What Forgiveness Isn’t

29 April 2013, 06:00



As the month of April comes to an end and we close our Sexual Abuse series, a recurring theme that we've heard is the issue of forgiveness. The one thing that victims of abuse are constantly told is to "forgive and forget" or "move on." Those phrases are not helpful and actually do more damage to the emotions and healing of someone who has been abused. Is forgiveness part of the healing process? Absolutely. Should it be touted immediately following abuse? Absolutely not. The article below highlights some of the myths of what forgiveness is and what it isn't. Far too often those who counsel victims of abuse do not realize that their understanding of what forgiveness entails is more detrimental than helpful. When a victim reaches a place of forgiveness, it is truly for themselves. And that, dear readers, is the key towards a life of healing.

Give-Forgiveness6 myths that may be keeping you from letting go

by Denise George

I listened quietly as my friend Jamie told me the frank details of the sexual abuse she’d suffered as a child.

“I hate my father!” she blurted out. “He abused me for more than a decade!” Jamie cried. “But my pastor said if I want to heal from my childhood pain, I have to forgive.”

“What did you tell your pastor?” I asked. “I told him I could never forgive my father, that I didn’t want to forgive him, that no one—not even God—would expect me to forgive him!”

Jamie told me all the reasons that kept her from forgiving her abusive father. I’d heard many of them before. In fact, I’d used some of them two years earlier, when a friend I’d trusted to keep a confidence told several women in my Sunday school class about a painful circumstance I was going through. I felt betrayed by my friend—as I should have. But forgive her? That was the last thing I wanted to do! I dropped out of the Sunday school class and avoided her at church. But a year later, when I reread what the apostle Paul said about forgiveness, his familiar words touched my heart in a special way: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, my emphasis).

As I meditated on that verse, I knew I’d been forgiven much. I needed to forgive my friend, even if I didn’t feel like it. I decided to do so. Later, when I met her and told her I’d forgiven her, she apologized, and we both cried. I wish I could say she and I became good friends again—but I can’t. Her betrayal deeply hurt our friendship, and I was careful never to share another confidence with her. But God’s Word and my decision to forgive set me free from bitterness.

Facing the Challenge

Jamie and I are just two of a legion of Christian’s who’ve struggled with forgiveness because it’s difficult—almost impossible—to do. Yet in Luke 6:37, Jesus says, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” He elaborates in Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” The apostle Paul repeats Jesus’ command: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). Surely Paul’s “whatever grievances” covers any kind of hurt, betrayal, or injury another person could inflict!

In talking with hundreds about forgiveness, I’ve discovered six myths that keep us from the healing and freedom God desires for you and me.

Myth 1: Forgiving means the offender didn’t really hurt you.

Jamie thought if she forgave her father, it lessened the severity of his abuse. Yet Jamie’s forgiveness doesn’t deny her father hurt her. In fact, it clearly recognizes the enormity of his evil—if Jamie’s dad hadn’t deliberately caused her pain, she’d have no reason to forgive him.

“Forgiveness is a redemptive response to having been wronged and wounded,” wrote author Lewis B. Smedes. “Only those who have wronged and wounded us are candidates for forgiveness. If they injure us accidentally, we excuse them. We only forgive the ones we blame.” Choosing to forgive her father acknowledges the pain Jamie endured at his hands. It also begins her healing.

Myth 2: Forgiving means you excuse the offender’s hurtful act.

When I chose to forgive my friend, I didn’t condone her cruel behavior. Forgiveness, I’ve discovered, is a response that seeks to redeem the hurt, not brush it off. An accidental “slip of the tongue” needs no forgiveness because it isn’t deliberately caused. Intentional hurts—like my friend’s betrayal—need forgiveness. When I forgave my friend, my forgiveness didn’t lessen the impact of her painful action. But forgiveness unlocked my own “prison” of bitterness.

Myth 3: Before forgiving, you must first understand why the offender hurt you.

On December 1, 1997, Missy Jenkins, a sophomore at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky, stood with her classmates and prayed before school started. Before they said their final “amen,” 14-year-old Michael Carneal pulled out a pistol and fired 11 shots into the student prayer group. One bullet severely damaged Missy’s spinal cord. Paralyzed from the waist down, Missy will spend her life in a wheelchair.

Missy doesn’t know the reason her classmate deliberately hurt her. Michael may not understand his reasons. But that didn’t keep Missy from choosing to forgive him.

“I believe hating him is wasted emotion,” Missy says. “Hating Michael won’t make me walk again. Besides, I know it isn’t what Jesus would do.”

Our human mind yearns to make all the confusing puzzle pieces fit together neatly before we forgive. However, the truth is we can forgive an offender even if we never discover the reasons for the inflicted pain. Author Philip Yancey writes in What’s So Amazing About Grace, “Not to forgive imprisons me in the past and locks out all potential for change. I thus yield control to another, my enemy, and doom myself to suffer the consequences of the wrong.”

Myth 4: Before forgiving the offender, you must feel forgiving.

Forgiveness has nothing to do with how you feel. You can feel hurt, betrayed, and angry, and still completely forgive the one who wounded you. Biblical forgiveness is an act of the will. It’s a choice you make.

Can you still feel angry after you forgive? Yes! Anger means you’re in touch with reality—it’s part of being human. But be careful to aim that anger at what your offender did, not at the offender herself. Then let your anger push you toward justice.

Myth 5: Forgiving means the offender will face no consequences.

When we choose to forgive someone, our forgiveness doesn’t “let him off the hook.” Forgiveness also doesn’t mean justice shouldn’t be served.

In December 1983, Pope John Paul II visited a prisoner, Mehmet Ali Agca, at the Rebibbia prison in Rome. In May 1981, Agca had aimed a pistol at the pope and shot him in the chest.

After much pain and agony, John Paul recovered, and now he looked Agca in the eye, extended his hand, and said, “I forgive you.”

Even though the pope forgave him, Agca still faced the consequences of his crime. He served a lengthy prison sentence until he finally was released last January.

Myth 6: When your offender is punished, you’ll find closure.

On June 13, 1990, Linda Purnhagen saw her two daughters, Gracie, 16, and Tiffany, 9, for the last time. Dennis Dowthitt, a dangerously sick psychopath, strangled Tiffany to death, then raped Gracie and slit her throat. When authorities discovered the girls’ bodies, they arrested and convicted Dowthitt, and scheduled his execution.

A decade later, as executioners strapped him to his death gurney, Dowthitt apologized for the savage killings. But not even his confession, apology, and execution brought closure for Linda. She was disappointed after the execution, not relieved.

We think we can more easily forgive others if they confess the crime and apologize for the pain they caused. But don’t look to justice, imprisonment, or execution to bring needed closure and healing. Only forgiveness will do that.

The Choice to Forgive

The decision to forgive an offender is probably the hardest choice we can ever make. Some crimes seem too horrible to forgive. Our instincts tell us to avenge the person who caused us pain, not to release him from the debt he owes us. But as Christians, we can’t afford to have unforgiving hearts, for we have been greatly forgiven by God in Christ (Ephesians 4:32).

Only forgiveness can release us from a life of hatred and bitterness. “Forgiving is a journey, sometimes a long one,” wrote Lewis B. Smedes in Shame and Grace. “We may need some time before we get to the station of complete healing, but the nice thing is that we are being healed en route. When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover the prisoner we set free was us.”

Denise George (www.authordenisegeorge.com) is the author of 20 books, including Learning to Forgive Those Who Hurt You and Cultivating a Forgiving Heart: Forgiveness Frees You to Flourish. This article has been reprinted with permission. Original article was published here.

If this sexual abuse series brings up any emotions that you would like to process with a professional counselor, please e-mail us at: [email protected]g. We would be happy to recommend some professional counselors who are associated with the Recovering Grace ministry and who are familiar with the fundamentalist background of ATI and IBLP.

All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.


  1. MatthewS April 29, 2013 Reply

    This is a very helpful article.

    I really like this paragraph:
    "Can you still feel angry after you forgive? Yes! Anger means you’re in touch with reality—it’s part of being human. But be careful to aim that anger at what your offender did, not at the offender herself. Then let your anger push you toward justice."

    Good wisdom, depth, and balance there.

  2. Christy E. Bell April 29, 2013 Reply

    A long litany of gruesome stories doesn't help anyone.

    • MatthewS April 30, 2013 Reply

      I think you are expressing a very common, instinctive reaction, Christy.

      I wonder if that is what Scripture says, though, or if that is more of a human reaction, perhaps one of convenience?

      Before working through "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse", I had not heard the term "can't-talk rule" but it instantly made sense to me. If you have a minute, would you be kind enough to read this (https://www.recoveringgrace.org/2012/09/the-subtle-power-of-spiritual-abuse-chapter-14-no-admittance/)?

      I'm presently doing a project in the Old Testament. It's interesting that "doing righteousness and justice" (a recurring theme from Abraham to David to Jesus) is linked to standing up for the oppressed. For example, Jeremiah 22:3 "This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed." Later in that same chapter, it says that David "did what was just and right", which is further explained as "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well."

      In Proverbs, God's book of wisdom, it says,

      Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
      for the rights of all who are destitute.
      Speak up and judge fairly;
      defend the rights of the poor and needy.
      (Prov 31:8-9)

      In the New Testament, this seems to me to be related to Jesus being "full of grace and truth" and to our instructions in Ephesians 4 to do "truth in love."

      I think of various cases where severe injustice has been done, resulting in trials. Rather than "long litany of gruesome stories", isn't it called evidence? "In the mouth of 2 or 3 witnesses" comes to mind.

      I'm honestly expressing my viewpoint on this, I welcome your feedback. It would mean a lot to me if you could take a minute and read the post that I linked and see what you think about how Jesus responded to the "can't-talk rule" and what resulted from that.

    • MatthewS April 30, 2013 Reply

      I realize that I may have totally missed the point of your comment - if so, feel free to enlighten me, and I apologize.

    • Lauren S. April 30, 2013 Reply

      I understand your thought, and have had it myself but I've come to the conclusion that we are wrong. In addition to Matthew's comment about standing up for the oppressed, I ask you to consider one really long litany of gruesome stories that have redemption sprinkled throughout: the Bible. God is not afraid of bringing the gruesome to light in order to bring redemption and neither should we.

    • "Hope" April 30, 2013 Reply

      Matthew and Lauren, and Christy,

      What I thought that Christy was saying is that hearing other people's stories of pain and forgiveness isn't comforting or helpful for me when I am still in the midst of my pain. Kind of like someone saying, "You should forgive because look at the awful thing that happened to so and so and how they forgave." If that's what you were saying, Christy, I agree with you. When someone's response to my story is to tell their own story or someone else's story instead of acknowledging that my pain is real and forgiveness is a difficult process I don't feel heard or listened to and it isn't helpful at all in coming to a point of forgiveness.

      • MatthewS April 30, 2013 Reply

        That would make sense, I would agree

      • Eliza April 30, 2013 Reply

        Oh. That would definitely make sense. Yes, forgiveness has to be when the person wronged is ready for it. It cannot be forced if it is going to be real and be healing.

      • Lauren S. May 1, 2013 Reply

        Totally understand that as well.

    • Eliza April 30, 2013 Reply

      I disagree.

      These stories can serve as a warning to others not to head down the same path. They can make us aware of things to watch out for to protect ourselves or others. Or to rescue others who might be trapped in abusive situations.

      They can bring release to the person who was offended as they are able to finally talk about what happened instead of being forced to stay silent and pretend it didn't happen.

      They expose the offender so that justice can be done, and so the abuser will not be able to hurt people again. It might even bring some whose abuse has not yet been exposed to repentance, which would prevent further abuse.

      They can help victims see that the abuse they are suffering is wrong, and motivate them to find a way out to freedom and healing. Believe it or not, many of those abused do not realize they are being abused. To them, it is normal.

      That is at least four ways these "gruesome stories" as you call them can be helpful. These stories are real. This kind of abuse needs to stop. No one should ever have to live through abuse.

  3. hurting May 1, 2013 Reply

    C. S. Lewis said that "Forgiving does not mean excusing." One reason I am finding it hard to put the abuse behind is because the people who have proven they shouldn't put in authority are still in positions of authority.

    • Tiarali May 8, 2013 Reply

      Yes, this is an issue for me. How can I move on when I know others are still in danger?

  4. Joy May 1, 2013 Reply

    I found this very helpful. Thank you for sharing it Denise.

  5. StaceyM May 6, 2013 Reply

    This was so great! I suffered years of abuse, even into adulthood at the hand of my mother. It was as if i continually welcomed it, and kept going back, hoping things had changed, still placing myself in the victim role. Once i was able to forgive and pray for her, GENUINELY, i was able to start healing, and i quit letting her have that control. I was finally able to face her, stand up to her, and i quit letting her victimize me. I now am able to speak civilly with her, and even be around her, without being hurt, all because i was able to forgive, heal, and deal with my issues toward her. She is still the same, never apologized, and continues to do things that should hurt, but because my expectations have changed, and i do not and will not accept it as okay, i am able to be free, and walk away from it. I pray that many others will see that forgiving means freeing yourself from the hold that hurt has on them, not freeing the abuser from consequences!

  6. [...] “What Forgiveness Isn’t,” Recovering Grace [...]

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  8. Diane May 23, 2013 Reply

    I just found this website - We were involved with IBYC in the 70's as adults in ministry - and I'm so glad so to see a website devoted to exposing this.

    I appreciated this article on forgiveness too as there is so much confusion about the Biblical definition of forgiveness even among Christians who have never been involved with Bill Gothard's teachings.

    I think I would have to add a Myth #7 to the list: Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.

    God bless your work here.

  9. Martha Brady July 27, 2013 Reply

    i remember many years ago, before his book came out, lewis smedes had a series in christianity today on forgiveness that was life-changing for me. his writing is so visual, his word pictures so helpful is seeing how unforgiveness kept me in a prison of my own making! it brought the many Biblical passages I already knew alive in a practical way.
    thanks for this review of what forgiveness isn't. i've passed it on to my facebook and pinterest friends:)

    • MatthewS July 27, 2013 Reply

      I didn't know about that series but Smedes has helped me as well. Good stuff. If I recall correctly, he was able to put it into practice in the face of his own mother's murder. That would be so difficult.

      Another good book for me has been "As We Forgive" (the book and the movie are not the same). Great, great book about what forgiveness and justice look like after the genocide in Rwanda.

  10. Amy August 10, 2013 Reply

    Another myth: You can't forgive if the abuser doesn't admit what he did and ask for forgiveness. My abuser father never admitted he sexually abused me. But through a long process of releasing the pain and bitterness to God I can now say I forgive him. The forgiveness is for me, for my peace of mind, for my healing. If he chooses not to admit and not to accept forgiveness he is still in bondage. But I'm free from the bondage. I'm no longer tied to him.

    My father abuser just recently died and it's bringing up all kinds of feelings now. Another step in the lifelong journey.

  11. […] up in a spiritually-abusive environment. I appreciate that you care, but when you remind me that God calls me to forgive my parents, I hear you telling me that it’s not okay to hurt for everything that happened in my […]

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