Dear Church. We need to talk.
If I had ten dollars (metaphor adjusted for inflation) for every time I have named abuse or told parts of my story and the response was some iteration of, “Have you forgiven them yet?” or the slightly more nuanced version, “So. Are you walking through forgiveness?” I could retire on my own semi-deserted paradise island.
Forgiveness was never meant to become a weapon against the abused and broken. But in many instances that is exactly what it has turned into.
I’m going to float some thoughts here that might nudge a few toes. You don’t have to agree with me. But as a cPTSD trauma survivor, it would mean so much for you to give it a read.
This week has been a rollercoaster ride in perpetual free-fall. How much collective pain can 7-days hold?
Between the senseless violence of Uvalalde school children being gunned down in their classroom, the release of what I suspect is “just a tip of the iceberg” database of sexual abuse covered up by the SBC, and a viral video of a pastor confessing to an “affair” which was actually the ongoing rape of a minor… then seeing the congregation surround HIM, not the survivor…
Yeah. Church. We. Need. To. Talk.
We desperately need to rethink the way we approach forgiveness. Especially in instances of repeated, willful, intentional harm.
WHAT FORGIVENESS ISN’T
When I confronted unthinkable abuse that happened during the time I was away on emergency medical leave from the project I once led overseas and then made subsequent decisions to protect the welfare of the children and people in my care who were being harmed, I was the one that got penalized for firing those who perpetrated the harm. I was told I should have forgiven, given them grace, and allowed them to work out their issues and learn from their mistakes so everyone could better walk in forgiveness.
Excuse me, but HELL no.
That’s not forgiveness. It’s a cover-up.
It’s using forgiveness as a club and a cudgel to shame, silence and subject survivors to even more abuse on top of what they already have experienced.
And I refused to be a party to that. To break trust like that. I said no way… and it cost me everything.
Forgiveness is not a free pass, a panacea, or permission for continued access. Gaslighting is not a form of grace or goodness.
We must become more concerned about the rights and welfare of those who have been harmed than protecting their abusers and the systems that empower them.
That was a cataclysmic example. But there are far more subtle ways forgiveness gets unwittingly weaponized in faith-based circles.
At times when I have ventured to share some of my background from the abuse in my childhood or what I’ve experienced in 20 years of various ministry settings, I am met with curiosity about my need to forgive more so I can be more fully healed.
Maybe… standing inside and owning my story is evidence of my healing, rather than a lack of it.
Beloved, you can forgive and still deal with the pain of your wounds.
I’m not a therapist, but there are fundamental misunderstandings of how trauma operates and how one heals from it I periodically run into. And I get it. It’s only been in the last decade I’ve come into a greater understanding of these things myself. And I’m still learning.
Certain mindsets around forgiveness can be deeply hurtful, even when they aren’t intended to be, if they further blame the survivor for their ongoing trauma response by implying if you had actually forgiven, you’d be healed from this.
Forgiveness is not a magic pill. It doesn’t negate the effects of the trauma because trauma recovery involves far more than an act of will or a singular choice.
However, in almost every inner-healing prayer ministry session I’ve ever been a participant in, the premise that forgiveness is the first step toward healing has undergirded the methodology used.
[“Inner-healing” is a term used widely in Christian settings and is often sought as a more spiritual substitute for therapy with credentialed therapists. I’ve experienced inner-healing practices that range from simply being unhelpful to being outrightly abusive all on their own.]
I’ve come to realize forgiveness is often not a step at all. It’s not a box to be checked or an obstacle to be overcome, but rather a beautiful unfolding of our tight and tired hands when we are ready to let go.
TRAUMA & TOXIC FORGIVENESS DOCTRINE
Some of the disconnects I’ve encountered come from the fact that trauma is not primarily a spiritual experience. It’s a brain-body-emotional-relational-whole-self experience that touches every part of who you are.
KJ Ramsey writes in The Lord is My Courage (an amazing book out June 21 you can pre-order here), “Trauma is about the suspension of time and the separation of the self inside, wherein our bodies struggle to differentiate between past and present. Small reminders or rising states of stress can make us feel lost in space and time.”
Trauma steals our voice, distorts our time, and destroys our trust in ourselves and others.
Researchers have found that “trauma is stored in somatic memory and expressed as changes in the biological stress response.” In plain English, trauma is stored in and affects the body in a myriad of ways, especially the ways in which we respond to stress.
When forgiveness is forced or feels like a judgment, even subtly, it often becomes toxic. And that can do further violence to the places of our pain just longing to be met with understanding and support.
When I say toxic forgiveness, what am I talking about?
An understanding of forgiveness that results in silencing the story, dismissing the damage, and minimizing the pain suffered by survivors of abuse.
Not all talk about the importance of forgiveness is toxic or unhealthy. But saying we need to forgive in order for God to heal the trauma may reflect a transactional, performative understanding of forgiveness. We do this. God does that.
It also may assume a binary understanding of healing. You are or you aren’t.
And it can shift blame and shame to survivors even unintentionally. If you aren’t further along or you are still hurting, it’s your fault. You need to forgive more.
It also may underscore a punctiliar versus process view… forgiveness is an event we decide on rather than the result of a journey.
All of this can serve to impede rather than facilitate actual trauma recovery.
FORGIVENESS AND THE GOSPELS
One of the many verses I’ve seen get turned into battering rams is:
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Mt 6:14-15
Seems simple enough right?
What we have to understand, even if you believe the Bible is meant to be engaged literally, every English translation we have available to us is a translation.
Usually translated by a team of people who are most often men. All with theological, cultural, and personal perspectives. Sometimes, leaning on other translations from even more people who are historically male.
If you’ve ever even tried to study a new language, think back to having to figure out which one of their 5 five words best fits the meaning of your one word.
There is no translation, without interpretation. Ever.
That being said. Let’s go back to as close to the original languages used in this passage as we can.
Our one English word for sin has many options in Koine Greek.
Hamartia is the most common word for sin used in the New Testament. It roughly is translated as, “missing the mark”.
This is not the word used in Mt 6:14-15.
Koine had a very common and frequently used word for evil and abusive behavior… Kakos. It means bad, worthless, corrupt, depraved, wicked, criminal, mischievous, harmful, destructive, and injurious.
Yet, that is not the word used in this verse either.
The word used is parapiptō, which can be best translated as to slip aside, to deviate from the right path, turn aside, wander, err, and fall away.
There is no clear indication this word is talking about prolonged, repeated, intentional violence and abuse. So let’s not assume that it is.
Unfortunately, Scripture has often been taken out of historical and linguistic contexts, assumed to be written for our culture today, and applied accordingly in montage form with the result of great harm.
Please don’t tell the grieving mama who has an empty bed and a hole in her heart, she just needs to forgive.
Please don’t turn forgiveness into a hoop to jump through for the one who is already exhausted by navigating trauma’s landscape.
Please don’t imply the one who is struggling with their abuse history is at fault for their ongoing pain.
Please don’t shut down the stories of the hurting by dismissing them as bitter and unforgiving.
Please be willing to step into the uncomfortable space of weeping with those who weep, if you are so invited, and learn to just be there.
Without fixing. Without figuring. Without finding fault with their wounds.
Please realize the ability to name abuse and find the courage to enfold its deep betrayals in language and whisper them out loud is itself an act of bravery.
Do I believe forgiveness can be part of the healing process? Yes.
But only when that forgiveness is the outcome and overflow of a living dynamic journey into greater wholeness, not a weaponized prerequisite for it.