This article was written by Ann Horskins and can be found here on the CCPAS website and has been copied with permission.
Forgiveness – Old Testament model
There is a model of forgiveness in 11 Chronicles 7:14. King Solomon asks God to give direction to help him discern outcomes for people in dispute. They came together with a mutual concern for resolution. This position assumes some equality of power. The model presented goes like this….
A person was to:
- Acknowledge his/her sin
- Confess his/her wrong doing
- Be repentant a total change was required
- Ask for forgiveness the person who has sinned needs to ask God and the person that has been harmed for forgiveness
- Give forgiveness
- Offer restitution in one way or another.
This verse is relevant when a perpetrator of abuse asks the victim for forgiveness. In this context a person needs to consider the process of forgiveness when forgiveness has been sought by the individual who has caused the harm. In these circumstances is it not the perpetrator who needs to acknowledge the sin, repent and ask for forgiveness? It is the perpetrator who has sinned, not the victim.
An innocent child cannot be held responsible for an adult’s action. It seems to me that if a perpetrator was to ask the victim for forgiveness, the process of forgiveness would in many cases not be so difficult for the victim (assuming the repentance was a total change process). The victim would then be able to consider it in the way God intended by calling upon their spiritual resources to ask God for the strength and compassion to do this.
For many it would be a real possibility as well as a healing process. So often I hear people saying that they want to hear that plea of repentance.
A plea for repentance
This is an important key, without that repentance a victim has no idea whether the perpetrator is sorry or not. When there is no repentance, the victim is still left feeling wronged. There is a place for unconditional forgiveness, but often it can be like asking a person with two broken legs to climb ten flights of stairs. There can be a denial of the real problem.
In 5 years of work I have only known of one incident, among many where it has happened in this way. The issue of abuse by its very nature will never have perpetrators knocking on the victim’s door pleading sincere repentance. When those who have perpetrated do repent, it needs to be sincere. Their thought needs to be for the well being of the people harmed, not of themselves. What happens in the process of helping, is that people in our churches expect those who have been victimised, to forgive before confession and repentance by the perpetrator have taken place. In many circumstances in life, this can happen without painstaking difficulty, but, it seems that the issues that are presented with the effects of sexual abuse are different and need understanding. We in the church need to listen to the whole story. There is a power issue that needs acknowledging.
A person who has been a victim of abuse and struggles with issues of shame, guilt, anger and grief and all that this means, and yet wants to be free of them, needs to work at understanding the underlying issues that come from years of suppression or denial.
Sometimes people come to a place of prayer to seek guidance on what to do. Rather than hearing acknowledgement of the problem they are often told to forgive the perpetrator and the pain will go away. Most often this is not the case, the pain continues to gnaw deep in the heart and soul. God’s model to Solomon to help with disputes is more a mediation process and does not work with victims of abuse. If they sincerely try to forgive the abuser, at the request of the helper, and the pain that is felt deep inside does not go away, they then feel as though they are unworthy before God. This acts to stunt spiritual growth rather than enhance it.
For some people there is need for a personal working through of the issues that have affected them. Issues like shame, blame, anger and guilt, trust and many more. When a person has been able to do this, there is opportunity to come to a point of personal reconciliation.
A person who has come to a point of understanding themselves and their needs, the part that they play, the part that the perpetrator has played and the part that God plays in their lives become more self-aware. They can take a look at the emotional wounds, place responsibility where it should be and yesterday’s pain often is no longer the foundation for the future but becomes reconciled with the self – not separate from God, but together with Him. When this process has been completed, forgiving the abuser, for many, is a natural occurrence. They are free to let go, move on and leave the past behind. Forgiveness is not an isolated act that works by itself freeing a person from all their difficulties, for some it is part of a process, the last part.
Forgiveness – New Testament model
This model has been chosen because it is about two significant people in the Bible who were abused and who forgave their perpetrators. In Luke 23:34 Jesus says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus the Son of God, the man sent by God to be an example to humankind, was on the cross, almost at the point of death. In Acts 6:3 we read of Stephen, a man full of grace and compassion. He was called to distribute the food equally to the Greek and Hebrew widows. Acts 7:60 has Stephen being stoned to death and he says, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” (NIV).
Both these men ask for forgiveness of their perpetrators of abuse. (This infers a freedom with them to forgive). They were men who had a close relationship with God, men who were strong in their faith, totally loyal in their beliefs.
On a scale of 0-10, 0 being low, most would place Jesus’ relationship with God at 10 and Stephen at about 9. The only distancing from God that could be found was where Jesus said “Father why have you forsaken me?” It is wondered if in this moment Jesus felt abandoned. We see it reflected for only a moment. People who have experienced sexual abuse, have this as their daily experience, for most of their lives. They come from a different vantage point.
Most Christian people who come to talk about their issues of abuse want a relationship with God just like Stephen and Jesus. But the struggle with these and other life experiences make that dream seem like an impossible reality. Their lives have been shattered and they are often struggling to put the pieces together. The feelings of that child still remain clear and vivid in the adult, as though it only happened yesterday. When they are beginning the journey of healing they cannot be expected to be high on the scale of spiritual maturity. Most have told me that they see themselves at about 1 or 2, it’s never been beyond 4.
On the basis of this very simple analysis how can the church ask a broken person to forgive in the same way that Jesus did. Is it not more compassionate to understand that a person needs to be given an opportunity to grow toward this ideal? “To be like Jesus this hope possesses me” is the line of a well known chorus. Many Christian people that I have worked with desperately want “to be like Jesus”. The cost of Calvary was great. The more one thinks about it, the greater that cost appears. It took a man of extreme calibre to execute its purpose. The cost of unconditional forgiveness is also great. My experience has been that there are many abused people who will be prepared to pay the price, but give them a break, allow opportunity for emotional and spiritual growth before expecting them to be able to pay this high price.
It’s my belief that the model of forgiveness portrayed by Jesus and Stephen is one that every Christian can work towards. It’s my belief that God wants His people to obtain this goal. If we expect people in despair to perfect it amid their struggles, before they have developed a mature faith, then we too run the risk of also abusing them.
Forgiveness – an act required by God
We need to address the issue of forgiveness being an act that God requires of his people. It is not intended that this act of forgiveness be avoided, but rather assessed in the light of where a person is in their struggle to find a loving, compassionate, forgiving God.
When we hear from people who have come into the Church and openly confessed their sin and go on to speak about their experience of God in being forgiven, our reaction is often one of joy for that person. What would happen if one was a little more honest and spoke specifically of having sexually abused a child or children and had now come to a point of seeing it as wrong and wanted to be forgiven. Would you still feel the same way? What if you had been the victim of this person’s actions and you still felt the effects of his sin? What if the hurt that this person had caused was still an everyday experience for you? Would you still feel the same?
Every time a picture is added to a story, making that story more personal, it becomes harder to perceive the possibility of unconditional forgiveness. When it is not a personal experience it is easier to think from your head. When it is personal it comes from a deeper inner response.
Sexual abuse brings with it some other very intense issues. Forgiveness does not stand alone. A person who has been sexually abused in childhood feels a very strong sense of injustice. There is an issue of power that has placed them in a very vulnerable, powerless position that may become a framework for their lives. The after effects may keep them as emotionally vulnerable as the first day they were abused. This creates an internal conflict.
As a counselor I have heard many Christian women say “I can’t forgive him”, when they have spoken of a male perpetrator who changed the course of their lives by a single selfish unfair act.
Sometimes giving verbal expression to such issues, the problem becomes so intangible that the right words cannot be found to express what they really want to say. So the words “I can’t forgive him” might mean “this is such a huge dilemma that I can’t even begin to put it into perspective.” There are other times when the words “I can’t forgive him” are exactly what the person means.
Unconditional forgiveness comes at great cost. The person who has been abused in childhood has already paid an enormous cost. It is not always possible for them then to come, face the enormity of the problem, sometimes seeing it clearly for the first time and then be able to outlay another cost at that point. Forgiveness of an abuser most often comes after a long process of coming to terms with a lifetime of effects.
The Bible does say that if we are to be forgiven we must be able to forgive. Not being able to forgive a perpetrator does not necessarily mean that a person does not have a forgiving heart. Does God mean that we have to be superficial and dishonest and say we forgive even if in our heart we know we can’t? Does God mean that we have to have an openness to an attitude of forgiveness? Where does one stand if one is able to forgive difficulties that are usually encountered, but when faced with the unexpected, finds forgiveness at that point impossible, does this mean that one’s salvation is then in question?
A person who finds it difficult to forgive a perpetrator of abuse, may not have an unforgiving heart. They may be asking for some space to come to a resolution.
What is forgiveness anyway? If my mother treated me unfairly as a child, have I forgiven her if I no longer allow her to occupy a space of hatred in my heart? Or is she forgiven only when I embrace her and tell her that I love her?
Or perhaps when in her old age I take care of her, at what stage is she forgiven? Perhaps for different people there is a different place. The consequences also have to be taken into account. If my parents betrayed my trust, I may have been able to forgive them, but if they had need in their old age for me to take care of them, I may not be able to do that.
The consequences would not be as a result of my neglect of them, but about their earlier actions towards me. The seeds they grew were not planted in the right soil. Forgiveness does not mean denying reality. When is a person exonerated? Does it happen if I forgive the person who abused me and do as Jesus did saying “Father forgive him because he did not understand what he was doing”? To make this statement I take on a forgiving attitude but until this person comes before God and genuinely confesses and repents, he remains outside of the Kingdom of God.
If this is so, then I ask why is it so important for the victim to acknowledge forgiveness of an abuser at a point when it is difficult and almost impossible ?
When the work of healing has been given the opportunity of time as well as compassionate understanding of the issues that are at hand, forgiveness will come, not as a superficial shallow act, but as a renewed constructive way of life. Healing the hurt emotions and the crippled spiritual experience deep in a person’s heart has to be given a chance to find new life.
The victim’s responsibility is for themselves and their own relationship with God and learning to deal with that with honesty and openness. Spiritual connection is not made by a Christian worker’s judgement, but is made through one’s own response to God.