Christian teaching is big on forgiving, but have we missed something important? Here’s how a warped view of forgiveness enables abuse and destroys lives.
I’m a big believer in forgiveness. Healing is often impossible without first forgiving. It’s something I’ve written a lot about and a quality I’ve endeavored to exemplify in my life. We can’t keep clinging on to the things of the past without sacrificing the health of our future.
Way, way easier said than done though.
When someone shatters a dinner plate in the kitchen, forgiveness on its own doesn’t fix the plate. Many times the one showing mercy is left going on the journey of what the broken plate means for them in their life.
If only broken plates were the full level of pain we have to deal with in life. For all of us, we’ve had far more than that broken for us, and many times we’ve had to learn to let things go without an apology.
I feel like I’ve been through a lot in my life, but there are many people out there who have faced far worse than I have, objectively at least. I haven’t had a loved one murdered, property stolen or willfully damaged excessively, physically been stabbed in the back. I haven’t had a child sold into slavery or been present for an act of war or terrorist attack.
When we talk about pain, it tends to escalate into a contest of who got hurt more, which is a real shame and becomes counter productive, but in that all of us have been through something we wish we could erase from the history of our lives.
If you’ve grown up in the Christian church or been around Biblical teaching like I have, the current is very strong on ensuring that no matter how badly we’ve been hurt, that we’re still able and willing to forgive. There is great, great merit in that, for multiple reasons. My pastor growing up used to say unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die, and I have seen hundreds of people continually sip at the cup of bitterness and destroy themselves and every relationship they have.
But I’ve seen it happen too many times that forgiveness is turned into a weapon against the one who has been hurt. Too many times it used as an excuse to enable domestic and family abuse, to create doormats out of generous and kind people, and utterly destroys lives. I even saw the ABC write an article highlighting the huge deal this phenomenon is in Christian relationships, but I don’t believe they covered the full picture of what Scripture has to say on this particular topic.
I would say that there is a warped view of forgiveness that enables abuse, and I’m sick of seeing it happen to people I care about and the world around me.
Do we need to forgive? Yes
100 times over. Forgiveness is absolutely essential biblically.
The most iconic mention of the need to forgive is right there in the Lord’s prayer straight from the mouth of Christ Himself – forgive us, as we forgive the ones who’ve sinned against us. He even goes further later on to highlight that if you don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive you. What’s the reason?
He uses a parable of a man who has a debt that he cannot pay, begs for mercy, and is granted reprieve. However, he goes from that amazing miracle of forgiveness and sees someone who owed him far less, and has him thrown in jail.
The point is that as bad as someone has hurt us or that we’ve hurt others, biblically there is no greater hurt than what we’ve done to God. And if God is able to forgive us of things 10 times worse than the worst that has been done to us, then we have a duty to do the same.
All the other voices of Scripture, from the Old to the New Testament, echo the same sentiment. Forgive 70 times 7, if we don’t forgive or show kindness to others we deceive ourselves and the light isn’t even in us, show the same kindness and grace and mercy and love that God has shown you. That’s to mention a few.
Forgiveness as a weapon
These verses are challenging enough on their own, but when someone has done the wrong thing, and they know it, they are very very quick to pull these verses out and slam them on the person who has been wronged.
“You have to forgive me because God says you do!”. “God won’t forgive you unless you forgive me!”. “What kind of Christian are you if you don’t do the Christian thing?”.
The problem is, they’re not wrong. Bishop TD Jakes rightly says that an unforgiving Christian is a complete oxymoron – Christians are supposed to be forgiving. I love his question on that used during a marriage seminar he ran – “If God forgave you the way you forgive her, would you be saved or would you be going to hell right now?”.
But this is where I see a limited view of forgiveness enables abuse – it’s like a one two punch. Someone does you wrong, and then tells you that it’s actually your responsibility now to do something about it.
For all you abusers, haters, boundary violators, narcissists, self-centered projectors and deflectors and wife beaters out there, I’m gonna show you where your view of forgiveness is warped and limited, with one word.
You’re right, the Bible does talk a lot about forgiveness. But there’s almost always another word right there along side it – repentance. The same authors, and even Jesus Himself, who called people to forgive as God forgives, also called for people to repent.
What is repentance? It’s not just saying sorry. You’re lucky sometimes if you can even get that much out of somebody. People usually do the wrong thing and get so dominated by guilt, shame, and hate, that they refuse to admit their wrong.
But the problem is they still want the same treatment afterwards. They don’t want to lose access to things.
They still want to be able to have sex after slapping you across the face. They still want you to pay for them when they’ve gambled the kids school fees away. They still want you to roll over and listen to them drone on in negativity and defeat without you actually getting the break and the space you need. They want to access sensitive information and people whilst constantly demonstrating their disregard for it in action.
I dunno if you know this about the Bible, but even God is described as not being willing to do this.
Repentance is literally a change in direction. It’s that I was once going one way and facing one way in our relationship, but now I am turning towards you.
Not turning away and pretending like nothing is wrong.
Not turning away and crying when there are consequences for your actions.
Not turning away and still wanting the other person to be able to face you fully. Or to trust you.
God has forgiveness available for all of mankind and even wills for all mankind to be saved, and yet not every person is in active relationship or trusted relationship with Him. Why?
Because even God knows that forgiveness must be partnered with repentance and reconciliation in order for normality and health to be present in the relationship.
I remember listening to a show by Dr John Townsend and also a series of discussions and studies from Dr Gary Chapman (of Five Love Languages) and seeing how many viewers were triggered by their push towards only being open and trusting with those who are keeping with “producing fruit in keeping with repentance” as described in Matthew 3.
In other words, if someone has really changed direction, there should be evidence of it. And there are many times God Himself does not respect false apology or insincere attempts at reconciliation. For instance, the foolish bridesmaids were left out in the dark because they didn’t get themselves ready and in order like they should have. Moreover, the man with the one talent in the parable was thrown out for squandering and refusing to be faithful with what he had been trusted with.
And even in the ultimate tale of forgiveness, the Father allowed the prodigal son to leave and live his life how he wanted, only returning to an active relationship with him when the son physically returned home. It wasn’t enough for him to just have a change of heart in the pig pen – he had to demonstrate that his heart and life had changed direction in action.
You might say that’s unfair of the Father, but it actually should highlight to us the severity of the actions of the son, and perhaps the willingness and freedom we should give to other adults to make their own choices. And if you’re quick to blame the Father in that story, you may be a person inclined to expect forgiveness without repentance yourself.
The problem with many Christians and the ones who abuse their forgiveness is they leave the door open to someone who has proven themselves destructive or unreliable. Another one of John Townsend’s contemporaries, Dr Henry Cloud, highlights how many verses in Scripture teach us that we should treat good people, foolish people, and evil people in different ways.
For a person like Philemon who had been deeply hurt by a good repentant person in Onesimus and was active in trying to make amends, the apostle Paul appealed to his mercy. For a foolish person, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs caution us to warn them once or twice, with Jesus saying to bring more people with you each time, hoping to win them over.
But for someone who retains a spirit and posture of unrepentance, as Matthew 18 and other Scriptures about the unrepentant tell us, there comes a time when enough is enough, and you’re well within your right to think so.
Look at how Jesus, Prince of Peace and the ideal example of love, treated the Pharisees – religious zealots who knew all the right things to say but failed miserably on the followthrough. He cautioned everyone that they should be avoided like the plague because they wash the outside of the cup but inside were rotten tombs.
And I need to say this louder for the people in the back – EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE LEADERS IN CHURCH.
“Well I’m a church leader so I should get…” – get what? You should even moreso demonstrate a life marked by forgiveness and repentance, or you shouldn’t be followed either. I find that if you have to demand respect of others as a leader, your life isn’t telling people clearly enough why you deserve it.
After all, if even a loving God can allow people to go to hell for their unrepentant spirit and unchanging actions, maybe we should too. God is willing to allow people to lose their joy, their peace, their opportunities, their sanity, their money, their direction, and eventually their soul as they continue in their unrepentance.
Now I don’t think cruelty is an excuse to be cruel, because Scripture is also clear on that in multiple places. We should be kind and generous and welcoming and merciful and loving above all else. But if someone has access to you or something important and is unrepentant in destroying it, warn them and follow through on their loss of access and trust.
Because really, trust is the root issue. If someone is trustworthy, as Jesus said, more will be added, but for those who aren’t, even what they have will (and should) be taken away from them.
I think forgiveness enables abuse and destroys lives when we fail to factor in the mandate of repentance. It’s a heavenly mandate. It’s a relational mandate. And it’s one I think needs to come back into focus when the topic of forgiveness comes up.
I have to admit this is a subject I’ve found difficult to grapple with over the last number of years. I want to show people grace and be a forgiving and non-bitter person, but when someone absolutely refuses to change, when they show no remorse or repentance for their actions, when the fruit of their lives scream chaos and hatred, then I’ve learned to be firmer with them in terms of how much I can really trust them, and with how much. This has applied to a great deal of relationships in my lives in thinking about it, and I would guess it’s the same for you, and all of us really.
People sometimes need to feel the consequences of their actions, and even modern psychology will tell us that no addict or destructive person is able to maintain their ways without people enabling them to do so.
Once again, just look at the fruit – Galatians tells us if you’re following the right path, love and joy and peace and self-control and all the right fruits and there, and when you’re not, there’s chaos and anger and bitterness and sin. Let the fruit speak for itself on what the truth of the situation really is.
I have and continue to see too many people sacrifice their physical, mental, and spiritual health to accommodate people who clearly do not show the fruit of repentance, who clearly demonstrate by their consistent actions that they cannot be trusted, and whose lives simply reflect that they probably aren’t really as Christian as it says on the label. And if even God wouldn’t trust this person, why should you?
Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah about people in this boat – they flatter me with their lips, but in their hearts they are far from me. If you find yourself saying the same thing about this person who has wronged you, it’s time to do a stocktake on the realistic state of how they’re acting and the truth about their repentance, or lack thereof.
Grace and truth. We need both. Grace is so important and amazing and we all need it, but if we’re really going to forgive as Christ forgave us, then we need to factor in completely how he does forgive, and a huge part of that in terms of the state of our relationship is repentance.
How about you? Do you think this warped view of forgiveness enables abuse and destroys lives? How do you balance grace and truth in setting things back up?