Forgiveness

My sister told me a few days ago that she was having a hard time forgiving a close family member for betrayal, and she said she was afraid she was sinning by not forgiving immediately. It was a statement but a question too. She wanted to know what I thought.

Funny how the woman who told me I was a sinner but she loved me anyway when I got divorced was now asking my advice about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an interesting subject. Forgiving is something we’re taught from a young age. Our parents urge us to forgive those who have hurt us even from the time we’re toddlers. We say, “It’s okay,” when someone says she’s sorry, whether it is or not, because it’s good manners.

In church, we’re taught that forgiveness is a much deeper concept. Christ forgave us so we must forgive others in return. Jesus instructed us to forgive each other.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.

Matthew 18:21-22

We aren’t even supposed to take Holy Communion until we’ve forgiven all who have sinned against us. No grudges allowed.

Forgiveness isn’t exactly an easy topic for me to tackle, but I wanted to both be honest with my sister and to comfort her.

I told her I don’t think being hurt or hanging on to that hurt, and being unforgiving are the same thing. And I said that I don’t think it’s sinning to hold back forgiveness until we’re able to truly follow through with it. It takes time, and betrayal runs deep, and it’s okay that it’s taking her some time to get there. I told my sister I don’t think she’s sinning.

This concept of “sinning” against God when we can’t forgive and forget the moment someone acts against us is such a backwards perspective. God, who has the greatest capacity of anyone to forgive, isn’t going to hold our pain against us.

My mom told me she hoped I’d fail when I moved away from my hometown with my kids and that I wouldn’t have too much pride to come back when I did.

My best friend quit talking to me when I told her I’d been pregnant when I got married.

My ex-husband raped me before and after we were married.

My church mentors told me I had to let the rape continue because he was my husband.

My sister told me I was a sinner for getting a divorce from the man who raped me.

No matter how many times I forgive these people, no matter how much I love my mom and sister and the children I had by my ex-husband, I still hurt so deeply. I still get angry and sad and depressed, and I cry. Sometimes I even hate.

But I don’t need to dwell on the things they did or said. They are over, and though I have the memories, their actions and words are no longer mine to bear. I can leave the burden behind. I can accept that what was done is now between God and those people.

I’m stronger today than I’ve ever been, and it isn’t something that was given to me by the people who betrayed me. They only helped me to see just how much was inside me. I don’t need a single other person to get me through this life or to determine whether or not I’m strong enough. I am.

I think this is what forgiveness means. It doesn’t erase the injuries or the scars. It doesn’t leave you suddenly at peace. It doesn’t secure the past in the past. It doesn’t take away your knowledge that something was done against you. But it frees you to move on from what happened.

I think Kesha says it truthfully in her song “Praying.” It’s about forgiveness and letting go and moving on and being better for all that’s happened. And it’s become my anthem, in a way, a song  that knows the truth of my heart.

No, Sister, you are not sinning. You’re hurting and it’s alright.

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Knowing What I Know Now

I had a date last night, a first date with a guy I’d met on an online dating site. We’d hit it off right from the beginning, and there was definite chemistry when we met in person. We ate a late lunch and talked for hours. He asked me to be his girlfriend before the night was over, and I politely declined; it was too soon (really too soon!). I told him a little about my past, and he told me I was safe with him and that I could trust him, and when I left, I felt safe and did trust him.

Don’t get me wrong; I had my concerns. In an earlier conversation, he’d told me how religiously conservative he was, and referred to my (religiously and politically) liberal leanings as “liberal proclivities.” (I wondered if he realized “proclivity” had a negative connotation; though, I think he did.) Religious conservatives make me nervous already, for obvious reasons, but he did more than disagree with my beliefs and opinions; he criticized them.

And he spoke excessively about the future, our future. I thought maybe he was just a little too smitten. When I told him my plans for after my kids leave home, they became his plans too. And he talked about wanting to buy a house with me. And when we talked about Disney world, and I said I would like to take my kids but couldn’t afford it, he said that such things were possible now with “two incomes.” To all of this I replied, “Let’s get through the first date first,” move slowly. He wanted exclusive, long-term, and while exclusive might be okay, I’m not ready for long-term; my marriage only ended a year and a half ago.

And he’d mentioned he used to be more controlling and particular about the way he liked things. I won’t be controlled again, not for anything or anyone. But he said he’d changed, and I wanted to believe it was so.

Overall, the date ended well, and we agreed to see each other again soon. To be honest, I was taken with the cuddling and kissing and the warmth of someone wanting to spend time with me.

By morning, though, the red flags (of him being a potential abuser) that I’d stored away in my subconscious were crimson and the size of Rhode Island and waving like the Star-Spangled Banner over Fort McHenry.

  • One, he’d told me he’d once broken a woman’s spirit through constant criticism and being mean, but that he’d decided to make up for it by making people feel good about themselves. I thought his change of heart was noble, but “broke a woman’s spirit”? Can people really change that drastically?
  • Two, the criticism of my liberal tendencies and his disdain for some of the decisions I’ve made since my marriage ended: being in a polyamorous relationship, for one. He was judgmental and even declared that he thought I was “rebelling” in response my long, difficult marriage, and suggested the rebellion would end and that I would eventually go back to being conservative. In hindsight, I see that this is manipulative and shaming, telling me I don’t really know what I want or what I’m doing or what’s good for me, and that I’ll eventually see the light.
  • Three, he mentioned that his first wife (first wife?!) had a lot of guy friends that she’d hang out with, and that it really bothered him. This was an issue in my marriage, and I am not going to let it be an issue again. I have guy friends, and that’s the way it is, period. So I told him up front my best friend was a guy. He replied, “It would help if he was gay.” I said he was not but that he lived in another state, and he said, “That’s the best kind of friend.” When I caught myself thinking today about listing off for him all my guy friends and which are gay and which are far away, I knew I’d been shamed.
  • Four, his first wife? He’s had more than one?
  • Five, his references to the long-term future and his taking ownership of my future plans.
  • Six, he said he’d been abused in his youth, and having discussed red flags at my domestic abuse and sexual assault support group, I knew this was a concern.
  • Seven, I discussed briefly my reasons for not being simpatico with the church (not Jesus or my faith, but the church itself) right now, how it was through mentors at my church that I was told to allow my husband to use my body as he pleased. My date, though he said what the mentors said and what my husband did were wrong, quoted St. Paul’s discussion of women submitting to their husbands. Yes, my date was pointing out that husbands were also to love their wives as Christ loved the church, sacrificially. But he didn’t deny at any point that wives should submit, and I noticed.
  • Eight, he kept saying to me, “I’m afraid you’re going to do what women do, and go home after this, and think about this too much and change your mind about dating me.” And I kept saying I didn’t think I would, though I didn’t promise anything.

Perhaps it’s strange to you that I listed all these things that worried me out. But knowledge is power, and we need to know when there is potential danger. I’m sharing because you need to know.

I didn’t feel confident enough to make a decision on my own this time around, so I reached out to trusted friends and thought about my concerns and listened to what I was saying to those friends, understanding through my words what I was actually feeling. And I messaged my support group leader. Members of a support group take care of each other, and I knew without a doubt I could trust and depend on her.

I was assured by all that these things were, indeed, red flags. And because they’re good friends, the decision of what to do next was left to me.

I won’t say my decision-making process was great; I obsessed over it a good part of the day, wasting mine and my friends’ time and energy, but in the end, I trusted my instincts. I told my date I didn’t want to see him again because the things we’re looking for were too different, and I wished him good luck. The reasons for my decision are my business, not his.

And then, true to my concern about him being controlling and manipulative, he replied:

I kind of figured you’d do that girl thing girls do. .. ok well … what else is new? …

I guess his response wasn’t completely unexpected. With his expression of fear last night about me changing my mind, he’d set me up as the bad guy before the first date was even over. And not a bad guy with valuable opinions and feelings, but merely a “girl” who only did what “girls do.” Essentially, he removed my worth from the equation. He shamed me.

I’m sad. I could have really liked him. And if he’d been genuine, I might have loved him eventually. I’m sad to have had another potential relationship turn to naught. I’m sad and angry that he shamed me, and that I felt shame, even knowing what it was. I’m frustrated that I feel a hint of guilt for having hurt him by choosing not to see him again.

But I’m confident now too. I saw what was happening this time, understood it, and though it took me all day, I made the best decision and protected myself. And I did the right things to reach that decision. I made a list and I reached out, and before that, I recognized the flags. I’ve grown, in wisdom and emotional maturity and stability. I’ve come a long way, and what I did today will help me grow even more. Today, albeit its stress and sorrow and the low hum of shame in the back of my head right now, was a good day.