What Christians get wrong about forgiveness

Certainly forgiveness is axiomatic for anyone who says the Lord’s Prayer. But the exhortation toward forgiveness can quickly turn into pressure. Victims of serious crimes are often encouraged to forgive their attackers in a public way and on an accelerated timeline. And this pressure frequently originates with religious leaders or in the victim’s own faith community.

One particularly troubling example of this pressure comes from the published guidelines of the Advanced Training Institute (a Christian curriculum TLC’s Duggar family used to homeschool their children) for addressing sexual abuse in the home. It explicitly requires child victims to forgive their abusers in a 10-step process that includes first looking for guilt in oneself (“Why did God let it happen? Result of defrauding by: immodest dress, indecent exposure, being out from protection of our parents, being with evil friends?”). 

The problem isn’t just that these manuals explicitly invite victims to blame themselves, the problem is that it creates a cavalier expectation of forgiveness. It is easy to see how a family reared on these manuals would urge its young women to publicly forgive their abuser. In a culture that values forgiveness, condemnation awaits those who refrain. Our language mirrors the subtle religious rhetoric: to be “unforgiving” is to be harsh, judgmental, and lacking in compassion. The common understanding of forgiveness fails to recognize how much work and time is involved in genuine forgiveness.