From the time I was four until I was seven-years-old I was sexually abused on a consistent basis by someone I trusted.
So before I was even old enough to understand what forgiveness was, I had already decided I didn’t want anything to do with it. I wasn’t trying to be mean-spirited (I was seven). It was just my very natural coping mechanism. I would hide what happened and twist it and lie about it if I needed to, but I wasn’t going to tell anyone. And I wasn’t going to forgive. I would grow into it over time, I assumed, this burden I was carrying.
I would grow strong enough to carry it.
And like a lead security blanket, I took it everywhere I went.
As I grew older, I tried to forget. It worked, for the most part. When you carry a burden long enough, it doesn’t feel like a burden anymore. It just feels like life. I thought about it rarely. When I did think about it, I prayed it would evaporate into thin air, and that maybe I would evaporate with it.
In some ways, I did evaporate. In many ways I did forget.
But the longer I went on with my burden, the more I allowed history to repeat itself. It’s funny how that happens. When you’re the girl with the burden, or the secret, people start to treat you like the girl with the burden or the secret, even if they aren’t sure why or what it is. That’s even how you treat yourself, if only because you don’t know anything different.
Day after day my burden would grow heavier, and I would be reminded of it again — my need for forgiveness.
I hated the way we talked about forgiveness in church. We talked about it as obligation, as a way to avoid sinning by avoiding a grudge, as if it were the only natural and reasonable and Christian response to harm. But nothing about forgiveness seemed natural to me. In fact, it seemed very unnatural and confusing.
If forgiveness was the “Christian” thing to do, maybe I wasn’t a Christian after all. Maybe I wasn’t one of God’s “chosen.”
For all the why’s behind forgiveness, I rarely heard anyone talk about how to do it.
I heard this phrase from someone once, not in church, but it’s the only thing that has helped me learn to forgive. It’s become a mantra of mine, something I repeat to myself when my wounds seem most fresh and raw and I want to hold onto bitterness again, like that lead safety blanket, that heavy reminder of what happened to me so I would never let it happen again. The phrase goes like this:
Most people, most of the time, are just doing the best they can.
It makes me think of myself, as a little girl, lying to keep my secret from the people who loved me most, who could have helped me if I would have let them. It makes me think of myself as a teenager, so desperate to find love I looked in all the wrong places. I think of the people I hurt and all the damage I inflicted in the process, and then I take a deep breath and think:
For the most part, I was doing the best I could.
And suddenly, like a raging river of tears and regret and grace and love I’m not sure I deserve, I feel forgiveness rush in.
It doesn’t make it okay what I did, but it makes me forgiven.
It makes me think of my college boyfriend, who lied to me so many times I could have filled a semi with his untruth before, years later, I finally closed the door on that relationship. I think about all the stories he made up about where he was going, what he was doing, who he was with and I can’t help but wonder how much shame he must have felt to make up stories like that.
Slowly but surely, I feel it happen, like a release valve on a too-tight container. It doesn’t make it okay what he did, but it makes him forgiven.
And that feels good.
Of course, the hardest thing to do is to think back to the place where this all started, the person who made me do things I didn’t want to do, forced me to concede my childhood long before it was time. The hardest thing to do, the thing that seems most impossible, is to find forgiveness there. But strangely forgiveness seems to come in that place as I practice it in the rest of my life.
Not all at once, but it comes in phases and waves each time I forgive the man who cuts me off in traffic, or the woman called me a name because I didn’t do what she wanted, or the friend who misunderstands and gossips behind my back.
I take a few deep breaths and whisper to myself:
Most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can.
NOTE: If you or someone you know has been sexually abused or assaulted, please report it to the proper authorities or tell someone you trust. If you are seeking healing from childhood sexual abuse, I recommend The Wounded Heart by Dr. Dan Allender