This morning I came across a quote by Desmond Tutu, and it struck me profoundly, because it helped me to really understand what I need to forgive the church for.
From The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu:
Forgiveness is not some airy-fairy thing. It has to do with the real world. Healing and reconciliation are not magic spells. They do not erase the reality of an injury. To forgive is not to pretend that what happened did not happen. Healing does not draw a veil over the hurt. Rather, healing and reconciliation demand an honest reckoning. For Christians, Jesus Christ sets the pattern for forgiveness and reconciliation. He offered his betrayers forgiveness. Jesus, the Son of God, could erase the signs of leprosy; heal those broken in body, mind, or spirit; and restore sight to the blind. He must also have been able to obliterate the signs of the torture and death he endured. But he chose not to erase that evidence. After the resurrection, he appeared to his disciples. In most instances, he showed them his wounds and his scars. This is what healing demands. Behavior that is hurtful, shameful, abusive, or demeaning must be brought into the fierce light of truth. And truth can be brutal. In fact, truth may exacerbate the hurt; it might make things worse. But if we want real forgiveness and real healing, we must face the real injury.
Forgiveness is the core truth of Christianity. Jesus forgave us. Our sins separated us from God, but because of His death on the cross we have been forgiven and reconciled to Him. Totally undeserved. Total grace. And I am so thankful for this.
Jesus spoke strong words about forgiveness. He said if we did not forgive one another, He would not forgive us. I don’t think Jesus is laying out a requirement for salvation, but rather I think He is communicating that forgiveness is always the fruit of being forgiven.
So why must I forgive the church that has taught about forgiveness? What could there possibly be to forgive?
The fact that there is something to forgive communicates that a wrong was done. A wrong that has caused another to suffer a loss and pain. A wrong that cries out for justice. Jesus gave His life as a payment for the sins of all Who trust Him. When we believe, we know that our sins have been paid for in full. But forgiveness wasn’t cheap. It cost God His life. Scripture does not hold back in giving us the details of the high price that was paid. One need only watch the film The Passion of the Christ to catch a glimpse of how expensive it was.
Desmond Tutu reminded me that Jesus showed His disciples His wounds and scars. Certainly, God could have wiped every sign of them away, but He did not. There was a reason the scars stayed. Jesus wanted us to remember His pain.
Our pain is important to Jesus. He keeps our tears in a bottle, and He promises one day to wipe the tears from our eyes. He prays for us when our hurts are so deep that we do not know how to even speak what we need. Our pain matters very much to Him.
When I think back to the abusive relationship I had with my former pastor, the issue that stands out the most is how much in my own mind I minimized the damage to my family, his family and the church by keeping the abuse a secret. For almost a decade, my mind and heart were so twisted by the lies that I could not see the truth. But when the weight of the secrets became too heavy to carry any longer, God opened my eyes to the real injuries.
As Tutu said, bringing the truth out into the light often causes things to get worse before they get better. This was definitely the case when I confessed to the sins I had committed with the former pastor. The church that had at least appeared peaceful felt the force of being hit by a F5 tornado.
The first reaction from the other church leaders was to do whatever they could to minimize the damage. We all understood what exposing this truth could do to the church and it’s reputation in the community. I certainly understood it because I had been keeping the abuse a secret for the very same reason. However, in an effort to stop the damage, I had come to understand that I needed to tell the truth. I told the leaders everything I’d done, because I wanted to be free and begin the healing process. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. The pastor who had taken over the church at that time acknowledged that the former pastor had abused me. He was committed to exposing the abuse so that anyone else who had been abused could come forward. I reluctantly agreed to allow them to tell what I had told them to the entire church, in an effort to bring the truth into the light so others could heal. But when the church held the meeting, I was told it best that I not be there, so I wrote a letter with my therapist explaining the process of abuse and confessing to what I’d done as a result of succumbing to the former pastor’s manipulation. However, the church leaders decided this truth was too much for the congregation to handle. They decided it best to make my letter more palatable by leaving out the abuse process and just sharing the confession. As a result, the church determined that the pastor and I had had an affair. A few days following the church meeting my husband and I attended a Sunday service at the church, believing that my entire letter had been read. However, when people came up to me telling me they forgave me rather than they were sorry about what happened to me, I was floored. I was thankful that they forgave my sin, but shocked that no one acknowledged that the pastor had abused me. My husband and I went to the leaders to ask questions about the meeting only to discover that they had edited my letter.
But if we want real forgiveness and real healing, we must face the real injury.
Our family left the church, because when we asked our leaders to expose the injuries caused by the former pastor, they refused. Minimizing the abuse brought less damage to the church’s reputation. They could rebuild and move on putting the sin behind them. But our family could not heal in an environment that refused to acknowledge the real injuries that had occurred. We could not simply forgive and move on until we understood all the damage that had been done to our souls.
We are three years past all of this, and are still very much in a process of being untangled from the lies that have been suffocating the life out of us. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but I can assure you it’s not. The confusion has been overwhelming, and the lack of support from the church has made it even more so, and that’s been one of the most difficult things to forgive.
I realize I’m still struggling with this, because any time conversations come up in Christian circles that appear to be skipping over the pain and going right to peace, I feel like I am in chaos. I realize today what I most need to forgive is the denial that has so saturated the church culture and causes many to not acknowledge the whole truth about just how broken we are.
I currently work in a mental health facility. Almost every day I hear horrific stories of abuse that people have grown up in. I see the aftermath and people who struggle to put one foot in front of the other and function in life. It is heartbreaking. However, it is also hopeful when I hear stories of people who face the whole truth about the damage abuse has caused in their lives with therapists equipped to help them, and they don’t hold back from the truth and face it all and learn how to live despite it and beauty is discovered in the ashes.
Yesterday, I heard a terrible story of an innocent little girl forced to perform a sex act on an older man. I wanted to crawl under my desk and weep for the damage that was done to her soul. I thought of my own little girl and what she’d been forced to do do as a five year old by an older teen. I thought about what I was forced to do as a little girl and what psychological manipulation by my pastor caused me to do as an adult. I wanted to scream at the painful horror of it all.
I do not know know what it’s going to take for many in the church to understand the damage that abuse causes and begin to acknowledge it so that people can heal, but I pray that they do not have to find out the way that I did. Because I do not want another soul to go through it.
So please just stop minimizing the damage. Please stop covering up the abuse. Jesus’s death is sufficient to deal with the worst of the injuries. We can call it what it is and stop trying to pretend it isn’t there. Do you realize you are minimizing the very power of the Gospel that you proclaim by refusing to expose the very darkness that God has called us to bring our into the light? It’s not about us and our goodness that draws others to Christ. It’s about Him and His goodness and love that brings beauty from the ashes. It’s about His love that caused Him to be crushed by our transgressions so that we could be healed from those we have committed and others have committed against us.
I confess I still have a long way to go in forgiving the institution of the church in it’s refusal to call abuse what it is. I don’t know that I will ever stop being angry about it, especially when I continue to read more stories of it happening again. How can I ever trust another church again? I love God’s people. I really do. How can I not love something that I am a part of? I want to be a part of fellowship, but the triggers that come when I hear churchy language that communicate if we will just trust Jesus everything will be fine are just too much to bear. I need to trust in a Jesus Who is with us when everything has fallen apart and nothing makes sense anymore. I need to trust in a Jesus Who sits with us us in our pain caused from the ugliness of abuse no matter how long it takes to heal.
I realize that others who have not been where I have cannot understand. I also realize that it’s important that I love them where they are, too. However, I’m still very much in a process just like they are, so I need to know it’s ok to take a break from church gatherings that bring up painful reminders that cannot be processed with people who are not in the same place that I am. Some conversations are best to be had with my therapist or others who have been through the same thing. I believe that we heal best in community, but further damage can be done in a community that does not understand. I can only pray that one day I will be further along in the healing process that I won’t be so triggered by conversations, but that time is not now so I need to trust that God will be with me where I am in the healing process. I recognize as well that communication with others is a key part in helping those who want to understand and help, which is one of the reasons that I am writing this.
I want to take the time to thank all of you out there online who have been a support to me by sharing your stories. There are so many. Even though I don’t know you personally, we share in the fellowship of suffering and this has encouraged and strengthened my soul. We are the church, too whether we are able to enter a building together or not. The similarities of God’s work in our lives reminds me that God is ever present with us. And I’m so very thankful for you.