Forgiveness and Grace after Spiritual Abuse

An idea cannot be responsible for those who claim to believe in it. Phillip Yancey, Where the Light Fell

Recently, I finished Phillip Yancey’s memoir Where the Light Fell. Yancey’s books have been so helpful to me over the years, especially when I have been disillusioned with God and the church. After reading his memoir, I have gained a better understanding of how he is able to write about this kind of pain so well. After all Phillip Yancey experienced growing up in a toxic, fundamentalist family and religion, I am amazed that he still believes in God. I am even further amazed by the grace he was able to give his mother after the horrible abuse he and his brother suffered from her cruel words. Phillip Yancey has been teaching me about grace for decades through his many books on the subject. I believe having the foundation of his books has been one of the things that has kept me believing in God as well. His memoir is an inspiring testimony of how God does not waste our pain and brings beauty from the ashes. It is also a testimony of how forgiveness and grace can bring healing to ourselves and others. I highly recommend the book.

However, after reading his memoir, I also wanted write and process a little more about what it looks like to give grace to ourselves as survivors of spiritual abuse and the continual need for self-compassion. Some of us are like Phillip and have experienced a lifetime of abuse from the church. Others of us may have just been exposed to an abusive church situation for a short period of time. No matter your circumstances, if you have been spiritually abused this trauma has had a significant impact on your life and your relationships with yourself, God and others. Because we all process trauma differently, this impact can manifest in many different ways in our lives. One of the ways this trauma has impacted me is that I am way too hard on myself.

Sometimes when I read books about grace, I forget to give grace to myself and beat myself up that I did not give enough grace and forgiveness in previous situations. Maybe you struggle in this way, too. If you do, this post is for you. Maybe you have heard years of sermons on unforgiveness and grace from an abusive pastor. Or maybe like me, forgiveness and grace were used to justify covering up the abuse and allowing the pattern to continue.

Part of breaking the pattern of abuse in my life involved changing the way I applied key doctrines I had been taught by the church to my life. For years, the teachings in the church of total depravity of man, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints reminded me that no matter what I did, how much I messed things up, that I was God’s chosen child and that the grace and forgiveness of God covered me with the righteousness of Christ and promised His favor. Sadly, not everyone would make it to heaven, and it had less to do with our choices and more about what we believed about God. I believed that I was chosen by God and so was the toxic pastor who abused me. Ultimately, because of Jesus everything, even his abuse would lead to good and eventually Heaven. After all, as an abusive pastor reminded me and my husband, God is sovereign. I confess I’m still angry about this cruel twisting of the truth as a final blow in his so called apology letter to my husband.

Exposing the abuse of this pastor for me meant that I needed to question the way I had been applying forgiveness and grace to the toxic relationship I had with him. I came to the realization that just because we are fallen human beings chosen by God, that sometimes just believing He forgives us isn’t enough. Sometimes truly accepting God’s forgiveness means we need to make difficult changes. Sometimes we have to tell secrets we swore we’d never tell. Sometimes we have to stop giving grace and allow the consequences of bad choices to bring about needed change in painful ways. Sometimes we have to cease in just forgiving and call an ace and ace and a spade a spade.

I do still very much believe in the forgiveness of Christ. I believe His forgiveness is for everyone, including pastors, who it would have been better for them to have had a millstone wrapped around their neck and drowned in the depths of the sea than to bring harm to those who believe in God.

Through a process, I have learned that forgiveness is way more difficult than just saying that I do. Early on when I exposed the pastor’s abuse, I wrote emails to his family asking for forgiveness and saying that I forgave him. At the time, I did not understand the complexity of his abuse and the ways it had impacted me. I also did not understand that his abuse was not my fault.

Today, I can see much more clearly how the pain I was in as a result of a lifetime of trauma influenced me in so many negative ways. This pain and my longing to find relief from the love that had been missing in my family was what caused me to be vulnerable to being abused again. As I have come to understand this about myself, I recognize that it’s possible that this same kind of pain was what was behind this pastor’s decision to abuse me.

Hurt people, hurt people. I read this quote in a book a long time ago. I can forgive the pastor who abused me and honestly say that I do not desire anything bad to happen to him. I pray God gives him whatever he needs. I forgive him because God forgave me. And that’s enough. I believe the only way I could forgive him was to get away from him and never give him the opportunity to abuse me again. Even if he did apologize, which he never did to me, this would not change.

Some might encourage me to seek reconciliation as the final step of forgiveness. While reconciliation may be possible in some circumstances, in mine I do not believe it is healing or helpful this side of Heaven.

An important part of my healing process has been learning that giving myself grace means that I need to step away from relationships that have brought ongoing pain to my life. Grace means that I start over, continuing to acknowledge the painful emotions from my past, while at the same time moving forward into the life God has given me to live now. Forgiveness means I thank God for giving it to me for the choices that I made to relieve my own pain. It also means I am exceedingly thankful to my husband who forgave me. Sometimes forgiveness has nothing to do with sin, but rather it is just an acknowledgment that we all desperately need grace from God and from each other. And sometimes that grace and forgiveness can look different depending on what our needs are.

How have the teachings of forgiveness and grace positively or negatively impacted your healing from spiritual abuse?

If you are a religious trauma or abuse survivor and are looking for encouragement and resources, check out the Uncertain Podcast and Tears of Eden website.

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