Sunday, November 4, 2012

Forgiveness and the Path of Denial

“Christians are particularly confused
when they then 'take it out' on someone nearby  
-a spouse or a child they love.

This, in turn, fills them with remorse, guilt, and spiritual defeat.
They are further bewildered because
they can't figure out where it all comes from.

Most likely they unwittingly drilled into some ancient 
and untapped river of resentment
which, like a sudden oil strike, 'blew' up.”

– David Seamands, Healing of Memories (pp 91-2)

We've defined forgiveness as a journey, sometimes a complicated one, involving grief concerning loss. We've noted that it is not like walking a straight line on a path but can be more like walking a circular labyrinth or like peeling the layers off of an onion. Before delving any further into the discussion of what forgiveness looks like, it is important to consider the overall process. That opens right up into the pitfalls and problems of the Path of Denial, already depicted in previous posts including this one concerning denial in cheap, feigned forgiveness.

Stoop's Forgiveness Diagram

In Forgiving the Unforgivable, David Stoop has created a flow chart (adapted for our purposes) that describes the general process of offense and forgiveness including the options available to us in that process. I don't interpret this as a “how to” guide or as a “ten easy steps” kind of diagram, for the process of forgiveness is a complicated, ongoing one – a journey. It's only offered here as a general tool that will hopefully be worth a thousand words of insight.

The path of forgiveness, as Dr. Stoop describes it, begins with the offense and leads to hurt. People typically replay events for awhile as they realize how they've been hurt and to what extent. They may also seek out the opinion of others at this point, collecting more information about the event leading to the offense. Once identified as such, a person must make a choice about how to resolve the discord: through a process of denial (leading to isolation), bitterness (leading to isolation and possibly retaliation), or forgiveness (possibly leading to reconciliation).

The Path of Denial

After an offense comes and is replayed in the mind, a person must come to some place of self-awareness about the fact they have actually been offended so that they can get on with the work of forgiving. When faced with pain and grief resulting from an offense or a sin against them, according to Stoop, a person can choose to stop the process of going on to forgiveness by denying that they felt offended (or that they were hurt), or they can try to blame themselves for the event that created the offense. This creates the illusion that there is no need to forgive. Nothing really happened.

Considering Stoop's description of denial of offense concept, I've expanded upon the forms it takes and why a person may fall into this type of self-deception. (Through personal experience, I've learned that I'm apparently something of an expert at it. I hope my emotional self-vivisection proves helpful.)

Active Denial. Some types of pain can feel so threatening to a person that they can deny that what they experienced was offensive or that it hurt them. This kind of denial brings to mind how we are willing to apologize automatically for bumping into a total stranger when we're standing in a crowded check out line, but it's not considered to be equally socially acceptable to say, “Hey! Watch it! You just rammed me with your elbow and it hurt.” And that bumping into a stranger seems more grievous to us somehow than does insulting or taking advantage of a family member which we might do chronically, offering no apology.

A person might also like to think of themselves as perfect and holy,. Perfect, holy people don't get offended, so they deny to others and possibly themselves that they feel offended. Of course, they feel the emotions associated with the hurt, but they don't cope with the situation head on. These folks are usually people who like to avoid conflict and confrontation, too. Have you ever noticed a cold response from a family member, and you then hear through the family grapevine that they have been complaining about you? When you confront them, not only do they deny that they have something against you, their response seems extra sweet? Sometimes a fear of communicating and confronting compels an avoidant person to deny offenses because dealing with the hurt they feel threatens them less than expressing their feelings. They realize that they're offended, but they bury their feelings.

Passive Denial. Stoop notes that denial can occur when a person attempts to undo the offense that they feel by taking the blame for the situation. Rather than acknowledging that their pain originated with an action on behalf of the other party, they reinterpret mistreatment and the offense that they feel as a mistake they have made which resulted in consequences that they believe they've brought on themselves. On the surface, it doesn't seem like denial, but because it argues against a true offense, it results in the same consequences. It just denies conflict at a different phase in the process by shifting blame inappropriately. (You can circumvent forgiveness if you can deny that someone else made a mistake. If you feel emotional pain, you brought that pain on yourself.)

Considering the Causes of Passive Denial

As illustrated by both of my experiences in previous posts (HERE and HERE), denial in personal, close relationships seems to be my path of least resistance. This passive denial takes place for several reasons that stem back to the deficits in my own emotional development as a child that I've carried into adulthood, working on them now in fear and trembling. Some also result from the fact that people and situations are just complicated and difficult. Sometimes manipulation within the relationship hinders our ability to communicate our perspective, and keeping quiet seems to us to be the best alternative. In my own experience, I'm most frustrated that I do not readily recognize this denial until after prolonged suffering, despite my devotion to the understanding, learning, and practice of forgiveness. I am growing and God is definitely at work in me, and I pray that my frustration and contrition over this tendency will continue to motivate me to overcome it.

Please Note: I present these factors to help the reader understand why an individual might deny offenses and how they developed the tendency so that they can avoid unhealthy, unfruitful, or sinful behavior. It should not be interpreted as a justification or to diminish personal responsibility.

      1.) Inappropriate self-blame through perfectionism. Plain and simple, many Christians believe that they should not ever get offended, and their “internal critic” which demands perfect behavior of them accuses them of wrongdoing when they do.

In my family of origin, my parents operated under the false idea that “Life is fair,” and that if you treated people well and did what you were supposed to do in relationships, you wouldn't have any interpersonal conflicts. If I suffered some mistreatment from another child, my parents always assumed that I somehow solicited that mistreatment. Personal and moral responsibility were also highly valued in my home, so this intensified what I learned as a general rule about relationships: If something went wrong, it was my fault. I was taught that it was my duty to find the source of any interpersonal conflict I experienced, and that source always had to originate with me or something that I'd done wrong. I then had to make amends. (Note: Of the list of my favorite resources on the topic of blame and shame, The Lies We Believe by Chris Thurman deals specifically with confronting unrealistic beliefs.)

In actuality, this is a very immature view of reality that leads to much heartache. This view of how the world works makes the assumption that individuals have much more control over their environment and other people than they really do, due to a preoccupation with shame. Psychology calls this mindset an “external locus of control.” Developing a healthy sense of expectations and assumptions concerning control and conduct poses major issue for people who struggle with addictions (including religious addiction), perfectionism, and shame-based relationships. If the reader here identifies with this kind of passive denial, I highly suggest reading this summary about the Locus of Control, especially if they've suffered spiritual abuse. Living with this view makes a person an eternal victim of circumstances, because well-being and worth are always attached to performance and perfection for them. Since we are not perfect and can and should still enjoy have worth and comfort, this assumption about life creates more problems than it solves.

In the second example of my own denied anger that I offered in this post, the friend who withdrew from me offended me many times by the way that they responded to the challenges we experienced together. I made the very unhealthy and unrealistic assumption that, through my own behavior somehow, I could have and should have done something to avoid the challenges we faced. When the person withdrew, I also assumed that must have sinned against this person, too. I wanted to take full responsibility for everything.

For a person with a tendency to assume an external locus of control, this situation created a triple whammy. Not only did I assume fault for the challenges of life and faltering relationship, my friend also rejected my attempts to make amends and reconcile. God requires us to ask forgiveness and to extend forgiveness, but when we do those things, we have no control over how the other person will respond. (That will be another post to come on this other vitally important topic.) People may reject us and may never cooperate with us again, and we take that risk when we follow the path of forgiveness. When my attempts to reconnect with this person failed, my friend's rejections and denials and complete withdrawal could only mean that I'd continued to fail at every turn thereafter. I couldn't even manage to ask forgiveness effectively, or the person would forgive and the relationship would start back on a path to reconciliation. (Do the right thing and you'll get the right result.) I expected perfection of myself, forgetting that relationships can only work if the two parties involved share the work and responsibility in love and trust.

      2.) Denial of personal rights and needs. Another contributing factor to denial of offense which thwarts the forgiveness process is the denial of one's right to feel offended. If an individual lacks healthy and appropriate self-love (Mark 12:31), they tend to have a very low view of what constitutes good treatment from others. (Previous experience in unhealthy relationships may have also created a very low standard of what to expect as well.) Some people may believe that they are not worthy of consideration, and when mistreated, they do not believe that they have any right to expect or argue for anything better. 

 Some religions like Gothardism teach that individuals have no rights at all and that suffering unjustly earns humility points which turns into favor with God. Humble behavior is said to imbue a person with spiritual power – Gothard's own special version of supererogation. “Walking in Christian love” can also work against admission of a felt offense, because I Corinthians 13 states that love keeps no record of wrongs and is not easily provoked. If you feel offended, a person might interpret their offense as a lack of love to which they don't want to admit. Many also find it confusing when they feel love and offense for a person at the same time, so they ignore the offense rather than resolving it.

In my example with my friend, I had great difficulty sorting through many factors that discouraged me from interpreting my feelings as an offense, and denial of needs was one of them. In my family of origin, I often felt ashamed for having certain material, emotional, and developmental needs, even though they were perfectly appropriate and God given. I also cannot discount the hours of training I heard while in aberrant Christianity that put more focus on pretense and performance than emotional honesty for the benefit of “avoiding discord among the brethren.” Very common in all high demand religion, just as the FLDS Mormons require their women tokeep sweet,” Christians often pressure one another to feign sweetness in conflict. Perhaps not according to written doctrine, but socially, many Biblical Christian churches expect “sweet” behavior from their members, particularly if they are women.

At a young age, I learned and sang the children's song that teaches the acronym that placing your needs behind everyone else's resulted in “JOY” (Jesus, Others, and You). That song is still taught to children in churches that I consider very healthy and non-aberrant in doctrine. I don't believe that Scripture strongly supports this in all contexts, and it ends up confusing children when they are not taught appropriate self love, balancing them against the needs of others. Sacrifice must be a free and willing choice. Requiring someone to always put their needs behind everyone else's without the liberty, joy, and free choice to do so is a type of slavery. Because I was so steeped in shame, I very naturally interpreted Philippians 4:3 (with lowliness of mind, let each esteem others better than self) to mean that it was my duty to assume that I was always at fault.. It meant that I should downgrade my own esteem which I really had no right “to grasp” as well as deny my own needs at any expense, whether it was appropriate to do so or not.

      3.) Mixed messages and dissonance. As previously mentioned in the post, my situation with my friend proved to be complicated. They had a very good talent of hiding their true feelings by covering them in language that sounded tender, loving, and kind while they were communicating a very different message, backed by their behavior and withdrawal which also didn't match the tone. Most of the people who use this technique in their communication may not even realize that they utilize this as a means of coping. They may also deny that this incongruent way of communicating can create confusing and disturbing cognitive dissonance for others, manipulating others to deflect conflict away from themselves.

      4.) Power plays: The “sympathy card,” weaker brethren, and authority figures. Frankly, some people are just difficult to consider offensive! Twenty years ago, I attended a management course, and I recall that they said that incompetent people who were were pleasant, hapless, but desired to be responsible (had good motives/attitudes) were among the most difficult people in the workplace. People can also be immature and inexperienced in relationships, not knowing how to relate to people in healthy ways. If they're ignorant or incapable of better behavior, do you really have a right to get upset? You have a right to be offended, but you have a much more complicated job when you go to address the problem. (The vital issue of expectations within the process of forgiveness will also be addressed in a post to come!)

What if you know that a person happens to be going through a very difficult personal situation? What if they get so easily offended that you wonder if your breathing bothers them, too? If they mistreat you, do you have a right to get offended if they are actively wounded and suffering? Some people will actually diffuse and deflect criticism, manipulating others, by pulling all of these factors out as a “sympathy card.” What kind of cruel and inhumane person gets offended by a person who doesn't know any better, if they're suffering, or if they're “thin skinned”? This factor also becomes a cause for denial of offense if the offended person has lousy boundaries. None of these characteristics absolve the offender from their wrongs, and they don't undo the harm suffered by the offended.

A person may also be reluctant to challenge an authority figure, especially if they've been punished for expressing their feelings and for their related behaviors. We all know the expression that “Your father's always right.” The offended party may believe that the effort will be futile, so their hopelessness lulls them into believing that no offense really occurred.

      5.) Wishful Thinking. I will defer to Cialdini's description of “Liking” as a potential factor for fostering denial of offense. People tend to comply with the wishes of those whom they like and find attractive, and people generally want people that they like to also like them. It's a powerful influence and can become a potent reason for many unhealthy ways of relating to others. In my own experience with my friend, I also held on to the hope that I would have the opportunity to work on the relationship, but this turned out to be an unrealistic expectation. This goes back to the issue of fantasy as a hindrance in the forgiveness process.

      6.) Fear of Rejection. Though some people may desire feedback, most people find it painful to realize that they've hurt someone that's important to them. No one wants to hear that they're the bad guy. In relationships that lack mutual trust and a sense of emotional safety, confrontation about an offense may be enough to destroy that relationship. There may also be factors and concerns about secondary losses. If you lose the relationship, you also very likely stand to lose all of the benefits that you get from your association and friendship with this person. You can't “bite the hand that feeds you.”

These are just some obvious reasons why a person might choose to ignore and deny an offense. Unhealthy or abusive relationships, bad past experiences, and our basic beliefs influence our choices. In consideration of these factors, I am even more in awe of the miracle of forgiveness and the work of the Holy Spirit in us Who helps us overcome our deficiencies so that we can move out of denial and into healing.


As Stoop notes in his model, denying offenses results in several consequences. Because the hurt cannot be expressed but does not disappear, the offended party must shut down emotionally. We are emotional creatures, and shutting down brings consequences as well. According to Stoop, depression results. As my own personal account bears out, denying offense or making excuses for it comes at a terribly high price. I highly recommend avoiding this choice and would rather see myself and everyone else always choose the path of healing.

More to come concerning
the Paths of Bitterness and the Paths of Healing
in the journey of forgiveness.