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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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

The Storm

The winds raged. I won’t say the volume of the storm didn’t shock me. It was a lot more than I expected when I set out with only light grey skies above me. Just a little rain, I thought, no more than a drizzle. Besides, the sea is small and I’ll be safe on the other side before anything can go wrong. Now I was grumbling curses at myself as I took down what was left of my shredded sail. My only option was to hit the oars. There was little light left, save the occasional flashes of distant lightning, and I was too absorbed in steadying my boat in the swell to worry about where I was headed.

“Can I help now?”

I started at the sound of His voice. I entirely forgot He was sitting there. I bit my lip stubbornly and shook my head. “Nope,” I said. “I’ve totally got this. You just relax okay?” I think my voice sounded convincing but just in case it didn’t, I averted my eyes from his face. The last thing I needed was criticism. I started up my mental recording of self help mantras and dug the oars beneath the waves with each one: I am brave. I am strong. I am capable. I know with time and effort I can achieve.

The waves were growing, it’s the natural outcome of the storm, but what I really wanted to know was why on earth my boat was shrinking. It definitely looked smaller. I thought I set out on a yacht. Where had this rickety old rowboat come from? Perhaps I had just been too arrogant to realize how unprepared I was for the journey ahead.

A heavy wave crashed over the side and snapped the rowlock off the frame. The force sucked my oar with it. I reached for it with two desperate hands, thereby dropping my remaining oar into the dark churning waters. They were both out of my reach before I could decide which to go for first. I watched them dip and bob, as though waving goodbye, while bucketloads of water rolled into my splintering wreck of a boat.

“Now can I help?”

I just flat out ignored Him this time. I hadn’t invited Him anyway, He just seems to show up everywhere I go. Besides, if I didn’t concentrate we would sink. I bailed with my hands, hoping against hope that there was an extra oar hidden at the bottom of the boat. The next wave knocked me off my seat almost out into the sea. Why wasn’t I wearing a lifejacket? What possessed me, a lousy swimmer on a good day, to drop themselves in the middle of a large body of water sans life jacket?

I struggled in vain for as long as I could. Perhaps those desperate hours were all packed into five minutes or maybe my floundering lasted as long as it felt. It wasn’t until the splintered wood around me had cut my hands and I was half drowned and choking that I finally dropped to my knees. The water came up to my chest. I wrapped my arms around His legs and buried my face in His knees.

“Okay,” I whimpered. “Okay please, help me. Please I give up. I can’t do this alone anymore.”

He was on his feet before the words came from my mouth. He didn’t need my words. He was only waiting for my heart to relent. He raised a hand over the sea.

“Peace be still.”

Instantaneous silence. The wind purred like a kitten as it ruffled the still waters, rippling reflections of bright sunlight across the glassy surface.

I cried and shook. My salty tears mingled with the water that dripped from my drenched hair down my wet face. He lifted me to my feet and took my face in his hands. I had to look in his eyes then. I always expected to see bitterness, anger, or rebuke when we came to this point, but I never did. The same tender expression he always wore when he looked at me calmed my trembling heart. The only change was the hurt I could see in his eyes, but the love that flowed from them made it almost invisible in comparison.

“Oh my little child,” He whispered. “Your faith is so small.”

“Forgive me,” I said then added with a soft choke of bitter irony, “again.” We’d been here before, same scene different setting.

He smiled and pulled me into his arms. I cried against his chest while the wreckage of my boat sank beneath our feet.

“Daddy, will you grow my faith?” I asked.

His gentle voice hummed against my ear. “That’s what I’m doing now. Walk with me.”

My tiny fingers locked securely in his strong hand, we walked across the still, peaceful waters to the other side of the sea.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015