What of Forgiveness?

The easiest way to heal the wounds of abuse, some might say, is not to think or speak about them. When it comes to abuse, you just ‘deal with it’ . But ‘dealing with it’ can be toxic. For one thing, it is a lie. You never ‘deal with it’, so why do we pretend that this is possible?

The #MeToo movement is epoch changing. It has given us all, across the generations, permission to re-connect with our pain. On the whole, we do this privately, in our own dark corridors of remembrance, and in solidarity with millions of others to whom this movement has given voice.

Abuse is not an emerging phenomenon. It has been around for centuries. Most abusers have themselves been victims of abuse of one kind or another. This does not exonerate them. Neither does it oblige (still less enable) us to forgive them – as if forgiveness was purely a matter of understanding context, cause and effect, thereby accepting the abuse as inevitable. But this is how women, as well as men, who have been abused in childhood try to come to terms with what a generally abusive childhood or youth still does to them.

There are two serious flaws in thinking that we can ‘deal with’ abuse and the effects of abuse. First, it tends to ignore the fact that abuse is not limited to the sexual and physical. Sexual abuse is more often reinforced by what seems at the time a natural and ‘deserved’ shaming of the person concerned. If an adult implies that we are ugly, stupid and to be laughed at rather than with, we accept it as a given. Patronizing ‘put downs’, the remarks deemed as OK, but which are deeply wounding, enforced compliance with how we should look or behave, all in the context of dishonest and manipulative relationships, build a toxic mix of shame, anger, fear and self-loathing.

Very few abusers will want their victim to feel that he or she is beautiful, intelligent, unique and loved. On the whole, they will either intuit, or possibly know, that their victim has been conditioned to believe none of these things. This makes them fair game. Emotional abuse will, often as not, occur between members of the same sex, first in family contexts and later in social and professional life. By then, it is more commonly known as bullying.

Each time we say the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be forgiven as we forgive those who have sinned against us. To be honest, I find it extremely difficult to pray those words when I think of my own abusers, as well as the millions of women who have come forward in the #MeToo solidarity movement.

What, then, does forgiving entail for us? As I have never really found an answer to this question, I tend to mentally ‘bracket’ the words Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us as I am saying them, but without altogether abandoning the people concerned. Later, I ask God what he thinks those of us who have been sinned against are supposed to do with our recurring memories, with our feelings about our abusers and with our own anger and shame.

Again, there seem to be no answers to such questions. But I do believe that we pray to a God who not only understands, but shares the feelings which prompt them. There are many ways we could visualize this sharing. Being present to the words Why have you deserted me? spoken by Jesus from the Cross is one of them, although his words may not seem that effective when it comes to having our negative feelings about forgiveness validated in the moment. There is a tendency to feel angry and guilty about not being able to forgive while at the same time trying to deal with all these negative emotions.

Perhaps a better way is to see our wounds, wounds we still carry, as making us honored and worthy of the inheritance we have been promised. In them we share in Christ’s glory, beginning with the shame and agony of his suffering and death, but moving with him to his embracing of us in his risen life. This is not a pious metaphor, or some kind of mental cop-out. It comes as a single revelatory moment of profound understanding about the meaning of suffering.

Such an understanding gives us the greatest freedom. This does not mean that we are given permission to indulge in gratuitous hatred and desire for revenge. It means that we too are forgiven for finding it impossible to ‘forgive’. But such freedom brings responsibility. We are now ‘responsible’ for our abusers, lest they fall into the abyss.

This means that we must be willing to receive what is needed for us to have a transfigured way of seeing them, so that we can hold, or ’embrace’ them. It does not mean persevering or reviving destructive relationships. It means allowing ourselves to have deep compassion for those who abuse us or, in the case of historic abuse, for their memory. We ‘hold’ what we know of them, as best we can, in the safe space of the mercy and forgiveness of God, a space which we ourselves are also occupying.


Author: Lorraine Cavanagh

Anglican priest living in Wales, UK. Author. Books include 'In Such Times - Reflections On Living With Fear' (Wipf and Stock 2019), 'Waiting On The Word - Preaching Sermons That Connect People With God' (DLT 2017), 'Finding God In Other Christians' (SPCK 2014), 'Beginning Again' (Kindle e-book 2015) All books available from Amazon

2 thoughts on “What of Forgiveness?”

  1. I suspect that many victims of abuse, particularly physical abuse by adults when in care or the home, at the time, were told that they deserved the abuse, and over time and repetition, actually came to believe those lies.

    Having had a father who did exactly that, I did for a while think that, but as I grew and understood more, I realized that living in a perpetual state of fear of a parent isn’t healthy. I wanted to report it, but was scared of the consequences for myself and my sibling, particularly as those I might have reported it too, used corporal punishment as part of the discipline in school – and used it indiscriminately for the least offence.

    Time spent in care was just as bad. Harsh discipline was in place, run by a Religious Order and it was common to be punished in inventive ways. Having to be in a room along with the coffin of a deceased member of the Nuns to pray for the repose of their soul was one imaginative punishment suffered by a sibling.

    This stuff never leaves you, and one way or another, will come out years later, in my case nearly 30 years later. By that time those responsible were long dead, and my disclosure was to a Spiritual Director, and later to my spouse.

    I have benefited from healing and wholeness and much listening and reconciliation within the church, and can attest that while the scars remain, the healing has allowed me to move past it. But I have prayed for the ability to forgive those who abused us, as they are not around to do it in person.

    I find it hard to read about historic abuse cases. The ones being dealt with are painful and the survivors courage in coming forward are something that I wouldn’t like to have to face. I pray for them and their abusers, as I’m not sure that apologies, not matter how sincere replace the face to face contrition of the abuser to the abused.


    1. Thank you for this wise and compassionate response. You’re right about how hard it is to come forward about historic abuse. At the same time I think the silent and courageous work you do, focused in praying for your abusers, is of inestimable value. I think, once we start ‘holding’ our abusers in this way we effect a breaking down of barriers between now and eternity and between them and the loving mercy of God. Who knows what would happen to them if we did not do this work? Eternity is the unity of past and present, held in our memories and transfigured in prayer. We don’t know the half of it as yet, but I am absolutely convinced that God does indeed work all things to the good for those who love him. Please do keep going – and know that you are not alone.


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