This post is quite a bit longer than I plan to make most of my posts. I feel compelled to share these thoughts, as I think there is a bit of a crises regarding this topic. I thank anyone who takes the time to read this in its entirey.
In my recovery from abuse, I reached a point where I was ready to talk about it with others. Some people heard me, really heard me, and were empathetic and supportive. One friend who had listened very well to me, died shortly thereafter. Another friend listened to me and ‘got’ me better than anyone I’d ever had in my life, outside of my husband. I consider her one of the best gifts God gave me (along with my husband and children).
As I shared my story with others, though, I heard advice which I found to be a bit frustrating. It made me want to justify myself. But I’ve spent a lot of money in therapy to learn how to stop needing to justify myself. I don’t want to waste the investment. Therefore, I am going to attempt to write out some thoughts on forgiveness; without delving (too much) into justifications of my own experiences.
In short: I experienced some moments where fellow Christians urged, gently encouraged, or even outright insisted, that I forgive my abusers.
I found it frightening because their summation of me triggered one of my fears. I thought I had forgiven it? Did my anger return? Did I sound bitter there? What about me or my demeanor led them to conclude I haven’t forgiven this? Show me Lord, so that I can remove it!
See, I used to be very afraid that I was harboring some sort of bitterness or unforgiveness toward someone. Thereby I would not be able myself to receive God’s forgiveness (that I know I desperately need). I take Matthew 6:15 to heart. God gave me faith and simple understanding of the gospel in early childhood. That story can be for another post. In my mid-twenties, when I first began to understand that some of what had happened to me in childhood was actually abuse: I believe I forgave it; near immediately. I did that because I wanted it to go away; and my understanding at the time was that forgiveness would erase it and enable me to continue being in contact with people who had done horrific things to me—but who I loved nonetheless and over which I did not want to harm the relationship.
After I hit a wall and couldn’t go on without openly owning my past in all its ugliness, I started to share bits of that ugly past, here and there. As time passed, my voice stopped tremoring when I spoke of the incidents. My body calmed. I didn’t feel, or come across, as traumatized anymore. I have to wonder now, in hindsight, if some who advised me to ‘forgive’ were simply misreading symptoms of bodily distress as anger and unforgiveness.
Either way, when I was told I needed to forgive, or saw others sharing similar stories only to be told the same thing (‘you need to forgive’), it left me spinning. Had all those years of offering up forgiveness to others been fake? Had I deceived myself even more than I realized?
Once I began to understand trauma and the process of healing from it, what forgiveness entails, that forgiveness is not going to fix anything but still has to be done, that sometimes reconciliation is not possible, and, this was the hardest part, that sometimes you need to separate from people who continue to be abusive, those fears subsided. New feelings emerged. And some paranoia.
When I heard repeated sermons on forgiveness (a very popular theme where I attend services), I wondered if the pastor who counselled me to forgive my abusers had told the lead pastor at the church my story. Another day a sister in Christ told me that she’d been listening to a popular speaker who had forgiven her father for abuse. I nodded. I was aware of her story. And I also knew how many years had passed wherein she openly owned the abuse– before her father apologized to her and admitted that he’d abused her.
I thought to myself, Where is she going with this? Why is she telling me this? Why is she looking at me like I’m the one doing something wrong because I am now estranged from certain family members?
My therapist asked me if I had asked her what she meant by that. Oops. I believe I said something like this in response, ‘Right now, I believe God is clearly telling me to avoid certain people in my family.’
Based on the look on her face, and the fact that it turned pink, I think I knew what she was getting at.
It felt, at times, like no one was getting it. Here is why: usually in telling my story I prefaced it with ‘I have forgiven my abusers, but we are now estranged as a result of me telling the truth.’ Or, I followed it up with something similar to what I’d told the person who seemed to be suggesting I do something other than what I was/am doing: ‘This is where I believe God wants me to be.”
Nevertheless, I plugged on. I kept owning the truth; and sharing it when it seemed appropriate; and/or safe. I began to deeply understand that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. I stopped being so hard on myself as I realized that every time I offered up forgiveness to those who had sinned against me, even before I had stopped denying the extent of the abuse itself, God honored it. God used my willingness to face the early things by nudging me further toward the light and toward the truth of the later things which were much more difficult to own. Those early attempts were not in vain. It was all part of the peeling of the onion that needed to happen.
Through therapy , talking with people who did and do support me, journaling, and prayer, I fleshed out my belief system about forgiveness.
*Forgiveness lets people off your hook. It does not, and we cannot, let people off God’s hook. They still face Him for their actions. We all do.
*I am going to suffer the consequences of the sin against me regardless. I may as well forgive it and set myself free from seeking out restitution and repayment of something that cannot be repaid anyway.
*If a bank forgives a debt, do you think they loan money out to that same person again? Without a probation period? Or some other stricter conditions for repayment?
*If someone tossed mud all over your life, which took you a long time to deal with, and then that same person wants to come back into your home, without removing their muddy shoes first, do you let them enter? Or do you politely but firmly say, ‘You can’t come in here until you remove your muddy shoes.’
Those things are not ‘unforgiveness.’ They are wisdom.
It took decades for me to understand the extent of my child abuse. With the help of a therapist, I was able to see that I had been forgiving as much of it as possible each time I dealt with a fresh memory. I also learned, though, that forgiveness is an ongoing process. In my experience, forgiving didn’t facilitate immediate, miraculous healing. A one and done prayer didn’t help me. Rather, I believe a deeper layer of forgiveness, and acceptance, naturally started to happen as I owned truth after truth and damage after damage. All of which became more intense as I entered the lower layers of the healing process.
You can’t forgive damage until you become fully aware of the extent of the damage. I was in denial about how damaged I had been in my childhood. I hadn’t allowed myself any time for grieving and looking over the devastation and effects of it. I’m still peeling deeper layers of that onion. As a friend once told me, “And peeling onions always makes you cry.” Indeed. I am thankful, so thankful, when people get that.
To my discouragement, though, I sometimes still find myself lashing out in anger at a ‘safe’ person who doesn’t deserve it. It seems like once a month, now, I uncover more hidden damage and thereby have even more to forgive; and to ask for forgiveness myself of others, for my own mistreatment of them. Forgiveness, like repentance, is an ongoing thing. Sins from years ago can enter our minds fresh, with a burst of anger, and you can realize you are harboring something all over again that you believed you let go of a long time ago. Had you not done it right the first time around?
Here is what I believe: I think we lean toward forgiveness and God honors that as He helps us get there; in time. I believe that’s part of the Holy Spirit’s work of ongoing sanctification, as we are being perfected in our walk. I don’t think that means I didn’t do it ‘right’ the first time around. Some offenses run deeper than others. So long as we put our face toward a forgiving stance, choose to walk that direction; God makes sure we get there.
But to tell a brother or sister in Christ who is reeling with trauma that they ‘just need to forgive it’ is a bit like telling a two year old they need to cut up a steak before they can eat it. They are sitting there, tied to a chair, with tantalizing food in front of them, and they are not presently capable of using a knife and fork. They need someone else to make it into bite sized pieces for them. As they grow, they can cut their own meat.
How do we help cut up the meat for others who have been injured?
I have some ideas. But first: I do not think people were necessarily wrong to think I needed to forgive my abusers. Just like it isn’t wrong to notice that a two year old can’t eat a steak without it being cut up first. How we deal with what we are observing is key. Asking ourselves why we want to tell someone else to ‘just forgive it’ might be helpful. Is that for our benefit and comfort; or theirs?
I’m a ‘why’ person. My husband read this quote and shared it recently. “If you know how to do something you will always have a job. If you know why you are doing something, you will always be that other person’s boss.”
So, I wanted to know why some people, Christians usually, immediately start stressing forgiveness to those that are brave enough to share their stories of abuse. It can seem like victim shaming and blaming. I don’t want to call it that, though, as I don’t believe everyone means it to be that way.
This morning these verses in Ezekiel came to mind.
“Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the LORD called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”
In this case the mark is a good thing. You can read beforehand and further on, to see that those getting the mark were the people who would be spared from the angel of death bringing judgment upon Israel.
Back to my point, and I could be wrong. This is just my personal ‘take’. However, I feel compelled to put this out into the world, for whoever may stumble upon it:
The reason why so many Christians stress that the victims of detestable things forgive their abusers is because many of us have stopped grieving and lamenting over sin. (For clarity here: sexual abuse, assault, child abuse, spiritual and emotional abuse ARE detestable sins. Particularly sexual abuse against children by members of the clergy or church leadership–of which I am a survivor).
When I first began to move certain memories of childhood from the file in my brain marked ‘that wasn’t a big deal’ or ‘you brought that on yourself’ to a very scary file labeled ‘I was abused’ – I did the same thing. I didn’t want to grieve or lament the sin. I just wanted it gone. HENCE: I forgave it. Very quickly. Without a grieving process. Without assessing the damages. Without weeping for the loss. The loss made itself known; anyway. The grief rose up and overwhelmed me; anyway.
I believe we can cut up the meat for those who have been injured in the following ways:
We grieve with them. We lament. We listen. We reserve judgment on the victim and believe that they are, indeed, a victim. Unless we are willing to walk with them the entirety of their battle–then we may be compelled to say something more to them. (My husband often suggests that unless I am willing to walk with someone through the entirety of their mess, it’s best I just keep my mouth shut if I think I know of a way to ‘fix’ the problem). And we pray that God give them strength, wisdom, courage, and healing so they can someday cut their own meat again.
Meanwhile: It’s hard to delve into the ugliness of sin. How do we do that? How do we grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are being done in our darkening world?
I don’t know, exactly. I just know it is messy. Peeling onions always makes you cry. Especially the homegrown onions, the ones that were cultivated in our own backyards. Those are the worst offenders of all, and the hardest to recover from.
As a result of intense reading and research on things like ‘normalization’ and ‘grooming’, (to understand better what had happened to me in childhood) I see that the enemy seeks very hard to numb us; to normalize even the most damaging and detestable of sins.
In light of that, the answer may be very, very simple. Perhaps it is time we normalized weeping, grieving, and lamenting, over sin; that we joined our traumatized brothers and sisters in their mess and bear one another’s burdens together to ease the load. Particularly those sins against children. Particularly those, like sexual assaults, which attempt to murder the soul of their victims.