01 Mercy in Our Hearts

Mercy in Our Hearts

  • The percentage of practicing Christians who say they have offered unconditional forgiveness (76%) exceeds the percentage who say they have received it (55%).
  • Seven in 10 practicing Christians and pastors (70% each) believe that forgiveness requires repairing of relationships. But practicing Christians are much more likely to say forgiving also means forgetting (40% vs. 18% of pastors).
  • Around one in four practicing Christians (23%) has a person in their life who they “just can’t forgive.”
  • People in poverty or distress evoke some of the highest levels of compassion in practicing Christians.


  • How does understanding God’s mercy impact our human relationships–and vice versa?
  • What is the relationship between forgiveness and restored relationships? Between forgiving and forgetting?
  • What might make someone hesitant to accept forgiveness? To extend forgiveness?


Pastors & Parishioners See Forgiveness as Relationship Repair

Before we delve into the ways that mercy is taught, received and offered (or not), it’s helpful to understand how people in the Church understand this concept and see it carried out. Barna began by asking: What characteristics are associated with real forgiveness?

Seven in 10 practicing Christians (70%), as well as the pastors who lead them (70%), believe that forgiveness looks like the repairing of relationships. Similarly, six in 10 (59% of practicing Christians, 60% of pastors) feel that true forgiveness would be negated by seeking punishment or retribution. Equal proportions of each group see forgiveness as a means of lessening their own suffering (32% of practicing Christians, 31% of pastors), perhaps subscribing to the oft-quoted proverb that “resentment is like drinking poison.”

Practicing Christians are more likely to be motivated by the idea of forgiveness that lessens the offender’s suffering (43%, compared to 35% of pastors). Knowing this, it perhaps makes sense that practicing Christians diverge from pastors in their willingness to let go of a perceived offense; 40 percent—22 percentage points more than pastors (18%)—say real forgiveness is characterized by forgetting what was done. Church leaders, though, are more apt to allow room for a form of forgiveness that could restore a relationship while not forgetting the offense (36%, compared to 24% of practicing Christians).

Together, practicing Christians and pastors ask something of both the offender and the offended in primarily linking forgiveness with restoration. Practicing Christians, however, seem to place more responsibility on the forgiver to abandon memories of conflicts (or, presumably, accompanying pain and bitterness) and to impart relief to the person who wronged them. A bent toward justice—or perhaps just experience as counselors and mediators of community conflict—emerges in pastors’ responses, in their tendency to say forgiveness means leaving behind but not entirely moving past a disagreement or discord. These gaps have implications in how mercy and justice are communicated from the pulpit, experienced in the pews and carried out by ministries as a whole.

How the Church Defines Forgiveness


Christians’ Experiences with Unconditional Forgiveness

In Luke 15, we find the account of the parable of the prodigal son. This well-known tale describes a young son who squanders his fortune, only to return home, hungry and humbled. When he does so, his generous father, “filled with love and compassion,” runs to him “even while he was still a long way off,” embraces him and celebrates his homecoming. This image is one of scripture’s more poignant examples of the mercy of unconditional forgiveness.

While 88 percent of U.S. practicing Christians tell Barna they are at least somewhat familiar with this story, researchers also asked them to recall their own experiences of giving and receiving this kind of forgiveness. Though these statistics primarily describe respondents’ subjective reports or perceptions of these abstract concepts, they at least offer a glimpse of Christians’ experiences with radical forgiveness. So it’s encouraging to know that a majority of practicing Christians (76%) believes they have offered unconditional, joyful forgiveness to another person who had hurt, upset or sinned against them (or someone they love). Nearly one in six (15%) says they have never offered this level of forgiveness, and 9 percent admit they are unsure.

Reports of receiving such radical forgiveness, however, are a bit more modest. Just over half of practicing Christians (55%) remembers another person being merciful to them in this way, with another 38 percent who say this has not happened and 7 percent who don’t know. This stark disparity makes one wonder if the perceptions of giving versus receiving unconditional forgiveness vary dramatically; while many may perceive that they have extended unconditional forgiveness, the recipient of that forgiveness may not feel the same way about it.



Although most Christians recall a point at which they gave or received no-strings-attached forgiveness, some express reluctance in specific cases.

Around one in four practicing Christians (23%) has a person in their life who “they just can’t forgive.” It’s possible, though, that the task of forgiveness feels more daunting to the 40 percent of practicing Christians who believe it also requires forgetting an offense. Some traits stand out among those who say they have trouble forgiving someone. Theologically, this group is more likely to agree that people go to heaven because of good deeds (39% vs. 21% of those who can’t think of someone they struggle to forgive) or to say that an enemy is not at all deserving of mercy (17% vs. 6%). Less than half feel that, in light of their faith, mercy is something that often influences their words or actions (46% vs. 67%). Perhaps unsurprisingly, two-thirds of these Christians (66%) can also think of a circumstance in which they don’t want to forgive someone. But this group might be compelled to extend more forgiveness: Among those who claim there is an individual in their lives they can’t forgive, more than one-quarter (28%) admits they wish they could do so.

When it comes to accepting forgiveness for oneself, not all Christians find themselves ready or capable of doing so. More than one-fifth of practicing Christians (22%) reports struggling with receiving forgiveness for something they have personally done wrong. There is a denominational gap between Catholics and Protestants here (29% vs. 18%), similar to the proportions of each church group who recognize someone else they can’t yet forgive (31% vs. 18%).



In Luke 7:47, Jesus draws a connection between those who have been greatly forgiven and those who show great love. Similarly, this study suggests that those who experience radical forgiveness have more willingness to forgive others. Among those who say they have received forgiveness, almost nine in 10 (87%) say they have given it in return (compared to 64% of those who have not received it). And regardless of their own experiences with forgiveness, a majority of practicing Christians (81%) believes that offering undeserved mercy to someone else is an action that God blesses.

If giving and receiving forgiveness is truly cyclical, Christians might ask: If I have truly embraced God’s forgiveness, how is that reflected outwardly in my ability to forgive others?

Practicing Christians' Forgiveness Experiences


Who is Deserving?

Love your enemy. Love your neighbor as yourself. By this they will know you are my disciples, if you love one another. Jesus was clear that Christians should extend their love to everyone— from enemies to fellow Christians. No one was to be excluded. Are Christians and churches following through? For the most part. However, it’s no surprise that mercy and compassion still come easier for those who are closest to us and remain hardest for those who have wronged us.

How Much Does Each Kind of Person Deserve MercyThe Compassion Continuum


Ideas of Mercy Vary by Generation

Christianity is a religion built on grace, mercy, forgiveness and love. But the meaning and presence of these concepts differs among the various generations. This study suggests polarized understandings of central themes of the Christian faith, evidenced in key divides among Millennials, Generation X, Boomers and Elders, as well as some curious discrepancies between each age group’s definition and practice of mercy.

Among U.S. practicing Christian adults, Millennials lead the age cohorts in saying they have received unconditional forgiveness from someone (72% vs. 66% of Gen X, 45% of Boomers, 26% of Elders). At the same time, however, this younger adult generation is five times (31%) more likely than Elders (6%) to say there is something for which they have a hard time being forgiven.

This dissonance continues when looking at how Christians of different ages apply or extend mercy. Though younger generations are more likely to consider themselves “always” merciful (23% of Millennials and 22% of Gen X vs. 16% of Boomers and 11% of Elders), this certainty is challenged when asked about the level to which mercy (or “a desire to provide relief for others”) actually shapes thoughts and actions. More than a quarter of Millennials and Gen X (28% and 26%, respectively) says mercy is something they don’t really think about that much (compared to 14% of Boomers and 16% of Elders), similar to the proportion who acknowledge it doesn’t really influence them (26% and 23%, respectively). Every other generation lags behind Boomers in saying their belief in mercy frequently affects their words and actions (55% of Millennials, 59% of Gen X, 71% of Boomers, 61% of Elders).

Boomers are most likely to claim mercy shapes their lifestyle

Millennials’ mixed responses make them the generation that is both most likely to report feeling compassion for others and most likely to say there are circumstances that exclude individuals from deserving mercy. Even so, the joy inherent in the act of forgiving seems more readily a part of the lives of the young. A vast majority of Millennials (82%) states that they have offered unconditional forgiveness to someone else, something only 62 percent of Elders recall doing. Overall, the percentage who report such an experience declines with age.

Some of these gaps could come down to the fact that the very definition of forgiveness varies, in some respects, by generation. For the most part, practicing Christians agree, regardless of age, that real forgiving means forgetting (40%) and will relieve one’s own distress (32%). But Elders and Boomers, who have perhaps had more time and opportunity to witness wrongs made right, go further. They more often associate true forgiveness with mended relationships (78% of Elders and 75% of Boomers vs. 65% of Gen X and 66% of Millennials), lessening someone else’s suffering (52% of Elders and 49% of Boomers vs. 38% of Gen X and 39% of Millennials) and not seeking retribution (70% of Elders and 68% of Boomers vs. 52% of Gen X and 49% of Millennials). More than one in four Millennials (28%) says even restored relationships do not require forgetting about a wrongdoing entirely, but Elders are less inclined to agree (18%). With a stricter definition of forgiveness, it perhaps makes sense that older generations of Christians admit to not taking on or being able to achieve this difficult act.

Other factors like gender and ethnicity could further complicate generational responses. For instance, older white males are among the most conflicted when it comes to forgiveness. Compared to the average practicing Christian, they have trouble thinking of someone they have not forgiven (15% vs. 24%), though this could be due to what seems to be a lack of meaningful merciful interactions in general, such as offering (66% vs. 79%) or receiving unconditional forgiveness (37% vs. 59%).

Regardless of age, a majority of practicing Christians (91%) states that they hear sermons about mercy in church. Given the differences in generational understanding and experiences of forgiveness, however, we can assume the nature or the influence of those messages may be less consistent.

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