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Relational spirituality and dispositional forgiveness: a structural equations model.

The present study tested the associations between relational spirituality and dispositional forgiveness in an adult sample of Christian graduate students (N = 203). A relational model of spiritual dwelling and seeking (Wuthnow, 1998; Shults & Sandage, 2006) drawing on theology and social science was used to conceptualize this study of spiritual factors hypothesized to be positively and negatively associated with dispositional forgiveness. Results using structural equations modeling supported the hypothesized model with (a) gratitude mediating the positive association between securely attached forms of prayer and dispositional forgiveness and (b) spiritual disappointment mediating the negative association between quest religiosity and dispositional forgiveness. Two alternative models were unsatisfactory, however the reverse model also fit the data. Integrative implications are considered for future research and practice in the areas of relational spirituality and forgiveness.

Forgiveness is considered a virtue in a diverse array of spiritual and religious traditions (Rye, Pargament, Ali, Beck, Dorff, Hallisey, Narayanan, & Williams, 2000; Sandage, Hill, & Vang, 2003). As a historian of the Christian tradition, Martin Marty (1998) described forgiveness as a central theme in the ethos or character of Christian spirituality. Empirical studies of forgiveness have increased exponentially in the past twenty years (Worthington, 2005). McCullough, Bono, and Root (2007) defined forgiveness psychologically as "a suite of prosocial changes in one's motivations toward an interpersonal transgressor such that one becomes less avoidant of and less vengeful toward the transgressor" (and, perhaps, more benevolent as well; McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal., 1997, p. 491). This definition emphasizes the motivational dynamics and prosocial nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a response to interpersonal conflict that involves the regulation of negative emotions and also represents a potentially compassionate alternative to seeking revenge or simply distancing oneself from an offender (McCullough et al., 1997; McCullough, Rachal, Sandage, Worthington, Brown, & Hight, 1998). While many studies have investigated the forgiveness of a specific offender or "state forgiveness," a smaller number of studies have studied trait or dispositional forgiveness (Witvliet, 2005). It is trait forgiveness that would correspond to the theological ideal of forgiveness as a virtue in Christian spirituality (Jones, 1995; Shults & Sandage, 2003).

Forgiveness, Religiosity, and Relational Spirituality

Since forgiveness has historically been associated with numerous spiritual and religious traditions, it makes sense that dispositional forgiveness has been positively associated with several measures of religious commitment, intrinsic religiosity, church attendance and spiritual well-being across several studies (for overviews, see Sandage & Jankowski, in press; Tsang, McCullough, & Hoyt, 2005). Yet this growing body of empirical research on forgiveness in the psychology of religion shows vast individual differences in forgivingness among those who are highly religious. Moreover, emerging studies that have examined spiritual developmental factors in relation to forgiveness have started to offer a more complex and nuanced picture. For example, Tsang et al. (2005) found endorsing forgiving or merciful God images was positively associated with forgiving others and negatively associated with avoidant motivations of unforgiveness. Webb and colleagues (2005) also found loving God concepts were positively correlated with dispositional forgiveness while controlling God concepts showed the inverse effect. Strelan, Acton, and Patrick (2009) found that spiritual disappointment with God was negatively correlated with dispositional forgiveness, spiritual well-being, and spiritual maturity and positively correlated with depression and stress in a sample of Australian churchgoers. Dispositional forgiveness also mediated the relationship between spiritual disappointment with God and spiritual well-being. The authors suggested those who are experiencing spiritual disappointment may have increased vulnerability to depression and reduced spiritual well-being but this might be mitigated by a predisposition toward forgiveness and a mature relational ability to tolerate ambiguity. Conversely, some people might become chronically disappointed in God with diminished spiritual and mental health if they lack capacities for forgiveness and spiritual maturity.

Similarly, Sandage and Jankowski (in press) found dispositional forgiveness was negatively correlated with spiritual instability (a relational spirituality measure based on traits of Borderline Personality Disorder; Hall & Edwards, 2002) among Christian graduate students, and this effect was mediated by differentiation of self. That is, students who were more differentiated tended to be more forgiving and less prone to the polarization of spiritual instability, probably due to capacities for self-regulation. Davis, Hook, and Worthington (2008) also investigated forgiveness, relational spirituality, and capacities for coping drawing on the relational spirituality model of Shults and Sandage (2006). Shults and Sandage (2006) defined relational spirituality broadly as "ways of relating to the sacred" (p. 161). Spirituality emerges as people relate to the developmental and existential challenges of making sacred meaning by activating internal working models or relational schemas (Hill & Hall, 2002). In theistic spiritual traditions, the Sacred includes personal Divine beings with whom humans can relate, and it is this Trinitarian form of relational spirituality that Marty (1998) associated with Christian forgiveness. Yet people can relate to God and the sacred in a variety of ways, including surrender, avoidance, secure trust, disappointment, questioning, conflict, and a myriad of other relational categories. Rather than viewing spirituality in a metaphysical fashion as "all good," a relational approach to spirituality focuses on the variety of ontological expressions through which people relate to the sacred.

In their study, Davis et al. (2008) found that the security of attachment to God predicted forgiveness of others and this relation was mediated by forms of religious coping and the extent to which an offense was viewed as a desecration. Viewing an offense as a desecration worked against forgiving the offender. This group of studies suggests that differing forms of relational spirituality can be positively and negatively associated with forgiving others with a need for further research to clarify these differing patterns.

Prayer and Forgiveness

Prayer is a central spiritual practice in many spiritual traditions and a useful form of coping and attachment behavior for research on relational spirituality forgiveness. Attachment researchers have conceptualized prayer as an attachment behavior of seeking communication and connection with the sacred as a safe haven function (Kirkpatrick, 2005). Prayer is practiced in diverse forms that have correlated with individual differences in relational spirituality. For example, Byrd and Boe (2001) tested attachment security in relation to self-reports of three forms of prayer (a) colloquial (conversational), (b) meditative (contemplative), and (c) petitionary (help-seeking) in a sample of college students. Attachment avoidance was negatively correlated with colloquial and meditative forms of prayer, suggesting those who distance from attachment will be less likely to practice these intimate forms of spiritual connection than those who are more comfortable with relational closeness, in general. Anxious attachment was positively correlated with petitionary prayer only. This suggests those whose attachment system becomes hyperactivated under stress might engage in a lot of help-seeking prayer but not more intimate forms of prayer.

While both forgiveness and prayer have each been topics of wide empirical study in recent years, it is curious that the two have so rarely been studied together (McMinn, Fervida, Louwerse, Pop, Thompson, Trihub, & McLeod-Harrison, 2008). McMinn et al. conducted an exploratory qualitative study of prayer and forgiveness in a largely Christian adult sample and found that "inward prayer" of seeking close connection and conversation with God was frequently mentioned as helpful for forgiving others. Their coding of "inward prayer" shows similarities to the colloquial and meditative categories of prayer in the Byrd & Boe (2001) study. They called for quantitative research in this area using well-validated prayer typologies to differentiate forms of prayer that might be more and less helpful in relation to forgiveness.

Gratitude and Forgiveness

The trait or disposition of gratitude has been defined as "a generalized tendency to recognize and respond with grateful emotion to the roles of other people's benevolence in the positive experiences and outcomes that one obtains" (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002, p. 112). Like forgiveness, gratitude has been considered a virtue across many religious and spiritual traditions (Emmons, 2007). Several scholars have explicitly linked gratitude and forgiveness as part of a healthy relational spirituality within Christian traditions. Theologian L. Gregory Jones (1995) described forgiving others as part of spiritual holiness which "is to be a reflection of our gratitude for God's forgiving love for us and friendship with us" (p. 184). Philosopher Robert Roberts (1995, 2004) noted a conceptual symmetry between resentment and gratitude suggesting they are opposing traits of character. The person who feels a need to be superior to others will lack gratitude and maintain resentment or unforgiveness. Roberts also argued that gratitude can be a motivator of forgiving others through a generous orientation of benevolent reciprocity and a general willingness or agency to be attached with others (also, see Karen, 2001). Jones and O'Neil (2003), writing from the contemplative Christian tradition, suggested gratitude is "one key to the palace of forgiveness" (p. 89) and "giving and receiving forgiveness is one of the primary skills of the grateful heart" (p. 220). Worthington (2003) theorized that gratitude is spiritually and psychologically linked to empathy and humility and is a motivator of altruistic forms of forgiveness. This linking of gratitude and forgiveness can also be seen implicitly in the Apostle Paul's instruction to "be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:32). Paul says forgiving and loving others can be motivated by the gift or "fragrant offering" of Christ's sacrificial love (Eph. 5:2) and goes on to call for "always giving thanks to God" (Eph. 5:20).

To date, there has been limited empirical research on gratitude and forgiveness. Dispositional forgiveness was positively correlated with two measures of gratitude in one study (McCullough et al., 2002). Witvliet, Worthington, Root, Sato, Ludwig, and Exline (2008) found experimental evidence that increases in forgiveness were concurrent with increases in gratitude and empathy. Psychologically, gratitude and forgiveness both build upon a securely attached capacity for empathy or taking the perspective of others (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007).

Relational Spirituality Model of Dispositional Forgiveness

The present study tests a relational spirituality model of dispositional forgiveness (Shults & Sandage, 2003, 2006) in a sample of adult graduate students at an Evangelical Protestant university. The relational spirituality model used here draws on Wuthnow (1998) in viewing spiritual development as a dialectical process of dwelling and seeking. Wuthnow described the spiritual landscape in North America since the 1950s as a movement primarily from spiritualities of dwelling increasingly toward spiritualities of seeking. Spiritual dwelling involves attaching to a particular community and tradition for spiritual support and teaching, and historically this was typically provided by a religious group. Spiritual seeking involves a process of open questing and journeying toward new spiritual experiences and understandings within or beyond the formal boundaries of particular religious institutions. This seeking or questing often arises from (or even creates) interpersonal conflicts that involve dilemmas of forgiveness. Rather than categorizing people as spiritual dwellers or seekers, the relational spirituality models recognizes dwelling and seeking are dimensions of spiritual development that can be assessed in all persons. A recent longitudinal study based on this model found that many participants in a seminary context increased in both spiritual dwelling and seeking across a two-year period (Williamson & Sandage, 2009).

Shults & Sandage (2006) predicted that forms of spiritual dwelling would typically correlate positively with warmth-based virtues (Worthington, Berry, & Parrott, 2001) such as forgiveness and gratitude if there is an underlying secure attachment with the sacred. We hypothesize that securely attached forms of prayer (i.e., meditative and colloquial; Byrd & Boe, 2001) will correlate positively with dispositional forgiveness, and this effect will be mediated by dispositional gratitude. This represents a positive relational spirituality of dwelling within the Christian tradition (Jones, 1995; Shults & Sandage, 2003).

Conversely, forms of spiritual seeking will often involve questioning one's tradition, processing disappointments, prioritizing social justice over conciliatory attitudes, and exploring new spiritual experiences. Relationally, spiritual seeking and questing can include conflict with one's family and prior spiritual community. So, certain measures of spiritual seeking can be expected to correlate negatively with forgiveness as psychological processes of deconstruction and individuation or "leaving home" unfold (Shults & Sandage, 2006). Quest religiosity has been used as measure of spiritual seeking in several studies since it focuses on a process orientation of religious conflict, questioning of traditions, tolerating ambiguity and doubt, and valuing openness to new understandings (Sandage, Link, & Jankowski, 2010; Sandage, Hill, & Vaubel, in press; Williamson & Sandage, 2009). We hypothesize that quest religiosity will be negatively correlated with dispositional forgiveness due to measuring this spiritual deconstruction and exploration orientation, and this effect will be mediated by spiritual disappointment with God. Quest religiosity was positively correlated with spiritual disappointment in a prior study (Sandage, Link, & Jankowski, 2010). To our knowledge, quest religiosity and forgiveness have not previously been studied together. Strelan et al. (2009) showed a negative correlation between disappointment with God and dispositional forgiveness, which makes sense within the framework of relational spirituality. Those who are disappointed with God are likely also disappointed with others and may often lack the secure connection with God that is associated with forgiveness. Relationships with both the human and the Divine can involve disappointments which might eventually lead developmentally to a maturing process of de-idealization, which contemplatives have described as the via negativa (negative way) or the "Dark Night of the Soul" (Jones, 2002). In cross-sectional data from an Evangelical Christian context we expect that spiritual disappointment and questing will be negatively associated with forgiveness because spiritual seeking that is associated with disappointment may involve less conciliatory motivations in interpersonal relationships. Spiritual disappointments may prompt spiritual questioning and questing toward new understandings or meaning systems (Paloutzian, 2005).



The participants in this study consisted of masters-level graduate students (N = 203; 56.7% female) from a Protestant-affiliated seminary in North America. This particular seminary reports a student body representing over 50 Christian denominations. Students were recruited through classes and campus announcements, and a packet of measures were completed in exchange for a gift card to an area bookstore. The patricipants ranged in ages from 21-72 with a mean age of 36. The participants described themselves as Euro-American (90.1%), African-American (4.9%), Asian-American (3.0%), Latino/a (1%), Native American (0.5%). Participants reported their masters degree programs as divinity (34.0%), children and family ministry (21.7%), theology (15.8%), marriage and family therapy (13.8%), Christian thought (5.4%), and Christian education (4.4%). Most participants were in their first year of graduate study (48.3%) followed by second year (27.1%), third year (16.3%), and fourth year and beyond (4.9%).

Disposition to Forgive Scale. To measure forgiveness, we had participants complete the 10-item Disposition to Forgive Scale (McCullough et al., 2002). Items were based on McCullough Worthington, and Rachal's (1997) theorizing regarding forgiveness (i.e., that forgiveness involves prosocial changes in avoidance, revenge, and conciliatory motivations). Participants indicated the extent to which they engaged in 10 different responses when people anger or hurt them, including positively worded items (e.g., "I don't hold it against him/her for long") and negatively worded items (e.g., "I will find a way to even the score"), the latter of which we reverse scored. These 10 items had an internal consistency of alpha = .81

Gratitude Questionnaire. In order to measure dispositional gratitude, the 6-item Gratitude Questionnaire (GQ; McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002) was used. Participants use a Likert scale to rate the statements 1 to 7 (1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree). Item statements included "I have so much in life to be thankful for" and "I am grateful to a wide variety of people." McCullough et al. (2002) found the GQ to be correlated with observer ratings of gratitude and other self-report measures of gratitude. The GQ had an internal consistency in this study of Cronbach's alpha = .66.

Spiritual Assessment Inventory. Spiritual disappointment was measured with the Spiritual Assessment Inventory (SAI). The SAI is a self-report based on object relations and attachment theories and Judeo-Christian spirituality (Hall & Edwards, 2002; Hall et al., 2007). Measuring the dynamics of one's relationship to God rather than focusing on one's representation of God (Beck, 2006), the SAI is designed to measure an individual's relational orientation toward God in everyday life. For our analyses, we used the seven-item spiritual disappointment scale from the SAI. Those high in spiritual disappointment are thought to experience considerable frustration or grief related to God, and we also considered spiritual disappointment an index of spiritual stress and turbulence based on the positive correlation with both spiritual instability and mental health symptoms in prior research (Sandage, Link, & Jankowski, 2010). Examples of spiritual disappointment items are as follows: "There are times when I feel disappointed with God" (Disappointment) and "There are times when I feel angry at God." Participants are asked to respond using a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (Not At All True) to 5 (Very True), Hall and Edwards (2002) demonstrated construct, convergent, discriminant, and incremental validity of the SAI. The spiritual disappointment scale had an internal consistency in this study of Cronbach's alpha = .91

Quest Scale. The Quest Scale (Batson & Schoenrade, 1991a, 1991b)was used to measure spiritual and religious questing. Batson and Schoenrade characterized quest as a complex religious orientation that values the role of doubt and maintains a tentative, changeable stance toward religious conviction. The twelve items were rated on a scale of 1 to 9 (1 = Strongly Disagree, 9 = Strongly Agree) and included statements such as: "I am constantly questioning my religious beliefs" and reversed scored statement, "I find religious doubts upsetting." In contrast to the internalized commitment orientation of the intrinsic religiosity scale, the quest scale measures a style of relational spirituality that involves questioning one's religious tradition and being open to exploring change. The quest scale has been positively correlated with cognitive complexity and other measures of religious openness and existential motivation, and Quest scores have been found to increase following confrontation with an existential dilemma (for a review, see Beck & Jessup, 2004). The Quest scale had an internal consistency in this study of Cronbach's alpha = .76.

Prayer Scale. To measure relational forms of prayer associated with attachment security, the meditative (or contemplative) and colloquial (conversational) prayer scales developed by Poloma and Pendleton (1989) were used and combined into a single prayer measure. Byrd and Boe (2001) found attachment avoidance was negatively correlated with both the meditative and colloquial prayer scales while the two prayer scales were highly correlated (r = .84). The meditative prayer measure has five items such as "How often do you spend time just 'feeling' or being in the presence of God?" and "How often do you spend time just quietly thinking about God?" We used five of the six items from the original colloquial prayer measure including "How often do you talk with God in your own words?" and "How often do you spend time telling God how much you love him?" We dropped one item from the original colloquial prayer scale ("Ask God to forgive you for your sins") since it could be expected to correlate highly with forgiveness. Each item is rated on a 7-point scale ranging from "never" to "several times per day." The combined prayer scale had an internal consistency in this study of Cronbach's alpha = .86.


Demographic and Correlational Analyses

We began by looking at the relationships between all of our measured variables and gender and age. Ethnicity was not analyzed because of low ns in most cells. Gratitude was the only variable correlated with age ([gamma] = .21, p < .01). Also, women (M = 6.55, SD = .50) tended to be more grateful than men (M = 6.38, SD = .61), t( 160.07) = 2.04, p < .05, in which homogeneity of variance was not assumed because of Levene's test, F = 5.37, p < .05. There were no other significant correlations or mean differences based on age or gender.

Please see Table 1 for means and standard deviations of the measures, and the bivariate correlations between them. Note that forgivingness is significantly related to all other measures, positively to prayer and gratitude, and negatively to quest and spiritual disappointment, |rs| [greater than or equal to] .20, ps < .01 In addition, quest and spiritual disappointment are positively correlated, and so are prayer and gratitude.

Bivariate correlations between measures

                Prayer      Gratitude    Quest    Sp. Dis.  Forgive

Prayer          3.87 (.85)

Gratitude        .44 *       6.48 (.55)

Quest           -.10         -.13         5.25

Spiritual       -.10         -.11          .25 *  2.21
Disappointment                                    (.87)

Forgivingness    .20 *        .27 *       -.22 *  -.31 *    5.15 (.88)

Note: Means and standard deviations of the scales on diagonals.
* indicates correlations significant at the .01 level.

Structural Equation Model of Relational Spirituality and Forgivingness

We hypothesized that gratitude would mediate the link from prayer to forgivingness (the dwelling path to forgivingness), and spiritual disappointment would mediate the relationship between quest and forgivingness (the seeking path to forgivingness). Please see Figure 1 for a diagram of the proposed model.


Before testing item parcels were used as the indicator variables. Though there is some debate about the use of item parcels as indicator variables (Little, Cunningham, Shahar, and Widaman, 2002), they are considered preferable to most other options because of desirable psychometric properties they possess (Little, in press). Therefore, consistent with Little's (in press) recommendation, items were assigned to parcels by "balancing," in which each parcel consisted of individual items with item-scale loadings that were high, middle, and low so that no parcel should be a better indicator of the construct than any other.

Figure 2 reveals that all the direct paths in the proposed model are significant. Furthermore the fit of the model is acceptable (CFI = 1.0; RMSEA < .001). The model explains 17.2% of the variance in forgivingness, 8.2% of the variance in spiritual disappointment, and 32.2% of the variance in gratitude. The standardized indirect effect of prayer on forgivingness is .130, and the indirect effect of quest on forgivingness is-.099.


Alternative Models

To examine whether this model was preferred to other similar models, we tested three alternative models. First, we reversed the order of prayer and gratitude in the model. Though the fit of this model was acceptable (CFI = 1.0; RMSEA < .001), the path from prayer to forgivingness was not significant ([beta] = .16, p = .11), thus prayer does not mediate the link of gratitude to forgiveness. Then we tried reversing the order of quest and spiritual disappointment, and again, though the fit of the model was acceptable (CFI = 1.0; RMSEA < 001), the direct path of quest to forgivingness was not significant ([beta] = -.14, p = .18). From this data, quest is not a plausible mediator of spiritual disappointment and forgivingness.

Finally, we attempted a reverse model in which all the paths of the original model were turned the other direction. This model fit the data well (CFI = 10; RMSEA < .001), and all paths were significant. Please see Figure 3 for a diagram of the reverse model with standardized path scores. The model explains 13.4% of the variance in spiritual disappointment, 7.3% of the variance in gratitude, 8.3% of the variance in quest, and 32.4% of the variance in prayer. The standardized indirect effect of forgivingness on prayer is .154, and the indirect effect of forgivingness on quest is -.105.


In conclusion, either the original model or the reverse model seem to be the best models as explanations of the underlying data.


The results provide initial support for a theoretical model of relational spirituality and forgiveness in a sample of adult graduate students in a Christian context. More specifically, gratitude mediated the positive relationship between prayer and forgiveness while spiritual disappointment mediated the negative relationship between quest and forgiveness. Since the original and reverse model both fit the data quite well, linear causality cannot be determined and might be clarified through experimental or longitudinal designs. These present findings are consistent with the relational model of spirituality developed by Shults and Sandage (2006) suggesting that forms of spiritual dwelling would be consistent with the virtues of forgiveness and gratitude, while spiritual seeking and questing would often be related to spiritual disappointment and a less conciliatory approach to relationships. This study also extends research on spirituality and forgiveness by (a) investigating both positive and negative associations between spirituality variables and forgiveness, (b) studying an adult sample (mean age = 35.82 years) that is older than most prior research in this area, and (c) engaging theology and psychology in testing an interdisciplinary theoretical model.

The results contribute to some emerging research linking dispositional gratitude and dispositional forgiveness as warmth-based virtues (Worthington et al., 2001) related to capacities for empathy and other prosocial emotions and secure styles of attachment (Mikulincer, Shaver, & Slav, 2006; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2010; Sandage & Worthington, 2010). From an attachment framework, prayer activates the attachment system and associated forms of relational spirituality. The forms of prayer measured in this study tend to be correlated with the capacities for secure attachment that can be expected to lead to gratefulness and a "reciprocating self" that can both give and receive relational benefits (Balswick, King, & Reimer, 2005, pp. 48-49). These secure forms of prayer may help self-regulate negative emotions in the context of interpersonal conflict leading to positive altruistic emotions of gratitude and forgiveness. These forms of prayer could also serve a spiritual safe haven function involving a feeling a safe connection with God to buffet the anxiety of relational conflict and promote generosity (Sommerfeld, 2010). This hypothesis could be tested in future research using attachment to God or other God image measures and would fit with the Davis et al. (2008) findings on attachment to God and forgiveness. The reverse model also suggests that dispositional forgiveness might promote gratitude and more secure forms of prayer.

The present results provide the first empirical evidence of gratitude as a mediator of prayer and forgiveness. While the cross-sectional design of the present study leads us to be cautious about interpreting causation, these findings are consistent with other studies indicating a close connection between gratitude and forgiveness (Toussaint & Friedman, 2009; Witvliet et al., 2007). Peterson and Seligman (2004) include them as core virtues or character strengths in their positive psychology handbook. Worthington (1998) has included gratitude inductions in his empirically-supported REACH psychoeducational forgiveness intervention, and he suggested grateful positive emotions can impact working memory and contribute to an "empathic projection" or shared humanity with an offender that facilitates forgiveness. Future intervention studies might specifically test the effects of gratitude on forgiveness.

The mediator effect for gratitude also empirically validates the work the theologians and philosophers cited above who posited a close connection between gratitude and forgiveness within Christian relational spirituality (Jones, 1995; Jones & O'Neil, 2003; Roberts, 1995, 2004). Roberts specifically described gratitude and forgiveness as forms of benevolent reciprocity. Shults also theologically connects relational spirituality, gratitude and forgiveness in suggesting "the gratitude and joy that emerge from sharing in divine grace provide an ontological stability that enables redemptive forgiveness" (Shults & Sandage, 2003, p. 219). Sorenson (1996) identified gratitude as a central virtue in the Christian tradition and one that can be theoretically linked with healthy generosity, giving toward others, and a theology of grace. If forgiveness is understood spiritually as a gift from God, then the connection between prayer, dispositional gratitude, and forgiveness makes sense theologically and psychologically.

Spiritual disappointment mediated the relationship between quest religiosity and dispositional forgiveness. The negative correlation between spiritual disappointment and forgiveness is consistent with the prior findings of Strelan et al. (2009). While Strelan et al. tested an atheoretical regression model, the relational spirituality model used in the present study frames this pathway from quest to spiritual disappointment to forgiveness as a pattern related to spiritual seeking. That is, questing often involves questioning, doubting, or deconstructing prior spiritual understandings and exploring or seeking new possibilities for spiritual meaning (Batson et al., 1993; Paloutzian, 2005). Questing or seeking may arise from disappointments or conflicts in prior forms of relational spirituality, which can be at least temporarily disruptive to relationships both with other humans and the Divine (Jones, 2002). The reverse model also suggests that low levels of dispositional forgiveness might contribute spiritual disappointments that lead to questing for new understanding.

Prior studies have shown (a) experimental evidence that exposure to tragedy can increase questing (Krauss & Flaherty, 2001), and (b) a curvilinear pattern with moderate levels of family triangulation being associated with the highest levels of questing (Heiden Rootes, Jankowski, & Sandage, 2010). These findings support the idea that existential and relational conflicts may be related to questing and searching for new spiritual meaning. Disappointed questers appear to be less conciliatory and forgiving than those who are spiritually dwelling securely through intimate forms of prayer and gratitude. This could be due to the loss of prior spiritual ideals among those who acknowledge spiritual disappointment (Jones, 2002), or it could be that disappointed questers tend to value other strengths (e.g., authenticity, justice, assertiveness) over forgiveness. Spiritual writer Yancey (1988) suggested people are often disappointed in God for seeming unfair, silent, or hidden, all of which might bear upon a person's ability to relate to God as a source of attachment security and forgiveness in times of conflict and distress. Future research is needed to replicate the quest and forgiveness effect and determine the contextual factors might contribute to the mediator effect for spiritual disappointment.

While some might read the model tested in this study (Figure 2) as demonstrating a "good" spiritual pattern on the top (positive association from prayer to gratitude to forgiveness) and a "bad" spiritual pattern on the bottom (negative association from quest to spiritual disappointment to forgiveness), the relational spirituality model and interdisciplinary reflection would suggest a less evaluative interpretation of these different forms of relating to the sacred. Numerous biblical passages, most notably Psalms of lament, validate the realities of acute spiritual questioning and disappointment, particularly in the face of conflict, tragedy, and loss (e.g., Psalm 55, 82, 88; Matthew 27:46; 2 Corinthians 2:8-9). In his theology of forgiveness, Jones (1995) even suggested an integration of lament and forgiveness:

not all situations of brokenness call for specific words of forgiveness or requests for forgiveness. In the face of inexplicable tragedy, Christians might be called on to endure (as did Job), we might well lament the destructive consequences of an unfortunate accident ... or we might issue a plaintive cry for deliverance from specific oppressive circumstances (as do a number of Psalms). In any of these situations, anger and frustration are certainly understandable and can indeed be signs of the depth of our longing for the consummation of God's kingdom. (pp. 230-231)

In a parallel and dialectical fashion, Wolterstorff (2002), writing from the Dutch neo-Calvinist theological tradition, suggested an integration of gratitude and lament in saying, "Gratitude and lament belong together as intrinsic components in the Calvinist way of responding and living in the world" (p. 271). Could it be possible that some people actually integrate mature capacities to balance gratitude and forgiveness with disappointment and questing? The present study does not answer this question, nor does it answer the question of how people might shift the balance from a predominance of disappointment to a predominance of gratitude (Muller, 1992). However, it is worth noting that quest religiosity and spiritual disappointment were not significantly correlated with prayer or gratitude, suggesting they represent relatively orthogonal forms of relational spirituality. Qualitative research with individuals high in questing and disappointment who are also high in secure forms of prayer and gratitude would be interesting.

Limitations and Future Research

Several limitations of the present study are worth highlighting. The sample was comprised of mostly European-American graduate students in a Christian context and research within other spiritual traditions and more ethnically-diverse samples is needed (Sandage & Williamson, 2005). Forgiveness is considered a virtue across many religious traditions, so there are many opportunities for tradition-specific studies of forgiveness. These results should also not be generalized to clinical populations that might have experienced more severe forms of trauma, and it is not fair to compare the post-traumatic challenges of forgiveness to those who are seeking to forgive less severe injuries and disappointments. Second, the cross-sectional design limits our ability to understand changes in forgiveness over time. Longitudinal research is necessary to test the effects of these spiritual variables on forgiveness, including the possibility of non-linear and diverse patterns of change. Experimental studies could also test interventions to facilitate gratitude and securely-attached forms of prayer in studies of forgiveness or interventions to help people resolve spiritual struggles and disappointments in constructive ways. Other forms of spiritual practice (e.g., mindfulness) could also be tested in relation to gratitude and forgiveness. Third, we did not measure empathy in this study, which has also been found to mediate between other variables and forgiveness in previous research (McCullough et al., 1998; Sandage & Worthington, 2010). Future studies could test the differential effects of empathy and gratitude on forgiveness, as well as other possible mediator variables (e.g., humility). Fourth, while studies have now established negative correlations between forgiveness and both spiritual instability (Sandage & Jankowksi, 2010) and spiritual disappointment (Strelan et al., 2009), future studies might further investigate how these two forms of spiritual struggle or variables like cynicism (Macaskill, 2007) could represent differing challenges to forgiveness. Fifth, it has also been theorized that at high levels of spiritual development, spiritual seeking or questing can involve less anxiety and conflict than at lower levels of spiritual development (Shults & Sandage, 2006). So, future research might investigate other quest measures that could relate to differing forms of spiritual seeking and possibly show different relationships with forgiveness (Beck & Jessup, 2004). Use of implicit measures of relational spirituality could also advance research in this area beyond the limits of self-report measures (Hall, Fujikawa, Halcrow, Hill, & Delaney, 2009). Sixth, from a relational perspective, forgiveness emerges (or does not) within the complex, intersubjective dynamics of two subjects (Shults & Sandage, 2003) and yet our design in this study only measured the experience of individuals. Finally, future interdisciplinary and integrative research on relational spirituality and forgiveness could benefit from engagement with biblical and theological scholars regarding Jesus' seemingly dialectical teachings related to forgiveness and interpersonal conflict. On the one hand, Jesus extols the value of practicing forgiveness (Matthew 5:12-15, 18:21-35) while he also instructs his disciples in less conciliatory and even antagonistic relational postures in certain contexts in the interest of spiritual questing (e.g., Luke 9:5, 57-62; 12:49-53; 14:26).


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SANDAGE, STEVEN, J. Address: Bethel University, 3949 Bethel Dr, St Paul, MN 55112. Title: Associate Professor of Marriage and Family Studies. Degrees: M.Div (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), PhD in Counseling Psychology (Virginia Commonwealth University). Specializations: spirituality, positive psychology, intercultural development, and couples therapy.

WILLIAMSON, IAN. Address: Social and Behavioral Sciences New Mexico Highlands University 205 Hewett Hall Las Vegas, NM 87701 USA. Email Address: Title: Associate Professor. Degree: Ph.D. in Social Psychology at University of Minnesota. Specializations: Forgiveness, Positive Psychology, Spirituality.


Bethel University


New Mexico Highlands University

This project was supported by a grant from the Fetzer Institute (#2266). Please address correspondence to Steven J. Sandage, Ph.D., Bethel University, P.O. Box 7029, 3900 Bethel Dr. St. Paul MN 55112.
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Author:Sandage, Steven J.; Williamson, Ian
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Theology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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