On Forgiveness, Repentance, and Necessary Mercy

In the wake of an emotionally abusive onslaught from a casualty vampire I previously called “friend,” I wrote “To Hell With Forgiveness Culture. This piece proved cathartic and spiritually freeing of the weight of their inadequacies, shortcomings, and abuses during the tenure and downfall of our relationship.

While I wrote this piece for myself, to organize my thoughts on the matter post-verbal shaming, I decided to share it on my Medium in case my words proved beneficial for anyone needing them.

What I did not expect was for this to rapidly become my most popular piece, with interactions and commentary far exceeding its published date.

Though this was emotionally gratifying for the writer in me, the woman who spent weeks and months reeling from the abuses of her former friend was confused. What did it say about the world — and possibly me — that my most popular article was about not forgiving those who abuse you?

What piqued my interest more than that, however, were some of the comments I received:

I think that it is unhealthy to hold a grudge, but that doesn’t mean you tolerate abusive behavior either. It isn’t one or the other. Forgiving someone isn’t necessarily forgetting. It can involve moving forward without that person being a part of your life. Which can be tough.

And here, where I stated “the platitude of ‘peace, love, and light’ is as shallow as it lacks meaning” a commenter rebuked me:

It only lacks meaning if you reject Jesus Christ.

After ruminating on this dilemma for several months, I’ve come to the following conclusion: everyone copes with abuse differently. It’s likely a comforting concept for people who can’t forgive those who wronged them. In this way, forgiveness is used as a means of making the circumstances more palatable for spectators.

Forgiveness is necessary for some people to find peace.

This isn’t something everyone need subscribe to in order find their healing, however. The refusal to forgive our abusers can come from a position of power and strength, contrary to the conventional belief where it comes from a position of emotional weakness — a useful and harmful lie.

I strongly believe my original piece speaks to the idea of finding peace in your journey while still holding abusers accountable for their actions — because not forgiving someone is a justifiable response to their continued actions and the effect they have on others if they aren’t truly apologetic.

It is for this reason I would like to spend some time on discussing what I think forgiveness is vs. what I think it is not based on the Bible so many often tout as inerrant truth.

In To Hell With Forgiveness Culture, I said:

Western culture has a deeply ingrained religious hangover from Christianity.

This can be seen easily in how we treat victims and mandate their actions post abuse:

This mindset often manifests itself in edicts like forgive and forget, turn the other cheek. This perspective influences judgement over whether a victim’s reactions are proportional to the original sin. … It occurs to me that condemning a person because they can’t or won’t forgive their antagonist with these tired tropes of “they’re poisoning themselves,” or “they’re carrying it with them” is tantamount to another Abrahamic-culturally-ingrained guilt trip.

The irony in this mindset is the lack of fundamental knowledge on what Biblical forgiveness truly is. It is corrupted for many reasons; primarily, the perpetrator finds gratification in harming others, while others naïvely consider it a get-out-of-jail-free card. Some still may require this bastardization of forgiveness’ true meaning because they require the validation.

So, what is Biblical forgiveness?

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.”
— Luke 17:3

The key word in this verse is if. But how do we know if someone is truly repentant vs. merely apologizing to escape retribution?

In my mind, if the perpetrator is truly repentant, they own their deeds. They’re prepared to do whatever is necessary to make amends, which is to say, the repentant are those who repent.

Further, I consider it good evidence that a person is sincere if they repent before their offense is publicly known, or for what would otherwise never be known, or if they apologize before their apology is publicly required.

On that note, what is Biblical repentance?

“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.”
— Hebrews 10:25–27

This passage indicates that if we are not truly repentant after being initially forgiven, we will be judged and dealt with harshly by God.

“Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”
— Proverbs 28:13

This passage makes it clear that those who act against others but do not admit to it will endure hardship, rather than finding Godly mercy for their sins.

“First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds.”
— Acts 26:20

That is, that they should repent of their sins, as they are a transgression of his law, committed against God.

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem God requires us to forgive them if he hasn’t. Those who are unrepentant become God’s enemies:

“Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.”
— Psalm 139:21–22

But the star of the Forgiveness Culture phenomenon is arguably this verse:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
— Matthew 5:38–39

Yet, this verse has very little to do with forgiveness. This verse speaks to us on resisting the urge to retaliate against those who wrong us. Curiously, the following never used in the conversation on forgiveness:

“And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
— Matthew 5:40

This verse touches on the core of humanity’s desire to see the unjust punished. It petitions us instead to value others above ourselves in tangible ways. This text is often misunderstood, as if it indicates to oppose justice. Instead, it reminds us we should be selfless and trust God to make things right instead of exacting lex talionis.

Furthermore, it has been subverted by antagonists and apologists for their own purposes in manipulating victims into believing they fall short of the mark when they do not forgive their abusers.

But I am not religious in the Abrahamic sense.

So, why do I care what the Bible has to say?

Because I was raised in a religiously Conservative and Protestant atmosphere, I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover. Thus, when it is misrepresented to me by those seeking to shame me, I know it. Therefore, it is my desire to share my knowledge with others, particularly those struggling:

True repentance leads a person to say, “I have sinned” and prove it with a 180-degree change of their behavior. Repentance requires true emotionally subdued and contrite conduct on behalf of the perpetrator. Repentance is an honest, regretful acknowledgement of sin with commitment to change. Repentance leads us to cultivate godliness while eradicating habits that lead into sin.

Perhaps it’s the Biblical definition of forgiveness that informs my apostate opinions on it. I believe forgiveness must be earned. I believe forgiveness is for the victim, not the perpetrator. Additionally, as stated in my previous piece, “forgive others, not because they deserve it, but because you deserve peace” instills the idea in abusers that they can act with impunity.

Because no matter the grave depths of their actions, they can rest in smug assurance that they will be forgiven — and if not, the fatal flaw in their victims is revealed.

But what of mercy? At its core, mercy is forgiveness with the added element of sympathy. How badly must someone be suffering privately if they wound the people around them so?

Yet, there is a difference between mercy and sacrifice; in order for repentance and forgiveness — and thus, mercy — to truly matter, a relationship based on forgiveness, love, reconciliation, and truth must come to fruition. If Biblical mercy and forgiveness concern you, and if your perpetrator attempted to use your misfortune as a notch in their spirituality belt while standing proud of their acts against you, you are not required to mete out forgiveness blindly. You aren’t required to sacrifice yourself for them.

Especially if they or others demand you do.

However, if you find radical mercy and forgiveness are necessary for your own healing and spiritual journey, that is ultimately your decision. I support you wholeheartedly in that endeavor.

What I ask is that you, in turn, support those of us who withhold forgiveness for reasons best known to ourselves.

Finding peace after abuse of any kind is a personal journey. It needn’t be made more difficult by victim-blaming perpetrators and apologists looking to avoid accountability for their actions.

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