When navigating the topic of abuse and harm in the church, it’s easy to trip up on the Christian principles of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Really, it can seem difficult to hold onto the importance of safety, justice, and healing for victims of abuse and harm while also holding tightly to the gospel, because the gospel seems to level the playing field (we’re all sinners) and offer a universal promise (grace and forgiveness for even the chief of sinners). How then can we make a distinction between the perpetrator and the victim and enforce boundaries that protect the latter or prevent abuse from happening in the first place? Are boundaries themselves inimical to the gospel itself?
The answer is, I think, found in a more nuanced, grown-up definition of the gospel, grace, and forgiveness. Namely, the gospel is not antithetical to justice, as some superficial presentations have insisted. Instead, the gospel is a holistic work of restoration that includes grace and forgiveness from God for even the vilest actions – but always, only received in the midst of a genuine process of repentance and change, all while consequences and boundaries are enforced to protect innocent people. And yes – there are innocent people! We are all sinners, but not all sins are equal in their damage and devastation on real human beings.
Perhaps most of all, the question of how forgiveness is expressed by a victim toward a perpetrator is a deep and nuanced thing. It is not, as some insist, a quick relational reconciliation where sins are swept under the rug and the victim is pressed to “move on” and essentially live in denial. Quite the contrary.
Here are 3 characteristics of authentic forgiveness (sans denial):
1. Authentic forgiveness is a process. Depending on the degree of the offense, forgiveness will often take time to develop in a victim’s heart and mind. Especially in cases of abuse, it is nowhere near instantaneous, and demanding it be such is really just asking for denial (which will only cause deeper wounds and dysfunction). There ought to be much grace shown toward those harmed so that they can embark on a process with God where that forgiveness can take root in the midst of an all-encompassing healing process.
2. Authentic forgiveness is a one-way action. Forgiveness, properly understood, is a one-way action. It doesn’t require a relationship between the victim and their abuser – not at all! To insist on this would again be to advocate denial (and danger) in many cases. Instead, forgiveness is a process of releasing anger and vengeance to avoid the deadly onset of bitterness and darkness. And it is the positive desire for good and not evil to befall the offender, that they might get the help they need and not be abandoned to darkness themselves. But make no mistake – initial anger is a good and natural response to being harmed and shouldn’t be stymied or condemned. Again, much grace should be given for the process of releasing anger and vengeance to take place (and that process may be ongoing, lifelong, etc.).
3. Authentic forgiveness is holistic freedom. Freedom for the victim is the whole point of releasing anger and forgiving the perpetrator right? So how could there be any freedom if the threat of continued harm is present? And how could there be any freedom if shame or blame is projected back on the victim to alleviate pressure on the abuser, as is so often the case in religious settings? Forgiveness means holistic freedom, which means safety from continued harm. Forgiveness can only happen when there is justice for the victim and strong boundaries of protection in place. Without this, it really becomes an exercise in contradiction and, again, denial.
I should note here that reconciliation – a truly beautiful gospel reality – is decidedly a two-way action. It requires both parties coming together with agreed-upon terms. Usually, this entails the offender admitting fault and seeking forgiveness, and the victim granting forgiveness, and some measure of restored relationship. In some cases of harm, relationship is possible. But in many cases of abuse, it is simply too high-risk. In fact, some abusers are experts at saying “Sorry” when they simply intend to keep manipulating and abusing their victims.
And in all cases, we have the law of the land to enforce as a priority in protecting the vulnerable among us.
So let’s not be deceived by superficial understandings of Christian principles – rather, let’s discern deeply, consistently, maturely, and wisely.