December 10, 2007 - Forgiving in an Unhealthy Situation


In writing about forgiveness, several readers have asked: “What about forgiving within an unhealthy relationship, one that is toxic and dysfunctional? Should you continue in the relationship when the person just keeps doing the same thing over and over again, never changing his behavior?”

To quote my sister, “Forgiveness isn’t the same as stupid!” It doesn’t mean we’re to act like doormats, allowing evil to run rampant in an abusive relationship. Loving our enemy does not mean excusing his behavior.

To echo the civil rights activist Martin Luther King, we need to understand the difference between non-resistance to evil and non-violent resistance. In any toxic relationship, we strive to resist the abuse with a peace-filled, godly response. This includes establishing healthy boundaries where you’re less vulnerable to abuse and, if God directs, it may mean ending the relationship (much easier said than done when the abuser is a parent, a spouse, or a child).

Regardless, the act of forgiveness does not require you to keep taking the abuse, and it doesn’t mean you must remain in the abusive situation.

Jesus shows us that forgiveness can be immediate when he forgives those who were crucifying him – during the very act of crucifixion: “Father, forgive these people, because they don't know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34a NLT)

As we mature in Christ, God will teach us to forgive constantly, even instantly. But it’s a learning process, so don’t take off on a guilt trip if you’re unable to do that now. Fall upon God’s grace and let him move you closer toward forgiveness. It may – probably will – take time to fully receive his grace to forgive, and God can work with that. The first step may simply be to let God soften your heart. Our hearts have a tendency to become hardened in difficult relationships.

Again, let me stress, the softening of your heart toward the abuser is not the same as saying it’s OK to keep taking the abuse, and it’s not the same as saying you have to stay in a situation where you are being or may be abused.

Forgiveness is not the same as agreeing with the behavior of the abuser.

What now?

· Remember the enemy is the enemy – The Bible teaches that when we’re in conflict, the real enemy is not the person we face. The real battle we’re in is against Satan’s unseen spiritual forces of wickedness. (Ephesians 6:12) The enemy wants us to think the battle is ours alone, and that causes us fight as if we’re separated from God. Our goal should be to trust that God is in the battle. (1 Samuel 17:47)

· Through prayer, bless those who abuse you – With your prayers, you can bless people who continually hurt you. They’re in bondage to their own sins, and although that doesn’t excuse their behavior, it does give you insight into how you can pray for them. God intended these relationships for good, yet they’re stripped away by alcohol or anger issues or other counterfeits Satan uses to destroy true fellowship and family. Pray for them to become the person God always intended.

· Take a firm stand – You need group to support you in an intervention, and you may need a mediator present, but the Bible teaches God’s light can penetrate the deepest darkness with hope for restoration and reconciliation. This can provide a quicker path to healing. Regardless, you need to take a firm stand against the abuse, and you may need others to help you do that.

· Should I stay or go? – I’ve seen abusive relationships over the years and know it would be naive to suggest that an intervention, sprinkled with some prayer dust, will suddenly change everything. Some people respond to confrontation; some are crushed by the love of God invading their heart. But many, many people remain toxic and abusive, even when confronted in love, even when forgiven, even when drenched in God’s grace. You may very well need to end the relationship, as difficult as that may be. It’s not your job to change the person, so don’t consider it a failure on your part if he or she doesn’t change when confronted with God’s love and truth.

© 2007 Jon Walker. All rights reserved.