Forgiveness is the heartbeat of salvation history and the virtue that should mark the followers of Jesus. But those who seek to control and manipulate others can twist even the very heart of the gospel for their perverted ends.

A friend of mine experienced this. She endured a hellish childhood and abuse by several family members, including her father. No one in her life intervened or spoke up. As an adult, she finally gathered the courage to confront her abusers, who misused Scripture and twisted theology to excuse their actions and demand her silence.

Citing Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13, my friend’s abusers pressed her to forgive “as God forgives.” God forgives us by taking on our punishment, they argued, so she should likewise “forgive and forget” and forgo reporting their crimes to the police. After initially “forgiving” her offenders, my friend distanced herself from her family. When she did so, they interpreted her actions as unforgiveness and bitterness, adding to her moral conflict.

She is not alone. Again and again, across denominations, we hear stories about how “forgiveness” has been used to vindicate abusers and silence the abused. Once this coerced forgiveness is offered, it seems impossible to retract, which is often why abusers use forgiveness as a silencing technique.

How, then, can we de-weaponize forgiveness? I see at least four ways for the church to help dismantle faux forgiveness that’s wielded as a weapon by offenders while preserving the central place authentic forgiveness has in the Christian faith.

First, churches can help survivors strengthen their sense of agency and self-worth. Since the 1980s, researchers like Judith Herman and Bessel van der Kolk have shown how child sexual abuse severely damages survivors’ self-esteem and sense of independence. Without substantial recovery of one’s sense of agency and self-worth—which often requires years, if not decades, of loving support, counseling, and inner work—the act of forgiveness will often be involuntary and a continuation of the abuse.

Only when significant healing has taken place and a sense of self-worth and independence from the offender has been regained can forgiveness become what God intended. As philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff points out, the expression of forgiveness communicates to the offender that you have wronged me and unjustly violated my rights. Proper anger against wrongdoers and their crimes, which presupposes a sense of self-worth, is therefore not incompatible with forgiveness but part of it.

Article continues below

Second, we must understand that forgiveness does not mean a lack of accountability or punishment for the evildoer. The act of justice actually demonstrates the biblical love of neighbor. Forgiveness is part of the virtue of love, the fulfillment of the law, and what God gives us through Christ and the power of the Spirit (Rom. 13:8, Matt. 22:34–40).

At the start of his discourse on love in his letter to the Romans, Paul famously urges his readers to overcome evil with good (12:21), to not avenge themselves, and to leave room for the wrath of God (v. 19). For Paul, to love one’s enemy involves letting go of personal revenge. Yet, importantly, it does not mean letting go of accountability for another’s actions.

In Romans 13:4, Paul describes the government as God’s servant to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Child abuse is a sin and a crime, and as a crime, it is a societal problem. Crimes require the government—the embodiment of the people and the servant of God—to call the offender to account. In other words, leaving room for God’s wrath and asking the government as God’s servant to execute wrath are fully compatible with one another.

In fact, reporting sexual abuse is an act of love. For survivors, reporting the crime underscores that they have worth in God’s eyes and that the abuse is unjust. It redresses the power imbalance in the dynamics of the abuse. A just sentence defeats what Daniel Philpott calls “the standing victory of the wrongdoer’s injustice.” In condemning an abuser’s actions, society vindicates survivors as being wronged by their offenders.

Reporting a crime can also be an act of love for the broader community because it prevents the abuser from harming others. And it can be an act of love toward the abuser, as it holds him or her accountable and invites repentance.

Third, we can disarm a misuse of forgiveness by properly understanding reconciliation. An emphasis on reconciliation is often used by an offender to sear the victim’s conscience and silence him or her. The proper response to such injustice is not reconciliation but repentance.

True reconciliation, when it is possible, requires fully acknowledging the evil of the abuse and the harm it causes, displaying active repentance of the evil done, and offering restitution to the victim. These actions do not impede reconciliation; they are prerequisites for it. If offenders refuse to be confronted with their abuse, it suggests they have not fully come to terms with their victims’ dignity, the evil they have done, and the pain they have caused.

Article continues below

It is similar in our relationship with God. We all flourish as human beings only when we acknowledge the evil we have done toward God, actively repent of it, and offer restitution by surrendering our lives to the Lord (Prov. 28:13).

Only through repentance do we experience God’s forgiveness and prepare ourselves for the day when our sins—past, present, and future—will not hinder in any way our relationship with the Lord. Those who try to force their victims to forgive not only reabuse their victims but also manipulate Scripture, violate Christian practice, and avoid their real good: accountability, repentance, and restitution.

Finally, a truly repentant offender recognizes that forgiveness is an undeserved gift that must be offered freely by the injured party. The one who has committed a sin cannot demand forgiveness from God or from a fellow image-bearer. Otherwise, it would still be coercion.

And God does not coerce the vulnerable. Instead, he promises to defend them, heal them, and invite them into the fullness of his kingdom (Ps. 37:27–29). The church must bear witness to that good news, so that forgiveness will not be used to cover up sin and silence the abused.

Wilco de Vries is an assistant professor at Theological University of Utrecht|Kampen in the Netherlands and a research fellow at Duke Divinity School. This essay is adapted from a presentation for a Harvard “Symposium on Faith and Flourishing: Preventing and Healing Child Abuse.” Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest column.

[ This article is also available in Français 简体中文, and 繁體中文. ]

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.