For many, the idea of forgiveness brings with it a feeling of inner peace, comfort, and freedom. For those who have walked the road of deep remorse and regret for their own wrongdoings, forgiveness can taste very sweet. As Jesus says in one of his parables, “…he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:36-50 ESV). Likewise, he who is forgive much, loves much. Forgiveness is, and should be, a wonderful thing. But it isn’t always…
Like any other inherently good thing, forgiveness can be misused. It can be taken out of context or used selfishly to further one’s own ends, or it can be applied inappropriately in ways that bring about harm instead of healing. In these cases, forgiveness does not bring freedom at all, but rather further harm and in some cases, psychological and emotional trauma.
Here are some honest aspects of forgiveness and how they commonly get misused.
- Forgiveness is both a free-will choice and a process. Forgiveness is misused when it is demanded, guilted, or otherwise manipulated from a person who has been wronged.
- Forgiveness requires a full acknowledgement and assessment of the wrongdoing and its effects. Forgiveness is misused when it is equated with or implied to necessitate condoning, excusing, forgetting, or denying the wrong that has been done. (As Pastor Mark Driscoll states, “forgiveness does not come with a side of amnesia”).
- Forgiveness is the process by which rightful emotions stemming from wrongdoing are resolved. Forgiveness is misused when it is spiritualized in a way that dismisses the need for emotionally processing valid feelings of anger or pain associated with being wronged.
- Forgiveness is a personal process that takes place within the self. Forgiveness is misused when it is equated with reconciliation with another person, especially when the other person has neither acknowledged nor repented of their wrong.
Forgiveness is, essentially, about our own heart and our own actions that flow from our heart. It’s about not exacting vengeance or seeking retribution for the wrongs done against us (which is different from seeking justice, which should be pursued if violent or criminal activity is involved). Forgiveness is the process through which we are able to both process and effectively resolve anger, pain, loss, and even rage resulting from harm that has been done to us. The only emotion we are to look out for is that of resentment, which is simply the unresolved, unprocessed anger that has taken root in our hearts.
Ephesians 4:26 says, “be angry, and do not sin.” It actually says “be angry!” Anger is healthy and necessary to feel and process. The only thing we aren’t supposed to do is use that anger as a reason or excuse to cause more harm. But the emphasis of that scripture is on controlling our actions and responses, not in denying the initial emotions themselves. Clearly, scripture expects anger (Jesus got angry a lot), especially in the face of wrongdoing. However, scripture does expect and implore us to control it and handle it in healthy ways.
Unfortunately, many people are uncomfortable with the emotions of anger and rage, hurt, or grief. Yet these are healthy and necessary emotions to feel, especially in the wake of loss, betrayal, or abuse. The full range of emotions need to be felt and acknowledged in healthy ways which, depending on the severity of the offense, may take anywhere from weeks to years to fully analyze, assess, and process. And while it’s true that dealing with hurt feelings isn’t always easy, expecting a person not to have them when they have been harmed (or dictating how long you think they should last) is not only irresponsible and ignorant, it is further damaging.
If the rightful feelings of hurt, pain, loss, or anger are not allowed to be communicated or expressed in healthy ways, the only alternative is for them to settle into resentment or repression…that’s just how it works. Allowing people around us to feel and healthily express the full range of emotions, especially in response to wrongs done against them is necessary and good. We must understand that the entire concept of real forgiveness was hijacked for many people, not being used as a healing balm to restore but rather as a battering ram meant only to control, shame, and manipulate. We need to understand how to help those people work through their feelings without further traumatizing them.
When people have been abused this way, they may hear the word “forgive” and, quite naturally, have a negative reaction. Conscious nor not, the body and mind remembers former attempts at manipulation or psychological/emotional abuse and will respond instinctively to avoid it again. What emotionally battered people need is compassion, a listening ear, and the freedom to both feel and communicate their emotions in healthy ways…not more dismissal of, shame about, or demands to feel or not feel their feelings. This, as one can expect, only pushes a person into resentment…not lead them out of it.
I believe it’s our job as Christians, friends, parents, pastors…or just as compassionate people in general… to understand what it means to have suffered from spiritual abuse and learn how we can help and not further hinder those who have suffered it. And whether intentional or not, callous dictates to “just let it go” or “move on” or “forgive and forget” can, and often do, deepen the emotional and spiritual damage of an already battered person, pushing them further away from healing than ever. I hardly think that’s the goal of any well-intentioned individual, Christian or not.
If we are to truly help those who have been wronged or spiritually abused, we need to properly understand the emotional and psychological ramifications of that abuse. We need to learn how to walk with people through the turbulent waters of emotional, psychological, or spiritual trauma so that we can patiently, kindly, and compassionately lead them to a place of healing and peace. Then, and only then, is true forgiveness possible.