Does “Love and Forgiveness” Apply to Abuse and Trauma?

sakuramautoki asked a question:

When we Christians use words like “forgiveness” and phrases like “True love keeps no record of wrongs,” I find myself wondering how that would apply to certain contexts, namely with victims of abuse (sexual, physical, emotional/mental)? I wonder if we should even be using these words when speaking with victims/survivors of abuse and how it might come off as to them?

For example, when we say to forgive an abuser, what does that look like? Does that mean we forget the harm they did and pretend like everything is okay? Do we welcome them back with open arms? The same questions also apply to phrases such as “love keeps no record of wrongs”. I ask because as Christians it would be good to be mindful how these words and phrases can sound like and that we tend to throw these terms around much without thinking. What is your take on this?

Hey dear friend, I truly appreciate your heart and care in this question. I am with you 100% here. The Christian culture so easily falls into a false martyr syndrome of “love and forgiveness,” which often risks our safety. The false assumption is that church-people walk in with no baggage or backstories or trauma or abuse. So when the preacher is going on about reconciliation, this is an extremely painful endeavor for the abused, who have lived through horrible pain at the hands of another and have a billion reasons not to reconcile.

The thing is, love must absolutely include truth, wisdom, boundaries, and grace for yourself. Love is not enabling, pampering, coddling, or letting someone off the hook—or it wouldn’t really be love at all.

For those who have been abused or traumatized: Forgiveness doesn’t mean friendship. No one should ever be rushed into forgiveness for the sake of “getting right with God.” We need healthy boundaries. We need to recognize patterns of unrepentant violence and gaslighting and manipulative language that will only guilt-trip you back into a vicious cycle. We can never mindlessly open the door again on an abusive relationship.

Many well-intentioned Christians try to act the part of a psychologist or social worker or therapist and have absolutely no idea about the real dangers of abuse, codependency, and compassion fatigue.

The other thing is that “Christian love” is overly romanticized, where if we just love enough, then we get the Hollywood montage of reconciliation and hugs and high-fives. But having been at the deathbed of many, many patients in the hospital, I hardly ever see it work out that way. Abusers will use up good will and spit it right out. Survivors of abuse have tried again and again to reconcile, only to find out that opening the door to their heart is no better than unlocking the cage of a pack of wolves.

It’s absolutely atrocious that preachers harp on forgiveness without listening to the stories of their churches. And still, Christians are slammed with the Bible to “forgive” because “it’s the Christian thing to do,” without any nuance for individual situations and without, you know, reading the rest of the Bible that says a lot of other stuff about abuse and trauma. God is for the victims, for the abused, for the survivors. God is for the exile, the foreigner, the despised, the despondent who crossed the Red Sea. Jesus told us to be as pure as doves and as wise as snakes. Pure, but wise. Wise, but pure.

There’s a destructive idea in Christian subculture that breeds a martyr-hero syndrome, at the expense of yourself, and eventually everyone else. I spent too many years consumed by the “sacrificial radical love” model of Christianity, which required that I pour out more than I had—but it only scooped out my guts and left me bitter and resentful and exhausted. I had to remember that only one person really did love all the way to death so that we wouldn’t have to.

My friend once asked me, “Are you trying to be like Jesus, or are you trying to be Jesus? Because you can’t be crucified for all these people. He already did that.” I had to re-work my idea of love and forgiveness to include self-care and proper distance.

When Jesus was dying on the cross and said, “Father, forgive them,” let’s notice that Jesus did not say, “Father, help me to forgive them.” It was very specific wording. In other words, Jesus was concerned that his murderers would find forgiveness from God, but not necessarily that Jesus would “feel forgiveness” towards them. Jesus was concerned for the destiny of their souls, but also deliberately not condoning the murderers’ behavior.

This is a perfectly balanced love that cooperates with truth. Of course, Jesus did offer forgiveness to them, and to everyone else who was ever born, and we’re called to work towards such divinity. But no, we’re under no such illusion that we must befriend those who have hurt us or hurt the ones we love. Jesus may pour out unlimited grace from a cross, but each of us are finite beings, with limited resources, who must go to Jesus who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Since I’ve started working alongside social workers and psychologists, I was at first surprised how blunt and to-the-point they were. But they’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of abusers and victims, and they’ve heard all the excuses and rationalizations. They know that victims feel obligated to stick up for their abusers and that abusers will hijack language around forgiveness so they can be taken back. The medical staff’s sole goal here is to advocate for the victim. That requires tough talk, no bull-crap, no beating around the bush, but actual love that’s as sharp as surgery, for both sides. The victim needs to know it’s okay to call the police and get a restraining order and defend themselves. The abuser needs to know they are, in fact, an abuser and that “forgiveness” is not some cheap ace-card that glosses over all they did.

In that kind of love, people are held accountable and responsible, because that sort of love is for the very best of each person, not to trap them or trick them, but to help them heal. So for the abused, it will mean empowering them with the ability to say “no.” It will mean re-framing their religious obligations to “forgive.” It includes wise distance and drawing solid lines. And perhaps one day, it includes the hopeful possibility of reconciliation, whether on this side of life or the other.


Photo by Amélien Bayle, CC BY-NC 2.0

19 thoughts on “Does “Love and Forgiveness” Apply to Abuse and Trauma?

  1. Does “Love” and “Forgiveness” Apply to Abuse and Trauma?

    Yes, but not as many professing Christians think it does. A few thoughts follow.

    I believe that the first effect forgiveness has for the believer is to keep open the door to God and His favor and love. Matthew 6:14-15 are helpful here.

    The second effect is for interpersonal relationships and personal sanity. Forgiveness is done for our well being more than the offender’s. Forgiveness keeps us from grudges, which are simply allowing someone to live rent-free in our minds. They never think about what caused the grudge, while we never stop thinking about it.

    I touched on grudges in regards to their effect on others. The truly insidious effect of a grudge is on us. I have never known anyone who holds grudges to be a pleasant and friendly person, someone that others want to be around. I know no one wanted to be around me when I used to hold many a grudge.

    For this to make a difference we need to understand what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiveness is not restoring trust. Forgiveness is not glossing over offenses. Forgiveness is not excusing behavior for any reason whatsoever. Forgiveness is also not forgetting-because we can never forget what has happened to us. It’s in memory in perpetuity.

    Forgiveness, as I teach it and practice it, is a conscious decision to not hold the offense against the offender. This means that when the offender’s name or image comes to mind or is experienced, I let go of the “right of offense” that my nature tells me is mine. Since the offense cannot be forgotten, I have to turn my mind and thoughts to something else until the heat of the moment passes. Over time, as I continue to do this, my blood pressure doesn’t rise so quickly and I don’t clinch my fists quite as tightly.

    When done repeatedly, I find myself offended less and less, eventually getting to the place where I am no longer upset or angry over the offense or with the offender. Prayer helps with this also. I can’t continue to hate someone that I earnestly pray for.

    In the case of abuse, this requires distance between yourself and the abuser. To stay in that situation is to continually keep the wound of the abuse open. Like a cut that continues to be ripped open again, still living this hell on earth prevents any chance to move on. Abusers are normally manipulators, which is usually overcome by distance.

    Notice that forgiveness as I understand it is not an event. It’s a process. Adopting this view of forgiveness has helped me to find a surer and more final resolution to offenses and offenders. I found that with one offense, it took me over a year to get to the point where the thought or mention of the offender no longer affected my blood pressure or aroused my anger. By following this method, however, I am to this day still unoffended. It did require a break in the relationship, which remains to this day.

    Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is consciously letting go of the right to offense, over time, training the mind to another thought whenever the hurt and offense comes to mind. It is also ensuring that abuse and trauma are taken out of your life so that you can, with the passing of time, move on with your life.

    It is very similar to God’s forgiveness extended to us. Scripture nowhere says that God forgets our sins. In at least two places it does say that he “remembers them no more,” something entirely different than forgetfulness. This is a conscious putting out of mind, not an inability to remember.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I grew up hearing that I need to “just forgive and move on” the guy who repeatedly sexually molested me with penetration at 18 months old. No, I did not need to do that I wanted him dead (I began to realize that I was sexually molested by a relative and when it was confirmed well…) It was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted him to hurt the way I had hurt, the way I had self harmed and all the other part of it. And what through me even more is why did I have to keep it a secret from my cousin after all she probably was molested by the guy too (even if it was her father) but I do not say anything. But all I heard (and because I sought Christian counseling even in counseling I heard it)was that in order for me “to recover and get well all you need to do is forgive and then forget and leave the judging up to God!!!”

    While I managed to work through my anger and I have been able to find a way to forgive him (it depends on the day and hour most days though because God has shown me that He is able to help me do more if I allow HIM access to all of me (including those areas where I do not want to even when I don’t fully understand why.) I have given God all of me so I am able to forgive this guy a little easier but I never ever, ever will tell anyone to forgive and forget it. Today neither he nor any other abuser lives rent free in my head. I can share my story and be a helper to someone else because in fact I no longer have a noose around my own neck tightening it every time I think about this or any other abuse situation that I have been in. God has caused my mind to forge ahead and He shows me how when I share this part of my story I can and am a help to someone else.

    So, with prayer I pray that God will swoop in and cause healing !!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The abuse I experienced was a different type. It was mental abuse by a group of professing Christians over a one month period so it is different in some ways. If this case they never apologize and aren’t sorry so forgiving is like answering a question that was never ask. I try not to think about it because it is painful to relive it. I am not sure how long the gossip went on but there was a lot of it. Note that I said Professing Christians. They apparently believed their position as leaders in the church justified anything they did and made them Christians regardless of whether it was Christ like. The pain has continued now for over two years due to the gossip and attacks they inflicted. I kept away from the people that inflicted it so it so they couldn’t continue the abuse. I feel that forgiving and forgetting are two separate things. If I forget I will open myself to further abuse by them or someone else. I have never received an apology from those that did this. Because of that I left that Church. A church is for Christian fellowship. Attacks on Christians defeat that purpose. It is impossible to have Christian fellowship with people that divide the church and drive others out which they have done repeatedly. The best help I can give you is to stay away from the person that abused you but try not to think about it. We learn from the experiences of life so if we forget we won’t benefit from what we have learned. If the people or a person apologizes then that changes things. Those that attack me acted nice for over 9 years before the attack so I don’t know if they backslid or were hypocrites from the beginning. They have continued to attack others in the Church in similar ways. If they sincerely apologize it will show they are sorry as long as they don’t repeat the behavior. It won’t remove the memory but it may make it easier to not be reminded every time you see them or think of them which will help you. I go by the saying “Once burned twice as wary.” so it takes time to rebuild trust again. In a case where the person hurts you one time and asks to be forgiven it is different than when the attacks continue or they never apologize. If it continues it is not a mistake it is a plan.

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      1. Yes, I too experienced some of that as well. I actually was asked to leave a church because I questioned things. I was extremely hurt by that for some time. I also had experienced some of what you are talking about. I was shamed into a treatment facility by the elders and pastor of this one church. I was also the acting church secretary and if I had to do something like go to court for a speeding ticket the pastor would actually call me and ask me who it was that I was talking to on the steps of the courthouse (I was being followed). It was a very scary thing for me. Thankfully it was a church plant that did not take root and the guy left. It was really weird… So I understand. As for forgiving and forgetting if I said I forgot please know that is not true. I will always remember but I was always told that forgiveness means forgetting but recently I learned that was not true… Only God forgets when we confess. I truly am sorry that you had to experience what you experienced at the hand of Christians, I pray that you will continue to press into God for the answers and for the healing of that pain Keeping your eyes on Him and not man may help you. I know it did me.. It took a long time but God has softened my heart where He can now place His healing balm on it… I will be praying for you Gordon!


        1. After we left that church they got a different secretary. She was driven out of her job by the leadership too. It is a pattern in that church. They have a new secretary now. I wonder how long she will last. They drove out the song leader about one year after we started there. The man that used to run the sound system came to church one Sunday only to find out they had put in a different sound system in a different place and were training a new person on it. Not a word to him about it. A lady that was part of the worship team came to practice with the rest only to find out they went somewhere else to practice to make sure she was left out. I wonder how it says the part about God forgetting in a current language translation to see how it says it. I might be wrong but I have wondered if it meant our sins wouldn’t remembered against us instead of remembered but the result is the same. God is perfect so I don’t think He can forget things like we do. It isn’t really important but it is interesting. The Bible says not to judge others because we will be judged by the same ruler we judge others. I am not sure if that means Gods judgement or people will judge. If God judges those people the way they judged us, Those people are in serious trouble. Live and learn. I am going to another church now but have decided not to get involved or take any jobs there to protect myself. I believe the chances of being attack are less that way. I can’t go through anything like that again so it is self preservation.


          1. I recognise this pattern of behaviour. I was in a church that I found to be really manipulative. We had no pastor for almost a year and the assistant pastor was not offered the pastor’s position so he left but he had served there faithfully. During that year one of the council members had lost their son in a shooting. At that point it dropped into my spirit that this was a huge warning sign and God was warning the council that they had wronged the assistant pastor by side lining him after so many years of service.


  3. I completely agree. The martyrdom aspect is huge, for you are sacrificing yourself so someone else can basically sin. It is my feeling that LOVE calls us to not allow our brothers and sisters to use us to carry out their own sin. We can point them to Jesus, who was already the scapegoat for our sins. We no longer need human scapegoats.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the violator is the only one that can make amends. The person that was attack doesn’t need to make amends because they did nothing to make amends for. Maybe you mean that apologising is making amends. Forgiving the person that mistreated you doesn’t necessarily mean that they have made amends. It just means that you forgive them anyway


  4. Reblogged this on An Idealist and commented:
    Thank you to J.S. Park for putting my thoughts to words. The romanticization of Christian love in the church has only taught me bitterness and falsified notions of who God is. When will the church start preaching on the raw and more painful aspects of forgiveness instead of feeding into the abusive power system that preys on its victims?


  5. When we left the church that drove us out we went to another church. After two and one half years there we left there because there was never a message telling what was necessary to do to go to heaven. The Church we are attending now has wonderful christian fellowship and no one can go to a service there without getting the salvation message. The church that drove us and others out that I mentioned in an in an earlier comment is losing more people. One of the secretaries they removed and her family have left that church now. attendance there continues to drop. A church that has that type of atmosphere can not survive. The Bible says a Church divided against itself can not stand. It is sad that a few cha destroy a church. I know of another Church that has had two pastors in a row that have created problems. people have left there both times.


  6. This in response to your video regarding “Do the Abused Need to Forgive Their Abuser?” Found here:

    In that video, you discuss the difficulty we might have loving those who are fractured, the person who is unwilling or incapable of receiving it.

    The 5 guys I was living with took in Jim, a 24year old man with schizophrenia, paranoid type. He spent most of the day under a blanket in the corner of our dining room. At night, when there were few people around, he would ride the bike we got for him, (A good way for him to burn off nervous energy.) We attempted the usual “fixes”. Found his mother, researched his medical and family history, tried various medications. No great change. He did like to eat, so we had to put padlocks on all three refrigerators. One day we had to clean up the kitchen ceiling because he threw tomato soup up in the air. That was partly our fault because we did not tell him we were entering the room. Another time, I found a knife suddenly sticking out of the wall beside me as I entered the kitchen. I learned not to sneak up on him. We had one rule, NO physical violence, and, if the line was crossed, we would ask him to leave.

    He jumped Dan in the hall one morning and it took two of us to pull him off. He was asked to leave and he did. He spent a few days under the house but then he moved on. We lost track of him for a few months. We heard that he was killed in a car crash, on the way back from L.A. Still mystery how he got hold of an old highway police cruiser.

    The point? Bother Barry led Jim to a saving knowledge of our Lord and Savior on a day when Jim was thinking clearly. No quick fix. Frustration and disappointment that we could not do more. Anxious and stressful days and nights for us and Jim until God took him home. God is good and gracious and he calls those He loves to Himself. The rest of us do what we can, what we are called to do, and we use wisdom to know what that is and when to refrain and stay safe. Was it a “hollywood ending”? No, but it might make a good movie.


    Liked by 1 person

  7. For me, forgiving was the key that unlocked the prison of depression and hopelessness I’d been locked in for over a decade after being raped at the age of 14 and again several times in high school. I had a secular counselor tell me I had a right to be angry, and I agree that I did. But through a dream God showed me that I needed to forgive, not for my rapists, but for me. The anger I hung on to for so long was killing me and stealing my joy.

    I agree that no victim of abuse should be expected to reconcile with their abuser. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you let the person back into your life and treat them like the abuse never happened. What forgiveness does mean is that you give up your claim of vengeance to God who is infinitely more qualified to dole out justice than we are.

    In hindsight, I do wish I had reported the assaults I experienced and let the justice system work. But I was afraid and ashamed so I never did. It’s been 40 years since the first rape and I’ve reached a point where I’ve forgiven and left it up to God. It’s too late for our justice system to work properly in those situations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Linda, thank you for sharing your story. I’m so sorry about what happened. And yes, I believe forgiveness is absolutely powerful and even necessary. It’s often a gift for the one who was hurt (and not necessarily for the one who perpetrated the hurt). I also grieve over the systemic abuses and failures which do not allow justice to be dealt properly. We need safe avenues for recourse. Thank you again for sharing. I am curious if you’ve written your story somewhere.


  8. I can see where you are all going with this, but what happens when you were raped young then despite best efforts ended up with an abuser who used the initial rape story to humiliate the person. How do you recover from the warning signs being there, but being so traumatised to see them. How does the victim forgive themselves for not getting out of the abusive situation. What if they can see where God was and didn’t recognise Him? How can they resolve the hurt and rage they feel twds the abuser, and the shame they feel themselves in a Christian way?


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