A Love-Hate Relationship With Forgiveness

Most people, whether they are religious or not, would agree that holding a grudge and hanging on to bitterness is not helpful.

In an article entitled Forgiveness: Letting Go of Grudges and Bitterness the Mayo Clinic gives the following negative effects of holding a grudge:

  • It can bring anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience.
  • You can become so wrapped up in the wrong that you can’t enjoy the present.
  • You can become depressed and anxious.
  • You can feel your life lacks meaning or purpose.
  • You can become at odds with your spiritual beliefs.
  • You can lose valuable and enriching connectedness with others.

Referring to a study on holding grudges from the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, David P. Feldman, Ph.D. states

“…those who said they tended to hold grudges reported higher rates of heart disease and cardiac arrest, elevated blood pressure, stomach ulcers, arthritis, back problems, headaches, and chronic pain than those who didn’t share this tendency. “

So, though holding onto a grudge and refusing to forgive may in some way feel good to us, the truth is it is not good for us. But forgiveness is beneficial to us mentally, emotionally, and physically.

For Christians, forgiveness is also beneficial spiritually. As a Christian, I have been given forgiveness I didn’t deserve and didn’t earn. Out of that undeserved gift, I am to learn to do the same…forgive others who are undeserving. Colossians 3:13

In the model prayer known as The Lord’s Prayer, we are taught to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matthew 6:12

The Christian has been forgiven, but continues to experience forgiveness as they offer forgiveness.

Forgiving, especially in light of severe trauma, is not easy…even for Christians. Certainly the severity of the offense makes forgiveness difficult. How could such a horrible crime be forgiven?

But there are also certain misconceptions about forgiveness that can impede our ability to forgive. Understanding what forgiveness is and isn’t is an important step toward being able to forgive.

Let’s start with what forgiveness is not.

  • Forgiveness is not condoning the offense. Forgiveness does not mean that what happened to you was ok. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that what happened to you was a small thing. The very fact that forgiveness is needed says that there was a serious offense that cannot be atoned for in any other way.
  • Forgiveness is not excusing the offender. Nothing excuses what your abuser(s) did to you. It was wrong, it will always be wrong, and it can’t be undone. That’s why your only two options are bitterness or forgiveness. Forgiveness is not fair, but it is freeing.
  • Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness releases the expectation and/or the need for the abuser(s) to make some kind of restitution for what they have done. Forgiveness does not require you to restore a relationship with the abuser(s). Reconciliation will depend on the repentance of the abuser(s) and the willingness of the abused, but forgiveness is not dependent on reconciliation. Forgiveness is solely in the hands of the abused.
  • Forgiveness is not dependent on forgetting. Often we are told we need to “forgive and forget.” Or we are told that continuing to remember an offense is a sign that we have not forgiven the offender. Neither of these are true. Forgetting our hurts would keep us from learning and open the door for further traumatization. Throughout Scripture, God constantly remembers and rehearses the offenses of His people. Forgiveness does not override memory. Forgiveness overrules memory.
  • Forgiveness is not a quick, one-time decision. Forgiveness starts with a decision, but from there forgiveness is a process of living out that decision. When the offense is small, the decision and process of forgiveness is relatively short and easy. But when the offense large, as in sexual abuse, reaching the decision to forgive and carrying out that decision can take much more time and effort. Look at the amount of time between when God proposed forgiveness in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) and when He actually carried it out with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. As Christians, we are called to forgive completely…not necessarily quickly.

So what is forgiveness?

Forgiveness is choosing to give up your right and your need to expect or demand restitution for the wrong that was done to you. Forgiveness is releasing your need to collect on the debt they owe you and in so doing setting yourself free. Forgiveness is a learned and practiced skill. It is totally within your power and ultimately for you more than anyone else.

But having said all this, let me say that no one can pressure you into forgiving your abuser. Forgiveness must be given freely as a voluntary decision and an on-going act of the will.

In his article on holding grudges (quoted above), Dr. Feldman also says

“We’re not implying that victims of crimes, traumas, and atrocities have an obligation to forgive their victimizers. Most experts on the topic of forgiveness agree that nobody should (or even can) be forced to forgive. To do so would be to further victimize the victim. But, to the degree that we naturally feel ready to let go of grudges, it may ultimately be beneficial for us to do so. This isn’t something we do for those who wronged us; it’s something we do for ourselves when and if we’re ready.”

I agree with Dr. Feldman. Forgiveness is not to be forced out of a sense of a sense of duty to the offender, but rather offered as an act of freedom for the abused. Forgiveness allows the victim to move forward without continuing to drag the abuser around with them.

Well-Meaning Christians with Simplistic Theology

A Christian friend is no different than any other friend. It breaks their heart to see you suffering, and they want to do or say something to help and encourage you.

But Christian friends have an added concern. They not only worry about you personally, they worry about you spiritually. They worry that what you have been through could cause you to eventually abandon your faith.

So out of concern for both your well being and your faith, (and possibly their own fragile grasp on God,) they can be much too quick to give you Bible verses and answers. In an attempt to encourage you and remind you of God’s ability to make everything right, they may say things like:

• “God works all things together for good.”
• “In the end, the innocent will get justice and the guilty will get punished.”
• “Everything happens for a reason.”
• “Look how many people you will be able to help because you went through this.”
• “Thank God it wasn’t worse.”

These things may be true, but they’re not always helpful…especially if they are offered too soon and too easily.

These responses are attempts to help you answer the basic, nagging question…”Why?!”

It’s important to understand that when it comes to abuse (or any trauma,) victims ask two types of “why” questions. The first type comes early in the recovery process. It may sound like the victim is looking for answers, but they are really just venting their hurt and anger. These are “why” questions that come not from the head, but from the heart.

The second type of “why” questions come later, after emotions have been vented and processed. These latter “why” questions are truly seeking to understand the reason behind what happened. These questions are looking for explanation…not to be confused with excuse…and they come not from the heart, but from the head.

The problem is that early in the process, well-meaning Christian friends try to answer the “why” questions of the heart with theological answers from the head. That doesn’t work. “Why” questions from the heart need compassionate empathy, more than correct theology.

So, when you find yourself faced with a well-meaning Christian friend whose attempts to encourage you are more hurtful than helpful, try focusing on their genuine love and concern for you more than on their swing-and-a-miss attempt to answer the questions you’re not really asking.

The Credits

The credits are one of the most neglected parts of a movie. Unless you’re a true movie buff, when the credits roll you probably feel the movie is over and get up to go. It’s a rare individual that stays and reads all those names and positions racing quickly up the screen.

But if it weren’t for the people listed in the credits, there would be no movie. Each one of those people played a specific part in bringing the movie to the screen. Directors, actors, script writers, costume designers, special effects artists…there’s a long list of people who added something to the making of the movie. Recognizing these people is important.

As you work through your sexual abuse, a lot of time and attention is given to the antagonist of your story…the abuser(s). Early in the process, the abuser(s) tend to get top billing and most of the screen time.

Then later on, as you move through the process, the attention tends to shift to the protagonist of the story…you. As you learn new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, you get more of the billing and more of the screen time.

As you come to the end of the process, it is really easy to feel like “this movie is over,” and quickly move on to something else. But there is still one more part to your “movie” that you don’t want to ignore. You need to take the time to credit all the people who have played a positive and helpful part in bringing you to this point.

This could be counselors, doctors, spouses, family members, close friends, or total strangers who unknowingly offered you words of kindness and acts of support. This supporting cast of people is an important part of your story and should not be glanced over. Their investment in your life, both big and small, have contributed to you arriving at this point in your movie. They deserve your recognition and gratitude before you move on.

Take some time to think about everyone who has contributed to your care and growth. Make a list of the people and their contributions…big and small. Think of their good gifts to you. Express your gratitude, if not to them, then to someone else. Don’t leave this movie without rolling the credits that are due.

The Return

With the words “There’s no place like home” still ringing in her ears, Dorothy slowly opens her eyes to discover she is home. It’s still the same old home. She is still surrounded by the same sepia drabness of the Kansas farm. She is still looking at the same family and friends she has always faced. And those family and friends are treating her much like they always did. It’s as if she never really left.

But even though everything around her may look the same, Dorothy knows that something is different. She knows that she is different. She has learned she can overcome the obstacles before her and rise above the status quo. She has learned she can face difficult things without running from them. She has learned how to thrive in less than desirable situations.

She has taken the road out of Oz.

The music swells, the screen fades to black, and the credits roll.

At the end of your journey – after all of the strange things you have seen and experienced, and after all the new things you have heard and learned – you still have to go back to the real world. You may not be going back to the exact people and places of your abuse, but you still have to go back to the people and places that were a part of your life when you started your journey. In many ways, things will look the same and people will act the same. In some ways, it will be as if you never took the journey.

But you will know that something is different. You will know that you are different. You have overcome obstacles, risen above the status quo, learned to face difficulties without running away, and discovered how to make the best of a bad situation.

You have taken the road out of Oz, and it has changed you for the better.

There will be no music swell. No fade to black. No rolling of the credits. Because this will not be the end of a movie. It will be the start of a larger and more cinematic life. The beginning of a much better story!