Lies About Forgiveness: Unraveling Spiritual Abuse and Lies Abused Christian Women Struggle With– Part Four
“You have to forgive him because God forgave you.”
“He said he was sorry.”
“You need to forgive him and put the hurt behind you.”
“You’re just being bitter.”
“It’s a sin to be angry- you need to forgive.”
Over and over, I hear women’s stories of being accused of being unforgiving when they try to get help with covert psychological and emotional abuse. I was accused of it too.
It’s a disorienting, scary, confusing, heartbreaking experience to realize that the man you are married to is abusing you. Every woman who faces this goes through tons of normal human emotions- fear, betrayal, anxiety, shock, anger, grief, and more.
And then here comes the spiritual abuse:
When we are angry at being abused, which is a healthy reaction, we are accused of being unforgiving and bitter.
When we know our abuser’s apologies aren’t real, we are accused of being unforgiving and having a hard heart.
When we do what is right for us, such as separate or divorce, we are we are accused of being unforgiving and unloving.
All too often, rather than supporting us, our advisors and friends create a landmine of accusation that adds to our betrayal and heaps condemnation on us.
When we hear these accusations, we get incredibly confused and start condemning ourselves. We WANT to be Godly, to be forgiving, and to be loving.
Those who accuse us are asking to give up our own safety and sanity to be a “good Christian” because they don’t understand what forgiveness really means in the bible. Thankfully God doesn’t ask us to do that.
So let’s look at what forgiveness means, and the lies we’ve been told about it.
This is Part Four of the series: Unraveling Spiritual Abuse and Lies Abused Christian Women Struggle With
Part One: Our Broken Church
Part Two: Lies About God
Part Three: Lies About What Godliness Is
Part Four: Lies about Forgiveness
Part Five: Lies About Wives
Part Six: Lies About Husbands
Part Seven: Lies About Marriage
Part Eight: Lies About Feelings and Faith
Different Biblical meanings of the word “forgiveness”
What the bible teaches about forgiveness is complex. If you look at forgiveness throughout the whole of scripture, it looks as if the bible contradicts itself. For instance, in Mt 18:15-20, Jesus says those who refuse to repent are to be excommunicated, yet in Mt 18:21-35, he tells his disciples to forgive over and over. In Col 3:13 and Mk 11:25, it seems we are to forgive without qualification, yet in Luke 17:3, forgiveness is contingent on the offender’s repentance.
God differentiates between those who sin in ignorance, and the wolves whose intention and motive is to harm another. We are to treat these types of people differently.
In addition, there are different types of forgiveness. As Steven Tracy explains in his book, “Mending the Soul,” there’s judicial forgiveness, psychological forgiveness, and relational forgiveness.
Judicial forgiveness is the pardoning of sin by God. It requires true repentance on the sinner’s part. It’s hindered when abusers are not held accountable and not given consequences that will compel them to repent (if they choose to do), and when reconciliation is forced.
Psychological forgiveness is the inner, personal, individual aspect of forgiveness by the person who was harmed. It involves letting go of hatred and revenge, but it doesn’t mean denying the pain. It also can involve extending grace to the offender, but for an abuse victim with an unrepentant husband, this grace can take the form of prayer for his repentance. It requires no relationship.
Relational forgiveness is synonymous with reconciliation. Most often, an abused wife can’t offer relational forgiveness because her abuser refuses to genuinely repent.
Being accused of not being forgiving
Sometimes, when Christians tell an abused women that she’s not being forgiving, they are just using the acceptable code language of “Christianese” to say things they’d never say to her openly. But she gets the message.
Often what they’re really saying is
~ You’re too sensitive
~ You’re complaining too much
~ You’re just a whiny, naggy wife
~ You’re being mean
~ You expect too much
~ It’s not really that bad
~ Don’t make waves
~ Nothing is ever good enough for you
~ It’s probably your fault
~ You’re too much
~ You’re not enough
If they really want to shut us up, they’ll bring in the big gun scriptures about having a quiet spirit, and that it’s sin to “gossip” about your husband.
They accuse us of failing to be who we want to be most –pleasing to God– to manipulate us into doing what they want– save the marriage at all costs. This is spiritual abuse.
Forgiveness is a personal process between you and God. It’s not a public declaration we have to make to prove how “Godly” we are.
As we go through the following lies, remember to compare them against the 4 Cs:
The Character of God
The Consistency of what the rest of the Word says
The Context of the scripture in the book it’s in
You have to forgive him because Jesus forgave you
I was told to show him grace and forgive him because Jesus forgave me.
~ Covert Abuse Survivor
This sounds so holy. It sounds so right, and how can you argue against being like Jesus!
When people tell us we need to forgive, they are usually saying we need to
~ act like nothing happened
~ trust him again
~ pretend he’s someone he isn’t
~ give him 1,000 more chances
But that’s not what forgiveness is.
They are also saying we need to forgive and forget after every offense. This doesn’t work in an abusive marriage. Nor is it supported in the rest of scripture where, for example, in 1 Cor 5, Paul told the church to not associate with an unrepentant sinner.
When we’re told to forgive our husbands for ongoing abuse and oppression, we are being told to live a lie, ignore sin, and continue to be harmed.
You need to forgive him and put the hurt behind you for the sake of the marriage
I was told to get over it already and let it go. ~ Covert Abuse Survivor
This is a wonderful way to handle the common offenses that happen in a healthy marriage where both spouses are trying to love another. But it’s dangerous advice for an abused woman, and keeps her in the abuse for years and years.
When there’s an ongoing pattern of abusive behavior, forgiveness is not the appropriate response. Boundaries that protect you from further harm is the healthy response. There can be no relationship where there’s no genuine change of behavior.
If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. (Luke 17:3)
We are often pressured to forgive, and even reconcile, when we know in our gut that our husband hasn’t changed. We are being forced to not trust in ourselves, to deny what we know to be true, and to give up our ability to care for ourselves and keep ourselves emotionally safe.
When we are told to forgive over and over, we not only get harmed over and over, but we are experiencing the moral injury of being forced to do something that goes against our God-given sense of righteousness and justice. It’s not unforgiving to stand against wickedness.
In fact, there is a Biblical time to withhold forgiveness, as seen in 1 Cor 5:2-5 and Mt 18:17, in order to protect others and to help the offender come to repentance.
He apologized so you have to forgive him
Covert abusers are very skilled at appearing as a nice guy, at feigning repentance and sorrow, and at pretending to be a good Christian.
Unfortunately, pastors and church members are ignorant of these tricks and fall for them. This leads them to blame the victim for holding “unforgiveness” and to pressure her to try again.
The abuser’s pretense of sorrow causes intense confusion in us because we want to believe he means it. We are being wise when we ignore words and apologies entirely, and remember that all abusers fake being sorry as another tactic to retain control over us and to get others to pressure us to stay.
He said he was sorry so that means he’s repented
God defines repentance for us and it means an entire change of perspective– a complete change of heart that leads to a changing of all abusive ways. God doesn’t look at words, but at the heart. He doesn’t want us to be fooled by fake sorrow and repentance. No one can apologize their way out of being an abuser.
Some abusers offer “heartfelt” apologies with tears. I once got a 15 page letter of apologies that never led to any real change. Many abusers will offer apologies that are just more blame shifting (“I’m sorry if that upset you”). Either way, an apology is completely meaningless. Abusers’ apologies are just one more variation of their ongoing manipulation.
True repentance is brokenness and humility, not manipulation. It takes a long time–years– to see if an abuser has actually changed, yet Christians are quick to believe that change can happen in days and weeks.
Tragically, when an abuser pretends to change, everybody celebrates, but when the victim changes and sets boundaries, everybody criticizes her and feels sympathy for the abuser.
He said he was sorry, so you need to forgive him and trust him again
People say this when they are pressuring us to make our marriage work (as if we can do that on our own). They believe that if he says “Sorry,” and we still don’t trust him, it’s our fault. They believe that an apology must be met with forgiveness and trust.
Forgiveness never demands reconciliation and trust. That comes only if the abuser has shown true change and has proven they are trustworthy. This is incredibly rare among abusers.
You are just Bitter, Don’t let a root of bitterness take you over
I was accused of having a “root of bitterness” when I was stating the facts of the abuse.
~ Covert Abuse Survivor
Telling someone that you are being abused is not being bitter, it’s simply speaking the truth.
Throughout the Bible, we see people feeling grief and bitterness over loss and pain. God created us with these emotions and it’s healthy to feel them.
When we’re realizing that our husband is psychologically and emotionally abusing us, it’s a huge, life shattering loss. We have so much to grieve. When we’re told we’re just bitter, we’re being asked to deny this natural human process. It’s not sin to feel the bitterness of grief.
There’s another point about the “root of bitterness” that I want to bring up because it’s so enlightening and fascinating. I thank Rebecca Davis and her book “Untwisting the Scriptures” for her insights.
The root of bitterness in Heb 12:15 is not some deep sin in your heart at all– it is a self-exalting, charming person in a congregation that leads others away from Christ. You can read more about this here:
It’s ungodly to be angry, so you better forgive
In your anger, do not sin. (Eph 4:26)
We’ve been told that it’s ungodly to feel anger, but God got angry at wicked people throughout the Bible, and Jesus got angry at the Pharisees. Just look at Jesus with his whips.
After making a whip out of cords, he drove everyone out of the temple with their sheep and oxen. He also poured out the money changers’ coins and overturned the tables. (Jn 2:15)
Anger is an indicator that something is wrong and needs to change, and it can be a righteous, empowering emotion. God created us to get angry when evil is being perpetrated against us or others, just as He is angry about it.
It’s ungodly NOT to be righteously angry at the things that make God angry, such as wickedness, injustice, and oppression. Those who accuse abused women of being angry or bitter are silencing the victim and spiritual abusing them. And those who accuse a woman who is seeking justice that she is just out for revenge do not understand God’s desire for justice for the oppressed.
Anger is a normal part of the grief process as we face being abused and losing our family, our husband, and our life as we know it. We need to honor it to heal.
Obviously, we need to process our anger in healing and appropriate ways rather than taking it out on those around us or, as we more often do, taking it out on ourselves.
Do you need to forgive to heal?
Although we are told we need to forgive for our own healing, there doesn’t seem to be any connection in the Bible between forgiving someone and our own emotional healing.
What people usually mean is that we need to release bitterness and anger. But in the Bible we are shown that the grief of bitterness and anger is released, not through forgiveness, but through lamenting (in modern language it’s called feeling and processing our pain.)
Lamenting is messy. When people want us to forgive to “heal,” they usually want us to put a lid on our emotions and act as though we are healed without really going through the long process of healing. When we’ve been covertly abused, it can take time to unravel the nuances of the abuse we’ve experienced and to heal.
Does the act of saying “I forgive you for abusing me for 20 years” bring healing? It may bring relief for some, but it won’t bring complete healing in an instant. Does that mean you shouldn’t say that? No, if it will help, then by all means do it.
My healing came with months of crying and honoring my anger, being loved in my pain by God, counseling and EMDR, turning my desire for revenge over to God, and many, many other things I did, day after day, for years.
Healing is a long, winding, personal road we journey with God. Let Him lead you.
What forgiveness is not:
If an abuser says he’s sorry, that’s no reason to trust him.
Apologies and repentance are not the same thing.
True repentance involves a long process of real change.
Trust needs to be earned, not blindly given, and is unrelated to forgiveness.
We can forgive without being in a relationship with that person.
Forgiveness of an abuser is letting go of your desire for revenge.
Seeking justice is what God wants for us and does not come from a desire for revenge.
Forgiveness is between you and God, led by His Spirit, and should not be forced upon you by anyone.
Forgiveness is not the same as releasing anger and bitterness. These need to be grieved to heal.
Healing is not a one-time event arrived at through “forgiveness,” but an ongoing process.
If you’ve experienced covert psychological abuse and spiritual abuse, come join our private Facebook group for women of faith who are covert emotional and psychological abuse survivors.