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Book Review - The Limits of Forgiveness: Case Studies in the Distortion of a Biblical Ideal

Book Review - The Limits of Forgiveness: Case Studies in the Distortion of a Biblical Ideal

ICSA Today, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2018, 20-21
Maria Mayo

Fortress Press, 2015. ISBN-10: 1451493088; ISBN-13: 978-1451493085 (paperback). $31.68 (Amazon.com) (Kindle, $22.99). 276 pages.

Reviewed by Doug Duncan


In the monthly support group for former cult members that my wife, Wendy, and I facilitate, the topic of forgiving your former cult leader and the leader’s accomplices arises pretty regularly. This seems to be a particularly salient issue for people who identify as Christians because it is a prominent theme in the teaching of the church. Indeed, the Lord’s Prayer even has a line that says, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” People often believe that they are obligated to grant forgiveness to someone who has harmed them, regardless of whether that person has repented or even asked for forgiveness. To complicate matters even further, there is the pop-psychology perspective that views forgiveness as necessary for self-healing.

Wendy and I have always intuited that there is something wrong with this approach, and we have understood that, at the very least, people need to be encouraged to take all the time they need to forgive, and to allow themselves permission to be angry in the meantime. I often tell the story of C.S. Lewis, in his dotage, saying that he thinks he has finally managed to forgive the school master who tormented him in his youth. If C.S. Lewis had such a hard time arriving at genuine forgiveness, then maybe there is room for our support-group members to allow themselves time to process what they have endured.

Thankfully, we now have more than our own therapeutic instincts to bolster this view. In The Limits of Forgiveness: Case Studies in the Distortion of a Biblical Ideal, Maria Mayo does a masterful job of laying out what is wrong with the common understanding of forgiveness, and she illuminates the misinterpretation and misapplication of what the Bible actually teaches on this difficult topic.

The topic is personal to Mayo. When she was a young woman, she was attacked in her home by an intruder and nearly beaten to death. After suffering this horrific trauma, she awoke from a coma and was further victimized by well-meaning but insensitive people, who would tell her things such as “You will never be fully healed until you forgive the man who did this.” She knew this was wrong, just as Wendy and I know that people in our group are missing something in their understanding of forgiveness. Fortunately, Mayo is a trained theologian and a skilled writer, so she is able to explore the subject with depth and insight. She states her purpose in her introduction: “This book seeks to examine and provide alternatives to Christian forgiveness imperatives that are presented to victims of wrongdoing in general and violence in particular” (p. 2).

Mayo explores the issue of pressuring victims to forgive across three contexts: the restorative justice movement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as that country was transitioning out of apartheid and into democratic rule, and in the process of pastoral care for victims of domestic violence. In all of these cases, she shows how victims are pressured into granting forgiveness in the name of a Biblical ideal, but then she shows how the Bible is being misread and misinterpreted in support of a modern concept of unilateral forgiveness that is not the same as what the Scripture really teaches.

Certainly, the issue of what the Bible really teaches about forgiveness may not be germane—or even interesting—to people who do not think of themselves as Christians, but it is of paramount importance to those of us who do. If Mayo is correct, then much of what is taught in our churches is, indeed, the distortion of a Biblical ideal. She examines all of the major passages, and finds nothing to support the modern concept of forgiveness for self-healing. Forgiveness in the Scriptures is almost always spoken of in the context of restoring broken relationships and requires repentance by the wrongdoer. Without that repentance, there is really nothing to forgive. Also, she shows instances in which Jesus seemed to instruct his disciples that forgiveness is optional, and she has a thoughtful interpretation of Jesus’s notable prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Through it all, Mayo takes a high view of Scripture. She respects the text, and really tries to uncover the correct reading. In fact, she makes the case (convincingly, in my view) that the purveyors of the conventional wisdom are the ones who are not being careful with the Scriptures by projecting onto them modern ideas of forgiveness that are derived from pop psychology. Of course, doing this has huge negative consequences, as she shows in each of her examples. To take just one, in many Christian—and especially Evangelical—churches, pastors will often counsel victims of domestic violence, generally women, that they need to forgive their husbands in order to keep their marriage together. Sometimes, this leads to terrible outcomes by encouraging women to return to their abusive homes only to be further brutalized.

Of course, everybody acknowledges that forgiveness can be a wonderful thing when done in the right context for the right reasons, and the persons requesting it have real remorse for their actions and have genuinely had a change of heart. Nobody objects to this; but forgiving people who have not repented and not attempted to do their part to make amends does not seem to be what the Bible requires of us, and this difference has profound implications for former cult members who are still trying to live as Christian believers. I would recommend The Limits of Forgiveness: Case Studies in the Distortion of a Biblical Ideal by Maria Mayo to any Christian believer struggling with what to do about forgiving somebody who has wronged them.
About the Reviewer

Doug Duncan, MS, LPC, was a member of an aberrant religious group for more than twenty years. After defying the cult leader and marrying Wendy, they eventually left the cult and Doug began the task of rebuilding his life. He enrolled in a master’s program in counseling and earned a degree and license to practice therapy. After working on their cult recovery issues by reading all the available cult literature, attending conferences, and becoming involved with ICSA, Doug and Wendy started a ministry to increase others’ awareness and understanding of cults. They are frequent presenters at churches, civic groups, and conferences, and also facilitators of a support group for former members of cults and high-demand groups. Additionally, Doug offers individual counseling to former members.