“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34.
Some of the most extraordinarily beautiful and yet challenging words in the Bible. In his hours of despair, in the agony of the cross, Jesus has the grace and the capacity to forgive those who have put him there, those who continued to abuse their power to torture him, mock him and, as he dies, sell off his belongings. He knew what was in their heart, He knew what it would do to Him, He fully comprehended the magnitude of what they were doing and still, he forgave them.
Our Jesus, what a saviour.
Easter is a time for focusing on Jesus’ extravagant generosity, His sacrifice and all that it means for those who choose to follow Him. It’s a time of gratitude and celebration.
But, as beautiful as they are, some of these themes can trigger those of us who have suffered abuse ourselves, raise huge questions about how we are meant to respond to suffering and induce overwhelming guilt about what we feel about those who have abused their power and continue to do us harm.
Some of us have stayed with abusers because we know the Bible tells us to forgive our enemies, again and again. Some of us have endured our suffering like Jesus and can’t see a way out, because Jesus went all the way to the cross. Some of us have been told to lay our pain at the foot of the Cross and forgive our perpetrators and that feels like the glibbest thing we’ve ever been told, and yet we feel like inadequate Christians because it seems impossible.
How do we, as those who have been subject to abuse, wrestle with these issues and challenges? If we are teaching, how do we approach these subjects in a sensitive manner, careful not to give a message that the Bible does NOT say?
This month we are looking at what the Bible does and does not say about forgiveness and suffering and how as followers of Jesus we can respond:
To start with, let me say clearly there are many things that forgiveness is not; excusing anyone’s behaviour; wiping the slate clean; brushing abuse under the carpet or swallowing your anger. Nor is it relationship reconciliation or the need to become friends with your ex. It is not avoiding court because legal justice and the protection of children are vital.
Justice and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive.
In simple terms, forgiveness is letting go of any negative emotional attachment to your abuser or the desire to wish bad things on them. Forgiveness is finally being able to let go of the past, the pain and the hurt and move on.
"For many, it is not possible to forgive without genuinely naming and processing the impact of what has happened."
It also can take time. It’s important to remember that forgiving someone for standing on your toe is different to forgiveness after abuse. A quick “sorry” and “it’s OK” might work after someone wasn’t looking where they put their feet. It can be utterly meaningless after abuse.
It’s not easy to do the processing required for meaningful forgiveness. The long-term consequences of abuse; PTSD, trauma, depression, and chronic ill health consume your mind. Leaving requires huge amounts of energy - finding a new home, maybe a new job, new schools and GPs - these practical and emotional challenges stop a person from moving on, at least initially. You simply don’t have the space in your brain to process your emotions enough to get to a place where you can meaningfully forgive.
And the meaning matters. Forgiveness is letting go of the pain that someone has caused you, the harm they have done to you. But if you don’t own that, if you don’t name it and look it squarely in the face, how can you let it go?
Having worked with many survivors, I have realised that for many, it is not possible to forgive without genuinely naming and processing the impact of what has happened. It’s only when the loss, the stress, the anxiety, the disappointment, the grief, the anger and the trauma have been faced full on, that it’s possible to know all there is to forgive.
You simply cannot rush it.
One of our survivors put it like this:
It’s nearly two years now since I left my husband and the vast majority of that time has been spent on trying to feel better. I think of it as my time in emotional physiotherapy. After a massive physical injury we don’t expect people to be able to run, but rather we help them to use their muscles slowly and gradually; building up their strength until one day they do run. In my opinion, asking me to forgive my husband two years ago would have been like asking me to run on a newly broken leg.
But eventually, you do need to do it - for your own mental well-being as much as anything.
So what steps can you take towards forgiveness?
We talk about baby steps, but here are three things you might find helpful.
Being subjected to domestic abuse can leave us feeling completely destroyed. It’s tough to see beyond this, but it is possible to redeem our story - it is very possible that Plan B can become better than plan A.
It takes time, it’s different for each person and sometimes the backwards steps can feel like they outnumber the forward ones. But it is possible.
It isn’t possible to step into Plan B without accepting that Plan A is over. It’s easier said than done and you’ll need time to grieve all that was lost, including the future you’d dreamed of.
You are on a new path now which may not be what you planned but it really can still be wonderful - if we start to look forward and stop looking back, we can make a choice to write a better, new chapter in the story of our lives.
However, to do this we sometimes first need to identify those things that are holding us back from moving forward. Is it trauma, regret, or grief? What is holding you hostage?
What do you need to do to deal with what’s holding you hostage? You have to choose to act and do something about it. It’s not your fault you are where you are, but only you can change it.
It doesn’t need to be huge steps - there are many things, big and small, that you can do to help you move forward. Here are some ideas:
- Finding a therapist
- Learn about what happens to our brains when we’ve experienced trauma.
- Making a playlist of your favourite songs.
- Taking up a new hobby
- Making sure you laugh once a day.
- Finding community - volunteer, join an exercise group, or get active in your church.
- Practising gratitude
All these things take time and a lot of energy, so take it easy, don’t ask more of yourself than you can do in the moment. But know that you are not stuck in this chapter of your life, that you can turn the page and start a fresh chapter and that as you leave this chapter, in time, you will be able to forgive and leave your abuser in your past. They will always be part of your story, but they no longer control your emotions and your future.