Saturday, 5 December 2015

When "Forgiveness" Becomes A Trap

I recently came across an article which asked the question about what it takes for us to be able to forgive. In it, the author offers the suggestion that we need to lament - to protest the pain and darkness we are facing. Lament calls for us to be honest about our feelings instead of denying them. To refuse to "sugarcoat [our] rage" or "explain away [our] bitterness. To feel it, to own it, and to use it to protect ourselves from further harm.

As she says, "It’s easy to say we’ve forgiven if we haven’t felt our anger."

And I think that is the trap too many christians fall into. We've been taught that forgiveness is mandatory, but we also live with the unspoken pressure to keep up appearances - to look good for God. And so we fall for the lie that all we need to do is say the magic words and then everything is all ok again. We can then proceed as normal and sell our testimony of how happy and free we are.

The only trouble is, that we haven't actually dealt with the grief and anger and pain; we've simply papered over the ugliness and called it forgiveness. Despite the fact that Jesus had no issue expressing strong anger and deep grief, we've somehow equated a lack of emotion with godliness.

The article includes this quote:
In his book, The Cry of the Soul, Dan Allender says that smooth, unruffled acceptance is delusion. “For many [Christians], strong feelings are an infrequent, foreign experience. Their inner life is characterized by an inner coolness, bordering on indifference. Unfortunately, this is often mistaken for trust.”
When christians buy the lie that strong feelings are somehow 'bad', and couple it with a belief that simply saying forgiveness has happened makes it so, it creates a trap for the one who desires to be found 'acceptable'. They must continue to uphold the illusion of forgiveness and so daren't give expression to their true feelings, and yet in suppressing those feelings they will never know the freedom of real forgiveness.

If we've said we've forgiven and yet never owned our emotions, there's nowhere for us to go. We can't admit our feelings, and so we can't deal with them. We're stuck with them unless we find some way to break free from the lie.

Tragically, emotions which remain unaddressed will negatively affect both ourselves and our relationships:
" turns out that people who habitually suppress their emotions actually experience more negative emotions than people who suppress less. Although suppression doesn’t dampen people’s experience of negative emotions (just their expression of them) it does seem to have an adverse effect on people’s positive emotions. People who suppress more do report experiencing and expressing fewer positive emotions, and their friends agree. Being a suppressor is also associated with being more depressed, less satisfied with life, and having lower self esteem, optimism and well-being. People who suppress more also have less social support, avoid getting close to others, and are seen by peers as having fewer close relationships. Why is suppression so bad? Researchers suggest that it’s because suppressing your emotions makes you feel inauthentic, which leads to feeling worse about yourself and your relationships, the very thing you were trying to avoid." The Good and Bad of Emotion Regulation Strategies 
So maybe, it's time for christians to stop the rush to declare 'forgiveness', and take the time to actually deal with the emotional impact of whatever behaviour we've experienced which needs our forgiveness.


  1. I think that one of the things that we miss when it comes to forgiveness is that it was never intended to be an end in itself. Forgiveness is part of the intended path toward reconciliation. It can feel very hollow to forgive someone who has no interest in repenting of what they have done that needs forgiveness. Forgiveness should spur on repentance, and repentance should open the door to forgiveness, but if we don't end in reconciliation then there is no satisfaction, and it continues to hang.

    As much of this blog deals with church abuse, it seems like the pattern whenever a possible wrong comes about is to cut off communication and pretend like nothing has happened. You can forgive that person until the cows come home, but there is absolutely no chance of reconciliation in that scenario, so there is no healing.

    Would welcome your feedback, working through some of these things myself.

    1. Dallas, I totally agree that the end game is reconciliation. I think that repentance, forgiveness and restoration of relationship is what most sincere people hope for.

      The trouble is that when abuse is part of the equation, 'forgiveness' is demanded as a right and then equated with reconciliation. Unresolved conflict will then lead to emotional issues resurfacing and the victim of abuse being labelled as bitter and unforgiving.

      And this does seem to be a pattern in churches where the leadership is authoritarian in nature - where the leader is seen as being in authority over the members and where submission and demanded. Anyone questioning this 'authority' (which comes straight from God himself!) is therefore seen as a trouble maker and shunned - sometimes formally and sometimes as a result of others not wanting to get involved and run the risk of being treated likewise. This leaves the victim with two choices. Buckle under and submit to the abuse or leave and lose relationship with those who remain in the church. Those in power control the game.

      If you'd like, I'd be very happy to discuss this with you further. Feel free to email me at

    2. I appreciate the offer for some further discussion over email. I think I am likely to take you up on that at some point. As it sits right now, I just shot off an email that has been sitting in my belly for over two years now, and I'm going to see how this plays out, not just on the receiving end, but on my own.

      I think it's good that I finally let it fly. I hope it has the desired effect. You can consider that last sentence (and this one) a prayer request.

      Thanks again for listening.

    3. Joining you in prayer for that! x