“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Elie Weisel from his Nobel prize acceptance speech in 1986.
The Road Out of Oz
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.
Quote – The Past
“…a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.” From the book “Einstein’s Dream, by Alan Lightman.
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.
“Sexual abuse is a violent injury that mangles a life, but left unaddressed it grows into a chronic fatigue that mutes a life.” – Bret Legg
A Seemingly Absent and Questionable God.
For some, their sexual abuse becomes their reason for rejecting the idea of a loving and powerful God. But for those victims who continue to believe in a God who is all-seeing, all-loving and all-powerful, the experience of sexual abuse raises some deep and difficult questions. Questions like:
- Where was God when I was being abused?
- Why didn’t God intervene and stop the abuse?
- What kind of God would let this happen?
- Does God even care?
At the outset, let me say I don’t have the answers to these questions. I don’t know why God didn’t intervene and prevent your abuse. As a minister, I still wrestle with such questions each time I work with a sexual abuse survivor.
It is beyond the scope of this post to decipher these deep theological questions, and even if I had the “right” answers, those answers would not feel sufficient, because they wouldn’t change your history or your hurt. These questions about God reveal a heart looking for solace more than a head looking for answers.
What I do know is that for some reason, God gives people (including you) the freedom to make decisions and act in ways that can be hurtful to themselves and others.
It doesn’t seem right that God would give an abuser the freedom to choose to abuse someone else. It feels Like God should have taken away the abuser’s freedom and forced them to do what was right.
But, would you want God to take away your freedom and force you to do what you should do? If your old protective behaviors are hurting others emotionally, do you want God to force you to do what you should do? Victims often believe that God should have taken from their abuser the very thing they would never want taken from themselves – the freedom to choose what they’re going to do…even if it’s not the best for them or others.
I don’t know why God allows people the freedom to hurt and abuse others, but I know that God promises to be with us in the hurt and to give us the ability to reshape it into something better. That may seem a day late and a dollar short, but think about it. Any old run-of-the-mill god should be able to snap their fingers and make all the bad things go away. This requires no commitment and no relationship. It just requires a flex of muscle. But a God who is so committed to us that He comes to us in the midst of our hurt, walks with us through the tragedy of our life, and then brings us to a better place in spite of our hurt…this is a God who is worth our attention and trust.
You may not believe this or even like this line of reasoning, but that is the message of the incarnation of Jesus. A God who could have flexed his muscles and made everything the way he wanted it (like an abuser), instead comes to a broken world, is mistreated and broken right along with the rest of us, and in that brokenness offers us hope. He does this, not by waving his hand and making the situation better, but by walking with us in the midst of the brokenness and making us better.
Quote – Forgiveness
“Forgiveness does not override memory. Forgiveness overrules memory.” Bret Legg
Dorothy began as a wide-eyed, little girl; innocent and dressed in gingham. She loved her family, she loved her dog, and she dreamed of a wonderful place beyond the rainbow.
She didn’t plan a fearful encounter with Elmira Gultch, and she didn’t expect the unsympathetic responses of her family and friends. She wasn’t prepared for the cyclone that would sweep her away and leave her in an unrecognizable place called Oz.
Everything that happened to land Dorothy in Oz was not of her making and completely out of her control.
But once she was there…like it or not…she had to decide what she was going to do. She had to decide whether she would listen to those who said they wanted to help her. She had do decide whether to stay where she was, or begin walking towards a hopeful exit. She had to decide whether to allow others to share in her journey, or try to go it alone. She had to decide whether or not to take the road out of Oz.
Once she made the decision to leave Oz, she quickly found it would not be an easy road. There would be times when hope would seem just within her grasp, only to cruelly slip out of reach at the next stop. On this road, bright meadows and the lush cornfields would suddenly be replaced with dark woods and ominous castles.
The road out of Oz didn’t bring Dorothy to a place where everything was made right. Instead, the road out of Oz brought her to a place where things were made better. She was wiser, stronger, and no longer needed to run away when she felt threatened. She came to realize that what she needed was already with her. When the final credits rolled, Dorothy hadn’t left the farm, but she was in a better place.
The road out of Oz is the same for victims of sexual abuse. Though every woman’s experience is unique to her, there are some things about the road that are the same for all.
You didn’t plan to be victimized sexually. You didn’t plan on the wide variety of reactions your abuse would produce in you, or in others. You didn’t plan to get caught up in this whirlwind, nor did you plan on winding up where you are now.
But now that you have awakened to what has happened and where it has left you, you have some decisions to make. Will you decide to listen to those who can help you, or will you decide to reject their help out of distrust? Will you decide to stay where you are, or will you decide to start walking out of your Oz? Will you decide to let others who are in need join you on your journey, or will you decide to go it on your own?
Like Dorothy, your road out of Oz will not be an easy one. There will be times when you will experience the bright meadows of hope, and times when you will experience the dark forests of despair. There will be times when arrival at the Emerald City seems within your reach and times when the dark castle of resistance stands in your way.
And when you come to the end of your journey, everything will not be “right” or “fixed.” The horrible injustice of your abuse will not magically evaporate. Your abuser may never pay for what they did, or even acknowledge it. But when the credits roll, you will realize that you have what it takes to find your way. You will be better. You will be stronger. You will be in a better place.
If you have been the victim of sexual abuse, I know the thought of making this journey can be fearful and overwhelming. I know there is a level of uncertainty about the journey that can feel unnerving.
But I also know you can make this journey. I know you can take your road out of Oz. I’ve seen many women reclaim themselves and their lives by making this journey, and it’s my prayer that you will find what you needed to step out of the rubble of the cyclone of abuse and start taking steps on the road out of Oz.
Quote – Risk
“Take risks: if you win, you will be happy; if you lose, you will be wise.” Anonymous
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.