Unhealthy Forgiveness: Why We Should Not Forgive Misinterpretations

forgivenessConsider these uncomfortable statements. Forgiveness is not always a virtue. Forgiveness can be offensive and destructive to a relationship. There are times when forgiving only reinforces our pride or blindness.

Think through these situations for a moment:

  • A husband feels hurt because his wife “disrespected him” when she asked a question about a decision he was making but genuinely didn’t understand (and he did not adequately explain).
  • A wife feels hurt when her husband “failed to pursue her” when his plans for their anniversary did not match what she was hoping for (but had never disclosed to him what she wanted).
  • A friend feels hurt when the other friend is “unwilling to invest in the relationship” but “investing” means matching the unhealthy, excessive commitment that the first friend gives to the relationship.

In each of these brief vignettes it would be easy for the husband-wife-friend to say, “I forgive you,” and this would healthily remedy the situation. But in each case, forgiveness would be destructive to their own character and the relationship.

Why?

In each case the hurt being forgiven was based on a misinterpretation; forgiving would further ingrain this misinterpretation. Accepting this forgiveness offered would add a level of social reinforcement to the misinterpretation.

Consider each situation again:

  • The husband would believe that his communication about decisions was adequate and that anything that aggravated his insecurities was wrong.
  • The wife would believe that a truly loving husband should “just know” what his wife desired and that anything that disappointed her was a sign of a poor marriage.
  • The friend would believe their excessive needy-giving was the Christ-like standard for selfless sacrifice and that everyone else should match their unsustainable level involvement in the life of others.

What is the danger?

If we view forgiveness as only a virtue, then the husband-wife-friend would believe that they responded in “the biblical way” and that any resistance to their overture would reveal hard-heartedness on the other person’s part. Intentional or not, this is a form of manipulation. Even with the best of intentions (which is sometimes true), it contributes to the deterioration of the relationship.

What is missing?

These scenarios reveal a neglect of the guiding principles of Matthew 7:1-5, to take the log out of our eye first. When we fail to properly take into account or role in a relational hardship, even our most biblical practices become destructive rather than helpful. Self-awareness is an essential component of applying the Scriptures to our life and relationships as God intended.

If we do not see ourselves or the situation rightly, we are not applying the Bible to our life or our situation. We are applying the Bible to a figment of our imagination.

That is what is happening is each situation above. Forgiveness becomes a way that the husband-wife-friend tries to force the other person to live in their “alternative reality.”

What is an appropriate response?

If you are on the receiving end of unhealthy forgiveness a two-fold response is recommended: (a) empathy towards the hurt along with (b) an invitation to reconsider the interpretation.

An extension of forgiveness means the other person is hurt. Even if their interpretation is not true; their experience is real. A lack of empathy towards their hurt will only reinforce their interpretation that you are in the wrong.

We can only offer an invitation to reconsider the interpretation. If we aggressively refute the interpretation, a conversation will become a debate. In the context of hurt, this has a very low probability of being fruitful. Additionally, we offer an invitation because our interpretation may be wrong. Hearing from our friend may reveal things we missed in our initial experience of the interaction.

With that said, a response might sound like this:

“I am very sorry that you are hurt. I’m not sure I understand yet why my response-actions was inappropriate. I appreciate your desire to handle this situation as Scripture desires – with repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. Can we walk back through what happened to assess what should have happened and what reasonable expectations-responses should have been?”

If you get an affirmative response, there is the opportunity for both of you to learn and grow. Either or both of you may need to repent and forgive.

If you get a defensive or aggressive response (and the situation is significant or repetitive), then you may need to say, “I don’t think I serve you best by accepting your forgiveness. I believe I would be reinforcing an inaccurate interpretation of these events. Can we invite someone we mutually trust to help us discern how honor God and one another in this situation?”

If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Forgiveness” or “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.