As a young teenager, I loved going to church. I loved the singing, the friendships and the deep feeling of connection with God. But I especially loved the passionate preaching. I listened carefully and took notes. I was eager to learn.
But one Sunday evening one of our pastors said something in a sermon that would change my life.
It was a sermon on the importance of forgiveness, centered on David and his attitude of forgiveness toward the jealous King Saul. I’ll always remember the words of the main point: “Unforgiveness leads to bitterness.” It struck me profoundly. To this day I can remember the words, his face and where I was sitting.
In the car on the way home I pondered this point and realized that in all my prayers to God for healing about my abuse I had only been focusing on my own pain and had never considered Greg. I had asked God so many times to take away the pain but had never considered the topic of forgiveness. I hadn’t forgiven Greg. Could it be that part of my ongoing pain was a failure to forgive? Was bitterness part of my pain? As we drove into our driveway, I became worried I was making myself worse by missing this most important step. I quickly decided what I had to do—I needed to forgive Greg. It was my responsibility. No wonder I wasn’t feeling any better.
The next evening I went for a long walk. Alone, I sat among the trees as the sun went down and prayed a very specific, formal prayer of forgiveness. I remember saying it: “I forgive him.” It felt immense, and I cried a little. I scraped the sign of a cross in the dirt with my shoe as I felt the gravity of the moment. It was a big moment for a little boy, trying his best to do what he thought was the right thing. Now, I thought, things would be better.
In Christian contexts, abuse survivors, particularly women, are sometimes put under subtle pressure to prematurely forgive the person who perpetrated their abuse. Of course, the people offering this counsel don’t see the forgiveness as premature. They present it as an important step on the path toward “letting go” in order to “move on.” This overture is common, and often given with the best of intentions. But our eagerness to encourage quick forgiveness can actually come from our own desire for the person to just calm down and seem all right.
Abuse expert Jussey Verco argues that this subtle expectation for female survivors to prematurely forgive is exacerbated by society’s attitudes regarding women and anger. Our culture is not comfortable with angry women. An angry female is often viewed as crazy, selfish or out of control. Anger doesn’t fit our preferred vision of female behavior. Consider how much more likely a woman is to be described as “hysterical” when she is angry—and remember the historical connotations of that word. Contrast this with a male image of anger—determined and righteous, so fitting as to form the plotline for many a Hollywood film. The angry man is often the heroic seeker of justice; the angry woman is hysterical.
We must be aware of such underlying cultural tendencies and take care about our motives for prematurely encouraging these women to calm down, forgive and move on. Research indicates that this pressure, combined with a simplistic understanding of forgiveness, not only delays the person’s ability to fully disclose abusive acts but also inhibits their ability to attribute the responsibility to the perpetrator, and contributes to the self-blame that victims already experience.
Jumping to forgiveness prematurely can also become a fantasy of bypassing pain. Judith Herman writes that the survivor can imagine “that she can transcend her rage and erase the impact of the trauma through a willed, defiant act of love … [But it] often becomes a cruel torture.” It can also significantly delay or preempt a person’s decision to report the crime of abuse to the police. In short, premature pressure to forgive the perpetrator short-circuits healing and can perpetuate the trauma of the survivor.
True Christian forgiveness is a different thing from a quick, self-manipulated determination to forgive, which merely covers over unprocessed trauma and actually restricts healing. True forgiveness requires theological reflection, as well as reflection on psychological health.
A significant aspect of the trauma of abuse is the feeling of powerlessness. To be confronted with insinuated obligations to immediately forgive is to actually have that powerlessness reaffirmed. For survivors, the journey of forgiveness feels like a mountain, and receiving a message that this mountain is their first necessary hurdle to recovery and freedom is disempowering and totally counterproductive. They’ll either refuse to start the journey, or, like me, they’ll throw themselves into the work of it with such blind force that it will profoundly shape their psychology, and they’ll approach the rest of their life like a cliff face. Ultimately, that will breed resentment, not true forgiveness.
This notion of “letting go” and “moving on” has connotations not only of premature forgiving but also of forgetting. “Forgive and forget” is a cliché for dealing with life’s troubles, but in the area of complex trauma, it denies the truth: the reality of what has occurred. It is tantamount to a cover-up or denial. Survivors of abuse have experienced a profound oppression of their personal rights, violation of their bodies through deception and possible force, betrayal of trust, exploitation of power and the tyrannical imposition of secrecy and personal shame.
Having broken the spell of abusive obligation, the last thing they need is the imposition of another obligation under the name of forgiveness. Experts specifically note that an obligated, rather than self-realized, approach to forgiveness can lead to excusing the abusive behavior, and may be motivated by the need to placate or accommodate others’ needs or wants, or to submit to an ideology—even a religious one—and minimize the true extent of their trauma. Christian ethicist Karen Lebacqz, writing about forgiveness in the context of rape, says that forgiveness is not sentimentality. “It requires the recognition of injustice and redress of injustice. It is based on truth.”
Of course we are also increasingly aware of cases where individuals and institutions, including the Church, have used outright coercion to cover up acts done by clergy or other leaders. In those cases, instructions to survivors to forgive and move on with their lives carried more explicit warnings to remain silent, sometimes through bribes and threats. This is both sinful and criminal.
The journey of true forgiveness can only begin when the survivor begins to take back the authority for their lives, including their choices. Remember, the first principle of recovery is the empowerment of the survivor. This empowerment means a growing self-realization, embracing the freedom to choose actions and the possibilities they represent. True forgiveness is only possible when the survivor is empowered to move beyond feelings of obligation and prescribed behavior. Premature, obligated forgiveness is not true forgiveness. It is a counterfeit.
Taken from Understanding Sexual Abuse by Tim Hein. Copyright (c) 2018 by Tim Hein. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Tim Hein is vice principal and director of discipleship at Uniting College for Leadership and Theology in Adelaide, Australia. He is an ordained minister in the Uniting Church in Australia and speaks and preaches regularly on the Christian faith. He lives in Adelaide with his wife, Priscilla.