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Why Christians don't forgive
Forgiveness is mandatory for the Christian and this includes evangelicals.
Christians are among the most unforgiving people out there and there are reasons for this that often have nothing specific to do with the individual. It's almost pure programming and most don't realize how unforgiving they are.
Some reasons Christians don't forgive:
Bitterness – an inability to simply let things go. Christians are stellar at being offended and staying offended. More of that childlike faith...
Resentment – most Christians realize that if the offender simply repents, as a matter of their own doctrine and belief, that person is forgiven. Many Christians have a huge problem with Jesus overruling their judgment, making the offender whole while leaving them broken. They also use it as an excuse not to forgive.
In other words, Christians are happier letting their god deal with the problem and, if they're honest, see the offender suffer for what they did. This is what the real role in the spiritual consequences of the offense is perceived to be by the Christian. “I can keep god angry at this person if I refuse to forgive...” you might want to read your Bible again... Being able to control God is a common word-faith concept.
Hatred – We've talked about the backwards nature of how Christians view love. They are programmed to hate and forgiveness and hate do not go well together. This makes honest forgiveness extremely difficult for the average evangelical Christian.
“I can say I forgive but I'd be lying...” - Many Christians choose the honesty of unforgiveness over the lie of absolution. Over time (and usually a very short time), if you say you forgive someone but don't, your real feelings and sentiments will surface. They know this and many will hold grudges to force the appearance of piety. More backwards thinking.
Arrogance and entitlement – These toxic principles are also built into evangelical doctrine. Even those who know and understand what their own savior says about forgiveness don't think they'll suffer any consequence for withholding it. “No sin is too big for god to forgive. God knows that I'm a sinner. I've repented and continue to repent of my sins.”
Well, there are a couple problems here:
1. Their god demands forgiving others to secure their own forgiveness – Matthew 18
2. Their god incentivizes forgiving: Luke 6:37 - Judge not and you will not be judged. Condemn not and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.
3. Their god warns that they could be disowned for not being 100% genuine in their faith (Mt 7:21-23: “21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”
4. Anyone who says he loves god and doesn't do what he commands is a liar and the truth is not in him. (1 Jn 2:4)
5. Unconfessed sin is not forgiven by default:
Hebrews 10:26: For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins...
John 3:36: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Romans 8:13: For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
What sins are people forgiven of in evangelical terms? There are two main opinions:
all the sins you will ever commit and...
all the sins you committed up to the point where you were saved
If every sin you've ever committed and will commit later is already forgiven, being a forgiving person yourself is not necessary. This is why so many Christians adhere to a more provisional view of salvation and why it's necessary to repent over and over and over again.
Here's the real reason most Christians think it's OK not to forgive:
Let's say a person has a beef with someone else that he or she doesn't want to let go of. They go in their prayer closet and start praying:
“Dear god, I'm sorry I've neglected to forgive my brother. Help me find a way to forgive him and love him...”
We all know what happens next. “God” does nothing, the person feels no different, forgiving becomes no easier, and they stop consciously trying. The excuse then becomes “God knows my intent here. He knows I want to forgive. I've asked for help with this. It's in HIS hands now.”
It's at this point where god is beaten at his own game. All of a sudden, that person does not have to forgive. This is what you get when you tell people that they can take all their own defects of character and lay them at the foot of the cross. If an unforgiving spirit is one of those defects and you've confessed your unforgiveness, your unforgiveness is thereby validated through the atonement. Withholding forgiveness, at that point, ceases to be a sin. Sick, sick, SICK. DO you see where the toxicity gets a foothold here?
Issues with Forgiveness:
1. Living a constant mindset of forgiveness is neither natural nor practical. We do not have the capacity to instantly forgive. We need time to be hurt. We need time to be angry. We need to be ok with these things and allow ourselves to work through the situation our own way and at our own pace. That's an important part of it, but...
2. We also can't hide behind these things. “I'm still processing all this...” doesn't work for decades on end. Eventually we have to stop dredging up old memories without an escape plan and really deal with the emotions.
3. We might not be able to forgive. Some people literally never get past that processing stage. Their brains fixate on the offense and never get over it, work through it, or get past it. This doesn't make it OK if, situationally, it's something that can or should be forgiven. This is where therapy comes in.
4. There are instances where forgiveness is inappropriate. I do not think it's necessary for an abused partner to keep forgiving the abuser. I don't think a rape victim should ever be expected to forgive her rapist.
5. Forgiving leaves us vulnerable. Some read accepting an apology as a sign of weakness. They also fear being re-offended by the same person if they can't facilitate some kind of punishment, usually emotional, upon the offender.
6. There's an enigmatic element to forgiveness that often makes the offender whole while leaving the offended person broken. Here's the thing, though: there's a difference between being broken and staying broken. Once the situation is resolved, you can start healing. You can't without the personal closure that forgiving creates.
7. You can't force yourself or anyone else to forgive (“tell him you accept his apology!”)
Consequences of unforgiveness (secular)
1. It harms relationships
2. It harms your health – depression, extreme anger, suicidal thoughts... all of these things can lead to serious health issues and all stem from the stress of re-living the hurt.
3. You get too comfortable with the “power” of holding something over the offender. This can make you arrogant and closed-minded, and it can project your ill feelings in one situation or toward one person onto others. As you get used to the idea of withholding forgiveness, it quickly manifests in other areas. You become less tolerant of people in lots of ways. You start expecting perfection from other people and respond with anger and judgment when they fall short. Forgiveness helps us keep a more balanced perspective on things and allows us to allow others a little slack once in a while.
4. Usually you're the only one suffering. The offender roams free while you stay locked up in your own emotional prison.
Benefits of forgiveness
1. A heightened and positive sense of self – You took the moral high ground in the situation. You pardoned someone's bad behavior with no promise or expectation that it will benefit you in any tangible way. The benefit is in how you feel when you opt to forgive. You feel better about you.
2. Mental stability and clarity – you can think things through more efficiently
3. Better social functioning – you'll like yourself better and, subsequently, you'll like other people more. You'll also be able to spot bullshit a mile away and, hopefully, steer clear before any of this even becomes an issue most of the time.
A few words of caution about forgiveness:
1. Do not apply the 70x7 principle. It is neither practical nor healthy. Limit the number of times another person exposes to you wrongdoing, abuse, or any kind of treatment designed to keep you under their thumb. Forgiveness for forgiveness' sake doesn't help anyone. No one learns, no one grows, no one changes when it's just a given that forgiveness is a built-in part of the equation.
2. You can forgive someone and still put them out of your life if the person is toxic or abusive and has proven an inability to adjust the offensive behavior(s). Refusing to stay with an abusive partner or continue being victimized by someone in other ways is not the same as refusing to forgive. Forgive them, but protect yourself. Forgiveness is not the same thing as naivety. If the person is likely to re-offend and their behavior is in any way harmful to you, it's time to “forgive and forget.” Forgive the behavior and forget about continuing the relationship.
Oh, it's also possible and completely OK to continue loving an abuser. We love for lots of crazy reasons. We get trauma bonded. We ooze over with empathy that is neither warranted nor helpful in assisting the abuser to become a better person. We enjoy being around them when their abusive behaviors aren't manifesting. All this is fine. Using these things as excuses to stick around and keep being abused isn't.
Those of us who tend to love hard when we love fall into this trap all the time. “Forgiveness is forgiveness. I have to stay (or go back) otherwise I'm not really forgiving them...” No, no NO. Erase the debt, but also CLOSE THE ACCOUNT and keep the transaction on your ledger. Never forget that you have the right to be both safe and happy in your relationships and if you aren't, you shouldn't be there. This isn't unforgiveness, it's intelligence and it's survival. Oh, and that person won't change if you go back or stick around and tough it out for one more round. They'll change when they accept help and they might seek help when they realize what they've lost but it isn't very likely. In other words, most of them will never change and nearly none will make the effort to change to earn someone else's approval. It's easier to go find a new victim.
3. Don't offer forgiveness to someone and still harbor a grudge. Honesty can lead to healing much faster than lying about your feelings. “I don't even know how to process all this and I'm not ready to forgive you yet. Please leave me alone so I can sort all this out.” The truth heals. Lies harm. Remember that.
Now a word to the former and present evangelicals who struggle with the concept of forgiveness:
It's no surprise to me that you have issues in this area. It's no surprise that many of you, either by intention or through unconscious action, are so good at being awful to your fellow Christians in particular. We were all taught that forgiveness is mandatory – 70x7 and beyond if necessary – but no one ever bothered to consider the psychology of forgiving when thrusting these standards and rules upon us. No one in our lives even allowed us to consider that sometimes it's not possible or even appropriate to forgive. Christian doctrine is so black and white that it almost always leaves the believer in the dust, with no other alternative than to “give it over to Jesus” when we are hurt, abused, or legitimately offended. Forgive and move on is the solution each and every time. What if it's not that simple (because it usually isn't)?
The way Christianity forces us to think about forgiveness almost guarantees that our problems never get solved. We face abuse and lying and deceitfulness and even general rudeness and mistreatment and see no other recourse than to forgive and carry the weight of it ourselves. After all, we want to go to heaven, too, so we'd better forgive. Weigh the severity of the offense and ask yourself if there is a foreseeable way through the anger and the hurt. If the answer is yes, strive to see both sides and make the conscious choice to begin the process of healing. The ability to forgive will be an outgrowth of that.
Now to those of us who are out or on our way out and still grapple with concepts like forgiveness:
Yes, it was a touching moment when Pope John Paul II held the hand of his attempted assassin and forgave him just prior to the assassin's execution, but the idyllic nature of the exchange doesn't take into account the real feelings, emotions, or intentions of the forgiver. It's easy to put on the game face in front of a global audience. What about when it's just you, the quiet, and your own thoughts?
In those instances, let yourself feel ALL the feels and weigh the potential emotional consequences of both forgiving and not. I think you'll find just the intellectual concept of the former more appealing than the latter. Also remember that forgiveness isn't contingent on making yourself vulnerable to the offender. You CAN, and SHOULD (in many cases) forgive and then walk away. Cut off any and all avenues to being hurt again. It's not a contradiction. It's not a lie. That person will suffer no further consequence or retaliation from you. That's the thing about forgiveness: it's way more about you than it is about the other person. That person isn't going to change. Find peace in that fact. Be the better person. Treat them better than they treated you. Trust me, it feels way better than holding a grudge.
Paul may like to tell you that love keeps no record of wrongs, but that record of wrongs could be the thing that keeps you from going back to be wronged again. Keep it tucked away and refer to it when you start thinking the offender might deserve a second chance. Do not, however, use it as a weapon against them. If you're doing that, you haven't forgiven anything.
For lesser offenses, strive to be honest and let yourself see forgiveness as a process, not a decision. Assert your need for space, but then take the time to sort out what happened and try to reconcile the details in your head. It's impossible to be truly objective when you've been hurt or offended, but if the effects of the offense aren't likely to have lifelong consequence, consider whether or not it's easier to figure out how to forgive than it is to carry the weight of the offense forever.
Mr. Miyagi and Randy Stonehill
People who learn how to forgive are typically happier, more objective, and more empathetic. They also recognize their own shortcomings and understand the need to seek forgiveness for themselves when they screw up (and we ALL screw up with other people sometimes). Stop taking your cues from a set of moral standards that contradicts itself over and over again and fails to acknowledge the human aspect of the rules it expects you to follow. No loving god would place standards on you that are impossible to maintain. A loving god would understand you and your psychology, and would do better than thumbing you a useless bronze age tome with conflicting points of view to help you navigate your emotions.
Take god out of the equation and let your human side have its say in how you deal with various situations. Forgive when it's warranted, protect yourself from further harm, and be honest with yourself about your own emotional limits. If you find yourself trapped in a never ending maze of emotions that never lead to resolution, seek help. A good therapist can help unravel the maze. Learning to forgive will teach you more about yourself, it will make you happier and healthier, and, most of all, it's a huge step toward getting and staying unbound.