Part of the survivor’s journey in recovery is coming to a place where they can do the initial work of forgiveness. It has long been suggested that this act of forgiveness is out of necessity for anyone who claims to be a Christian. That is: “You MUST forgive”. This assertion that someone MUST forgive the person who harmed them physically and emotionally through abuse is made from a misunderstanding about what forgiveness is, especially in the case of domestic violence.
If human kind is made in the image of God, then humankind is a sacred creation designed intimately by their Creator. It seems to follow that actions of physical violence and devaluing of self-worth by a child’s parents is not only an attack against the person themselves, but is a direct attack against what God has created. Going further, abuse becomes an attack against God’s self (Matthew 25:40-45).
Further, if Christ moved the Spirit from the Temple into the bodies of human beings, then we have become moving Temples on an individual and intimate level. This demands recognition that abuse against human beings in whatever form it takes is Temple defilement. The saying “Your body is a temple” is further defined on a spiritual level which carries with it shattering ramifications for those who not only don’t care for their Temple as best they can, but also those who attack and ravage the Temple of another.
Desecration and defilement of what God has deemed holy is a serious issue in most churches. However, we tend to think of desecration and defilement in a general sense. This usually takes form in a prohibition against wearing hats in a sanctuary, no swearing in the church building, or wearing jeans in the sanctuary. These are practices of reverence for the church building and the idea that the Spirit is present inside of it.
What if we took these ideas of desecration and defilement and applied them to our bodies? To our individual Temples? What would follow is a new set of prohibitions on proper care of the Temple and the individual sanctuary for God. We move beyond the minor offenses of jeans and hats (they do not apply here) and are forced to encounter a new scope of prohibitions that account for what the human body can be subjected to.
Chief among these prohibitions would be a prohibition against killing. However, killing is just one of the consequences of violence. Violence itself is the broader category which encompasses the greatest threats to our human Temples. Within violence there is physical, verbal, and emotional. All of these rest comfortably within the house of domestic violence.
We must be careful here before we cheapen the severity of domestic violence by stretching categories and occurrences to the point that even the simplest of disagreements can become domestic violence. Verbal violence is not committed through a minor disagreement or even in the use of profanity. Verbal violence is committed when the words of one human being are weaponized in such a way that they intend to kill the self-value and self-worth of another person.
Now that the initial parameters have been defined as far as what domestic violence is in both spiritual and simple terms, the issue of “mandatory forgiveness” may be adequately addressed.
To begin, we must adequately define what forgiveness entails.
For someone who has been a victim of domestic violence, forgiveness entails a great deal of self-work and journey. There can be no timetable assigned to this process. I say this because each situation is different and each individual is different. The false narratives those who have suffered domestic violence have unintentionally grabbed ahold of, expected, and lived out unknowingly take years to shake. The truth is, just when the survivor thinks they are finished discovering the effects of domestic violence has had on their life, they discover a new issue they must tend to.
And each issue they find brings a new realization of work that needs to be done. This realization often pulls resentment towards the offender to the forefront of the mind once again. This compounds the work of forgiveness and drags the process out.
Jesus seems to indicate this reality well when He corrects Peter on Peter’s theology of forgiveness. Jesus tells Peter that Peter must forgive his offenders “seventy-seven times” instead of simply “seven” as Peter suggested (Matthew 18: 21-22). You will find few scholars who argue anything counter to the idea that what Jesus has done here is assign an infinite value to the practice of forgiveness He is advancing.
Where we usually go from this is into the idea that Jesus is calling us to a level of infinite forgiveness that transcends levels and human concepts. While this is a noble treatment of the text, it does not go far enough. It surely gets the divine aspect of this forgiveness down and none can deny that Jesus is Jesus divine.
However, He was also fully human during His earthly ministry. This means that the meaning of His teaching must satisfy the human nature of Jesus alongside the divine. What this means in the realest sense in regards to this teaching specifically is that forgiveness is a continual action in the human experience.
When one considers this reality as a survivor of domestic violence, it goes even further. Survivors are often haunted by memories through memory, triggers others may set off, or nightmares. These memories can very well be memories they have confronted and forgiven in the past. However, they still can hold the power to cause grief. From here, the declaration towards the survivor that they “MUST forgive” is answered with the simple question “which time?” that correctly rebukes the idea of a finalized forgiveness of an event that the declaration promotes and acknowledges the complexities of re-occurrences in memory.
When one reads “The Lord’s Prayer” and the greater “Sermon on the Mount”, they are confronted with familiar lines. First, they are confronted with the petition to God to “forgive our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” (Matthew 6:12). This is one of the most quoted verses in all of scripture, but I think it’s often misunderstood.
When this scripture is used, it is usually used in a context that implies a completion of forgiveness. If such a thing were true, why the petition for God’s forgiveness at the beginning of the statement? Quite true is that the holy mystery of the crucifixion has opened the way to salvation through Christ. This salvation implies forgiveness, but we are reminded to practice repentance and seek forgiveness from God for all of our sins that result from our rebellion against God and God’s will for creation. This is why we have confessions in our liturgy. And yet, prevenient grace goes before our failures as God awaits our humble adoration and recognition of our sins.
If we can acknowledge that seeking forgiveness from God is not simply a one-time deal, there is no jump needed in discussing the human side to forgiveness. Notice, the scripture says “as we” not “because we have”. The difference is huge. The “as” implies an ongoing action en route to completion. The separation between the divine and humanity is on full display here. In the plea for God’s forgiveness there is no “as”, there is only “forgive us” in a definitive way.
What this illustrates is the idea that forgiveness from God comes through God’s Son, grace, and mercy. It is assured to those who call on God and repent of their wrongdoing. For the relationships between human beings, it becomes a process. Jesus does indeed call human beings to forgiveness, but He does so in an acknowledgement of the continuing processes it may create by phrasing with “as”.
The second part concerns the two-line commentary Jesus provides on His sermon in Matthew 6:14-15 in which He states that believers are called to forgive others for sins done against them if they are to expect God to answer their pleas for forgiveness for their own lives. I certainly believe this to be true. But perhaps, this can be understood in a better way than the literal words on the page understanding.
We must understand that there are varying degrees of offenses. Varying degrees of offenses impact human beings on various levels of self and spirit. For example, if a random thief steals my cellphone, I am going to be angry at first, but the work it takes to forgive the thief is made easier because I can make one phone call to get the phone locked down and get a replacement in the mail overnight.
When it comes to sins that defile the Temple and reside in the realm of domestic violence, the impacts are irreversible and not replaceable. Innocence and wonder is replaced by forced faux maturity and fear. When I say “forced faux maturity” I am referring to the dual lives that take shape in the person who has been harmed. Especially true in younger ages, the child is forced to shove down a range of emotions they are not developed enough to handle. When they grow into a young adult, the child reveals itself alongside the adult life on the surface. These two lives conflict and prompt grief.
In the context of these more serious sins against another, the work of forgiveness takes the shape of a cycle (as I indicated prior). Even when forgiveness is achieved, the same thing that was forgiven (memory) has a way of coming back to the forefront and once again introducing grief and forgiveness work to be done.
So what, then? What does Jesus have to say in His commentary to people who have endured the unspeakable and very well may encounter the ramifications for the rest of their lives?
To answer that, I have to be clear in what I’m advocating. What I’m not saying in all of this is that there are excuses for not seeking the work of forgiveness in any circumstance. Forgiveness itself is a weight lifted from the person who achieves it and a condemnation towards the offender.
This becomes extremely important in many domestic violence cases because there is the very real reality that there are many times in which the victim refuses to be in communication or occupy the same space as the perpetrator. There are ample positive reasons for this. In my case, my parents and I no longer communicate. This is for my safety and necessary for my forgiveness work.
I’m hardly unique in this respect. That’s why, when someone holds this section of Scripture over the head of a domestic violence survivor, it holds very little water. After all, telling someone who has been through such experiences that God will not forgive them of their sins because of the difficulties they have in their lives brought on by their perpetrators who defiled their Temples is quite possibly one of the highest forms of insensitivity there is.
What I am trying to say in regards to forgiveness and domestic violence survivors is that it becomes a more drawn out process of repetition. You will not find me arguing against the idea that Jesus has taught us to forgive and love all people. But once again, the realities of cycles, memories, and life manipulation enter into the fold.
I do, indeed, love my parents. As a follower of Christ, I am constantly reminded that they are indeed human beings who are flawed. And yet, this does not excuse their actions. A survivor of domestic violence simply cannot both “forgive and forget” and therefore, cannot realize forgiveness in a complete sort of way.
The phrase “You MUST forgive” in these serious instances rightly loses all power. Instead of trying to guilt a survivor of domestic abuse into forgiving their offenders, instead of trying to group these life experiences in with petty theft, instead of devaluing the deep damage certain life experiences bring, perhaps we should be offering our companionship. Because in reality, “You MUST forgive” is condemning the perceived failures of the survivor and removes the crucial element of innocence in the equation.
Maybe we can learn to replace “You MUST forgive” with “You CAN forgive”. The new statement becomes a statement of understanding, solidarity with the survivor, and a necessary component of empowerment and strength for the survivor’s life-long journey.
Therefore, in the words of Paul, the survivor is reminded that they, too can do all things through Christ who strengthens them (Philippians 4:13). In this case, the power to forgive each time the survivor is confronted with reminders of their experiences.
It is time that we rescued scripture from the pulpits of the Pharisees and encounter it in the context of life. Only then can we get to the true meaning behind the text and smash the false, cliché statements that do more harm than good.