Every abuse victim has experienced secondary abuse at some point, often related to a warped philosophy of what it means to forgive. Secondary abuse comes from the people who could have made it stop, but didn’t. The onlookers who were too afraid of the abuser, or refused to believe the victim, or just didn’t want to get involved.
One of the most common ways secondary abusers contribute to the ongoing devastation of a toxic situation is to demand quick “forgiveness” and push for immediate and trusting reconciliation between abuser and victim. On the surface, this may appear to be following Matthew 18 and would seem like the biblical response to the conflict.
However, where there is an imbalance of power — a victim-perpetrator scenario — where the abuser is a spiritual leader or a narcissist twists facts to personal advantage, or an addict’s mind is altered by dependency, then the biblical approach in Matthew 18 may not be the functional solution.
When third parties, pastoral leaders, counselors, and/or peer mentors — tell a victim that in order to prove forgiveness they must rub shoulders with their abuser and give trust freely — they unwittingly re-traumatize the victim and perpetuate the cycle of abuse. In situations with a narcissist or abuser, what typically looks like justice (where responsibility is equally distributed between the two parties) actually plays out as mercy for the abuser and prison for the victim.
This terrifying reality is a huge part of why abuse victims don’t come forward, especially when the abuser is a pastor/elder/spiritual leader/boss/well-respected domestic partner. Instead of feeling protected, the abused individual is often re-victimized by forced reconciliation attempts.
Contrast this common pattern with Jesus’ actions when He found a traumatized Mary huddled on the ground in fear of the public accusations of her sexual predators (see John 8).
Christ did not tell her to take a seat across from her abuser as an equal player in the scenario. Instead, He sheltered her, pointed out the arrogance and narcissism of the spiritual leaders condemning her participation, publicly exposed their secret sins in the sand for all to see. After they melted away from the crowd, He picked her up and offered His forgiveness and protection.
Jesus urged Mary to avoid future similar situations (“go and sin no more”) but did not blame her for the abuse. Nor did he force her to extend trust or reconcile with the men who had been using her body for their pleasure. He placed the burden of change squarely where it belonged — on the shoulders of the abusers. And He did it in a way that never violated the free will of either victim or perpetrator.
1) Forgiveness is between you and God.
Forgiveness is solo, reconciliation is a joint venture. Effective attempts at forgiveness tend to share four common elements:
A. Express the emotion
B. Understand why
C. Rebuild safety
4. Let go.
Ryan Howes, PhD
Dr. Howes points out that the A/B/C/4 outline is intentional. Points A, B, and C may happen out of order, or over and over before you are ready to embrace the fourth step of release.
The key to every individual’s capacity to let go of bitterness and truly forgive those who have caused us pain, lies in recognizing how much we have been forgiven. It melts our anger to see why God has a right to be angry with us — because we broke the relational law too, and are still breaking it.
You can forgive someone for abandoning you in a time of need, for walking away, for not putting you first, for letting you go.
But that doesn’t mean you trust that person again.
Forgiveness means you accept what wrongs have been done to you, you let go of those wrongs, you calm your heart with God’s love and patience, and you begin again—with or without that person.
2) Forgiveness does not necessarily equal mercy.
My mother tells the story of when I was four years old, and childish disobedience resulted in unpleasant consequences. “Do you forgive me, Mommy?” I asked.
“Wait!” I balked. “If you forgive me, you can’t spank me! Why am I still getting consequences if you said you forgive me?”
She sat down in the rocking chair with me and pulled out her Bible, turning to the story of King David in 1 Chronicles 21. In summary, God had called David to rely fully and completely on Him for protection against Israel’s enemies, but David decided he needed to know how many soldiers he had in his army. So, against divine counsel, David commissioned a census. Not that a census is wrong per se, but it implied that David wasn’t actually trusting God to follow through. And he did it even though he’d been told not to.
After the census, God confronted King David’s disobedience. David said to God, “I have sinned very much by doing this thing. But now I beg You, take away the sin of Your servant for I have done a very foolish thing.” (1 Chronicles 21:9)
In other words, David was deeply sorry. He was begging God to forgive him and wipe his slate clean. We know throughout Scripture that God promises to forgive anyone who asks. And later in the story, David offers a sacrifice that God accepts on the altar. So we know God forgave him.
But in the meantime, there were still consequences. Gad, the prophet, brought a divine message saying, “I give you three things to choose from. Choose one of them.” (vs 10-12) David was forced to decide which punishment would be enacted on his people, knowing that his decision to distrust God’s ability to protect was now going to cost thousands of innocent lives in Israel.
Even as a four-year-old, I could recognize the clear message – choices have consequences. Mommy may fully forgive me, but my actions still hurt me or hurt other people.
I am free to obey or disobey.
Free to be kind or cruel.
Free to love or hate.
And equally so, to my dismay, is everyone else.
God’s commitment to free will is profound.
Free will is the central aspect of His love toward us and is the core concept that guides expressions of Godly love toward each other.
3) Free will goes both ways.
Victims can’t be forced to forgive.
Abusers can’t be forced to repent.
Free will means we purposefully choose to forgive those who have wounded us. But it also means we respect the choice of an unrepentant abuser not to change, not to submit to accountability, not to embrace lasting humility. And free will means we are welcome to draw healthy boundaries that allow us to stay safe from toxic people.
Jesus clearly instructs us to forgive those who cause us pain, over and over again. Matthew 6:15reminds us that God forgives us only as free as we forgive others. Mark 11:25, Luke 6:37 & 17:4, and John 20:23 all reiterate this principle.
Forgive… but also remember & learn.
If you forgive without learning from the situation and growing through the experience, then you are practically guaranteeing a repetitive cycle of poor boundaries, abusive behaviors, and enabling someone else’s addiction or unrepentant sins.
Remembering does not equal holding a grudge – because that wouldn’t be forgiveness in the first place. Remembering does mean staying aware of behavior patterns to avoid falling into co-dependent cycles or enabling the other person’s sins.
But wait, you say? Doesn’t God say he will throw our sins into the sea? Doesn’t that mean that he never brings them up again? Yes… and no.
Micah 7:19 describes God saying, He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities, and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. (KJV) In this passage, God promises to show compassion, but He also subdues the iniquity before casting sins into the depths of the sea. This means the power of the sin has been restrained, neutralized before it’s buried under the ocean. It does not mean that when a victim reaches forgiveness in their heart, that an abuser with unsubdued iniquity has the right to demand trust and privileges of relationship, nor that an outside third party has the authority to prescribe forced reconciliation. in this philosophy, forgiveness = instant absolution without restitution. Which is absolutely unbiblical.
Interestingly, God does not even practice that in His own relationships. Isaiah chapter 1 launches with a message to Judah addressing the people’s on-again, off-again dedication to their relationship with God:
10Listen to the Lord, you leaders of “Sodom.”
Listen to the law of our God, people of “Gomorrah.”
11 “What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”
says the Lord.
13 I want no more of your pious meetings.
14 I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals.
They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them!
15 When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look.
Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen,
for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.
16 Wash yourselves and be clean!
Get your sins out of my sight.
Give up your evil ways.
17 Learn to do good.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows.
Biblical divine forgiveness still hinges on whether or not the wrongdoer shows authentic repentance.
God is insulted by the pretense of piety, public displays of worthiness, and self-serving entitlement by those who have caused pain – including sexual abuse – as people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Instead, He calls obedient followers to focus on seeking justice and defending the victims of abuse. Luke 17:3 adds this caveat: If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. (NLT)
Deeper than that though, forgiveness has very little to do with the person who hurt you.
Forgiveness has everything to do with the state of your own internal reality. Refusal to forgive leaves you open for ongoing residual effects of bitterness, anger, resentment, revenge. Over time, holding a grudge will permeate all the aspects of your life, stealing your joy and infiltrating all your other relationships.
Forgiving freely releases you from the abuser’s power and brings a sense of freedom to heal and move forward. But that is completely unrelated to trusting the abuser again. In order for restoration to take place, the other person has to be a willing and humble part of the process.
Forgiveness may or may not happen overnight. Or it may come in layers and cycles over a period of years. Full and total forgiveness has nothing to do with a change on the part of the abuser and everything to do with peace in your own soul. But it never means turning a blind eye to ongoing patterns of sinful behavior.
You can find emotional and mental freedom, regardless of whether or not the other person decides to change. And you can maintain healthy boundaries without naively offering trust to someone who hasn’t shown lasting transformation – while still experiencing and extending forgiveness.
Honestly, it’s the only option you have for future joy.
The best apology is changed behavior.
– Dale Partridge, Author/Entrepreneur
Reprinted with permission from Sarah’s blog. You can purchase Sarah’s book here: ONE FACE: Shed the Mask, Own Your Values, and Lead Wisely.