It is not easy to forgive. But God can give us the grace to forgive those who sinned against us personally in some way. But it often so much harder to forgive those who sinned against one of our loved ones. The loved one might be one of our children or a sibling or a close friend. We will consider some situations which are all too prevalent in our society today.
We begin with one of the most damaging forms of abuse in family situations. A mother discovers to her horror that her husband has been sexually abusing their daughter or their son. (In some cases it may be a mother who is abusing her children. However for the moment we will focus on the father as the abuser in a family relationship. Many of the principles involved in forgiveness will be relevant for other situations as well).
It’s only when one meets such mothers that one discovers some of the depth of betrayal and anguish that such women feel. It is a horrific situation when a man who is meant to be loving and caring and protective for his own flesh and blood is the one who is responsible for such damaging sin. It is even more grotesque when the man is a highly respected person perhaps in some caring profession.
The sin has to be faced up to. It cannot be ignored. If the man is challenged about his behaviour and expresses remorse about his actions then the mother has to be careful about what to do next. Remorse is not repentance. Repentance in such a case involves admitting the sin and asking forgiveness from the child, from the wife and from God (for all sin is sin against God as we have seen earlier).
True repentance also necessitates a desire to turn from that behaviour and to seek God’s help to be different. If the man is not willing to do all those things then he is not truly repentant in a biblical sense.
However if the man does seem to be genuinely repentant before God, the wife still has to be cautious for the sake of the child involved. She may forgive him for his sin against her as his wife and she may even be able to eventually forgive his actions against her daughter instead of being swallowed up in bitterness and anger. What she cannot do is to trust her husband not to attempt to do the same thing in the future. Trust has to be earned by those who have abused trust.
If the abuse continued over a period of time then such behaviour became habitual. Every incident began with a renewed decision to abuse without any due regard for the consequences of his action. Not only that but the conscience of the man would have become progressively hardened as a result of such ongoing behaviour. The writer to the Hebrews wrote in Heb 3:12 about those who turn away from God and from His will in acting in ungodly ways, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
Sin hardens those who engage in it. Habitual sin (indicated in the same ongoing perverse behaviour) can deaden such people to the enormity of their crime so that any feeling of guilt is greatly diminished. Sin deceives those who engage in it.
Incest is a long way from normal behaviour and shows the depth of rebellion by the perpetrator against society’s norms and against God’s commandments. It needs the grace of God for the man to become different. Only time will tell whether the husband has drawn on the grace of God to become someone who genuinely abhors his previous behaviour. His protestations such as “It’s your Christian duty to forgive me.” Or “I’m a changed man. You have got to trust me!” have to considered in the light of the degree of sincerity being expressed and the depth of genuine repentance.
Guilty parties need to truly repent (and to earn trust!)
The truly repentant man will recognise the evil he has committed and will see the need for the wife and child to take time to trust him once again. He will need to recognise the depravity of his own human heart and to be aware that he could launch once again into the same behaviour if he is not continually drawing on the grace of God to be different.
Paul stressed the need to walk by the Spirit in order to have victory over the flesh (our human nature) Gal 5:16 “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” He explained that the desires of the flesh are contrary to the Spirit and vice versa, 17 “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” The person who keeps on seeking to gratify some lust of the flesh through incestuous behaviour is not only grieving the indwelling Holy Spirit but is becoming more hardened to his sin as well.
I had been speaking at a weekend conference for a parish in another state in Australia when a woman came to see me. It turned out that she and her husband had become involved in a so called “Christian” sect. At first it seemed to be a loving body of people but they had drifted further and further away from the Bible and were now majoring on the teachings of their leader who was seen as a prophetic figure amongst them. Eventually she discovered that part of the teaching of that sect was that it was permissible for fathers to have intercourse with their daughters as well as their wives. Because it was the generally accepted belief by the group her husband had become involved in this behaviour.
As the mother later began to read the Bible for herself she discovered that such behaviour was repugnant to God. She shared with her husband what she had read in the Bible and he was horrified to realise that what he had been doing was not “good and acceptable” behaviour but was totally contrary to the will of God. She told me that he had asked forgiveness of his daughter and herself and had given himself up the police for whatever penalty he might have to incur. At the time of the weekend conference he was still in prison and was receiving the ongoing counselling he had requested.
I spoke with the daughter also and both mother and daughter said they had forgiven him for what he had done. It seemed to me that they had both truly forgiven the father because he was so genuinely distraught for his sin and was willing to bear the legal consequences of his actions and to get help to be different. The genuineness of his repentance made it so much easier for his wife and daughter to forgive him and to seek healing for themselves. They both said that they were looking forward to him being released from prison and coming home again. Much healing had already flowed before I met them and they were certainly both very happy for me to counsel and pray with them for God’s healing for them all.
However I do remember her saying with a deep sense of regret, “For a time I did have doubts about what was happening and I did nothing.” How often have I heard that from parents and guardians of those abused! However she was comforted by realising that God is able to forgive every sin and to heal the damage caused to our loved ones who suffered, if they will turn to Him for comfort, strength and healing.
What about those who never seem to want to change their wrong behaviour?
What about the situation where there is no change in the abuser and he never asks for forgiveness?
On a number of occasions I have counselled women whose daughters were subjected to sexual abuse by their fathers but the fathers denied it ever happened. In fact because they held such important positions in the church or in society they were able to convince people that they had done nothing wrong and that the wife and mother were unstable.
What a travesty when the abuser is believed and respected and the victim is victimised even further through false allegations about their sanity or emotional stability! But God knows the truth about every situation and can bring healing to the victimised in this world.
How can such women whose testimonies were disbelieved ever forgive the fathers involved and know healing for themselves and their daughters? It is by following the steps to forgiveness we have shown previously.
The mother can seek healing for herself by doing what Paul said in (Eph 4:32) “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” We saw previously that the Greek word here for “forgive” is “charizomai” which stems from “charis”, meaning “grace”. When God forgave us He gave us what we could never earn or deserve in a lifetime of lifetimes. In grace He “cancelled the debt” that stood against us and “let off the hook” (the principles of forgiveness we saw in Mat 18:27). If we are to forgive in the same way He forgave us, it means cancelling the debt of the person who sinned against us and letting them off the hook of our unforgiveness. In so doing WE become free.
The mother would be able truthfully to say that she had forgiven her husband of the sins committed against her personally. She might by the grace of God find it in her heart to forgive her husband of the abuse he inflicted on their daughter. But she would be unwise to say to her daughter that she had forgiven the father’s sins against her daughter and to encourage her also to forgive her father. That is something that her daughter needs to do for herself for her own healing and release when she is able to do so.
One further aspect in this connection is the guilt that parents feel when one of their children is abused by the other parent. In the situation we have been looking at, a mother might feel terribly guilty that her daughter had been abused during the time of the marriage. Was she a bad mother for placing her daughter in jeopardy while she was out shopping or at a meeting or away from the home for some reason and abuse took place in her absence? Certainly there is no way such a mother would ever knowingly put her daughter in any dangerous situation. The problem with abusers is that they are deceptive and give no indication that they are trying to or are engaging in wrong behaviour. They abuse the trust placed in them by their partner and the innocent suffer.
There is a difference between true guilt and false guilt
We only need to feel guilty if indeed we are guilty. To the extent that a mother knowingly puts her daughter at risk she is answerable to God and needs forgiveness of such sin. But she is not guilty when she has unwittingly put her trust in someone who is charged by God with loving and protecting her daughter who then abuses that trust. The guilt lies with the “intentional” abuser and not with the “unintentional” absent mother.
We once heard a young woman tell why she hated God and the church. Her mother was a keen believer who went to evening meetings from time to time at her church. What the mother didn’t realise at the time was that whenever she left the home her husband took advantage of her absence to sexually abuse their daughter. No wonder the young child hated the mention of “God” and “church” for those words were associated with experiences of fear and pain. Fortunately the young woman was later able to see that God abhorred what had happened to her as a child and wanted to bring healing to her.
What happens when the guilty never admit their guilt?
What if the guilty never admit their guilt and there seems to be no closure? Does one have to go through life being the victim of abuse and are destined never to hear the words from the abuser, “I’m sorry!”
Some years ago a woman and her sisters who had known physical and emotional abuse from their father for decades throughout their lives asked me to take a memorial service for him. I discovered that the father never asked them to forgive him for all the things he had said and done to them. Even when he was close to death he was just as abusive to them as he had always been. When I asked them to tell me about anything good that had ever come from him towards them for which we could praise God, they were not able to think of anything except for the fact he contributed to the provision of food, clothing and shelter for them.
But a couple of the sisters had learned to forgive him and had known great healing in the process. He was after all, their dad and they wanted to honour him as such, even though he never acted as a true dad to them. They had forgiven him for the bad whilst not being able to praise God for any great good they saw in him. I saw what forgiveness is, in a deeper measure as they shared with me. The father never earned the love and respect of his daughters but in love they chose to seek his best interests while he was alive even though he never appreciated them or their efforts. But they were healed emotionally and physically by forgiving him.
Forgiveness is not an option. It is a command from God Himself. He knows all about us and our human situations. He knows that prolonged anger and unforgiveness and bitterness and resentment destroy us as people. That’s why He commands us to repent and seek His forgiveness so that we can live in the freedom of His forgiveness towards us.
It’s why He commands us to forgive because he knows the healing and release we can experience when we do what He tells us to do and forgive those who hurt us or our loved ones.
God not only forgives us in Christ, but as a modern song puts it, He gives us “the grace to forgive” as we seek His help to do so.
A very serious note of caution
Sometimes those who seek to counsel or who try to help other people can do so unwisely. They too are human and can carry into their “ministry” towards other people some unresolved issues in their own lives.
One danger is of identifying too quickly with people who are hurting. That can be so in the case of those who have suffered abuse, trying to help those who come for help for abuse they have suffered. A Christian counsellor referred a woman to me for help. The woman had come to the counsellor for help in dealing with damage suffered in an abusive relationship. The counsellor truthfully told the woman that she felt she could not really help her because she was going through some unresolved issues of her own in that area at that time. I thought that was very brave and wise of the counsellor.
The danger is that we, who try to help others, can read our own situations into the lives of those we are trying to help. I was shocked to hear someone share about their experience of counselling. Their counsellor told her, “I believe from what you have said that you were the victim of sexual abuse when you were a child. Do you have any memories about that? Could your father have abused you?”
The counsellor broke all the rules. She gave an interpretation of what she had heard which may or may not have been true. She encouraged the woman to search her memory bank to find any trace of abuse. (It is easy to read back into our lives that which is being suggested to us.) The counsellor raised the doubt in the woman’s mind about the integrity of her father. The woman could easily have thought, “It must be true because she’s the expert. She knows about these things. It must have happened as she intimated. Perhaps Dad isn’t the man I thought he was.” Unfortunately such so-called counselling may be in fact a form of mind-control as thoughts are sown into the minds of people who are hurting.
Some counsellors in Australia who suggested to their clients the possibility of sexual abuse in their childhood (when they had no memory of it) were subsequently strongly censured when it was proved no sexual abuse had ever taken place. In the meantime though, the false suggestions had destroyed the relationships in the families involved.
It would be a travesty of justice for a man or woman to be accused of sexual abuse in a family situation when none had in fact taken place.
It would also be a great tragedy if a counsellor or friend planted the idea of sexual abuse when none had ever occurred.
In our final article on forgiveness we will look at how we can learn to forgive in a practical way.
Questions to ponder
1). If a man tearfully admits to his wife that he had been guilty of molesting their daughter (or son) and promises that he has “turned over a new leaf “and that “it will never happen again”, should she forgive him? If she does, should she need to be cautious about her husband’s contact with the daughter (or son?)
2). How should Christian love behave towards someone who is guilty of sinning against a loved one, but who never admits guilt?
3). If someone expresses concern about the relationship of an extended family member (or family friend) towards a younger member of the family, should we give that person the benefit of the doubt or take steps to see if there is any truth in the concern? How might we do that?
Blog No.217. Jim Holbeck. Posted Monday 1st May 2017