On Forgiveness and Abuse


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Note: Healing from abuse is a long and difficult road and requires a lot of “offline” work. If you have experienced abuse, or are in an abusive relationship, I’d encourage you get help from the authorities if necessary, and from in-the-flesh counselors if possible. I am not a professional counselor. Blog posts and social media can help us think through and confront the dynamics of abuse, and they can assist in healing, but they are no substitute for professional help. For a long list of resources relating to domestic violence, sex abuse, bullying, child abuse, and spiritual abuse, please check out this list that followed our “Into the Light” series on abuse and the Church. 

Lately I’ve found myself engaged in several conversations about the place of forgiveness and grace in the context of bullying and abuse. 

For Christians whose abuse occurs at the hands of a pastor or in the context of a religious environment, getting out and getting help can be complicated by appeals from the abuser (and his or her supporters) to Christian values like unity, grace, and forgiveness. These values are indeed at the very center of what it means to be Christian, and so it is especially tragic when they are invoked to maintain a culture of abuse or to shame those who speak out about it. 

An example that comes to mind, of course, is Sovereign Grace Ministries, where dozens have come forward alleging their families were discouraged from reporting sexual abuse to authorities and small children were forced to “forgive” their abusers in person, even hug them, because church leaders insisted the sins of the child were equal to those of the abuser and all people are in need of the same grace. We see it play out every time Mark Driscoll engages in bullying behavior and those who call it out as wrong are shamed for not extending more grace to the famous pastor. Each time he issues yet another apology, Christian leaders tell us, (and those caught in the abusive environment at Mars Hill), that the Christian thing to do is accept the apology without question and wipe the slate clean in the name of grace and forgiveness. 

What makes this sort of response to bullying and abuse so profoundly damaging is the grain of truth it contains. Central to the Christian message of salvation is the scandalous good news that Jesus Christ sets both the oppressed and their oppressors free, that there is grace enough for them both. Christians are indeed called to forgive, even when it is costly and undeserved, and Christians are indeed called to work toward healing and reconciliation even when it is hard.

But these teachings should never be invoked to protect abusers, shame survivors, or coerce reconciliation. Yet in nearly every email I receive from survivors of abuse, (and sadly, I receive a lot), I hear stories about how hard it was for them to confront and address the abuse they suffered because they were told that doing so wasn’t Christlike. 

So this is something we need to talk about.  It’s tough to disentangle stands of truth from strands of lies, strands of good motives from strands of selfish motives. Our conversation here is only a start, but here are four thoughts on which to build: 

1.  Forgiveness does not require staying in an abusive situation. 

Elizabeth Esther, author of Girl at the End of the World and herself a survivor of spiritual abuse, puts it beautifully: “Forgiveness means I carry no more resentment. It doesn’t mean I tolerate more abuse.” 

It’s only been in the last two or three years that I’ve been made aware of just how often victims of abuse are discouraged by church leaders from reporting and escaping their abuse. Often victims are told that it is selfish to speak up or get out, that just as Christ suffered on the cross, they must suffer too. 

Let me say this loud and clear: There is nothing selfish about escaping an abusive relationship or a toxic religious environment. The life to which Jesus calls us is an abundant one, a joyful one, and a just one. It isn’t always easy, and it certainly requires self-sacrifice, but God does not delight in the suffering of His children. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

If you are being bullied or abused in the name of religion, if you suffer the heavy yoke of legalistic rules and authoritarian church leadership, Jesus is calling you out of that life and into a new one, where the fruit of the Spirit isn’t coercion or fear, but rather love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

Healing is a long and hard road, and forgiveness often takes time. But neither requires staying in a destructive, damaging environment. No one—not the abuser, not the abused, not the community—benefits when abuse or bullying goes unchallenged.  In fact, often the first step toward healing for everyone involved is to stop the abuse or to flee it. It’s hard to heal in a war zone. 

[For more on this, check out The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, and Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for those Suffering Domestic Violence by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb.]


2.  Forgiveness does not require accepting empty apologies or trusting the bully/ abuser. 

Here’s what I mean:  Anyone who has studied the dynamics of abuse knows that the "tearful apology" is often just a part of the cycle. A woman is abused by her boyfriend. She leaves. He offers a tearful apology. She accepts it as sufficient and returns to him. He starts abusing her again. And on and on it goes.  Those who have seen a loved one caught in this cycle know the frustration of hearing her say, “I think he really meant it this time,” when no substantive steps have been made to put an end to the abuse. 

When Christians are told that Christlike forgiveness means accepting every apology as sincere, we can inadvertently perpetuate abuse. There is a difference, after all, between an apology and repentance. An apology is an acknowledgment of wrong. Repentance is marked by a dramatic change in direction, a noticeable change in behavior.  While neither an apology nor repentance is required for forgiveness, an apology alone is not enough to rebuild trust. The abused girlfriend can forgive her abuser without accepting another empty apology as a sufficient reason for returning to him. 

Forgiveness isn’t earned, but trust is. You can forgive a person without trusting him.

Dan and I were talking about this yesterday, and Dan put it like this: “An apology is for the benefit of the bully/ abuser. Forgiveness is for the benefit of the victim. It releases the victim from lingering damage caused by past abuse. But it's a mistake to tell anyone in an abusive situation exactly when they should accept an apology. Until the victim is completely removed from abusive situation and has had time to process what's happened on their own, what looks like beneficial forgiveness can actually enable the abuse cycle to continue. When the exchange of verbal apology and forgiveness allows abuse to continue it defeats the purpose and benefit of the forgiveness, which is to lessen the harm done to the victim… Forgiveness is renewable and not the same thing as trust which can be lost forever... If someone's been a victim of bullying at the hands of Mark Driscoll, for example, they are under no obligation to ever trust him again.” 


3.  Grace does not require remaining silent about bullying and abuse. 

Whenever I write about this topic, I get a flood of responses from people who say I’m being too divisive. Why should the Church air its dirty laundry when it comes to abuse? Why should we call out bullying behavior in our brothers and sisters in Christ? Won’t that hurt our reputation in the world? Won’t the world see us “bickering” with one another and be put off by Christianity?

But confronting bullying and abuse is not “bickering.” It’s the right thing to do. It’s standing in solidarity with the very people Jesus taught us to prioritize—the suffering, the marginalized, the vulnerable. When it comes to injustice, a far more important question to me than "What will the world think if they see us disagreeing?" is "What will the world think if they don't?" We don’t protect our witness to the world by hiding abuse. We protect our witness by exposing it, confronting it, stopping it. Defending the defenseless is an essential (and biblical) part of our calling as followers of Jesus. We don't just abandon it when the bully happens to be a Christian. 

How do you think gay and lesbian people feel when a prominent Christian consistently uses crude, homophobic slurs to describe them and then see no other Christians standing up for them? How do you think people respond when they see yet another article in the paper about a church that prioritized protecting its reputation over protecting children who were being abused?  As Christians, our first impulse should be to protect and defend the powerless, not the powerful, and yet too often, the reverse is the case. 

“The greatest failure of the church/Christian organizations when it comes to responding to abuse is institutional self-protection,” explains Boz Tchividjian, founder of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (G.R.A.C.E.). “Too often Christian institutions have been willing to sacrifice the individual human soul in exchange for the protection of their own reputation.   What makes such responses even more heinous is that they are often justified in the name of ‘protecting the name of Christ.’ Such a justification is nothing but a pious attempt at self-protection.” 

 [See also, “How (Not) To Respond to Abuse Allegations” and “On Being Divisive”]

4.  Forgiveness and grace do not preclude justice or demand superficial reconciliation 

Desmond Tutu, who is a bit of an expert on forgiveness, wrote,  “True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

It’s hard not to see the vague and generalized public apologies that have become a part of our cultural discourse as anything but attempts at superficial reconciliation. And when outsiders demand that those who experienced the full force of those wrongs simply accept public apologies and forgive, it only makes things worse. While forgiveness can certainly happen without repentance and mutual trust, I’m not so sure that reconciliation can happen, or should be demanded, without repentance and mutual trust. And true healing is messy, meandering, and hard, not something that can happen with a press release or that can be dictated by outside observers. 

Similarly, forgiveness does not preclude justice, truth-telling, and accountability. Far too many churches prefer to handle conflict and even abuse “in house,” often glossing over the suffering of the victims in an effort to jump ahead to forgiveness and reconciliation without holding abusers/bullies accountable for their actions. We saw this play out tragically in the case of Sovereign Grace Ministries, where church leaders failed to report the abuse of children to the authorities and so most of the victims were denied justice, or saw justice severely delayed. 

Zach Hoag wrote a fine piece on this not long ago, arguing that “the gospel is not antithetical to justice, as some superficial presentations have insisted. Instead, the gospel is a holistic work of restoration that includes grace and forgiveness from God for even the vilest actions – but always, only received in the midst of a genuine process of repentance and change, all while consequences and boundaries are enforced to protect innocent people.”

When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, he vowed to forgive.  He did not, however, vow to stop talking about injustice. 

***

In conclusion, Christians must find a way to teach radical forgiveness, undeserved grace, and restorative reconciliation without perpetuating and excusing bullying and abuse. It breaks my heart to think that a word meant to be so sweet and so powerful to followers of Jesus—grace—will forever be regarded by some of the most vulnerable among us with shame and fear because we failed to act wisely and with courage. 

For more on this, check out our Into the Light series on abuse in the Church, G.R.A.C.E., and The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. 

What other points are worth considering in this conversation, and what resources would you add? 

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