offender does and is not tied to the repentance of the offender. Forgiveness, Barley said, is not a pardon. Such things are the the responsibility of judgement systems.

According to Forever Families, a website sponsored and reviewed by the BYU School of Family Life, the human body produces “high voltage” chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisone when forgiveness is withheld. This increased tension can bring on headaches and abdominal pains, with the possibility of developing ulcers, gastritis or irritable bowel syndrome. The physical benefits of forgiveness include decreased blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues and a decrease in chronic pain.

Forgiveness also has measurable psychological effects. It helps to decrease depression, anxiety and violent behavior. BYU’s Scott Braithwaite, a professor in the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences, helped author a study showing that overall relationship satisfaction is increased when forgiveness is given within intimate relationships.

Specifically, the study noted that forgiveness in intimate relationships reduces negative interpersonal conflicts and ineffective means of conflict resolution. Forgiveness also increases partners’ means of self-regulating and overall relationship efforts.

“Forgiveness appears to be a means of providing closure with regard to a transgression, and sets the stage for reconciliation,” the study stated. “In sum, forgiveness seems to short circuit the use of negative conflict strategies, allowing the couple to exit from the negative reciprocity cycle that leads to distressed relationships.”

Chris Detrick
Nannette Wride speaks during the sentencing of Meagan Grunwald at 4th District Court in Provo Wednesday July 8, 2015.

USCO Sgt. Cory Wride was killed by Angel Garcia-Jauregui during a traffic stop on Jan. 30, 2014, while Garcia-Jauregui’s girlfriend, Meagan Grunwald, drove the getaway vehicle. Garcia-Jauregui was subsequently killed in a shoot out the same day with police. Grunwald was recently convicted in a Provo courtroom of aggravated murder, along with several other crimes, and sentenced to 30-years-to-life with the chance of parole.

Cory Wride’s wife, Nanette Wride, and several of her family made their forgiveness known to local media during and following the trial. During the sentencing hearing for Grunwald, Wride reiterated her forgiveness of Grunwald.

“You are forgiven, and I hope, sweet girl, that you can forgive yourself,” Wride said during the sentencing.

After the trial, Wride said she was glad that she was not in a position to judge Grunwald and found comfort in her Christian faith in the Atonement of Christ. She said she forgave Grunwald almost immediately. “We deal with what we have to and forgiveness has to take place for everyone to heal,” Wride said after the sentencing. “Everyone deserves forgiveness no matter what.”

In another local tragedy, Chris Williams lost his pregnant wife, 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter in a car accident involving a drunk driver in 2007 in Salt Lake City. He said he “let it go” and forgave whoever caused the accident even while still inside the wreckage of his car.

“I felt such an immediate healing as soon as I let it go,” Williams said in an interview with the Universe. “After letting it go there was such a peace that attended that moment. It was almost like a special last viewing that I had with my wife.”

Williams watched his wife take her last breath.

He has since made his forgiveness of Cameron White, the driver of the car that caused the accident, known through local news outlets by participating in a video posted on and writing a book. A movie based on that book, titled “Just Let Go,” will be released on Sept. 29.

“In a way, I feel like it’s the most selfish thing I have ever done,” Williams said. “As I forgave, I became the entire beneficiary of that forgiveness.” He also said people often herald his decision to forgive as a great virtuous act, but he is keen to attribute the strength he found to do so to Jesus Christ.

He said he has no superhuman ability to forgive, but Christ took him even as a weak mortal and helped him accomplish this act of forgiveness. According to Williams, anyone can be unburdened following a tragedy by offering forgiveness.

He took comfort in the knowledge of both justice in the afterlife and the confidence that the state would settle questions of justice on this earth. In the court room, he said he wanted no part in judging White.

“It is very liberating not having to worry about justice,” Williams said. “The moment that I have to worry about justice . . . it completely confuses the letting go.”

He said he thinks society’s demand for immediate justice muddles the forgiveness process and places those who could forgive in an inappropriate judgement role.

“I wish that they weren’t so extraordinary,” Williams said of public acts of forgiveness following tragedy. He said he hopes forgiveness will be seen more frequently as a societal expectation.

The following classes will address forgiveness during Education Week:

“Twice Blessed: The Beauty of Forgiving and Forgiveness,” S Michael Wilcox

  • Tuesday – Friday, 8:30–9:25 a.m.
  • Main Floor, Marriott Center (MC)

“Seventy Times Seven: Forgiving the Seemingly Unforgivable,” Kevin Hinckley

  • Tuesday – Friday, 4:30–5:25 p.m.
  • 3220–3224 Wilkinson Student Center (WSC)

“Christ, the Ultimate Healer,” Debra A. Bastian, Lori Hadley Hales, Me’Chel Merrill Musgrave

  • Tuesday – Friday, 9:50-10:45 a.m.
  • Madsen Recital Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center (HFAC)

“Personalizing the Power of the Atonement: Understanding and Applying Our Most Central Doctrine,” Carrie M. Wrigley

  • Tuesday – Friday, 12:30-1:25 p.m.
  • Pardoe Theater, Harris Fine Arts Center (HFAC)

“Life after Divorce: New Beginnings Financially and Emotionally,” Margaret E. Pickard

  • Wednesday, 5:50–6:45 p.m.
  • 222 Martin Building (MARB)

“Love Works, Love Heals: A Heart Filled with Grace, Compassion, Understanding, and Hope,” Kathy Headlee Miner

  • Tuesday – Friday, 9:50–10:45 a.m.
  • B092 Joseph F. Smith Building (JFSB)


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