Forgiveness and Sexual Abuse

The pain never completely goes away.

I can have a good 6-9 months before experiencing debilitating pain or flashbacks. Every once in a while something will hit me, I can’t always pinpoint from where. That raw, innocent part of me gets rubbed and I hurt again. I cry with no explanation or feel an overwhelming grief take over my body. My heart cracks, ricocheting pain throughout every extremity. My brain quakes with memories and I’m ripped back in time, a helpless child manipulated for purposes no one understands.

I choose to forgive each time.

As far as I know, the human extension of forgiveness is not a “one and done” kind of deal. Not for deep wounds, anyway. The more I live, the more ways I discover I’ve been hurt by that season of adolescence. I have to forgive with each new revelation of pain.

I hate how I start to look when bitterness creeps in… Some of the awful features of evil start to rub off on me. I’m distrusting of others, easily angered, unforgiving, closed off, harsh. Soon I’m unrecognizable as the true, free, loving version of myself. That’s when I know I need to forgive again.

I’ll never stop learning about forgiveness; I’ll be giving and receiving forgiveness for the rest of my life. But since the offenses of sexual abuse have been some of the deepest wounds I’ve had to forgive, I feel compelled to share what I’ve learned so far.

I don’t know how to forgive aside from Christ and the truth of God’s Word. Jesus is the biggest example of love and forgiveness, so everything I share comes from years of exploring the topic with God and the Bible.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending the wrong was right. I understand I was wronged. I also understand the necessity of forgiveness.

Bitterness and unforgiveness will destroy your life like a toxic infection, often unknowingly spreading throughout your body until every last organ ceases to function. Bitterness is an ugly killer, slow and miserable.

Forgiveness can seem like defeat because there’s a forfeiting of something you believe you deserve. It’s frightening to let go of what you feel is holding you together. That firm grip and pointing of the finger can become a comfort.

But it’s difficult to walk through life with clenched fists. It makes it hard to pick up a pen or paintbrush and create something beautiful. It makes the gentle ease of holding a loved one’s hand practically impossible. Good luck climbing a mountain or playing an instrument while your fingers dig into your palms. What beauty, freedom, and strength we miss when we clench our fists this way!

Do they deserve to be forgiven?

No. I don’t believe anybody “deserves” forgiveness. We are all responsible for our poor choices and each one warrants its own payment. But what is a fair payment for sexual abuse? It affects the rest of your life FOREVER. It causes some victims to take their lives and steals the ability of others to truly live. In some senses the most severe punishment will never be enough for the undue pain caused by the perpetrator.

And yet, there is also healing and compassion born from a wound so severe when it finally mends. One may go on to do more good than they otherwise would have. I’m convinced that’s true in my case. That will never make the abuse ok, but it does seem to make a lifelong harsh sentence less fair.

And then there is the fact that we are all imperfect, damaging each other all the time. There is a law at work that gives us a natural bend to break things and each other. A world without forgiveness and sole retaliation in the name of “justice” looks like physical and emotional prisons, a constant counting of wrongs, and an impossibility to love. In this broken world with the inevitable damage we will cause each other, another law had to be implemented—a law of redemption and love. This law of healing love is at work within the law of our brokenness.

Forgiveness is a survival tool we rely on daily; it just gets harder to use when the wound is bigger. It’s ok that it’s hard. It will likely take supernatural Love to help genuinely forgive.

The freedom and health is worth it. Don’t believe the lie that bitterness or unforgiveness is helping you heal—it is destroying you, or at the very least keeping you from living life to the full. I’m not sure there’s a difference.

I’ve heard sayings like, “Harboring unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting it to kill someone else” and “Don’t forgive for their benefit—do it for yourself.” But how do you get there?

There is no clear-cut answer, but having the desire to forgive is a great start. Realize that you will be swallowed up by bitterness if something doesn’t change, and ask God for help.

First of all, the Bible is clear that there is only one enemy, one accuser, one evil ruler. Evil loves a high return on investments, and the lifelong healing required for sexual abuse is well worth the brief moments of disgusting behavior. This is why devastation like sexual abuse is so rampant in EVERY society. The immediate transfer of shame, lifelong wounds, chronic need for the victim to forgive or else find themselves with the debilitating infection of bitterness, etc. are all very worth it to someone bent on stealing, killing, and destroying.

The Bible says we have an enemy who stalks around like a lion, seeking whom it may devour. That explains much of the hurt we see in the world today.

The distinction must be made between the evil a person commits and the core of who they really are. We are responsible when we cooperate with evil… but that is not all we are. Each person is a created being, loved by God and invited to beautiful life with Him. However near or far they are from Him at any given moment doesn’t change that truth. My sexual abuser is more than the decisions she made as a young adult. We are all bigger than our mistakes.

In fact, I think one of the biggest steps toward forgiving others comes from realizing how much God has forgiven me. Forgiveness requires humility… a difficult posture until I ask God to examine my own heart. God doesn’t see me for my mistakes, for the times I’ve blatantly spat in His face despite His grace and love. God sees me as righteous and pure even though I couldn’t describe myself as such on my best days if it depended on my own merit. As I accept grace for myself, I can’t withhold that from another person.

Forgiving others doesn’t mean there are no consequences. There is a difference between forgiveness and restoration of relationship. I’m still keeping my distance from the woman who abused me for reasons of wisdom. I still reported the sexual abuse to police in an attempt to create proper boundaries and hopefully prevent it from happening to someone else. She was and possibly continues to operate from an unhealthy state of mind, which makes her unwise for me to be around. But forgiveness allows me to see she is not unloved by God, nor is she all her past, present, and future mistakes say she is. (And thank God, neither am I.)

If God looks at her and sees who she was created to be and longs to develop good things in her life, then that becomes my standard for how to view her. If God who is perfect can look at her with love and offer forgiveness before she repents (while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, Romans 5:8), then I, who am imperfect and in desperate need of forgiveness for my own shortcomings certainly must do the same.

Sexual abuse doesn’t define me, and in my heart it doesn’t define her. I have to choose forgiveness and see her through God’s lens. I pray for healthy growth and friendships in her life. While I don’t picture it happening this side of eternity, I imagine in heaven the two of us will be restored and it will be a beautiful moment of God’s grace for both of us.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, whether it’s sexual abuse or something else, I highly recommend you forgive as a means to life. If you’re struggling in this area, know this: You were wronged. You did not deserve what happened to you—that will never change. You can be angry, devastated, and heartbroken. You probably will experience all of these things in varying degrees until you breathe your last on earth. However, you don’t need to spend the rest of your life tethered to someone else as a result of the harm they caused you.

Forgiveness is a necessary tool for freedom, for being the person you were designed to be rather than the sum of your painful experiences. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s not easy. But it’s always worth it.

Biblical References (Only a Starting Point)

  • When Jesus was being humiliated and tortured on a cross, He said, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing.” – Luke 23:34
  • “But if you refuse to forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” – Matthew 6:15 Well shoot, it’s a bloody commandment. Probably because we’ve been forgiven MUCH and can therefore forgive others their smaller debts.
  • “I—yes, I alone—will blot out your sins for my own sake and will never think of them again. – Isaiah 43:25  If this is the kind of forgiveness God offers me, I have no choice but to forgive. (I can’t help but remember certain hurts since I’m human, but I can extend forgiveness as the memories come.)
  • A “sinful woman” was forgiven much, and consequently loved much. Luke 7:36-50
  • David writes in Psalm 51:4, “Against you, and you alone, have I sinned.” When you understand the context, you know that David murdered a man after he had committed adultery with his wife. While the offense against both of these people was great, I believe He’s saying the greatest offense was actually against God.
  • The story of Joseph, who was betrayed by his brothers and ended up saving and blessing their lives. “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” – Genesis 50:20 (The whole story begins in Genesis 37)
  • Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor: A king forgave a HUGE debt of one person, and that person went on to demand repayment of a much smaller debt. It didn’t end well for him. (That’s how it is when we receive God’s incredible forgiveness and refuse to extend forgiveness to someone else.) – Matthew 18:21-25
  • Jesus said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” –Matthew 18:6 Proverbs 18:5 says, “It is not good to be partial to the wicked and so deprive the innocent of justice.” I can trust that God takes child abuse and justice very seriously and He will judge it fairly. That’s His job, not mine. I am free to trust His justice and obey His command to forgive.

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