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

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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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Before God and These Witnesses

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The days leading up to it were crazy. At one point I said to Tim, “This whole thing is reminding me why I wanted to elope.”

January 13th came and my stomach was in knots. My husband told me it was just my sympathy nerves, but I think there was also a fear that something would go wrong, that it might not be special enough for the sister I love.

Now I’m standing on the other side, trying to describe what it was like. All I’m getting is a picture of her face. Jess. Simple, beautiful, loving, selfless, God honoring, Jess. I’ve become convinced that the reason she is all I see is because the day was like her. Simple, beautiful, full of love and generosity, and, above all, focused on Jesus Christ.

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The ceremony vacillated from solemn to joyful. The bride and groom randomly giggled, their joy was so effervescent. As the vows started, Jessica passed her bouquet back to Deborah to have her hands free, and got caught in a snippet of conversation. Winston was already speaking his vows, and the room erupted in laughter when he tugged Jessica back.

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As Dad spoke the words that would end the ceremony, I watched Winston’s eyes widen in disbelief. He mouthed something that looked a lot like, “Wait, that’s it?” as though he couldn’t believe they were now actually married. The two of them began to laugh again.

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Dad furrowed his brow, “What’s funny?”

Winston shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Oh.” Dad shrugged. “I thought I said something funny and didn’t know it. That happens sometimes.”

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Thus two families became one, and love swung its arms around us all. Love that originated in Austin, Texas, where God began to write the story of Jessica Svendsen and Winston Terry.

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The day was a together-happiness that began and ended with praise and worship to Jesus Christ. He wrapped us all in his embrace, a new family here on earth and a forever family in Him.

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Meeting the newborn

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Best Man and Maid of Honor speeches

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Their turn comes this summer ❤

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Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Winston Terry. I love you both. ❤

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If You Do Not Go With Me

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If you do not go with me,
Do not send me up from here.
I cannot bear to go alone.
I need your hand to bring me home.

If you do not go with me,
Do not send me from this place.
Be the lamp who guides my feet,
Through laughter and the bittersweet.

If you do not go with me,
Do not send me from your side.
Carry me, or hold my hand.
Be the footprints in the sand.

If you do not go with me,
Do not send me up from here.
I cannot do this on my own.
God, please, don’t make me go alone.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015

Merry Christmas Little Angel

Merry Christmas Little Angel

Merry Christmas Little Angel,
Looking down from Heaven above.
Mommy’s arms are aching for you,
Wishing she could show her love.

I know you have a sweeter view,
In a painless, perfect place.
Half my heart is happy for you,
Half just wants to touch your face.

God please hold my baby for me,
Give his little face a kiss.
He was Yours, Lord, long before,
I knew his heartbeat to exist.

I couldn’t give a greater gift,
Then anything he has with You.
God, help my heart move past the hurting,
And see Christmas from his view.

My babe, I longed to see your wonder,
When we lit our Christmas tree.
But the lights you see shine brighter,
Than my blind eyes have yet to see.

God I know You know my losses,
As you watched Your own son die.
I give my child back to You Lord,
You love him even more than I.

So, blow some kisses down to Mommy,
She’ll blow some back up to you.
Merry Christmas Little Angel,
Down here I’m still missing you. ❤

© Rachel Svendsen 2014

Sonnet: John 14:1-6

Let not your heart be troubled God reminds,
Our life is hid with Jesus Christ on high.
So brethren let us shake the ties that bind,
Us fast onto things that can’t satisfy.
Our tears and sufferings may drag us low,
And make us feel devoid of hope or song,
But Jesus left us here a while to go,
Prepare the perfect home for which we long.
Let’s hold onto this hope though comes the rain.
Our Savior’s hands will soon remove our tears.
The mem’ries of our trials won’t remain,
Just joy and bliss through endless, endless, years.
So put on joy for trials will not stay,
And live for Christ until this blessed day.

© Rachel Svendsen 2014