Forgiveness. What an amazing word. What an honorable act. What an indescribable sensation when once we receive it and too, when we dispense it.
I’ve struggled a long time with these words. The reason is simple but tragic. When the very organization that is supposed to teach you the meanings behind these words refuses to protect you. When they even go so far as to take aim and target you as being the person at fault. When in truth, you are not only NOT to blame, but you are the victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a minister.
When this is the reality, it becomes increasingly difficult to find any forgiveness for those who allow it to happen, for those who cover it up, for those who choose to protect the predator rather than an innocent child. When they make this choice repeatedly, they victimize and re-victimize those who are most vulnerable. For them, forgiveness seems not only fruitless, but counterproductive in the protection of children.
I give lectures and presentations to civic and religious groups, even to small groups of couples wanting to know how to better protect their children from sexual predators. And you want to know the question I am most often asked? I don’t mean it’s asked occasionally, I’m telling you I get this question more than all other questions combined. They ask, “have you forgiven your abuser?”
At first, I have to admit, I didn’t really know how to respond. I was taken aback. Shocked actually. Of all the questions I expected, this was not one of them. Initially I deflected. Because in truth, I had not even given it consideration. I was so focused on keeping my abuser away from more children, so intent on preventing more children from going through what I did, and so preoccupied with helping support fellow survivors that it never entered my thought process.
Now I was forced to face a daunting challenge. You see, my dilemma is this. My spiritual background is Protestant. Specifically, I was raised Southern Baptist. And within that faith was a teaching that we were to forgive as we are forgiven. So it says right in The Lord’s Prayer. On the flip side was my heart. Having been torn apart by a man who has molested, raped and sexually abused an untold number of little boys. How do I forgive that?
So I did something it took me a long time to do after having felt betrayed by the very God that my abuser claimed to represent. I spent a lot of time in prayer and study. I went to the doctrines of every faith and religious text I could find having to do with forgiveness. Time and time again I saw, forgive as you are forgiven. Jesus, Gandhi, no matter the reference, if you don’t forgive, how can you expect to be forgiven? Were these folks right? Was I supposed to forgive this most heinous of crimes perpetrated against myself and all those other little boys?
In all the passages from people of faith, when they spoke of forgiveness they did so when addressing those who had faith. People who held in their hearts a belief in repentance for transgressions. Even those that had done them wrong. It was while having a bible study with my wife Linda that we came across the scripture that opened my eyes. My spiritual eyes, and my heart.
In Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus talks about forgiveness. And most of this chapter has to do with Him explaining to his followers how to do certain things. How to pray, fast, etc. As Linda and I read, we began to understand. Jesus was talking about Christians forgiving other Christians, not about forgiving the unrepentant.
This led me to a question.
Is it within my ability to forgive someone who does not have faith or who has no regret or repentance? This led me to an even deeper question from a trusted friend and man who has spent his entire adult life in study and prayer. He posed the following query, “Is a person without faith or repentance even capable of receiving my forgiveness?”
I was blown away.
Rather than paraphrasing, I will simply let him explain in his own words.
“Until someone has first been forgiven by God unto salvation through Christ, we do not have the ability to forgive them. I will take it a step further.. Until a person has become forgiven by God unto salvation they are incapable of receiving human forgiveness. Only God can forgive a non-Christian. That is not to say that we should not pray for their forgiveness. By praying that the non-Christian be forgiven by God, it can help us with the wrong done to us. I hope this brings to light what was meant. Most of us who identify as Christians and have been abused, have this text misapplied and/or misinterpreted for the purposes of keeping us silent. Certainly, you may offer forgiveness to a non-Christian, but until that person is forgiven by God for his original sin, forgiveness can’t be received by the non-Christian.”
This led me to another insight. To those who demanded of me, “you must forgive to be forgiven”, if that were the case, it would mean there are stipulations to my faith. A work or act I must do. And any Protestant who knows their faith, knows we do not come to our faith through works or acts. It is by faith alone.
So not only am I not responsible for forgiving my abuser; until he is repentant, he is incapable of receiving human forgiveness for any transgressions.
I can’t even begin to describe the weight that was lifted from my spiritual heart.
That doesn’t mean we, or rather I, am recused from praying for the faith of this person. But at least now I have the understanding that it’s not my job to forgive him. That’s between God and him. And frankly, I don’t believe someone capable of such things wants redemption. Not when he’s looked me in the eye, cried crocodile tears saying he “didn’t do that anymore”, only to find out he was molesting at least two boys when he told me that. What that tells me is he is not someone seeking redemption, but rather, he’s a pathological liar, pedophile and God only knows what else.
Ultimately, I believe that forgiveness, with regard to the abused, is the most individual of decisions. I believe there is more than one way to skin the “forgiveness” cat. For some, they find it helpful. For me, it’s not necessary. I have no need of it for my healing. And that’s what it’s all about. No matter which way a survivor goes, if they find healing and not vengeance or bitterness in it, it’s a positive.
The bottom line is this: My focus is on my own recovery, healing and that of others that have been through a similar trauma. I know now my calling is to do all I can to educate parents on how to better protect their children and help survivors heal.
And I don’t need a burning bush or talking mule to figure that out.
P.S. August 21st 2019:
Since I first wrote this article I have had the good fortune to work with some amazing people at GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). People like Boz Tchividjian and Mike Sloan who have taught me much. I will be sharing much of what I have learned from them both in the words that follow. Please take time to consider these words and the people whose lives have been decimated by sexual abuse…
Forgiveness seems to be the “third rail” of sexual abuse and The Church…but it
Forcing a victim to forgive can/and most usually will have more adverse effects on them.
Beware of anyone who tells you that God requires you to “reconcile” with your abuser. What they are typically trying to do is manipulate, shame and silence you.
We should never push forgiveness, nor forbid anger. There are reasons for this.
Healing from sexual abuse is a slow process and should only progress at a rate that benefits the victim, NOT the offender, NOT the church as an institution.
Imagine there’s a serious car wreck that takes years to recover.
Imagine they’ve lost a limb and are still trying to heal and learn to move again and someone comes along and tells them…
“Get over it already! Jesus says we must serve, and you are just sitting there!”
“You are just holding on to a victim mentality.” “You aren’t trusting God.”
You aren’t forgiving as God says we are to be.”
Do we really believe this is the right approach?
When we jump to forgiveness without seeking justice, we are mocking God and minimizing the devastation and the impact of the abuse.
Then there are predators and those that enable them, who use forgiveness as a tactic.
I said this before, but it bears repeating, We’re called to care about Justice
not only forgiveness.
“Forgiveness” and “Grace” are too often used to manipulate others in the church to avoid consequences and accountability.
Most often used is Matthew 18.
It still breaks my heart that so many church leaders will use this text in this way.
It tells us to go in private, and then if he/she won’t repent take a couple of brothers in Christ. (Your standard, In-House, In-Church investigation).
This scripture was never intended to be about a sheep and a wolf. It’s about
2 fellow Christians.
This is not, as some would have you to believe, the proper, scriptural way to handle cases of sexual abuse.
This, this is how people with bad motives use scripture to silence victims, period.
What makes forcing a victim to forgive before they are able or ready, is that churches and their leaders often justify this under the guise of “protecting the name of Christ.” Jesus doesn’t need our protection.
Jesus can handle himself just fine. But our children? They are the ones Jesus commanded us to protect.
This type of justification is nothing but a pious attempt at self-protection by an individual predator or their enablers.
Also, Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation or no accountability.
Where is the accountability or consequence for actions there?
I’ve said this before, saying “I’m sorry” is not a get out of jail free card. At least it sure shouldn’t be!
So what do we need to see from abusers?
- Take Full Responsibility
- No Excuses, minimization or rationalizations
- No blaming the victims
- Care more for the victims than their selves
- Know that change will be difficult
- Accept consequences and accountability
- Actions NOT words
- Time – true repentance does not occur overnight
When an abuser is caught and cries, that is not repentance.
Words are not repentance. They can be the beginning of repentance…at best.
But for an abuser who has deceived so many for years and years, these things are not going to be easy.
If things appear to be going smoothly, easily, or quickly; that is an almost sure sign of deception, manipulation and control on the part of the abuser/offender.