Forgiving an Abuser: One Woman’s Story

Beliefnet member Pastorsrus shared her story of hope and healing in response to my post on Struggling for Forgiveness, and I’m reposting it to offer encouragement to anyone struggling to forgive an abuser.  It is a powerful testimony of God reaching us where we are and using all the crumbs of a bad situation for good.    

I was terribly abused as a child and teenager.  My abusers included my parents, and forgiveness was something I found very difficult to address until God called me into following Jesus and living His way of life.  One day, I was reading scripture and had a spiritual “aha” moment when I saw Jesus telling His followers that if they (we) didn’t forgive those that hurt them, God would not forgive them.  That sent me to my knees because I sincerely then as I do now want to follow Jesus and live the way He wants me to.  I told God that I knew it was impossible for me to forgive my mother on my own power and strength alone and that I would need His help in doing so.  There’s biblical precedent for that.  Jesus asked a desperate dad if he believe He could heal his son.  The dad was honest and pleaded, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  I did the same thing with forgiveness.  I went on with my life, knowing that God heard my prayer and that He would help whenever He saw fit to. 

Months later, I was recovering from a nearly fatal illness when my mother had a stroke and had to be hospitalized.  It took a while for me to get there, and the 40 mile drive was agonizing because I was dreading seeing her knowing how she would verbally rip me to shreds as was her habit.  I took a deep breath outside her room and forced myself inside.   I was astonished to find that she didn’t know who I was and that her personality was changed so much that she was emotionally unrecognizable.  The stroke robbed her of her memory and changed her anger and bitterness into gentleness and childlikeness.  The thing was that my anger just melted away because I simply couldn’t be angry at the woman lying in the bed in front of me.

When I got back home, I realized God literally changed me from the inside out by engineering the circumstances regarding my mother.  Instead of anger, I was able to feel compassion for her as she appeared in that hospital room.   I learned that I could indeed leave negative thoughts and emotions behind and replace them with spiritually healthy ones.  My blessing is that because of my changed attitude, I was able to pray my mother home to God at the end of her physical life.  Although not a believer, she was indeed His creation, and it was a joy as well as closure for me to be able to do so

Pastorsrus’ website, www.encouragingwordsministries.org, offers healing teachings that can help those who have been abused to break free emotionally and spiritually from who or what hurt them. 

Join the conversation.  What was your spiritual “aha” moment that made something previously impossible become possible?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Forgiving Myself

Recent posts have focused on responsibility and compassion as the secret keys unlocking forgiveness.  But what if the person I need to forgive is me?  What if I don’t feel accepted and loved—by myself, God or anybody else?  How do I find the place where honest introspection feels safe so that taking responsibility and finding compassion for myself are even possible?  

An adroit Beliefnet commenter shared a great insight in response to a post on shame.  Pastorsrus said, “Most do pretty well in loving God (although that love can be distorted because of life experience) and somewhat well in terms of loving others. Most fail miserably at loving themselves.”  And she concludes, “In short, people need to see themselves from God’s perspective, through His eyes.” 

Her insight harmonizes with the approach previous posts contemplated to forgive unremorseful offenders.  Namely, get the offender (in this case, myself) out of the center of the matter and put God there instead.  Rather than focusing on what I deserve, I can focus on what God desires.  Does God want to punish me for all the ways I fall short and miss the mark?  Or is God hoping and waiting for me to turn to him, and in so doing to turn away from the earthly cares that pull me down and away from him?  What kind of relationship will this be? 

What we believe about God informs how we relate to him, so part of the journey entails exploring our beliefs and coming into an understanding, or a deeper understanding, of God.  That will be the topic for the next series of posts, but let it suffice here to look to the analogy Jesus used—that of God as a forgiving parent.  

All summer, my youngest daughter has been persistently breaking all of the few house rules we have.  Do I sit tapping my fingers waiting for the next infraction so that I can leap into punishment?  No, I hope against hope that she will choose to cooperate with her family.  Frankly, we’ve all grown weary of escalating consequences that impact everyone around her, limiting her sisters’ fun to some degree and making more work for parents to enforce than for kids to endure. 

What does God do when we make bad choices?  Scripture does not say whether God gets frustrated or disappointed or exhausted or crestfallen like human parents.  It does say God never stops seeking us, continually giving us grace in his infinite love, and that he is overjoyed by our turning to him.  Christians believe Jesus came into the world to save sinners, helping them return to relationship with God.  On that basis, reconciliation is the whole point of Christianity. 

Reconciliation and healing are mysterious processes.  While we can’t summon them like a twinkie out of a vending machine, we can take concrete steps to expose ourselves to God’s healing power.  Hope arrives when we decide God’s desires for us are more important than what we think we deserve.  When we put God’s desires first and surrender to his unending desire for relationship with us individually, surely we are on the path to healing and self-love.  

Join the conversation.  How have you released resentment and found compassion for yourself?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com

Healing and Compassion

The definition of “forgive” offered in recent posts is active voice and transitive:  the forgiver releases something.  Often, though, we feel as though the offense has some kind of hold over us that we are powerless to release.  Have we ever felt beset by the same old chestnut, or thought, “I just can’t forgive him for that?”

As victims, we want to be released (passive voice) from whatever hold the wounds have on our psyches.  There’s hope for reclaiming the active voice.  The combination of taking responsibility for our own reactions that merit forgiveness and compassion for our offenders is our best hope for healing.

Having compassion for perpetrators may strike some as a preposterous idea.  They don’t deserve it.  Trailers for Dead Man Walking, the movie based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book about a death row inmate, posited, “The real question is not who deserves to die but who deserves to kill?”  Some would argue that death row inmates don’t deserve lethal injection but rather a death at least as tortured as the deaths they imposed on their victims.

Currently in Texas, the victim of a death row inmate is suing the state to stay the execution so that he can exercise his right under law to meet the man who shot him in the face.  The victim wants to a chance to reconcile with his wound-be murderer and to break the cycle of retribution.  Opponents say the death row inmate doesn’t deserve the stay and that the survivors of his murder victims deserve retribution.  As in Florida’s Casey Anthony case, public opinion has weighed in on the side of retribution.

This thinking puts the focus on the offender.  When we feel held captive by the wrongs committed against us, it can be a great liberation to take the offender out of the center of the matter and to put God there instead.  We don’t extend compassion because someone deserves it.  We extend compassion as an appropriate response to God’s mercy towards us.   When I think of all the wrongs I have done–impaired reactions to my woundedness, indefensible acts of willfulness, failing to act when I could and should have, and unthinking habits—I am deeply humbled by the grace God has extended to me.

Understanding the role our wounds play in our patterns of thinking, feeling and acting and understanding how those patterns harm others gives us insight on those who harmed us.  Buddhist monk and activist Tich Nhat Han observes, “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.”  Survey your offenders’ patterns.  Who else suffered harm?  Is (or was) your offender equally unsuccessful in all her relationships, or do you observe a different pattern?  Do you know or can you surmise anything about the injuries your offender sustained that led to his wounded-wounding pattern?  Are there clear signs of brokenness?  Do you see anything of yourself in the brokenness of your offender?

Dutch Anglican priest Henri Nouwen wrote, “Forgiveness is only real for him who has discovered the weakness of his friends and the sins of his enemy in his own heart and is willing to call every human being his brother.”

Join the conversation.  How have you found compassion for someone who didn’t deserve it?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. 

Releasing Resentment

The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book offers guidance for starting the Fourth Step “fearless and searching moral inventory.”  Notably, the guidance does not start with contemplating one’s feelings of guilt or shame.  It starts with resentment.  The Big Book declares, “Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender.  It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” So how exactly does one release resentment?

The Twelve Step tradition offers some insight and some stumbling blocks.  It guides recovery seekers with resentment “to keep their side of the street clean,” suggesting one might have put oneself in a position where injury or disappointment was possible or likely.  Some recovery seekers strenuously resist this idea.  Unrealistic expectations or a sense of entitlement may have set some up for disappointment, but a startling number of adult recovery seekers were innocent victims of child abuse.  These child victims had no culpability for the crimes committed against them.  Is telling addicted abuse survivors to keep their side of the street clean tantamount to blaming the victims?  Not exactly.  Being wounded sets in motion patterns that, subtly or blatantly, wound others.  Recovery seekers can take responsibility for the part of the wounded-wounding pattern that was in their control, and recovery seekers can forgive the part that was out of their control. 

Naming the offense in forgiveness, or demarcating what is not acceptable, can be a powerful step towards validation, protection and healing.  Conversely, sometimes in the process of naming the offense, we realize that what the “offender” did wasn’t really offensive at all, but that our reaction to it was miscalculated, out of proportion, or reacting to something that was not actually in the content of the offense.  The offender may have made a harmless remark that triggered a harmful memory.  In my family, we try to adhere to the “When you X, I feel Y” formula for naming offenses.  In the process for isolating “X,” I might realize the problem was really “Y.”  Recognition that the mess is on my side of the street allows me to release resentment and has a reconciling effect. 

Being on the receiving end of a behavior or trait that I myself inflict on others can be especially irritating.  It’s a burr under my blanket.  Paradoxically, if I am able to identify, in any small way, with a weakness in the one who hurt me, that is a significant advantage.  It can wedge a foot in the door to compassion for my offender.  Just to be clear, this is not an exercise in victim blaming.  This is an exercise in self-knowledge and claiming responsibility. 

When leading reconciliation workshops, there is one statement I hear repeatedly from people struggling to release resentment.  They don’t want to tell their offenders they’re forgiven.  They don’t want to give their offenders that satisfaction or to signal any of the things that forgiveness is not, e.g. that the offense is acceptable or that accountability for actions has been waived.  Or they just don’t want to let the offender off the hook, which of course, is precisely what releasing resentment and claim to retribution is.  There is no obligation to tell an unremorseful offender that she’s forgiven.  However, once resentment truly has drained out of us, the fact is we stop caring what the offender knows or thinks about forgiveness either way. 

Join the conversation.  What do you do about seriously stubborn resentments?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Struggling for Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a two part process involving the offender’s genuine remorse for the offense and the victim’s release of resentment, but what happens when one part is missing?  The last post considered a man’s painful struggle to put the past behind him and to release resentment in the absence of the offenders’ remorse.  I met him in a reconciliation workshop, and in the same workshop I met a woman who had sought forgiveness with sincere remorse for hurtful things she said and did to her mother during adolescence.  Her mother is now 92, and after almost 50 years, still withholds forgiveness.  It pains the woman to know that her mother is unlikely ever to release that resentment, and she continues searching for something she can do to win her mother’s forgiveness.

The Jewish tradition offers a particularly helpful framework for working through this situation.  Teshuva is the name for the rabbinic concept of repentance necessary, but not sufficient, to receive forgiveness.  It is a process for turning to God, mending relationships with others, and turning to one’s true self (the self one was created to become).  Although a deeply personal process, teshuva nominally consists of five steps:  recognizing our wrongs, feeling remorse for them, making restitution to those we harmed, confessing our wrongs to God, and above all, stopping the wrongdoing.

The Jewish tradition recognizes degrees of teshuva.  To stop sinning due to fear of human consequence is a lower degree of repentance than to stop sinning due to fear of divine consequences after death, which is yet a lower degree of repentance than to stop sinning due to a change of heart.  To stop sinning because of love is the highest degree of repentance, but it is not required for forgiveness.  The right actions are enough.  It matters not whether someone is beset with indecision or steadfast if in the end he chooses right actions.  The parable of the prodigal son is a great New Testament illustration.  Did the son return to his father out of love, his hardship having led him to appreciate his father in a new way, or because he was hungry?  It doesn’t matter.  The salient point is that he turned.

Once the steps are completed, there is a basis for forgiveness.  It is sometimes said that one can only be certain that teshuva is complete if the offender chooses right actions when placed in a situation identical to that which led to his wrongdoing.   However, sometimes the situation is impossible to recreate.  A woman in her 60’s cannot go back to her teenage years to prove her repentance.

Jewish law offers guidance here, too.  Medieval rabbinic authority Mainomides teaches that the offender “must appease and beseech until he is forgiven.  If his fellow man refuses to forgive him then he must bring a group of three of the injured party’s friends and go to him and ask him to forgive.  If he still does not forgive him he must go to him a second and third time with three other people.  If he still refuses to forgive he may cease and the other is the sinner.” [Mishneh Torah]

Following this path may not make forgiveness complete, but it does give someone seeking healing hope for making peace with a painful past.

Join the conversation.  Have you been locked in conflict with someone clinging to resentment?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.