Hurt People Hurt People: Is it possible to break the cycle with love and forgiveness?

Street Theologian
11 min readNov 19, 2023
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Blind Leading the Blind. All images from WikiMedia Commons.

Our hurts from the past hurt new people today

To struggle against evil. We must empathise with its victims. — Miroslav Volf

Today we explore the role of hurt in:

Hatred of Christianity


Romantic relationships

Anger with God


A central narrative for forgiveness

Our message to you

Life can be brutally harsh. It can be hard to even put into words the amount of pain some of us experience.

If you’re reading this struggling how to even comprehend how you can talk or think about forgiveness over a past hurt you have experienced, our thoughts and prayers are with you. We’re deeply sorry that is the case.

Reach out to us ( if you would like us to simply to hear your story or pray for you. We’re not here to fix you or change you, rather to mourn with you and point you to a narrative of ultimate love beyond ourselves which starts with exactly where we are at in life no matter how dark or painful.

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What will we do with our hurt?

Manipulative and power-hungry politicians. Greedy corporate and community leaders. Backbiting family members. Sly and creepy peers.

Abusive and unstable romantic partners who leave us feeling betrayed. Fake friends who turn on us.

Ungrateful children. Misleading advertising. Twisted religious leaders. Our own fallen selves letting others down.

Responsibility and personal stories

Have we ever paused to ask what hurt might be behind some of this behaviour? We all must take responsibility for our actions, however, some experiences make it more or less likely we’ll behave in certain ways.

Hurt is part and parcel of life.


I’m far from equipped to offer my own opinions or experiences on managing hurt. Instead, I will be citing empirical research, leading thinkers in the field, and a narrative on dealing with hurt which has stood the test of time as we explore this topic. Seek professional advice for expert personalised views.

Vicious cycle

As tortuous and disconcerting hurt is, perhaps even worse is the vicious cycle of hurt.

Hurt people hurt people.

Flow-on effects to those around you

Imagine you woke up tomorrow and were negative to everyone around you. What flow-on effects could this have on people you don’t even know if the people you hurt then started hurting others?

We all have stories of hurt.

The impacts

The impact of hurt people hurting people is far from theoretical.

On a very basic level, we can observe this in day-to-day life- in religious circles, in political circles, in romantic relationships, in friendships, in workplaces and in families.

Ostracism and aggression

A paper published in 2018 titled Hurt people hurt people: ostracism and aggression, explains:

Because ostracism hurts, it can trigger aggression… Both correlational and experimental research have provided substantial support for the model’s prediction that ostracism may instigate aggression.

Past trauma and sexual offending

Another paper titled, “Hurt People Hurt Other People”: The Link Between Past Trauma and Sexual Offending, explains how many sexual offenders were shaped by their own past trauma.

The participants perceived a strong connection between one’s own victimization and subsequent sexual offending.

Fear in sexual abuse victims

In turn, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, people, particularly children, who are victims of sexual abuse, are more likely to be fearful all the time or in many situations, which in turn can hurt those around them.

Anger with God

Another study titled, Anger toward God: social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer, shows that those who are hurting or have anger toward God, leaving hurt unresolved for long periods of time take longer to adjust to negative events. By implication, such people would be more likely to hurt others in the process.

Hurt from the church leading to hatred of Christianity

World-renowned psychologist Jordan Peterson, reflects how in his encounters with many atheists from around the world, bitterness and hurt from experiences, such as being hurt by a church when they were young, is an all too common cause for hatred of all things related to religion.

Romantic relationships

James Hollis, in The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other, outlines how people who experienced a lack of love, abandonment, or trauma as children are more likely to have high ideals for a romantic partner, acting in a selfish, controlling and manipulative manner, thereby hurting their partner in the process.

Trauma and attachments

Modern relationship psychology in the field of attachment theory outlines how such individuals, experiencing childhood trauma or hurt in previous relationships, are more likely to be prone to selfishness over contribution, overwhelmed by a fear of being hurt, being reactive over responsive, being condemning over being discerning, withholding as opposed to being open, being critical instead of grateful, controlling instead of freeing, hurtful instead of healing, avoidant instead of engaging, focusing on themselves as an individual over the relationship with their partner as a team.

I’ll hurt you before you hurt me

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Travelled, alludes to “I’ll hurt you before you hurt me” behaviour, whereby one person in a relationship is that fearful of getting hurt or abandoned by the other that they subconsciously think it is safest to hurt the other person first.

Divorced parents, divorced kids

Research shows that children of divorced parents are far more likely (up to 189% more likely if both parents divorced), to get divorced themselves when they get older.

Healing nature of forgiveness

Despite all of this, there is research to suggest, that forgiving others has a powerful, beneficial impact on health and healing and growing relationships.

We intuitively know that forgiveness, love, and letting go are beneficial to us, but do we have a narrative or reason that helps us to forgive or show love?

Note: forgiveness is not failing to condemn a wrong or not allowing someone to process their hurt. Rather to condemn a wrong, grieve and process a hurt, making a conscious decision to not hold a wrong against someone before it is felt.

Need for a narrative for forgiveness

In the midst of intense despair and pain, telling yourself you should forgive because it’s good for you without a deeper narrative is often not enough to lead to a transformative, loving change.

Misconceptions on forgiveness

Many falsely think forgiveness is about minimising acts of evil. To forgive, as Miroslav Volf outlines in Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, one must first admit they have been wronged or hurt. “First, to forgive is to name the wrongdoing and to condemn it (p.129).”

Volf himself experienced traumatic abuse in a Yugoslavian prison.

Once the wrong has been admitted, we then make a conscious choice to grant forgiveness to the person who hurt us. Like a banker who absolves a borrower of their debt, we no longer hold the wrong against the wrongdoer.

The example of letting a borrower free of their debt is an analogy Christ himself used (Matt. 18:21–35). Volf emphasises how forgiveness is granted before it is felt.

Unforgiving servant

Third, out of love for the other person and for God, we don’t make it easy for the person who hurt us to keep on sinning. This could involve simply praying for them and nothing further. If safe to do so, we might tell them to stop or seek reconciliation.

In more extreme cases, particularly with a risk of widespread or continued wrongdoing, others may need to be involved in seeking justice. However, this is not to be confused with revenge. The motive is to be love for God and others (including their safety/ making it harder for people to sin/ greater good of others), not revenge.

Repay no one evil for evil… Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17–21

Volf’s steps of forgiveness

  1. Admit the wrong
  2. Don’t count the wrong against the wrongdoer (not liable for their debt)
  3. Don’t make it easy for the wrongdoer to keep sinning

Whatever the reasons, when forgiveness happens it is always a miracle of grace. The obstacles in its way are immense. — Miroslav Volf

The basis to forgive? Transformative narrative in Christianity

It is all well and good to talk about how forgiveness is beneficial and a process for forgiveness but is there a fundamental reality to look to in order to forgive? Somewhere or someone we can go to in order to heal our hurt?

Sinners and victims

In Christianity, we are all victims of hurt, yet also sinners and offenders ourselves. As Solzhenitsyn exclaimed, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

Sinners and victims. All of us. Except..

Christ was a victim but not a sinner. Our sin killed him. Let that sink in.

Innocent, yet isolated. Faultless, yet flogged. Loving, yet laughed at. Compassionate, yet condemned. Benevolent, yet betrayed. Sweet, yet spat on. Kind, yet killed. Holy, yet hated. Friendly, yet forsaken. Conciliatory, yet crucified.

Further still, he suffered out of love for us.

He offers a new identity. A new life. A satisfying, enriching, and transcendent love.

When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:23–24

A path forward

Christ not only gives us a new identity in him but also a path forward for showing love to others. He has an open heart to those who hate him.

He loved us before we loved him (Rom. 5:8). Urged his followers to bless and pray for their enemies (Matt. 5:43–45) and to forgive whoever has wronged them whenever they pray (Mark 11:25).

Uniqueness of Christianity

The Christian narrative for forgiveness is unlike anything found anywhere in any worldview or religion. The work has been done for you. Your identity as a sinner and a victim can be replaced by a newfound identity in Christ. The Innocent One who became a victim for you the sinner.

As Volf reflects, “For Christians, forgiving, like giving in general, always takes place in a triangle, involving the wrongdoer, the wronged person, and God. Take God away, and the foundations of forgiveness become unsteady and may even crumble (Free of Charge, p.131).”

Circuit breaker: Breaking the cycle

Hurt people hurt people. Yet, forgiveness and love can break the cycle. An open heart is possible towards those around us (note this is different to not being discerning!).

Experiencing the satisfying love of Christ can act as a circuit breaker in a world of cycles of trauma and pain. We’re all imperfect and will fail time and time again, yet Christ offers a way for us to stop passing on hurt to others.

As a victim of unfair treatment and condemnation, Christ knows our hurt. He urges us to take our hurt to him before letting it shape how we treat new people in our lives.

A circuit breaker

In Christ, we have grounds to let go of wrongdoing against us just as God let go of our wrongdoing against him. We have grounds for genuine love for others. For empathy with the fallenness of others.

When we see what Christ suffered for us, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold people’s past over their heads in our hearts.

When reconciliation is refused

Many times, people will refuse to reconcile with us or to be on better terms. They will continue to be cold, graceless or even hateful and hold grudges.

Yet, our role is not to continue to hold that against them but to turn to Christ for his rich and satisfying love.

This doesn’t mean we should let wrongdoers continue sinning against us, rather the mental burden of the hurt we hold against them can be alleviated through the soothing love of Christ.

We can be okay with being wronged in the past, through Christ as our example and not letting bitterness and hurt compound over time.

Being mistreated won’t define us for the One who was mistreated for our ill nature can define us.

Where to take your hurt

Hurting? Broken? Take your pains to the foot of the cross. Leave them there. Be as open and honest as possible. Who did it, what they did, why it hurts, how long it hurts for, why you’re struggling so much with it. Pour out your heart to him (Ps. 62:8). Don’t harbour the hurt alone.

Struggling still? Ask him with sincerity to shape your heart.

By His grace, it’s not your burden to carry. He was already at the destination for you, before you even set foot on the starting line.

Your sin killed him, yet he still loves you.

What better narrative for breaking cycles of hurt than this?

He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. — Hebrews 5:2

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Street Theologian

Theology and apologetics for those who want to get their hands dirty