This report contains the findings from a nationwide study on the topic of forgiveness commissioned by Propeller and conducted by Barna Research (a division of the Barna Group). The online study, conducted in May, 2011, includes a representative sample of 1,013 U.S. adults, ages 18 and older. The primary objectives of this research were:
- To gauge knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding forgiveness
- To identify beliefs about forgiveness and the sources of those beliefs
- To determine the importance of forgiveness relative to faith practices and behaviors
- To assess areas of offense and the ease or difficulty of forgiveness for those offenses
- To identify the most difficult types of offense for which forgiveness has been offered as well as to determine if any offenses are considered “unforgivable”
- To identify the primary reasons for forgiving others
- To assess knowledge of biblical teachings regarding forgiveness and identify the gaps, if any, between beliefs and biblical teachings
- To gauge consequences experienced as a result of the lack of forgiveness.
This report contains the findings of this research study.
Knowledge and Beliefs
- Seven out of every ten U.S. adults (71%) say that caring or providing for their families is among their top three behavioral or relational priorities in life – substantively higher than any of the other options presented. Of the eight specific actions assessed, forgiving others who have hurt or harmed them ranked last – with only one in nine (11%) rating it as one of their top priorities.
- Parents are the most influential source of information about forgiveness, according to seven in ten adults (69%). Half of the adults in the U.S. (51%) say the Bible is a primary source of information that helped form their thinking and beliefs on forgiveness.
- More Americans consider the act of forgiveness to be more of a behavior (38%) than an emotion (34%), while only 16% believe it to be more of a thought.
- U.S. adults are split on their beliefs regarding whether or not they must always forgive others who have hurt them or caused them harm; nearly identical proportions believe (43%) and do not believe (42%) that they must always forgive.
- The single most difficult offense for which Americans have had to forgive someone is lying, cheating, or general dishonesty, named by 18%. One in seven (14%) say they had to forgive some type of hurtful, hateful or damaging behavior, while 10% forgave someone for adultery, an affair, or someone cheating on them. Only 4% of adults say there is no significant offense they ever had to forgive.
- More than half of the adults in this country (54%) say they would need to stop feeling angry in order to forgive someone who committed an offense, while 44% feel it would be necessary to give up thoughts about retaliation, and 43% would have to ask God to forgive that person.
- There is virtually a 3-way tie for the offenses considered most difficult to forgive, among those assessed; they include: kidnapping a child (91% “extremely difficult” to forgive), rape (91%), and murder (90%).
- By a very slight margin, murder is considered the most unforgivable offense, as noted by two-third of U.S. adults (65%). Rape is a close second, with 63% believing it to be an unforgivable action.
- Of the 14 statements about forgiveness assessed in this study, Americans believe most strongly that Jesus Christ died on the cross so that all of our sins can be forgiven (64% agree completely while 18% agree somewhat). More than four in ten adults are in complete agreement that forgiveness means giving up resentment and the right to get even (43%) and that forgiveness is what promotes peace – between people, households, communities and nations (42%).
- Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults (64%) completely disagree that showing forgiveness is a sign of weakness, while another 26% disagree somewhat.
Behaviors and Practices
- Four out of every five adults (80%) have been deeply hurt or harmed by someone else’s behavior. Only half of those adults say they have forgiven the person that hurt them, while 26% are still working on forgiving, and 20% have not forgiven that person.
- Among the adults that were deeply hurt and forgave their offender or are in the process of doing so, one-half (50%) say they just made up their mind to forgive that person, while half as many (25%) took no action and never actually spoke or communicated with the person who most deeply hurt or harmed them.
- One-third of those who have been deeply hurt by the actions of another person (31%) have personally felt or experienced negative consequences as a result of not forgiving him or her. The primary negative consequence of not forgiving an offender include continuing to think about it and not being able to ”let it go,” along with some aspect of emotional health being adversely affected.
- The majority of adults in the U.S. (63%) say the most important reason to forgive others is so that they can go on with their own lives, while less than half believe it is because God has forgiven them (47%), or because it is just the right thing to do (46%).
However, when asked about the single most important reason to forgive, adults are equally split with 30% saying it is necessary in order to go on with their own lives, and 30% noting that because God had forgiven them, they have to forgive others.
- Three out of every four adults in the U.S. (74%) feel they have done something for which they needed to ask forgiveness. The majority of these adults say they did ask for forgiveness and that the person forgave them.
- Four in ten Americans (42%) believe they have taken an action or behaved in a way for which they cannot forgive themselves.
- The most well-understood teaching about forgiveness is that Jesus Christ died on the cross so that all of our sins would be forgiven; 94% of Christian adults in the U.S. believe this to be a true biblical teaching.
- Fewer than half of all Christian adults think that unforgiveness is a sin (46%) or that God will deal strictly with those who do not forgive and show mercy to others (45%).
Compared to other “relational” behaviors, forgiveness does not appear to be the highest priority for most Americans. One possible explanation for the relatively lower ranking of forgiveness is that it is an action taken in response to the negative and hurtful behavior of another person. Compared to other, more rewarding or enjoyable behaviors, forgiveness may not even be perceived as being in the same playing field.
What parents teach their children about forgiveness appears to take root. The beliefs and ideas they impart help develop and form what their adult children now believe. The Bible, another highly influential source, may have influenced the beliefs of adults as well as their parents.
Americans have diverse opinions when it comes to the topic of forgiveness. While some consider it more of a behavior, nearly as many think it is an emotion. While some believe one must always forgive others who hurt them, just as many consider it simply not necessary. Despite this disparity of beliefs, the data suggest that more committed and churchgoing Christians believe forgiveness is always required, while less committed Christians and non-Christians are less likely to think that forgiveness must always be granted.
Americans have forgiven others for a wide variety of intensely hurtful behaviors – with dishonest, deceitful and disrespectful offenses topping the list.
Americans are in near-universal agreement that kidnapping a child, rape, and murder would be extraordinarily difficult to forgive. Incest and genocide round out the top five most challenging offenses, among those assessed in this study.
Consistent with their beliefs about how difficult some offenses would be to excuse or pardon, most adults also consider murder, kidnapping a child, and rape to be the most unforgivable.
Compared to those of other religious faith segments, evangelical Christians are far more likely to believe that all offenses can be forgiven.
The United States is a predominantly Christian nation. Our historical and ongoing research on this topic indicates that 4 out of every 5 adults in this country consider themselves to be Christians – whether or not their beliefs and behaviors demonstrate a level of understanding or commitment to that faith.
While some of the beliefs about forgiveness revealed in this study confirm the country’s Christian orientation, others might justify some level of skepticism. Overall, the findings further support the diversity of ”Christian” beliefs.
Most people believe that forgiveness promotes peace, requires releasing resentment and retaliation, is done for your own benefit (not the offender’s), and is a choice that you make that does not require you to feel forgiving.
Most Americans have personally had to endure great pain (emotional or otherwise) as a result of the behavior or actions of another person.
Non-forgiveness can have serious consequences. One-third of those who had been profoundly hurt by the behavior of another person and elected not to forgive him or her appear to have suffered as a result of that choice. Most continue to dwell on the experience and feel that their emotional health has been adversely affected, although other aspects of their lives may be impacted as well.
Why do Americans forgive others? For their own benefit – so they can go on with their lives. Religious beliefs play a role as well, with many saying it is necessary to forgive others because God has forgiven them.
Most adults have, in fact, done something they felt required forgiveness. Of those who felt the need to ask for it, most managed to do so – and received a favorable outcome (i.e., they were forgiven).
There does not appear to be a depth of understanding of what the Bible says about forgiveness. Most especially, U.S. Christians do not seem to either believe or understand that there are consequences to not forgiving others.
Adults who call upon God in prayer are far more inclined to thank Him or pray for others than they are to ask forgiveness or request help in forgiving others.