The weight of the sorrow and loss was palpable in my office. The pain, the tears, the broken dreams destroyed in violence and abuse were most tangible in the air. The client before me, like so many I’ve mourned with over the years, was facing a very difficult decision. After enduring a relationship filled with physical and emotional abuse, she was beginning to consider ending the relationship.
“What do I do, Dr. Samples? I love him. I want to forgive him,” she said. “Doesn’t Jesus teach us to forgive? I want to give our life a chance, but I’m scared. What is the right thing to do?”
As a clinician who has worked with victims and perpetrators of domestic violence since my undergraduate training, I know something about the journey of healing she is facing. I know that protective anger is often required for the courage to leave an abusive relationship. Where inter-partner violence occurs, many relationships separate and reunite many times before the final dissolution, and the majority of those relationships become more violent with time.
In relationships where one partner is victimized by another, the most dangerous period of time is when the victim is ending the relationship. Many individuals are injured, permanently disabled, or even killed when they move to dissolve the relationship.
The questions she raised were heavy. I heard her pain in both loving and fearing her partner. I knew her heart. She was uncomfortable with anger, bitterness, and tension, and that in part kept her in a relationship where she repeatedly forgave her abuser and his increasingly dangerous offenses. As a Christian, she valued forgiveness. And since she still loved her abuser, it was difficult for her to endure the pain of unforgiveness between them. Didn’t Jesus command repeated forgiveness?
The forgiveness of sin by God and by God’s people toward one another is central to the message of the gospel of grace. Its importance is enshrined in scripture and ancient church creeds. It is one of the foundational beliefs of Christian community.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus talks to his disciplines about the hard truths of forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus himself indicated his expectation that his disciples would be people of forgiveness praying, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Luke 11:1-4).
Eugene Patterson’s Message states it this way:
Jesus said to his disciples, “Hard trials and temptations are bound to come, but too bad for whoever brings them on! Better to wear a millstone necklace and take a swim in the deep blue sea than give even one of these dear little ones a hard time! Be alert. If you see your friend going wrong, correct him. If he responds, forgive him. Even if it’s personal against you and repeated seven times through the day, and seven times he says, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,’ forgive him.” – Luke 17:1-4
Forgiveness is healing to the soul of the forgiver as well as the forgiven. In addition to the spiritual benefits, those who live a life of forgiveness have better mental and physical health outcomes. Achieving forgiveness of the abuse is often the pathway for a survivor to rebuild new, healthy relationships with others.
However, in the case of relationship violence, premature forgiveness of the abuse through reconciliation can place the abused partner (as well as children, family members and coworkers) at greater risk of future harm.
Christian psychologist Everett Worthington has spent his career studying the role of forgiveness after horrible and egregious harm, as well as every day pains and slights in relationships. Worthington has documented that forgiveness is an ongoing process that takes time, full recognition of the offense, and real grieving of the loss. The process of forgiveness requires courage to face the truth before bitterness can be emotionally released. Also, facing the truth of abuse often means that reconciliation is not possible for the safety of everyone involved. Reconciliation is not a requirement of forgiveness. In fact, in cases of violence and abuse, reconciliation is not advised due to the risk of ongoing harm.
In Luke 17, Jesus does not only speak of forgiveness, he also speaks of consequences of abuse. He indicates that causing harm to another has deep, lasting consequences to the offender. He even suggests that “better a millstone” of self-destruction for the perpetrator than the path of harm to another. I would suggest that one of those heavy consequences is permanent loss of relationship, potential legal loss of freedom, or future contact with children. In cases of violence and especially in repeated violence, restoration of the relationship is usually a great risk of danger for the victim. Forgiveness provides freedom, but often reconciliation does not.
As I sat with my client, navigating the heavy pain of the path to recovery ahead, I waited with her in the pain and the questions. Forgiveness is not a momentary impulse achieved, or a chosen denial of reality. Forgiveness is often not reconciliation. Forgiveness is the hard way to freedom. Forgiveness does not come because of the demands of a perpetrator. It does not come because of the mandates of a religious authority. It is not a one-time choice. Rather, forgiveness is a pathway to healing. But before healing can begin, there is much lamenting to be done.