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What forgiving an abuser means (and doesn’t mean)

What forgiving an abuser means (and doesn’t mean)

This is the first in a two-part reflection on forgiveness and abuse.

“What would it take for you to forgive him?”

My minister asked this in the weeks after I had experienced sexual harassment from a Christian friend. Parsing through the emotions, I was trying to work out the best way to move forward.

On first glance, it might seem simple: forgive, let go of bitterness, move on. But the experience of abusive behaviour had taught me that it’s not that simple.

The situation filled me with questions. Is it right to “forgive and forget” in the face of cyclical, abusive sin? I didn’t think it was punitive to hold an abuser accountable. But was it a lack of grace? And if I chose to “forgive” and not press it further, would I put the safety of others at risk?

As I asked these questions, it became clear how complicated forgiveness can be – particularly in abuse.

But they are questions that every Christian should be asking. Today, we are facing the fallout of abuse scandals across the church, and a common thread has been the lopsided teaching of forgiveness. Forgiveness that’s equated to “forgiving and forgetting”, instead of hashing out the issues that caused the abuse. Forgiveness that’s become a simplification and a way of keeping the peace.

The news is full of stories where Christians have used forgiveness to pressure children to stay with their abusive parents. Wives have been told to forgive and return to their violent husbands. Sexual predators have moved onto new victims because “we’ve all fallen short of God’s glory”. And we silence victims – all out of “Christian forgiveness”.

It may seem comforting and holy to tell a person who’s hurting that they “just need to forgive”. But in a world of child abuse scandals, domestic violence and #metoo, do Christians really understand what it means when they ask victims to forgive?

Forgiving abuse is complicated

Forgiveness is a cornerstone of Christian faith. If you ask a Christian what forgiveness of others means to them, they’ll most likely refer to forgiving “seventy times seven”, or the Lord’s Prayer. Fundamental to Christian faith is that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross makes God’s forgiveness of us possible.

But, as elementary as it is, forgiveness is not simplistic or a “one size fits all”. As John Harrower writes:

We often clutch at simplistic answers, because of our own discomfort. We can suggest solutions like ‘forgiving others’ or ‘God can forgive you’ as a way of trying to bring people’s pain to an end: to jam the lid back on the box of suffering. Our forgiveness of others and God’s forgiveness of us, are two huge life-changing tools that God has given us to enable us to live in a fallen messed up world – but they are too important to use as some lid to quickly remove a mess from view.

We, as Christians, can prefer the comfort of black-and-white answers. But a simplistic understanding of forgiveness can feed harmful misconceptions.

Here are some that I’ve encountered from Christians.

Misconception #1: Forgiveness is for the benefit of the victim.

Many psychologists see forgiveness as an important way toward a healthier outlook. Forgiveness helps you let go of negativity, and has even been suggested to improve your physical and mental health.

Christians, too, will often recommend cultivating a forgiving spirit on your own, so that you don’t grow bitter. But is this what we see in the Bible? In fact, there’s a powerful argument that biblical forgiveness is not solo, but is a two-person transaction.

We see this over and over in the Bible – perhaps most famously in the Prodigal Son, who has to return (repent) to restore himself to his father (Luke 15:11-32). He isn’t forgiven because he’s sad and sorry and has hit bottom. His absolution comes from repentance.

Even when Jesus asks to “forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), he is asking God to forgive. They weren’t forgiven until they repented.

Our own relationship with God echoes this model. God is willing to forgive everyone – and do it more than once. But we receive his forgiveness because we turn to him and commit ourselves to him so we can change.

Offering forgiveness can be an important way of moving forward on your own. But in a divine economy, forgiveness is a two-way street.

Juxtapose this with what we’ve seen of abuse scandals, and there’s a stark contrast. When victims took back perpetrators who hadn’t repented, they often continued their abuse. We see this in domestic violence cases or the child abuse scandal of the Catholic church. Teaching only half the equation of forgiveness can have lasting, painful repercussions.

Misconception #2: You need to forgive as soon as possible.

From the parable of the Unmerciful Servant, we believe that if you refuse to forgive others, then God won’t forgive you.

But forgiving immediately gets difficult when it comes to abuse. Part of this is because it’s often a slow process for a victim to understand what happened. For abuse victims, there are often deliberate mind-games, power plays and other techniques that muddy their view. The victim’s self-image and ability to cope can have serious damage.

The process of parsing this out could take weeks or months, depending on severity. Even when I reported my sexual harassment, I continued to agonise over whether I’d done the right thing, or what had even happened.

Unfortunately, Christians can easily conflate “not forgiving yet” with “unforgiveness”. Putting pressure on the victim to abandon their unforgiving spirit can become spiritual abuse. It can also lead the victim to “forgive” with words, but never fully address the underlying trauma.

That doesn’t give me a free ride to be woefully unforgiving (which is something I have been guilty of). But it does mean going through a process fully.

Misconception #3: Forgiveness means that everything goes back to the way it was before.

Another common misconception is that forgiveness means instant restoration. Anything less than this, and it’s tantamount to “unforgiveness”.

It’s true that Christians should be trying to be Christ-like, including loving our enemies (Matthew 5:44). But love for enemies is not always enough to justify reinstating an abusive person in your life. The Bible is clear that wrongdoing has lasting consequences, and people are not always capable of healthy reconciliation in our imperfect world.

Christian friends of mine have forgiven an abusive parent, but they have decided not to allow that person in their lives. Other friends of mine have chosen to distance themselves from people who’ve habitually hurt them, knowing that the connection had led them away from God.

It’s good to have restoration as the goal. But safety can make this impossible or unwise. Christians should model unconditional forgiveness – even seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:21-22). But this is not the same as unconditional relationship.

What next?

We can’t coerce it. We can’t demand it. Forgiveness is an amazing form of restoration. But in the times we’re in, it’s essential that every Christian can understand the complexity of forgiveness, as well as its beauty.

My reflections so far have focused on what forgiveness is not. In my next article, I’ll focus on what it is, and how we as a church can learn to better understand and restore people who are caught up in abuse.

I have had misgivings about whether to write this article, as it alludes to some of my personal dealings with abuse. My aim has been to offer general reflections that apply to a wide range of situations, but there may be some who are aware of my personal circumstances. Please maintain privacy of all parties.