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

Our Father…Why?

I used to question the way David approached God in the Psalms. He sounds almost accusatory.

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
Psalm 13:1
Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. Prove me, O LORD, and try me, test my heart and my mind.
Psalm 26: 1-2

It sounds like he’s daring the LORD to find fault with him. David the sinner. The murderer, adulterer, and neglectful parent.

How can he speak thus to the Holy One of Israel?

The lives recorded in the Bible do not always reflect actions worth imitating. The polygamy, the broken homes, the rape, and murder, are given because they’re facts in the ultimate story of God’s redemption. They show that God redeems us from the dregs of loss, war, famine, disease, and trauma. So how can I be certain that David’s audacity in prayer is something that I ought to imitate?

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Romans 5:1

I have long struggled with my health. This struggle and suffering is part of my daily existence, yet I never stopped to ask God for something different. I found myself vacillating between despair and a shrug. God is sovereign. I don’t know why I am allowed to be ill, but why do some people have cancer or find themselves living in refugee camps? It’s not our choice. God will heal me if he wants or I’ll always be like this if he wants.

But in the Psalms, I see David, suffering, despairing, confused. He turns to God and says, “Look! Do you see this? Why are you doing this? How does this bring Glory to your name? Do something!” When I read that, my breath catches. Compare that with the lesson of Job, who dared to question God and the result was a deluge of questions that mocked his frailty and infinite smallness.

So is David wrong too? Is the tag of praise and thanksgiving you find at the end of a psalm just David’s way of repenting in dust and ashes?

Or does the heart of prayer encourage a communion built both in awe and suffering?

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The disciples once begged Jesus to show them how to pray. They longed to imitate the intimacy and strength of Christ’s communion with the Father. Christ responded by giving them “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6, Luke 11). And in the garden, hours before his death, he modeled it.

John 17 shows Christ in emotional agony, knowing the physical torture and spiritual weight that awaits him. He prays for the Father’s will in all things, prays for the kingdom to come at whatever cost, prays for God’s glory to be manifested on earth as it is in heaven. But he also prays for the very thing that he knows is not the Father’s will: that he may not have to suffer.

The prophets foretold his death on a cross. This was the will of God before the foundations of the earth. Yet, Luke records him praying repeatedly against it, falling on the ground, sweating blood, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you, Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)

In Christ, the perfect God-Man, we need not question the right and wrongs of following his example. He approached God boldly, asking him to turn from his plans, to find another way, to change his mind, while submissively knowing that God’s will is best, even if it meant suffering. But he still asked, nay begged, for something other.

On the other side of the empty tomb, we received, not just salvation, but adoption into the family of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Hebrews 4:14-16

Christ stands before God and invites us to pray likewise. To search the scriptures and see that we too can have the audacity to question, to beg, and remind God of his promises to us. We have the ability to pray, “Daddy, this hurts too much. Make it go away. There are so many ways I desire to serve you if only I had a little more strength, a little more time. Must it be this way?”

We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
Hebrews 6:19-20 (emphasis added)

Instead of finding a God who wrinkles his nose at our presumption, our prayers are filtered through our high priest and brother, Jesus. Covered in his righteousness, we not only stand boldly before God with our humble pleas but our audacious questions as well. Even our “but God”s don’t fail to reach the almighty ear, to elicit compassion, even if the ultimate answer is “my kingdom, my glory, and my will, on earth as it is in heaven.”

This was the basis of David’s audacity, for we see in Romans that his faith was covered by the same blood of Christ that we find ourselves resting upon in hope. (Romans 3:25)

So pray with boldness. Pray your whys and your tears and your wordless aches. Pray your praise and your awe. Hand it all over through the Spirit to the Son who will bring it before the Father who delights to hear his child’s voice. And if the pain persists, if the trial tightens its grip, then rest in the sovereign will of the one who loves you. The one to whom belongs the Kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39

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The Paradox of a Smile

I got a lot of interesting feedback from my last post.

Mainly bewilderment. I blame myself. I use this blog as a way to flex my writing muscles, but if you ever read one of my novels or my recent poetry, you’d notice a difference in tone.

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For instance, my current work in progress contains a character with PTSD. One of the ways I insert her struggles into the novel is by interrupting her thought process with flashbacks. When she’s triggered and begins to lose her grip on the present, I drop tiny hints at what she’s thinking. A sentence. A word. Little bits disrupt the narrative to give the reader a taste of what it’s like to have your mind revving up into the frenzy of a triggered panic attack.

Basically, my writing voice leans more abstract and poetic than I tend to be here. My last post felt normal to me but made many well-meaning people think I go to therapy for my acne.

I struggle with symptoms of PTSD, which I left too long untreated. Six months ago, the triggers multiplied, culminating in my inability to view my own face in the mirror. I don’t see me anymore. I see red blotches that echo past trauma. Makeup doesn’t help. The haircut didn’t help. I just can’t look at myself right now.

I’ve exorcized the house, one room at a time, and covered all the mirrors with towels.

You probably think I’m overreacting. So rip off the crude curtain and make me stare at myself, at the hot red slap on my pale European ancestry, the angry flush of heredity that makes me hate my skin. I’ll try to crawl out of it while you watch, clawing my way to the surface before the scream suffocates me.

~ Rachel Svendsen, Rosacea

I avoided treatment because I feared the outcome. I guess I needed to become ill enough that I wouldn’t care.

I just want to be well. I can hardly keep up with the few things I’m still involved in and dread adding anything new. I’m too exhausted to keep up with relationships or daily duties. I’ve questioned my will to keep trying.

I needed help. Part of that was a doctor prescribed mandate to eliminate as many triggers as possible. Some of those triggers were relationships. This move generally goes unsupported. People turn it on its head and the abused individual is forced to forgive in ways that permanently tie them to toxic relationships. You’re told to be stronger, to stop “making drama” or harboring hatred.

I questioned myself so much that my therapist actually bid me stop. He told me to imagine I was a soldier injured in battle. I’m now in hospital, fed, warm, resting, and hating myself for abandoning my comrades. I cannot obey the call of my guilt. I’m wounded. Things have changed.

Abuse changes things. It breaks relationships in a way that cannot always be mended into a happy ending for all.

In closing, one of the most confusing responses I received was people finding it impossible to insert my wild, tormented rantings into the mind of my smiling social media face.

First: I fear this is a danger in our Instagrammed society. Never, NEVER assume someone’s life is idyllic because of their social media. We’re programmed to just show the comfy parts to the world, a sort of emotional keep up with the Joneses we’ve been enacting since the beginning of the Facebook generation.

Second: Living with a mental disorder is to forever walk the line between okay and falling apart. Healthy people don’t understand how this feels. That’s why it’s so hurtful to tell a depressed person, “I get sad too sometimes.” Depression is more than that. That’s also why I write my abused and mentally ill characters semi-poetically. It’s my attempt to capture the jolt and jar of walking through the day with a fractured mind. That’s what my last post was about, so if it confused you, I guess it was almost meant to.

Third: Just because I’m ill and suffering doesn’t mean my life has no joy. The LORD has filled my life with loving, supportive people, essential to my survival during this time. I have a beautiful daughter who gives me endless snuggles and fills my ears with bubbling laughter. I have a warm, generous husband who holds me when I cry and scream. I have hope in a God who promised me Eternity in His healing presence.

A smile can hide brokenness, but it’s not always just an act. Sometimes it’s just a testament of survival and God’s grace.

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Photo by Katie Emma Photography

Rosacea

 

I’m having so much difficulty, as of late, finding a way to vent my pain. It’s currently backed up in my head in the form of an endless scream. I drown it out with books and cooking shows and crushing candy. Plastic screens and magic black squiggles that envelope the here and take me anywhere else. The pages flip, the colored squares pop and for a moment I can make myself believe I’m accomplishing something instead of standing still.

If you bothered to pry me up, to shake me out of anywhere to here, I’ll admit I’m not okay. And if you make me stand in front of a mirror, you can watch me fall apart.

I dragged myself to my therapist’s office and blinked awake long enough to let the scream out for a diagnosis. Then I shut it back inside, handed the prescription to my husband, and took my diagnosis down to the place where the scream began.

I’ve exorcized the house, one room at a time, and covered all the mirrors with towels.

You probably think I’m overreacting. So rip off the crude curtain and make me stare at myself, at the hot red slap on my pale European ancestry, the angry flush of heredity that makes me hate my skin. I’ll try to crawl out of it while you watch, clawing my way to the surface before the scream suffocates me.

Yes, I could make a believer out of you. I could show you the madness that creeps around the edges of my I’m-just-fine. But nevermind, I’m just drama and attention wrapped in the paradox of attempting to live life unseen.

So I’ll swallow the scream and let you think what you want of the diagnosis, the prescription, and me. And I’ll wait for the day when the trauma is cool enough that I can take down the towels, look in the mirror, hear silence and see nothing except rosacea.

 

Book Review: The Heart’s Necessities: Life in Poetry by Jane Tyson Clement with Becca Stevens

 

I fell in love with Jane Tyson Clement’s poetry the first time I held it in my hand. Then I opened it and read the soft, soothing words she’d written that perfectly mimic the seaside she loved so well. I read them over and over, a warm comfort in any season.

Reading The Heart’s Necessities just gave me more reasons to love Jane Tyson Clement.

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Becca Steven’s collection of Clement’s poetry with the addition of lovely photographs taken by Clement’s son would be delightful in and of itself. Stevens added to this her own stories and reflections on Clements poems as well as biographical information on Clement. Knowing more about Clement’s life only deepened the meaning of the poetry I already loved.

Being a native Jersey Girl who spent summer vacations at the Jersey Shore, it’s no wonder that I immediately fell in love with Clement’s poetry. Now, in a collection that includes snapshots of the beaches I wandered as a child with the words I’ve come to cherish as an adult, Stevens has captured all I loved about Clement in an endearing love letter for us all to treasure.

Book Review: “When Spring Comes to the DMZ” by Uk-Bae Lee

Between the heavily guarded borders of the countries of North and South Korea lies a demilitarized zone (or DMZ). This stretch of land has become a home, a refuge for all kinds of wildlife, and stands a waiting bridge of peace between two countries in turmoil.

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South Korean author and illustrator, Uk-Bae Lee, originally wrote his book When Spring Comes to the DMZ as part of the “Peace Picture Book Project” organized by illustrators from Korea, China, and Japan.

This touching picture book is about the hope of peace amidst the ugliness of hate, told by showing how beauty and nature flourish between the heavily militarized borders of North and South Korea. The pictures are both beautiful and starkly unique, scenes of peaceful animals at play framed in barbed wire.

Not every children’s book needs or should be light or a half-joking lesson about sharing. I enjoy books that can assist me in bringing heavy topics down into understandable bites for children. I felt this book qualified for that. I loved how reading it with your child could open up discussions about peace, war, and the hope of reconciliation.

You can get your copy here.

My Top 10 Reads of 2018

If you follow this blog, you know I love reading. I beat my goal of 52 books this year and read over 90. That, despite my toddler and several bad bouts with depression, both of which make it hard for me to settle into reading. Below are my favorite reads this year.

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#10 – I Wrote this for You by pleasefindthis

That’s not a typo; pleasefindthis is the pen name for Iain S. Thomas. I discovered this gem through Prime Reading. It’s beautiful poetry with artistic photography scattered throughout. Definitely, my favorite poetry read this year.

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#9 – Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

No, I have not watched the Netflix series. I finished the book before they started running trailers for the show, which looks completely different from the book. My favorite part of Jackson’s eerie original was the crazy ending. Probably the most shocking ending I read this year. If you don’t mind a creepy read about a haunted house that attempts to drive its inhabitants mad, then this book is for you.

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#8 – Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges

This short, convicting read discusses the sins the church has come to tolerate. Even though I took issue with Bridges’ lack of knowledge on certain subjects (e.g. mental health), I believe authors run into those problems whenever they attempt to write a book that covers a multitude of subjects without the assistance of a co-author. This book still made it into my top ten for the year, simply because it forced me to consider the things I let slip in my personal spiritual walk.

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#7 – Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I already did a full review of this earlier in the year, but since it made it into my top 10, I’ll just say, this book was a lovely marriage of nonfiction, fantasy, and myth with the readability of a novel.

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#6 – Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

This one almost didn’t make it onto the list, but only because I started it late in December. Its a beautiful memoir about pain, mental illness, and how storytelling can aid in healing. It’s written in luscious prose that reads like poetry. It’s heartbreaking and oh so lovely.

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#5 – The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

This book caught my attention when I read a review that compared it to Agatha Christie, whom I LOVE. The murder mystery aspect of it was definitely similar, with the added bonus of gorgeous atmospheric writing that made the book a darker, edge-of-your-seat kind of read. Her depiction of panic attacks was spot on, and I dare you to read it and not feel occasionally claustrophobic.

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#4 – The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall by Chris Dolley

Another book that made it into the top 10 that I’ve already reviewed. This blend of sci-fi and P. G. Wodehouse was one of the funniest reads I indulged in this year. I hope to read more of Dolley’s works in 2019.

*drumroll* And now my TOP THREE!

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#3 – Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer

This book though! It was a delicious blend of sci-fi and fantasy. Martin discovers a computer file that can alter his world with only a line or two of code. He uses it to go back in time to Medieval England and trick everyone into thinking he’s a wizard. Such an inventive and hilarious storyline. The characters are lovable, witty, and quirky and the book had me smiling through almost the entire read. Meyer was one of several authors I discovered in 2018, and I intend to read the entirety of this series.

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#2 – A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth by Matthew Dickerson

This thought-provoking read looked into Tolkien’s world of Middle-Earth. I learned so much about world building from Dickerson’s in-depth study of the themes within the Lord of the Rings. I recommend it to fans of Tolkien and writers of fantasy. Tolkien had the masterful ability to discuss his worldview without overtly mentioning his personal views on religion or politics, and, after reading Dickerson, I’m convinced this is one of the reasons Tolkien’s books stand the test of time.

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#1 – The Woodcutter by Kate Danley

Sometimes I have difficulty picking favorites when it comes to books, but this year I had no difficulty at all. I will never forget this book. I adore fairy tale retellings. This one was dark, poignant, and written in gorgeous poetic prose. The skill that Danley used to weave in multiple characters from myth, legend, and fairy tale while keeping the story fresh and unique was breathtaking. Love. Love. LOVED it.

I’m so excited to find out what new reads and authors I’ll discover in 2019! Comment and tell me about some of your favorite reads of 2018 and some of the new authors you discovered.