(This was written for "Survivors & Friends" newsletter, in the 1992 Fall issue.)
I approach this subject with much trepidation because in my experience, the issue of forgiveness can cause fear, turmoil, anger, and even further victimization by well-meaning, but ill-informed people who would advise us to forgive and forget. My goal is not to advise, condemn, or bring any further hurt, but to share with you from my heart what I've learned about forgiveness in my own recovery process.
Forgiveness can be very frightening, just as anger can be. For some of us, it can take years to face our anger and find expression for it. Once we recognize it, place it where it belongs (on our abusers), and taste of the power that comes with it, we can become fearful of giving it up. It becomes our life-line, our protector, our friend. We can believe that letting go of it and forgiving will make us vulnerable to being re-victimized, or will discount or minimize what happened to us. We may also see it as letting our abusers 'off the hook.'
In my opinion, forgiveness has just as important a part in our recovery as anger and can be just as empowering. The following are some things I am finding true in my own life about forgiveness.
Forgiveness can only take place when I face the truth. I thought I had forgiven my abusers. I told myself what they did to me was okay, and that I turned out all right (maybe better) because of it. Did I have a surprise in store! I was in denial'big time. In fact, my beliefs about having to forgive and forget only made it more difficult to face the issues in my life, and ultimately set me up to be further abused, and put my children in danger. This kind of forgiveness can be deadly and didn't help me or my abusers. Until I've faced the ugly truth, that my abusers violated me, hurt me, used me for their own pleasure and did not have my well-being in mind, and that they did not really love me in the way I needed to be loved, and until I've faced the damage and the losses, faced the anger and the rage, I cannot totally forgive.
Forgiveness is not letting our abuser(s) 'off the hook.' Many times action has to be taken to keep our abuser(s) from abusing us and others. Forgiveness does not mean I have to excuse what was done or what continues to happen, or let them back in my life again. Instead, I can say, 'What you did was horrible and has damaged every area of my life; however, I've worked through the issues and experienced healing from the effects of the abuse in my life, and although it's not all right what you have done to me, nor ever will be, I am now all right.' Forgiveness is, however, realizing I can't continue to blame them for my present behavior. I must own the responsibility for my choices and actions.
Forgiveness is letting go of the anger, hate, bitterness, and the desire for revenge. By this I mean the hate, the rage, and all-consuming desire for revenge that eats away at me like a cancer, and will turn me into a bitter old woman. It's letting go of the anger that no longer serves a purpose in my recovery because I've already worked through the self-blame and put it where it belongs, already taken the steps to protect myself and others, and already confronted my abuser(s). It becomes counter-productive in my life, ultimately taking its toll on my physical and mental health. I don't want to suffer anymore for what my abusers did to me. I want to be totally free from them, but as long as I hang on to the anger and need for revenge, they still have power over me. For a time, I may not be able to help having those kinds of feelings, but the time will come when I can give them up'for my own benefit.
Forgiveness will not be complete until my abusers admit what they've done, apologize, get the help they need and receive my forgiveness. In my opinion, this is where the biggest conflict lies. My conclusion is that I can come to a place of letting go and stand ready and willing to forgive should they ask. This is a process that doesn't happen overnight. If what I, and those around me, have experienced is the norm, most of our abusers will never apologize. They will never admit to wrong-doing, so we will never experience complete forgiveness in our relationships with them. This makes it difficult to forgive. But even though the forgiveness may never be complete, I can still experience the freedom that comes with the letting go. (I also believe this is a process that has to be repeated over and over again as new memories surface, or as my abusers continue to respond inappropriately.)
My beliefs make the process of forgiveness easier. I don't believe for one minute my abusers have gotten away with it. They may 'get away with it' in this life, but I believe they will face what they've done in the life to come if they don't repent before then. I can't think of anyone better to serve justice than God. I also believe that God is my model for forgiveness in the way he relates to us. He provided a way for us to be forgiven; however, until we recognize that we've wronged Him and ask for it, it is not complete. Also, realizing that I have done many things wrong throughout my life'some a result of being abused, but still by my own choice and my responsibility'makes it easier to be gracious and understanding toward them. I believe that even though the abuse was painful and damaging, I am a stronger, more sensitive and creative person having gone through it.
I see forgiveness as one of the final stages of the grieving process (not the first step). In my own healing process, I don't think my recovery would be complete without it. Forgiveness empowers me to live the rest of my life in freedom'free from the pain and grief of the past, free to make my own choices and take responsibility for those choices, free to be gracious to myself and others. Through the process of forgiving, I can finally put to rest the people and the events that nearly destroyed my life. They no longer have power over me. Now that's powerful!
"Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, 'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?' Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents  was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him. `Be patient with me,' he begged, `and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. `Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, `Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. `You wicked servant,' he said, `I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.' (Matthew 21-35)
"There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, `Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, `How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, `Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, `Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. `Your brother has come,' he replied, `and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, `Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' `My son,' the father said, `you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'' (Luke 15:11-32)
I believe the issue of forgiveness is relationship. We cannot be in relationship with another when there is unrepentance and/or unforgiveness between us.
Christ holds forgiveness out to us with outstretched arms. He does not harbor any ill feelings, resentment, or bitterness toward us. He does not seek to see us punished, yet his forgiveness is not ours until we repent. Repentance, I believe, is not only being truly sorry for sins committed against God, but also involves the decision to turn from those sins and live as he would have us to live.
If we followed his example, we would be ready and willing to forgive, guarding against resentment and bitterness lest they take root in our hearts. When the one who has wronged us repents, we would be ready to extend the forgiveness that has already taken place inside. I also believe forgiveness is a process and doesn't necessarily happen all at once. Christ knows our hearts, therefore, knows if we are truly repentant. We don't know people's hearts, so we can only judge by their changed behavior, etc.
The issue of forgiveness does not override, or wipe out the wrong-doers's responsibility for his/her actions, nor does it take away the consequences. I do believe if we have forgiven, we will no longer desire to see the person punished on our behalf, and yet there are circumstances when corrective measures must be sought in order to protect others. I believe we can be truly forgiving, and at the same time seek to see someone put in prison. I find no scripture to support letting offenders off the hook when serious offenses have been committed. When Christ forgives us, we escape the penalty of death for our sins, but we usually still pay the consequences for that sin.
There is a difference in scripture between our enemy and our brother concerning accountability and forgiveness. Again, I believe this is due to the fact that those who don't believe are not bound by the law of Christ nor understand it; they are not in continual relationship with us, but do need our example of forgiveness. Our brother is someone we do want fellowship with, however (or should want fellowship). Also, in regards to our enemies, there is the knowledge that God will take care of them, and who can better serve justice than He.
I believe we have erred in the church today by telling each other to forgive, yet, not requiring each other to repent. Both must be taught and practiced in order for there to be true fellowship with one another.
Christ doesn't take forgiveness lightly, and I don't believe he expects us to either. He gave his life that we might be forgiven. Our sin had to be atoned for. We can more easily forgive our brother when we realize what it took for us to receive God's forgiveness.
Our forgiveness toward others must not be taken lightly, either. If it is, it becomes cheap forgiveness.
If unforgiveness rules your heart and you still want to keep it that way, I would strongly advise you to read again the parable of the servant who was forgiven but didn't forgive. He was forgiven what today would be millions of dollars. There was no way he could repay it in his lifetime. And his master forgave his debt and set him free. What did he do, he went to another servant who owed him a couple bucks and demanded payment. He had the man thrown in prison because he couldn't pay. To look at this in terms of your life, you have to be in touch with what God forgave you for. He forgave every single one of your sins for your entire lifetime, including the fact that his son had to suffer and die for your sins. What a slap in his face to turn around and refuse to forgive another one of his children after what he did for you.