Is Forgiveness the Right Answer for Trauma?May 07, 2023
By Jodie Perry & Deanne Ward
Sitting in the pastor's office, Sally weeps. All the details pour out—spiritual abuse, emotional manipulation, and gaslighting—she experienced all of these at the hands of an elder in her church. After years of wondering if she was going crazy, she finally brought the issue to the pastor.
Sally mustered up all the courage within her and made an appointment with her pastor. Her thoughts swirled around in her head as she waited. "Where do I start? Will the pastor believe me? Am I actually crazy?" Like a bad record, they just kept playing through her mind until the day of the appointment.
Finally, it arrived. All her anxiety and anxious thoughts were overshadowed by a glimmer of hope. Maybe this will finally be the answer to her years of suffering. She shares with the pastor. Hoping he can help walk her through her turmoil, give her a biblical answer, and confront the issue. Sally knows this isn't the first time someone talked to the pastor about this elder. She knows there are more than 2-3 witnesses. Something needs to be done. As she waits in anticipation, he responds, "You just need to forgive."
The Church's Go-To Answer
This hypothetical story is incredibly common in churches. The pastor is confronted with a victim and the go-to response is the victim needs to forgive. The church ends up making the victim twice a victim. Once by the victimizer and second by the church. Now the responsibility for healing and restoration is left up to the victim.
There are a few reasons for it:
- It's easy and shrouded in biblical counsel
Yes, forgiveness is a biblical response, but should it be the first response? We tend to gloss over church discipline and feel we gave good biblical counsel by directing the victim to scripture and to forgive. Right?
- We don't know what to do
Some situations are so overwhelming that pastors don't know how to respond. So if we just say forgiveness, then it doesn't need to be reported or dealt with. The victim needs to let it go.
- Restoration of the victimizer is the priority
The emphasis is placed on restoring the person who sinned and not on the victim. Yet, we skip over patterns of behavior and the mandate to put someone out of the church if necessary. Church discipline is harder to do.
Forgiveness should not be the broom that sweeps everything under the rug.
Then What Role Does Forgiveness Play?
God is love. Yes, that is true. We focus on this attribute the most and forget that he is just too. Justice is part of his character as much as love.
Christians are called to forgiveness, but we distort what forgiveness means. We can't isolate this one part of Christian living.
Forgiveness does not excuse sin or the consequences of that sin. When David sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, he repented and was forgiven. However, he still faced the consequences of his sin as determined by a loving and just God.
As a church, do we hold the victimizers accountable for their actions? Do we put them out of the church as Paul instructs us to do? Or do we put an undue burden of forgiveness on the victim?
In Luke 17, Jesus puts conditions on forgiveness between Christians. If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them (Luke 17:3, NIV). Rebuke and repentance come before forgiveness.
How much easier is it for the victim to forgive when the church puts these steps into practice?
Forgiveness is a process. Depending on how deep the trauma goes, it can be a very long process. We can't take the easy way and expect the traumatized heart to just forgive and move on. As pastors and lay counselors, it is your role to walk through the healing process to a place of forgiveness.
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