A rare guest post today, from my friend Alyssa Vine-Hodge. She and I were talking a few weeks ago about how hard it is to forgive people who have hurt you, and how she, as a survivor, had come to terms with forgiveness. Later she sent me this, and I asked her if I could share it with y’all.
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Does anyone else out there cringe, or feel your blood pressure raise, when you hear the word forgiveness? Do you wish that the definition could be changed, or that the word could be stricken from our vocabulary altogether? If so, I wrote this for you.
Ironically, growing up saturated in Christianity gave me a warped understanding of the word forgiveness. Being a victim of sexual abuse at a young age, though not at the hands of a church or family member, made sitting in church and listening to sermons about forgiveness complicated to say the least.
I heard many sermons about Matthew 5:38-40. “…But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also…” This passage was very often linked with the concept of forgiveness, topping it off with many sermons about our Lord and Savior, who himself died by abuse.
Often I would hear, “Jesus was God, he could have chosen to take himself down off the cross, but he didn’t. He died, a torturous death, so that we might all receive forgiveness”. I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon about what to do if you are in an abusive relationship, how to stand up for others and come to the aid of those who may be experiencing abuse, or how to stop being an abusive person yourself. What does this say to a child or even to many adults? Well frankly, it says “Take it. That’s what God wants.”
And turning to the secular definition of forgiveness doesn’t make it any easier.
To Forgive: To stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake.
Synonyms: pardon, excuse, exonerate, absolve
The current definition and synonyms we use can be tolerable, and even useful, for soft situations. But we all know it gets harder and harder as the intensity of an offense increases. How do we stop feeling angry after something like abuse, rape, or murder? Should we stop feeling anger? And inserting the available synonyms just makes it more complicated. To excuse and absolve things like that just seems plain wrong.
It’s been a long process, but I’ll admit that I’ve gotten to a place where I have forgiven my perpetrator. It took time. I was locked up in the crazy house. I take medication now. I do yoga. I still pray to Jesus. But what helped me arrive at forgiveness was writing my own definition:
To not allow another person’s evil to dictate who you want to be
Notice this definition still allows room for a person to experience anger or pain. And there is no way any of the replacement synonyms would work here like “absolve” or “excuse.” Writing this definition liberated me. I was able to no longer have to think of forgiveness in terms of having to tell an evil person, “Hey, rape is excusable. I’m fine now. I’ve forgiven you.” I instead am able to think, “Hey, What you did was totally evil and inexcusable. You caused the symptoms I live with. But I don’t have to be evil like you. I have the power to embrace love.” And to
me, that’s forgiveness.
Today as I was writing this, I decided to be a studious Christian and look up the Hebrew word for forgive. What I found was the same list of synonyms above. However, one translation had an additional word at the end of that list:
to renounce! How can renounce be in the same list with absolve? Well, I think it means that God is bigger than our respective languages and vocabularies. And perhaps God smiles when we write definitions and set ourselves free.
So I hope that today you feel empowered. You have the power to choose what you absolve and what you renounce. And that makes the word forgiveness a little easier to say.
And what about Jesus, then? Well, I’m still on a long road of grappling with many questions. But I’m pretty sure the message isn’t that abuse is okay. I think it means that things like truth, love, and being yourself are often things that others want to destroy. And sometimes they succeed.