Taylor Mefford and Dr. Scott Richards, Counseling Psychology and Special Education
The subject of grace in psychological research has been relatively untouched, with only a few studies having been conducted in this area, mostly with a focus on creating measures for attitudes on grace. However, despite the existence of these validated measures, almost no published studies utilize them. Allen, Wang, & Stokes (2015) present one of those few cases where such measures are used, in which they address mental health outcomes related to grace and perfectionism. They also utilize the term legalism, which was used by Bufford, Sisemore, and Blackburn (2014) in their development of a holistic measure of grace. Legalism refers to the belief that divine grace must be earned through obedience to religious codes.
This study specifically attempted to address the correlation between perceptions of grace and forgiveness, shame, and mental health outcomes. The objective was to lay a foundation for future research into grace and the other constructs addressed in the study, through beginning with basic statistical procedures in order to make a case for more complex relationships which may be beneficial for scientific understanding and application in the therapeutic setting. Initially, we planned to utilize multivariate regression in this exploration, though instead decided to stick to bivariate analyses in order to remain consistent with our objective.
Data were collected in 2014 as part of a study in collaboration with Dr. Lisa Miller of Teachers College. 688 undergraduate students attending Brigham Young University (BYU) participated in this study. Participants were between the ages of 17 and 58 (mean = 21). Thirty-five percent were identified as male, 58% as female, while 7% did not report their gender. The majority of the participants were Caucasian (80.8%) and reported being members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS; 91.9%). The measures utilized for this analysis were the Dimensions of Grace Scale, the Heartland Forgiveness Scale, the Guilt and Shame Proneness Scale, the Patient Health Questionnaire (for depression), and the Anxiety Disorder Scale. Pearson correlations were run to test the following hypotheses:
- Healthy grace scores are positively related to both forgiveness subscale scores, and negatively related to depression, anxiety, and guilt and shame scores.
- Unhealthy grace (legalism) scores are negatively related to both forgiveness subscale scores, but positively related to depression, anxiety, and guilt and shame scores.
- All guilt and shame scores are negatively related to forgiveness scores.
- Scores on the forgiveness subscales are negatively related to depression and anxiety scores.
Pertaining to the first hypothesis, our expectations that healthy grace scores would be positively correlated with forgiveness and negatively correlated with depression and anxiety were each confirmed. However, it was an unexpected result that it was positively correlated with guilt and shame.
For the second hypothesis, we anticipated that legalism scores would be negatively correlated with forgiveness and positively correlated with depression and anxiety, which was confirmed by this study. As with the results from testing our first hypothesis, it was found that legalism was negatively correlated with guilt and shame, which we did not predict.
Regarding the third hypothesis, the results were inconclusive, with nonsignificant findings for some of the specific subscale correlations. To avoid Type I error, we are surmising that there is little to no correlation between guilt/shame and forgiveness.
Finally, the fourth hypothesis was fully supported by the data, which indicates that there may be a relationship between forgiveness and mental illness.
With regard to the existing research, which indicates that perceptions of grace may have an impact on our mental health, our study fits right in with the others. Those who pressure themselves through viewing grace as a thing that must be earned experience anxiety and depression as a result, and those who recognize the infinite nature of divine grace do not feel that pressure.
We did not, however, anticipate that legalism would be negatively correlated with guilt and shame, as those constructs are generally associated with negative mental health. viewing God’s grace through a legalistic lens may in some ways alleviate guilt and shame, as legalism is focused on “earning” the favor of God through an overemphasis of correct behaviors or “works” (James 2:20, King James Version), which is a common feature in LDS teachings. This focus on one’s own efforts creates a situation where an individual may not feel guilt and shame for certain wrongdoings, such as the situations of dishonesty utilized by the GASP, because they have put forth sufficient effort in other areas of their life. This is reflected in one of the legalism test items, “My behavior does not matter since I’ve been forgiven.” Ultimately, they may say that because they have earned God’s favor through their works, they need not be ashamed of their wrongdoings.
Overall, we feel that this study provides sufficient evidence that grace is a viable subject of study in psychology, especially in applied research on psychotherapy clients.
- Allen, G. K., Wang, K. T., & Stokes, H. (2015). Examining legalism, scrupulosity, family perfectionism, and psychological adjustment among LDS individuals. Mental Health, Religion & Culture , 18 (4), 246-258.
- Bufford, R. K., Sisemore, T. A., & Blackburn, A. M. (2017). Dimensions of grace: Factor analysis of three grace scales. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 9 (1), 56- 69. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/rel0000064