Article – An Exercise in Unreality?

Published articles by Rebecca Mitchell on issues around sexual abuse

An Exercise in Unreality?

Supporting Clients Experiencing Coerced “Forgiveness”
Published in The Association of Christian Counsellors Magazine
Autumn 2008

A few years ago I was giving a talk on family dynamics. At the end of the talk “Sally” came up to me to tell me her story. She had been sexually abused by her father and was told by her housegroup leaders to go and tell her father she had forgiven him. She did as they suggested and when she got there he raped her. She may have changed – but he certainly had not.

This is the very worst example of pastoral advice on forgiveness – and yet this kind of spiritual guidance is not un-common in the Christian community. After fifteen years of supporting mainly Christian women who have been sexually abused, I am constantly faced with women who have been bulldozed into forgiving with the verse “If you do not forgive men their sins your Father will not forgive you.” (Matthew 6 v15).

Surely, this is not what God meant forgiveness to be?

Yet, how can we as counsellors support clients who have been pressurised into forgiving yet not openly criticise the client’s pastors and leaders (who may be very sincere in their instruction) which could cause the client confusion and divided loyalties?

What is Forgiveness

Firstly, just what is forgiveness? Is it simply saying “sorry” and forgetting all about it? Is it never speaking of the incident again? Is it reconciling no matter what?

A week after the London Tube bombings in July 2005 Rev Giles Fraser gave a “Thought For The Day” on Radio Four:

“What can it mean to speak of forgiveness in a situation such as this…. I wonder, however, whether the real problem is that we have misunderstood a great deal about what forgiveness means because we have over-sentimentalized it. For we all too often think about forgiveness as coming to have warm and affectionate feelings for those who have done some terrible harm … Jesus suggests something very different. Forgiveness is a means of breaking the endless wheel of revenge, violence being answered by yet more violence, which, in turn, provokes yet more. … Turning the other cheek is therefore a form of defiance, a refusal to answer back in the same language…” (Source: Rev Dr Giles Fraser: Radio Four: Thought For The Day 14th July 2005)

A study by the Enright and Human Development Study Group in 1998 defined forgiveness as:

“A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgement and indifferent behaviour toward one who has unjustly hurt us, while fostering the underserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her.” (Source: Enright et all 1998 46-47).

Perhaps the first part of this definition is best summed up by giving up the right to revenge. Scripturally this sits well with us as Christians. Paul in Romans advises us not to “take revenge my friends but leave room for God’s wrath for it is mine to avenge – I will repay says the Lord” (Romans 12 v 19). However, Paul does not say that we minimise or forget the pain we have been caused.

Forgiveness Is A Process

Possibly the problem in the Christian Community lies in the concept that forgiveness is seen as an easy one step solution with the object of achieving “warm and affectionate feelings for those who have done some terrible harm” Giles Fraser talked about. David Ausburger in his book “Caring Enough To Forgive” describes it however, as a “complex and demanding process” which is “….often reduced to a single act of accepting another. In spite of pain, hurt, loss and wrongdoing that stand between us, we are encouraged to forgive in a single act of resolving all by giving unconditional inclusion. Such a step becomes too large for any human to take in a single bound. Forgiveness is a journey of many steps, each of which can be extremely difficult, all of which are to be taken carefully, thoughtfully, and with deep reflection.”

(Source: “Caring Enough to forgive” – David Ausburger). Margaret Kennedy who founded “Christian Survivors of Sexual Abuse” also says that the error in the church lies with teaching which puts all the emphasis on reaching a final goal and none on the journey:

“Of all the Christian doctrines the one regarding forgiveness is probably the most important and enduring. It is also the most harmful for survivors. There is no discussion. One must forgive … You forgive no matter what”. She also adds “Forgiveness is seen as the end. This will cause everything to be both forgotten and finished.”

(Source: Christianity and Child Sexual Abuse – Survivors informing the care of children following abuse – Paper given by Margaret Kennedy – Royal College of Psychiatrists – 2003 pages 6 and 7) However it is my experience, also working with victims of sexual abuse, that getting in touch with the pain, anger, grief and loss is all part of the process of forgiveness. All these stages are not to be rushed. To the extent you have been hurt will be equal to your pain and anger. Walking towards forgiveness is a long road and some events are so traumatic you could not possibly forgive them in one go.
Forgiveness Is Not Denial

Forgiveness is fully admitting what happened – “Yes it was that bad.” It is not trying to avoid the truth of the damage and pain which has been caused.

David Seamands in his book “Healing Grace” echoes this: “Many people today think that forgiveness means to overlook the evils done against them, they feel they are being sweet, loving Christians. Actually, this is an exercise in unreality which keeps out the power of grace.”
(Source: Healing Grace – David Seamands)

Indeed, not facing up to the suffering we have gone through is actually avoiding the truth of the situation. I have found it helpful to guide Christian clients to Joseph’s story in Genesis. Joseph’s statement to his brothers “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50 v 20) is often used to illustrate forgiveness on the part of the injured party, but frequently the first part “You intended to harm me” is overlooked.

However, Joseph in saying this fully acknowledges the damage committed against him both to himself and to his brothers. He does not minimise, trivialize or excuse the pain they caused him. From this place of fully acknowledging the injury done – he gave a full forgiveness.

Forgiveness Does Not Mean Being Re-Abused

It is also my experience from working with Christian women who are experiencing domestic violence; clients often need reminding that forgiving does not mean being re-abused. Standing against re-abuse is in fact part of the process of “fostering the underserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love” (Source: Enright et all – 1998) because although we may forgive we do not let that person carry on harming us and thereby themselves. John Townsend in his book “Hiding From Love” calls this “helpful hiding”. He says we need to “set appropriate limits on the irresponsibility or selfishness of others….hiding can be the most caring and responsible thing to do in many situations”. He describes hiding as:
“Setting both verbal and physical boundaries which may involve saying no or geographically leaving the room or house and calling for help.” (Source: “Hiding From Love” – John Townsend).

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

One of the most important verses for us to emphasise to clients, who may be under huge amounts of pressure to carry on in a relationship where they have been severely damaged – think Family Christmas Dinner – is Luke 17 verse 3. Jesus instructs true reconciliation comes only when there is real repentance and change on the part of the person who has done the damage:
“If your brother sins against you rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” Luke 17 v3. However often the emphasis seems to be put on the “forgive” part with “if” being overlooked. Margaret Kennedy also says that the problem in the church lies in teaching that puts all the responsibility on the person harmed and none on the person doing the harming: “Christian children and adults are taught (erroneously) to forgive without repentance from their transgressors. If they cannot, then they become the sinners.” (Source: Christianity and Child Sexual Abuse – Survivors informing the care of children following abuse – Paper given by Margaret Kennedy – Royal College of Psychiatrists -2003 page 7)

Through research and from working with victims of sexual violence I have concluded that true reconciliation can only happen if:

  • The perpetrator agrees the abuse happened.
  • The perpetrator accepts responsibility for the abuse.
  • The perpetrator shows grief and acknowledges the harm done.
  • The perpetrator agrees to get professional help.
  • The perpetrator remains accountable to a professional body.

(Sources: “The Wounded Heart”- Dan Allender, “A Door of Hope” – Jan Frank )

If we cannot see real change then although we can forgive, we cannot be truly reconciled. Biblically, this is illustrated clearly in the story of Saul and David in the book of Samuel. Saul had repeatedly tried to kill David, but on one occasion the tables are turned and Saul’s life is in David’s hands. Perhaps because of this Saul sends word to David that there will be no further attack and assures him “I will not try to harm you again” (1 Samuel 26 v 21) . Saul then invites David back to court but David remains unconvinced that Saul’s character has really changed and decides in order to avoid re-victimisation he needs to remove himself to safety. “One of these days I will be destroyed by the hand of Saul the best thing I can do is to escape.” (1 Samuel 27 v 1) David perceives that despite Saul’s pleas to the contrary there can be no chance of a reconciliation and Saul is not to be believed or trusted.

Jesus also was very astute in who he trusted himself to. He realised that not all men do change, and although he forgave those soldiers and leaders who tortured him, there is no record that he went back later to talk it through with them over a meal as He did with his disciples in John Chapter Twenty One.

Forgiveness Is Freedom

There is no doubt that as Christians, our faith hinges on forgiveness and I always emphasis to clients forgiveness is primarily for their benefit. Rev Desmond Tutu who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa says “Holding onto your resentment means you are locked into your victimhood – and you allow your perpetrator to have a hold over your life. When you forgive, you let go, it sets you free.” (Source BBC News website: 27/2/2006)

Yet true forgiveness cannot be forced, pressured or manipulated – it is often a long, hard process which involves much heart searching, thought, anger and pain. We as Christian Counsellors need to stand with clients during this journey and perhaps give them a more balanced approach than they may be receiving from well-meaning but nevertheless very naive Christian teaching. Terri Spy in her book “Forgiveness and the Healing Process” sums it up very well: “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring the wrong things people do or condoning them; it is about seeing the humanity in ourselves and other people and giving ourselves and others the opportunity to change.” Surely anything less is simply “an exercise in unreality”.

Rebecca Mitchell: Short Biography

Rebecca founded “Into the Light” in 1993 when she started running support groups for women who had experienced sexual abuse. “Into The Light” now has expanded to provide information, training and resources in order to equip others who support people who have been sexually abused, and now offers an ACC Recognised Training Course.
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She will be speaking at the ACC Conference in January 2009.

Rev Dr Giles Fraser: Radio Four: Thought For The Day 14th July 2005
Enright, R, Freedman S, and Rique J (1998) The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness, in R D Enright and
J North (eds) Exploring Forgiveness. Madison, WI University of Wisconsin Press
Caring Enough to forgive – David Ausburger – Publisher: Regal Books – Published 1981 page 30
Christianity and Child Sexual Abuse – Survivors informing the care of children following abuse – Paper given by Margaret Kennedy – Royal College of Psychiatrists -2003
Healing Grace – David Seamands – Publisher: Light And Life Communications First Published 1988 p141
Hiding From Love – John Townsend – Publisher: Nav Press – Published 1991 – pages 143/144
The Wounded Heart – Dan Allender- Nav Press – Published 1990 – page 236
A Door of Hope – Jan Frank – Here’s Life Publishers – Published 1987 – “Confronting the Aggressor” pages 107 – 129
BBC News Website 27/2/2006
Forgiveness and the Healing Process – Cynthia Ransley and Terri Spy – Publisher: Brunner-Routledge 2003 page 49