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A sexually abused woman, whom I'll call Jane, wrote me. She said: "My pastor and my Christian friends have told me I'll never be healed from the wounds of sexual abuse until I forgive my father for what he did to me when I was a child.
"So I forgave him, or at least I thought I did. But when I sought reconciliation with him, he acted as though nothing had happened; he pretended we had a great relationship."
One day she had said to him, "Dad, we've got to talk. I was really hurt by what you did to me as a child."
"Don't be silly, Jane. I never hurt you."
"But Dad, those times you touched me . . ."
"Every dad gets affectionate now and then."
"Dad, you know what I'm talking about!"
"Lighten up, Jane. Sometimes I joke around. I just know that you've always been troubled, and I've always tried to help. When are you going to quit worrying so much about life and just enjoy the family you have?"
By this point, Jane was so enraged at her father's denial that she walked out of the room.
She continued in the letter: "I finally had to stop seeing him. Not only did contact with him continually bring up the bad feelings about what he had done to me, I also felt a terrible strain whenever he acted like he had done nothing wrong."
More and more abused people are being troubled by the kind of advice Jane was given. Added to the pain of past abuse is the guilt of not being able to forgive, forget, and reconcile.
I've worked with a number of abused people, and helping them get beyond the wall of forgiveness is one of the most challenging aspects of my work. Yet I've found a few principles that help people to forgive their offenders.
Two Kinds of Forgiveness
People are often unable to forgive because they are confused about what forgiveness is. I begin by helping people see that forgiveness has at least two dimensions: theological and psychological.
Theological forgiveness makes possible the full reconciliation of the offended and the offender. In the Bible, that is the forgiveness God offers us. Theological forgiveness requires that the offender see his need of forgiveness. "If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive our sin." We must agree that we have committed an offense and, therefore, need to be forgiven and reconciled. We are forgiven our sins and reconciled to God when we believe that we are sinners and need forgiveness.
Theological forgiveness is the ultimate goal of my counseling. I want to see relationships fully healed. But between people such forgiveness is not always possible. And to assume such a confession is necessary before healing can take place will only aggravate the problems of those who are hurting. This confusion was certainly part of Jane's troubles.
Psychological forgiveness, on the other hand, does not achieve full reconciliation, although it releases the offended party from the pain of the offense. It allows individuals like Jane to carry on at least a civil relationship with others. In the end, though, it helps more with the health of the individual than the health of the relationship.
My father was a nice person, but he was never what I wanted or needed in a father. He never spanked me; he never held me. Our relationship was emotionally sterile.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of a Saturday when he was supposed to spend the day with me. Instead of doing something together, he took me to the tennis court where he had me sit on the bench while he played tennis with his friend.
When I was about fifty years old, I attempted to do something about our relationship. I explained to him how hurt I felt. He responded defensively and acted as though I was accusing him of some terrible wrong he was not guilty of.
I could not forgive my father in the theological sense because he didn't believe he had anything to be forgiven of. My father and I never reconciled about that core issue.
But I was able to forgive him psychologically; that is, I was willing to let go of my anger and hurt. I released my feelings of wanting to punish him. Although my father and I never agreed about the tension between us and therefore never fully reconciled, never became emotionally close, my anger was healed.
In order to forgive psychologically, I've found two essential steps are necessary: expressing one's anger and getting emotional distance.
Express Anger Well
Troubled people often come from homes that don't know how to deal with anger constructively. Instead, their homes have handled anger in one of two unhealthy ways: (1) repressing the anger and pretending that everything is fine, or (2) expressing anger with verbal or physical abuse.
The Bible teaches a balance between these two extremes. Ephesians 4:26 indicates that we are to be angry and not sin. Anger in itself, then, is not sinful, and we don't have to go around denying when we're angry. But we are also told to rid ourselves of all bitterness, rage, and anger (Eph. 4:31). I've found people can do that when they express their anger in healthy ways.
I've found two helpful methods to get the anger out.
Jane, for instance, had repressed her anger because she believed it wrong, and she felt guilty that she was unable to forgive her father. My first step was to help her understand that her anger was not wrong. Her father sexually molested her and tried to rape her. She was angry at something that also angers God. Realizing that, she no longer felt guilty for being angry.
Next, I had to get her to confront her father, although I knew it couldn't be face to face. Her previous efforts had proved worthless, and I judged that another would be equally fruitless. Besides, even if I could have gotten him to talk face to face, Jane probably couldn't have handled it.
So I asked her to write a letter to her father but not mail it. She was to bring it to her next session. Here is part of what she wrote:
I am finally coming to terms with something that I've needed to do for years but have been afraid to do-deal with my anger. I've been afraid I'd lose control, and my anger would do the kind of terrible damage yours used to do when I was a little girl. I know that I don't appear to be an angry person. I've learned to keep the lid on it by being rational about everything.
But I can't hold it back any longer because it's poisoning my relationships. Instead of telling others about my anger, I clam up and retreat and make excuses for staying away from everyone.
Why am I angry? You know, Daddy. I'm angry at you, but no one has ever permitted me to talk about it. At church I'm told that anger is a sin and that I ought to be forgiving.
When I tried to talk about it with Mom, she didn't want to hear it. She told me that if you did anything you weren't supposed to that I probably encouraged it.
And talk to you about what you did? How can I? When Mom was in the hospital and you molested me and tried to rape me, you acted like nothing happened. When it was all over and Mom was back home, it was business as usual. You acted like we were a normal family and that everyone ought to be happy.
As I write my hands shake. I want to smash you. I have already broken the leaf on the table pounding my fist on it. I wish it were your head. You filthy trash. I can't believe how good it feels to finally say this to you.
Jane had a great deal more to say, and much of it was punctuated, I found out later, with sobs so painful she became sick to her stomach.
When she read the letter to me, she again cried bitterly. But by listening with care, by letting her express her anger without condemnation, I was able to help her get some relief from her shame, loneliness, and isolation.
When she finished her letter, I told her I wanted to go one step further.
"Would you mind if we had an imaginary conference with your father? I want him to come into the room so you can deal directly with him."
She looked terrified. "I don't know if I can do that," she said.
"Are you willing to give it a try?"
Looking down she quietly said, "All right."
I set up a chair in front of us and asked her to create a mental picture of her father sitting in the chair. Then I began by addressing him by name:
"Henry, I've asked you to come here today because Jane has some unfinished business with you. I don't want you to say anything. Just listen to what she has to say."
Then, turning to Jane, I said, "Okay, Jane, I want you to tell your father how you feel about what he did to you."
Looking at her imaginary father sitting there, Jane began, at first calmly, "What can I say, Daddy? It's over; it's done. But I do want you to know how I feel. I feel dirty, used. Imagine-by my own father, my Daddy, the man who is supposed to make me feel loved and feel good about being a woman. I don't feel good about being a woman. I feel dirty and trashy!"
Jane's eyes began to fill with tears. Her lip trembled.
"You scum; you low-life scum!" Her voice began to rise, and suddenly, all the pain and hurt of years poured out in a torrent of anger. She shouted at him for about five minutes all the things she ever wanted to say, and then there was silence, except for quiet sobs.
But the sobs grew louder until she groaned in agony. She must have cried for another ten minutes, writhing in pain as she did. And then it was all over.
She quietly dried her eyes, looked up at me and smiled. "It's all over," she said. "I've cried my last tear over this."
And she never cried over this again. The anger at her father was gone. It was like the exorcism of a demon.
These are not techniques that should be employed lightly. I wouldn't recommend employing them unless the counselor has had some professional training. At a minimum, the counselor ought to discuss ahead of time with a professional the possible consequences of using such a technique with a client, as well as securing the professional's willingness to step in if something goes awry.
That qualification aside, I've found this a powerful way to help people express their anger well, so that they can deal with it and put it behind them.
Create Physical and Emotional Distance
The next thing I needed to do with Jane was help her establish distance from her family. They continually pressured her to come home and celebrate birthdays and holidays and play happy family. Everyone would act as though nothing ever happened between father and daughter and that they were a close, happy family.
This is not unusual behavior for dysfunctional families, and it puts an incredible strain on the offended party to go along with it. Not only is this an unnecessary burden on the offended party, it is unhealthy and unbiblical. There comes a time when we must shake the dust off our feet and move on.
When a family is unwilling to come to terms with offenses committed by a family member, the offended party must not be roped into living a lie and pretending that all is well. In that case, it's often best for the abused person to try to see less of the family-as difficult as that might be sometimes.
When I explained that to Jane, she was greatly relieved. She no longer had to play the game, pretending all was cheery.
In fact, she's able to ignore friends at church who think she's unspiritual for not fully reconciling with her father. She just shakes her head and says, "They don't understand, do they?"
Several months after I finished working with Jane, I received a letter from her that assured me she had gotten beyond her anger.
"Thank you for helping me understand what was happening to me. I can honestly say that I have relief from my pain now. Memories of what my father did no longer haunt me, and my husband and I are able once again to be close.
"My father still acts like nothing ever happened and tells my mother that he can't understand why I won't have anything to do with him. Others in the family know why, and we are praying fur him and waiting for the day that he does what only he can do-acknowledge that he's a sinner in need of forgiveness."
Jane now is whole, though not yet reconciled. Whether or not her father ever will become whole is now up to him.
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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