Did you know that sometimes forgiveness teaching can actually be harmful and toxic? To clarify, I am talking about certain teachings on forgiveness in the church today, not the concept of forgiveness itself.
For a long while now, I’ve felt that God has been having me speak and teach about issues in the church that are harmful. Spiritual abuse can take many forms, and can sometimes be overt (loud and obvious) or covert (coercive, manipulative, underhanded or behind the scenes).
There are certain harmful teachings that are actually a form of covert spiritual abuse because they teach people to stay in harmful situations and gaslight or spiritually bypass their feelings.
Quick disclaimer: I love the church. I really do. But I hate spiritual abuse. (It’s ok to hate the things that God hates.) Because I love the church, I want to see it be the best it can be. And of all places on earth that should be safe, the church really should be the safest. But too many times, it’s not.
And some forgiveness teaching, and the way we think about forgiveness in Christian culture, can be very harmful.
An Example of Harmful Forgiveness Teaching
One speaker that I was listening to recently basically said that people who leave the church because the church hurt them have a problem with people and can’t forgive.
The idea is that it is inevitable that the church will hurt you, and impossible to find a church that will not hurt you. The solution, according to this person, is to forgive and have mercy.
This is a common theme in a lot of forgiveness teachings and in Christian culture. Almost all of the responsibility and expectation is put onto the one who was hurt. The overall Christian culture thinking about forgiveness puts so much emphasis on the victim forgiving, and little if any on the perpetrator going to the victim and actually asking for forgiveness, let alone on changing their abusive ways.
Why Some Forgiveness Teaching is Harmful: Enabling Spiritual Abuse in the Church
This type of forgiveness teaching really concerns me. Why?
Because so many times, teachings about forgiveness are used to control, shame, silence, manipulate and gaslight people who have been abused.
Have you ever felt pressured to forgive, even when you didn’t feel ready? Or pressured to forgive, even though the hurt or abuse was still going on? It doesn’t feel good.
Most of us want to be “good Christians”, so we want to follow teachings about forgiveness. And a lot of current and past forgiveness teachings focus on the victim doing the forgiving, without focusing so much on the one doing the hurting or abusing, repenting, or actually stopping what they are doing.
A friend of mine recently explained it like this, “I allowed my need to be good to override what my heart was telling me wasn’t right.” In other words, she desperately wanted to be a “good Christian”. And even though deep inside she knew that things were not right in a certain abusive situation, she overrode that because she was taught to “walk in love and forgiveness”.
Someone else told me that their leaders told them that “Your bitterness is preventing you from being able to hear what God is trying to say to you. So you need to forgive so you can hear clearly.” She felt manipulated by this.
Also, notice that people often use the term “church hurt,” instead of abuse. This can minimize what may have actually been abuse for some people. There is a lot of spiritual abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse and even physical or sexual abuse in church settings, and the church needs to take more accountability for it.
Using the word “hurt,” is minimizing the actual abuse that someone may have experienced, and makes it sound like this is a whiny, immature person, leaving a church for a little “hurt.”
Secondly, there is the idea that we are going to be hurt by the church, as if it’s inevitable that the church will hurt you. I believe that instead of putting all the responsibilities on the individual to forgive, the church needs to take responsibility for how it has hurt and abused people, and take steps to make needed changes.
This type of forgiveness teaching leaves no room for accountability for the person (or church) doing the “hurting” (aka abusing). The emphasis on forgiveness leads to enabling abusers instead of addressing the real problems.
This type of teaching can make people feel that they are supposed to stay in unhealthy and abusive atmospheres instead of feeling the freedom to leave. It does not teach healthy boundaries, or the fact that you can forgive and also not allow someone (or a church) to continue to hurt you.
I know that abuse is a strong word, and a lot of people in Christian circles don’t like to use it. But we need to call it what it is and stop enabling it from happening over and over again in the church and in Christian relationships.
What Does the Bible Actually Say About Forgiveness?
It may surprise you to know that repentance on the part of the perpetrator is supposed to be a part of the forgiveness process. (The word “metanoia”, usually translated Repentance, is a complete change of mind and heart, transformation, like a lightbulb went off.)
“If your brother or sister[a] sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4 Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” Luke 17: 3-4
The part about someone who hurts or abuses you repenting is usually left out of most teachings about forgiveness. And repent means to change their mind, open their eyes, go a different way, (stop hurting and abusing). For a great discussion on the meaning of the word “Metanoia”, usually translated as repent, see Rebecca Davis’ blog about it by clicking HERE.
I wanted to know what Peter and the disciples frame of reference would be for thinking about forgiveness. So I researched Jewish thought about forgiveness, at the time that Jesus was on the earth. You know the verse in Matthew 18 where Peter asks Jesus how many times do I need to forgive him? And Jesus says 70 x 7?
So often, we think that verse means that someone can keep hurting us, over and over, never repent, never stop doing what they are doing, and we are obligated to forgive them. But actually, when Peter asked Jesus this question, he would have thought that he forgives when someone comes to him to ask for forgiveness and repents.
Jewish teaching at the time (and today) about forgiveness is, in a nutshell, that when someone hurts someone else, it is the responsibility of the one doing the wrong to:
- Stop doing what they are doing
- Attempt to make amends (pay back money, for example)
- Ask the one they hurt for forgiveness
The victim can extend forgiveness. When the perpetrator asks the victim for forgiveness, the victim can choose to forgive the person IF they feel they have stopped doing what they were doing, and that they are truly remorseful, and if they have attempted to make amends. The perpetrator is obligated to ask the victim for forgiveness up to three times, and then they are no longer obligated.
When I found this out, it was like a weight lifted off of me. For so long, in Christian forgiveness teachings, we have actually re-traumatized people who have been hurt and abused. We pressure or force them to forgive, before their pain has been healed, and when the person who hurt them has not asked for forgiveness, and may still be doing what they were doing.
I’m not saying that you can’t forgive someone if they have not yet repented. What I am saying is that we as Christians are not to be kept in harmful, abusive situations because of the idea that we must forgive, even when someone has not changed their ways or come to us to ask for forgiveness. And I believe that when Jesus said 70 x 7, He meant when someone actually is repentant, even if they struggle 70 x 7 times. But in their heart they are actually trying to change. Even this, though, can be used to keep people in abusive situations, if someone keeps saying they are sorry but they aren’t really trying to change.
What Does the Bible Say About Abuse?
It’s my opinion that the church does not talk about abuse enough, especially abuse from the church itself and in Christian relationships. We need more sermons on “How not to be a jerk!” However, there are plenty of scriptures that talk about not associating with someone who is abusive.
10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. 11 You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned.
Proverbs 22:24 states, “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared.”
This forgiveness teaching is so toxic because it creates an atmosphere where abusers are free to hurt others because the victims have been groomed to allow it and forgive. A lot of teaching about forgiveness places all of the burden and responsibility on the victims that have been hurt.
It creates an environment where victims do not feel free to speak up when someone has hurt or abused them. Often victims are told to forgive, and if they do speak up, they are accused of being “bitter.”
Many Christians stay in harmful, toxic situations longer than they should because they feel that they must “walk in forgiveness.” In many church circles, no one speaks up when something harmful happens, because of the idea that we must just forgive instead of setting a boundary, seeking protection or leaving a toxic, unhealthy situation.
Break Free From Harmful Forgiveness Teaching
Have you ever felt pressured to forgive someone when you weren’t ready? I know I have, and it doesn’t feel good. It causes us to “spiritually bypass” our actual feelings. Have you ever felt pressured to stay in relationships that you knew weren’t healthy, but it seemed like the “Christian” thing to do? I don’t believe that God is calling us to do that. I believe that some leaders want us to stay in church, and stay in relationships, even when they aren’t healthy or safe. And they use teachings about forgiveness or not being bitter, to do that.
There is a place for forgiveness in our lives, and it can be a very healthy and freeing process. You can also walk in forgiveness AND set healthy boundaries that protect yourself from being abused. I’ll be writing more about forgiveness and healthy boundaries also, so stay tuned for that blog post. I also dive deeper into forgiveness in my online courses, which you can find by clicking HERE.
Forgiveness should not be a weapon that we hold over Christian’s heads to keep them from speaking up about abuse. The church should be a safe place for Christians to fellowship and grow together, and when abuse happens, they should feel safe bringing it into the light and receiving the help they need.
Note: if you’d like more information about spiritual abuse, be sure to download our resource, 10 Red Flags of Spiritual Abuse.