The Personalist Project

The problem of a false and dysfunctional idea of forgiveness is an ongoing topic of interest around here. I mentioned it again below in my post on the Duggars. I notice it whenever someone who has been wronged and wants justice gets pressured by the surrounding Christian community to "forgive" (that is, drop her charges and "move on" to reconciliation) by making "an act of will." If she hesitates—because it feels like's something's wrong with the picture being drawn for her—she immediately becomes the focus of heavy concern and more pressure. There will be proof-texting, and conscience-twisting, and lots of sympathy and support for the offender, who is now regarded as the victim of her hard-heartedness and "unforgiveness."

Among the problems with this mode of approach are:

1) It neglects justice. 

2) It neglects the voice of the heart and exaggerates the power of the will, leading to alienation and inauthenticity.

3) It papers over wrong and injury, instead of resolving and healing them.

4) It overlooks the role of time and grace in deep spiritual acts of the person.

I won't go into all of it again now, but I want to share a passage from a book I've been reading called The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. The authors' perspective and approach are Protestant, so missing some things, but still generally very good in exposing and analyzing a problem that, in my opinion, goes farther in explaining the rising tide of unbelief than we like to think. We like to blame that on the aggressions of secular culture. We don't want to come to terms with the probability that rampant secularism has quite a lot to do with abuses in Christian culture.

Anyway, here's the passage:

Just Forgive

Matthew 18: 21–22—“Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’ ” This is another verse that can be terribly abusive if taken out of context and used against Christians for the wrong reasons. It is so frequently misused that we feel it’s necessary to take some time to explore the true meaning. Misapplications of this vary, including: “Don’t notice the abuse,” “What’s wrong with you that you can’t forgive?” and “You have an unforgiving spirit, or a root of bitterness.” It has also been used to get people to act as if they forgive an offender before they really do. When this happens they continue to struggle with forgiving them over and over again, and are indicted because they haven’t been able to let the matter drop. But the matter cannot be dropped because wrong was never addressed. 

It goes on.

Do you remember Jesus’ warning? He who cannot forgive from the heart will find himself handed over to the torturers. Jesus is telling us many things with this story; first, that one “from-the-heart” forgiveness is better than 490 “forgivenesses” that come from trying hard or pretending. In other words, forgiveness is so important that it must be real. Second, he is showing where true forgiveness comes from. It doesn’t come from self-effort, designed to meet some standard. It comes from realizing our desperate situation and that our only hope is in God’s mercy, and then letting it flow into our hearts.

That's it exactly. It reminds me immediately of the talk Dr. Peter Damgaard-Hansen gave for us some years back on the art of loving your spouse. One of his key points was, "I want you to be okay with not being able to forgive." He didn't mean that it's okay not to forgive, but that in the case of serious injury, it's impossible for mere mortals to forgive, just as it's impossible for us to walk on water or move mountains.

We can't "just do it;" we can only beg God to do it in and through us. Those who put pressure on us to "just do it" are out of bounds. They are compounding the already inhuman difficulties we're facing.

Even more, if the offense hasn't been duly addressed, if, in fact, it's being denied or minimized or swept under the rug, then those pressuring the victim to forgive are in practical effect allying themselves with the offenders against her. They're perpetuating wrong and injustice.

I like this too:

Finally, this teaching follows Jesus’ charge to let an unrepentant offender “be as a tax-gatherer.” I think this means that it is possible both to forgive someone and still stay away from them. Forgiving someone means you release them from debt. It does not necessarily mean you are going to trust them, or have a close relationship with them again. As Luke 17: 3 says, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents forgive him.” Notice that in this passage, our forgiveness of another is based on their repentance.

This coheres perfectly with Catholic teaching on the sacrament of reconciliation. 

There's a great scene in the (wonderful, too-little-known) movie Warrior. (Warning: It's not for the faint of heart or anyone sensitive to violence.) The recovering-alcoholic father shows up at his son's house. He wants to see his grandchildren and celebrate 1000 days of sobriety. But by going there uninvited, he's violated a firm boundary his son has laid down to protect himself and his family from the craziness he grew up in. The father pleads, "Can't you find it in your heart to forgive me?" His son replies, "I forgive you. I don't trust you."

In this case, the father has repented; he is trying to amend his life. But a lifetime of bad acts have had consequences in the lives of his sons. The damage done is real. Trust can't be re-built with words, especially the words of someone who has a history of breaking promises. It will take time and patience and effort and sacrifice. (Violating boundaries won't help.)

Real relationship is all the more impossible with an offender who can't or won't see what he's done; can't or won't take responsibility for his abusiveness; when his efforts at reconciliation are full of denial and self pity and blame—not about making amends, but about pressuring his victims to drop their claim to justice and redress. That's not "preaching the gospel;" it's not Christianity. It's abuse.

If we want people we've offended to show us mercy, we should start by doing them justice, and working to repair the harm we've done in their lives. No one can be guilted into forgiveness from the heart.

I suppose I sound like a broken record to some. If so, feel free to move on by. I'll stop bringing it up when I stop coming across new examples of false teaching and new instances of the bad dynamic. Meanwhile, I'm getting enough public and private "thank you, thank you, thank you!"s to convince me that speaking up might count as a spiritual work of mercy—a way of "setting free the captive" and giving drink to the thirsty. 

Comments (6)


#1, Jun 10, 2015 9:32am

"I do forgive you, I just don't trust you" - the freeing words victims everywhere should own and rest in!

 Thank you!

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jun 11, 2015 10:57am

Thank you Jenny. You're right; it's a point too little understood.

Trust can't be willed into existence. It (or its contrary) grows in the heart through lived experience. 

I know personally of many cases of sincere Christians who do wrong repeatedly feeling aggrieved that the ones they've hurt don't trust them anymore. (This was all over the place during the collapse of the Legion.) They see themselves as victims of bitterness and hostility, when, in truth, they're the perpetrators of wrong and abuse. It's insane.

If we're going to overcome the master/slave dynamic in our dealings with one another, the "masters" have to learn to practice humility and receptivity, while the "slaves" have to practice courage and self-assertion.

For instance, we parents need to practice receptivity and respect toward our children; children have to learn to assert themselves with their parents. Clergy have to learn to be humble in front of the laity; the laity have to insist on respect from the clergy. Husbands have to learn to open themselves to their wives; wives have to learn to stand up for themselves as individuals. And so on.

The last thing wanted is "masters" preaching humility and submission to the "slaves."


#3, Jun 14, 2015 1:21pm

Not so much in the context of abuse, but in the context of forgiving adults (not my folks, who dealt in good faith) rather, experts, whose arrogance and complacency during my youth radically-altered my physicality and autonomy.  I heard my pastor, in this week's homily discuss "the evil God permits"...I was reminded of Joseph's statement to his brothers in Genesis 45, that while they intended evil, God used it for good.  I would not be who I am today without what happened years ago...I don't have to praise the harm done - or forget it - but I can praise the good that has unfolded from it   

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jun 14, 2015 1:36pm

You are right, Nanda. One of the graces of true forgiveness—forgiveness from the heart—is that it changes the meaning of the injury for us. We come to recognize it as a source of good, in the super-abundant providence of God.

Chris Ramsey

#5, Jun 15, 2015 9:06am

It was eye-opening to read the son's reply from the movie you mentioned:  "I forgive you.  I don't trust you."  In my mind I added the word "yet".  "I don't trust you YET."  My wife and I went through a difficult period about 8 years ago, and we learned this (proper) relationship between forgiveness and trust through very personal lived experience.

I was also reminded of the first tool of "The Spiritual Combat" proposed by Scupoli:  distrust of self.  All of us have heard about the importance of forgiving ourselves.  We've all messed up in more ways than we can even remember, but if we don't forgive ourselves it's impossible to grow.  I have forgiven myself, but I will not trust myself.  I follow Scupoli's advice (as given in the second tool of "The Spiritual Combat") and place my confidence in God.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jun 15, 2015 9:18am

I'm with you on both points, Chris. "I don't trust you now" doesn't (or at least shouldn't) mean "I'll never trust you again." We have to take care not to harden our hearts.

I think the movie Warrior handles that beautifully too. At the end, the brothers are reconciled to each other. We see the father happy and grateful, but very much in the background, as if understanding, "It's not about me." That humility leaves the viewer with the impression that his repentance is sincere, and he will eventually be able to be reunited with his sons.

I also agree that while we have to learn a certain self-forgiveness and self-acceptance, our awareness of our failings should deepen our mistrust of self and our reliance on God. I love a prayer St. Philip Neri used to pray every morning: "Lord, keep your hand on Philip today or Philip will betray you."

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