What this BYU study found about how repentance strengthens families

A recent study on repentance published in the Review of Religious Research is possibly the first of its kind

Justin Hendricks faced some skepticism when he proposed writing a scholarly paper on repentance.

His mentors at Brigham Young University, where he was a student, told him it would likely be extremely difficult to publish a qualitative paper on repentance in a scholarly journal.

But Hendricks persisted, and he’s now the lead author of “Personal and Relational Processes of Repentance in Religious Jewish, Christian and Muslim Families,” published in the November 2023 Review of Religious Research journal.

David Dollahite, a professor in the Brigham Young University School of Family Life and a co-author of the paper, said Hendricks’ faith and hard work made the project possible.

He said there’s been relatively little research on religious processes, and when those processes are studied, it tends to be through a secular lens.

However, within the last few decades, religion-related research has increased, particularly on topics such as gratitude, kindness, patience and hope, Dollahite said.

Repentance has never been one of those topics, though, possibly because it sometimes carries negative connotations or because it’s seen as a “vertical process” between God and an individual, he said.

But repentance can also be a “horizontal process,” such as when people apologize to others and mend their behavior within relationships, Dollahite said.

“So this is the first study that we’re aware of that has done an in-depth exploration of ... the ways that personal repentance might encourage and help better family relationships,” Dollahite said.

A family in Paraguay having family home evening together.
A Brigham Young University study on repentance, published in the November 2023 Review of Religious Research journal, explores how repentance processes across different religions strengthen family relationships. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Motivations for and outcomes of repentance

The study looked at 127 Christian, Jewish and Muslim families, exploring their motivations and processes for repentance, as well as perceived outcomes of repentance.

Several major themes emerged from the interviews regarding motivations for repentance:

  • More than half of the families (58.6%) described how their religious beliefs led them to seek forgiveness and change individual behaviors.
  • About a quarter of the families (22.7%) said religious practices — such as prayer, scripture study or other rituals — led them to repentance.
  • About a quarter of the families (23.2%) described repentance processes within the parent-child relationship, such as parents returning to religion after having children.

The study also found themes regarding repentance processes:

  • 16.1% of families specified strategies they employed in seeking divine forgiveness. While these varied across religions, there were also commonalities, such as prayer.
  • 13.1% of families described repentance as recurrent rather than one-time events, often embedded in daily, weekly, monthly or yearly rituals.
  • 21.7% of families discussed marital repentance processes, such as one spouse increasing their religiosity to match the other’s.

A third series of themes looked at resources for aiding repentance:

  • 42.9% of families identified faith, belief and a relationship with God as resources in repentance processes.
  • 40.4% of families said religious practices and rituals strengthen them in changing their behaviors to match their beliefs.

Finally, the study identified themes regarding outcomes of repentance:

  • 9.1% of families said repentance developed their connection to God.
  • 28.8% of families said repentance led to positive family outcomes, such as avoiding or reducing conflict.
  • 20.7% of couples said repentance helped them prevent, reduce and resolve marital conflict.
A family visits the Oakland California Temple together.
A Brigham Young University study on repentance, published in the November 2023 Review of Religious Research journal, explores how repentance processes across different religions strengthen family relationships. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Patience and humility in family relationships

Hendricks, who is now a doctoral student at Pennsylvania State University, said as he learned about repentance processes across different faiths, he was particularly touched by regular practices, such as daily prayers and yearly rituals.

“It’s inspired me to look at my faith in a new light and reconsider how I can better repent daily as we’re commanded to,” he said.

Another idea that stood out to him was the importance of being patient with others as they’re working on changing. While repentance is beneficial in a relational context, people move at different paces, he said.

Hendricks also appreciated the humility of family members who shared their stories of repentance, such as parents learning from their children’s examples or spouses learning from each other.

“I think it’s worthwhile that ... our findings were similar to ‘The Family Proclamation’ statement, and reinforces that repentance and forgiveness are beneficial for family relationships,” he said.

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