The Abuse of Forgiveness

These past few weeks, I’ve been having online conversations about issues of race with other Christians. As a person of color, I’ve been encouraged by much of the humility and empathy I’ve received in response to my experiences with unconscious racial bias.

But invariably, I will also receive comments like:

“I don’t think that was racist.”

“Don’t be so easily offended.”

“Give them the benefit of the doubt.”

“You’re being judgmental.”

“You shouldn’t read into things.”

These well-meaning Christians—all of whom are white—urge me to extend love and forgiveness.

But what they want is not true forgiveness.

They just want me not to be hurt.

*            *            *

We are taught much about how we as the Church are meant to forgive when we experience hurt and injustice. Yet it seems that little is spoken of how we are to walk alongside the brokenhearted.

Too often, instead of alleviating their distress, the Church ends up suppressing, forsaking, and embittering them. Instead of holding space for their pain, we shut them down and brush them off. Instead of listening and affirming, we recite platitudes about how they need to forgive.

“Forgive one another”  becomes a weapon of silencing instead of an instrument of peace.

“Seventy times seven” is exploited to shame and blame those who would dare speak of their wounds.

“Love covers a multitude of sins” is distorted to justify evil.

The very thing that is meant to bring healing becomes a means of abuse.


Our appeals to forgive are rarely meant to be harmful. Perhaps we genuinely think that those in pain will benefit from our exhortations. But oftentimes, there are other factors at work. We want to reassure ourselves that all is well. We try to deflect the uncomfortable feelings that arise when the spotlight is on us.  We redirect the attention onto the one who is hurt in order to avoid the difficult work of examining our own culpability.

The call for forgiveness is actually our defense mechanism.

The Gottman Institute defines defensiveness as “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that its perceived effect is blame… You’re saying, in effect, ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’”

In other words,

Other people’s pain are a threat to our egos.

We interpret cries of pain as personal attacks against us or our communities.

When others say, “I’m hurting,” all we hear is an accusation.

We see their desire for acknowledgement and accountability as a thirst for vengeance and blame.

“The problem isn’t me, it’s you,” we tell them.

Sadly, when we react out of shame instead of respond out of love, we add to the suffering of the wounded. When people bring their hurts before the Church seeking justice, accountability and healing, but the Church answers with judgment, dismissal, and lectures to forgive, we fall miserably short of the vision of a Body that is to care tenderly for its vulnerable members.

Howard Zehr, a proponent of restorative justice, described this succinctly in his book God and the Victim:

The church should be a place of refuge, but often we have not known how to listen, how to be present to victims. We have told them that their anger is wrong, that they need to move on, to forgive, to forget. We have denied them their right to mourn and instead have laid new burdens on them. All this is understandable—as part of our effort to distance ourselves from pain and vulnerability—but not at all helpful.

In my opinion, it is not only “not helpful.” It’s harmful.


Unfortunately, this abuse of forgiveness among Christians is not limited to issues of race.

  • It comes when a well-known evangelical leader encourages you to apparently excuse the sexually exploitative comments of a certain presidential candidate, warning you of the “consequences of withholding forgiveness.”
  • It appears when you try to report a case of child abuse at church and the leadership refuses to bring it to the authorities, calling it a “misunderstanding” and cautioning against “false accusations.”
  • It shows up when you’re advised by a prominent pastor to endure abuse in your marriage in the name of submission.
  • It manifests itself when the Church tells people who have walked out its doors to simply forgive instead of taking a good hard look at what it’s doing to drive people away.

Such cruel misuse of grace and forgiveness within the Body allows for unhealthy, cancerous beliefs to survive and proliferate.  

More often than not, those who expose wrongdoing within the Church are not simply whining about petty personal offenses.

They are warning us of the cancer growing in our Body. They are calling attention to ideas, attitudes, and behaviors that need to die so that new life can take place.

They are raising their voices so that others who’ve been wounded can know that they are not alone. They are telling their stories so that the Church can lament together. They are speaking up so that there can be greater awareness, so that steps can be taken to bring about healing, forgiveness, and transformation.

The question is:

Will our Body listen to itself?

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Healing cannot occur without first diagnosing the disease. True forgiveness cannot happen without first naming our pain. Reconciliation cannot exist without empathy and validation.

If we as the Church are to grow in greater unity, grace, and true forgiveness, here are a few things we can do:

  1. Create safe spaces.

Give hurting people a safe forum to speak honestly about how they’ve been wounded.  Fuller Seminary recently hosted an event called “The Church Hurts People,” providing an opportunity to those who have experienced church-related trauma to share their stories and take steps toward healing. Whether it’s in your church, small group, school, or organization, create a culture where it’s safe to be vulnerable.

  1. Check our defensiveness.

Take time to recognize the uncomfortable feelings that are triggered by other people’s pain. Instead of reacting in defensiveness, become aware of how your sense of self feels threatened. Sit with these difficult emotions.

Ask yourself:

How does this make me feel about myself?

Why am I offended by this person’s pain?

What false parts of me am I trying to protect?

Ask God:

What is your truth about me when I feel ashamed?

What is your truth about the hurting person?

How can I see them through your eyes?

  1. Counsel from a place of compassion.

Much of the forgiveness that is promoted in the Church comes from a position of power. It comes from leaders and others who might have a vested interest in suppressing any exposure of injustice and wrongs. It only serves to maintain the status quo, silence the hurt, and further abuse the injured.

In contrast, when Jesus speaks of forgiveness he does so from a place of deep compassion; not with indifference and judgment. He suffers with us, empathizes with our hurts, and understands our grief. In his identification with us, he invites us to forgive and experience freedom from bitterness and resentment. His understanding and validation are some of the very things that actually empower us to forgive.

Likewise, when we listen to people who are hurting, they need our empathy. They need to know that we see them. We hear them. We mourn with them. Speaking of forgiveness from any other posture is simply dismissive and damaging.

  1. Confess to our part.

Whether or not we are personally responsible for someone else’s pain, we can still acknowledge the harm we have caused by our own complicity, ignorance, or unconscious beliefs and behaviors. When we own up to our failures as individuals and as a Church, the person who is hurt no longer feels the need to fight to be heard and understood.

I have experienced this firsthand as individuals have contacted me personally to grieve with me over the marginalization I have felt within the Church as a racial minority. They have taken responsibility for participating in and perpetuating a Christian culture that favors the strong and powerful, and have asked for how things might change within their organizations and communities. Their humility, sorrow, and desire for growth has allowed me to move beyond just naming my pain and work towards seeking solutions to the problem.

*            *            *

It is the Holy Spirit’s work to bring about true forgiveness in the hearts of those who’ve been wounded. As the Church, our part is not to rush others through that process, but to provide an environment where true forgiveness can flourish.

When we hear the cries, see the wounds, and touch the scars of our hurting brothers and sisters, let us not be like those who—when told of Jesus’ agonizing crucifixion and death—were offended and defensive, angered by how Christ’s suffering implicated them.

May we instead be like those who were cut to the heart, repentant, and willing to ask, “What shall we do?”

May we be humble enough to receive the grace and forgiveness that God offers to us all.


3 thoughts on “The Abuse of Forgiveness

  1. Love the perspective here! It’s so true…I’m not sure that I necessarily would have thought about the “forgiveness” factor as a different type of abuse, but you are absolutely right that it can be. Thanks for writing about this!


  2. Well said! If you don’t allow yourself to get angry, you will not clearly see the offenses. If you don’t even know what the offenses are, how do you know what time forgive. Learning the healthy side of anger, and how to grieve is key to forgiveness.


  3. Yes! Anger can be such a taboo emotion among Christians, but it’s actually something we really need to learn to embrace, IMO. Too often, we’re rushed into “forgiving” someone instead of being honest about where we’re really at.


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