I bet it wouldn’t take much thought on our parts to think of someone in our lives who we know who we would describe as an angry or negative person. Like, probably off the top of your head right now, you can think of somebody. And I bet if you did a little digging, most of the time, the reason the person is how he or she is is because something happened to them, then there was a fork in the road, and they had a choice: forgive or move into bitterness. And that person chose not to forgive. And you can see it in their demeanor, and you can hear it in their words. And even when they claim to have moved on, or they try to mask their pain with sarcasm, the words that come out of them are harsh and bitter, because they are stuck. And usually they are stuck in unforgiveness.
I can think of three or four people like that off the top of my head. Each of these people has let their past define them. Each of these people has an edge to them. Each of these people, in their own ways, is still trying to make the person pay who hurt them, even if the person isn’t in their daily lives anymore.
But what they also all have in common is this: unforgiveness does not, for the most part, hurt the offender. It hurts the victim. It adds unnecessary and lingering pain to the original offense. And unforgiveness and bitterness are what keep the victim a victim and prevent them from moving into becoming a survivor.
I’m sure you’ve all heard this little analogy but holding onto unforgiveness and letting it turn into bitterness is like drinking down poison but foolishly thinking your offender will die from it.
Domestic abuse victims need to forgive so that they can be set free and so that they can move forward in their healing and with their lives and stop hurting themselves further and those around them with their unresolved pain. Forgiveness is necessary to their healing.
But how can domestic abuse survivors forgive?
I don’t want to give the impression that this is a cakewalk. Forgiving others is perhaps our highest calling and our most difficult task as human beings.
I believe we find comfort, especially those of us who are used to relational chaos and being hurt on a regular basis, in holding onto unforgiveness like Linus with his dirty, frayed blanket. We drag it around with us. We show others our wounds. We look for empathy and pity in the eyes of everyone around us. We are comfortable with our pain. We know how to live in pain.
I think domestic abuse victims fear being set free. I think domestic abuse victims fear feeling normal because then what would we do with ourselves? And I think domestic abuse victims fear that forgiveness is equated with condoning. That if we forgive we’re saying it’s all okay what the person did to us. It’s not. Those aren’t the same things.
So what steps can you take to move through the forgiveness process?
Step #1: Realize that forgiveness is not the same as excusing or overlooking the offenses done to them. If someone has been abused or violated, it is absolutely not okay. You do not for one moment have to tolerate abuse or pretend it never happened. In fact, to fully forgive someone, you need to be completely honest with yourself about the offenses done to you.
Step #2: Recount the offenses done to you. This step is painful. This step can take a little while. This step will take courage. You cannot fully move on if you have not fully acknowledged the pain you’ve been through.
My mentor walked me through this step. She told me to list every single thing that I could remember that had been done to me. (Just a party, as you can imagine.) She told me to take my time. She told me to be gentle with myself. She told me it was going to be difficult. She told me that if it were too painful after writing down, say, five memories, to take a break and come back to it later the next day, but that it was important to be thorough and to keep going until I felt I had uncovered all I needed to.
Step #3: Acknowledge the offenses to someone and/or to God, out loud. I believe it’s important to say these things out loud, even though it will be painful. I believe our words have power. I believe that when we share secrets, it breaks the power that shame has over us. If we say these things out loud and the person who is with us truly hears us and understands and we see only grace and compassion reflected back at us in their eyes, shame can begin to dissipate and healing can continue and deepen. A word of caution: choose the person carefully that will be your listener. It should be someone you trust who has a tender heart.
Step #4: Spend some time, gently, thinking back on your life and the ways in which you have hurt others. This step might seem counterintuitive or even masochistic. Why in the world would I suggest to someone who is already in deep pain to inflict more pain and guilt on herself?
This is a bit farther down the road, but I believe it is KEY to your healing. Because I believe that when you are in the middle of a deep pain that has been caused by someone else, you can tend to become very self-focused and, at times if you’re not careful, very self-righteous.
So when ready, you should take some time and examine your life and write down everything you can think of that you have done to hurt someone else. In recovery language, this is simply the fourth step: to take a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
And these are the effects that this step should produce: humility; a clearer perspective of your own humanness; a more ready and more open spirit to see that everyone else is just human too. And, if you have a faith in God, as was my case when I did my fourth step a few years back, the deep realization that my sin was enough to send Christ to the Cross even if I were the only person alive, and because of the full forgiveness Christ offered me, I was compelled to offer forgiveness to those who hurt me.
And lastly, step #5: In some way, you should do something that symbolizes that act of forgiveness has taken place that would be meaningful to you. It could be where you write a letter to your abuser recounting the pain and then saying that you have forgiven him, but then you shred or tear up or burn the letter. It could be going to a church sanctuary and reading the letter, as I did with my mentor, out loud, and then placing it at the foot of the cross either literally or figuratively. It could be writing the offender’s name on a rock and then literally throwing it into a lake. But I believe there needs to be a moment when you as the survivor can look back and remember that you took that stand against unforgiveness and when you willingly chose the better way, the higher road, the harder path.
The process of forgiveness is not linear. I just listed five steps but they are not five easy or even necessarily chronological steps. This will not go quickly. And it’s not a magic formula. Odds are, you will not automatically feel something tangibly lift off your shoulders or shift in your heart. You will more than likely have to return to this process in your mind and remind yourself, I have forgiven him, possibly over and over and over again. And that’s okay. Forgiveness is a decision. But it will be one of the best decisions you ever make in your healing process.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you. –Colossians 3:13b-
If this post helped you, I would encourage you to check out “Surviving in a Difficult Christian Marriage”, found here, or “Unraveling: Hanging onto Faith through the End of a Christian Marriage”, found here or “Living through Divorce as a Christian Woman”, found here.