“Tina, will you read the next passage?”
I sat, listening to the passage about sexual immorality, and I felt my body get light, as my vision blurred and my stomach sunk to the floor beneath me. He’s going to make me share! I don’t want to share! I don’t want to share!
“In what ways have you personally experienced the damages of sexual immorality?”
The question pierced the air sacks of my lungs I had been holding and, before I realized it, words fired out of my mouth.
“I was sexually abused when I was five,” I heard myself say.
Why are you making me talk?! They don’t need to know this about me.
Per usual, the crickets chirped.
Then one brave soul spoke up, “Have you forgiven him yet?”
Forgiveness is a critical foundation for the healing and restorative process for those of us who have been sexually abused. Although, I will be completely honest. This question is frequently asked by those hearing my story for the first time, and each time, the question feels like an accusation.
Let’s explore this line of thought.
Why in the world would the survivor feel like they had just been sucker punched when asked if they had forgiven their abuser?
Let me be blunt.
My ears interpret the question like this: “Because you are still talking about the abuse that happened to you so long ago as a little girl, then–clearly–you can’t move on due to a lack of forgiveness. Yep. That’s what you need, forgive him, and you’re all good.”
Don’t get me wrong, no one meant harm to me. I know their hearts were in the right place. I question their understanding of forgiveness.
Here’s five things I wish people knew about forgiveness and its application to adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
1. Forgiveness releases the victim from the need to seek revenge. The cross of Christ allows us to forgive freely because we have been forgiven. The “freely” does not suggest ease, but rather control. When we forgive others as we walk in Christian faith we forgive “freely” as one who is no longer under the control of another, not even an abuser.
Likewise, as we forgive, we no longer assume the authority over our abuser in hopes of exacting judgment; that is, revenge. Forgiveness frees all vested parties, whether they emotively know it or not.
2. Natural, legal, and relational consequences emanate from the abuse, regardless of whether forgiveness takes place or not. As with all sin, there are unalterable by-products manufactured alongside the offense. Just to name a few: relationships are marred or severed; sleep becomes restless or haunted; diseases are spread; persons are incarcerated; and future perspectives are tainted by memory.
3. Memories don’t play nice, even after forgiveness. For those of us who’ve journeyed long enough down the road of healing, we know the word: trigger. It’s that word, that phrase, that image, that thought, that scent, that sound that can faster-than-a-heart-pump-a-second-beat places you right there in front of the abuser or some other dark place. A trigger, at times, debilitates. A physical arousal has happened, your senses are heightened, fear and vigilance pulse the temples. For some, intrusive flashbacks, interfere with normal, daily living and relationships.
4. Forgiveness is the “I Do” to marriage. Just because a man and a woman say “I do” doesn’t mean they stop recommitting themselves to the union. The bride will lose her cool, serve dinner late, forget to buy his razor, or disrespect him in some manner. She just will. How do I know? She’s a sinner. The same is true for the groom. The success of their marriage depends upon their daily, moment-by-dinner’s-late-again-moment to pledge “I do,” regardless of emotions, circumstances, or preferences.
Comparably, as we go about our days, forgiveness is a dynamic moment in time, but it’s also the shiny diamond on our left hand that compels us “to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” Every trigger, nightmare, flashback, relational deficiency beckons us to pledge “I forgive.”
5. Forgiveness warrants boundaries. Forgiveness without boundaries licenses further abuse. If the abuser has not confessed the sin and repented, then reconciliation is not an option. Reconciliation restores the relationship to friendly, familiar terms. Boundaries mark the lines of appropriate behavior necessary for healing.
Talking through this blog post, a girlfriend asked me, “What would you like someone to say to you when they learn about your abuse instead of asking if you have forgiven your abuser?”
Great question. I almost stumbled.
Then I heard myself saying, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
The honest truth finds each of us staggering over our words, especially when talking through trauma or pain. As much as I try to avoid talking and sharing, like I did at the Bible study, I know it’s part of my healing and part of the growth of the body of Christ. And as much as I flinch and want to dodge the “have you forgiven” question, I know their asking is part of their growth development and part of my healing.
Today, I’m accepting the dare to walk in gentleness and compassion as I learn to speak up and stand up for whole healing.
What’s your next step?
When you speak up, have you noticed responses or questions that others have for you that stir up an edgy side in you? Which of the five resounded with you the most? Why? Consider sharing your thoughts here, or, better yet, with a safe person who can be daily with you, especially if you are struggling with thoughts, memories or triggers.