Forgiveness, Faith and Abuse
I want to write about my experience with Domestic Abuse as a Christian, especially about Forgiveness. I think that one of the biggest mistakes Christians make when dealing with Domestic Abuse victims is telling them that they need to forgive their abuser. I believe this is a mistake for a number of reasons
1. The “forgiveness” card has most likely been played by the abuser countless times, to keep her in the relationship after abusive incidents. He is likely to have said that forgiving him is her “Christian Duty.” When she escapes she’ll be feeling massive amounts of guilt, and telling her to forgive her abuser will only add to this.
2. She probably still equates “forgiveness” with “reconciliation” and we definitely do not want to be encouraging that. Even if intellectually she has worked out that you can forgive without being reconciled she’s still got to figure out how to do that.
3. She’s likely to be struggling with her relationship with God, she’s likely to be angry with God, confused about whether she’s disappointing God by walking out on her marriage, she may well be doubting his existence. Telling her that God wants her to do something she may well feel is monumentally impossible isn’t going to help this.
4. Finally, by encouraging forgiveness it’s easy to negate her anger, to encourage her to repress it and not actually face up to the experiences that have made her angry.
In my case I decided from the start that although I wanted to be able to forgive my husband, I wasn’t going to beat myself up about not being able to. I figured that if I focussed on my relationship with God he’d help me get to forgiveness when the time was right. It’s nearly two years now since I left my husband and the vast majority of that time has been spent on feeling 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.
In the very early days I remember telling my counsellor how incessantly angry I was. It’s always stuck with me that he said “good.” He told me being angry was the right response to abuse, that my anger showed I was actually emotionally healthy and normal, that I wasn’t “crazy” but in actual fact was a normal human being who was rightly angry at something very very wrong. He told me he’d be more concerned if I wasn’t angry. Meanwhile, many Christians in my life were counselling me to “leave my anger at the foot of the cross” and other such clichéd phrases that had no real, practical meaning.
Since then I’ve worked through my anger each time it’s cycled round. Sometimes I’ve indulged it too much and have acted foolishly, but by choosing not to try to ignore or repress my anger or “give it to God” I’ve faced and dealt with the things my husband did that made me angry and without doing that how could I possibly forgive?
When we were together I thought I had forgiven him countless times. But I hadn’t. What I had done was minimise, justify and deny his behaviour. I never faced up to what he did. I never really admitted that he was abusive so how could I have forgiven him? This means that over the last two years all those incidents I thought were forgiven were replayed, the seriousness of them admitted, the pain he caused acknowledged and the anger it created properly felt.
Two years on, my time is no longer spent only on healing – even though there’s still work to be done. I’m able to focus the majority of my life on serving God and others, on building a future for me and my children, and ultimately on enjoying every single moment of this breathtakingly beautiful, fragile, short life God has blessed me with. Now that I am focused on the rest of my life, a life that is good, now that I don’t need to focus on fixing what he broke, I am finally starting to feel able to forgive. I am still angry at what he did, particularly at what he did to the children. I am still angry at that he continues to choose to be an abuser over being a father, and I think I always will be. In fact I don’t want ever to stop being angry that someone would hurt my children. But I really don’t think anger and forgiveness are as mutually exclusive as people think they are.
I am back in contact with my ex-husband (not by choice, for the record) and when I consider his behaviour I feel angry. But when I speak to him on a weekly basis my blood does not (always) boil, and despite being annoyed at his behaviour I am starting to be able to see the human being as well. I am angry at him but I am also sad for him. I don’t only see a monster who hurt me and my children, I also see a child, created in God’s image, loved beyond imagination by his Father, pursued eternally and never given up on no matter what he did and how deeply flawed he is. I know my God weeps for the pain caused in my family but I know those tears are not only shed for me and my children.
If you know me, it would be easy to assume I haven’t forgiven him. I’m still cross, I still complain about his attitude, I still call him names and growl somewhat when something reminds me of him. Generally speaking I don’t go around telling people I can see the human behind the behaviour, partly because that’s a bit gooey sounding for everyday conversation and partly because, especially as I spend more and more time with victims and survivors of domestic abuse, it’s massively important to me that we don’t let abusers off, we don’t allow anyone to take responsibility for abusive behaviour except the abuser themselves and we definitely don’t make excuses for them.
For me forgiveness is not something that happens overnight, we don’t suddenly decide to forgive our abusers and then just do it. It’s not a replacement for anger, it’s not something we should be pushed, or rushed into and it is not our ‘responsibility’ or our ‘duty’. But I do believe it’s necessary for our emotional health and I believe it’s a good thing to desire. I am a work in progress, some days I do not forgive my husband at all, but mostly I am beginning to, and I know I’ve only got to the point where I am able to even contemplate forgiveness by trusting God to do that work in me in his time.
I host a Facebook page and a blog aimed at supporting Christian Women who have suffered Domestic Abuse and raising awareness it'd be great if you'd join us. My blog is called Always Hopeful. See here https://www.facebook.com/alwayshopefulandnotabused
Sally Hope is a Christian mum of three boys who survived a long abusive marriage to a Christian man. She now supports other survivors of abuse through writing a blog, hosting a Facebook page and through voluntary work with victims and survivors in the real world. She also likes to eat ice cream and ride rollercoasters with her boys.