Responding to Abuse Toolkit: Forgiveness

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Forgiveness is a critical component in our relationship with the Lord and with each other. It is understandable that we would want to see forgiveness in situations of harm, including abuse. However, it is a grave mistake to rush toward or demand forgiveness in situations of abuse. This is a far too common response by the church, which alienates and adds further harm. The wounds of abuse go deep into the very soul and can be devastating.

Pushing a quick-forgiveness causes additional harm both to those who experience abuse, as well as to those who perpetrate abuse. Why? Because quick-forgiveness minimizes the harm done, it prevents full acknowledgement and taking responsibility, which are necessary steps for healing. Forgiveness may be a worthy goal, and it may come as an ending step in a long and painful journey. It may not come at all. The role of the church community is to walk alongside, in loving support (not demanding immediate forgiveness, but holding space for the Lord to work).

A necessary step in the process of forgiveness is coming to a true understanding of the wrong done and the damage or brokenness that results. To process and understand deep wounding, and the resulting impacts, takes time. It is often very confusing to sort out the responsibility and assess where blame belongs. This can be an extremely painful process. Simply put, there can be no authentic forgiveness without an accurate account of the wrong done, and resulting harm.

The following principles may be helpful in thinking about forgiveness:

Forgiveness is a process. Forgiveness may begin at the moment we chose to forgive, but in cases of deep hurt, it rarely ends there. Deeper hurts require longer journeys toward forgiveness. The journey can also be cyclical. For example, someone who has survived an assault may think that they have forgiven until an event acts as a trigger, and they find themselves right back in the thick of it again, and again, and again. 

Forgiveness is separate from justice. Forgiveness does not diminish or excuse the wrong done. Rather, the wrong and the harm caused must be acknowledged, otherwise there would be nothing to forgive, right? There is also an understanding that there are consequences for bad behavior. Sin has consequences, which are not related to forgiveness. For example, it is appropriate to contact civil authorities when a crime has been committed.

Forgiveness may or may not include reconciliation. As much as we long to see every relationship restored, for many various reasons this may not be possible or even desirable. For example, a woman who has forgiven her husband’s physical or emotional abuse may wisely decide for her own safety and the safety of her children not to live with him any longer.

Forgiveness happens in the mind of the forgiver. Even where there is no repentance or reconciliation, forgiveness can still do its cleansing work in the life of the forgiver. For example, many who have survived abuse only come to understand and realize the impacts of their experience many years later, after the person who perpetrated the abuse has passed or is no longer available to them. Yet, their journey toward healing can still include forgiveness, a letting go of the need for revenge, leaving it in the hands of the Lord, and becoming free of its influence or hold over their lives.

Forgiveness is the road to a hopeful future. Hate and vengeance can keep us wounded and hurting. Forgiveness is the path to full healing. That doesn’t mean that we forgive and forget. Even after we have forgiven, we can still hold onto anger at the injustice, and take action to prevent future harm. For example, someone who has experienced rape may actively speak up at a local “Take Back the Night Rally” or volunteer at a rape crisis center.

Forgiveness comes from a deep sense of our own forgiveness by God. Our ability to forgive is part of our distinctiveness as Christians and our witness to the world. We live as a forgiven community. For example, a prayer ministry at church offers a “wounded healer” prayer group, where people pray for one another, unashamed to confess their sins, because they know that in this place they will find forgiveness and companionship on the road toward healing.

There are many good resources on forgiveness. Here are just a few:

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Throughout The Book of Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu and his daughter offer a number of activities that help you understand their discussion on forgiveness. An interesting one is carrying a rock with you for a week that represents the issue you are struggling with to find forgiveness for. If you are creative and enjoy journaling about life, this is a great book - they offer lots of ideas for this!