This series was refined and enhanced to become Making Sense of Forgiveness, published by New Growth Press in 2021.

Let’s begin this reflection with a brief true or false test. Take a moment to read each statement below and consider whether each statement is true or false.

  • Forgiveness is always a virtue.
  • Forgiveness can be destructive to a relationship.
  • There are times when forgiving someone reinforces our pride or blindness.

The contention of this reflection is that the correct answers to these three questions is: false, true, true.

Now ask yourself the question, “Can I think of examples of when forgiveness is not a virtue, forgiveness is harmful, or forgiveness reinforces pride?” What we need to realize is, that if we cannot give examples of these moments, we will be susceptible to advising someone to forgive when it is not good for their sanctification (i.e., becoming more like Christ).

Think through these situations for a moment:

  • A husband feels hurt because his wife “disrespected him” when she asked a question about a decision. She genuinely didn’t understand the decision because he did not adequately explain it.
  • A wife feels hurt when her husband “failed to pursue her” when his plans for their anniversary did not match with what she was hoping for but had never disclosed to him what she wanted.
  • A friend feels hurt when the other friend is “unwilling to invest in the relationship” but “investing” means matching the unhealthy, excessive commitment that the first friend gives to the relationship.

In each of these brief vignettes it would be easy for the husband-wife-friend to say, “I forgive you.” They feel hurt. When we feel hurt, the Christian thing to do is to forgive, right? Hopefully, you are beginning to feel uneasy. Even if you can’t put it into words yet, you can tell forgiveness would not be the God-honoring response. In each example forgiving would be harmful to the character of the person offended and to the relationship.

Why?

In each case the hurt being forgiven was based on a misinterpretation; forgiving would further ingrain this misinterpretation. Accepting this forgiveness offered would add a level of social reinforcement to the misinterpretation.

Consider each situation again:

  • The husband would believe that his communication about decisions was adequate and that anything that aggravated his insecurities was wrong.
  • The wife would believe that a truly loving husband should “just know” what his wife desired and that anything that disappointed her was a sign of a poor marriage.
  • The friend would believe their excessive needy-giving was the Christ-like standard for selfless sacrifice and that everyone else should match their unsustainable level of involvement in the life of others.

The act of forgiving assumes the accuracy of one’s assessment about the offense. Forgiveness is a morally laden action. It declares things not just “bad” (i.e., unpleasant or non-preferential), but wrong (i.e., against the character of God). If the moral assessment that under girds the act of forgiving is inaccurate, then forgiving mis-characterizes God’s assessment of the situation.

That may sound too strong. But let’s think it through. Let’s assume the husband-wife-friend in the examples above forgives the person who upset them. Let’s also assume that the person they forgave verbalizes that they do not believe forgiveness is needed. Does the husband-wife-friend believe that God and the Bible is on their side of the disagreement? Yes, and now the husband-wife-friend has another reason to forgive, for resisting their initial willingness to forgive. God is further on their side.

What Is the Danger?

You can begin to see the danger. Forgiving a misinterpretation reinforces the inaccurate perception and begins to align God with the misinterpretation. The misinterpretation becomes increasingly impenetrable and the destructive influences that emerge from the misinterpretation are blamed on the person who will not receive the forgiveness.

Intentional or not, this is a form of manipulation. Even with the best of intentions (which is often the case), it contributes to the deterioration of the relationship.

What Is Missing?

These scenarios reveal a neglect of the guiding principles of Matthew 7:1-5, to take the log out of one’s own eye first. When we fail to properly consider our role in a relational hardship, even our most biblical practices become destructive rather than helpful. Self-awareness is an essential component of applying the Scriptures to our life and relationships as God intended.

Self-awareness is an essential component of applying the Scriptures to our life and relationships as God intended. Click To Tweet

If we do not see ourselves or the situation rightly, we are not applying the Bible to our life or our situation. We are applying the Bible to a figment of our imagination.

That is what is happening is each situation above. Forgiveness becomes a way that the husband-wife-friend tries to force the other person to live in their “alternative reality.”

What Is an Appropriate Response?

If you are on the receiving end of unhealthy forgiveness, a two-fold response is recommended: (a) empathy towards the hurt along with (b) an invitation to reconsider the interpretation.

An extension of forgiveness means the other person is hurt. Even if their interpretation is not true; their experience is real. A lack of empathy towards their hurt will only reinforce their interpretation that you are in the wrong.

We can only offer an invitation to reconsider the interpretation. If we aggressively refute the interpretation, a conversation will become a debate. In the context of hurt, this has a very low probability of being fruitful. Additionally, we offer an invitation because our interpretation may be wrong. Hearing from our friend may reveal things we missed in our initial experience of the interaction.

A response might sound like this:

“I am very sorry that you are hurt. I’m not sure I understand yet why my response-action was inappropriate. I appreciate your desire to handle this situation as Scripture desires – with repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. Can we walk back through what happened to assess what should have happened and what reasonable expectations-responses should have been?”

If the other person engages the conversation, there is the opportunity for both of you to learn and grow. Either or both of you may need to repent and forgive.

If you get a defensive or aggressive response (and the situation is significant to warrant further discussion), then you may need to say, “I don’t think I serve you best by accepting your forgiveness. I believe I would be reinforcing an inaccurate interpretation of these events. Can we invite someone we mutually trust to help us discern how to honor God and one another in this situation?”

Questions for Reflection

  1. How is it helpful and challenging (it can be both) to realize that forgiveness is not always a virtuous action to take?
  2. Can you remember an example where you were hurt, willing to forgive, but later realized that what you perceived as hurtful was not morally wrong?