This is the final part of our series looking at the issue of Forgiveness and Abuse. You can access the whole series here.
Yesterday, I concluded by saying that I believe forgiveness—for those who are in Christ—is mandatory. As those who have been forgiven, we are called to forgive. It’s not easy, but by God’s grace, it is possible.
Now, you might be sat there thinking: That sounds nice in theory, but can it really happen in real life? How is someone who has been abused supposed to forgive those who have wronged them?
It’s important to go back to the Wescott quote again: “Nothing superficially seems simpler than forgiveness, whereas nothing if we look deeply is more mysterious or more difficult.” Forgiveness is both mysterious and difficult. It’s easy to say, but far harder to put into practice. Those who have been abused will battle with this question of forgiveness often throughout their lives. In this final part, I want to put forward four bits of counsel to pastors and victims of abuse when it comes to forgiveness.
Counsel for Pastors and Victims
Firstly, forgiveness is not the first thing a Christian who has been abused should be counselled to think through. Before forgiveness happens, victims of abuse need to know the love and comfort of God in their lives. They need their broken hearts bound by the gentle grace of Christ. They need to have their stories listened to. To work through their abuse. To know that God knows all about their abuse and hates it deeply. To know they are loved. Healing precedes forgiveness.
And this healing will take time. Psalm 147:5 uses the imagery of the Lord as a doctor binding up broken hearts. When a doctor binds up a wound, it means that it’s not going to heal overnight. The doctor puts dressing on the wound, bandages it, and then sends the wounded away to recover. And different wounds take different amounts of time to heal. The larger and longer you have had the wound, the more time it takes to heal.
Same goes for the soul of the abused. Their wounds will have dirt in them which will need to be scrubbed clean. Their wounds will be gaping holes, and so will need to stitched up. These wounds will need time to heal. And the Lord is a patient physician who slowly binds these wounds. He does not rush their healing. And neither should the pastor or counsellor.
One victim of abuse writes this: “In my experience, this isn’t a quick trip to A&E for a bandage. It’s a slow and painful process where the wound is often reopened, salt rubbed in, stitched back up, only to burst back open at the strangest of times. And yet, throughout all of this, God in His mercy is doing something I can’t see and feel. He’s renewing the way I see and think about the past and who I am.”
It’s God’s mercy that will heal the victim’s heart and, in time, move them towards forgiveness.
Where Strength Comes From
Secondly, the willingness to forgive does not occur in the victim’s own strength. In their own strength they will struggle to forgive. The pain is too great and the anger too stubborn. But, one of the great truths of the Bible is that Christ lives in the believer by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what theologians call union with Christ.
Christ is not only their example of forgiveness, but He also lives in them, helping them to forgive others. Volf writes, “Christ is not just outside of us, modelling forgiveness and urging us to forgive. Christ lives in us and is himself, as Luther wrote, ‘the basis, the cause, the source of all our actual righteousness.’” The grace to forgive does not come from themselves, but the grace of Christ living in them. All this talk about forgiveness is merely a pipe dream unless Christ helps us supernaturally.
Thirdly, the victim of abuse can only grow in forgiveness as they understand and experience the forgiveness of God in their own lives. It’s as they see the depths of their own sin against a holy God, the cost of the cross, and the scandal of God’s forgiveness given in Christ that they will grow in their forgiveness of others.
They, like all of us, need to remember daily that Jesus, on the cross, drank the cup of God’s wrath against sin. He was oppressed. He was afflicted. He was like a lamb led to the slaughter. He was crushed. He was abused. All of it, for us. This is the glorious gospel which softens our hearts and allows us to show mercy to those who have hurt us.
Luther writes: “Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true.” The more they know that truth, the more they are able to show forgiveness. The grace of God enables them to move from being the older son to the prodigal. To go back to the Lord’s prayer and say, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive those that have sinned against us.”
Finally, they need to know that forgiveness is a process. Some days, by God’s grace, they will be able to be forgiving towards their abusers. Other days, all they will think about is vengeance. This is the spiritual battle between the flesh and the Spirit. The flesh wants them to wallow in anger, bitterness, resentment, and vengeance. The Spirit wants them to grow in love, peace, kindness, patience and forgiveness. These are all alien to them. Therefore, it’s only as they walk in step with the Spirit that they will grow in these areas. For the victim of abuse, the bud of compassion needs to be watered with the goodness of God over a lifetime.
Last week, my wife was illustrating to the kids the forgiveness of God. So she made a fire, got the kids to write out their sins on a piece of paper, and then she threw them onto the fire. The only problem was that the fire wasn’t very big and so the sins took ages to be burnt up.
My wife’s fire is like us trying to forgive. With the Lord, it’s immediate. With people it takes time. Our mercy burns nowhere near as brightly as God’s does. As Volf helpfully writes, “Our forgiving is faulty; God is faultless. Our forgiving is provisional; God’s is final. We forgive tenuously and tentatively; God forgives unhesitatingly and definitively.” Therefore, once again, we can only echo God’s forgiveness, because we are finite and limited sinners. Forgiveness is a painful and costly business.
The first thing I hope we’ve seen is that none of this is easy. Forgiveness is not straightforward. There can be no trite answers. We cannot just take one passage out of context and apply it to someone’s situation.
If you are a pastor or potential counsellor, you must tread very carefully. An abuse victim has gone through great trauma. Like with any suffering, we cannot give cheesy answers. We have to minster the whole counsel of God to believers, praying that the Holy Spirit would take His Word and change people’s heart. Remember, Joseph didn’t forgive his brothers at the beginning of the story, but the end. It came after years of thinking and praying. Please don’t patronise those who have suffered greatly.
Secondly, the victim of abuse, like every Christian, has to be willing to forgive the wrongs done against them. Notice I used the word willing. As we have seen, forgiveness is relational. Therefore, if the abuser is not repentant, then forgiveness cannot meet its end, because the end is reconciliation. So I think while the abuser is unrepentant, the abused is called to acknowledge the sin for what it is, absorb the wrong, put ill-will to the side, and leave vengeance to the Lord.
The positive side of forgiveness, if I can put it that way, can only be fulfilled when the abuser truly repents. However, the abuse victim is called to pray for their abuser, and even learn to show compassion and pity towards them. For Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28).
The question we have to ask ourselves is, Are we putting to bed bitterness and thoughts of vengeance, and handing this over to God Himself? Are we growing in goodness and love? This is a battle that will take a lifetime. But what is clear is this: When we truly understand depth of God’s forgiveness of us in Christ, it changes us forever—including our relationships with those around us, both in the present and also the past.