If you have read the page titled "My Story", you already know a little about my thoughts on forgiveness. It's hard, it's not fast, but it is also extremely healing and very much worth it. As I described there, after a whole lot of prayer I was able to forgive the man who raped me. I wanted to add some thoughts on Forgiveness here. What forgiveness is, and what it is not.
For many survivors of rape or other forms of abuse, forgiveness is almost a 4-letter word. And no doubt, forgiveness is hard, there is no question about that. It’s hard about even some pretty small stuff at times, and it is really hard about something like abuse or assault. Forgiveness is also not just for the person being forgiven. Often times, forgiveness has a much greater effect on the person doing the forgiving than on the person who is forgiven. The person who is forgiven may not even seek out, or know, that forgiveness has taken place. But it can be extremely healing. I once heard it said that holding unforgiveness toward someone is like carrying that person who hurt you on your back and you constantly have to carry the weight of their actions around with you. Forgiveness allows you to break that tie and get rid of that extra weight. In the secular world, forgiveness sometimes takes on a different connotation or meaning than it does in the Christian realm. I want to take just a moment to talk about what forgiveness means in a Christian sense, and more importantly, what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is a paramount of the Christian faith, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy, or that it should happen overnight. If forgiveness is rushed, sometimes it can actually interfere or seemingly cut off other parts of the healing process.
Forgiveness is also a process, not necessarily a snap decision. Not only can forgiveness take a long time to achieve, but once you are able to forgive someone, sometimes it is more of a process. You may find that you have days where you feel like you have taken several steps backward. If you have a day where you seem to be triggered every time you turn around, or if you have to face your attacker/abuser again, especially unexpectedly, suddenly you may find that you don’t feel so forgiving toward them at the moment. That is OK. The important thing is that you don’t stop asking God for help with forgiving. I realized this just a few months after I decided to share my story at my church. I was checking my email and saw that I had a notification saying that a friend had tagged me in a picture on Facebook (an account which I had hesitantly opened only about a year prior to this). I clicked on the link in the email to see what picture a friend had tagged of me. I wasn’t thinking much about it because I had recently “friended” some high school classmates and several of them had been tagging old high school pictures. My computer opened up the link in the email and up popped a picture from when J. (the guy who eventually raped me) and I had dated and it was one of the school dances that we had attended together. This person of course had no idea what had happened with J., she had no idea how painful that picture was. But seeing us standing there together with his arm around me, especially when it was totally unexpected, hit me like a punch to the gut. I actually almost fell backwards in the desk chair that I was sitting in because I was so startled. I had seen pictures of us together, but it had really been a few years, and for some reason, that picture just crumpled me. I couldn’t “untag” myself fast enough from the picture, I didn’t want to be associated with this picture in any way.
After the moment passed, I reflected back on it and that is when I started to wonder why I was bothered by the picture if I had forgiven J. This was when I realized that forgiveness truly is a process. And like any process, you move forward at times, and you have set backs at times.
Another thing seeing the picture on Facebook taught me was that forgiveness does not take away the pain of what happened. It doesn’t somehow magically make the pain caused by this other person go away. But it does go a long way towards taking away the anger and bitterness that can eat at you from the inside out. When I really analyzed my reactions to the picture, I realized that where there would have been hatred, bitterness and anger in years past, there was now a different set of emotions. I was stunned by the picture for sure, but I also felt a real sense of loss and sadness over what J. had done to me. There was a sadness because a high school dance photo should bring back happy memories. Those happier memories had now been overshadowed by the pain of his actions on one fateful night.
Forgiveness does not take away the injustice of the act committed. The secular world sometimes uses forgiveness in simple situations. For example, someone bumps into you and knocks several items out of your hands and they scatter to the floor. The person says “I’m sorry.” You say, “It’s Ok. Don’t worry about it. I forgive you.” And the incident passes away as if it never really happened. In situations of abuse, this is not what happens with forgiveness. It doesn’t change the fact that what this person did to you was absolutely wrong, nothing will change that. But trying to hang onto the hatred and/or anger felt at what the person did, doesn’t hurt that person, it hurts the person who doesn’t forgive.
In addition, forgiveness does not mean that someone will not have to face consequences for their actions in this life. Choosing to forgive someone for a crime they committed against you, does not mean that they can’t and or shouldn’t face consequences set up by our legal system. Choosing to report and/or go forward with prosecution of the crime does not mean that you have not or cannot forgive the person.
Finally, if you don't feel like you are in a place where you can forgive someone for what they've done to you - that's OK! There is no definite timeline on forgiveness as to how quickly you should forgive someone. Forgive when God leads you to that. It will be difficult, but it will be worth it. And when you get to that point, remember, that you don't have to do it alone. Accept the help that God freely gives to you in the area of forgiveness.