Forgiveness and Spiritual Abuse

As a member of the clergy, I get asked a lot of questions. One that has popped up quite frequently recently is, “Do I have to forgive the person that abused me?” This is followed closely by, “Do I have to forgive the people who knew about my abuse and didn’t help me?”

Maybe it’s the recent news of the sex trafficking circle among the elite leaders as more and more details are released about Jeffrey Epstein that has brought the question to the hearts and minds of others who have experienced abuse. Maybe it’s the vast number of people who have revealed that they are victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and rape in the #metoo and #churchtoo movement.

Whatever the reason, this question comes up again and again. There is rich precedent for confessing to a member of the clergy as a way of cleansing the soul and returning to a relationship with the divine. There are also many studies about how not forgiving can impact not only your spiritual self but your physical self as well.

As much as I want to offer a definitive answer to this question, I always answer, “I don’t know.” What I do know is that the practice of forced forgiveness, which is common in religious settings with religious leaders playing the role of mediator or witness not only revictimized the person who has been abused, but also serves to add spiritual abuse on top of the abuse is harmful and should stop. I have heard story after story of women and men who are forced into these situations and carry the weight of that spiritual abuse throughout the rest of their lives. This harms their view of God, their spirit and causes so many triggers that inhibit healing and wholeness. I also know that there are miraculous stories of forgiveness from those who have experienced horrible pain and grief.

Maybe there are some aspects of living and following after Christ that we won’t ever completely understand. Maybe there is some work, like forgiveness, that is not our work to do, but the Holy Spirit’s work to do. Maybe when we stop trying to find out the answers, we will instead open our eyes and hearts to bear witness to the miraculous ways that the Spirit transforms and resurrects our own lives out of the gripes of death.