What’s wrong with forgiveness?

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The benefits of forgiveness are well known. By releasing resentments, the person who has been harmed can be healed of the pain of mistreatment and stop allowing the harmful person to live “rent free” in their head and heart.

So why is it hard to hear someone else encourage a mistreated wife or child to forgive? Because too often that is not what is meant. Instead the person suffering is being asked to not hold the person who harmed them accountable.

It’s just another cruel example of using a faith concept to re-traumatize a suffering believer.

Self-righteous platitudes are not compassion. They are backhanded negative judgments pretending to be helpful.

What makes the accuser think the aggrieved person has not forgiven? Can s/he see in their heart?

What they usually mean is that they don‘t want to hear the aggrieved person talk about their pain, about the reality of having been violated, because it means that the listener might need to do something helpful or healing. Or face that they are supporting wolves in sheep’s clothing.

This is the type of arrogant attempt to socially coerce the person who has been harmed in order to let the harmful person off the hook. A favorite label is telling the woman she is “bitter” if she is honest about being hurt. 

Here are some of the problems with urging a victim to forgive  

  • When the primary concern is preserving church image. justice for victims is denied.
  • Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.
  • Telling a victim to ask for forgiveness is pure evil. (Heidel Hankel, Presbyterian minister and survivor)
  • Being lectured instead of being loved is demeaning. (Tamanna Yadavi)
  • Church members or leaders urging forgiveness reveal their ignorance of the soul-destroying nature of being violated.
  • Forgiveness is not some automatic, push button operation.

It’s well known that church leaders are not equipped to minister to victims of trauma. Neither are their members. But that’s a far cry from the routine practice of judging or blaming the victim with urges to forgive because their violation makes members uncomfortable.

When do church leaders advise the perpetrator to ask victims for forgiveness?

When do church leaders advise the perpetrator to make amends?

People forgive after they are met with empathy and understanding but it’s not quick and easy.

A Survivor of Faith explains what she went through.

Kathryn Clark writes:
  I did an amazing job of gaslighting myself, being the good wife,
constantly shoving forgiveness down my throat. A marriage
should have certain basic components that are lacking in a
destructive marriage. I fought to make the very best of
things, despite his ugliness.

This is what every believing woman does to try to make the relationship work. So

any hint from someone else that she is at fault somehow increases pain.

Trying to convince yourself that everything is ok when everything inside you is screaming that it’s not is what religious domestic abuse women find themselves in. Church members, including women, add insult to injury by accusing victims of being faithless or blaming them if they are mistreated.

Victims are told they should be ok with someone who is constantly harming them.

It teaches others, especially children, that they should submit to abuse, that it is normal.

Church leaders may encourage perpetrators  to say they have repented, but there is no change in behavior.

Know them by their fruits. The use of words like forgiveness, redemption and transformation does not make an abuser a transformed soul, Diane Langberg pointed out in January of 2018.

The idea of confession has been robbed of power in some churches. For example in the Catholic church parishioners are required to confess their sins in a private confessional before being allowed to take communion.  This does nothing to heal or restore a relationship with the person who was harmed.

Jesus is quoted saying “If any man have ought against you, go and make it right, and then come and offer your gift on the altar.” Right relationships were always a priority for Jesus.

As Clark explains, the victim’s body begins to tell the truth, even when they are living in denial.

It begins to protest holding so much pain in response to mental, emotional, and spiritual harm that is not allowed to be released.  Then church members may piously pray “for healing” while neglecting their own role in inflicting more pain.

Dr. Diane Langberg points out that trauma is “the mission field in today’s times. She emphasizes creating an “atmosphere of grace. It’s not gossip to tell the truth for the sake of protecting the innocent. But trying to force forgiveness is taking God’s place in another’s life.”

DeMuth Mary E. DeMuth, author of  We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis, describes how the church can re-traumatize in their ignorance of how to support victims. She writes “Don’t make someone who has been spiritually eviscerated to apologize for bleeding on your carpet.”  The woman who has been violated is overwhelmed with conflicting emotional struggles. If assaulted, their bodies are literally “a crime scene, because sexual assault if a devastating soul-destroying “murder” that keeps the victim alive.”

The journey out of demoralization will be long and hard. A person without empathy glibly quoting a Bible verse about forgiveness is not only trivial but adds damage to a devastated person.

If church members cannot offer that, platitudes about forgiveness are far off the mark of what is needed under the label of “pastoral care.” It’s just another negative judgement on someone who is already suffering.

John Two-Hawks, Native American musician, writes about growing up with abuse and the long road to healing. A big part of that was his realization that there is never a requirement to relate to anyone who is hurting you. (Interview, July, 2017)

I propose replacing the word “forgiveness” with “release.”  Help the victim release pain in the ways that trauma-informed practitioners advise.

I propose the church leaders and members become invested in helping those who are suffering.

  • Try to actually listen emphasize, grieve, and feel with those who have been victimized.
  • Acknowledge the pain of being betrayed by someone they loved and devoted themselves to.
  • Acknowledge that injustice has been inflicted.
  • Affirm that the sufferer deserves support and that the church wants to be part of that support.
  • Hold the perpetrator accountable rather than pressuring the hurting to ignore their violation.

Is denying reality and enforcing social pressure for the sake of the church’s image and status the real belief system?  DeMuth calls it a “self-validating ideology that rationalizes abuse.”

       No amount of Bible study, prayer or church attendance will stop abuse.

The church must admit they are not a one-size-fits-all remedy. But the church can also learn how to be helpful and walk with the wounded to support healing.

                                     If not, why are they using Christ’s name?

Published by Fessup

A 30-year veteran educator and counselor, published author, lifelong student of religion and women's issues, educator with divinebalance.org, mother, and lover of Far Side humor.