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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 ...