We're a few days away from Easter. This is the time when Christians recognize and celebrate Jesus's death and resurrection. While this is nothing more than a holiday to eat more candy for some, in faith-based homes it's can be a powerful time to be present with God's sovereignty and love.
Included in this week is the magnitude of Christ's forgiveness of our sins and his extreme love for us. We often remember the pain and abuse he endured and note how unworthy we are of his sacrifice. We might even think about how Jesus sat with the man who betrayed him, and ate dinner knowing what was about to unfold. We may talk specifically about the lashings, the crown of thorns, the stabbings by a spear, all with the message of salvation, grace, and forgiveness interwoven throughout.
If Christ can forgive us of all the things we've done wrong and allow himself to be crucified as a sacrifice for those wrongs, who are we not to forgive others? Isn't that what Christians say? They use this event, this precious time in our history, to remind believers that we must always choose to forgive regardless of the offense...
...because if we don't, Christ won't forgive us.
That's the rest of the message. We must always forgive others, otherwise we won't be forgiven. (Matthew 6:14-15)
I find this teaching unrealistic, and actually poor theology. (I can almost hear the gasp in horror from Evangelical Christians.)
Here's the problem with that passage (and many others that are used incorrectly)... we put these ridiculous expectations on people in impossible and agonizing situations. Let me give you some examples:
...The daughter who was raped nightly by her father.
...The little boy who was prostituted out to a mother's friends so she could pay the bills.
...The young woman who was assaulted by her youth pastor and then exiled by the church because they didn't believe her.
...The wife who was beaten by her husband consistently but told the church wouldn't condone a divorce and this hardship would "make her stronger."
And those are just some examples of abuse. Many forms of trauma are included as impossible and agonizing situations.
We expect impossible forgiveness from victims of abuse towards their perpetrators with the guilt-filled condition that Christ won't forgive them of their sins if the survivor doesn't forgive "those who sinned against them." It's a no-win situation for the victim.
This theology ignores something crucial. It ignores that Christ already forgave us. That's the entire point of Easter. We're already forgiven, making that conditional passage, in the way churches preach it, inaccurate. The point Jesus was trying to make was that we are not to live in perpetual unforgiveness of others (also known as bitterness, anger, resentment - qualities repeatedly warned against in the New Testament).
There are many of these conditional passages found throughout the NT, but they weren't intended to be literal and final. Matthew 5:7, 5:29, 7:16-19, 7:24, and 7:26 are a few more. If we are to take these passages as absolutes, not following direction perfectly, we run the risk of losing our salvation, going to hell, being rejected by Christ... however you want to word it. These passages in their literal sense would remove any chance, even AFTER believing and repenting, of spending eternity with the Lord.
In regards to abuse and trauma survivors, though, that particular verse about forgiveness requires the victim to do something they may never be able to do. And where does that leave them? They are violated in some of the most humiliating and inhumane ways; yet because they are unable to fully forgive their perpetrator, they are rejected even further, now unforgiven by the Lord. That doesn't make sense when kept in context with Jesus.
The second and probably more powerful problem with this level of expectation in forgiveness is Jesus's example during the last few moments of his life on the cross. He spent countless hours being tortured, violently abused, ridiculed, and disgraced. His abuse was very public, as was his death. But in those last few moments, before he let go of his life, his words included these:
"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
Did you catch it? Look at it closely.
Father, [You] forgive them.
He couldn't do it himself. Jesus, in all his humanity AND all of his sovereignty was unable to forgive his abusers on his own. He needed God to step in where he couldn't and offer forgiveness on his behalf.
If Jesus Christ, the son of God - the man who cast out demons, raised people from the dead, healed all types of physical ailments - could not forgive his abusers in that moment, why do Christians expect humans to forgive severe offenses against our dignity and humanity? We continue to expect imperfect humans to do what Jesus himself couldn't do.
Or maybe he wouldn't... Maybe it wasn't that Jesus couldn't forgive his abusers, but that he wouldn't. He needed his almighty God and Father to do it for him, because while he recognized his abusers still needed forgiveness, it wasn't something he wanted to do in his human state. They needed his mercy just like the rest of humankind, but Jesus couldn't be the one to offer it.
This should be a relief to us. We should find comfort in knowing we are not expected to do impossible things. God wants to step in for us and we get to let him.
What would happen if we were to stop forcing abuse and trauma survivors to forgive when they can't or shouldn't have to? If we remove the expectation of the near impossible from their shoulders and free them to heal in their own time, wouldn't that make their forgiveness (if they chose to give it) genuine?
Jesus never intended for us to "go through the motions." He doesn't want fake actions; he wants our heart. He wants our motives to be real. He constantly called out the Pharisees for their deceitful motives and fraudulent actions, yet the church wants trauma survivors to do exactly that. Matthew 7:21-23 talks about those that will cast out demons in his name but He ultimately won't acknowledge, because Jesus's desire is for authenticity, not fabricated "good deeds."
By requiring trauma survivors to quickly forgive their perpetrators, or worse, reconcile with them, the church is further putting those survivors in impossible situations. The requirement removes the victim's choice yet again, adding to the trauma, mistrust, and loss of dignity.
It cannot be a matter of "forgive quickly so you will be forgiven." That direction will mostly lead to bitterness, anger, and possibly the victim fully turning his/her back on faith. The other option is to allow each trauma survivor the ability to choose healing by walking through each step, feeling all the uncomfortable emotions, and choosing forgiveness on their own. We should be more concerned with the legitimacy of their healing process which could lead to (though not guaranteed) forgiveness of the abuser rather than the speed at which they forgive. The latter is simply about the motions needed to appease everyone's comfort.
In this week, when faith-based communities recognize the magnitude of what Jesus did for us, let us not forget that Jesus was also an abuse survivor. If we are going to use his example of unconditional love, mercy, and compassion then we must also include the example of forgiveness to his abusers.
Liria Forsythe is the founder and president of Speak Truth Ministries. Her blogs are her reflections of her experiences in the aftermath of her past abuse as well as how she chooses to thrive now.
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