7 Dangers of Embracing Mere Therapeutic Forgiveness

I’ve been preaching the past couple weeks on forgiveness. In preparing I’ve found Chris Brauns’ work, Unpacking Forgiveness, to be immensely helpful. A position that I have held for awhile now is that forgiveness isn’t simply about us. We don’t forgive someone primarily because we release ourselves from some prison of bitterness. Though that is certainly a benefit—we forgive because God forgave us.

I’ve also held the position, for a while now, that there is a difference between the posture of forgiveness and actually living in reconciliation with someone. I can forgive you—as in, absorb the cost of your sin, not hold your sin against you, etc.. But I cannot fully forgive you—in the everything is reconciled since—until you repent. I’m convinced we have to hold this position as it relates to God’s forgiveness of us, otherwise we must embrace universalism.

Brauns does a phenomenal job of showing the difference between biblical forgiveness and what he terms therapeutic forgiveness. Therapeutic forgiveness is more the feeling of forgiving someone. Your forgive them in your heart or in your mind. It becomes “an emotion rather than a transaction or commitment between two parties”. (65) For me, I don’t believe the therapeutic forgiveness is absolutely wrong. I just believe it is incomplete. But when it becomes what we primarily mean by forgiveness then it becomes extremely unhelpful.

Brauns lists 7 problems we have when therapeutic forgiveness becomes our sole definition for forgiveness:

  1. It distorts people’s understanding of true forgiveness. To say that two offenders are equally forgiven when one repents and the other does not is to cheapen the beauty of reconciliation and true biblical forgiveness.
  2. It attempts to redefine how people understand God’s forgiveness. Forgiven people aren’t in hell, but therapeutic forgiveness would force us into that position.
  3. It suggests that some people may even need to forgive God.
  4. It results in ‘cheap grace’ and a reluctance to identify and name evil. “The church ought to identify and name evil, not declare that all must be unconditionally forgiven.
  5. It discourages healing in Christian community. Therapeutic forgiveness tends to make us “forget about relationships and move on”. The Bible calls us to something far more difficult—but far more glorious.
  6. It may make individuals feel licensed to avoid dealing with their own sin. “Working through forgiveness biblically will force us to wrestle with truth rather than only with feelings”
  7. It does not prepare us as Christians for the persecution and evil that we may face. How can you handle the real evil and speak about justice when forgiveness is merely an emotion we should grant to every offender?

We must be careful how we think through biblical forgiveness and how we counsel folks who have been sinned against. It is inevitable that we will need forgiveness and need to forgive. I’m finding that there are so few doctrines which are as grossly misunderstood. And certainly which aren’t as applied. I close with these words of JC Ryle:

Let these truths sink down deeply into our hearts. It is a melancholy fact that there are few Christian duties so little practiced as that of forgiveness. It is sad to see how much bitterness, unmercifulness, spite, harshness, and unkindness there is among men. Yet there are few duties so strongly enforced in the New Testament Scriptures as this duty is, and few the neglect of which so clearly shuts a man out of the kingdom of God.” (From here)

Let’s forgive one another as Christ forgave us—but let’s be sure when we do so we are walking in the forgiveness Scripture speaks of and not merely the forgiveness the Dr. Phil’s of our day encourage.

Photo source: here


  1. I agree with what you’ve written here. I wish you would write more about this. The “forgive and forget” idea we Americans hold doesn’t seem biblical … and it’s often used, for example, to manipulate abused Christian women into staying with their completely unrepentant husbands (this includes the children staying as well). That’s just an example, but what it so often does is it makes the forgiver into an ongoing victim and the forgivee into an excused and enabled perpetrator. This has been a confusing maze for me personally. What is forgiveness, really? How do I do that without actually encouraging sin (or is that not my business how the other person responds)? Not looking for excuses or justification to not forgive … just not sensing that what I’ve always been taught is quite right … and genuinely aching to follow Jesus in this.

    • Thank you so much for the comment. I think picking up Brauns’ book might be helpful. He has a chapter in there on similar situations to those you’ve mentioned. It’s a great book and will point you in the write direction. I’m planning on preaching on this Sunday as well. At some point I’ll post that sermon online too. But more than anything…read Brauns’ book, maybe even in the context of a local church.

    • For clarification, not trying to take away from your comment… This false theology can also can be used against abused husbands. Abuse isn’t relegated to only one gender.

  2. I still don’t understand forgiveness. If you forgive a person who repeatedly hurts you, does it mean you have to stay friends with him/her and let him/her do it over and over again…?

    • Miha, You’ve actually asked a pretty complex question. There are so many unknowns in your question. Is this person repentant? What is the nature of the relationship? Are there hurts which shouldn’t be hurts?

      You should have a willingness to forgive, an offer of forgiveness that is unconditional. But if this person in your life keeps unrepentantly hurting you over and over again, there is nothing in Scripture which says you need to be reconciled to such a one. (Obviously, there is another ripple to this if that person is a spouse). Again, there are quite a few missing pieces here which make it difficult to know exactly how to respond.

      • Thank you so much for your response! It added some light to a dilemma I’ve had for a long time. Yes, if the person is a spouse, it makes if more difficult. But I’m reffering most to friends (or so called friends), colleagues and maybe some relatives.
        Do you continue staying friends with them even after they hurt you (like saying mean things) as a sign of forgiveness or you keep some distance in order to protect yourself? What if the person is repentant, but still does the same things after a while?
        Not rarely have I heard from christians (but also non-christians) suggesting to others to keep a toxic relation because you have forgiven them. This, I don’t know how to aproach it.

  3. Thank you for your thoughts. You’ve given me much to think about here. You stated “I’ve also held the position, for a while now, that there is a difference between the posture of forgiveness and actually living in reconciliation with someone. I can forgive you—as in, absorb the cost of your sin, not hold your sin against you, etc.. But I cannot fully forgive you—in the everything is reconciled since—until you repent” and I’m just wondering how that “squares-up” with the words of Jesus as He was being crucified, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do” as the soldiers had not asked for forgiveness nor shown repentance but Christ was offering it?

    • Good question. And I think we can model that. Notice Jesus didn’t say, “I forgive you”. He pleaded with God to grant them forgiveness. Notice too his response to the thief on the cross. He repented and Jesus said, “today you will be with me in paradise”…so, reconciliation.

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  6. Lots of good stuff here. I think that reconciliation is not required for us to truly forgive. Reconciliation is necessary, though, for a fully restored relationship, but that’s not the same thing as forgiveness, in my opinion. Reconciliation is a critical part of God’s forgiveness, since He is the Judge. It’s His justice that must be satisfied, not ours. I add a third element to forgiveness which may give a new slant on this. The first two elements, releasing a malicious attitude, and not taking revenge, are mandatory from a biblical point of view. The third element, releasing the other person from the natural consequences of their actions, is not mandatory. I may forgive the thief who breaks into my house, in the first two ways, but still call the police and send him to prison. I may forgive my child their disobedience but still provide a negative consequence, like taking away privileges. The third element is exercised with discretion depending on what’s best in the situation. Often, we can let consequences go (my wife puts up with my occasional crabbiness), but sometimes, for both their good and ours we must have consequences, if only to teach them a lesson or to set boundaries. I discuss this in more detail on my church’s website-the 7/24 and 7/31 entries on our radio broadcast. http://www.ivevfree.com/new-page-1/

  7. Great article. I’ve used the argument of “embracing universalism” but have not used the “cheapens Grace” one. I think I’ll print this article out and memorize it for “apologetics’ (Pun intended)

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