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Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet | Forward in Forgiveness

Jim Stump sat down with Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet to learn about what forgiveness is and how it can be fruitful toward a theological and spiritual journey.


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Jim Stump sat down with Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet to learn about what forgiveness is and how it can be fruitful toward a theological and spiritual journey.

Description

In a small laboratory, a participant sits with electrodes attached to her brow and a heart rate monitor humming in the background as she considers a time in her life when someone did wrong to her. This is a glimpse into a study of forgiveness. The results of a study like this teach us a lot about what forgiveness is and how it works. And although it is a scientific endeavor, it has direct effects on our spiritual lives.

Jim Stump sat down with Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet, a psychologist from Hope College who has run studies like this, to learn about what forgiveness is, the increased health benefits of forgiveness and how this psychological pursuit can be fruitful toward a theological and spiritual journey.

This episode is the third in a three part series we’re calling TheoPsych, an exploration of the intersection of psychology and theology. These episodes were made possible in part by the TheoPsych Project, hosted by Fuller Seminary’s office of Science, Theology, and Religion.

  • Originally aired on February 13, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet:

Reconciliation, here and now, sometimes is unwise, unsafe, or impossible. In God’s good future we have eschatological hope that God will reconcile all things. But we are in the here and now, the already and the not yet. And so one thing to understand about the research on forgiveness is that the internal processing within the person is still understood to be important for forgiving. And as Christians, we can understand that we do so before God and that in God all things hold together, in Christ all things hold together. So that even when we cannot perfectly reconcile with the person and even when we don’t receive a repentant, humbly accountable transformation from our wrongdoer, there is a way in which we can still hold that person accountable and forgive.

I am Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet and I’m a professor of Psychology at Hope College.

Jim Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump. This is the third episode in our series on psychology, which is not always the first subject that comes to mind when talking about the interaction of science and religion. But we’ve heard that there are fruitful points of contact, and that psychological research has much to offer both the theoretical and the practical sides of faith. If you’ve not heard those first two episodes, you might want to go back and listen to my conversations with Justin Barrett and Mari Clements.

In both of those episodes the topic of forgiveness was mentioned. For today’s episode with Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet it is the main topic of discussion. She has been investigating and performing experiments on forgiveness for a number of years now. That might sound a little strange to some people, to think forgiveness is the kind of thing that even could be experimented on. So we dig into just what exactly it is that is being measured and hear what the findings have been and how we might interpret these. For example, how should we think about the fact that there is a genetic mutation that predisposes a person to having a greater capacity for empathy, which often leads to forgiveness. What do we make of the fact that it is easier for some people to be virtuous than others? To clothe themselves with virtues, as the Apostle Paul commanded the Colossians?

Charlotte has some really interesting things to say about this. I really enjoyed talking to her. I hope you enjoy listening.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well thanks for talking to us today, Charlotte. We appreciate you braving the Grand Rapids weather to come to the BioLogos studios to record a conversation with us.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

I’m delighted to be here and it feels warm here at BioLogos.

Stump:

You are a psychology professor and researcher. So for many people that will narrow things down a little bit in their minds in that at least they know you’re not a real estate agent or a nuclear physicist or something. 

vanOyen-Witvliet:

That’s so true. 

Stump:

But psychology still has a pretty broad reach in a lot of people’s minds. Can you locate yourself on that map, say? What kinds of psychology are there and what are the ones that you do?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Okay, well I’ll go right into my formation as a psychologist is in clinical psychology and of all the things that I could have been trained to study, I was trained to study the psychophysiology of human emotion. That means… 

Stump:

Alright, you’re going to have to unpack that for us.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

That’s right. It’s going to be inclusive of the thoughts and the feelings and all of the different kinds of peripheral physiological reactions, things like sweat, heart rate, blood pressure, facial muscles, and how those are involved in emotion.

Stump:

That sounds like you’re a scientist.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Yes. And I want to say a little bit more about the background that’s formed me.

Stump:

I want to hear this.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Because as a clinical psychologist, one of the primary emphases in my formation was in the area of trauma and how trauma deeply affects people and how they deal with that and how they can even flourish in the face of pain while reckoning with its impact in their lives. And so often trauma involves person-on-person wrongdoing and harm, which is a point of connection to the work that I’ve done for 20 years in the area of repentance and forgiveness, justice and accountability. And because I’m trained with the background of emotion and how that involves what we think, say, and do and what our bodies do, I’ve tried to bring those things together.

Stump:

We will dig in a little bit more to some of your specific research in that, but let’s stay on this theme of how you’ve gotten to where this was. When you were, say, growing up, when did you realize even that this was a thing that you could do as a vocation for your life?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Wow. One of the ways in which my father nurtured my formation was by giving me books and we could talk about those.

Stump:

Which ones do you remember?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Oh, so formative in my life was Nicholas Wolterstorff’s of Lament for a Son. And I had no idea that in engaging with the heft of that book, that in some ways my father, through that gift, was equipping me to deal with his own traumatic and young death in a terrible car accident. And I could not know that the pall that lay over the coffin of Eric Wolterstorff would one day be placed on my own mother’s coffin in my first year as a faculty member at Hope College.

Stump:

How old were you when you were given this book to read?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

I was a teen. I don’t know the exact year, but I remember the place in which I read it. I remember the room. I remember holding it. I remember weeping.

Stump:

This is the story of his son—Nicholas Wolterstorff is a philosopher and his son died in a tragic climbing accident in Europe somewhere. Right? So having that as kind of an intellectual background, and then it sounds like your own personal experience in this. For some people, that wouldn’t necessarily lead them to pursue a career, to say, “I want to do this.” So talk a little further about how this shaped you and how it pushed you into what you do now.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Sure. Well, among the other books that my father gave me were books by Lewis Smedes. So here was a person who deeply engaged theology, who was not afraid of emotion and not afraid of psychology. And he became the person who oversaw the integration of theology and psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary at some point. Right? So as a child, I actually shined the shoes of Lou Smedes in an effort to give him something when my father had brought him to be a speaker to our town. 

Stump:

That’s not a metaphor is it?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

No, I literally, yes, I polished his shoes. And then later interviewed with him when I was considering attending Fuller Theological Seminary as a graduate student. So I would say that the work of Lewis Smedes has been deeply formative for me as well. So I think that there were ways in which the intersection of theological and pastoral concerns in the life of Christians, in the lives of people more broadly, really shaped the eyes of my heart and mind, the things that I was concerned with. And then when I studied at Calvin College, I pursued both a piano performance major and also a psychology major. And I think what I would say is that in my education at Calvin College, I was engaged in the robust life of the mind but toward a deep purpose to serve. And I had the opportunity to conduct research at Pine Rest as an undergraduate and that was focused on the area of trauma at the time. So that was also quite formative.

Stump:

Can you talk a little bit more of your faith background and how that plays into this? And I ask in this sense: sometimes we talk to people about the integration of their scientific discipline in their faith and there has to be a kind of a real careful nuancing of trying to figure out how might these really affect each other? In yours, it sounds like these are deeply intertwined the whole way through, that there’s not a, “here’s what my science is and then I’m going to try to think about it as a Christian, in some sense.” But rather that these topics you’re deeply engaged with are infused throughout with the faith perspective that you brought to it as well. Is that fair to say, or?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

I think it is. So I was born and raised in a family that was deeply devoted to the Lord and to theological formation. I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church and have been a member of the Christian Reformed Church my whole life, in different congregations. And so I’m deeply shaped by a reformed world and life view that is robustly, intellectually engaged. And, the life of the mind has been consistently valued in my upbringing, for which I am profoundly grateful. There isn’t a thing that we can’t study, there isn’t an area that’s off limits because all of it belongs to God. And so it’s a deep calling to do the work of science and to do the work of practice within my field in a way that seeks to know what is true and to be faithful in how we execute the different tasks that are involved in being a scientist and in being a practitioner and in being a teacher.

Stump:

Let me ask one more question about the field of psychology more broadly speaking in this regard and then we’ll maybe start to home in on your specific topics of research. Psychology among the disciplines, scientific disciplines especially, is often looked at by Christians with a bit of suspicion. And I think there’s some data perhaps even that suggests that psychologists are the least religious among various disciplines. Why is that, do you think? And then when you talk about “no subject is off limits,” does this one sometimes get the rap that maybe it’s the closest to one that’s off limits though for Christians? Is it pursuing a line of explanation, at least at some points, that sometimes seems to stand in tension with Christian beliefs about the way we work, the way our minds work, our experiences?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

You raise a really important question and I would say that I have, even in my lifetime, witnessed a real shift. I mean, when I began teaching and writing in the area of forgiveness, I was wrestling with that tension. Like, is this even okay to study something of cosmic importance in a laboratory, using electrodes and computers and having people rate and write about their responses? Would that be too reductionistic and limiting and constrained? It seems like a thimble sized approach to a cosmic sized question. I wrestled with that. I wrestled with what it would mean if we found that granting forgiveness was stressful, what would we do with that? How would we…

Stump:

That it somehow wasn’t good for us, you mean?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Yeah. What if it didn’t reduce stress responses compared to grudge holding, for example? I mean, grudge holding can feel pretty good to people and if you listen to people talk about that, they’re drawn to it for all sorts of reasons. So what would happen if the data didn’t sort of fit the intuitive idea that it might have deep resonance with healing. And I thought, well then so be it.

Then we need to explore that and understand why and pursue that line of inquiry, right? Because if we’re humble in the science that we do, we need to be open to the learning that comes, we must be less focused on being the ones who are right and more focused on learning what is true and right and probing that. And that may lead us to re-examine things in a deeper way that actually could lead us more deeply into faithfulness.

Stump:

It could.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

It could…

Stump:

But it might also go the other way is what you’re saying?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Well, on the surface of it, it can sometimes lead us to wrestle in ways that create dissonance for us. That doesn’t make sense to us right away. That is difficult for us to grapple with…

Stump:

Are there any examples of that in psychology that come to mind? Say, findings, and I know it’s a little bit arbitrary when we say here’s a finding versus here’s how they’ve been interpreted or—  But anything that perhaps is the reason why psychology has gotten the reputation that it has in this regard? For example, let me prime the pump a little bit, maybe/ It’s often reported—and again a difference between what’s, say, reported in the popular press versus what the actual findings in psychology journals really are—but sometimes reported, say, in cognitive science of religion, we’ve discovered now why people believe in God. We’ve found these mechanisms that show why it’s adaptively, you know, advantageous for people to believe in gods and therefore—and this is the popular version of it—and therefore we’ve probably shown that there isn’t a God but that it’s just a figment of our imaginations.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

But you see how even there we are always interpreters, aren’t we? There can be, I think, some findings that may be important for us to wrestle with, but how we wrestle and what sorts of conclusions we draw need to be guided by a respect for the sort of methods we use to address the different kinds of epistemological questions. And I think that one of the challenges is to be really clear on which questions are best suited to which methods and which conclusions we can genuinely draw from those. And to be honest about where we may be extrapolating or reaching too far. So appropriate humility and caution is called for.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. Thanks for tuning in to another conversation about the intersection of science and Christian Faith. If you’d like to hear more of these conversations you might be interested in inviting one of our speakers to your church, college, or another event near you. The BioLogos Voices speakers bureau includes some of the top scientists and scholars in the BioLogos community and they are all passionate about sharing their stories and expertise with others. Go to biologos.org/voices to learn more about how to request a speaker or find out if any of them will be coming to an event near you. Now, back to the conversation!

Interview Part Two

Stump:

All right, let’s talk specifically about your work on forgiveness. So you’ve been involved in experimental research on the topic of forgiveness and that in my mind at least conjures up images of control groups and maybe even placebos or… How does this work for experimental study on forgiveness?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Oh, I’m so glad you asked Jim. This is really fun to talk about and think about. So there are different kinds of experimental designs.

Stump:

Describe those to us. What’s actually happening? You have a laboratory?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

I have a laboratory! And there are adjoining rooms and a person will be seated in a recliner chair with all sorts of electrodes that get correctly affixed to different places like different facial muscles or to measure the sweat from the hand or blood pressure or different cardiovascular kinds of responses beyond heart rate. Some electrodes are really fancy and they’re long strips and others are really small little circles. And yeah, it’s just delightful.

Stump:

So is there, I know I want to keep going on this, but I have to ask, is there a reductive definition then of forgiveness such that it’s equivalent or at least operationally in the laboratory to some biological signature that I can measure with your fancy electrodes to see if I really have forgiven somebody or not?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Let’s talk about what forgiveness is in just a minute, but let’s start by linking those electrodes to the different signals that they pick up and thinking about these bodily responses as side effects—side effects of unforgiving and forgiving responses. Okay? So we would prompt people to engage in different kinds of tasks. And in this case we would use what’s called a repeated measures design, in which, each person goes through different control and experimental conditions in order to test the effect of—and here I’ll pick my first forgiveness experiment for clarity—ruminating about a wrong that was done to—I’ll put myself in the shoes of the participant—done to me reliving and rehashing that wrong in its impact. So that would be one condition.

Stump:

Does it matter how long ago that was?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

We took a look at that and that didn’t end up modifying the results. So no. But it would be a real life transgression.

Stump:

So I have to think of something that actually happened to me in the past at some point and I’m ruminating on it.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Yes. That’s one condition. And then that same offender and offense, another unforgiving condition would be nursing a grudge against that person, thinking about how they ought to suffer for what they did. Right?

Stump:

Revenge.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Yeah. Grudge holding. Right? And then another response, but this would be in the forgiving direction, a response that focuses on the humanity of that offender and recognizes that we have also done wrong to others and seeks to cultivate empathic perspective taking about what factors may have shaped that person’s behavior. They’re still responsible for it, but it’s seeking to understand this human who did this. And then finally, seeking to find even a small way in which to genuinely wish that person who offended well, in positive transformation. Okay. So there’d be two of the more unforgiving conditions—rumination and grudge holding; and two of the more forgiving conditions—empathy and this sort of well-wishing.

And then a relaxation task that comes out of the literature, which is just think one every time you exhale. It’s very unemotional and calming. And we’re looking to see if during imagery of these different conditions, the bodily changes and the extent to which heart rate, sweat, blood pressure and facial muscles… The extent to which the changes during some conditions differ from the changes in other conditions. For simplicity we could just clearly say that the unforgiving responses activate greater surges in heart rate and blood pressure, higher levels of sweat output, which is linked to the sympathetic fight or flight response and greater muscle activity above the brow. You know, when you furrow your brow and under the eye, right? Because when you furrow, it’s often that scowly face. By contrast, the empathic and forgiving responses reduce the stress reactivity and produce a more calm, sort of physiological expression. So those are kind of the physiological side effects of these different responses, which also influence the extent to which people say they are forgiving towards that real life offender.

Stump:

Okay. So say that again. So just the mere fact of having them think in empathic ways, in what you call forgiving ways, in some sense, that in itself starts to constitute, I have forgiven that person?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

So if you think of forgiveness not as all or none response, but you think of it more dimensionally, as being more forgiving towards that real life offender or less forgiving, right? If you could rate, say, the degree to which you are experiencing forgiveness toward that person. Oh, there’s a clear difference, just by thinking for a few seconds.

Stump:

And that’s something I can just do on command from the lab assistant that says, “Okay, now start forgiving this person.”

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Well it gets more complicated, Jim, because the lab assistant isn’t sort of pointing to the person going, “Okay, now do this. Now do this.” But instead we have, you used these very impersonal tones of different pitches to cue the different types of imagery and everything was counterbalanced with numerous blocks of trials. So that there was all of the sort of experimental good methodology and design in place to ensure that we’re not just getting order effects or… 

Stump:

What are order effects?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Order effects. Like if we always do grudge holding and then empathy.

Stump:

Oh, the order in which you… 

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Yeah, the order in which you do things might be accounting for what you’re finding. And so that early work really sought to have the most robust methodological designs that are used in the emotion and phys’ literature and import those to put these different sort of mindsets or appraisals to the test to see if they might have an impact on the level of forgiveness that a person felt they were extending to that real life offender and what all of the physiological side effects of that might be as well.

Stump:

So you’ve only talked about these as side effects, physiological side effects so far, you know, if my brows are furrowed or not and what my blood pressure is or whatever. And I’m glad you’re talking about it in that way. We’re not somehow equating the state of forgiveness, say with those physiological markers. And you put me off a little earlier about saying just what exactly is forgiveness? I don’t think I can wait any longer. What does it mean then for somebody to forgive? And I completely accept that this may be a scalar property rather than binary in some sense, digital.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Right, so I’m going to share with you a definition of forgiveness that I hold. And the reality is that when we’re using measures in experimental work, we need to use validated measures that exist. And that means that we’re relying on the work of others as well, right? So when you have fields that develop, there’s a history to that. So just to be mindful of that. But I define forgiving as “a process of responding to the person who’s responsible for one’s experience of a hurtful injustice, in which the forgiver relinquishes resentment and retaliation toward that person for that wrongdoing, while genuinely wishing that person well in positive transformation.”

Stump:

So I’m relinquishing… what was the phrase you said there?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Resentment and retaliation toward that offender or wrongdoer.

Stump:

So I’m giving up something, but I’m also replacing that with this positive well-wishing, the genuine wellbeing of this other person?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Right. Forgiving is for—giving.

Stump:

Is there any relationship, any dependent relationship, between my forgiving that person and that person actually repenting or asking for forgiveness? Is there any difference in the outcomes of forgiving somebody who has asked for forgiveness as opposed to somebody who says, “I’m not asking for forgiveness?”

vanOyen-Witvliet:

That’s a really important thing to think about because in ongoing relationships, those dyadic responses are really, really important, especially if we’re going to be talking about reconciliation. But I want to come back to the experiment that we just discussed because when we looked at whether people in the lab had experienced receiving an apology or re-establishing the relationship, those kinds of things along with a host of other factors, like how severe was the transgression or how long ago did it happen—none of those variables sort of undid the findings about the implications of ruminating or grudge holding versus empathic perspective-taking and compassion.

Stump:

So forgiveness is still just as good for me personally to forgive whether or not the wrongdoer has asked for forgiveness?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Right. And I think that this can be hard for people to reckon with because we long for forgiveness to be part of the restoration of relationships. But as a clinical psychologist, I also call to mind that there are some transgressions that are committed by people who have died, who don’t want to be in the relationship, who are unrepentant, for example. There are some relationships that are dangerous for us to reenter. So reconciliation here and now sometimes is unwise, unsafe, or impossible. In God’s good future, we have eschatological hope, right, that God will reconcile all things. But we are in the here and now, the already and the not yet. And so one thing to understand about the research on forgiveness is that the internal processing within the person is still understood to be important for forgiving. And as Christians we can understand that we do so before God and that in God all things hold together, in Christ all things hold together. So that even when we cannot, perfectly reconcile with the person and even when we don’t receive a repentant, humbly accountable transformation from our wrongdoer, there is a way in which we can still hold that person accountable and forgive.

Stump:

How many people have gone through these experiments? With your work, at least? Approximate numbers… 

vanOyen-Witvliet:

We’ve been doing experiments in the lab on forgiveness and compassionate reappraisals really across the 20 years that I’ve been doing this work. And I would say that in the psychophysiology studies we have between 50 and 75 participants per study. And we’ve probably had nine of the peripheral psychophysiology studies. We also did a study with genetics and forgiveness.

Stump:

That’s interesting. But before you talk about that, the reason I asked how many people there were is I’m assuming these must be some pretty powerful experiences sometimes for these experimental subjects.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

And that’s why the debriefing matters so very much. And that we always provide people with the immediate way to kind of intact counseling and psychological services. Now we always provide information about how to contact the suicide hotline and resources that are available. And you know, my contact information is always included. But you’re right, it’s really, really important to be mindful of those things and to ensure that we don’t create undue risks for people. But there are stories that people share.

Stump:

On the positive side though, let’s hear some of the people who have gone through this and genuinely made this transformation in their lives in some sense.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

You know, I have memories of that very first psychophysiology study that I walked you through. And there were several participants who at the end said, you know, it hadn’t occurred to me that I actually have some choice to make about how I respond to this person who I hold responsible for this offense. You know, they expressed it in their own words and in their own way, but it was very powerful for some people. Enough to mention that to me on the way out, or to later find me on campus. And it wasn’t that long ago, I won’t say exactly when, but our team was presenting our research findings for one of the more recent studies at a campus wide research celebration, because Hope is very invested in faculty-student collaborative research, and a participant from the study came up to me and she said, “Being in your study changed my life.” And I said, “Wait, what do you mean?” And she said, “Well, there was this part of this study where you prompted us to imagine that the person who wronged us walked into the room right then and there. And what would we be thinking and want to say or do to that person in that moment. And I had to think about that,” and she said, “And I continued to think about that and would you believe that really happened? I really ended up running into this person totally unexpectedly.”

Stump:

But having practiced for that moment…

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Yes. I had a way to think about what I was going to say and to react in what I did.

[musical interlude]

Interview Part Three

Stump:

Okay. So you mentioned forgiveness in genetics. Is there a component to that that is…? I’ve always been mildly troubled by the fact that our genetic predispositions, it’s easier for some people to be virtuous than other people.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

That is what we found. So I find that to be important to reckon with though. So a colleague of mine, Dr. Gerald Griffin is a neuroscientist and he and I together, in collaboration also with my colleague Dr. Lindsey Root Luna and students at Hope College, conducted a study where we looked at a particular genetic variation that’s tied to sociality and empathy in particular. So there’s a single nucleotide polymorphism, RS 53576, on the oxytocin receptor gene that has meta analytic—that means the data of multiple studies combined shows that this genetic variation is associated with different levels of empathy. 

Stump:

And how many people have that variation? What’s the distribution?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

So what we’re looking at is whether people have the GG allele combination or whether they carry an A, either an AG or an AA combination. And in the West, namely here in the US the finding is that GG’s are more empathic than A carriers. Now we have a whole other body of work, meta-analytic evidence, showing that the strongest predictor we have of whether people will be forgiving is whether they are empathic. So you see we’re just taking the Lego block from this meta-analysis of the genotype empathy connection and this Lego block of the empathy-forgiveness connection and we’re snapping them together in a study to see if this genotype is a predictor of forgiveness via empathy. And we did that at both the dispositional or trait-level of forgiving-ness. So some people tend to be more forgiving towards others, generally speaking. And we also tested it at the state-level, in terms of participants’ responses of forgiveness toward a particular real life offender. And we found that RS 53576 was a predictor of both trait and state forgiveness via empathy. This gives my colleagues and me a lot of empathy for people who struggle with forgiveness because empathy is an uphill climb for them by virtue of their genetics.

Stump:

So here’s one of those places that we could be pushed to consider how this plays out according to our theology, too, and ask, is this fair? Are we all being… Maybe we’re not held to the same standard and in some regard, but clearly there are genetic differences among us for all kinds of things.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

All manner of things.

Stump:

I could, you know, if I had the greatest work ethic ever, I’d never make it as an NFL football player. I don’t have the genetic predisposition for that. Is this different though? We get concerned where we’re out of just the purely physical, whatever that means in this regard, traits, to now one of these virtues that seems like I’m held accountable for in a way that I’m not held accountable for how tall I am.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

But Jim, who is it that holds us accountable? The one who knows all and is merciful. So I want to tell you about those same participants with the genetic finding. Those very same participants went through an experimental paradigm—it was a quasi-experimental paradigm—in which they engaged in rumination about the offense and the offender and all the ways in which that had a hurtful impact on them. And they also engaged in a compassionate reappraisal that emphasized the humanity of the offender, saw the wrongdoing as evidence that all is not well in that offender’s life and desired good change for that person. Okay? So that’s compassionate reappraisal. And they also engaged in benefit-focused reappraisal, which was focused on identifying goods that were there nevertheless, so treasures in the dirt pile of this offense. Not turning a blind eye to the wrongdoing or the harm that happened, but also seeing strengths shown, people who were faithful, God who was faithful, lessons learned and so on. So goods that were also present in the facing of this offense. So these participants with the genetic data went through all these different conditions and the results are very clear that the compassionate reappraisal prompts these reliable increases in forgiveness. 

Stump:

Even if I am genetically predisposed not to be able to do it as well?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Right! Exactly.

Stump:

So is one interpretation of this, the takeaway that all of us are on a continuum somewhere, in terms of our natural propensity or our natural ability for forgiveness, and all of us can move further down that toward forgiveness by undergoing some of these exercises? We might not all end up at the same place, but we can all improve in that regard?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

And I think we can also get there by different routes. So I want to add to that a little bit, which is to say that a benefit-focused reappraisal might be where a person wants to start because cultivating compassion for my wrongdoer just might be asking way too much of me at a particular raw point of suffering. Right? That may not be what I might be able to do at that moment. And yet I might be able to see that I persevered through that and I learned things from that that I can carry with me. And there were people who were supports to me in that time and I can see those benefits which is a gratitude oriented practice that also moves people forward in forgiveness. So there are different routes that people can take, for people who seek to become more forgiving and people who feel called to forgive in a particular instance. Holding the person accountable, ensuring safety, you know, not just letting wrong doers go unchecked or move on and cause harm to other people as long as it’s not me. Right? That’s not accountable, but provided that safety and accountability are present for people who feel called to forgiveness, there are different approaches that can help us move down that road even in spite of our genetics. And we didn’t talk about gender, but in spite of our gender…  

Stump:

What’s the gender difference? 

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Well, the gender difference is a lot like the genetic finding. And so— 

Stump:

I’m guessing males don’t come out as well on this.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

In terms of the measures that we have, the self-report measures that we have of empathic concern and perspective taking and the measures that we have of forgivingness as a trait and the ratings that we have of granting forgiveness toward a particular person who’s hurt me—yeah. Gender predicts forgiveness via empathy with, and there’s meta-analytic evidence to show that females score higher on these measures of empathy and forgiveness and males tend to score higher on revenge. So.

But that’s not the end of the story either because the interventions of compassionate reappraisal and the gratitude informed benefit-focused reappraisal have stronger effects on forgiveness than is predicted by genetics or gender.

Stump:

So talk of forgiveness has been going on for thousands of years. What is it that this work that you’re doing, what you’re uncovering adds to or helps us in our Christian lives better live up to what we’ve been called to? 

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Let’s think about Colossians 3:12. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, Holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” And it goes on. Certainly.

Stump:

Clothe yourself. 

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Clothe yourselves. So what is it that we put on in a genuine way to become clothed with compassion? In our laboratory, we ask people in these forgiveness paradigms to focus on the humanity of the person who wronged you. You rehumanize that person.

You are asked to see the wrongdoing as evidence that this person needs transformation. In no way does this minimize the wrongdoing, but it points out that this doesn’t fit with their humanity. And so then we’re called to see that evidence of this person’s need for forgiveness. And then to desire that person’s good transformation, good change in that person’s life.  And those are sort of like mental maneuvers of clothing ourselves with compassion for an offender, someone we might be more inclined to describe with angry adjectives and adverbs that stir up contempt to or to confuse who they are with what they did and totalize them in terms of their offense. But this is a clear shift mentally that helps people clothe themselves with compassion. It allows them still to reckon with the wrongdoing and its impact and pursue accountability and justice with compassion and kindness and the other virtues.

Stump:

You told the story of the person who had been asked to imagine this offender coming into the room unexpectedly and that actually happening and I made a comment about practicing that. Is that part of this too? That I go through a mental calisthenic in some sense of practicing for the actual event or is the practice itself the actual event of forgiving and humanizing that person?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

C. Both A and B. All of the above. Oh, I love this.

Stump:

Again, the apostle Paul often used athletic metaphors or these things. “People who compete in the games go into strict training,” he says. And I think that’s Corinthians chapter—First Corinthians. chapter nine. “They do it to get a crown that will not last. We do it to get a crown that will last forever.” We go into strict training? Is there some way of training myself?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

There is. There is a way of training and there’s a way of strengthening the capacity to see with the eyes of the heart, with faithful eyes that refuse to confuse the identity of that person with their wrongdoing, that persistently turn away from diminishing and dehumanizing the other and turn toward seeing who they are for Christians as image bearers of God. That there’s nothing that a person can ever do that takes that away. And to see those actions that are not fitting for image bearers as evidence of the redemptive change that’s needed. And to lean hard into that good hopeful future in which God will reconcile all things and that we can sort of start to practice that now. We have to get ready for forever, right? We need to be that new creation. We need to be ready for the new creation. And so we can take up these practices and clothe ourselves through these different responses. And I do want to say that one of our experiments found that the very first time people engage in compassionate reappraisal, they experience these boosts in empathy and forgiveness. And that at the end of this two hour experiment, when they’re later prompted to ruminate about their wrongdoer, they ruminate with more empathy.

So it’s as if, when they’re confronted again with those things that are hard, right, even to relive the pain and the negative impact of the event, they do that differently when they are equipped with these compassionate reappraisal strategies compared to the folks who learn how to suppress the experience and expression of negative emotions about that offense.

Stump:

So it seems that it creates habits of mind in some sense.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

And so that even when we feel like, oh, we’ve taken a step back, you know, we’re ruminating again, we might ruminate differently and we might not be taking three steps back. We might be taking two steps back.

Stump:

What do you hope that pastors or theologians might take from your work? Incorporate into the way they understand the theological concept of forgiveness?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

You know, I have some hopes about how this work is not represented. All too often the little soundbites about my work come off like secular beatitudes that say things like blessed are those who forgive for their blood pressure shall be improved.

Stump:

Their brows won’t be as furrowed.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Blessed are those who forgive for their heart rate variability shall be better and they’ll be more self regulated. And that’s just good for them. So I’m really cautious about the ways that my work can be misappropriated, to perhaps serve an instrumental role or to put forgiveness into a merely instrumental role so that the forgiver gets something good out of it. But it is not wrong to notice that forgiveness is associated with a host of psychological, emotional, and physiological benefits. It’s not wrong to notice that, but let’s be really aware that we don’t just pursue forgiveness because we’re going to get some good stuff out of it. 

Stump:

Is it a means to an end or is it an end in itself?

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Right. It’s a way of responding faithfully to God’s call. And it is sort of evidence of the Spirit’s work in us when we also respond to that call by clothing ourselves with compassion and using the different strategies that we’ve learned something about to grow and move in that virtuous direction. So there are some habits of mind and practices that can be very helpful for people who want to grow in forgiveness, who want to grow in accountability, who want to grow in gratitude, and we have reliable evidence for those things that practitioners can draw on. By practitioners, I mean people who lead flocks and people in pews who want to die and rise in the ways that we are called to do so as faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

Stump:

Well this strikes me Charlotte, as really important work. And so thank you for doing it, for devoting your career to these kinds of topics and thank you for coming and talking to me about it.

vanOyen-Witvliet:

Thank you, Jim, for your partnership, for the excellent work that you do in and through BioLogos and your career in the longer view and for being a co-journeyer on this long road of seeking to be faithful in how we engage science and the life of faith as Christians.

Stump:

Thank you.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

And thanks again to the Theopsych project, hosted by Fuller Seminary’s office of Science, Theology, and Religion for helping to make these episodes possible.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks. 


Featured guest

Charlote vanOyen-Witvliet's Headshot

Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet

Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet is the Lavern ’39 and Betty DePree ’41 VanKley Professor of Psychology at Hope College. She loves teaching and mentoring students with a vision to cultivate competence with compassion so that they are prepared for effective and faithful service and leadership in a diverse world. Charlotte has published 75 peer-reviewed journal articles about her research and has had over 125 professional presentations in local, national and international venues. She has been a member of national, multi-year, interdisciplinary work groups on the pursuit of happiness, leading from the soul, and living accountably.


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