When someone wrongs us, we tend to get one piece of unsolicited advice over and over again.
You need to forgive.
It’s a phrase we love to throw around, but it’s a bit hollow, isn’t it? People tsk tsk and say, “Forgive” but nobody tells you how to do that.
It’s especially difficult when you’re still dealing with the consequences of what happened.
It’s one thing to forgive someone for crashing into my car and breaking my arm, given that my arm eventually heals. That’s like, beginners level forgiveness.
But, what if a drunk driver killed your spouse, how do you forgive them when you miss your spouse every day?
What if your parent was so cruel to you that it’s colored everything you’ve done as an adult?
What if people who claimed to love Christ hurt you? What if they allowed you to be hurt when they could have intervened? What if something so traumatic happened that there’s no “getting over it”? When there’s no complete healing that can happen this side of the resurrection?
What does forgiveness look like when you’re still broken? When you’ll never not be broken? How do you “let go” of something that shaped you into the person you are?
How do you forgive someone who doesn’t think they did anything wrong?
You do it slowly and carefully and you take as much time as you damn well need.
What It Looks Like For Me
I can’t sit here and type out a play-by-play guide that would work for every situation. It doesn’t work that way. What I can do is share what my process has been like.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, I was sitting on my dad’s friend’s couch, watching the ball drop. We’d been living there for about 3 months, still without any real shot at getting into a house of our own. I turned to my dad and said, “Hey, what if we’re wrong about Y2K and all the lights are about to go out?” He reminded me that most of our neighbors were Amish, so we’d be just fine. (He meant that they’d share with us, but I jumped to the assumption that it’d be pretty easy to pillage farms owned by pacifists.)
I knew enough about computers to know the Y2K scare was overblown. Still, I had this little wish that the lights would go out. And then the government would collapse. And we’d all form independent city-states. And maybe I’d be elected President. And a couple of years from now, this group of refugees from Arkansas would show up, and oh look, they’re people from my old church. And they’re hungry and homeless and want to come live in my super awesome city-state where we eat pie every day. But, “No,” I’d say, “You can’t come in. I guess you should have helped me when you had the chance. It sucks pretty hard now that you’re on the other end, huh?”
But the lights stayed on and nobody ever elected me as the President of anything. And I never had any post-apocalyptic chance to seek revenge on those who’d done me wrong.
In those early months, I thought about driving back down there one Sunday. I’d burst through the church doors during service and tell them all exactly where they could go and exactly where they could shove their insane beliefs.
After a while, my dad was called to a new church and we moved into our own home. And I moved on with my life. I got married. I went to school. I had kids. I did all those normal things.
Except it’s not normal to be sitting in your office at work and have a panic attack because some teenage girl was kidnapped by her father’s friend and that hits a little too close to home.
And it’s not normal to jump clear out of your skin any time someone approaches you from behind.
And it’s not normal to obsessively check to make sure all the doors are locked at all times.
And it’s not normal to know that there’s still someone out there who wanted (perhaps, still wants) me dead.
No, my life could never be normal now. The actions (and inaction) from back then had consequences and I will always be dealing with those consequences.
The question was never, should I forgive them? The question is, how do I forgive them when, in many ways, parts of me are still stuck in the middle of that trauma and can never get out? When I’m hurt again and again, every time I’m reminded of what happened? Every time a noise makes me jump. Every time I sit in a pew.
It took a long time. For years, I just had anger. That was all. There wasn’t a speck of compassion in me for that man or for anyone who sat on that church council.
When anyone would tell me to “let go” or that I needed to forgive, all it did was feed that anger and resentment. Why did they deserve my forgiveness when they weren’t even sorry?
I can pinpoint the moment forgiveness became possible. It wasn’t long after I’d started taking some tentative steps back into Christianity. Someone had asked a question on reddit (maybe something along the lines of “What’s something bad that happened to you in your church?”) and I shared a brief summary. Nobody told me to forgive them. I got comments like, “That was so wrong” and “I’m sorry that happened”.
I’ll tell you what. When you’re dealing with a group that’s as dismissive of pain as Christians tend to be, a little validation goes a long way.
I realized that all those other people who were telling me I needed to forgive were actually turning the whole situation around on me. They were making me the bad guy. They were making me responsible for all that pain. if I was stubborn and refused to forgive, then I was being uncharitable, unChristian. If I refused to forgive, it was my own dang fault for being in pain.
“If you forgive, then you can let go…” as if it would make everything all better. But that’s not really how it works. The after-effects of what happened will still be there.
By not telling me to forgive the people who’d wronged me, those anonymous posters on reddit gave me the room I needed to forgive.
I’m not saying I had some huge epiphany while wasting time on reddit (who the heck has epiphanies on reddit?) It was a start, though. It chipped away at some of the defensiveness I had going on. It’s hard to forgive people when you constantly feel like you have to defend yourself.
I started writing about what happened soon after that. Writing helped me process through some of what had happened. I tried to see things from other people’s perspectives. I can’t justify what they did, but it did help me to take a less harsh view of some of them.
One by one, with a few angry rants, and a few crying jags, I did forgive all of those church members.
A while back, my sister and I happened to be in the general area of our old church. We’d been in the area before, while driving back and forth to Texas, but had never felt the urge to stop by the church. This time, we did. (Don’t worry. You-Know-Who doesn’t attend there anymore.)
We walked straight into our old sanctuary and re-introduced ourselves 16 years after vanishing in the middle of all that dramatic stalking stuff. It was uncomfortable and awkward. For all I knew, some of them knew I’d been writing about what had happened. For all I knew, they’d kick me out.
But, a man who’d been on the church council during all the trouble invited us to stay for the service. And we did.
I accidentally sat in the same pew I’d sat in on my last Sunday there. But there weren’t death threats directed at me projected on the overhead this time, so that was nice.
I shook hands and I let them hug me.
…and I also blog about what happened to help myself and to help others who are hurting.
I worshiped with people who allowed a man to threaten my life.
…and I’m working on a memoir which includes the terribly wrong theology that contributed to what happened to me.
I sat in a pew in my old church and prayed for that congregation. I prayed for us all. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us…”
I think that’s what forgiveness looks like. It doesn’t look like forgetting something ever happened. It doesn’t look like sweeping things under the rug. It’s not being OK with what happened. It’s not staying in a toxic place.
It looks like humanizing the people who’ve hurt us. Sometimes it looks like walking into a place when you’re sure you aren’t welcome. Sometimes it looks like making them look you in the eye, giving them the chance to ask God for forgiveness, even if you know they’ll never ask you.
It looks like shaking hands while doing what I can to prevent this from happening to the next person. It looks like acknowledging the damage they helped cause and sincerely praying for them at the same time. It looks like allowing myself to be vulnerable in the presence of people who hurt me.
That’s not what forgiveness looks like for everyone or every situation. I certainly wouldn’t walk up to my stalker and shake hands (I sort of enjoy being alive and all). I was in a strong place when I walked into that church. I didn’t feel like it was just me and my sister walking into there. I walked in there carrying everyone who’s been supportive of me or cheered me on as I worked through this mess. I felt very alone when I was 18 and walked out of that church. I didn’t at all feel that way when I went back.
So, if you’re working toward forgiveness, but you’re not in a place like that yet, it’s OK. I was getting down on myself a while back and told a friend I felt pretty crappy because it’d taken me 15 years to learn how to forgive and come in from the wilderness. She reminded me that the Israelites spent 40 years out in the wilderness, so maybe I should cut myself some slack.
Forgiveness doesn’t happen in an instant. It takes time and work and compassion from other people. And it won’t look the same for you as it does for me. That’s OK too.