Spiritual Abuse and Forgiveness


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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”).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.








The Same, But So Different

I’ve been back from Africa for a couple weeks now.  Two days off the plane and my world was hit with an unexpected whirlwind of change and so my focus was immediately redirected.  As a result, I haven’t been able to reflect on and process my time in Kenya as much as I’d like; however, there is one particular memory from my trip that keeps running through my mind.

One of the most impactful moments for me during my time in Kenya was when we asked the older school girls to write down any question they wanted an answer to.  We promised to answer them to the best of our ability.  The questions all remained anonymous and we read them out of order so nobody would know who asked what.  I  wasn’t entirely sure how it would go or if they would open up, but I certainly wasn’t emotionally prepared for what came next.

The questions were real…raw…and utterly heartbreaking.  They revealed in such a stark and unfiltered manner the realities of these girls lives.  There was no sugarcoating, no stammering, and no apologizing.  Just real questions from real girls who needed real answers to the issues they face every day.

Some of the questions were ones I could have expected.  They were practical and asked how they could get money for school fees, materials, books, etc.  Some were theological and asked about God and Jesus.  But others….others were so difficult to read and harder to answer, I felt almost paralyzed with a heart-wrenching pain.  Questions asking what they can do when their mother yells at them or when their dad drinks and abuses them.  They asked what to do when their dads bring home different women to sleep with every night…kicking out their mom and making them sit there and watch/listen.  Many of the girls wanted to know about HIV and what to do if/when they are raped.

Their questions were so honest…so real.  And nobody in the room (besides the new Americans, probably) seemed taken aback by them.  As I read the questions out loud, I searched the eyes of these young women staring back at me and none of them were surprised at all.  This was just their life and they wanted to know what they could do….simple as that.  There was no shock or shame or anything else that would have certainly appeared in the faces of children in America, had they asked the same things.  But I did see something similar in all their faces.  They were all….hungry.  Hungry for answers, hungry for advice, hungry to be heard and cared for.  Hungry for answers, help, guidance, provision, salvation…anything, really.

We answered the questions as best as we could.  Obviously, we couldn’t force their parents stop beating them or make their fathers stop kicking out their mothers to sleep with other women.  We can’t prevent them from being raped or taken advantage of by ill-intentioned men, but we can…and we did try to…give them hope.  We gave as much practical advice as possible, but also made sure they heard the truth about who they are.  We encouraged them to focus on their studies, stay in school, develop their talents and skills, and make something of themselves before pursuing a husband or a family.  We encouraged them to value themselves and their future over the generations of cultural mandates telling them to drop out, have children at an incredibly young age, and continue the cycle of poverty.  We encouraged them to value their hearts and their minds and their bodies instead of giving them away to those who would only abuse them and throw them away.

And this is where everything started to sound and feel so very familiar.  I realized these women are not facing anything terribly different than what many women in America face every single day.  The fact that America is a 1st world county and Kenya a 3rd makes absolutely no difference in the amount or level of moral depravity, sickness, or abuses we face.  It makes no difference in the level of self-esteem and self-worth we have.  When a man or woman is abused, what does it matter how expensive their clothes are or what kind of car they drive?  Human nature is human nature.  And evil is evil…regardless of how it’s dressed.

Statistics show that one in six women in America are sexually assaulted while 99% of perpetrators never go to court, much less see a single day of jail (see stats here).  Women are objectified and used and then, metaphorically or literally, thrown away here just as much as anywhere else.  America has a massive porn problem (see stats here)and sex trade industry that is trafficking countless women and children through our states as sex slaves (see stats here), drug and alcohol addictions running rampant, children growing up being physically, sexually, psychological, and emotionally abused and/or neglected, huge amounts of homeless people in every city, etc.  We are simply not that different, and certainly not any better, than any other country on the planet.  We have the exact same problems here, so what does it matter what brand of clothing we are wearing or how much our houses cost?

The only difference I see, culturally, is that Americans (yes, I’m speaking generally here so don’t hammer me with exceptions to the rule) are so wrapped up in our image and the pursuit of personal comfort/gain that we refuse to acknowledge the moral depravity that is destroying lives all around us.  We insulate ourselves from every uncomfortable truth to the point that we can’t even handle hearing about it or looking at it, and we actively look away when it arises.  We choose to live in woeful ignorance of reality instead of facing it as it is.  Only a few groups here and there are even acknowledging our problems, much less trying to change them.  The rest of us are either blindingly unaware of them or actively choosing not to look at them.  Why?

Well, we wouldn’t want to be distracted from our nightly sitcoms or reality TV binges would we?  We wouldn’t want to feel  ::GASP:: responsible for helping or making a difference in the world.  No no…we don’t want to feel anything but the numbed out bliss of being a grown up pseudo-adult without any real responsibilities to anything or anyone.  Certainly not the responsibility of making a difference in other people’s lives.  No no, we want to drink our beer, chase our Pokemons, watch our TV shows, and still somehow hope to climb the social ladder.  We don’t want to…heaven forbid…look at reality or deal with it once we do.

In this way, I admire the school girls I had the honor of meeting in Kenya.  Yes, they have horrendous problems.  No, they do not live in the best of conditions.  But you know what they have that we don’t?  They have honesty.  They have integrity.  They have the strength capacity to look reality in the face and call it what it is.  They have the freedom to admit their problems, the humility to ask for help, and the eagerness to accept it…which is head and shoulders above what most attitudes are like here in America, despite the fact we face the exact same problems.  They had no shame in admitting their realities, speaking about the truth of it, and asking for help…something us Americans are so weak, prideful, and pathetically indifferent to do more than half the time.

I immediately felt an overwhelming admiration and respect for those girls.  In fact, I kept the notes they wrote with their questions and I carry them in my purse.  I look at them and pray over them.  I remember their beautiful faces, their searching eyes, and ask that God would empower each and every one of them to live lives free of abuse and oppression.  More than anything, I ask that we would all have that kind of courage and humility before God and before others, to admit our true state and ask for help.  Those young women are absolutely my inspiration.