Why “Forgiveness Is a Gift You Give Yourself” Is a Dangerous Myth

We have a new mantra in both American Christianity and in American secularism: forgive.

Forgiveness is the latest tool for believers and nonbelievers alike to overcome a painful past and difficult relationships and people, to achieve personal peace, happiness and success. 

But this widespread view of forgiveness, called “therapeutic forgiveness, popular both inside and outside the church, effectively guts the gospel and robs it of its real power. Here are six myths that are threatening our understanding and practice of biblical forgiveness.

1. “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.” 

So said a megachurch pastor on CBS This Morning a few weeks ago. He’s one of a parade of Christian and secular writers and speakers in the last decade, including Fred Luskin, the founder and director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, who states outright that “forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.”

Biblical forgiveness is a gift to the offender.

We release another person’s debts for their sake and for Christ’s sake. 

Forgiveness enables us to care about the good of the other rather than just ourselves. This is the gospel: loving our neighbors and our enemies. Yes, the forgiver often heals through forgiveness as well, but as a consequence of “loving their neighbor.”

It’s not all about us.

2. Forgiveness is about letting go of the past.

Secularized forgiveness, emphasizing self-empowerment and “letting go,” focuses mostly on the future, giving insufficient attention to what happened in the past. 

In biblical forgiveness, God redeems and heals the past rather than erases it. 

God continually admonishes us to “remember” Him and to remember the events of the past, both the triumphs and the disasters.

When we turn from the past entirely, we will miss the wisdom and compassion that we can learn from our wounds. As Dr. Dan Allendar has written, “Every tragedy in the past is an opportunity for redemption. And each time we forget, we lose another moment to experience God’s mysterious redemption in our lives. “ 

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Leslie Leyland Fields
Leslie Leyland Fields is an award-winning author of eight books, a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a national speaker, a popular radio guest, and a sometimes commercial fisherwoman, working with her husband and 6 children in commercial fishing on Kodiak Island, Alaska where she has lived for 36 years. Her latest book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers (Thomas Nelson), released January 21, 2014.