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What does the Bible really say about forgiveness?

Women who have experienced abuse are often plagued with the idea that they should forgive the person who has abused them. Sometimes it is the abusive person is pushing for this, sometimes it is friends, family or church leaders, and sometimes the woman feels like it is the “right” thing to do. Some Christian women are left with the impression that they need to always forgive in every situation. When they find that hard to do they think there is something “wrong” with them because they can’t forgive. But forgiveness is part of a process and the offending party is supposed to do some very important things to make forgiveness possible. Namely, they need to confess what they have done, repent of their bad behaviour and make amends where possible. Let’s look at each of these steps to the process.

The first step is confession. The person admits fully to what they have done and shows an awareness of how their behaviour has negatively impacted the other. The next step is repentance. It is important to make a distinction between “remorse” and “repentance”. Remorse is when someone feels bad for something they have done. Most abusive people occasionally feel some remorse for things they have done to their partner. When you think about it though, often this remorse is still all about the abusive person – he feels badly for his behaviour more than he may feel badly for how his behaviour has impacted his partner. It is often about the man’s own image of himself, rather than being about his partner. Remorse, on its own does not lead to change. It is a feeling without any actions.

Repentance is quite a different thing. Repentance shows itself in actions. It is a change of heart that leads to a change of action. A man who is repentant for his abusive behaviour will actively work to change his behaviour and begin to consistently behave in ways that allow trust to be rebuilt. Usually this involves some support and accountability from the wider community. Taking part in a group for men who misuse their power can be a good first step in learning respectful, mutual behaviour.

Repentance is never a matter of bargaining. For example, a man who says,  “If she forgives me, then I will go for counselling”, is not showing repentance, he is continuing to manipulate. Here are a couple passages that help us understand repentance: Acts 26:20, “Repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of repentance.” And  Matthew 3: 8, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

After repentance – a change in behaviour – it is very helpful to make amends. This is fixing anything that can be fixed and repairing what has been broken. For example, if a man has been critical of his partner in front of others, he can make amends by building his partner up in front of others.

Now let’s think about what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiving is not forgetting. That old line, “forgive and forget” is not from the Bible. The Bible never instructs victims to forget. A victims’s experience of abuse will forever be a part of her history and consciousness. Her remembering will help her keep herself and her children safe in the future.Neither is forgiveness making “okay” that which is not okay. Women often express to us that their partners are pressuring them to forgive but women get the feeling that what their partners really want is to be “let off the hook”, to be told essentially, “Its okay. What you did is not that bad. I can live with it.”

Premature forgiveness benefits no one  – not the victim and not the perpetrator. Work needs to be done on the part of the perpetrator so that forgiveness is possible. The person who has done harm needs to confess to what he has done (a full confession – not a half-hearted one) and needs to repent – that is to change his behaviour and behave in ways that allow trust to rebuild. When church leaders pressure women to forgive their abusive partners, believing this will help with healing, they unintentionally contribute to the perpetration of violence. They are failing to hold the man accountable for his actions. This means the man will not do any of the hard work he needs to do to actually change and stop being abusive.

Here is a passage that helps us see the relationship between repentance and forgiveness: Luke 17:3, “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance you must forgive.”

Most of the time, for the women I work with, their partners do not do any of the above mentioned work. They might receive an apology and a promise to change but there is usually no follow through. Lots of times women do not even receive an apology. So how is a woman supposed to forgive, when none of the work has been done to make forgiveness possible?

(This blog is part of a series on forgiveness. If you appreciate it, you might like to read the rest of the series by searching “forgiveness”.)




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