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A narrative exploration of motivation to forgive and the related correlate of religious commitment.

The question of why people do not forgive has been studied with such factors as revenge, anger, and maintaining a victim status emerging as possible explanations (McCullough, Bellah, Kilpatrick, & Johnson, 2001; Mullett, Houdbine, Laumonier, & Giard, 1998). The present study examined the motivation theme categories behind why people do forgive and the role of religious commitment in this process.

Konstam, Marx, Schurer, Harrington, Lombardo, and Deveney (2000) noted that the topic of forgiveness is an important clinical issue that frequently arises in therapy. These authors surveyed 381 counselors about forgiveness in their practice, and 88% responded that forgiveness was a commonly mentioned topic in psychotherapy. Although forgiveness is an important therapeutic topic, little is known regarding the underlying motivation to forgive. Individual motivations likely vary, and this could be an important factor in propensity to forgive.

Gallup and Jones (1989) surveyed the general public and found that 84% of people in the United States expressed a belief in a heavenly father, a personal God of sorts that can be accessed through prayer. Spilka and McIntosh (1997) further investigated the general population's belief in a God and found that 95% of people in the United States endorsed such a belief. Research has shown that atheists respond differently to questions about forgiveness than do those who identify themselves as Christians (Ripley, Worthington, Berry, Wade, Gramling, & Nicholson, 2003). As such, studying motivations underlying forgiveness and the role that religious commitment plays in the forgiveness process will provide new information on why people forgive. This information could help to illuminate possible therapeutic interventions involving forgiveness.

Forgiveness has been defined in many ways by a variety of researchers (McCullough, Fincham, & Tsang, 2003). For the purposes of this study, the definition from McCullough, Worthington, and Rachal (1997) was used. McCullough et al. (1997) posited that forgiveness involves three different motivational changes: (a) one's motivation to retaliate against the offender decreases, (b) one's motivation to uphold separation from the offender decreases, and (c) one's motivation for conciliation and positive thinking about the offender increases, even though the offender has caused pain. As such, there is an emphasis on conceptualizing forgiveness as a motivation to heal damaged relationships. However, individuals likely have different reasons or motivations for why they desire such relational healing. The present study was designed to ascertain these individual motivations to forgive.

The definition of motivation that was used in the present study was informed by Baumeister and Leary (1995), who posited that people are generally motivated to be in relationship to one another, originating from a human need for interpersonal connectedness. When people do not forgive they are likely to feel psychological tension resulting from a violation of this motivation for connectedness in three areas: (a) violating the intent to continue in a relationship, (b) violating the desire to maintain a long-term relationship, and (c) violating the need for psychological attachment (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002; Karremans, Van Lange, Ouwerkerk, & Kluwer, 2003). In this framework, people who choose to forgive reduce psychological tension by preserving some aspect of relational connectedness.

Religious commitment is defined as the level of seriousness with which one approaches his or her religion, adhering to the practices and beliefs, and applying them in his or her daily life (Worthington, Wade, Hight, Ripley, McCullough, & Berry, 2003). This definition of religious commitment was used to inform the development of the Religious Commitment Inventory-10 (RCI-10: Worthington, et al., 2003), the instrument used in the present study.

In line with Baumeister and Leary (1995), it is likely that the main, overarching reason why individuals are motivated to forgive is to maintain relationships; thus, supporting the theoretical approach of need for relational connectedness. The need for relationship can be viewed in many ways, including relationship with self, others, and God. Forgiveness likely plays a large role in maintaining all three of the aforementioned types of relationships. Further, there are several lines of research which are strongly suggestive of additional motivation themes underlying forgiveness. Because of this, several likely themes were expected to emerge from a qualitative method of data collection involving narrative responses to a set of structured questions regarding motivation to forgive. Due to the lack of established questionnaire measures addressing individual motivations for forgiveness, a narrative approach was selected.

Additional lines of research supporting likely forgiveness motivations (Emmons, 1999; Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk, 1989; Goertzen, 2002; McCullough, Rachel, Sandage, Worthington, Brown, and Hight, 1998) examined the relationship between forgiveness and closeness prior to the offense, apologies and making amends, avoiding loneliness, and desiring approval. Further, McCullough, et al. (1998) and Worthington (1998a, 1998b) pinpointed the importance of empathy and humility in forgiveness. Religious and spiritual beliefs relating to God are also related to forgiveness processes (Emmons 1999; Enright et al., 1989; Goertzen 2002). Finally, physical and mental health have been found to be related to forgiveness (Emmons, 1999; Enright, 2001), and therefore might also relate to motivation to forgive. The goal of the present study was to identify emergent themes underlying motivation to forgive and explore levels of religious commitment between theme categories.



Utilizing a web survey format hosted by Survey Suite (from, participants were obtained via an email link that connected them directly to the Survey Suite website where they completed the measures. The link was sent to a Mid-Atlantic Christian University community as well as other individuals over 18 years old. Participants completed at least some portion of the web-based surveys (N = 97) over the course of two months. Seventy (72%) were female and 27 (28%) were male; the mean age of the sample was 36 years old (SD = 12; range = 21 to 70); and one participant left this question blank. Thirty-seven (38%) participants were single, divorced, or widowed; 60 (62%) participants were currently married. Eighty-five (88%) participants identified their ethnicity as Caucasian, 4 (4%) as African American, 4 (4%) as Hispanic, 2 (2%) as Asian or Pacific Islander, and 2 (2%) as other. Ninety-four (98%) participants identified their religious affiliation as being Christian, 1 (1%) as being atheist, 1 (1%) as none, and 1 participant left this question blank.


A qualitative semi-structured, self-report interview method was used with subsequent content analysis to consolidate data. Use of the Constant Comparison Method (Dye, Schatz, Rosenberg, & Coleman, 2000) established motivation theme categories. The primary researcher as well as an independent rater verified that each narrative was placed into the correct motivation theme category based on its content on the Motivation to Forgive Questionnaire (Johnson & Covert, 2002). Cohen's Kappa was utilized to establish interrater agreement (See Tables 1-5). Then the relationship between religious commitment and the motivation theme categories was examined.


Motivation to Forgive Questionnaire (Johnson & Covert, 2002). This questionnaire was made up of the following open-ended queries: (1) Briefly describe a hurtful situation within the past five years where you were hurt or injured by another person, (2) Did this person intentionally hurt you in a vengeful way or for purposes of revenge?, (3) Were you motivated to forgive them? (yes/no), (4) Describe your motivation to forgive. What were the reasons behind your motivation?

Religious Commitment Inventory-10 (RCI-10: Worthington, et al., 2003): The RCI-10 was used to measure religious commitment and is composed of 10 questions with answers ranging from "Not at all true of me" to "Totally true of me" on a 5-point Likert scale. Higher scores on the RCI-10 indicate higher levels of religious commitment. Internal reliability estimates range from .93 to .96, and temporal stability at three weeks is estimated at .87 (Worthington et al., 2003).


Constant Comparison Method

In order to organize the narrative responses, the "Constant Comparison Method" (Patton, 1990) was utilized as described by Dye et al. (2000). These authors used the metaphor of a kaleidoscope to describe the process of a type of narrative factor analysis. Starting with data bits, the narratives were broken down into their rudimentary form, and a process of grouping similar bits was performed. After the data were processed this way, general rules of inclusion and exclusion criteria were formulated, and piles of data bits were refined to better fit into their proper categories. During this phase, some of the categories were combined due to their similar nature. For example, the categories related to narratives about the offense entitled "wrongfully accused" and "misjudged intentions" were combined since both involve the blaming of an individual for something that he or she did not perceive as having been his or her fault. After sifting through the narratives several times, main theme categories emerged.

In order to examine the level of interrater agreement, Cohen's Kappa Coefficient was performed for each of the theme categories. Lombard, Snyder-Duch, and Campanella Bracken, (2005), noted that coefficients of .70 may be appropriate in "some exploratory studies for some indices" (Section 4, 3). Since Cohen's Kappa is a conservative statistic and the current study is exploratory, coefficients of .70 or above were considered to indicate an acceptable level of interrater agreement.

Question 1 of the online survey was: "Briefly describe a hurtful situation within the past 5 years where you were hurt or injured by another person." The narratives gathered from this question reflected a variety of offenses. A theme category could only be applied to a narrative when the offense was not better described by another theme category. As the constant comparison process progressed, many subthemes were combined or collapsed into a single theme category. For example, the theme entitled "hurtful words/actions" was formed from two subthemes--"hurtful words" and "hurtful actions". The theme category entitled "blame attributed unfairly" was formed by combining two subthemes, namely, "misjudged intentions" and "wrongfully accused". The theme entitled "being used" is composed of two subthemes: "ungrateful" and "taken advantage of."

Many narratives reflected more than one theme category; both raters were aware of this and dissected the narratives into their rudimentary parts and coded them accordingly. Narratives could be placed in more than one theme category as long as the identified themes were mutually exclusive or not better described by another theme, thus falling under the umbrella of an already coded theme. The frequency data for main theme categories and Cohen's Kappa for Question 1 are shown in Table 1.

After reading the narratives from Question 1, it was evident that a specific offender often emerged. The raters reviewed the narratives from Question 1 and identified the offenders listed in the narratives. The frequency data for the offender theme categories and Cohen's Kappa is shown in Table 2.

Question 2 requested participants to write a short answer to the inquiry: "Did this person intentionally hurt you in a vengeful way or for purposes of revenge?" The narratives were typically easily put into a category of yes or no. However, because participants were allowed to write their own response to this question, there was some variation among answers. As such, the two independent raters reviewed this question as well. After review, the main categories that the narratives could be placed into were: yes, no, and unspecified. It was found that 25% of the participants responded yes, 67% responded no, and 12% gave a response that could not be categorized and was thus unspecified. Cohen's Kappa for Question 2 is shown in Table 3.

Question 3 of the online survey was: "Describe your motivation to forgive. What were the reasons behind your motivation?" The narratives gathered from Question 3 reflected a variety of motivations. The theme category entitled "religious reasons" was formed to code narratives that reflected a religious or spiritual motivation behind the described forgiveness act.

The theme category entitled "relational reasons" was composed of three subthemes: "desire for reconciliation," "closeness of relationship prior to offense," and "love." The "offender move toward reconciliation" theme category was made up of two subcategories: "apology" and "offender behavior change."

The theme category entitled "desire for well-being" was formed after collapsing the following three subthemes: emotional well-being, physical or health reasons, and to avoid being controlled by the offender. All three of these sub-categories have the common thread of the victim's desire to escape personal detriment secondary to the offense. The goal of maintaining well-being can be seen in all three sub-categories from the "desire for well-being" theme category.

The theme category entitled "feelings of sorrow for, or understanding with the offender" was formed by the combining of two subtheme categories, namely, "empathy" and "victim noted that he/she has been forgiven in the past by the offender".

The last theme category for Question 3 was entitled "failure to forgive"; this was based on the content of the narratives provided by the participants. Both raters agreed that two participants likely did not forgive based on the content of their narratives. The frequency data and Cohen's Kappa for Question 3 is shown in Table 4.

After reading the narratives from Question 3, the primary researcher noted that participants often mentioned who the act of forgiveness was motivated for or by. Both raters reviewed the narratives from Question 3, and identified a list of people in the narratives that may have motivated the act of forgiveness. The main theme categories that emerged from this question were: victim, Jesus/God, offender, unspecified, and failure to forgive. The frequency data and Cohen's Kappa for Question 3 regarding the target of forgiveness is shown in Table 5.

A one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was calculated to examine whether individuals within the top three motivation theme categories of: religious reasons, relational reasons, and desire for well-being would differ in their religious commitment. Thirty-one participants were included in this ANOVA as only those narratives that reflected a single motivation could be used to avoid overlap between theme categories. The 15 participants whose narratives reflected religious motivations to forgive had an average RCI-10 score of 44.50 (SD = 3.87); the 7 participants whose narratives reflected relational reasons had an average RCI-10 score of 32 (SD = 11.22), and the 9 participants whose narratives reflected a desire for their well-being as their motivation to forgive had an average RCI-10 score of 35.90 (SD = 10.33). The ANOVA was significant (F (2, 28) = 6.76, p < .05). A Tukey HSD post hoc was completed indicating a significant difference between the mean RCI-10 scores of those participants whose narratives fell in the "religious reasons" motivation theme category and those whose narratives fell in the two other groups (relational reasons and desire for well-being). No significant difference was found between the RCI-10 score means of the participants in the "relational reasons" and the "desire for well-being" theme categories.


The thought that the primary underlying motivation to forgive might be to maintain relationships was generally supported, indicating the theoretical importance of interpersonal connectedness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). The motivation theme categories of "religious reasons", "relational reasons," and "desire for well-being" were most highly endorsed. The theme of "religious reasons" describes a vertical relationship of sorts or a relationship with deity, whereas, "relational reasons" describes horizontal relationships or those relationships with other humans. The motivation theme category entitled "relational reasons" was used to describe several different types of acts that promote relational wholeness between humans. The last component of relationship is that of being in right relationship with oneself. Often humans are motivated to change in order to bring about inner peace, as it is uncomfortable to live with inner tension or turmoil. The theme of "desire for well-being" is consistent with this process.

As discussed previously, the idea of maintaining relationships and desiring connectedness can be viewed in many different ways. It is commonly believed that humans have a need to belong to their Creator and be in right relationship with God. Also, due to the fact that this sample was almost exclusively Christian, the idea of being in a whole and functioning relationship with God was likely important to many of the participants.

Furthermore, the high endorsement of the "religious reasons" category likely indicates that many participants were motivated to forgive others due to a moral code underlying their behavior. Since forgiveness is a foundational aspect of Christianity, the fact this emerged as the major theme category was not surprising. This also points to the importance of a client's religious worldview in a clinical context. For example, a therapist working with an angry and vengeful client who has been wronged would likely be more effective with an understanding of the client's religious worldview. These findings suggest that Christian clients may be particularly motivated to forgive an offense.

As previously mentioned, the theme category of "relational reasons" emerged. In their research, Emmons (1999), Enright, et al. (1989), Goertzen (2002), and McCullough et al. (1998) wrote of the awareness of need for relationship as a possible factor behind the forgiveness process. In light of this study, it appears that many of the participants in this sample were motivated to forgive in order to maintain relationships. This supports previous research connecting forgiveness to need for relationships.

As noted, "desire for well-being" emerged as an important theme in that 29% of the narratives reflected this theme category. Thus, in addition to the religious and relational aspects of forgiveness--which address both internal belief systems and need to preserve relationships--a focus on restoration of a more internalized sense of well-being serves to motivate many individuals to forgive. Along these lines, it may be important to make a distinction between religious admonitions to forgive versus the more self-initiated motivations, such as restoration of emotional and physical well-being. Therapeutically, clinicians working with clients on forgiveness issues may need to address such distinctions depending upon individual client needs and beliefs. For example, discussions of forgiveness may include the Christian imperative to forgive augmented by discussions of well-being that may be restored through forgiveness. Since clients may vary in terms of their actual motivation or reasons to forgive, an approach that allows for a combination of motivations (e.g., well-being, restoration of relationship/s, and/or religious beliefs) may more directly influence the forgiveness processes.

The motivation of "feelings of sorrow for, or understanding with the offender" and "perceived the offense was unintentional" emerged as major themes. Somewhat less so, "offender move toward reconciliation," "self-blame," and "for the benefit of another person" also emerged as themes. Hence, empathy toward the offender and the role of apology, remorse and making amends were supported as motivations to forgive. This follows previous literature on the role of empathy as an important factor in forgiveness. Thus, consistent with most forgiveness interventions, further exploration and development of empathy for the offender may help to facilitate forgiveness; also, it may be wise to ascertain levels of self-blame.

It is interesting to note that two individuals reported that they were unable to forgive an offense. Thus, it is important to remember that not all clients want or should want to forgive. This finding is of further interest given the fact that the sample was largely Christian and despite this two respondents endorsed little to no motivation to forgive an offense.

It was expected there would be significantly different levels of religious commitment between the motivation theme categories. This hypothesis was supported in part as the data showed that individuals endorsing the theme category of "religious reasons" were significantly higher in levels of religious commitment than those endorsing themes of "relational reasons" and "desire for well-being". This finding is logical in light of the sample's characteristics (i.e., RCI-10 mean score of 37 and 98% self-identified as Christian) and Ripley et al.'s (2003) research showing that forgiveness is a salient issue for Christians. While those high in religious commitment may be more motivated to forgive due to religious beliefs, individuals low in religious commitment may present a variety of differing motivations to forgive. For the therapist, measuring religious commitment levels may provide valuable information regarding motivation and propensity towards forgiveness.

The homogeneous nature of our sample is a limitation that leads to a potential lack of external validity. The fact the sample was almost exclusively Christian and most participants were quite religious (e.g., RCI-10 mean of 37) likely impacts the results of a survey examining a religiously charged topic such as forgiveness. This also led to a restriction of range in responses on the RCI-10, resulting in relatively few participants who were low in religious commitment. Further, there was a lack of ethnic/racial diversity among our sample (88% were Caucasian), and a greater percentage of females than males (70 females and 27 males). A recent metanalysis indicates there is an effect for gender on forgiveness (Miller, Worthington, & McDaniel, in press). Despite these sampling limitations, Kraut, Olson, Banaji, Bruckman, Cohen, and Couper (2004) noted that web-based studies accessing Internet samples are often preferable to the typically used undergraduate sample of college students. Conversely, web-based studies often lose control over the environment in which the surveys were taken (Kraut et al., 2004).

In order to run the one-way ANOVA, only those narratives that reflected a single motivation could be used in order to have "pure" groups, rather than using narratives that expressed several motivations. Thus, sample size was an issue in that there were low numbers of participants in each of the three groups compared.

Future areas for study include examining the role of motivation for forgiveness in therapeutic interventions. For example, integrating religious content into forgiveness protocols used with a Christian population may be more successful as this study found the "religious reasons" theme category to be the most highly endorsed motivation. Replication of this study with individuals of different faith traditions would be beneficial in increasing the generalizability of the findings.


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Mary Beth Covert

Judith L. Johnson

Regent University


Dr. Mary Beth Covert is a Staff Psychologist and the Assistant Director of Training for the Psychology Predoctoral Interns at the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Murfreesboro, TN. She completed her doctoral training at Regent University. Dr. Covert's research and clinical interests include forgiveness of self and others, the integration of psychology and religion, and PTSD.

Dr. Judith L. Johnson is Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at Regent University. She received her training at Loyola University of Chicago. Prior to her position at Regent, she held academic positions at Villanova and Louisiana Tech Universities. Her research interests include personality and forgiveness, evaluation of forgiveness interventions, and psychology of religion.

The authors would like to thank Patrice Turner for her work as the independent rater in this study. This article is drawn from the first author's doctoral dissertation. An earlier version of some of the data reported here was presented as a poster at the Christian Association for Psychological Studies International Conference in Cincinnati, OH, March, 2006. Send correspondence to Mary Beth Covert, Psy.D., Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, Alvin C. York Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Suite 116B, 3400 Lebanon Pike, Murfreesboro, TN 37129.
Table 1

Offense Theme Categories and Cohen's Kappa for Question 1 (N = 92)

Theme Categories n % of Kappa

Hurtful words or actions 41 45% 0.83
Betrayal 39 42% 0.67
Rejection 21 23% 0.51
Lack of support or
 encouragement 18 20% .34
Blame attributed unfairly 11 12% .95
Lied to 8 9% 1.00
Being used 7 8% .71
Anger toward others who
 have hurt loved ones 4 4% .66
Jealousy 2 2% 1.00
Discrimination 1 1% 1.00

Table 2

Offender Theme Categories and Cohen's Kappa (N = 76)

Theme Categories n % of Kappa

Friend/s 28 30% .95
Partner/ex-partner 21 23% .97
Work colleague/s 11 12% .90
Mother 5 5% 1.00
Unspecified person/people 5 5% .74
Acquaintance/s 4 4% .85
Father 4 4% .85
Family (unspecified member) 3 3% 1.00
Institution 3 3% 1.00
Mother-in-law 3 3% .8
Grandfather 2 2% .66
Sibling/s 2 2% 1.00
Sister-in-law 2 2% 1.00
Child/children 1 1% 1.00
Daughter-in-law 1 1% 1.00
Parent/s (unspecified) 1 1% 1.00
Religious leader/s 1 1% 1.00

Table 3

Cohen's Kappa for Question 2: Did this person intentionally
hurt you in a vengeful way or for the purposes of revenge? (N = 76)

Theme Categories Kappa

Yes .91
No .91
Unspecified .83

Table 4

Motivation to Forgive Theme Categories and Cohen's Kappa (N = 76)

Theme Categories n % of Kappa

Religious reasons 33 43% .93
Relational reasons 23 30% .74

Desire for well-being 22 29% .73

Feelings of sorrow for, or
understanding with offender 16 21% .68

Perceived the offense was
unintentional 12 16% .84

Self-blame 11 15% .60

Moral reasons 9 12% .78

Offender move toward reconciliation 6 8% .65

For the benefit of another person 6 8% .65

Failure to forgive 2 3% 1.00

Table 5

Themes Categories Reflecting Who The Act of Forgiveness was
Motivated For or By and Cohen's Kappa (N = 76

Theme Categories n % of Total Kappa

Victim 44 58% .67
Jesus/God 33 43% .72
Offender 25 33% .57
Unspecified 17 22% .59
Failure to forgive 2 3% 1.00
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Author:Covert, Mary Beth; Johnson, Judith L.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Christianity
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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