Seventy Times Seven: How Abuse Changes Forgiveness

“In white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture, I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution. I don’t even know that white people see transcendence the way we do. I’m not sure that their dichotomies apply to me.”
Terese Marie Mailhot, Heart Berries: A Memoir

I’ve always wondered about the idea of “forgive and forget.” About how you can obliterate yesterday’s pain with forgiveness. Mailhot’s story of abuse and its aftermath strangely mirrored my own: the depression, the anxiety, the suicidal ideations. It also presented the idea that it’s okay to carry your pain, that it may even be necessary to healing.

Our culture, and often our churches, fight this idea. Forgive and forget, seventy times seven. The wrong and its consequences vanish with a tearful embrace and we miraculously move forward, healed by love and determined forgetfulness.

But what if sometimes the pain is too large, too heavy to throw off with a heartfelt apology. What if the pain is burned into you like acid, forever marring your mind. What if the sinful treatment of another has poisoned your body to react viscerally to places, people, and situations.

Sometimes, you cannot forgive and forget.

My Christian friends will here remind me of the parable in Matthew 18, where Jesus teaches how to forgive. It reminds us how great our sin is before a holy God, and that we are all forgiven. So what right have we, then, to hold a fellow sinner’s sins against him? Jesus even ends with a terrible warning: that if you withhold forgiveness from others, God will withhold forgiveness from you.

Jesus teaches we must forgive as our heavenly Father forgives. How does God forgive?

“I, yes I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake and remembers your sins no more.”
– Isaiah 43:25, NIV

Forgive and forget, right? But what does it mean to “remember no more?” The “remembering” is a figure of speech and can be understood similar to other biblical instances of God’s “remembering.” For example:

“During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”
Exodus 2:23-25 (emphasis mine)

This does not mean that one sunny day in heaven God heard something discordant from beneath his feet and cried, “Oh no! I left my people enslaved in Egypt.” It can’t. Even in verse 25, it says he “saw” and “knew.”

God does not practice selective amnesia. “Remember” means to bring up in relationship. Just like he made a choice to act for his people in bondage, he is choosing not to act on our forgiven sins.

Once we turn to Christ in repentance and faith, our sins are covered by his sacrifice. God doesn’t hold our past failings over our heads. God “forgets” when he forgives in an eternal, relational sense, but the sin is committed, its consequences remain.

God doesn’t always choose to miraculously heal our problems. People survive cancer with treatment instead of their tumors disappearing before surgery. People have to go to rehab instead of losing their cravings overnight. People spend their whole lives suffering from autoimmune diseases that eventually take their life.

Some things bleed out slowly for a lifetime.

[Forgiveness is when] we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them.

~ Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity

I believe the chief issue here is the preaching of forgiveness and reconciliation as synonymous. They aren’t. They’re more like salt and pepper. At a dinner party, if someone asks you to “please pass the salt” manners dictate that you pass the pepper along with it. They can reject the pepper if they so choose, but you’re to offer it just the same. We are to do all that is possible to live at peace with one another (Romans 12:8).

Forgiveness means we put a stop to gossip and refuse to do anything to personally vindicate the wrong done us; leave vengeance to the Lord. We pray for those who broke us. We don’t rejoice in their pain. Reconciliation means relationship is renewed, friendship rekindled, trust rebuilt. This is not always possible. Sometimes literally impossible (in the case of death) and other times it’s just healthier not to.

Abuse changes things.

I find within the Christian community a lack of good advice for people who want to love and forgive like Christ but know it negatively affects their ability to function when forced back into relationship with certain people. The abusive spouse. The toxic family member. The manipulative pastor. People who have raped your mind, heart, or body, leaving trauma behind that you cannot wish away. Scars that the Lord allowed in your life for his own purposes (2 Corinthians 12:1-10, 2 Corinthians 1:3-7) It’s almost as if Christians fear giving someone leave to free themselves from a dangerous relationship is the same as saying it’s okay to hate.

Reconciliation requires painful and tedious work from both parties. It requires humility and honesty to rebuild broken trust. I must seek to be at peace with others as much as I am able (2 Corinthians 13:11). But that ability is often limited when it comes to victims of abuse. The depth of trauma caused by the abuser can limit future relationship to nothing. That is a consequence of their sin. The victim limits relationship because of the depth of trauma caused by the abuser.

For those of us who struggle navigating abuse and its aftermath, the answers to our questions aren’t always so black and white. Our pain runs deep. It’s a part of us, part of our story. It is impossible to forget. The battle to forgive is a daily fight that can be won but does not require us to pretend that trauma does not exist or to dwell inside ongoing toxic relationships.

You can forgive without forgetting. You can love without fellowship.

“…when a person who wronged us does not repent with contrition and confession and conversion (turning from sin to righteousness), he cuts off the full work of forgiveness. We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy.”
~ John Piper

Author: Rachel Svendsen

Rachel is a poet and writer from Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband and children. Her short story "Filling the Silence" received an honorable mention in the 2019 Story Embers short story competition.

6 thoughts on “Seventy Times Seven: How Abuse Changes Forgiveness”

      1. I’m sure. If being brave was easy, everyone would be doing it. And that’s why this was so good. I specifically liked how you mentioned heart, mind, and body. Abuse is often only acknowledged when it is physical, but psychological and emotional abuse are so real and so damaging. And you’re right, forgiving doesn’t mean a restoration of the relationship. (It’s great when that can happen!) It took me a while to realize that my emotional/psychological abuse was just as valid as someone else’s physical abuse. My body showed no marks or scars, but my mind and heart were completely shattered for months. I’m still consciously choosing forgiveness in one case, but it is getting easier. And I still have plenty to work through with other people who abused me before I could recognize the abuse. Forgiving is not always forgetting, and remembering isn’t always full of hate. One thing that makes me sad is how easily victims of abuse are seen as weak simply because they were abused. I know for me, I believe the best about people and that’s why I was taken advantage of. I don’t think that believing the best or giving the benefit of the doubt to people is weakness. If anything, knowing that someone is giving you the benefit of the doubt and taking advantage of it is weakness. The strong protect that which is beautiful. And I think going through abuse to come out on the other side, determined to protect and restore the beauty of our hearts, minds, and bodies (with the help of God and those who fight for us) makes us the strong ones. ❤️

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you so much for saying this. I’m so sorry for your experience. And I relate to what you said about emotional/psychological abuse. Most of my past trauma was this kind, and it’s taken years for me to feel I have to right to own my invisible scars. Even some of the therapists I saw seemed to be trying to quantify my pain by separate incidents. But sometimes the slow burn is just as bad as being hit in the face with a blowtorch.

        Liked by 1 person

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