One of the most difficult topics of abusive relationships is forgiveness. An accurate understanding of forgiveness is a good start, but there are dynamics in abuse that must be understood–dynamics that are different than what is experienced in mutual relationships.
Forgiveness is a biblical term that refers to paying the price of deserved punishment or debt for another. When someone sins against me and I forgive them, I communicate a willingness to swallow the cost. Jesus is our ultimate Example. Because He is sinless, He was able to pay the eternal penalty of our sin–sin against Himself, His holy Father and Spirit. It is forever erased, but not without earthly consequence.
Confession is where forgiveness starts. Confession is to “say the same thing; to agree.” In confession, I “say the same thing” about my sin as God. I agree that what I did was wrong. So how is confession used as a tool of abuse?
In an abusive relationship, one individual sins grievously and repeatedly against another through violent words and actions, neglect, and deceit. Over and over, one individual pays the price of sin the other commits.
At some point, an abusive individual has desires that can’t be achieved by their normal, raucous behavior. Perhaps it’s absolution. Comfort. Relief for his conscience. The appearance of a restored relationship. The sincerity of restored relationship. Approval from friends, family, or leadership. When that is the desired outcome, he confesses his sin. “Yes, I did this. And that. And that.” He lists it all–or at least enough to move toward the end goal. He says the same thing about, he agrees to, the sin he committed.
In that moment, her righteous indignation and anger flare. “Righteous?” you ask. “Are you sure?”
- He knew what he was doing in each and every instance. The abuser just identified and described heinous sin. He knew it was sinful. It was not done in ignorance. It was deliberate. Every word. Every blow. He knew it. He did it. He continued.
- The individual receiving his confession has paid the price of that sin against herself. He did not bear the wounds. He did not hear the words echo in his soul for days, weeks, and months afterward. She did. She has. She does. Her body responds to cues she still can’t identify–life-saving cues–whether he is involved or not. She bears the stripes for his sin. It is unjust. Injustice makes us angry, righteously angry until we turn to Jesus. (Please allow her to be human. It’s not that we encourage her to stay there, but if we keep shutting the lid on genuine emotions and responses, we are no different than her abuser.)
- The abuser is now confessing his sin, not because he is willing to bear the weight of his wrong or restore the relationship, but because he wants more. He wants something only she can give. He is still in it for himself. Nothing has changed. (This is the real injustice. It is a continuation, not a conclusion, of the sin she experiences on a regular basis.)
Forgive seventy times seven? Yes. But real, true forgiveness is reciprocal. This is not a request for forgiveness, this is using confession as a tool of manipulation. This type of confession heaps abuse upon abuse–often in front of others who pressure and coerce revictimization.
We must be very careful how we coach, teach, and encourage confession and forgiveness in imbalanced relationships. True confession is followed by personal indignation, fear, longing, zeal, a willingness to take any and every consequence–even prolonged separation–to demonstrate a change of heart (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).
Forgiveness is not free. It’s costly–especially to the one who bears its penalty. Jesus understands the weight of forgiveness. He gives freely, but the price is death. The wages of sin is still death (Romans 6:23). That has not changed.
Jesus did not wave a magic wand and make sin’s effect disappear. To expect or demand forgiveness as one who has worked death toward another is to demonstrate ignorance of sin. When the cost is acknowledged, owned, and one has the humility to beg*; when there is freedom to wait and a willingness to experience painful, uncomfortable consequences, those are evidences of true confession. True confession is accompanied by sorrow and fruit of the Spirit: love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control, faithfulness. Without these, confession is not a gift received but an additional burden to bear.
*Note: beggars may or may not receive what they’re asking for. A beggar mentality means “I will love and serve you and your best interest regardless of how I benefit.”
5 This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; 7 but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous, so that He will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. 4 The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; 5 but whoever follows His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: 6 the one who says that he remains in Him ought, himself also, walk just as He walked. (1 John 1:5-2:6)