Forgiveness and I have been through a lot together.
I was in a relationship for five years that was progressively abusive, verbally and physically, and the aftershock on my self-worth was something fierce. Our break-up was even more tumultuous than our relationship, but we somehow remained friends... bonding through a shared traumatic experience or something like that. In any event, I told him shortly after our shipwreck that I forgave him, and I meant it at the time. What I didn’t realize, though, was that I had shut down so much emotionally that I wasn’t even aware of what I was forgiving.
Then one day, years after I thought he held any kind of sway on me, I saw him walking into a building with his girlfriend and I spent the next four hours crying in the fetal position on my living room floor. I remembered things that I had effectively buried, and my memories were so vivid that I could feel every part of how scared I was, how hurt I was, and how poorly loved I was. In the midst of that, I thought, “Hell. No. I don’t forgive him... what he did to me is not okay.”
But I was reminded that forgiveness is not saying that it’s okay, it’s more like agreeing with God that it’s not okay. It’s letting him have his way with that person, and being free from having to carry it anymore. It’s letting go, and maybe even re-framing what happened. A turning point for me was seeing the same memories, the same images of what happened, but this time seeing Jesus there, too. I could see how hurt he was, how angry he was, and how much he loved me (and even protected me) through it.
I was finally ready to forgive for real, because I was face to face with the damage done and the offer to walk on from there with my God. I learned that healing doesn’t often happen by any one formula, but that it happens in layers and that it takes time. For me it took years, but it was worth the wait.
I think Eminem actually puts it quite well: “It’s like the greatest gift you can get, the weight has been lifted”.
Still, forgiveness is so contrary to our natural logic and emotion. I knew a woman in Minneapolis who was trying to leave prostitution and start a new life for herself, and I was assigned as her “mentor” through a volunteer organization. We decided to ditch that title and to just be friends, and our weekly hangouts would entail anything from studying math for her GED exam to watching So You Think You Can Dance. Many weeks passed as we got to know each other, and then... she shared her story with me.
She told me how she was raised by a single mom, that her mom used drugs, and that there were always people filtering in an out of their house. Some of the men that passed through had sexually abused her, and the course of her life was changed from there. She started using drugs and alcohol, eventually dropped out of high school, started stripping and doing more drugs, lost custody of her kids, and got into prostitution. She was pronounced clinically dead in 2007 from a heroin overdose, and had since been trying to change her life. When I met her in 2009, she had been clean for two months and was going to classes and counseling that this program offered.
On this night, though, she told me that despite her persistent and severe panic attacks, she was going to stop going to counseling. She had reached the “forgiveness” part of therapy, and she was visibly shaking as she remembered things that happened to her over twenty years ago. She said she found it so deeply wrong that she would be asked to forgive a man for raping her as a child, and that she wouldn’t have any part of it.
What could I say to that? At that moment, I agreed with her.
But I missed the point... forgot the bigger story. If I believe that there is a good God who loves me and who hates injustice, I can trust him to take all of the pain and baggage I pick up along the way. I can count on him to fight my battles, and I can take heart in his healing.
I want that for myself, and I desperately want that for her.