Thursday 29 October 2015

What being preached forgiveness never taught me about healing

Forgive. Forgive. Forgive.

How often have I heard this message, growing up in the Christian faith? Don't be angry - forgive! Let go of the past - forgive! Release your hurts - forgive! Whatever happened - forgive.

I wrestled with that message for years. What did it mean? What did it look like? How would I know when I had properly forgiven? I wrestled with it through one challenging situation after another, and I couldn't understand why it felt so insufficient. I was willing to forgive, so why did I still have all this anger and pain?

I was told, repeatedly and by countless people, that I just needed to forgive more fully. I was told by people who knew of my experiences and by people who knew nothing of my wounds but simply preached blanket forgiveness. From the pulpit, blog posts, casual conversations, Christian articles, it was a message that permeated my interactions with my faith. Forgive! Forgive, because it's the right thing to do. Forgive, that your own self may be freed from the past. Forgive, that you yourself may be forgiven. Forgive, and all will be well again.

Forgiveness was the beginning and the end, the first and final word, the totality of dealing with any offense or hurt.

It took more than a decade, consuming anxiety, and a desperate need for help for one person to finally whisper that word I'd never heard before: heal.

Not forgive - or at least, not only forgive - but heal.

Those experiences were traumas, the counselor said, and what you have been experiencing are the effects of those traumas. You need to heal those wounds. I can help you.

And she did.

First by working through those past traumas, then by developing skills to affect my thought patterns in the present, my anxiety went from a continuous roiling boil to a quiet simmer. Oh, it still boils up at times, but dealing with moments of tightly-wound anxiety is so indescribably more manageable than the never-ending vibration of panic right under my skin.

So why had not one single mention of forgiveness, in all these years, ever been accompanied by encouragement to seek healing?

It was as though, after being hit by a car, I was told to "let go" of my concussion. As though forgiving the driver of the car would make my broken arm a non-issue. As though the release of my anger was more important than seeking care for my injuries.

Trauma is a wound, an injury, that needs and deserves to be healed. The cause of the trauma is irrelevant; trauma is trauma, regardless. It doesn't matter if there are those who think it wasn't "that big of a deal". If it was traumatic for the person it happened to, then that trauma exists. It is real. It can be shoved down, ignored, denied, or leaked out in all sorts of unhealthy ways, but what it needs is healing.

But what about forgiveness?

Acknowledging the need for healing does not deny the importance of forgiveness. The challenge lies in all the ways forgiveness has been twisted into something it was never intended to be.

At its core, forgiveness is the pardoning of a debt. It is releasing our demand for repayment, for vengeance. Such debts of this nature can so rarely be "paid back" in any satisfying sort of way, anyway, and by releasing that demand, we free ourselves from endlessly seeking it as much as we free the other person from trying to repay it.

Far more relevant, however, is the list of things that forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness does not mean we no longer feel angry. Forgiveness does not mean we no longer hurt, often deeply. Forgiveness most certainly does not mean forgetting. It is not a slate wiped clean of all memory. It does not grant the offending party permission to re-victimize the one who forgave. It does not fail to seek justice where appropriate. It does not cover up, does not hide, does not cloak the situation in lies and secrecy. It does not deny protection for those who need it. It does not mean there are no consequences. It does not mean that a relationship will continue.

And yet each of those things were included in the messages of forgiveness that I so steadily received and continue to see today. My years of wrestling with what it meant to forgive happened because I was trying to make forgiveness do what it was never intended to do. If you still felt angry or hurt, you hadn't forgiven properly. If you still felt the need to report a crime, you hadn't forgiven enough. If you weren't willing to hush up and forget it all happened, you hadn't forgiven fully. Maybe you need to go pray some more.

But never? What happened to you was wrong. You need to seek healing for yourself. Here are some options. Let's get you some help.


  1. Thank you for these words. Thank you.

  2. Yes, just because you have forgiven, does not mean the other person does not need to face the consequences of their actions. Especially if there are legal ramifications.