As a Christian, Am I Supposed to Forgive the Parent Who Abused Me?
If you have experienced childhood abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
Memories from my childhood often come in flashes. My mother’s red handprints glowing on my tender skin. The overwhelming fear I felt when she entered a room. The pet names bestowed upon me — “wretched,” “hateful child,” “fucking whore.”
It took me until I was 22 years old to realize I had been abused my entire childhood. Now, when I think back to the psychological and physical harm I experienced, it’s so glaringly clear that I was abused. But at the time, I didn’t know any other way to have a childhood. In my world, “abuse” and “childhood” were the same word, even if I wasn’t aware they were supposed to mean very different things.
Around the time I began my mental health and trauma recovery journey, I became a Christian. In Jesus, I found an answer to the deep longing I felt in my heart for a parent and protector. And though I felt more loved than I ever had in my life, I struggled with (and still struggle with) some of the parts of my new identity in Christ — specifically the call to forgiveness.
One of the most scandalous parts of the Gospel is that through Christ, both the oppressed and the oppressor are offered salvation by grace. And while Jesus offers full forgiveness to all who accept him, I didn’t even know where to start with forgiving my mother. How could I forgive the woman who, instead of protecting me, abused me instead? How could I honor the parent who routinely failed to honor my dignity and personhood as a child of God?
If you are a Christian survivor of childhood abuse and can relate to feeling crushed under the weight of the call to forgiveness, you’re not alone. My hope is this article will help you understand what forgiveness is (spoiler: it might not be what you think it is!) and what it looks like to actually forgive an abusive parent. To help flesh out these topics, I spoke to four Christian mental health professionals to share their perspectives. Read what they shared with me below.
Before we begin, I want to acknowledge the childhood abuse survivors who may be reading this article. I need you to know what happened to you was not your fault, and wasn’t OK. Your feelings are valid no matter how messy, complex, unsettling, etc. they may feel. It’s my hope and prayer that you know how much you matter and how much you deserve to heal.
What Is Forgiveness?
A lot of the hurt and misunderstanding childhood abuse survivors may experience when they hear things like, “Jesus calls us to forgive” or “unforgiveness is a sin” has to do with the reality that people define forgiveness in really different ways. Some incorrectly believe forgiveness means sweeping injustice under the rug or forgetting it happened — but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Forgiveness is a choice and an act of letting go of the pain that another person has inflicted onto us,” Cynthia Chung Perdue, LCSW, a Christian therapist who specializes in working with individuals with a history of trauma and abuse told me. “It does not take away the offender’s responsibility in inflicting that pain. Rather, it is an act that God wants us to practice in order to free us from the bondage that pain and resentment can have on us.”
Forgiveness usually doesn’t happen overnight — and that’s OK. As humans, it makes sense that we often feel unable to forgive in the supernatural way Jesus did. Much like sanctification, the process of becoming more and more like Jesus, forgiveness takes time. This can be especially true when the trauma runs deep.
“Forgiveness can be a process. It’s OK if this process takes time, especially if the abuse was deeply impactful,” Chung Perdue explained, adding:
“Our God is a very personal God. He doesn’t command us to forgive without also being with us every step of the way and helping us do this great task. So be encouraged that as you keep working towards forgiveness, you are actually learning more about God’s faithful and unconditional love for you!”
As important as it is to understand what forgiveness is, it’s just as important to understand what it is not. Below, we’ve outlined a few other things forgiveness isn’t:
1. Forgiveness Is Not “For” Your Abuser — It’s Actually a Gift for You
When we talk about forgiveness, we often think of it as a “get out of jail free” card for the person who did the hurting. Despite how it might feel, forgiveness isn’t about freeing the other person, it’s about freeing yourself from the prison of unforgiveness.
“Forgiveness, first and foremost, is for yourself. It’s about liberating yourself,” Gimel Rogers, Psy.D., psychologist and ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, explained, adding:
For some people, particularly Christians, we think forgiveness means, ‘I’m letting you back in’ or forgiveness means ‘I’m condoning what you did.’ No, forgiveness means you no longer have a negative impact on my thoughts, my feelings or my behaviors. It means I don’t give you authority or permission to dictate how I feel and how I view life.
In fact, forgiveness can actually be a gift to your health. Studies have shown forgiving someone who hurt you can lower your risk for a heart attack, improve your cholesterol levels and sleep, reduce the pain you feel, lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk for mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.
2. Forgiveness Does Not Mean You Condone Abuse
Forgiveness never means you are condoning what happened to you growing up. Abuse is never OK. Choosing to forgive someone doesn’t change the fact that abuse is never OK. Similarly, forgiveness doesn’t mean you open yourself up to further abuse.
I love how abuse survivor and author Elizabeth Esther put it: “Forgiveness means I carry no more resentment. It *doesn’t* mean I tolerate more abuse.”
Forgiveness means I carry no more resentment. It *doesn’t* mean I tolerate more abuse. @rachelheldevans @JonathanMerritt #SpiritualAbuse
— Elizabeth Esther (@elizabethesther) August 4, 2014
3. Forgiveness Doesn’t Mean ‘Forgetting’ What Happened
It’s easy to hear calls for forgiveness and think what’s being asked of you is to forget what happened. Christian licensed professional counselor, Justin Henderson, Ph.D., never wants his clients to feel like they need to forget the abuse they experienced:
I think sometimes we get [forgiveness] confused, thinking we want people to forget about what happened, right? We want them just to throw it in the trash. No! I don’t want you to do that. What I want is for you to be able to move on with your life. So let’s come up with a plan specifically for you, whether we’re using the word of God, whether we’re using psychological principles so that you can get to where you want to be in this particular life.
4. Forgiveness Doesn’t Mean You Keep Your Mouth Shut
Opening up to a trusted loved one, pastor or mental health professional about what you experienced growing up can be vital to healing. Pretending that your complex feelings like anger, sadness and guilt aren’t there won’t resolve them — plus Jesus was always a fan of bringing things into the light.
Some Christians may struggle with feeling like sharing the extent of the abuse they experienced violates the commandment to honor your father and mother. Mighty contributor K.J. addresses this dilemma in her piece, What It Looks Like to ‘Honor’ My Mother and Father as a Christian With Abusive Parents:
For those of us with abusive parents, this is a very hard commandment to keep. It is one that brings much angst and guilt, tears and pain as we wrestle with our desire to please God…
How do we honor abusive parents?
We honor them by not returning the abuse they gave to us.
We honor them by praying on their behalf for them to find the courage and knowledge to improve, change and transform their own lives.
We honor them by not enabling their bad behavior, or allowing them to continue their abusive ways with us, or others under our own protection.
We honor them by giving them clear boundaries and consequences if they are not remorseful, repentant or willing to work towards ending their abusive ways.
We honor them by stopping the cycle, not allowing their abusive legacy to continue in how we treat our own children.
Childhood abuse doesn’t have to define you, but if it’s part of your story, it’s important to remember it’s your story to tell. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you can’t share your story.
5. Forgiveness Does Not Mean Reconciliation
A lot of Christian abuse survivors struggle with forgiveness because they believe it means letting someone back into their life that did them incredible harm. But forgiveness is not like the tango — it doesn’t take two.
Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP, board-certified clinical psychologist and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Psychology, explained forgiveness and reconciliation are very different things.
“Forgiveness never requires reconciliation,” he explained. “You can forgive someone who has died, so reconciliation is not part of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a solitary act that says you stop holding a grudge, but that doesn’t mean you need to re-enter a relationship with the perpetrator.”
While forgiveness doesn’t requires reconciliation, true reconciliation does require forgiveness. Many people desire reconciliation (and do reconcile) with people who abused them — though it’s seldom easy. Superficial apologies that don’t address the deep hurt inflicted are not enough for true reconciliation.
The use of Christian words like forgiveness, redemption, and transformation does not make an abuser a transformed soul.
— Diane Langberg, PhD (@DianeLangberg) May 10, 2016
“[Reconciliation] includes a full admonition of what happened, a complete expression of how it impacted you and a complete apology from perpetrator to victim,” Dr. Howes said.
How Do I Forgive the Parent Who Abused Me?
Now that we understand what forgiveness is (and isn’t), it’s time to address how to actually go about forgiving the parent who abused you. Howes explained forgiveness is a process that varies from person to person, but usually boils down to four essential elements, which we’ve outlined below.
1. Fully Expressing Your Feelings About the Situation
How do you feel about what happened to you in your upbringing? Sad? Angry? Confused? It’s important to identify emotions you’re feeling now (or felt in the past) because it’s next to impossible to move on from feelings you’ve never addressed head-on.
2. Having a Basic Understanding of Why the Abuse Happened in the First Place
Was your parent abused themselves? Did they have a difficult time regulating their own emotional experiences and “dealt with it” by taking out their painful feelings on you? Understanding the “reasons” behind abusive behavior can help you move on, though in some situations it’s not so clear-cut.
If you don’t know why a parent was abusive towards you, you might need to settle on a reason that helps you make peace with the unknown. For example, the “reason” you might come up with is that they had deep personal issues that made them unfit to be a parent.
It’s important to remember just because there are underlying factors that might “explain” a parent’s abusive behavior does not make abuse OK. An abuser is always responsible for the pain they inflict.
3. Rebuilding Your Safety
One of the most devastating parts of childhood abuse is that children have little to no agency when it comes to making decisions about their lives. Because of this, a child may be subjected to prolonged abuse due to their inability to change (or even identify) their unsafe circumstances. In adulthood, people gain autonomy they didn’t have growing up, which can help adult survivors ensure their own safety. For some, this might look like putting physical distance between themselves and their parent to prevent further abuse.
4. Letting Go of What Happened
The last (and perhaps most difficult) part of forgiveness is letting go of what happened. Despite how it might sound, letting go doesn’t mean forgetting. Instead, it means making a conscious decision not to hold the abuse over your parent’s head in future interactions.
“If letting go doesn’t seem possible, it’s usually because one of the previous steps weren’t fully attained,” Dr. Howes explained.
Forgiveness is hard. Following Jesus is hard. But He never leaves us alone in our struggles. Trusting God to help you forgive is a way to draw nearer to Him.
If you are a survivor of child abuse, you’re not alone. To anyone struggling with feeling like they were robbed of their childhood, I want to leave you with this last piece of wisdom from Dr. Rogers:
God is a redeemer of time, and God is a healer. And because God is the redeemer of time, if you feel that your childhood was taken away from you, ask God to redeem that time, to where you can feel joy by riding your bike, you can feel joy by having a girls’ night and having a sleepover. You can feel that sense of joy and that peace just by the little things in life — the innocent things in life — that as adults we take for granted… Ask Him to redeem the time and to heal you from the inside out.
Getty Images photo via Archv