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Forgiveness: what does the Bible say?

This is the second part of a blog focussing on forgiveness and what it means for survivors of domestic abuse. Read part 1 here.

Forgiveness is not a choice

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32

The uncomfortable truth is, as Christians, we follow a God who was betrayed, rejected and abused by those he loved and he forgave them. If we are to truly follow him, we need to be prepared to do the same.

This does not mean that it is easy, or that it is possible straight away (more on that here) and it definitely doesn’t mean enabling people to continue abusing.

What if they keep doing it?

And if he sins against you seven times a day and returns to you seven times, saying, “I repent,” forgive him.” Luke 17:4

You cannot get away from this challenging command from Jesus. The cycle of domestic abuse often sees a moment of repentance, but what it doesn’t see is changed attitudes and behaviour. That’s not genuine repentance.

However, in this verse, Jesus is addressing that very situation - someone says they repent, but continues to act in the same way. So what should we do? Well, we should note what Jesus isn't saying.

Jesus is NOT saying:

  • Continue to let them hurt you
  • Don’t report the abuse
  • There should be no consequences to someone’s actions
  • Your pain is irrelevant
  • You should just get over it
  • This is easy
  • The abuser is more important than you

Forgiveness is something else; it’s letting go of your anger and desire for revenge, choosing to wish them well, maybe praying for them. These things aren't easy.

Let go of revenge

Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” 1 Thessalonians 5:15

Revenge is not a good thing. But, let’s be clear: punishment is not revenge. Reporting an abuser to the police and letting them face the consequences of their actions isn't revenge, it's justice. Paying back wrong for wrong would be things like defrauding them, assaulting them or slandering them. A perpetrator in prison is good for you because it brings you safety, good for others who might be their next victim, and, you could argue, good for the perpetrator - stopping them from continuing to perpetrate and potentially helping them rehabilitate.

Don't revel in their downfall

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” Proverbs 24:17

Again, let’s be clear about what this means:

I supported a survivor who had been subjected to years of abuse by her ex-husband and it had continued long after their separation. He was still taking her to court at every opportunity, still trying to poison the children’s minds, still refusing to pay maintenance, still slandering her and generally, being vile. He then had a heart attack, and she was disappointed that he didn’t die, which she felt dreadful about. She thought this made her an awful human being.

I asked her why she was disappointed; “Because then it would have stopped.” was the answer. She could see no other way out of the abuse he was subjected her to.

In this situation, she wasn’t revelling in his downfall, or being glad because he stumbled. She was just sad and exhausted and she wanted the abuse to end, and it so nearly had, so she was disappointed. That is a natural human reaction. It’s not a lack of forgiveness or wishing bad things on someone.

You can’t control other people

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Romans 12:8

Those who have been subjected to domestic abuse will likely have been living out this verse already: doing everything in their power not to do something that might set off their abuser. That’s always an impossible task. Yet, so often we still feel responsible for the abuse and will in all likelihood be told we’re responsible.

This verse is actually liberating in this sense. It says to do everything you can not to be the cause of any conflict. Don’t deliberately provoke. But, it also recognises that peace is never down to one person. You can’t control anyone other than yourself, but can only live at peace 'as far as it depends on you'.

If your abuser is only satisfied by controlling you or making you do things that don’t feel right or you don’t feel comfortable doing, it is NOT on you to double down to keep them happy. 'As much as it depends on you' does not mean doing anything they ask, no matter the cost to you.

Abuse is always down to one person - the person who chooses to abuse.

The Survivor's Handbook

If you'd like more help as you recover from domestic abuse, including practical guidance and answers to common questions relating to faith, you can order a copy of our Survivor's Handbook - it's free for survivors of domestic abuse.

The Survivor's Handbook