How can we forgive when the one hurting us doesn’t change? Abbie Robson invites us to explore this daunting question with her powerful story of forgiveness.
When I was a kid, my dad drank. A lot.
It’s hard to pull apart the memories, but I remember alcohol always being there, even before I knew it was a problem. I remember being afraid, and feeling guilty, although I still don’t know for what. And I remember frequently being disappointed, for every time he said he was going to stop drinking, I naively believed him. It never lasted.
Fast forward to adulthood. My dad drinks. A lot.
When I wrote my first book, Secret Scars, I was encouraged by my editor to end it on a happy note. Whilst I didn’t claim in the book that he had stopped drinking, the epilogue certainly suggested that our relationship had been repaired. The truth is, we’re still on the merry-go-round – up and down, round and round, the same arguments over and over again.
I’d always thought that when it was all over, and he stopped drinking, then I’d forgive him. I thought that forgiveness came at the end of the sin, with the forgiven party who would go and sin no more. I had this innocent idea that he would see the light, stop drinking, apologise profusely for everything he’d put us though and beg for forgiveness. I pictured a happy family reunion with tears and hugs and a happy-every-after. As it turns out, I’m probably not going to get this hoped-for resolution. I’ve had to come to the sad but inevitable conclusion that my dad will almost certainly never remain sober for more than a couple of months.
Thinking about forgiving someone when they can’t or won’t change is tricky. Sometimes I’ve felt like I’m putting myself in the firing line for getting hurt. He says sorry; I forgive him; I let my guard down; he starts drinking… and repeat.
So what does forgiveness look like when you can’t see an end to the behaviour you’re supposed to be forgiving? It’s a road often travelled by those of us affected by addiction. Forgiveness feels futile when it’s shrouded in the knowledge that it will probably just keep happening. But since God has commanded us to forgive, it must be possible. He never says it is easy, but he wouldn’t command us to do something that can’t be done.
I need to be clear here. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that everything is ok, or that the things someone does or has done are acceptable**. What it does mean is that I can go to my parents’ house and spend time with my dad, without constantly thinking about what happened last time. It means I can hold a conversation with him about the things that interest us. Will I end up coming away hurt or upset at the end of each visit? Probably. But through my new way of consistently offering him forgiveness, I don’t arrive expecting to be hurt; nor am I still wounded and raw from the last time.
For me, this woundedness is the crux of the whole thing. What I’ve come to learn (much slower than I would have liked) is that forgiving my father actually has very little to do with him. Rather, forgiving him has become about saving myself. When someone keeps on hurting you, there comes a time when the answer becomes forgive, or sink. Forgiveness is a life raft in a situation where nothing else can change. Forgiveness keeps me safe from being hurt over and over again. As a friend of mine says, unforgiveness is like drinking rat poison then waiting for the rat to die. Each time I see my dad I come away with new baggage, and the only way I can deal with it is to bring it to God and forgive, and forgive and forgive.
So, my advice? Start where you are. Don’t wait until everything is hunky dory to begin forgiving, and don’t wait for all the loose ends to be tied up; now is the time. Trust God to put before you what he wants you to deal with, knowing that his love and timing are perfect, and that forgiveness is his gift to you. It’s not about the other person’s sin – it’s about our freedom.
** A very important disclaimer: If someone is hurting you regularly, or if you are unsafe in a relationship or situation, do not stay. Forgiving someone abusive is tricky, but is not the same as staying somewhere or with someone who puts you at risk. I am in the situation where I can continually forgive my father because we don’t live in the same house, and he doesn’t pose any threat to me. Do not stay anywhere you are not safe.
Abbie has been writing ever since she could hold a pencil. She wrote a memoir, Secret Scars (Authentic, 2007), and later, Insight Into Self-Harm (CWR, 2014). She founded and directs Adullam Ministries, an information and resource website and forum about self-harm and related issues. She blogs at Pink and Blue Mummyland and tweets as @AbbieRobson and @AdullamSelfHarm. She lives in Rugby with husband John, children Amelia and Seth, and two cats who still haven’t learned that they don’t run the house.
Amy’s book The Living Cross explores forgiveness through a series of daily Bible readings for Lent. You can find out more about it, and how to purchase, here.