A Survivor’s Response to Forgiveness

A Survivor’s Response to Forgiveness

A Survivor’s Response to Forgiveness

Here we are with yet another tragic story of sexual abuse and a child’s life forever altered. With all the voices in the media right now, all the articles, commentaries and newscasts, people are forming opinions and stating their positions.

But who is speaking for the victims?

One person said, “To have gone through that…it’s just hard to think about.” Another commented, “Josh’s actions when he was an underage teen are as he described them himself, ‘inexcusable,’ but that doesn’t mean ‘unforgivable.’ He and his family dealt with it and were honest and open…”

Soon the lights will fade, and the cameras will turn off, and those people who don’t want to think about it, won’t. And the ones who say, We’ve dealt with it, will choose silence and expect everyone else to shush too. But the victims will live in the aftermath of their sexual abuse. Not for 5 years. Not for 10. But they will wear the scar of trauma and tragedy for the rest of their lives.

Understand. Sexual abuse is more than the molestation of the body. It’s a molestation of the mind and soul.

I know. I live it.

My Story

I don’t have total recall. But the many memories I do have, are vivid and horrifying. I can’t tell you when it began or how many years it lasted. Until a few years ago, I couldn’t have told you how the abuse affected me.

But I can tell you who he was.

My formative years were filled with fun family times. Both of my parents were PK’s. That means Pastor’s kids. Our heritage was rich in the Christian faith and both of my parents were believers. We were active in church. My father lead the Sunday morning worship service on many occasions and taught Sunday school. My mother was in the choir and involved in church projects and committees. I’m thankful for that backdrop of love and nurture. It fostered a healthy self-esteem in me and gave me a steady foundation to build my life on. Yet behind the curtain of security, the drape of love and protection lurked a monster—a sexual predator. As the curtain was pulled back bit-by-bit, I finally was forced to face the hard truth.

That sexual predator was my father. Great dad by day and my abuser by night.

As I said above, I don’t remember the first time he sexually assaulted me, how it started, or how old I was. I only have pieces of jumbled memories. One night I went to bed with the innocence of a child, and the next morning I awakened with intense shame. My father, my childhood hero, had become my abuser. The one I looked to for protection, security, and love had stolen those very things from me. My worth was shattered. I felt lost, powerless, and ashamed.

I never knew what night my father would enter my room and slither into my bed. His breath, drenched in alcohol, was always a give-away. It’s going to be one of those nights. I froze. My only defense against him was to pretend to be asleep and act like I was completely unaware. To acknowledge his presence was too horrifying to consider.

Don’t move and maybe he’ll go away. Don’t even breathe.

I lay motionless, bewildered, until it was finally over and he crept back out of my room the way he came in. I’d lay there until I heard the door close.

It’s over. You can move now.

But I couldn’t move. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t feel.

Emotionally, I froze, and stayed that way for quite some time. Years.

I was adept at acting as if nothing significant had happened to me. I denied myself any emotional or sexual needs and shamed myself if those feelings arose. This pervasive sense that I was a bad girl for needing something or someone clung to me. One of my journal entries describes it well:

Flawed, damaged, spoiled, ruined. That’s how I feel. Prove your worth and perform, or no one will have any use for you. Don’t have needs, you’ll become a bother. Serve other people—take care of their needs before your own—if you MUST have needs, that is. It’s better to try and have none.

I’m not alone.

Sexual abuse altars the trajectory of the victim’s life. What she was destined to become is tragically interrupted. Life is hijacked. The dreams she once had sufficient courage and confidence to reach for, now slip through her fingers. Instead, she tries to grasp her lost identity and hold onto to some semblance of normality. She tries to face each day without depression and anxiety.

And life is not just changed for the survivor. The rippling effect will live on and on. Her relationships will feel it. A future spouse. Children—should he or she have any—will feel it. Her friends, and family.   They all become the second victim of sexual abuse.

Where is Forgiveness?

But what about forgiveness? Doesn’t that resolve her pain and heal her wounds?

I made the mistake of forgiving too readily, before I looked at the depth of my abuse. I was told by well-meaning leaders that if I wanted Jesus to forgive me, I had to forgive my dad. I wanted to be free from the past, so I quickly forgave.

I thought I’d found the magic bullet to fast healing—the short “check-out line” only a few knew about. I was finally done with this whole sexual abuse thing. After all, “I’ve forgiven my dad.”

Over the next 2 years or so, plaguing thoughts of sexual abuse continued to trouble me. But since I’d forgiven, I thought I should ignore them. So I dismissed the thoughts and tried to go on with my life—unsuccessfully.

I misunderstood forgiveness. Many of us do.

Easy forgiveness is not an instant remedy or quick fix for sexual abuse. Simply put, there are no shortcuts on the sexual healing journey. Indeed, there can’t be.

What Forgiveness Is Not

  • True forgiveness doesn’t mean she’ll forget. If at long last she’s recovered her buried memories, then she’s received more healing. How then, can forgiveness—another healing element—bring her back to amnesia? Deep hurts can’t be erased or wiped out as if they’ve never happened. The power of forgiveness is in remembering. In the face of the hard facts, forgiveness says, “I choose to let go, to relinquish my right to hurt you for hurting me.” However, what many survivors do forget in time is the sting of pain associated with their abuse.
  • Forgiveness also doesn’t mean she’s finished healing. Some survivors falsely assume that real forgiveness must mean they can no longer sort out the feelings and issues related to their abuse, and therefore they thwart complete healing. “I’ve forgiven so it’s all over now,” they say. I wish it were that simple, but I don’t think it is. Forgiving is a necessary part of the healing process, but she has to have permission to revisit the pain, talk through her abuse, and process the residual effects as long as she needs to.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean she has to be reconciled to the abuser. In some cases, to resume a relationship with the one who hurt her would invite more abuse. In other cases where reconciliation is possible and desirable, forgiveness paves the way. But reconciliation is not required for her forgiveness to take place. An injured party can forgive an offender without the offender ever knowing—whether they are deceased or alive.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t excuse bad behavior. What happened to her is inexcusable, and it’s never going to be okay. The offense is not dismissed by the act of forgiving. Forgiveness involves taking the abuse seriously. Releasing someone from their sin against her isn’t an attempt to pass off the assault as inconsequential or insignificant. Additionally, when the one who’s been hurt finally forgives, the abuser is not absolved from all consequences. It will mean, however, that she doesn’t harbor a desire for revenge or wish that something bad will happen to the one who wounded her.
  • Lastly, forgiveness isn’t a quick fix. But that doesn’t mean it’s not miraculous. Forgiveness is divine and powerful and when combined with other important elements of healing, forgiving brings emotional, physical, and spiritual recovery.

One day every survivor of sexual abuse will face the decision to forgive. If she is ready to forgive, she’s discovered that forgiveness is not given for the benefit of the abuser; she forgives for herself—she takes another powerful step in her healing journey. I like to say it this way, “In forgiveness she becomes more than a survivor, she’s a thriver.”

Hopefully, the events of the past few weeks will raise awareness for us all.

God heal the victims.

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