The Danger and Shame of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is so terribly hard. On a psychological level, it feels dangerous. The shame engendered by any insult or injury is our experience of vulnerability, and we instinctively react to protect ourselves. That, we must understand, is not a sin, it is an instinct that is a gift from God.

The example of Christ, who did not “turn His face from the spitting and the shame,” is also the example of just how difficult such an action can be. In the Garden of Gethsemane Christ agonizes in the face of the coming trial. He sweated blood.

I think the recurring problem of forgiveness is our effort to find a way around the danger of vulnerability. Is there a way to forgive and remain safe? In short, the answer is, “No.” Forgiveness is a voluntary self-emptying that embraces the vulnerability entailed in that action. Enemies have a way of crucifying you. The disciple is not above his master. If they crucified Him, there is no promise they will not crucify you. Forgiveness is not a safe thing.

We want to be safe. When we see that another person is sorry for what they have done to us, we begin to think that they will now become safe. We fear forgiving those who show no sorrow or who have not clearly repented of their actions towards us. And we do well to fear it. That is a completely rational, even “hard-wired,” instinctive response. But that tells us what forgiveness actually entails and what it is that Christ asks of us.

And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. Luke 6:34-36

The forgiveness in the commandments of Christ does not “hope to receive back.” It is not made in safety nor in the promise of a good outcome. We may expect “nothing in return.” Indeed, what can we expect if we forgive the “unthankful and the evil?” We can expect no thanks, and likely something unsavory in return.

Forgiveness in the Christian sense is properly an act of self-emptying. It is a voluntary act of foolishness in which we act in a manner contrary to the shame that has been cast upon us. Understood in this manner, forgiveness is of a piece with bearing the Cross itself. It is of paramount importance that the one act of general forgiveness offered by Christ is found in words spoken from the Cross. They could have been spoken from nowhere else.

There are a few things to note about the self-emptying of forgiveness. First and foremost, it can only be a voluntary offering. To force such an action upon someone would be toxic and harmful. God is not standing over us demanding our self-offering. Christ sweated blood in His own effort. No one could have more respect for what is involved in such an offering than God Himself. And so, the “commandment” of forgiveness should rightly be understood as an invitation to act in union with Christ who freely offered Himself on the Cross, “despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2).

The teaching of the Orthodox spiritual fathers is that we should forgive everyone for everything. Only in this can we be “like our Father in heaven.” But make no mistake: it is scary, hard, and without promise of safety or reward.

He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him. (Joh 14:21)

This is His promise.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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53 responses to “The Danger and Shame of Forgiveness”

  1. Dino Avatar

    Perhaps there are ways to ‘forgive all for all’ in the face of the natural human perception of being endangered by this, but they invariably necessitate that I accept that I am ‘stripped naked of God’, clad with the ‘shameful garments’ of futility-away-from-the-One that loves me first: so to the measure of the awareness of one’s own sinfulness against God’s forgiveness (Matthew 18:33), as well as of one’s “self-forgetfulness” –appropriate to complete “Christ-mindfulness”– forgiveness of all for all becomes innate.

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed. However, it’s so easy to misunderstand one’s own sinfulness – our adversary seeks to poison even that repentance. It is in this that I take the Elder Sophrony’s words to heart, “teach them to bear a little shame…” It necessarily starts small.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Hmmm. Maybe it is a psychological trick of mine or I have not yet gone deeply enough, but I have come to see my safety precisely in the vulnerability of forgiveness. A perspective I have developed in no small part because of my reflections on the content of this blog over the years.

    Plus, I have seen too many people including myself who try to protect themselves by refusing to forgive. The damage in such a course is deep and abiding and horrible.

    Forgiveness is an absolute refusal to be bound by sin, shame and fear — a proclamation of the truth and freedom of the Ressurection. The Cross is the door to all of that as Father Stephen notes when he says that Christ’s general forgiveness could only be proclaimed from the Cross.

    Your enemy no longer has any power or control or influence over you once you forgive. He may kill you, but you are free. Real freedom results…and you heap coals of fire on the heads (of your enemies). Not the fire of revenge or retribution but the fire of love. Not occasionally transformation in one’s enemy results although that is not the reason to forgive.

    I am not saying it is easy or there is not an element of danger. There is. But the consequences of not forgiving is death of one’s heart, even physical death as well. There is no safety there.

    I have also come to consider that my shame stems from my refusal to accept Christ’s mercy both for my sinfulness and the motes that dwell in other’s hearts.

    We fast to acknowledge that it is not by bread alone that we live. Do we not forgive in a like acknowledgement that only through forgiveness is there greater life, the Life? It only takes the Cross to get there.

    My priest noted yesterday that Blue Lake in New Zealand is considered the purest lake in the world because the amount of water that comes into it every day is equal to the amount that flows out. Great clarity in the lake water results. He was urging us to forgive so that we might be forgiven. Is that not our safety, no matter the difficulties that seem to intervene?

    “We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer teaches us to render the deeds of mercy”. As Shylock lost everything by his refusal to have mercy, so we too loose all when we refuse. Is that safety?

    May His mercy abound in each of us this Lent and may we have the grace to accept His mercy.

    Glory be to God.

  4. Byron Avatar

    Father, I recall previously on this blog, where you mentioned that in cases of abuse there may be a necessary distance (physically) involved in our forgiveness. How does this balance with the idea presented here of a loss of safety? I know there is a distinction that needs to be made but I cannot put my thumb on it….

  5. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you Father

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good question. There is a strange phenomenon involved in shame. From a fairly clinical work on shame:

    In the midst of shame, there is an ambivalent longing for reunion with whomever shamed us. We feel divided and secretly yearn to feel one, whole. The experience of shame feels like a rupture either in self, in a particular relationship, or both. Shame is an affective experience that violates both interpersonal trust and internal security. Intense shame is a sickness within the self, a disease of the spirit.

    That “ambivalent longing for reunion” can also be among the sickest things possible…for example, the abused spouse who refuses to leave. That shame “binds” us to our enemy. These are situations when we definitely need space. We literally are not well enough to forgive – not truly forgive in freedom. We cannot tell the difference between our own “voluntary” action and a toxic “longing for reunion” in such circumstances.

    This is why it must be a truly voluntary offering – not simply a neurotic need to get you to love me just one more time…

  7. Byron Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

  8. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Thank you, Father.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is also an equally neurotic need to be “right”, to “win” and to not be a coward.

    Forgiveness seems to contradict all of those needs. Though I must say that the desire to be right and not back down seems to be another way of forcing the other to finally love you.

    Could be wrong.

    Space become more difficult when there is a shared child does it not?

  10. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Father I really don’t understand this article. At the end of the article doesn’t Jesus’ promise to manifest Himself to that person count as a great reward?

    I was also under the impression that any type of self protection is not appropriate for a Christian.

    Following my dad’s botched cataract surgery (almost two years ago) I spent at least six months telling myself, ‘ he is going to kill me and I have to let him.’ But my priest has been talking about AA in his sermons, a quote from which is how the alcoholic goes against nature in seeking his distruction and I wonder if I have been doing the same and trying to call it holiness.

    I have such dread of seeing him. I think he is deeply under the sway of the enemy of mankind (he recently discussed with me how Hindus worship the sun which he seemed to be implying includes him. He is Hindu and listening to what he calls wisdom I find torture).

    I see his face change as though he goes into a trance.

    My husband and I thought it was alzheimers but my sister who is a social worker has said it is not. After an additional year of observing him I think it is a panic related trance.

    I had been able to forgive him daily but once I told him the phrase, we have to forgive each other daily, and hearing him parrot that back to me was a turning point downhill.

    He needlessly makes things more difficult and can see no blessing.

    I have interpreted Jesus sweating blood as his revulsion at sin itself, just as when I do something wrong and regret it and feel horrible. Christ took our sin and so would have felt the revulsion of owning that sin

    Please help me understand appropriate self preservation related to
    “The shame engendered by any insult or injury is our experience of vulnerability, and we instinctively react to protect ourselves. That, we must understand, is not a sin, it is an instinct that is a gift from God.”

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christ manifesting Himself to us, I suppose, can be described as a reward. My intention was to say that we should not expect anything in return from those we forgive. It might come. It might not. But it is not the reason for forgiveness.

    Self-preservation is perfectly natural. It’s something that makes us be careful when walking near a cliff. The same instinct enters into our relationships when we feel emotionally vulnerable (whether we are going to be shamed by someone, receive their anger, etc.). This is not sin.

    Forgiveness is voluntary – it is a commandment, indeed – but still needs to come as a voluntary offering. There are dangers (emotionally and otherwise) for which we may be unprepared. There are emotional bullies, for example, who are simply so devastating in their behavior towards us that we find ourselves overwhelmed. We are not commanded to endure just anything, regardless.

    There are many martyrs who had the opportunity to flee their martyrdom but chose not to. They did not do wrong, but they would not have done wrong had they chosen to use their opportunity to flee.

    Bearing insults, for example, is a matter for mature thought. If we have the opportunity to avoid it, particularly if it is becoming emotionally difficult and too much, then avoid it. Particularly when someone’s behavior is abusive (emotional or otherwise), it is certainly appropriate for us to call them out on it – to challenge them. In family relationships, this can be very important.

    It’s also very difficult to judge these matters (family stuff) for oneself. We’re often quite blind in our familial relations. Talk to someone and share what’s going on. Wanting to protect yourself from harm is not wrong, nor is it a sin. I have walked out of relationships with people who were simply too abusive – I have also endured abuse from time to time.

    If you endure, then do it as a prayer to Christ. If you step aside from the abuse, ask God to help the person causing this, and to give you grace.

    Here are 3 verses that suggest fleeing persecution: Mt 2:13; 10:23; 24:16. The principle applies to other situations of danger. It is not wrong to avoid them.

  12. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    Who were you quoting in your comment at 2:43 PM? “Ambivalent longing for reunion” is an interesting notion and may be part of the picture for some people. However, I might add that there are many complicated factors that keep a person in an abusive relationship. (I say this, not to disagree with your excellent point, but for the sake of anyone reading who is in that experience. It doesn’t always work to try to analyze one’s own complex situation in light of such a point, however well-made.)

    I might add to the “neurotic need” list the need to be “holy”. With this one, we want so much to be holy (in the eyes of self, others or God) that we try to leap right into forgiveness without working through our legitimate emotions.

    For example, someone triggers my anger. Rather than acknowledging to myself that I am angry (perceived as “bad”), I suppress (consciously) or repress (unconsciously) the emotion. I rush to assure myself that I “forgive” the offending party, in order to maintain my holy self-image.

    There is much danger in this practice – and I know it from personal experience. It is not true forgiveness. (Nor is anger necessarily bad.) The anger doesn’t go away – it is just banished from awareness. It eventually finds other ways out – ranging from panic attacks to passive-aggressive behavior.

    In the process of rushing to be “holy”, we also miss out on the opportunity to grow in true sanctity – which occurs when we are humbled by our emotions and our helplessness in managing them. This may lead us to bring our unruly feelings to God and so learn more about ourselves, discovering His strength at work in our weakness.

    When we read of truly holy people who are not distraught when falsely accused or mistreated, we are reading of people who have already struggled profoundly with the passions and have been given the gift of a deep humility. As beautiful as this is, we must not pretend that we can skip all the struggles and be there ourselves, simply because we might wish it so.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The quote was from Gershen Kaufman (Psychology of Shame). I generally think people should get out of an abusive situation if at all possible. Very few people can endure continued abuse without suffering real harm to the soul. In martyrdom, you get killed. In abuse, you can get damaged, easily trapped in the sickness of the abuser. Even when the abuse is over, we generally need lots of help. Abuse is something that continues in your head (and soul) long after the abuse itself has stopped.

    Kaufman, who is primarily working from Tomkin’s work in Affect Theory, is most just describing clinical work, rather than pure theory. The “ambivalent longing for reunion” is a soft term for what can be a terrible reality. Every situation obviously has many complications. I think he is describing something that is simply true about the nature of shaming, however it is manifest.

    Once we get out of an abusive situation, then the work begins. The constant return to the shaming event (and the many ways it morphs in our lives – sometimes we even change roles and become the shamer) is tied up in Kaufman’s point. It doesn’t mean that “reunion” is good (it probably isn’t). It’s just part of the insanity.

    I completely agree viz. the rush to “holy.” Little things first and slowly.

  14. Victoria Avatar

    “Abuse is something that continues in your head (and soul) long after the abuse itself has stopped.”

    Fr Stephen – Is that considered remembrance of wrongs?

  15. victoria Avatar

    “sometimes we even change roles and become the shamer”

    Fr Stephen, can you unpack that a little more?

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s perhaps a form of such remembrance, but not necessarily sinful. Such remembrance when mentioned in “sin lists” really mean harbor Inc grudges. Even that is sometimes too simple a way to describe something more complex.

    On the other matter, the psychology of shame understands that one of darker ways of coping with a shaming “scene ” is to relive it but changing the role such that the victim is now the perpetrator. Thus, those who are abused are more likely to become abusers than those who not been abused. It’s part of the darkness that infects our inner life.

  17. Kasey Avatar

    re:the instinct to hide.
    I believe that the word for shame in Genesis can also mean shame. Adam and Eve’s response was to hide and cover up. ‘Shame’ here is definitely a result of sin. Note too when God calls them out it is not to undress them and shame them. Sin hides while truth and light is about exposure so that others may see God more clearly. In the end His grace brings the relief of decent clothing …. A more honest covering is the one God gives when we trust his heart is never to shame but to have us connected honestly, out in the open, vulnerable and in the light. Refusing to forgive another keeps our own heartsite in dark corners hiding and afraid of exposure.

  18. Victoria Avatar

    Ok – thank you for clarifying, I thought you meant that the abused would shame the abuser and I did not get that!

    Blessed Lent, Fr Stephen! Kali Sarakosti!!

  19. Z Avatar

    Would you say, Father, that when the measure of your forgiveness is higher than the measure of the corruption you see in yourself (at that very moment) that would be dangerous? (Example # 1 You forgive the gossiper, because you acknowledge to be gossiping yourself. #2 You forgive the gossiper, but yet you don’t believe, or maybe you are just blind to the fact that you are a gossiper yourself [I see here danger for judgement, pride, playing the victim, perfidy…etc] – or #3 you forgive all the gossipers in the world because you are no better yourself – I think this kind of forgiveness doesn’t come from you, it comes with prayer, it’s a gift, and when you get it, you know, and when you lose it you know it, as well. The struggle however, the need for God’s intervention, the acknowledgment that you can’t do it alone is what makes us sane, otherwise, we’ll be on the edge of the cliff. And, finally, #4 confront the gossiper, have courage to stand against the bully, but pray for them). Fighting deceit is undoubtedly possible only with the power of the cross.
    Pray for us Fr. Stephen!

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I was sitting at the DMV typing out my answer on my cell-phone – which certainly makes me tend towards brevity!

    Shame is a deep spiritual wound in the soul. It very easily morphs in many ways as we seek to find relief from its pain. It is, I think, a primary source for much that we describe as “sin.” Thus, it is not at all remarkable that it is the first such thing mentioned in Scripture. It is “primordial.”

    There are many “strategies” of reacting to shame: Rage, contempt, power, perfection, blame transfer, withdrawal, humor, denial – and more. It is quite complex – beyond our grasp, I think, most of the time. So, our spiritual path involves “bearing a little shame.” I trust that God will, in time, lead us through the healing our lives require as we expose ourselves to the Light. “Walk in Light, as He is in the Light…”

  21. Nancy Forderhase Avatar
    Nancy Forderhase

    Thank you very much, Fr. Stephen. I loved your talks at the conference.

  22. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    “There are many “strategies” of reacting to shame: Rage, contempt, power, perfection, blame transfer, withdrawal, humor, denial – and more. It is quite complex – beyond our grasp, I think, most of the time.”

    This is very well said, Fr. Stephen. And understanding the complexity of reactions can help us a great deal in understanding others as well as ourselves.

    There are some events that almost universally trigger shame. However, the experience of shame may be triggered very differently in different people and often we do not recognize it.

    I remember when I was in college many years ago, I attempted to correct an error made by my professor. Her reaction, angry sarcasm, took me completely by surprise. I thought we were just looking for the answer to a question. I did not understand until I was much older that I had inadvertently shamed her in front of others.

    These sorts of reactions are common in marriages and families. One person seems to be reacting “totally irrationally” but further reflection (or outside input) may reveal that that person was reacting to a sense of shame. And the person triggering the shame may not have a clue that they have done so. Even the person experiencing the shame may not recognize that this is the issue.

    A simple question like, “Have you found a job yet?” may be experienced as “You’re inadequate” and a whole sequence of shaming and counter-shaming may unfold.

    It is especially hard to forgive when we don’t understand what we are feeling and why. Thank you for shedding light on this.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Interesting that you mentioned humor. A good portion of current professional humor is expressly aimed at creating a shame reaction that results in laughter. Often it is a transference.

    It is quite consciously done though most would not recognized it as shame since we are not supposed to be ashamed of anything these days.

    It is not good laughter. Not the kind that heals. It is sad.

  24. Victoria Avatar

    Father Stephen – I had to smile that you can even use the word brevity in the same sentence talking about the DMV! 😌

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Andy Kaufman’s experimental humor consisted in making an utter fool of himself in front of audiences – who were deeply affected with shame and uncomfortable. An interesting experiment.

  26. Debbie Adams Avatar
    Debbie Adams


  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There are still good comedians who expose the absurdity of modern life in a manner that gives perspective — Gabriel Iglesias comes to mind but he also leverages the shame of being obese. (Interesting name, no?)

    There are many more who think that telling filthy stories in filthy language is actually comedy.

    Getting someone to laugh is often just a matter of timing and inflection.

    In my younger years I certainly used humor as a weapon out of shame. By the grace of God and His mercy, I put it aside. Still, until now, I never consciously related it to shame.

    Thank you.

  28. Paula Avatar

    These threads are awesome. So much to think about. I am still on the “bearing a little shame” part, as Michael stated above, we are not consciously aware of it. Here is a section out of Prologue Daily lives of the Saints:


    To contemplate the Lord Jesus at the Mystical Supper:

    1. How He washes the feet of His disciples. By this act He especially teaches humility and love for one another;

    2. How Peter, one of the most faithful, was ashamed and refused to allow our Lord to wash his feet;

    3. How Judas, unbeliever and traitor, was unashamed and did not refuse our Lord to wash his feet;

    4. How even today, the faithful receive countless benefits from God with embarrassment and shame, and the unfaithful also receive the same but without embarrassment and without shame, and yet with grumbling against God.

    So yes, as reflected in #4, this bearing a little shame that Fr. Stephen speaks about is a “hard” thing but needful for our salvation. Very needful.

    Blessed Lent to all.

  29. Helen Avatar

    “For example, someone triggers my anger… Rather than… I rush to assure myself that I “forgive” the offending party, in order to maintain my holy self-image.” Thank you for articulating this.

    This is why forgiveness always felt coerced and the result was a feeling of being an impostor. There are so many psychologically unhealthy behaviors that were passed on as “holy”. No wonder the struggle to really trust in the love of God.

  30. Matt Avatar

    This is one of the best and most insightful comment threads I’ve read in some time. Thank you all!

  31. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Thank you Fr Stephen for this article. It speaks to my own cross and the difficulty I have in my willingness to bear a little shame. Perhaps with love and God’s grace I will overcome my reticence.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “a little.” It starts with only a little, in confession, for the purpose of healing. It is simply our vulnerability in the presence of God.

  33. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    These words are very helpful. Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    During confession my priest puts his stole around the head shoulders of the penitent and rests his has there. It makes me feel safe.

    From that I have begun to see that my vulnerability to God is the only safety there is.

    A growing vulnerability to God seems to be the way to life.

  35. sbdn andrew Avatar
    sbdn andrew

    Michael Bauman,
    And also that loving pat and gentle sqeeze of one’s shoulder when struggling to “get it out” is the leak that releases the terrible burden of holding the shame in.

    And to everyone in general,
    I recently attended a job related conference where the speaker wrestled to describe the act of repentance and “confessing one’s sins one to another” without having any “mechanism” in place to practice this. Every possible word was used to describe this process except…forgiveness. I had an incredible urge to jump up and shout “Forgiveness! Just say it. Why is it so hard to even acknowledge that such a word exists?”

    I finally had to leave the conference room as it washed over into a sentimental prayer while music played softly in the background. And then it hit me how the speaker and all who listened were making multiple attempts to possibly cover-up and commit to amnesia this public “nakedness” as I ran….to hide from it.

    Try discussing or even admitting to cowardice or fear as a tune in shame. Or even the stuff that comes out in an uncontrolled rage from the experience of trauma (any kind of war?) –that is more formally called a traumatic stress disorder. There is a heavy sense of being a coward in all this reaction. The most decorated “hero” is often being “saved” in their drowning from shame; where the recognition seems so false and somehow wrong. I jump to forgiveness being that which apprehends the shame of being a victim of the impossible.

    I think it is Fr. Seraphim Aldea that said indirectly: we are not our (shame), but we become our battle with (shame). I am really trying to avoid using that embarassing three letter word here…(s*n).
    (Also in line with Elder Saphrony perhaps?)

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sbdn Andrew,
    Well said. The more we understand about shame in ourselves, in the world, in our culture – and all of it in the light of God – the more the world will reveal itself to us. It is, I think, the primary content of the darkness that hides us.

  37. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Thank you Fr. Stephen and Mary Benton.

    I have been reflecting on your insights all week.

    A few months ago Fr. Stephen had commented following a different post that all our encounters with Christ can purify us.

    I found much hope in that comment, it encouraged me to look at icons rather than look down because I feel unworthy. It encouraged me to really believe and trust that our Heavenly King can ‘abide in us’ and be the one to ‘cleanse us from every stain and save our souls’ as we pray in the morning prayer. The comments here, from Mary, about the opportunity to grow in sanctity when we turn to Christ encourages me as well.

    It has been a mini-modernist project I have been on: trying to figure our what to do to help my dad and then seeing my efforts produce awful results. I recently learned that St. Nikita of the Kiev Caves, Bishop of Novgorod was tempted by a demon that appeared as an angel and told him that praying didn’t matter, just study, do other things. He went down the wrong path in following that advice in his early years but through God’s mercy was redeemed. So often my prayers have been like words I just throw out and leap into the day rushing about trying to do, to fix things. I really think it is a trap of good ideas

    The cumulative failures, seeing how my dad makes the simplest thing awkward and difficult in unexpected ways, my emotions and the puppetry in my mind as the enemy suggests disdain, coupled with a rush to forgive before Communion, has lead me to realize ‘this is beyond my skill to heal’ That quote from Aragorn has been my recent summary, but combined with more genuine hope in the Holy Spirit and in Christ to genuinely heal, to remove the rocks from my heart, and to allow me to experience my own healing (another theme I learned from a cooment)

    I have felt some significant healing in these past few days and weeks.

  38. Emmie Avatar

    The topic of forgiveness has been an ongoing one in my spiritual life.
    I have a question that perhaps you can answer.
    Is it possible to forgive someone yet still acknowledge that there was wrong done? I ask because in cases of severe abuse or neglect I wonder about the health of not acknowledging that there was wrong done. Not to hold it against the person but to say yes, this hurt horribly.
    I read a book a few years ago that made me very uncomfortable in recommending that victims must always have face to face dialogues with their abusers.
    Do you think this is true?

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are many cases in which face to face meetings would only subject a victim to more abuse – particularly emotional abuse. It is important in cases of abuse, I think, that it be acknowledged and named. Secrecy, which is a very common part of shame, can be deadly in cases of abuse.

  40. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Hi Father, I have two very gentle questions. I noticed that the icon of St. Sabbatius of Tyver on is a bit similar to the picture you selected for this post. But when I look at the picture for this post I wonder how many others might think it suggests a two-storey universe: a man crushed by shame and desperately pleading to a distant God.

    Perhaps if you have a chance you can explain the heart of this picture more.

    Also, the quote from the epistle that is translated as Christ going to the cross, ‘despising the shame’ was part of the readings this week. Is despising more like despite in this quote?

    I remember an episode of the X-Files years ago that had a character that was implied to be part of Native American culture that would literally consume the sickness of others in some way, taking it from them and enduring it himself. He became physically unpleasant in many ways as a result but was truly good when initially viewers would not have known. It seems like a parallel to the sense that we can bear a little shame and eventually plead with God on behalf of others, taking on their shame in our pleading, having the mind of Christ instead of the mind of the Prodigal Son’s brother. I hope that correctly interprets part of what is going on in the painting.

  41. Victoria Avatar


    I agree with Fr Stephen that is often unwise for victims to have face to face interactions with their abuser/ shamer about the abuse. Your uncomfortableness with the suggestion is sound.

    Abusers carry out their abuse in the shadows and my experience is that unless they are undergoing therapy themselves (in other words they are in a state of repentance) – they will not acknowledge the truth of the situation. What the victim would want is validation / healing and they are not going to get it because abusers are unable to accept responsibility.

    The irony is that abusers shame because they themselves are ashamed. This is a hard fought realization that can allow one to have mercy, through Christ, toward their abuser. That does not necessarily entail having a relationship with them.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This picture is a modern painting of St. Basil the Holy Fool. It is not shame (except as a holy fool) that we see on his face. It is ecstasy.

    “Despising” the shame, means “refusing to let it make a difference.”

  43. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Thank you, Father Stephen.

  44. Debbie Adams Avatar
    Debbie Adams

    Perhaps the thing that rankles me the most is how abusers can turn themselves into a victim. Forgiving is easy. Forgetting is an entirely different thing. Oft I believe I have forgotten only to have past and current abuse rear its ugly head once again. The PTSD from past abuse has been so serious at times-no one to talk to as so few people understand PTSD. All I can do is trust God to get me through these episodes.
    If the past is not truly forgotten is the forgiveness negated?? I have wondered about this for many years.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think we cannot actually “choose” to forget the past. It’s like saying that having had a leg cut off, I forget that I once had a leg. Abuse is a wound, and we at least remember the scar. Forgiving in such circumstances mostly has to do with what we “do” with the memory. I can nurture it so that it grows and darkens everything. Or, I can do the difficult work of healing (by God’s grace). That part can be slow indeed.

  46. Debbie Adams Avatar
    Debbie Adams

    Thank you Fr. Healing seems out of reach. I keep reaching though.

  47. Thomas Avatar

    Thank you, Father for your responses to our concerns. I unashamedly decided to post in order to bring this thread back into the fore.

    Your blessing!

  48. Anonymous Avatar

    “Thus, those who are abused are more likely to become abusers than those who not been abused. It’s part of the darkness that infects our inner life.”

    Father, I think this is a very serious statement and should be offered with more explanation as it has the potential to be misunderstood. I know and deeply love two people that were abused and know they would never abuse another. Often there are terrible stories in the news of abuse cases and the development of the story reveals the history of the abuser, the discovery that they were abused. This is where a link is made in people’s minds and judgement comes, those who were abused, Abuse. I am unaware statistically about the validity of this statement, but believe this mentality is extremely damaging and hurtful and in many cases simply untrue!
    One of my dear ones has found healing for himself after many years of pain and now shares his story with police departments, hospital staff, leads a men’s group, and is an advocate for victims. These things are a victory in my opinion, but I have cautioned him specifically with regards to the church not to share his story because of this mentality. People will not understand, will jump to this conclusion and ostracize him. Another insult for the survivor.
    There were so many good things in this article and the responses, I do not wish to take away from their power. I only offer this humbly as a one who feels very protective of her loved ones.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If the word “abuse or abuser” were changed to “shame” and “shamer,” it would convey much more my own sense and intention. The darkness of the wound inflicted on us comes out and is expressed in many ways – some of those ways are simply the withering of a person who has suffered. Other times, it is inflicted and shared.

    Sin never stops hurting us and others – only great grace can end its cycle.

  50. Debbie Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen. A shamer is adept with their shaming. Sad there is so much shame inflicted upon others. The shamer has so much power. T’will take great grace indeed.

  51. Nicolas Avatar

    Christ is risen !
    Dear Father Stephen,
    Thank you for this text. Just a point on with we certainly agree but on witch my poor english stumbles :
    Indeed “our experience of vulnerability … is an instinct that is a gift from God”. But it is a bundle that God gave us with garments of skin with content actual sexuality, gnomic will, … , and an animal instinct to fear the rebelled nature, animals and at the end other men. All this is a degraded state of the life that God initially created and to which we have to return by our conversion. The Christ showed at each of His steps the right way to act. For us who are baptised it is not a sin to feel this fear that is increased by demons, but is a sin to be dominated by it and then not to forgive nor love our enemies.
    May the Lord helps us !
    Asking for you prayers.

  52. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    “These things are a victory in my opinion, but I have cautioned him specifically with regards to the church not to share his story because of this mentality. People will not understand, will jump to this conclusion and ostracize him.”

    I agree that people do jump to conclusions. I have experienced this myself regarding my own history and what I have shared among people in a parish who were ill-equipped to understand such trauma. But I also learned that my willingness to share in such circumstances might yet be another symptom of my own trauma, where I didn’t really know where the boundaries should lie.

    I believe you are right to caution your friend. But I also encourage patience with those of us who have little understanding of trauma. It’s almost ‘baked into the cake’ in this culture to disregard it as ‘history’ as if it can be ignored or alternatively trumped up as the foundation for criminality or delusional/mental imbalances. Love is so important to give us a place of refuge in our parishes. But sometimes our sicknesses overwhelm us even there.

    Now I too am much more cautious about what I share in parish social hour.

  53. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’.

    The sins of others that I see often remain unacknowledged and unrepented of in my own heart.

    At least that has been my experience of 37 years in the Orthodox Church. The more I repent of my own, the less I notice or am hurt by others.

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