Four Examples of False Forgiveness

silhouetted figure alone

Sometimes forgiveness . . . isn’t. Here’s what I mean.

1. I’m very sweet to you, but it’s all about my control.
I keep saying, “Oh, it’s all right,” or “Let’s just forget about it,” but I never actually say, “I forgive you,” even though you ask my forgiveness. This is my way of holding over you whatever you’ve done. I’m saying everything is fine, but you are left wondering when the other shoe will drop. We both know that if another problem develops between us, I’m going to bring up this other thing you did—even though at the time I said, “Oh, it’s all right.”

2. Rather than forgive the wrong, I minimize the wrong and don’t deal with it.
I say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Of course I forgive you.” But I end the discussion before the two of us are able to acknowledge the harm that was done. I gloss over the event/offense as if it’s not really that bad, even though both of us know that it caused much hurt. I do this because digging into the wound would be painful for me and for you, and I just want to avoid the pain. Unfortunately, by avoiding this pain, I allow the initial wound to remain unhealed.

3. I call it forgiveness, but actually it is a form of enabling.
My husband keeps abusing me, or my grown child keeps taking advantage of me. So I keep forgiving the offense because—isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do? No. The Christian life is about ongoing conversion, about healing, about helping ourselves and others grow into Christlikeness. When I forgive abuse while remaining in the situation and participating in the dysfunction, I have become an enabler.* The husband becomes even more violent, more often. The grown son or daughter refuses to grow up and learn to manage life better. This sort of “forgiveness” doesn’t help anyone. When Jesus saved a wrongdoer from the death sentence, he said, “Go, and sin no more”; he forgave the sin but required real change in the sinner. So forgive the man who beats you, but get away from him—involve police and attorneys if necessary. Forgive the child, but stop paying her bills and babysitting for free and at her convenience; she may finally own her problems and learn to solve them for herself. Be free of bitterness over the wrongdoing, but protect yourself—and the wrongdoer—from more of the same. And do not allow others, no matter how well-meaning, to get in the way of your personal survival and progress by selectively quoting a few Bible verses on forgiveness minus any context or spiritual depth.

4. I say, “I forgive you,” but what I really want is to force a change.
If I forgive you, then maybe you’ll relent and do things my way. If I forgive you, maybe we can go back to the way things used to be. If I forgive you, maybe you’ll see me in a whole new way and everything can be better. If I have a tendency to manipulate or try to manipulate people and situations, I will be tempted to use forgiveness—or the appearance of forgiveness—to obtain a certain outcome. Forgiveness is not about getting other people to be different or to behave differently. Forgiveness simply frees me and the other person from past wrong or hurt. It’s nice when forgiveness becomes the impetus for good change, but we don’t forgive in order to force change. Forced change does not endure anyway.

  • When do you know that your forgiveness is not really forgiveness?
  • When do you know that another person’s show of forgiveness is not the real thing—or is it even possible to determine false/true about someone else’s forgiveness?

*Domestic violence is pervasive and no respecter of persons. The violence is never the fault of the person being abused. In this post I am speaking in quite general terms about how misconceptions about forgiveness can lead us to remain in bad situations. Victims of domestic violence do end up “participating” in unhealthy family systems; this in no way implies that they have caused the problem but that they are caught up in a web of relational behaviors that self-propagate and harm everyone involved.

Writing for the Soul: Online Writing Retreat

Online Writing Retreat 2014

Last year we offered an online writing retreat for the first time. Many of you joined us for this weeklong event, and we’re happy to announce this year’s retreat. The theme is: Writing for the Soul.

Join us September 29–October 3, 2014, for this free writing retreat. All of the materials will be available here on the blog, and there is no need to sign up in advance. If you want to receive the posts by e-mail each day, please subscribe to DDF.

Emotional Triggers We Miss at Our Peril

young woman with attitude sitting and staring

In Monday’s post, I stated that it’s possible to be overly sensitive, that sometimes when I am offended, the problem is more with me than with the other person. This brings us to the topic of emotional triggers. When am I most likely to take offense unnecessarily? A trained psychologist or therapist could give us a lot of information on this topic, but for now, let’s work with a few simple ideas.

Generally, I will be more sensitive to traits that I despise about myself. This is the classic law of projection. The typical example is the person who is so worried about everyone else’s sex life because she has her own secret obsessions. So if I like to feel in control of everything, even meetings with colleagues, I will become offended quickly when another person exerts any kind of controlling influence. I may call it something else: “Well, she hijacked that discussion, didn’t she?” But really, I’m angry because I feel that control was taken from me. A person too concerned about her physical appearance will become hyper-attuned to other fashion-conscious people not responding appropriately to her choice of shoes or hair style.

In my own family, the people who never got along so well were those most alike; for instance, my dad and I butted heads constantly because we shared several traits and weaknesses, so of course those were the first traits and weaknesses we would see in each other.

I may not be reacting to this person but to someone this person reminds me of. At least twice over the years, I had trouble welcoming and receiving a coworker or someone in my church fellowship—for no apparent reason. It took a while for me to figure out one day that this particular person reminded me of someone from my past who had been unkind to me or who carried some other negative association in my mind and emotions.

I will easily perceive that others are exposing a personal trait or weakness about which I am already sensitive. If I’m worried that I’m not doing a very good job at, say, hosting a dinner, then it won’t take much for me to read rejection and criticism into others’ remarks or even facial expressions. This is another form of projection, and it works like a charm every time. Only it’s not charming when I allow my insecurities to ruin the dinner and close down conversation.

I am set up to become hurt, angry, or otherwise offended because I have already taken hard blows today or this week, and I am therefore emotionally out of balance, unable to perceive the present situation accurately. If a fight with my spouse has left me feeling unlovable or unattractive, I am likely to think that other people are putting me down or not valuing my gifts. If someone in my church or neighborhood or family has been taking advantage of me in some way, I will feel that others are merely using me as well. Pain, anxiety, disappointment, and anger can set us on a course that is not self-correcting. When we deal honestly with our emotional/spiritual life, we can pull ourselves back into a healthy perspective. But if these feelings keep simmering and wounding us, they can render us incapable of rational thought or response. In such situations it’s no wonder that we are being hurt and offended at every turn.

  • What emotional triggers have you identified over the years?
  • How do you deal with these sensitive emotional areas so that they don’t become triggers?

When Is It Worthy of Forgiveness?

purple flowers and torn paper

I will probably make some people angry with today’s post, but I will risk it, because there’s an aspect of forgiveness we usually don’t talk about. That is: what is truly worthy of forgiveness? What I mean by that is, Which actions or words are hurtful enough that they must be forgiven? When should I simply brush off a comment or make allowances for an action?

I guess the real question is: When am I being overly sensitive or interpreting events through such a skewed filter that the hurt or offense is really my problem, not the other person’s? Some offenses are minor or unintentional, or both. How long am I going to be angry because someone took my last protein bar? Or didn’t fill the paper tray in the printer? Or was honest enough to say that she liked my hair better when it was an inch shorter?

Yes, it is possible to be too sensitive. Sometimes I’ve just had a rough day or week, and so I’m more likely to take offense at someone’s remark or even the look on her face. But she probably isn’t doing or saying anything differently from how she usually acts or speaks.

And in some situations, a person has spent a lifetime learning to be suspicious and critical, and you just can’t win. You’ve met this person: he or she gets offended about five times a day. Even if I haven’t developed those bad habits of attitude, there are times when I am just more likely to put a bad spin on whatever happens. I am hurt or disappointed or angry about something specific, and that emotion distorts the way I perceive everything else that happens around me. So when somebody hurts my feelings, the issue is not, Can I forgive this person? The issue is, Why did this act or comment bother me in the first place?

Sometimes we need to grow up a bit and take more responsibility for our reactions. Sometimes we take offense because we are foolish or self-centered or vindictive.

And when we develop an attitude of mercy and compassion toward others—this is a lifelong project, and we must practice it daily—we discover that there are fewer events that require our forgiveness. Instead of getting offended, we consider what kind of circumstances this coworker is dealing with at home to cause her to be short-tempered in this meeting. Instead of staying angry for days, we pray for that neighbor to experience the kind of love that will free him to be friendlier and less prone to gossip. Instead of interpreting someone’s words in the worst possible way, we will remember that there’s a vast cultural and/or personality difference between us, and much of the time we do not understand these conversations accurately.

  • Can you remember a time when you took great offense at something, only to realize later that you were reacting out of proportion to reality?
  • How do you cultivate mercy and compassion toward people in those quick, daily situations that can become so irritating?
  • What are clues that a problem is more with you than with the other person?