Forgiveness is Bullshit

Please Note: I will no longer be approving comments that prescribe forgiveness to me or others or imply that we “just need to do it right.” I’ve already covered that extensively both in the main post itself and in the comments. Feel free to comment about your own personal experience (good or bad) with forgiveness, but keep your opinion about what others need to do to yourself. Thanks!

Wherever you find an intolerance for and avoidance of “negative emotion,” you are almost guaranteed to also find a “doctrine” of forgiveness. I cringe every time I hear forgiveness come up. For a while, my cringing was accompanied by guilt because I felt horrible that I would see such a “positive” action/attitude as repulsive. I could easily understand why I might feel repelled by the fundamentalist definition of forgiveness, but I didn’t understand why I was also disgusted by the more “liberal” definitions of forgiveness.

As I’ve taken the journey to reclaim my right to have my emotions, even the shadow ones, I’ve gained a bit of a better understanding of my hatred of the very idea of forgiveness.

Basically I’m here to say it’s all bullshit.

Yes, I know I’ve probably made many of you gasp and even branded myself in some minds as a “bitter person.”

That’s okay. If you don’t feel like reading on about how the idea and pressure to “forgive” can actually be harmful, you are free to stop reading here. But I guarantee there are going to be a good number of readers who sigh with relief at what I just said because, deep down, they feel that way too.

Why do I think forgiveness is bullshit? Before I answer that question, I want you to close your eyes and think about your best denotative definition for the word. Can you?

Well, let’s go over some of the popular quotes and quips about forgiveness. Then at the end, we’ll actually look at the dictionary definition and discuss that (now please don’t ruin things and look it up in the dictionary just yet).

  • “Forgive and forget”: I actually got this one a lot in fundamentalism. It’s a very convenient phrase for teaching children to suppress memories and accept repeated abuse. In fact, when I, as a teen, confided to a counselor at The Wilds Christian Camp that I couldn’t “forget” about my abuse and I was having a hard time “forgiving” the abuser as a result, I was told that as long as I never talked about it to anyone ever again and pushed the thoughts about the abuse out of my head whenever they intruded, I would be able to forgive, even if I didn’t officially forget. It should be pretty easy to see why equating forgiveness with amnesia of an event is bullshit. Stupidity is not a virtue.
  • “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” This little gem from C. S. Lewis is representative of another commonly repeated idea in fundamentalism. It doesn’t really define forgiveness, merely mandates it as a divine expectation, which can be just as bad as the definitions. I would actually classify this as spiritual/emotional abuse even without having a definition like the one above simply because of the way that such a divine mandate is wielded against the wounded to undercut their healing. It’s probably also the only idea off the top of my head that I would say Jesus should be ashamed of propogating with his “seventy times seven” statement in Matthew 18:22. . . unless of course, the translation effect fails to account for the possibility that at that time and in that period “forgiveness” wasn’t what we think of it as today.
  • “True forgiveness is when you can say, ‘Thank you for that experience.’” (Oprah) Bullshit should be so easy to find in this one. I can think of several experiences that I would NEVER thank someone for, my sexual abuse being the most prominent that comes to mind. In fact, if forgiveness is really finding the ability to be thankful for what someone else did to you that hurt you, I’d have to say that I’ve never forgiven anyone who wronged me, nor do I want to.
  • “Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim–letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.” (C. R. Strahan) This is one that on the surface seems nicer. And there are a lot of variations on the idea of freeing or healing oneself through forgiveness. But my next question is, if forgiveness is not absolving someone, what is it? These types of phrases never give an alternative. And I’m sorry to break it to anyone who likes this definition, but it’s not in the real definition. “Absolving,” on the other hand, is. So the attempt to whitewash forgiveness into something entirely personal and not connected to the offending person is really just all BULLSHIT.
  • “Forgiveness is the discovery that what you thought happened, didn’t.” (Byron Katie) Bull-fucking-shit! I actually expected better from Byron Katie. I’ve heard a lot of good things about her and was horribly disappointed to find her propagating such a stupid definition of forgiveness. It’s just another form of the amnesia prescription of forgiveness, but with an even more sinister undertone. Instead of just forgetting it happened . . . it’s actually suggesting that it didn’t happen. Yes, let’s tell a grieving parent that forgiving a drunk driver who killed their child would mean discovering that the driver didn’t actually kill their child. That doesn’t sound insensitive at all! For that matter, I’m sure there are a few spouses who might also protest at the idea that forgiveness means discovering that infidelity didn’t actually take place. In case it isn’t obvious, what Katie is describing is called a misunderstanding, and that doesn’t require forgiveness, merely clarification.

But what about the real definition? Okay, here you go. According to Dictionary.com, forgiveness is:

  1. to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.); absolve.
  2. to give up all claim on account of; remit (a debt, obligation, etc.).
  3. to grant pardon to (a person).
  4. to cease to feel resentment against: to forgive one’s enemies.
  5. to cancel an indebtedness or liability of: to forgive the interest owed on a loan.

The definition and connotation of forgiveness is all about the other person—the person who wronged you—and setting them free, absolving them, letting them off the hook, ceasing to feel anger (or bitterness or whatever the new demonized emotion is) towards that person.

I’m here to cry bullshit on the whole charade.

Forgiveness isn’t necessary for healing.

Forgiveness is not necessary to “move on.”

It’s not even necessary in order to feel compassion or love for someone.

It’s not necessarily healthy.

In fact, more often than not, in the instances when forgiveness is prescribed (severe betrayal, severe hurt/abuse, severe tragedy, severe trauma), it’s actually harmful to the person needing to heal. There’s a reason why anger is listed as one of the main steps in grief—it’s important! Getting angry, feeling sad, holding someone else accountable, they’re all part of “moving on.”

What does a statement like “you just need to forgive” do? It heaps more guilt on the person who is experiencing those emotions—those necessary emotions—by making them feel like they’re wrong or unhealthy or weak for experiencing them. In other words, it’s blaming the victim, encouraging them to ignore their own needs and cater to another person’s desires.

It denies the mind’s natural way of healing itself.

You don’t get past the anger by suppressing it. You don’t move through grief by denying it. The only way to get through those difficult aspects of healing is by claiming the right to feel them.

And the only reason why forgiveness sounds so “positive” to us is because we have this fucking stigma about the shadow emotions being “negative” (which I discussed briefly here). We as a society don’t know how to handle those intense emotions, so we distance ourselves from them. And when someone else is experiencing them, we prescribe “forgiveness” as the fix-all that allows us to sound helpful without actually doing anything to help. If we move past the idea that shadow emotions are negative, suddenly the need to forgive by letting go of those emotions is non-existent, along with the need to distance ourselves from those emotions.

Does forgiveness ever have a place?

Maybe.

I’m an open-minded person and willing to consider that forgiveness really does have a legitimate purpose somewhere buried underneath all the bullshit–that it can potentially be a healthy  byproduct of healing in some circumstances. But I’d be more than willing to bet that, in those instances, the forgiveness happens fairly naturally.

In the instances where the hurt is bigger and the problems larger, i.e. whenever forgiveness takes up focus, it should be up to the individual to decide if that is something they need or even want.  It should be up to the individual to decide if the relationship is worth the work of restoration or if it’s safe to continue with that relationship. Moreover, it shouldn’t ever be the goal. Healing should be the goal, whether or not it includes forgiveness.

And without a genuine apology for the pain and damage caused and change to avoid repeating it, I don’t think forgiveness is either possible or healthy. Healing comes in those instances by learning to set boundaries, take a stand for your own needs, and hold the other person culpable for their actions, not by giving a blank check to someone who repeatedly hurts you.

I think it’s high time we forgive ourselves this absurd expectation that we should always forgive. It’s time to allow ourselves to recognize that healing isn’t about forgiving the other person; it’s about listening to ourselves.

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250 thoughts on “Forgiveness is Bullshit

  1. Zheng Yong says:

    Hi Sometimesmagical,

    Your response is right. I had an institutional view on forgiveness as well as a non-institutional forgiveness.

    Those who keep promoting forgiveness, it is as if they will forgive an unforgivable action.

    I am glad that I have refused to forgive people who offended me intentionally and left their life, realising that my life is better when I left their life and avoid forgiving them.

    I am also glad that I have found your website as I have gained much from it.

    I will be chatting with you again. Have a great day ahead.

  2. Sarah Hart says:

    I am really taking this in. I have long had the feeling you describe here– that “forgiveness” is condescending as Fuck– and yet haven’t known how to even frame the question to look at what made me uneasy about it…. This is articulate and re-orienting. Thank you!!!

  3. Ben says:

    Forgiveness is weakness, an invitation to be wronged again.

  4. Christian says:

    Thanks for this, it’s good to know that some still use their brains.

    • Suzanne Freedman says:

      Yes, it is definitely not weak to forgive. Forgiveness does not need repentance as it is something the injured can do on their own without any response from the offender. Reconciliation, on the other hand would need repentance, an admittance of wrongdoing, and a promise that the injury would not occur again. Forgiveness can lead to reconciliation but it does not have to.

      • Are you intending to reply to the comment from Ben about forgiveness being weakness?

      • Suzanne Freedman says:

        That one and the one about whether repentance is needed to forgive.

      • Ah, ok. You kind of hit reply on one unrelated. I agree that it isn’t weakness. I think whether repentance is necessary depends on your personal stance on forgiveness. Obviously, you are in favor of it and take the view that it is an act separate from the relationship, but I have a hard time (as I have talked about in the post itself) with that perspective since it ignores the definition and history of the word.

  5. Courage says:

    Thank you for your insights.
    Does there not there not have to be repentance in order to forgive?
    Where are the Nuremberg trials for survivors of childhood sexual abuse?

  6. Shmueley says:

    I appreciate your words so much… As a practicing Catholic and male sexual assault survivor there’s nothing I hate more than disclosing to someone that I was sexually assaulted and then hearing “You just have to forgive.” Actually, I think I have done all that I can to forgive. I have forgiven as much as I can. And you know what? the flashbacks just keep coming. It. Still. Hurts. Physically and emotionally. I needed 2 surgeries to correct the physical damage. It took me years and years to get the 2nd surgery and I’m still healing from it now even though I had it months ago. Sometimes it seems like the physical pain will never go away. And then there’s the shame from the sexual assault, the effect it has on my marriage and my ability to relate to others. Forgiveness didn’t take away the pain and it doesn’t stop the assault from affecting my life.

    I also think that if Christians really believe that God created the brain, they should understand that the brain responds to trauma in certain ways and instead of just dismissing trauma as “You just need to forgive” it needs to be understood for the natural process of healing that it is. In a lot of ways, it’s like getting hit by a car. OK, I might have forgiven the person driving the car (or not!), but either way, it isn’t going to fix my broken collarbone.

    My definition of forgiveness is to will the good for the person who hurt me despite my pain. So from my Catholic perspective, this means desiring that my assailant dies in a state of grace so he can go to heaven. The thing is, in Catholic theology, you need to repent of your sins before you can go to heaven. So that would mean a profound change of heart on his part–weeping for what he did to me on earth or in Purgatory. As it stands now, though, he expressed no remorse, I have received no apology from him and I have no reason to believe he wouldn’t do it again so I do NOT want to see the man ever again in this life. In heaven, he cannot hurt me, though…so that is the difference.

    I think a lot of survivors understandably recoil at the idea of survivors because when your trauma keeps re-emerging in the form of powerful flashbacks, this is your brain’s way of saying, this is REAL and it HAPPENED. So forgiveness can seem like minimizing the depth and gravity of the wound, or denying it altogether. But forgiveness is not a one sided thing where I absolve the guilty party but he never has to change his heart. I can hold up my end of the bargain (which I think I have) but he might not necessarily hold up his end.

  7. aero5678 says:

    God tells us that unless a person repents, (completely changes their heart condition, thoughts, and actions) we are not mandated to forgive them. Only after observable remorse and change in heart, then we are to forgive, and only then.

  8. Kim says:

    This is perfection!!

  9. Jen says:

    I agree with many of your assertions. I’m Christian, but I’ve often struggled with the meaning of forgiveness. I’ve accepted that it’s necessary to be able to “let go” of an offense enough to be able to move past the emotions associated with it, but it’s only necessary so that I can move on. That’s it. After that, the relationship forever-changes. I don’t view you the same way anymore. To say that you’ll never get the opportunity to betray me again is an understatement.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article.👍

  10. batyabenyochanan says:

    I agree with most of what you wrote. The passage about seventy-times-seven is definitely taken out of context of the gospels as a whole. For example: Luke 17:3 “So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.” Throughout the gospels, the offender’s repentance is required for there to be forgiveness. In fact, Matthew 18 says that if you confront someone with their wrong against you and they won’t repent, you’re not required to interact with them.

    As a person who was abused, I found “forgiveness” to be getting to the point where I’m no longer angry. It’s an ongoing process much like grieving. I haven’t yet arrived, and some days are more of a struggle than others. But I have hope that one day I won’t have any anger left.

  11. A Jacques says:

    I agree . Forgiveness is for myself for staying with an abusive man and not recognizing what he was(a narcissist and sociopath). That is all.

  12. layla zack says:

    I 100% agree with this whole post. Forgiveness ( with my personal experiences ) is garbage for the most part. The ONLY time it should stand is when the offender actually ATTEMPTS to change their behavior and prove to me how truly sorry they are. (though I will not guarantee in trusting them)
    Now before people butcher me, yes I’m “forgiving” if someone accidentally drinks my last soda…because…c’mon that’s petty.
    But if someone repeatedly hurts me over and over…..only to toss bullshit “apologies” at me like used condoms…..then hahahaaaaaaaaa…..burn in a fire so I can have a long overdue fireside beer.

    • Chet Goodman says:

      I totally get this. If the transgressor will not acknowledge, apologize, demonstrate some sense of remorse and/or change their behaviors, screw ’em. Live and learn. Move on, leave them in the dust or in that place where they cannot hurt you again. Make mental notes and file them away. But forgiveness seems like a wonderful gift (in this scenario) of which they are not worthy. Every once in a while, I get to hear a heart-felt apology and, when that happens, I find myself almost eager to forgive. It is wonderful, but those pre-qualifiers come so rarely.

  13. Gerry White says:

    I have forgiven people that have ripped me to ribbons and every time I did they would hurt me again,. I finally closed that door to them. Now the suffering from it all is trying to destroy me but I won’t let it with God’s help. They are still trying to do me in because they don’t want to forgive me of my mistakes that I HAVE TRIED to make it up to them . What they have done and are still doing is is tragic for me compared to my mistakes. Mine were not intentional theyres are. I’m so hurt.

    • The tricky thing about forgiveness is that we all want it when we’re the ones trying to make amends, but just as it is not required for you to forgive them, it is not required that they forgive you. Amends should be a gift and invitation, freely declined. If it’s a demand, then something is off in the apology/amends.

      It sounds like this might be one of those situations where there is no ready resolution to restore the relationship, in which case, I encourage you to look for ways to rebuild, heal, and grow without them. I always recommend seeing a counselor if something feels like it is “trying to destroy” you. Having someone who is there to hold space for your pain and can help you figure out ways to manage it while you’re healing can be incredibly beneficial.

  14. Linda Belcher says:

    Exactly! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree 110% with you! Been through it all and yes we don’t need to forgive or forget the pain and suffering we have been put through!!! Hugs n love

  15. Suzanne says:

    Thank you for putting into words what I felt and knew to be true.

  16. Chet Goodman says:

    I have struggled with my daughter “forgiving” me without talking to me about what one might call “the charges against me”. She is grown, has a blog and wrote how she sat (alone) forgiving me for divorcing her mother. She has been sheltered from many details of her parents divorce (including Mom’s violent, abusing and criminal behaviors) and has actively resisted my efforts to talk about it (over a several year period) saying things like “it’s all in the past, Dad” as an avoidance technique. I went with her to a family counselor immediately after her mother filed for divorce (after she refused marriage counseling) and was advised to wait for my daughter to come around, to let her bring it up when she is ready. My patience has not been rewarded. What is the value of this “forgiveness”? Is forgiveness fungible? I mean that I would happily be forgiven for being such a dumb*ss but I did not quit on the marriage, engage in the hostile provocation, violence and deceit (including being caught in multiple lies during a sworn deposition) like her mother did. What do you get when you put a clean bandage over an un-cleaned wound? You might feel better about yourself and, for the moment, everything appears to be buttoned up. But infection is your future.

    • It can be really hard to be in that position. Divorce can often create wounds for children that are difficult to understand as an adult, and her reasons for forgiving you may seem to have nothing to do with your own actions from your perspective. But the wound isn’t yours. It’s hers. Just because it doesn’t make sense to you doesn’t mean that it becomes less real to her. She may have her own stuff to work through with her mom, but that’s also not yours. You say that you have tried to talk to her about the past, but it sounds like it was approached with an attitude that you were going to “set the record straight” about who was at fault. If I felt that someone was only interested in knowing why I needed to “forgive” them so that they could tell me why they weren’t the person who was in the wrong to begin with, I probably wouldn’t feel very open to talking about it either. That would just feel incredibly devaluing to the pain I’m trying to work through. The reality is that, right or wrong, she has experienced a wound that is housed in her relationship with you. You can beat your head against a brick wall trying to prove her wrong…or you can be open to building and/or repairing the relationship in a way that honors the feelings that don’t make sense to you.

  17. Amanda Jane says:

    You are my hero. I’m going to freaking print this out and pass it on to every dipshit who says that I need to forgive people. Thank you a million times over.

  18. Barbara says:

    I commend you on this. I will never, ever forgive the piece of shit that beat my dog to death. People say it’s horrible that him dying of an overdose made me ecstatic. Guess what? All out of f☆☆ks. Thanks !

  19. Linda says:

    Ahh yes I so Agree!! The best iI can say is, I learned to Forgive myself! I am happy with that! 💜

  20. HM says:

    I was severely abused sexually, physically , emotionally throughout my childhood. I came to Christ at 17 and He gently lead me through admitting the devastation of the abuse ( I had an “ignore it and it will go away ” attitude which ended up crashing around me. In my late 30’s I went to a conference that focused on writing out every negative thing that had ever happened to me and forgiving . It wasn’t pushed down our throats or offered as a trite answer… but it was a decision. I experienced SO much freedom and finally understood what it meant to live without a victim mentality. ” before I was always crippled by feelings of inadequacy or never- ending side effects, flashbacks , emotional breakdowns . It’s been 8 years and I am as free as ever and so grateful for the opportunity to be free from the oppressivd memories and thoughts attached to my past abuse. And I do keep a long distance, emotionally limited relationship with my abusers ( who are in my family ) … but have never asked them to address the abuse .

  21. Billy says:

    In total agreement with everything you have said. I don’t need to forgive, I just need to accept.

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