Why Desmond Tutu is Wrong

Friends, later this week, I’ll bring another report from this wild fishcamp island. (And there’s plenty of news!) Today----I must speak back to none other than Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Yes, I know who Desmond Tutu is. I know he won the Nobel Peace Prize, that he has played a key role in the reparation of South Africa. These are massive achievements and I admire him greatly. And his new book, The Book of Forgivenesscontains many stirring and illuminating truths. Who am I to challenge such a man? (To my new readers, I'm not entirely an outlier on this topic. I've written a book as well: Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers.) But hear me out. 

This message must stop. 

This part of Tutu’s message on forgiveness (now running in the Reader's Digest) echoes word for word our western culture’s clich├ęd and self-centered understanding of forgiveness. These words below, titled “Why We Forgive” (excerpted from his book) utterly shrink the gospel.

Here’s how the excerpt ends:

When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberators. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest. This is true both spiritually and scientifically. We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves.

Who else says this---"we forgive for ourselves"--- besides the gas station attendant, the man behind me in line at the bank, the woman in my Sunday School class and everyone I run into? Nearly everyone I hear on major media, including these luminaries: Fred Luskin, the founder and director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, says outright that “forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.”  T.D. Jakes appeared on CBS This Morning this spring proclaiming,  “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.” 
Dear Bishop Tutu and Ladies and Gentlemen, this notion is killing biblical forgiveness.

Here are 4 things wrong with this view, and why it matters.

1.  Biblical forgiveness is a gift first to the offender and to Christ---not to you.
I know you’ve been deeply hurt. So have I. I am right there with you, aching, crying, mourning what’s been lost, angry at the betrayer. But----even so---it’s still not all about us! I know that’s a hard pill to swallow in our me-first culture, but never does God “sell” forgiveness for its benefits to us. He simply commands us, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Pass on what’s been given to you. That’s a huge gift you can give to the very ones who don’t deserve it. And that’s just the point---because that’s who WE are as well: undeserving recipients of God’s forgiveness.
Do we get something out of forgiving others? Absolutely! We experience a marvelous sense of peace and “letting go” when we release our offender’s debts against us---for their sake, and for Christ’s sake. That gift comes as the overflow of obedience and love, not as the goal itself. I believe the more we seek our own happiness first, the less we achieve it.
2.  Biblical forgiveness is concerned with the well-being of ALL people, especially the guilty and needy. 
This is what we’re called to, friends! We who have experienced God’s own forgiveness are to be concerned with the welfare of others as well, especially those who are most in need of forgiveness! That’s good news--not bad news ! We get to be agents of reconciliation wherever there is brokenness and pain, especially in our own lives. Because God cares about all people---and we should as well.

Are we so far gone that the only appeal we can make for the greater social good is our own personal happiness and health?  If so, we have a much larger problem. And indeed, we do. 

3. Biblical forgiveness does not free you from the offender; it frees you to love the offender. 
Secular forgiveness brings freedom by releasing the victim from all obligation to the offender. Dr. Phil urges his followers to forgive as a means of reaching “emotional closure.” But he advises us to find “the easiest thing you can do to resolve your pain.”
Forgiveness does indeed free us: It frees us from our self-focus. It frees us from hate; it opens our hearts with empathy; it frees us to love even the enemy. Forgiveness frees and strengthens us to bring us close to the offender, to bless them, to love them with the love of Christ. I would have missed SO much if I had “forgiven my father” and then simply stayed away---and he would have missed so much as well.  Yes, it's easier to remove ourselves from the offender,  but we’re called to much more than self-protection. (But do please note: there ARE people who are too dangerous to be around and must be avoided. Use your God-given wisdom.)

4. Forgiveness is not about letting go of the past, but about redeeming the past
Many writing about forgiveness emphasize “letting go,” of the past and focusing entirely on the future. I understand this value, especially in a culture where horrific things have happened, but God does one better than this.
In biblical forgiveness, God redeems and heals the past rather than erases it. 
God continually admonishes us to “remember” Him and to remember the events of the past, both the triumphs and the disasters.
When we turn from the past entirely, we will miss the wisdom and compassion that we can learn from our wounds. As Dr. Dan Allendar has written, “Every tragedy in the past is an opportunity for redemption. And each time we forget, we lose another moment to experience God’s mysterious redemption in our lives. “ 

Here's why it matters. When we're asked to forgive for our own sake, if it is truly all about us, than we might just as well NOT forgive. Nursing anger and hurts is gratifying and can be fun! Some people love to be victims. Some people live for their anger. Some people---and we all know a few of these--- find far more joy and satisfaction in unforgiveness. 

May I give you a different vision of forgiveness?

"“We may begin the journey of forgiveness to ease our own burdens. But along the way we discover a chance to live out the fullness of the gospel: loving the unlovely, forgiving seventy times seven. In so doing, we reflect the kingdom of God among us. I could so easily have missed it. I could so easily have listened to those voices rather than to the man who hung on the cross praying over his betrayers, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ In the moment of his executioners’ greatest wrongdoing (and therefore their greatest need), Jesus offered forgiveness. We are called to do the same.  " (Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers)

When you do this, (and yes, it's very hard---and can only be done by God's enabling)  do you know what happens to you as the beautiful overflow?

Something wonderful. You become a gracious, merciful, compassionate person who reminds others just a little bit of the one went to the cross not for himself, but for all of us----Jesus.

One more reason, then, to forgive:

Forgive that you may be like your Father in Heaven.

Please, DO forgive for the sake of others. Including God himself.

And whenever you hear someone say these words, "We forgive only for ourselves"----please love them, help them and kindly share the great good news of Jesus' gospel with them,

for their sake.





Dearest Friends, if you don't have a copy of Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers and you really need one, please write me (leslieleylandfields@gmail.com) and tell me why you need one, and I will do my best to send one to you. They are not expensive, but I know budgets are tight.  (I would like to send a book to everyone--but I know I will have to make hard choices) I'm trusting the Lord on this, and will send what I can. My heart is for you and with you. To those who have been praying for me, my deepest thanks.


  1. I'd love a copy! Good article! I'll message my address in a bit.

  2. This gives me much to ponder Leslie. I have always found it easy to forgive - nothing I've done myself, just the way He made me. But for many years now, my sister has caused immeasurable hurt to our family and I confess, I struggle with forgiveness. I pray for her to be restored to us and wonder how I can bear to face her - all at the same time. It has come down to this for me: I must forgive her because the Father has said I should. If I want forgiveness (and oh how I need and want it), I must offer forgiveness. I haven't been able to think much past that.

    1. Thanks for reading Linda. Forgiveness is easy until someone hurts us---or ones we love---very deeply. Then it is hard, so hard. Linda, as you move toward forgiveness, however imperfectly----and all our forgiveness is imperfect---God will still use it for good. Blessings as you take that step.

  3. Yes, indeed, you are right. I think you may also be wrong. Because I think BOTH things are true and not necessarily mutually exclusive. Because biblical forgiveness IS indeed good for us - and also good for others. It is, first and foremost, an act of obedience. And in the obedience we find, as you have noted, great freedom. And that is gift, pure and simple. For us. And like all good gifts of God, it is given to be used not only for ourselves, but for others, too. So maybe there is room for both responses?

    1. HI Diana! Thanks so much for your thoughts. I don't think these are exclusive categories either---but I think when we pitch forgiveness as something for ourselves only, we may just as well choose not to forgive. Some people--and we all know these people---find more pleasure and fulfillment in their anger. It's a big leap I know to convince people to move from self-interest to others-interest and the good of the world, but I believe people are capable of making that leap if we challenge them. Thanks for your good thoughts!!

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  4. For me... when we focus on ourselves... we miss the gospel... a walk of love is not driven by what will this do for me... what will I get from this... The journey of forgiveness does bless others and it blesses us as well... I think in God’s economy every one benefits...oh yes... forgiveness works deep compassion and mercy into our souls ... and for me... forgiveness digs deep into my sense of justice... of me holding on to a wrong power in the situation... and has helped me receive God’s grace more freely. I was just talking to a friend about this... encouraging her to stay on the journey of forgiveness even through her parents are blind... because one day, if their eyes are opened they will be devastated by their lack of love... but instead of giving them bitterness and anger... she will be able to extend mercy and grace... the unmerited grace God gives us. I think the ‘worlds’ version of forgiveness can only give a shallow place... God’s way to forgiveness plunges us deep!!!

    1. Ro--love this: "In God's economy everyone benefits." Yes, so true! that was Diana's point above as well. Thank you for being such a support to your friend. It is SO hard to keep extending that forgiveness, especially to parents who do not, cannot love . . .. GOd's forgiveness does indeed raze us first---then it raises us after, when we are obedient. Thank you Ro!!

  5. You are right Leslie. I used to be one of those who found my fulfillment and even my identity in my anger towards my Dad. It kept me bound up inside. But when I chose to ask my Dad for forgiveness regarding that anger, it set us both free to love one another as brothers in Christ and see God in heaven as our Father. Both realities are definitely true. Thanks for sharing!

    1. What a fantastic story. I know it wasn't easy to humble yourself to do that. Thank you for sharing---and spreading the gospel this way!

  6. Thank you writing this post! I also teach on forgiveness in workshops, and when Desmond Tutu's Forgiveness Challenge came along, I participated and was surprised. I decided to pull from it what might be usable in my material, but was very disappointed at a lot of what he had to say. It's a very universalist approach and while he speaks of God, Jesus is never mentioned. One of his steps was in the telling of your story, what happened to you. While this can be beneficial to those who need to voice it to recover some self-value, it can cause one to be stuck and do a re-telling repeatedly. There are flaws, but maybe some of what is true will get through so that others are more inclined to listen about a forgiving Savior and receive THAT truth for themselves. Here's to redemption! And I am thankful!

    1. Robin---thanks for sharing your experience. I understand the challenge--how do you speak about forgiveness to a secular audience? I thought and prayed a long time about whether to write on forgiveness from a biblical perspective or to try and open it up to all people, regardless of belief. I realized I could not speak about forgiveness without speaking about Christ. It's interesting that Tutu, even as Archbishop, did not take a more Christian approach. thank you, Robin!!

  7. I have been on a journey to learn (as in, practice, not be able to explain...) that my energy can move in one of two directions: outward, as God's always does (aka LOVE) or inward, toward myself. Although it is a gross simplification, it is also always true. I can live in self-protection or I can live from love. And I've run hard into the reality that it's impossible to love outside of a continued infilling of the Holy Spirit. But because of him, we have hope.

    I, too used to be a 'good forgiver', but when some of the big waves began to roll in, I realized that I was really better at just letting things go. When things got too big to let go, I had to face the ugly in my own soul and realize that none of it was a surprise to God. Amazing grace.

    Thank you for your gracious insistence on the primacy of the gospel, and the Word, Leslie. It is such a gift. Blessing.

  8. You nailed it Leslie! Thanks for speaking out.

  9. Hi Leslie, Wow, thanks for this strong message. It's a wake up call that I hope many will heed. Early on in my own healing journey, the Lord showed me that it is a privilege to forgive. This is not something that I have done exceptionally well or easily, but your writing reminded me of this word: because of the cross, it is a privilege to forgive. Your message also reminds me of the Gospel story when Jesus looked with compassion over Jerusalem. Despite everything he went through, Jesus never stopped showing mercy and compassion. Thank you for your point about redemption. God never tells us to deny, hide or pretend the past didn't happen, does He? Thanks again. Love your writing

  10. Heather, I had not thought of forgiving as a privilege before . . wow, that's an even greater step. And true . .. Thank you for that----I'm going to think about that more.

  11. Apples of gold.

    Kat LaMantia

  12. I agree with you, Leslie. Forgiveness is for ALL. At times it is hard to do but a necessity! Thank you for the reminder. Bless you!!--- Sandra Rodriguez

  13. Well said. I've written several blog posts about how I believe forgiveness is a gift from God.