There are few topics more dangerous than ‘forgiveness’ when the context is abuse. Forgiveness has been (and is) used against people who have been abused. It is presented as something you must do — under threat of divine punishment. It is presented as something you ‘should’ have done a long time ago. It is as if you become the ‘bad person’ in a relationship if you fail to forgive. . . and nothing can fix that, nothing is more important — not even the abuse you are trying to forgive. On top of all this, there are all kinds of things that mimic forgiveness without having any of it’s substance. You can forget what happened and pretend that is the same as forgiveness, but it’s just forgetting, not forgiving. You can stop feeling about what happened and pretend that is the same as forgiveness, but it’s just not-feeling, not forgiveness. So what is forgiveness? Is it good for us? And how the &^%$ do you actually do it?

Some of my thoughts:

When a person harms another person both parties acquire tasks that need to be done. The person who did the harm must somehow find the serenity, courage and wisdom to confess, to repent and to make amends (there are many other language sets that might be used here). The person who is harmed must somehow find the serenity, courage and wisdom to grieve the losses associated with the abuse, work through the many steps which lead to healing of the trauma and to forgive. Both of these sets of tasks are difficult. There is hard work to be done by all involved parties.

There are, of course, many difficult questions which arise such as: What exactly constitutes ‘forgiveness’?, When is it appropriate? When is it inappropriate? What exactly is involved in confession? In repentance? In making amends? And when are these spiritual disciplines appropriate or inappropriate? Is it desirable–or even possible–to forgive someone who has not made amends? For some of my thoughts on this I recommend watching the video of a lecture I give on this topic. It is 45 min. long, so you may need to plan some time for it. You can find it here [opens a new window]

I hope the video has given you a lot to think about. The only thing I’d like to add here are some thoughts about two very practical questions: 1) How can someone in a pastoral role help someone who has been harmed to do the work they need to do? And 2) How can someone in a pastoral role help someone who has harmed another person to do the work they need to do?

Helping someone who has been harmed to do the work they need to do

What helps(encourage this) What doesn’t help(discourage this)
getting help isolation,self reliance
safety (Does this person have a safe place to go when they leave your office? A safe place for the children?) fear
remembering the offense forgetting what happened, or remembering without support or adequate safety
acknowledging the harm done denying or minimizing the harm
expecting forgiveness to be a kind of ‘reclaiming’ of self expecting forgiveness to be a kind of ‘giving in’ to the person who did the harm
freely choosing to forgive choosing resentment or revenge, ‘choosing’ forgiveness under compulsion
knowing that forgiveness need not imply restoration of relationship expecting that forgiveness will make things ‘like they were before it happened’
participation in a culture that values forgiveness participation in a culture that values forgiveness but is clueless about confession, repentance and making amends
understanding that forgiveness is the endpoint of a process that takes time premature forgiveness, skipping important parts of the process
telling the truth about the process of forgiveness, letting the process take as long as it takes pretending to forgive, ‘turning it into ministry’ as quickly as possible
resisting shame/blame obsessing about ‘what I did wrong’
declining to answer unanswerable qustions answering unanswerable questions
accept common humanity with offender treat offender as ‘other’
restructuring of power in relationship to offender unchanged power dynamics in relationship


Helping someone who has harmed another person to do the work they need to do

What helps (encourage this) What does not help (discourage this)
confession generic, perfunctory or formal apologies (e.g. “I’m sorry if you were offended,” “Tell your sister you’re sorry. . .I’m sorry” etc.)
listening to what the person who has been harmed says controlling the dialog
accepting responsibility asking for forgiveness (esp. attempts to transfer obligation, “I’ve done my part, now it’s your turn”)
acknowledging that things can’t stay the same apology as a strategy to maintain status quo
refusing to defend behavior explaining ‘why’ it happened
repentance, clear evidence of contrition self-harm, self-loathing (expecting this to change attitude of person harmed)
working on your own issues trying to be ‘helpful’ to person who we harmed
relinquishing power insisting on continuation of existing power structure
resisting shame/blame increasing shame/blame as strategy to make us more ‘forgivable’
participating in a community with a high capacity for telling the truth isolating, participating in a community of people who are unable to be honest about their problems


I’m sure there are important points I’ve left out, but I hope this will give you some ideas about how to be helpful. Additional very helpful stuff can be found here:

Recommended articles:

The F Word: Forgiveness
, An interview with David Augsburger

Finding the Freedom in Forgiveness
by Juanita Ryan

On Forgiveness
by Dale Wolery


Helping People Forgive
, David Augsburger (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996) ISBN-10: 0664256864
The New Freedom of Forgiveness, David Augsburger (Moody Publishers, 2000) ISBN-10: 0802432921

2 Responses to “Forgiveness”

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  1. Thank you for calling attention to this important subject!

    The pressure I felt to forgive prematurely was the biggest stumbling block I encountered during my recovery from abuse.

    From my blog:

    For decades, I heard from friends, relatives, therapists, and fellow Christians, that I needed to forgive my abusers in order to heal. This advice – and the attempts I made to forgive before I’d learned to exercise personal boundaries – left me open to further injury and damaged me deeply.

    When I finally mustered the courage to buck societal expectations; not to forgive; and to put my own healing and well-being first, I achieved a level of healing that I never thought was possible. My period of Not forgiving created the space necessary to achieve the greatest emotional growth of my life. Wow!

    The unintentional by-product of this healing, was – ironically – forgiveness.

    At that time, I realized that the old adage, “Forgive and Heal,” was backwards. For me, it was “Heal and Forgive!”

    If I only knew *then* that adequate healing had to come first, it would have saved me a great deal of time and pain. So, now I shout it from the roof tops “Heal first, THEN Forgive!”

  2. KJ says:

    Thank you for reminding me of this! Blessings, KJ

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