Forgiving is a concept that should be at the forefront of the Christian mind. God commands us to forgive the people who do us wrong. Because he offers us forgiveness, he wants us to extend that kind of grace - in other words, in order to be forgiven, we must first forgive. It's no secret that God doesn't appreciate a closed, hardened heart. He wants his followers to be open, to be loving, and to be filled with grace. Among other things, Christ admonished people to turn the other cheek when someone struck them and he also said that if someone forced you to walk one mile carrying his goods, you should -- without hesitation or complaint -- walk a second mile, too. How do we reconcile this teaching with our own hurts and wounds crying out for healing? What do we do with the anger, with the fear, with the sorrow that we feel because of an injury we suffered at someone else's hands?
I don't know about you, but it seems unjust to me to be commanded to forgive and to let things go. I mean, really! I want to stand up and shout to God -- "Hey, wait a minute! Don't you remember what I suffered? Don't you remember how this person hurt me? Don't you remember the awful things he said to me, the way he tore me down? Don't you remember his fists? Well, if you don't, I do! I won't quickly forget the way it felt when he punched me in the head, the way that fire blossomed inside my skull -- white-yellow-orange-red -- an explosion that I STILL SEE when I close my eyes at night. I won't forget the week afterwards when I was dizzy and half-sick with pain and fear that it would happen again. And I won't forget the way he treated me, the way he screamed at me, the way he threatened to hurt other people so I would submit to him. So don't ask me to forgive! I won't and I can't, and it isn't fair of you to expect it!"
But then I think about the cross. I know...I know...you don't want to hear it. Well, neither do I when I'm angry, but hey, as a Christian, I have to remember what Jesus did for me. And there's that nagging line that he said while being crucified -- "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Oh... I hear that line and the flames of my anger are dampened. No, nothing that my abuser did to me is lessened or changed by it, but I am changed. No Christian can be unchanged by those words! It turns us on our heads, makes us do a 180, and reminds us that we have a standard of behavior to strive for, though we know we'll never achieve it.
So -- what do we do with forgiveness? What is it, exactly? Does it really mean just forgetting about what happened and treating the people who hurt us as if they are still our friends? Does it mean accepting pain over and over, without trying to defend or protect ourselves? Does it really mean turning the other cheek and walking that extra mile?
Forgiveness is a difficult concept for most people. It belongs to a family of words that are generally considered synonymous with one another -- forgiveness, pardon, excuse, and condone are often used interchangeably, but there are differences in their individual definitions. Let's examine each word and its meaning more closely.
Excuse: To make allowance for; to overlook.
Condone: To overlook or disregard an offense without protest or censure; to grant tacit approval by turning the other way.
Pardon: To release from penalty; to allow an offense to pass without punishment.
Forgive: To renounce anger or resentment against another person.
Okay - it's obvious that each of these terms is similar, but it is also obvious that there are some differences. We aren't asked to make excuses for people who hurt us. We are not asked to overlook or make allowances for the harm they caused. We are certainly not asked to condone evil or hurtful behavior - Christ didn't; in the temple when the moneychangers were causing harm to the people, Christ didn't step in and say "I forgive you, go in peace." He came in like a whirlwind and forced them out, thereby ending their ability to cause harm - you wouldn't catch Jesus condoning evil in anyone, or making excuses for it and allowing it to continue. Pardoning and forgiving are the terms we are left with. Let's think about them for a moment.
Forgiving is renouncing anger or resentment against another person, and pardoning is deciding that there need be no repayment for the wrongs. In my case, I found that I needed to examine my feelings about my abuser and acknowledge the hurts he had caused. The wounds caused by months of being told that I had no rights, of being used for gratification with no thought for my own needs or wants, the way he used me financially, of being told that my emotions and feelings didn't matter had to be looked at and dealt with. The physical and sexual assaults also had to be acknowledged and dealt with. The threats to others that he used to manipulate me into doing what he wanted and staying with him had to be brought out into the light. And that meant examining my actions also, looking at my own behaviors and trying to figure out where I went wrong, where I allowed him to have access to my inner life, and where I enabled him to cause me more harm by forgiving over and over without trying to protect and defend myself. I didn't just turn the other cheek, I effectively opened my arms and said, "here I am, abuse me." I didn't just walk the two miles with this man; I walked two hundred. And I had so much unresolved anger toward myself that my anger toward him was dwarfed by it -- like a campfire swallowed by a conflagration.
I was appalled and overwhelmed by my rage. Not the rage I felt toward him, which I believe was a normal human reaction. But the rage I felt toward myself frightened me. I didn't know what to do with it, until I remembered that God also commanded us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Not more than we love ourselves, and certainly not less, but as much as we love ourselves. The inverse of that implies that we actually love ourselves.
Love myself! What an idea. I did not deserve to be loved. After all, I let this abusive person come into my life, allowed him access to my innermost chamber of self, loved him openly and completely, and then stayed when he began to hurt me. I stayed when he told me he didn't love me. I stayed when he screamed at me that I had ruined his life. I stayed when he forced me to have sex by threatening to harm himself and others if I refused. I stayed when he accused me of infidelity and beat me. I stayed -- how could I possibly love myself after that?
I didn't know what to do with the rage and the self blame. Sometimes, I still don't. I prayed about it, but honestly, it was even hard to pray. I hated myself so much that I had a hard time coming to God. I felt unclean. Not just because of the things my abuser did to me, though certainly I felt stained by his actions, but because I had made such horrible choices and because I was so angry. I felt unworthy of God's love. But God spoke to me in a lot of ways, even though I couldn't hear him in prayer. He spoke through friends, through nature, through reading. His voice and presence were with me. And he told me that his love is offered by his grace, not by anything I do to deserve it. Therefore, nothing I do can separate me from his love; since I didn't earn it, I cannot unearn it. So I accepted his love, but I still could not love myself. God kept on talking, though. He always does. One morning, I remembered Peter and his vision of the animals being lowered in a sheet, and being told to take and eat what he wanted. Peter protested that as a good Jew, he would eat nothing unclean, and that's when God asked him, "Who are you to call unclean what I have made clean?"
So who am I? Here I am, calling myself damaged goods, hating myself for my anger and for my helplessness, and God gently reminded me that he has already cleansed and repaired me. Sure, I made bad choices. But God didn't hate me for it, and he didn't find me less clean for having stayed in a relationship that was unhealthy. He renewed me, and in his eyes, there were no stains. So, I began to release the anger I felt toward myself. I know I'm not perfect, so why did I expect myself to be? I formally granted myself pardon for having failed in my judgment, for having been involved with him in the first place, and for having stayed. That last part was the hardest. I still choke on it, sometimes, but I'm working through it.
With self-pardon came the realization that I was now healthy enough to begin dealing with the idea of forgiving my abuser. I had already seen through Christ's example at the temple that I could not condone his evil. I could not turn a blind eye to the fact that he hurt others before he hurt me, and that he would go on to hurt others after me. He used the fact that he was a pastor to get close to me in the first place; I worried that he would do that again. I don't even want to think about the people he might have hurt this way in the past. So I could not be a part of enabling his future abuses, and I could not condone his past abuse. What I could do was release the anger I felt toward him for using me, for taking my love and giving nothing but pain in return.
There is no magic button that you press in order to forgive someone. It is not something you feel, but something you do. Like love, forgiveness is a verb (or should be!). When I began working to forgive my abuser, I sometimes repeated the words "I forgive you" twenty or thirty times a day. Every time I thought of him with anger, I would say his name aloud and say, "I forgive you." I found myself repeating it over and over, especially when I would pass him on the street or when he would call me, as he often did during that first month after I left him. I began to realize that it wasn't healthy for me to have contact with him and that his reasons for wanting to talk to me were also unhealthy, and so I blocked him from calling me any further. It was hard to do that because I wasn't sure that it followed with the idea of the second mile, but after thinking how far I had walked with him already, I decided that it was in both our best interests to cut off contact. After all, Christ said walk the second mile, not the thousandth. And he said turn the other cheek, but he did not say, "offer yourself as a sacrifice."
I worked on forgiveness during those months and made it an active part of my day. Though my abuser began stalking me, I still worked on forgiveness. There was a time of deep confusion as I tried to reconcile the ideas of forgiving and pardoning with that of self-protection. It was difficult to make the decision to seek an order of protection, but I did it for two reasons; one, I knew I had a responsibility to myself and my children to make sure we were safe; two, I knew that I had a greater responsibility to make sure my abuser couldn't easily abuse again, and the PO was the first step in that process. I reread the story of Christ and the moneychangers and remembered that it was not okay to enable someone to continue to cause harm.
This morning, I was on Facebook before I came in to work and found photos that a friend of mine had posted. One of the pictures was of my abuser. Six months ago, if I had run across his picture, I would have been triggered - I'd have had an episode of PTSD and would have been miserable. And I'd have been angry, I admit it. This morning, I looked at the photo that had popped up in my stream and I felt nothing. Not anger, not rage, not hatred. Not even fear. I felt nothing. I moved on and went about my day. That's what forgiveness is -- you don't have to revisit the relationship or let the person who hurt you back in your life. You are simply renouncing your anger and resentment, you are refusing to carry that burden or feel it's effects. You are freeing yourself from the prison of rage and tortured remembrance. If you act from that point, you know for sure you aren't acting for the sake of revenge, you are only doing what you have to do. Your motives are right and pure. That's where I am now, and I feel pretty good about that.
So the purpose of forgiving is clear; it is something we do to free ourselves from anger. It is incredibly healing to release the rage and resentment and move forward without it. And you've seen where I am in my journey - I've forgiven my abuser, though I will never condone what he did, and I will do my best to make sure no one else is hurt by him. I have also mostly forgiven myself, a much harder task; when I feel my self-resentment and hatred building, I work at releasing it. Forgiveness doesn't just happen on it's own - it's a choice we make. Forgiveness is something we should offer in an emulation of God's grace. The person we forgive doesn't have to deserve it -- after all, do any of us really deserve God's love or grace?