The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Recovering from Abuse: Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation

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Hurting people hurt others—this is the human way. Abusers abuse for reasons that make sense to them. Often abusers feel like there are internal forces at work within them which are compelling them to lash out at others. When you’ve been the victim of abuse—whether it’s emotional, physical, sexual, psychological or spiritual—it changes you. The deeper the wounds, the more severely you become hampered in life. Healing from serious abuse often requires totally separating yourself from the abuser. It’s the same principle as running away from a man who is swinging a bat at you. If you want to heal from the bruises he’s already given you, you need to get out of his striking range. But once you separate yourself from your abusers, does God expect you to then return to them at some point and seek reconciliation? Isn’t reconciliation part of the forgiveness process? No, it isn’t.

Just as you don’t need someone’s help to hold a grudge, you don’t need someone’s help to forgive. In the early stages of the healing process, we often feel convinced that we will never be able to really forgive unless someone behaves in certain ways. We often feel an intense need to hear the other person publicly acknowledge the damage they did to us and then profusely apologize. We often want their apologies to come in gut-wrenching, groveling forms. We say to ourselves, “Only then will I be able to forgive.” We think like this because we don’t understand how forgiveness really works.

Let’s use an analogy to understand what happens when someone wounds us. First, we need to realize that God is the ultimate Source of every experience we have in this world. Our human abuser is just the middleman. Maybe your father beat you. Maybe your boyfriend raped you. Maybe your wife cheated on you. Maybe your mother controlled you. Whatever the issue, God was really the One who did these things to you, using humans who He strategically placed into your life. When God tears you down like this, it’s like a farmer casting a handful of seeds over a patch of soil. The seeds are a mix of pretty flowers and ugly thorn bushes. They scatter over the soil and begin to sprout. Soon that bare patch of ground has become a field of tiny green sprouts. Those sprouts represent the positive and negative effects that being abused has on you. The question now becomes: which effects will be emphasized?

When we are abused, we end up feeling hurt, angry, crippled, trapped, robbed, and afraid. All of these negative effects are represented by the thorn bushes which have grown up very fast on our patch of soil. The thorn bushes branch out and become so thick that they completely obscure the flowers from view. Yet the flowers are there: lurking beneath the canopy of thorns and trying to find some opening that they can push up through. The flowers need sunlight if they are going to grow tall and strong, but right now the thorn bushes are blocking out all of the light.

The flowers in this metaphor represent the positive effects of being abused. It is through suffering that we become more compassionate, merciful, gracious, and loving towards our fellow humans. But in the first stages of abuse, the flowers are always choked out by the thorn bushes. The negative effects of being wounded dominate our lives and we feel miserable. This is where forgiveness comes in.

Forgiveness is when God begins uprooting those nasty thorn bushes that are dominating the scene in order to give the flowers access to the sunlight that they need to grow. God doesn’t uproot all of the thorn bushes at once—He takes His time. Learning to forgive takes time. There are several stages of the healing process, and as we go along, God gives us the option of cooperating with Him or resisting Him. When we resist God’s efforts to teach us forgiveness, it’s like we’re swatting His hand away every time He reaches out to uproot one of those nasty thorn bushes. We decide that we don’t want God to uproot the thorns—instead, we keep rolling around in them until we’re covered with stinging cuts. This is grudge holding. As long as we are guarding our thorn bushes, and trying to preserve the negative effects that being abused has had on us, we stay stuck in a miserable, stagnating situation. But if we are wise and we choose to cooperate with God’s healing process, then we don’t swat His hand away when He starts uprooting those nasty thorn bushes. Instead, we let Him do His work, even though it’s very painful, and soon we start to feel the benefits of letting those flowers reach sunlight.

As the thorn bushes are uprooted and thrown aside, the flowers rush to fill the spaces they left behind and eventually there is a very beautiful scene in front of us. We used to be just a plain patch of dirt, but because God put us through a period of abuse, we have been transformed into this beautiful field of fragrant flowers that blesses all who pass by. This is why God sets us up to experience pain in this world: to transform us into something better than we were before. Certainly it is frightening at first when those thorn bushes are taking over and we are feeling overwhelmed with pain, anger, and fear. In the early stages of abuse, it’s easy to think that God is intentionally destroying us and that He doesn’t really love us at all. But the truth is that God always plants good seeds along with the bad. There are always flowers in the mix—potential for our suffering to change us in very positive ways. We don’t have the option of not being changed by what we go through—change is inevitable. But we do have the option to decide whether we will ultimately be changed in good or bad ways by how we respond to God in the midst of the transformation process.

Forgiveness is about you and God turning that internal field of thorns into a beautiful field of flowers. It has nothing to do with the person who hurt you. Once we reach a certain stage in the healing process, we no longer need the other person to take responsibility for what they did. We no longer care if they apologize or not. God frees us up from being controlled by our abusers. When you go through this kind of transformation process with God, you end up in a truly amazing place—a place that you never knew existed before He cast those seeds of abuse into your life.

So now that we understand about forgiveness, let’s talk about reconciliation. Reconciliation is a group activity. It’s when you and your abuser are able to reach a point where you are both willing to let go of the past and start fresh. Reconciliation is not possible until both individuals have done a certain amount of internal work with God. This is where we come to the concept of safe and unsafe people.

Hurting people hurt other people—this is the natural order of things. Your abuser abused you because they were feeling tormented by their own internal field of thorns, and those thorns were probably around long before you even came along. In this world, most people choose to rebel against God. When we’re crippled with pain and we are refusing to cooperate with God’s efforts to transform us in positive ways, we keep lashing out at others. We become unsafe people to be around, because we are always looking for someone else to hurt and we aren’t willing to change. Past victims are particularly hard for abusers to resist abusing again. Once there is a well-established pattern of domination, it’s difficult for both parties to break out of it. Imagine how you’d feel running into a guy who you’ve beaten up ten times versus a muscular stranger. You feel very confident around the person who you’ve already conquered, and you’ll take risks with him that you wouldn’t take against the stranger whose abilities you haven’t tested the limits of.

Attempting to reconcile with an unsafe abuser is unwise and unrealistic. Because reconciliation requires cooperation on both ends, and because your abuser isn’t interested in changing their ways, trying to reconcile with such people will only end up harming you both. You’re going to get hurt again, and your abuser will degrade themselves even further by tearing you down. When we abuse others, we hurt ourselves in the process. The more someone abuses, the more messed up he becomes. Happily, God can redeem even the most aggressive abuser. God can heal anyone, so there’s never any justification for you to tell your abuser that he is beyond hope or hated by God. Such threats are going to land you in big trouble with God yourself, for God takes major offense at us so grossly misrepresenting Him. God loves all people—that includes those who abuse others in horrific ways. It’s not our place to ever decide for God who He can and can’t forgive, and it’s not our place to judge someone else’s spiritual potential.

So when should you attempt to reconcile with someone who abused you in the past? Only when God is leading you to do so. You need to beware of letting other human advisers trump God in your life. When our abuser was some critical role model in our life—such as a mother or a father—we can end up putting ourselves in unwise positions because we are refusing to accept reality. The reality is that God is giving both you and your abuser the option of stagnating in rebellion. If you were wise and you chose to submit to God’s healing process in your life, then that is excellent. But you can’t control the choices that your abuser makes. Maybe your father molested you. Maybe you haven’t spoken to him in twenty years and now you’re at a point in life where you’re really missing not having a father. Maybe you want to call him up and try to move on as if nothing ever happened. If you’re really ready to move on from the past, that’s great for you, but your dad might not be anywhere near that point. He might have spent the last twenty years embracing rebellion and reconnecting with you might only result in him trying to establish new abuse cycles with your kids. You need to seriously seek God’s wisdom in the matter before you try to reestablish connections with severe abusers. You need to realize that most people do not choose to align with God in life, and without His empowerment, they aren’t going to be interested in reconciling with you.

Whenever you find yourself in a quandary in life, turn your focus onto trusting God. He knows how to tell you when it’s time to attempt reconciliation with a past abuser. He might never tell you it’s time because He can see that the other person just isn’t willing. If you are feeling no desire whatsoever to reconnect with a past abuser, then don’t. God does not hold you responsible for reconciling with every person who you’ve ever had a problem with in life. In most cases, either the abuser or the victim refuses to submit to God’s healing process, and as a result, reconciliation remains impossible.

Learning to be content with what God says we can’t have is part of the maturing process. Sure, the world would be a lot nicer if we all got along. But we’re never going to, so we need to stop wasting our energy on fantasies. You can only do you. Instead of focusing on all the relationships that have tanked in your life, focus on the progress you’ve made with God so far and don’t put any limits on how much farther He can take you. We all hurt other people in life, and many of us don’t have the first clue about the extent of the damage we’ve done. God doesn’t burden us with this information because He doesn’t expect us to fix God-sized messes.

So what if a past abuser comes to you saying that he wants to reconcile but you’re just not ready? You need to pray about it. Only God can see the heart. Until we’ve had a chance to reach a certain stage in our own healing process, we’re not ready to attempt reconciliation. When we rush in too fast without seeking God’s wisdom, we can end up doing more damage. Many victims end up trading roles with an abuser who really wanted to reconcile. Because the victim isn’t ready to reconcile, he turns the past into an excuse to torment his abuser and essentially try and get some of his own back. Desperation in others tends to bring out the worst in us unless we’ve been properly trained by God. Many repentant abusers find themselves drowning in guilt and tangled up in deceptions about God not being willing to forgive them until their victim does. This makes them approach their victims with a groveling “I’ll do anything to earn your forgiveness” attitude. The victim then delights in seeing their ex-tormentor suffer by withholding the forgiveness they want and demanding endless apologies and gifts. You don’t want to get caught in this cycle. God knows if you’re ready to reconcile or if you’re just going to turn into a sadistic creep. Seek His wisdom before you renew relationships with former abusers.

Your abuser doesn’t need your forgiveness to get right with God, and you don’t need your abuser to reform before you can fully heal from what was done to you. We are each on our own individual journeys with God and He is able to help each one of us thrive regardless of what everyone else is doing. What matters is that you are pleasing God today, and that means trusting that He will guide you and obeying His convictions. Realize that when God wants you to pick up the phone and try to reconcile with someone, He isn’t just going to lay some vague guilt trip on you. He will be clear and specific. He will give you the resources you need to do what He’s asking you to do. He’ll break the process down into small, doable steps.

Even if God does tell you to attempt reconciliation, you shouldn’t expect that process to be quick and smooth. Trying to move on from a past that includes severe abuse is a very intense and emotionally stressful process for everyone involved. Often these kinds of relationships need to be established very slowly, with everyone getting a lot of breaks to process with God and with their own support teams. It’s easy to overestimate how healed we are and get slammed with some wave of anger and pain in the middle of things. But if we’re trusting God to guide us, He’ll walk us through the process as far as He wants us to go. Maybe we’ll fully reconcile, maybe we’ll only get partway and the whole thing will tank. Either way, God is going to be very pleased with us if we are sincerely wanting Him to have His way in the matter.

FURTHER READING:
What to Do When People Won’t Forgive You

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