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

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.

 

Looking Back with Button Eyes

Coraline horrified me as a child. So much, that I purposed never read Neil Gaiman again. Years later, I read Neverwhere and he immediately became one of my favorite authors.

I decided to revisit Coraline this year. I spent my read trying to dissect what it was that upset me as a child. I mean, it’s intentionally creepy. The heroine, Coraline, is a self-proclaimed explorer who finds a hidden door in her old house. It leads to an alternate version of her life, with an “other mother” who has buttons for eyes. The other mother invites Coraline to live in this new world forever. All she must do is allow her other mother to replace her eyes with buttons.

But I remember it being more than the danger and suspense of the plot that unsettled me. The feeling went deeper, into a dark place I feared to explore as a child.

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picture by pointblizzy

She seemed lonely to me, forgotten and ignored. She had no friends her age to play with and the adults dismiss her frequently throughout the story, even when she’s in danger. Her interactions with her father reinforced the story’s atmosphere of abandonment. He always seemed to have his back to Coraline when she spoke to him.

Enter the other mother who is eager to meet all Coraline’s needs, including Coraline’s desire for affection. But the intensity of the interest is unsettling, stalker-like. A silent watching and waiting, that quickly turns dangerous.

“It was true: the other mother loved her. But she loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold. In the other mother’s button eyes, Coraline knew that she was a possession, nothing more. A tolerated pet, whose behavior was no longer amusing.”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Back then, Coraline read like the story of a girl offered the choice of living as outcast or prey. That is what made the book true horror to me. Ghosts fade in the daylight and demons can be exorcized, but if everyone abandons you, then loneliness is always.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

I often describe my childhood as silent. I combated my loneliness by retreating behind the door of my imagination, where I lived my hours in daydreams of closeness and acceptance. I had a whole other family in my mind, whose button-eyed gaze never looked through me. I wasn’t superfluous to them; I was loved.

Coraline disturbed me because I would have traded my eyes for buttons. In some ways, I already had.

During my reread, I paid close attention to how her real parents treated her and saw that they weren’t as neglectful as I’d remembered. There is, however, enough repetition in the text of her father turned away and of her desire for physical touch, that I don’t blame my younger self for picking up on it. It’s difficult to filter out the part of a story that speaks directly into your life. What encourages me most now is how, despite his neglect, she turns to his wisdom to cope with the oncoming darkness.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

Coraline’s story is actually about how bravery comes from fear. Fear is essential to bravery, for without fear, bravery has no purpose. This is a lesson Coraline learned from her father. He helped her choose to face her fears by walking back into the claws of the dark.

“‘Because,’ she said, ‘when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.'”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Coraline’s parents may have denied her the closeness she needed, but she was still able to learn from them, lessons essential to her survival and maturity. Dysfunctional, even broken, families have something to give.

My childhood will remain silent. But now, in the family I’ve chosen to be part of, I can fight to fill the rooms with love. I know the mistakes of yesterday because I lived them and braved their shadows alone. And as Coraline reminded herself that she was brave many times before she believed it, I will preach the pain of my past to myself again and again until it makes me stronger.

I will be brave. No, I am brave.

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