A Theology of Forgiveness: Hope, Sin, & Humanity

humans-.jpg

I’ve spoken and written a disproportionate amount on what forgiveness is not. And for good reason. I have found that on a fundamental level, many Christians around me do not know what it is. The term has been loaded with inadequate, vague or simplistic notions that end up oppressing those severely hurt by evil, preventing the Christian community from being lights in a dark world while becoming obstacles to true forgiveness. And this is more than tragic because forgiveness is part of our birthright as Christians, it is the gift of Christ within our hearts that we can give freely to those around us. It is a powerful weapon we all have within us to fight the powers of darkness. It is a visible proclamation of the Kingdom of God over and against those with a zero-sum conception of power that simultaneously invites them also into new life or condemns their continued rebellion against God.

When we hollow out the term “forgiveness” and replace it with merely “letting go” (of what?), not being angry or making friends with vicious predators, abusers or those who, for whatever reason, wish to continue to hurt us or our loved ones, we functionally support a kingdom of unrighteousness, injustice, and social system where might makes right. Ironically, by insisting that an abuse victim “forgive” the man who just raped her 5 seconds ago, we have despised the Son of God who stood up for and became one with the abused. We have heaped inappropriate and oppressive burdens, and messages on targets to not bother us with their pathetic cries of pain, desperate pleas for solidarity and desire for a world of true peace where they are seen, heard and safe.

Instead, we have opted, inadvertently, to maintain the hold of the one who thinks they should be in the place of God and that they have the right to mangle, warp and rape the image of God. And ironically, by our own simplistic understandings of forgiveness, and like the servant in the parable of the forgiving King, we have refused to “forgive” targets of abuse for sins the perpetrator and community committed. That is, we have insisted targets pay in full a debt they never accumulated both making them reconcile or make right the sins of the perpetrator and by wrongly insisting they harbor a “sin” of bitterness in their trauma thus releasing the rest of us from the responsibility of setting right what we allowed to happen or placing the task of restitution squarely on the one who exploits. We the community further abuse targets as we project onto them the labels of “bitter,” “unrepentant” or “unforgiving.”

That said, before I get further into a theology of forgiveness built off of how I understand biblical teachings on forgiveness, out of necessity, here are some things which forgiveness is not: limited to the ambiguous “letting something go” (the PTSD & traumatized brain will replay the wrong over and over again and this is a brain change and injury not a heart problem), reconciling, enabling further abuse, putting oneself or others in harms way, becoming unjust, denying, pretending or conveniently forgetting something happened rather than do the hard work identifying or sorting through the wrong, always a one time instance that magically makes all the trauma go away, lack of consequences on many levels, automatically restoring one to their original status, remission of ingrained habits and patterns, or impersonal or purely distributive. Additionally, note that forgiveness is one of many things Jesus did AND not everything Jesus did falls under the term “forgiveness” i.e. reconciliation may be related to or made possible sometimes by forgiveness, but is not itself forgiveness.

And now we turn to forgiveness: what it is, why we do it, and how it can be accomplished.

Forgiveness

What is forgiveness? Forgiveness may be defined as, “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” This is not a bad definition. I prefer the following based on how I understand the Scriptures: “Forgiveness is giving up one’s right to hurt another for hurting you. That is, it is forfeiting malice, hate and revenge for specific wrongs committed (whether by commission or omission, on accident or on purpose).” If the conditions are right, forgiveness might serve as a starting point enabling reconciliation, restored or new positive relationships, or, at the very least, prevent a spiral of vengeance on top of vengeance. And if anything, forgiveness as an outworking of the fruits of the Spirit identifies those who are in Christ or are responding (even progressively) to the Spirit’s work.

Forgiveness is rooted in God’s goodness and love that embraces all people without exception. Hence human dignity, value and accountability are also embedded in the forgiveness process and are key to justice. Legal Justice (in a just society or organization) may still hold you accountable for murdering my nephew to ensure more murders do not happen and to identify your behavior as wrong, but I will not be killing yours as payback. You may spread lies about me to my neighbors, bear false witness to authorities or try to tear be down, but I will not do the same towards you. I will not seek to tear you down nor undermine you, I will instead seek your good ‘and’ speak the truth. You may not deserve anything from me, but I did not deserve anything from Christ. I have been given a gift and a new way of living and so I give this gift to you and invite you to join me in doing the same. You grabbed for power, sought to harm and lacked compassion and restraint. I will act out of love, mercy and grace even while still hurting and even when there is no justice or safety for me. I will do this even while seeking safety and well-being for myself. Martin Luther King Jr lived by this while facing abuse, death and racism. Still, he consistently sought “constructive ends” over destructive ones towards those who sought to harm him in a context where he could not get justice for death threats, beatings and murder. He both lived and died by the Gospel of peace both seeking justice and exercising forgiveness while looking ahead towards God’s reconciling work that was possible in even in his time.

A necessary component of forgiveness is identifying, illuminating or voicing the wrong committed internally and ideally, externally. One must recognize a wrong has committed in order to forgive it. This may occur in an instant or over a “pilgrimage.” Many abuse survivors enter into the process of forgiveness as they spend years figuring out what was done to them in the first place, declaring forgiveness anew as new layers of pain and injury are recovered. Additionally, sometimes hurt comes up again and for some this hurt can start to sow bitterness (best not to assume pain = bitterness) and one simply needs to forgive again. To feel these things are not sinful, but they can become so if they are not put under the power of Christ and re-purposed. Forgiveness is both a spiritual battle and a sacred process as one embraces safety in Christ, while delving into moments of pain, suffering the material reality of being unsafe.

Naming the sin empowers those who are injured because it identifies it as something wrong done to them. It is a step in the right direction of justice. Enabling the target to vocalize the wrong committed allows the one who was wronged to stand up straight and say: I am a someone, a person who is worthy of respect. I matter. As such, there are constraints on you to act rightly towards me. Its important to allow this publicly because it also marks a change in community values from protecting the perpetrator to the reintegrating and coming alongside the one wronged. The basis of this ability to name or illuminate the sin is the imago Dei, just as it is also the basis for forgiving another.

In Matthew 8 for example, where it speaks of forgiving one’s brother 70x7, it also says in v15, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault…” and includes layers of others gradually getting involved if the person will not stop their behavior. The immediate basis for this in the text, is God being on the side of the “little ones,” taking great pains as a shepherd to not lose even one, and it being better not to have an eye if it will cause one to stumble. In turn, since God takes great pains to care for, protect and restore his sheep we are warned against doing the opposite to the vulnerable: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” In other words, God is watching and refusing to care for those who are vulnerable or outside the circle will not go unnoticed.

God’s Word further conveys the necessity of one who wrongs another having to face the wrong committed (and not sweeping it under the rug) with this command: “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). In other words, those in charge and the community are not to support or buddy up with the perpetrator in order to display an unbiblical form of “grace” or “forgiveness.” This is called marginalizing the target and promoting injustice. This is not what Jesus did when he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes (the underdogs of society). Rather, the community and leadership are told to visibly side with the target or one wronged and not associate with the one who demonstrates 1) they will not acknowledge their specific sin or 2) change their behavior.

Interestingly, in Revelation 2:20 the term for “forgiveness” is used, but in such a way as to indicate how one should not exercise forgiveness. Note, ἀφεῖς or “forgiveness” is the term used in many other passages on forgiveness (cf. Mark 11:25, Matt 6:9-15, 12:31-32; 18:15, 21-22, 27; 26:28…ect). In Revelation 2:20 the church has “forgiven” or tolerated very wicked behavior, in this case idolatry and sexual immorality, from a false prophet Jezebel who was given opportunities to repent, but wouldn’t.

But I have this against you: you ἀφεῖς that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.

We have multiple indications that a biblical practice of forgiveness is not “wiping the slate clean” or “forgetting” the wrongdoing of someone who persists in sin. The community is not to act as though no wrong is committed when it continues to be committed or when there are not concrete indicators (described above) that the person has repented. “Forgiving” in this unbiblical manner will continue to influence others. In the case of ongoing abuse, one also has a person to defend, protect and restore on top of not allowing someone who will not repent to keep doing evil. Part of what forgiveness is involves the community publicly siding with what is right and with the one who is vulnerable and not publicly acting as though no wrong has been committed in the name of peace. Doing so is not promoting peace, but saving face at the expense of others, and it is acting against God’s expressed wishes.

Further, in my opinion, it is a good idea for a target not to associate with someone who demonstrates perpetual, targeting and destructive behavior towards them since we are told not to associate with those who persist in rebelling against God who call themselves believers, but also because doing so puts you at risk and may serve to further allow them to abuse you. From another angle, don’t help them sin! Limit contact as much as is safe and possible. Unfortunately, this is often not possible when you are not kept safe by or kept safe from the wider community when they side with the perpetrator in their actions.

Truth telling and the naming of sin is necessary for the good of the perpetrator(s). Jesus said, “the truth will set you free,” in the context of his identity and connection to the Father (John 8:32). In this passage, he is referring to those who have held to his teachings and are not enslaved to sin. Those who sin or wrong others are in bondage to sin and cannot be free until they embrace truth in a multifaceted way. They must recognize their sin for what it is and actively pursue a different path, the way of Christ. One who is repentant and actively Christian will demonstrate remorse in the context of acknowledging the wrong without minimizing it or manipulating. I.e. not a letter someone shared with me from an abusive mother where years of physical and emotional abuse were cloaked in an “apology” for an inability to adequately “express her love.” I’ve gotten plenty of these types of letters before too. They belong in the trash.

That said, the target or receiver of a wrong does what is best for themselves and the community and the perpetrator when they name the sin. Without facing sin, there is no transformation and no freedom in Christ. We all need Jesus and we all need each other. Even the well known “sinner’s prayer” involves admitting one is a sinner. Identifying sin allows another person to rectify a wrong and change their heart. It may also help the one wronged avoid festering bitterness or resentment that morph into malice and revenge which are sins. The corruption and nihilism of one person does not necessitate the corruption and forsaken hope of another.

Forgiveness is expressed commitment to God’s values, future, kingdom and fruits of the Spirit even when tempted by others to abandon them. The former holds true even in the absence of wrongs committed against you. Forgiveness is an instance of exemplifying the values of God’s vision of humanity whether those who betray us acknowledge it or not. We seek to be conformed into what God wanted a human to be, the image of the Son. The Son full-heartedly embraced God’s vision for humanity with his ethics even to the point of death and so we also will be willing. In Matthew 26 Jesus acknowledges one will betray him even while saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness in God’s reality remains constant whether or not the one forgiven ultimately choose forgiveness or personal destruction as was the case with Judas. Forgiveness reaches out to the other, but does not force the other. Forgiveness is not based on the merits of the one committing evil, but on the merits of Christ and one’s active agreement with his new way of living (faith). All the better when the one who does the wrong decides to enter into this kingdom reality with us!

Yes, forgiveness has the potential to wipe the slate clean on a relational level, though it is not to be equated with wiping the slate clean interpersonally. And, we can always wipe the slate clean in terms of not holding grudges or seeking revenge (no eye for an eye). However, it is not always possible to do so in the sense that the relationship is restored depending on the level of trauma committed or the unrepentance of the perpetrator (i.e. the ultimate act of forgiveness is not always the person who becomes best buds with her rapist afterwards). Forgiveness has occurred to the ultimate degree by Christ and yet not all forgiven receive eternal life. Some do not want to enter into that kingdom reality like Judas above. There is indeed tension between God’s kingdom reality and things not being quite right in the here and now, yet no contradiction when it comes to following after Christ. Hebrews 10:17 recalls, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” for those who the law of God is written on the heart and yet also, “he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool” (v13). And even in Numbers 14:18-25 we get a lengthy expression from Moses on God’s forgiving and merciful heart. God decides to forgive Israel for their wrong, but still rules that those who tested him will not enter the promised land. It turns out, God has boundaries.

All of this to say, yes the Bible speaks of hurling sins into the sea, but not without context or qualification.

Still, relational restoration is often possible when there is forgiveness and whenever possible should be pursued! When everyone cooperates with God, amazing things happen. I can see in the face of each person the potential of God’s love to transform them into the person they were meant to be just as I can be transformed. There is hope for every person in Christ. It is this hope that led Martin Luther King Jr to speak of his oppressors as brothers! And to look ahead to the day when they will walk “hand in hand.” He did not only see murders, de-humanizers, and racists, but also sick brothers who although they claimed the cross, still needed the cross. They said they worshiped a crucified Christ and yet nailed and hung black men, women and children, loved by God and agents of his world, to trees. He did not deny reality, but saw more into it.

Even when one looks in the face of another who is full of hate or fear or power lust we can see hope for the present and if not the present, overcoming someday…in the Lord’s day if they will give their lives to God and renounce their demonstrated allegiance to Satan and the world. This drive can inspire us to forgive again and again 70x7 through trauma, through continued slights, disrespect, dehumanization, and destruction and through loss. Forgiveness is our offering to Christ even if a restored relationship will only be realized in the eschaton. “See you then!”

Forgiveness is compatible with safety and distancing.

When someone has slighted me, I am generally quick to overlook it. I generally also make tons of allowances for extenuating circumstances, disorders, people being deceived, immature, dropped on their heads as children…etc. And really, its not like I am perfect either and I hope others will forgive me when I have been grumpy, selfish, desperate, or misinformed. I also tend to have a quick bounce back and am not easily injured regardless of how “mean” someone is, and so I am generally able to resume as normal even if someone does not do the right thing and own up to it. Frankly, I usually do not even remember what they did a couple of hours or minutes later. Sometimes, forgiveness can be forgetting especially if the slight need not be significant. But then there is prolonged abuse and trauma which creates changes in the brain that are out of one’s control.

When someone has caused me severe damage (no, not hurt feelings), habitually abused me or exhibited patterned behavior and I am in a context that is safe to have boundaries, I gauge whether someone is ready for reconciliation or whether I should believe them when they make overratures before I restore relationships with them. Although, it does not mean I will never try and restore baseline friendliness if they still hate me, are angry or hostile. Contrary to popular belief, most people who cannot “let it go” are those who hurt others and won’t own up to their actions. They want to keep believing the people they hurt are the problem or attempt to force subservience and silence in the name of peace. Far from the good Samaritans, they are the thieves that attack the vulnerable and leave him on the side of the road to die and prefer he remain out of sight and out of mind.

That said, here is what I look for if someone who has done something habitually and extreme enough wishes to be friends or have a relationship that goes beyond casual, baseline friendly or required professionalism:

1) Have they named their specific sin? Or have they owned up to something much smaller, minimized it, avoided, or denied it?

2) Have they apologized for their specific sin? Not: “I am sorry you feel that way” or other variations that avoid actual responsibility.

3) Have they indicated remorse and committed to not doing it again?

4) Have they actually made restitution or attempted reconciliation?

That is, have they attempted to set things that they made wrong right? If they told lies about you have they set the record straight? If they injured you have they paid your medical bills? If they stole X have they replaced it or if unable to directly undo the damage made an effort to help in a way that they can?

In the context of those exhibiting predatory and abusive behavior, further:

5) Have they bound themselves with an outside force of accountability so that they will not easily be able to hurt you again?

6) Have they gotten help? Abuse is a habitual pattern of behavior based in problems with the love of power (i.e. sexual abuse is not about sex and physical abuse is not about anger). They need professional help to address this.

Without these, I do not trust they have repented or that I will be safe with them so I keep them at an arms length. Some of the above I apply towards a community or group that exhibits sexist, racist, or marginalizing behavior on purpose or not, but it depends on the pervasiveness and severity of the marginalization or joining/buying in on abuse or siding with the predator if there is one. One size does not fit all.

Some red flags that you should try and keep even more distance from the person if they exhibit these in the context of your attempts to lay down some basic boundaries or if they do these when “apologizing:” Go on a psychotic rant or fit of rage about your inferiority and their superiority (trust me, it happens), attempt to manipulate you or keep you in line, attempt to confuse you by making it all about you and your issue somehow somehow, attempt to make themselves your “resource” for recovery (power play). If you see/hear these, stay away and seek further protection. Head over heart here. Yes, they may indeed be hurting, had a sad life, have extenuating circumstances…etc. but that is something for them to work out with their therapist, not you. Don’t be their power drug “supply.”

Scripture calls us to be oriented towards peace, not revenge. The former should be our active disposition regardless of any wrong committed. We pray for everyone so “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2). Still, although we may seek peace, not everyone will. Some will seek the destruction of others for their own gain and some (including ourselves) will have moments of vice and selfishness. Romans 12:14-21 tells us how to treat those who wrong us in the context of a general Christian disposition of recognizing the value in others and not seeing ourselves through an inflated lens: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse,” “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” live in peace as much as others will allow for it, and seek the good of those who seek what they think is their own good at your expense. The entire passage is as follows:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

A last word on this before moving forward, those who have a distorted view of themselves will not like it when you meet their evil with loving-kindness and decency, when you do not regard them as superior, but as an equal and when you treat yourself as a fellow human being. They will be enraged and insulted. But there will also be those who will be grieved and want to make changes, even if it takes a long time. The Bible consistently calls for those considered “low” to see themselves as higher up and those who perceive themselves “high” to lower themselves so that we can rightly see one another face to face. Many who habitually hurt others are unable to grasp this reality for whatever reason. They are like rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was unable to “see” Lazarus while alive and so was not truly a child of Abraham. Even while in hell, perhaps connected to his way of life, he still could not perceive “Lazarus” rightly, demanding that Lazarus leave Abraham’s bosom to come and serve him! Its absurd, but it is the prison many live in. If you are in the right frame of mind, have pity on those trapped in a hell of their own making.

The key here is to continue on proclaiming a new kingdom with new social norms and continue to be transformed into the image of the Son. Others can take it or leave it, join in or not. Let God deal with it.

Why Forgive?

Why forgive? Because, in keeping with the wording of Romans 12 (some of which is quoted above), it is the logical or natural (λογικὴν) response for a life oriented towards worship of God and transformation (12:1-2). The Spirit has worked in us to bring about a different character and way of navigating through life than those around us. The world patterns itself in such a way as to elevate the self, whereas we pattern ourselves after Christ. How we act at our jobs, churches, online or in person matters. We do not start to live our “real” lives once we leave work. How we worship God in our treatment of others defines us in all places.

Our overall disposition must be one of loving others. Who we serve whether God or the world, is evident in who we associate with and how. Put another way, those who want to move up the ladder in organizations to accumulate power, position and wealth for themselves position themselves towards this end by associating with and flattering those above them. Those pursing a calling and future with the Lord, associate with and lavish on others based on their inherent worth as human beings. This includes those who others discount, those who cannot “repay” them. Biblicaly, it is more imperative to associate with the latter given the example of Christ who also pointed out that God notices when one invites “friends” who can pay us back while leaving the poor out. Forgiveness is an extension of the general principle of giving without strings attached, and without expecting anything in return since we are “storing up treasures in heaven.” Our actions reveal what we have invested in whether God’s future or the worship of the self or idols.

We forgive because we desire the thriving of others whether friends or enemies. In 1 Timothy 2 we are told to pray for others on the basis that God desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of him. Additionally, 1 Corinthians 13 tells us what love is: patient, kind and that it does not envy or boast…really it paints a picture of one who values others and does not value themselves at the expense of others. Unlike worldly conceptions of power, one’s position is not viewed in zero sum terms in Scripture. When someone wrongs us and we are in a position to hurt them with or without them knowing, we refrain. When someone is repentant and has demonstrated it, we do not attempt to shame them by reminding them of their wrong. When the other must be held accountable for their actions, we do not try to shield them from it, but we do use self-restraint and not try and inflict maximal or as much damage as possible. Maybe we do on occasion refrain from having them face the consequences (be careful here). One size does not fit every situation.

There is generally no reward for helping someone who has proven they will keep being your enemy, but we can do it out of love. Often those we must forgive will not accept forgiveness. They might. But often they won’t. Either way, we continue on in our worship of God whether wronged or just going about our day. Our bodies are offered to God as “living sacrifices” hence we follow a different path than others that is consistent with out life orientation. We have bought into the vision of God’s kingdom and walk accordingly.

Ultimately, alongside the inherent worth of a human being, our basis for forgiveness moving forward is that we were forgiven by Christ. In Ephesians 4:31-32 we are told to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” God knew we would crucify him yet he still came to live among us and show us a better way. God wanted us to see how far he would go to forgive us and asked that we would follow in his footsteps. We owe forgiveness towards others to the God of love.

What about anger? Well, sometimes we get angry. Jesus was angry at times. Its human. Jesus was human and without sin. And it is ok to be angry at someone and certainly at a horrible situation. The sentiment we should follow in the above passage (if we do not want to contradict with other passages) is not to cease to be angry perse, but not harbor it in a way that wants harm for the person or resents them. Just right above this statement we are told how we are to be angry. Ephesians 4: 25-28

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Interestingly, the behavior attached to anger in these verses is a slew of outright sins all associated with the consequences of not regarding others as part of oneself: lying, deception, brooding, and stealing. In the place of negative actions are positive things: telling the truth, working instead of stealing so that one can share with others. The idea here is not to remain in a perpetual state where one entertains hurting another person or sinning. And note, most of these sins in the context of not being angry seem to easily go with the one who wrongs the other! Sometimes in our quest for vengeance (a twisted form of restitution) we have failed to see that we are actually the perpetrator!

We are to look upon others with compassion. They are a person and people make mistakes, sin on purpose and can also be quite cruel. None of us were not made for those things, but it is what some do. Those who continue to sin, refuse to be reconciled with those they wrong or repent are described as enslaved to sin (see discussion further above). They are not free. They do not know that life in Christ is worth all of the punishment they can dish out and more. Often, they are not easily able to do other than sin because they have not been liberated. They have not pledged their allegiance (faith) to Christ or are not listening to or working with the Spirit. If they did, their life would be so much better. They would not need to try and survive with layers of pacifying lies and manipulations, with power plays, by hiding and avoiding, by stealing, by projecting their faults onto others. They would not need to live drowned in their own torment and guilt offset by compensating “greatness.” They would not need to become their narcissistic masks. And all of us sin. No, not all sins are equal (the Bible describes degrees of punishments depending on wrong doings and has a list of what God hates the most), but we all have those parts of us that are not surrendered yet to God. We all have work to do and it is an honor to enter that process with another person. When we forgive and restore relationships (where possible) we have opportunities to grow ourselves.

How to forgive

How does one forgive? Maybe it will look different for different people in different situations. Ideally one forgives almost automatically out of the abundance of the life and hope given even in those days where one is flooded with fear, despair and depression. When days seem darkest and one is plagued by horrific images: the flash of the eyes, the patterns on the wall and the years of personal deconstruction from years past (people go through many things over the course of a life time). Or when that person(s) you helped turned on you even after swearing they would never do it again. When you just got back from the ER and those who helped marginalize you snicker behind your back as you struggle through the day. When others did not do all that they could or thought it was ok for your health to decline because they had other priorities. Or when you have been traumatized and act traumatized and the people who caused it use it as proof that you were X all along or lacking in character and you feel helpless.

For me personally, I see through a lot. I’ve also been tricked. I have trusted people I shouldn’t have, people I had no choice but to and in varying degrees. I’ve been let down in major and minor ways. This is part of life. I’ve seen a million and one apologies and “apologies” made to various people including myself. Many were manipulative, some by those who merely felt bad and wanted to save face after exposed (they did not apologize again when it mean exposing themselves), some from people who felt they meant them (even had me fooled) and then did it again, and some by those who made real changes. I’ve been told by this or that person through the years that they were going to help me in X way, make X changes…etc. One even looked me in the eyes and said “I can tell you don’t believe me, just watch.” Nothing changed. They checked in to make sure I was saying “hello” to my predator.

Given life experience for major or minor things, when I forgive I generally do not believe the people I am forgiving will change. Often I don’t feel anything when I am severely wronged or when someone tries to turn it around, too much has happened over the years. But somehow the promise of the kingdom and participation in it and with it forgiveness, seems greater than the consequences of the hurt.

And I speak generally of no one instance in this space.

Generally, I try and think about how to get through or survive another day. To be honest, forgiveness at this stage in my life is not something I struggle with much. I’ve had years of practice. I am not saying it was not easy or that I am perfect. What has helped me in the past that has been internalized was seeing Christ in the dark. To see beyond the painful and dark present and into the light that will be manifest. I would think of the love of God that both embraces me as an individual in all my particularity and also wraps around and covers everyone around me. It was understanding that although I was the lonely child who did not have anyone to sit with at lunch that had Jesus visited my school he would have sat with me and simultaneously being taught by the Spirit and Scripture that I was to do the same. It was the Spirit teaching me over the years how much he loved all of us and wanted us to be with him. I’ve bought into the Incarnation, his life, death and resurrection. Ultimately, I want what he wants and believe anything is possible in the present because of God’s future.

I have learned that one is emboldened to forgive when they want more than anything to be like Christ, are open to the work of the Spirit—and ask for it often—and take a good look at themselves sorting through and working through everything not of God. Even now, I try my best to own up to personal failing, mistakes and those corners of the self one would like to hide from, cover or pretend do not exist and expose them inwardly, bringing them to God and continuing to ask for help. It is being mindful of that feeling that one is frozen and scared of that inner darkness and slowly releasing it and thinking “its ok, God is with me.” It is being able to go to others to admit wrong doing whether normal mistakes and imperfections or moral failings and trusting in God and his formation. That way, when someone comes to me for forgiveness or slights me in the moment I can let go of that same part of the false “self” that wants to hold tight to a false image or hold tight onto a twisted form of status or ego and instead open my hand and then take theirs. Love in the context of forgiveness both insists those “above” are really your equals in the Lord (it perspectivally lowers them if they are in power), but also attempts to raise those who feel low, up.

For me, having empathy for another person and trying to see things from their perspective, their internal walls and obstacles also helps with forgiveness. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with their actions, outlook on life or reasoning, but it helps to bring those who anger or hurt me into perspective. Personality wise, I already tend towards “liking” people. On the downside, when I misjudge people it tends to be for the better and this can be dangerous. Still, on the advantage, I find it helpful to perceive and bring out their good qualities which are God given and formed and be constructive when interacting with them when I can and where possible. I do not make up good things or pretend good is there when it isn’t, but everyone is made in God’s image and there is usually some good. And where it is not perceived there is always Jesus to remember.

So, to sum up how I forgive: I use what was developed and learned from my relationship with God to recognize the human in myself (both in terms of what I was created to be and what still needs formation), in others and in Christ and let the latter animate and re-contextualize the good and bad of the former. Despite my tendency to try and snatch joy and happiness from snippets of life, my life is not always happy. But I find it worthwhile. I know very well what it is like to be an injured human who does not always feel good and my understanding of forgiveness informed by Scripture helps me to be patient with myself and others going through hard times. And I am able to see suffering, lack, deprivation and shortcomings great and small through the lens of the Crucified Messiah who rose again and will raise us up with him one day. Life is not easy, but I see forgiveness as an opportunity, one of those good things we can do in the name of Christ and hope that others will do the same for me.

-AQ

The Sin of "Grace"

Holiness.jpg
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The evangelical world, broadly speaking, is in turmoil. At least, it should be over the rampant sexual abuse, exploitation and systematic dis-empowerment of women in their churches. In the words of Al Mohler regarding the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), “judgment has come.”[1] But this is not just a “Southern Baptist” problem. True, the SBC became what it is today through well documented conspiratorial power grabs, eliminating moderate dissent and promoting a male-only view of leadership (what could go wrong?), but they are not alone in the promulgation of their theology and misconduct.   

Maybe as a whole, we evangelicals are a mix of those who are horrified by the exposures (most recently out of the Southern Baptist denomination), those who are dismissive and those who are hopeful either because we have faced horrendous obstacles by abuse from our own or openly advocate for those who have. I tend to think we are finally at a point, comparatively, where our problems are more difficult to ignore, more difficult to further pile on those exploited. And yet, in the midst of this a haunting dichotomy lingers: judgment vs. grace. Didn’t Jesus die for the sins of the worst sinners? Didn’t he eat with the sinners? Wasn’t he the one that said, “go and sin no more” and desires us to have the same response towards the fallen?

I believe we fundamentally misunderstand grace and judgment if we see them as polar opposites or dichotomous. They are not.

There is actually a consistency between what God says he likes and dislikes and how he responds to others. The God of the Bible repeatedly makes it clear that he detests those who prey upon the vulnerable and promote injustice. He says that he is sick of the outward religiosity and that really didn’t change between the Old and New Testament. All of Amos 5 stands as God’s scathing critique of evil:

21 I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
23 Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

 Then enters Jesus. The God, the Word, who “tabernacled” (ἐσκήνωσεν) among us (John 1:14). To put it mildly, he was not thrilled with what was happening in the temple of his day and he was not thrilled with the sins of the religious leaders. So often, the picture painted of the religious leaders vs. the people of Jesus’ day by evangelicals is one of stringent rules vs. people who are unable to follow them. However, this is not quite right.

Sometimes, those who are the most judgmental are the most willfully evil.

The Holy Elites vs. “The Sinners?”

Let’s take a look at how the biblical text describes these religious elites. Certainly they lacked grace for those “outside the circle,” but was their crime really their attempts to be holy? Was their problem really that they just had such high standards and no grace for those who couldn’t be as holy as they were? Not so much.

Luke 20:47 says they “devour widows houses.” They are identified as “children of snakes,” “evil,” “guilty” and will have to answer for themselves on Judgment Day in Matt 12:34-37. In Matthew 23 Jesus points out that they do not in fact “practice what they teach.” Instead, they crush others. They love the show of holiness, but they are really “hypocrites” and “children of hell,” “greedy,” “self-indulgent,” “lawless.” Sure, they love to do lots of outward signs for show—as do many of our “men” of God today—but they ignore “other aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.”

Then lets look and see how they treated Jesus. Sure they claimed they were just concerned about the law, but most of their actions expose an underlying power hungry jealously to the extent that they are well known to have broken the law to get an innocent man, in this case Jesus, killed. And this was not the first time. In Matthew Jesus points out that God sent them prophets and teachers of the law but they killed some by crucifixion, flogged others in the synagogues, and displaced others. They “will be held responsible for the murder of all godly people.”

What about the so-called sinners Jesus ate with? True, often the crowd or religious leaders called them sinners but seldom does the text (with some exceptions such as the woman at the well or the later addition to John of the woman about to be stoned). However, these people are often extremely marginalized and made out to be the evil ones. And the ones who did have sin and were marginalized are invited into grace—to live on without sin—and change their life.

The Sin of “Grace” i.e. Injustice

The consistent voice of the Bible is that God desires the protection and value of those individuals society and even the religious community wrongly devalues. AND there is a consistent call for the exposure and displacement of those who prey on other people. But we have it all backwards, we heap rhetoric of “grace” without restitution on serial abusers enabling them to continue their activity and by extension forcing their victims to march on with the weight of their burden strapped to their backs. We enable abusive behavior and use perverse interpretations of Scripture to do it. We take the Lord’s name in vain. And those who have suffered? We decide what they really need is to “forgive.” That is the go-to. And by forgive we mean “moving on” i.e. not being hurt, angry or insisting on justice and even maintaining messed up relationships with abusers. We do not wish to hear of their anguish. It’s tiresome. And we feel good about ourselves because we have extended “grace.” But not for them.

The God of the Bible has consistently called for grace towards those who stumble and repent and doubly those who are exploited and marginalized. The God of the Bible has consistently hated serial evil aka abuse and injustice. Hate may be an understatement. The God of the Bible has consistently loved those who try and live a holy, righteous life in their interactions with others. He is a God of love and wants us to be people of love. Grace and judgment flow from the common fountain of divine love. And in the context of this discussion love means propagating justice in the every day. Jesus called out the powerful regardless of rank and attempted to shame them in public for clear, willful exploitive behavior and he physically sat with and ate with those who were not in the “in crowd.” He identified himself with them and identified them as the people of God (i.e. Sons or daughters of Abraham).

Church, go and sin no more.

 

[1] "Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention. The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance. There can be no doubt that this story is not over."

 

 

Let There Be Light

Screen Shot 2018-01-19 at 4.20.30 PM.png

Stalking projections, anxious, you've begun—

Implement your “grand schemes,” ready the knife

Speak deceptively into the void—

What you meant to destroy he breathes his life.

 

“Let there be light,” Redemption parts your sea

Scattering the darkness before my path

The Man of Sorrows walks alongside me

His narrative renaming Satan’s wrath.

 

The eyes of the Lord see your violent heart

But darkness illuminated turns bright

Painted into him, recreated art

Hope manifested in the darkest night.

 

Grace dawns, encompassing all in its light

Sin’s spiral fading, collapsing figments

Hope born of Eve out of Satan’s blight

Transfiguration of life contingent.

 

Don’t you know, our lives are fleeting?

A breath—

A moment in time—

After all, our ‘end’ in him redeeming

His breath—

His love poured, sublime—

 

Oh, that veiled face, history’s dawn!

Joy emanating, He runs. For “It is done!”

 

--AQ©

Surviving Psychological Warfare From Abusive People

11855739_1176053922410250_4602490267678569657_n.jpg

"Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

-Psalm 46:10-11

Initially, I did not want to believe what was happening even as I sensed it. What were the chances? And yet, I felt the threat in my environment before my brain could make all the connections. Once I acknowledged what was happening to myself, I quickly started running through my checklist of what to expect. I knew more than likely I would have no help, the wider group would turn on & try and punish me believing the abusive person in part or entirely. I also knew to expect to either eventually be eliminated (any reputation I had would not matter) or suffer for possibly years. Oh, and then there would be those instances that somehow it was my fault to X degree I was targeted and questions about forgiveness if I ever, ever told anyone about it. I was not so concerned with this part of it, I am frankly used to it. Still, one more thing to deal with.

I was scared. I knew what was ahead and did not want to go there, yet go there I was. Still, it helped to go in afresh already understanding some basic power dynamics and having some tools in my tool bag.

What follows are only some of my basic strategies for dealing with abusive people. More specifically, how to survive psychologically while being repeatedly targeted. "Targeting" is behavior that is ongoing (if not predatory), harmful and directed at you. The behavior can take the form of a person(s) continually projecting their insecurities onto you by continuously harassing, belittling, physically hurting, trying to humiliate, embarrass, isolate you and/or ruin your reputation. I've even had at one time someone follow me around and lie about me to everyone I tried to talk to as a new person at some point in life.

The goal of the abusive person is zero-sum: In order for me to maintain my image of myself, become greater or feel big you must be destroyed. It is a mistake to attribute this to insecurity. Rather, it is an inflated ego that must consume all in its path at whatever cost. It is about their need for power and control and they have targeted you as a threat to that. I do not have any special education in this area, only my own experience, and some informal research. Take my advice as just that and adapt according to your specific situation and seek professional counsel in cases of physical abuse. For prayer, more specific examples or strategies (including tactics) that are not included here please contact me via email: allisonquient@hotmail.com.

Before I begin, please note that I am absolutely opposed to revenge and believe you should, if you can, remove yourself from the situation or avoid these people! However, this is not always possible. Sometimes they will try and use people in power to try and yank you back into their clutches (or are the people in power). They may even try and follow and sabotage you. Apply the following as aids of resilience to help you hold out until you can escape:

  • Formation of Your Core

  • Being Still/Quiet Inside

  • Know the Board/Battle Field

Formation of Your Core

Understand that at its core the abusive behavior is about power and control. They want to have control over your person and identity so that they can be "bigger." You must have a strong sense of self to resist their advances. In elementary school, people with weaknesses are targeted for those weaknesses, but more often among adults, it is done toward those who are in some way or another perceived as "threats." More than likely you were targeted because you represent a threat, not because you are deficient.

A narrative of "deficiency" is a tactic the abusive person employs, not the motivating factor. This might be because you have something they want. Perhaps you are liked, talented, you threaten their paradigm, you are different in some way...etc. It could also be that they have this hole in their life and need to project their faults and motives onto someone else. In the case of bullying, statistically bully targets are independent, highly skilled, have a high level of emotional intelligence, altruistic, intelligent and otherwise well liked. I even experienced a backlash at one point because, in addition to everything else, I would not go along with at least three attempts of a targeter to smear a leader who was correcting this person's errors. Sadly, the favor was not returned by this leader when it was my turn. Regrets? NOPE. All of this to say, it is not you, it's them, 100%. Don't give equal validity to the characterizations of manipulative and abusive people.

Primarily, you are engaged in psychological warfare and must be resilient and established in your sense of self. Your objective once you know you are being bullied, harassed, abused: survive and continue your right to your vocational calling to live out of God's love. Let God be manifest in your situation and form you in the process of destruction (Seeing Christ in the Dark). If you cannot leave or remove yourself from the situation, think: You may do X to me but I will pray, be formed in the light of Christ and oppose you with all the means at my disposal. However, they will wear you down with their negative messages whether you believe them or not and you must keep resisting especially when they gaslight you or make you think it is all in your head (switching between them having your best interest in mind, but then again, you are just an "incompetent piece of crap"). This can also take the form of constant subtle messages that are highly contextual and will make you sound like a crazy person if you try and tell anyone else.

Clear the next several months if possible and figure out ways to lower the inflammation in your body (low impact exercise, massages, herbal remedies...etc), buy some food that your stomach can handle under extreme stress when you do not want to eat (ex: Miso), and you will probably need Vitamin B Complex (or nutritional yeast) in a few weeks. 

Over time you will start to not be able to recognize yourself as easily. You will be constantly on edge from hypervigilance, may have internalized some of the narratives, or started to act and think in ways adapted to a dysfunctional environment. After I had gathered enough information to know what was going on, develop and implement a survival strategy, I found I was still on edge and way too aware of everything around me. After several months this was unsustainable and I was drained. I had even absorbed another person's anxiety (INFJ habit)! It was time to consciously remember who I was and separate myself from what I was absorbing from my environment while still allowing myself to perceive what I needed to (contact me for details on how to create psychological boundaries).

That said, contact several friends outside of the situation who can remind you of who you are over an extended period of time. Be proactive now so you are in a better position to put up a fight because eventually, you will not be able to think as clearly. You are a human being and humans need community and belonging. Expect pain from extended isolation and personal attacks even if going in prepared.

As believers, our sense of self comes from our identity in Christ, our God who will never leave us nor forsake us and sees within us infinite value, worth, and dignity. What will ultimately keep you going is: 1) Hope, 2) A clear understanding of who you are and 3) conviction that you are not alone. First, recognize that this will not last forever and rest assured in God's future reconciliation of the world. Take a moment to breath realizing it may not seem like it, but this will not last forever. Our hope is in God's kingdom come and his will done on earth as it is in heaven. On this basis, we can pray for our everyday sustenance and survival in the here and now. God's hope is 'why' we can keep fighting and pressing on (Resisting Evil). Find passages to meditate on (Psalms are great) in times of discouragement and find liturgical prayers and icons for when you are run down, and your mind is less articulate (there will be physiological changes over an extended period). 

Second, know yourself very well. Regarding weaknesses, DO NOT let abusive people define you. They will twist minor things into major things and even make stuff up. They will block you from social resources and barrage you with crazy messages about yourself. It's their pattern. Expect it. Don't even take the time to consider the supposed "kernel of truth." If you need outside input, depend on people who have proven themselves to be friends calling you out when you are wrong and encouraging you in what is good. In other words, internalize NOTHING from an abusive person since their thinking and habits are distorted and unreliable. Do NOT grant anything to them and do NOT use their evil behavior as opportunities for reflecting on your faults. This also means having strong psychological boundaries where the abusive person's reactions are on them and you do not take responsibility in any way shape or form. Those of us who have grown up in abusive contexts often have what I call a rigid cause and effect type thinking. I spilled the milk, therefore, I am responsible for you flying off the handle. Or, you did X horrible things, I reported it and you got in trouble, therefore I am to blame for what happened to you. You are not responsible for their mess.

To complicate matters further, those around you will most likely turn on you, try and heap guilt and responsibility on you, and if someone is actively lying about you, others will most likely believe them! Expect it. Plan on it. Move your next several months around and plan out little retreats. If they have not completely bought into the abuser's narrative, they will at least think you are responsible for not defending yourself properly, for not just "ignoring" it, or you somehow had it coming in some way. Often the abusive person has sucked others into their constructed narrative about you to rationalize their behavior and sabotage you ahead of time. At the very least, hold onto who you are and don't get lost in the narrative yourself. Listen to God's voice in prayer and in his word and let him breathe truth into your mind when everything gets chaotic and distorted. 

Lastly, know you are not alone. God is with you. You must pray, and pray often because God will help protect and form your inner self during this awful time and because sometimes he will rescue you from the situation itself. Much could be said on this point (see my other posts). That said, get outside help in the form of friends, coworkers, people from church, family...etc anyone who will support you. Avoid like the plague those who have the knee-jerk reaction to assign you blame or add moral responsibilities of forgiveness, politeness or anything really while you are in the middle of fighting for your life.

Unfortunately, you must be calm, collected, outwardly snap happy and polite, but out of necessity so that others do not attack you, not out of moral obligation or imperative. I watched in awe as a woman who was still being harassed legally by a rich physical abuser (beat her up while pregnant with racial slurs) spoke to him on the phone. Think: fake Flanders family from the Simpsons. She knew she had to be polite, cheerful and careful otherwise it would be used against her. This is not something I do well as an introvert. When I am gloomy I want to be by myself and hide! Do your best. No one is perfect. Still, count on the abusive person using your "bad attitude" against you after they run you over for months or years. 

If possible get people who will keep you grounded, will concretely protect you, will help you navigate/strategize and will stand up for you if they are in a position to. You will need the wisdom of others to counteract the trauma or fatigue from having to be fake happy or calm for extended periods while fighting off the barrage of cloaked intentions, insults, overt aggression...etc.

 Being Still/Quiet Inside

Coming out on the other side of an anxiety disorder I have been learning what it means to be still and quiet inside in the midst of chaos, but as a healthy individual whose mind will not be flooded with abnormal amounts of anxiety outside of my control. In Psalm 46 it describes having a solid trust based off of who God is, the works God has done in the past and hope for tomorrow amidst poetic catastrophe. When you are being attacked verbally or physically, are having to frantically deduce pieces of gossip/lies being spread about you, or are shocked to discover you have been manipulated by someone, breathe. Internally take a step back and try and see the situation for what it is without panic. Your heart may still be racing and your head swimming because your body perceives a threat. You are being threatened and let your body respond accordingly. It is ok. You can be calm even while your body is flooded. Focus your mind on Christ who went before you and is beside you, the Spirit who is in and around you and the Father who loves and guides you. 

Directing your attention to God,  separate yourself internally from any lies, distortions or catastrophic thinking (hopelessness). Know that God is with you and on your side. Ask him for help and direct your mind to the "fight" part of fight or flight using your body's readiness for survival to your advantage. What can you observe in the moment? Do you see any openings or useful pieces of information? Become fluid and adaptable without fixating on disturbing elements. Survival depends on you being able to see the changing landscape and being able to change accordingly. You can be adaptable because your stable core is Christ and this will free you to let go of the fear in some moments and get things done. This also means being open to the Spirit's work and voice and following what is said. It also means reading the room and your opponent if you are physically or metaphorically fighting. What are his or her eyes telegraphing of their movements? If you fixate on the hand or foot coming at you, you will get hit. Look for where the abuser is going and react accordingly and wisely. Can you move out of the way? Is there a door near by? If it is the room you are reading, what do you hear or see and when? I was able to deduce some key lies being spread about me on time simply by noting silences, pauses and an innuendo or two and figuring out the themes/common elements. I was then able to figure out I was in danger, what I could counter and what I had to let go and move around. 

If you are being manipulated or harmed covertly, do not be given over to desperate moves out of panic. Calculate, but do not hesitate. Move when there is a clear or more reasonable path (you may need to use other people's minds to help you see clearly). And for heaven's sake, do not tell the villain of the story you know all about their evil plan! Sure they may have been doing this forever, and you will feel better and dignified in the moment, but it is better to keep your cards close to your chest. You may be able to out step them since you know their game. Think of it as a game. If you know how they will attack, you can be prepared and turn their attack against you against them. If you tell them what you know, they will try something else. Also, note that if someone is exhibiting predatory behavior (habitual + targeted) you will not be able to reason with them or confront them in a healthy way. You are probably high in empathy and just want peace. They don't. Don't tell them anything. Move out of their way and protect yourself instead. 

Also, note that outwardly you are not allowed to be upset. Is this horribly dysfunctional? You bet. Unfortunately, as the victim, being upset only works against you. If you are visibly offended, hurt, angry or sad often the group will turn on you faster and the abusive person will only go further in for the kill. It's messed up, but mostly true. Be hurt and sad with people you trust outside of the situation and bring it to the Lord. For now, push it aside to process in a safe place. Seek counseling if you begin to have PTSD symptoms resulting from this drawn-out encounter. 

Eventually, you will get worn out and it will cost you some ground. It's ok. Regroup, and fight another day. Try and take control of the moment when you can, but be prepared to play the long game. Many people beat themselves up about not having snappy comebacks to give to abusive people. I had tons of snappy comebacks this last time around (these people were not difficult to outsmart even without my resorting to insults or equal meanness). It didn't matter, they just went behind my back. Still, I was regularly able to take control of the moment and buy time in the long run. My aim was not to feel better about myself, but to buy time. I played dumb (What? You are speaking "covertly" about me in front of me??? I have no idea!) and wrote down their behavior for my own analysis and in case I needed to connect it to evidence later. Your advantage over most abusive people will be your ability to plan ahead, predict behavior (because you have observed their trends/patterns of behavior) and think several steps ahead to the future.

Know the Board/Battle Field

In any good strategy game, it is key to know the playing field and terrain. Know what areas are open for you to move to safety, what you can avoid and what you cannot. Use your flexibility to bend what you can bend and move around what you cannot. Know what areas your opponent is not prepared to fight you and try to move him or her to that place. You may even be able to bait them to move their attacks with a fake weakness you create over weeks. They will figure it out eventually, but you will have bought time and gathered more information. Sometimes you can get your opponent to move to attack a fake weakness. This can function to confirm their intentions in that in-between time when you feel you may be insane and are not sure if something is even going on. It can also allow you some breathing time if they were continually attacking a point of agitation.  

But first, you have to realize you are being targeted in the first place. This is difficult because often you find out late in their game. A recent bout I had was difficult to detect because it thrived in a culture of jokes and pranks. It was fun. To start with, those that know me know I tend to take very little personally (even when folks are directly and intentionally insulting). For a long while, I just didn't care and did not read in any malicious intent. However, sometimes the first clues are subconscious. At other times, you just think you are dealing with some other dysfunctional behavior and don't read too much into it. Either way, I still recommend not jumping to conclusions, but looking for prolonged patterns of behavior. Still, if you have grown up in abuse sometimes it is difficult to realize you are in it, even if the person is physically harming you. It may help to just look at the behavior patterns and separate your judgment from it so you can at least see that something is occurring: maybe they fly into fits of rage several times a week and blame you for a messy house that they had a hand in.

Once you have a sense of what is going on, do not try and confront them yourself. Statistically, this seldom works. If you have others who will back you, great! In most of my encounters or in those friends I helped, this was not the case. Still, do not try and just avoid them, they have targeted you and will continue to come after you. And beware of giving the metaphorical Hitler more tiny countries to appease his power lust. They will just keep after you and take more. A relative had her bully constantly trying to take her vacation slot not because she wanted/needed it, but because she didn't want her target to have it knowing it meant a lot to her. It was another means of control. Expect lots of little power plays aimed at making you feel worthless and powerless. Be careful with granting these because they will keep advancing if you give in, but if you fight overtly you will appear petty and unreasonable. 

By virtue of being targeted, you are starting out at a disadvantage. Their object is to destroy you and your object is to survive. Here is the terrain advantage you can know they have going in: 1) They have the element of surprise. If it is not physical abuse or done by a person no one likes, chances are they are good at what they do. It has probably taken a while to figure out what has been going on unless you are a paranoid disordered person yourself with a thin skin who sees threats under every rock and in every corner.  2) They are attacking you and using unethical means to do so (you are in the position of defense and must remain ethical). 3) They have probably already gotten others on their "side" through gifts, smiles, flattery...etc. Hey, they survived this long without getting the boot. They probably have some sense. And the sad reality is, people usually believe the lie.

Knowing the basics of your position, try and sniff out an outline of your situation including any particulars available. Who is the instigator? This may be several people. They may be difficult to detect since the group will often follow the leader and also try and clobber you. Sometimes you can figure out who the leader is by looking to see who people are constantly trying to please. Don't obsess too much. Know who is friends with who and see if you can win anyone to your side if you are not already too deep in and completely ostracized. Is there anyone trying to help you behind the scenes? How much? Are they friends with the people after you? Are people telegraphing information with awkward silences, pauses, intonation, avoiding eye contact? Are you being iced out? If you are iced out you know that you are now "other" and will probably not receive any basic rights, protections or human contact from them. They all probably "know" you are a horrible person. Try for resources outside of the group icing you out. Avoidance of eye contact often means they are trying not to identify with/empathize with you (but not always). Note this as well and see if you can make eye contact so as to humanize yourself in their eyes. Is anyone trying to help you indirectly? If you find someone like this try and use the tools they throw your way, but cautiously.

Know your own strengths and weaknesses early in the process (you will get disoriented later). They targeted you for a reason, consciously put your talents and abilities toward your survival. They may have the advantage, but statistically, you are probably smarter and more skilled than they are, USE IT. They also feel threatened by your strengths and sometimes you can use them to scare your opponent into exposing information or their moves. Be careful not to antagonize because it will not end well for you. Also, don't get too confident. It is more difficult to defend ethically and survive than destroy unethically.

However, the strength of your opponent's position is often secrecy. They thrive in the shadows and in distortion. Your aim as someone trapped if they will not leave you alone: expose them. Sometimes you can make them overextend their evil behavior into visibility so that you can get the attention of sympathizers (not always, be careful with this one). This one is tricky and should only be tried if you already think fast on your feet and don't mind taking some hits. An advantage of this strategy is that if no one comes after you, no one gets harmed. It also has the advantage of being more a matter of movement/arrangement of what your targeter is already doing to you and does not involve much on your part other than anticipating where they will step and constructing safety nets for yourself that will simultaneously expose anyone who tries anything.

Also, research some key features of people who do these kinds of predatory behavior (ex: check out the Workplace Bullying Institute). A big weakness your opponent has is that even if intelligent, they are arrogant. Hence the super-villain telling the hero their evil plan or the Riddler giving Batman clues in the first place! Look for mess ups and openings to expose their behavior either in the form of a log, trail (maybe you can find others or there is a record somewhere) or concrete proof. Maybe they will get too bold one day and you can point out their behavior without appearing to directly confront them. It helps to play dumb while you do this. It will only work for so long so choose your moments. Wait and collect information until you have enough so that it is difficult for leadership or others (who may not help by the way) to refute what they are doing or make you out to be crazy or "sensitive."

Try and figure out if this has happened before and what moves the abusive person made. Often they are not terribly creative (just enough) and will do the same thing again. I helped a friend navigate out of being targeted for firing by someone who wanted her job by 1) helping her identify the instigator from the group 2) separating herself from their narrative and 3) identifying his tactic so that she could be prepared the next time around. And he did make the same move again! The first time he did not succeed in getting her fired but did get 2 people to quit in her name, turn her friend against her and embarrass her in front of her leadership (she was his boss). Next time around she hired people with qualities that would not easily turn on her and got in good with them. She was also successfully able to bring up concrete things to her supervisors about this person to get them annoyed with him as well (he really was a bad worker). Basically, she took steps the next round and he ended up getting the boot.

And there you have it, a sampling of what I have gleaned over the years. Again, note that I am not a professional and my advice should be taken with a grain of salt based more from experience and a theology background. My final advice for this post is again, try and leave if you can because if you are not a glutton for punishment, it is just not worth it. Still, if you are going to leave play the game before you can get out.

AQ

[P.S. This barely scratches the surface as I have already long ago anticipated possible recon & vetted what I share here.]

Resisting Evil: Pt. 1 "Forgiveness" Versus Stepping Out in Faith

Be still, and know that I am God:
I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.
Yahweh of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge.” Psalm 46:10-11

In my latest post titled Seeing Christ in The Dark I primarily reflected on how to live within and through the reality of evil in light of God's reality. One of my basic claims was that evil does not have meaning in itself, but does in the context of God's reality. God's reality fundamentally transforms our perceptions of the world and the evil around us. In this vein, I reflected on how the biblical world formed me through and in the midst of physical and psychological violence.

Now I turn to the topic of resisting evil within God's world. I approach this topic not from a triumphalist vantage point, but from the reality of having been crushed, unheard, and slandered to the extent that in my young heart I could not picture anything different in this life. But I also come as a beautiful work in progress by the crucified Christ who walks twisted paths with me. His life vivifies the present and, in him, anything is possible including the idealism this engenders.

Because God is with us, I encourage everyone to stand against evil to the degree they are able and be committed to suffering the consequences of it. And there most undoubtedly will be consequences. I also advocate a do or die attitude when it comes to standing up for yourseld and others making you a more formidable opponent. I like to think of it through the metaphor of my time in Judo class. In Judo practice you get slammed into the ground at high speeds constantly and you must keep getting up. Sometimes there is a sort of victory or defiance even in being committed to getting up when others would bury you or the person you wish to defend. 

However, a word of caution. "Resistance" can also take a variety of forms depending on one's place in the world. I have been in situations where I have had to simply exist in a social system or situations where I was constantly beaten down without any hope of coming out of it for years. The future was dark and bleak except for God entering into my situation and forming me in the process. I have also been in situations where I could overtly go against the grain. The Bible acknowledges both of these realities giving different directions on how to live in each (More on this in later posts). My general advice is to navigate the world skillfully (wisdom) and take a stand whenever you can and it makes sense to, committing yourself to the repercussions whether in the form of social ostracization, extreme stress or physical punishment. 

Additionally, for some, the conviction that one must resist evil may be functionally squelched in favor of a disposition where one always gives the benefit of the doubt to others--no matter what they actually do or who they hurt! This way of thinking tends towards putting huge burdens on victims to come around to the perpetrator's way of seeing things and tends to deny reality or sweep it under the rug (can't we all just get along?). Or, on the other end of the spectrum resistance is all-encompassing without space for other kingdom values. Whenever one feels slighted they think they must resist without mitigating it with the idea of turning the other cheek, not seeking revenge or even considering they themselves might be mistaken. As a general rule, I do my best not to assume malicious intent. If I see troubling patterns I take note but do not jump to conclusions. 

Now that I have introduced the general topic of discussion: resisting evil, I now turn (out of necessity) to that nagging imperative ever present in the evangelical consciousness when it comes to victims of crimes and slights alike--forgiveness. They may not know you well, but they know you must have a problem with it. What follows will be a consideration of what forgiveness is not, is and how one can resist evil by resisting shallow conceptions of it and by truly practicing it!

I. The Dark Side of Forgiveness (Narrowly Defined)

A. "Forgiveness" = Letting It Go?

Forgiveness, narrowly defined, is often weaponized against victims and those wronged. It is a tool that functions (whether intended or not) to silence and retain the status quo. It may not even truly be forgiveness the "teacher" is requiring of the person. In my direct experience, "forgiveness" equated with "letting it go" is often used as a tool to silence victims and often enables or embolden evil behavior (i.e. one can do whatever they want and be guaranteed the victim and everyone else's cooperation afterward). It also functions to prolong a victim's suffering and piles on unnecessary guilt. There must be something wrong with me because I am still devastated and angry.

Back when I was healing from physical abuse and warped perceptions, everyone would ask me over and over again if I had forgiven X. They assumed without evidence that: 1) I needed to forgive, 2) my primary need was to forgive, 3) I had this primary moral responsibility/burden because I was violated. They also assumed that because said abusive person and I had a highly shallow and distant relationship that it was evidence of my lack of forgiveness rather years of realization that said the person would continue to harm me and no meaningful relationship was possible. Somehow though, it was my "responsibility," having been abused over many years, to continually try and initiate unhealthy relationships.

"Have you forgiven him or her" is almost a knee jerk response in Evangelical circles. It is almost as though people can't help themselves. Even if they are savvy or compassionate enough to not make it the first thing that comes out of their mouth, it must come up! Now that I am 30 years old I know the drill. If something horrible happens to me I know to expect the following: 1) Someone will imply or directly tell me of my need to forgive, 2) I will have had it coming somehow even if the group denounces the action against me and 3) If I go against the grain or challenge the initial action it is very possible everyone else will turn on me for it. It is like walking through the airport at this point. You are in line, you see it coming and you start taking off your shoes, but not socks, take your laptop out of the bag and put it in its separate bin...etc. Basically, know what to expect and have a plan of attack.

If you are victimized, recognize this knee jerk response for what it is and move past it. Meaning, take a breath and understand it is their insecurity or weakness, not a reflection of your issues. If Jesus himself stood before them with holes in his hands and feet they would have asked him if he forgave his tormentors! If you are able, challenge it. If not, be polite, but do not internalize it. Having dealt with this evangelical characterization since childhood, I always know it will come up anytime I am significantly wronged or anytime I share my testimony involving abuse and am quite comfortable confronting it. It gets very easy over the years and usually the other person really just never thought of it from another angle before. They may not even know what to do when you calmly explain to them that you disagree with their definition of forgiveness and merely need to protect yourself from person X and harbor no ill will towards them.

Really, no one likes drama and in the aftermath, unfortunately, it is the victim alone who is often left to pick up the scattered pieces of themselves. When someone shares they have been raped, abused or bullied it causes tension and people do not always know what to do since something has occurred outside of acceptable limits creating disequilibrium. The victim who is still processing and navigating it is often treated as an additional and current disruption since the event already happened in the 30-second "past." And yet, they are living more vividly in the present than everyone else out of no choice of their own. Why can't the victim just "let it go?"

My advice from years of Bible study and personal encounters: Identify the reflex for jumping to "forgiveness" for what it is: Victim blaming. They see you or the person hurt as problematic or in need of moral guidance because they can't or do not wish to deal with the reality of what happened. Sometimes it is merely because they equate being "over something" with forgiveness and if you are angry, sad or unreconciled then you must not have forgiven and must need them to point it out to you. Sometimes they cannot imagine that one can go through what you did and easily pardon. Or perhaps cannot comprehend a full pardon within the tension of respecting oneself as loved by God and refusing to put yourself in harm's way again.

B. Resist their Paradigm

If you can, politely resist the requirement to forgive from the outside and all it entails (unless of course you have gone through an extended healing process and are still embittered and entertain vengeful thoughts). However, know that what you are doing is going against a narrative that says: because you were wronged, you have a moral responsibility and/or culpability. You are not responsible for having a good relationship with perpetrators and restitution is their job, not yours. Some of this surfaces in cases where women get severely battered by husbands (maybe their nose gets broken). They divorce him and yet are seen as the marriage covenant breakers rather than formalizing a covenant already broken (in the OT a woman whose life is threatened by neglect by her husband has grounds for a divorce). They are thought to be the ones in the wrong and are often told to go back and submit to the abuse or that they are obligated to get the relationship back on track--all couched in the rhetoric of forgiveness and wifely duty.

In the end, sometimes you may suffer more consequences by resisting their knee jerk reaction to assign you additional responsibility. Everyone in a group may try and gather around and pressure you to be in a relationship with an abuser and if you struggle with an anxiety disorder it means you may end up having to relive the moment some more because people keep bringing it up. Or, you could have to have your character smeared because you are now also "unforgiving and bitter." Maybe everyone will pity you because you do not recognize the error of your ways.

Maybe you have already forgiven the other person? Maybe you need to process the evil first so that it is named before you can forgive it? Maybe you are in flight or fight and just need to survive in the moment? At the end of the day, It's really not mostly anyone's business.  If you know you are in an unsafe context and there are no resources to protect you, you have a decision to make: do you say anything?

Whatever you chose, do not let "forgiveness" be weaponized. Challenge the paradigm outwardly if you are able. Or, at the very least, understand that forgiveness is your God-given birth right and is not to be equated with your silence, a fake smile, cheap substitute for healing or zen state of non-caring. Also, I recommend expecting and being ready for someone to bring up the issue of forgiveness. It will happen. It happened to me just recently after I almost finished this post. I was beginning to think no one was going to bring it up and was genuinely surprised. NOPE.

If you notice someone doing this to someone else, I suggest politely saying something like: "I understand you mean well [name], but there is no reason to think she struggles with forgiveness." Then quickly transition to acknowledging what the person wronged brought up and engage them on the subject matter rather than this other person's speculation about their character. If you can help redirect the conversation back where it should be, you will have resisted a victim blaming tendency and put the focus back where it needs to be: naming the sin and recovery for the one wronged. Of course, if the person wronged goes back to the issue of forgiveness that is a good thing and their choice. 

Finally, resist and do not accept apologies that are not genuine if you can survive without them. Sometimes people demand that you pretend their sin was other than it was in the form of apology. When you listen closely and their apology it may sound a lot like "you had it coming because of X," or "there are many different interpretations...I'm sorry you felt that way...etc." Don't do it! Don't accept the apology! We are taught as young children to reply, "I forgive you" when a playmate is insincere. I have heard many sincere and insincere apologies in life. I have stopped accepting insincere ones. Why? I belong to Christ and for their sake and recognizing my own value in God alone, I will not pretend. Forgive regardless of their insincerity again and again as many times as they wrong you, but if you can help it, do not play their game and pretend. Stand up straight and see them for who they are. The Bible has a lot to say on loving your enemies and praying for those who curse you even being overly generous towards them! Also be generous with the truth.

II. The Bright Side of Forgiveness: Forgiveness in God's World

Concretely, forgiveness is recognizing the sin, but not taking vengeance against the person(s) who did you wrong or harbor extended bitterness towards them. For example, there is a good friend of mine whose job was coveted by a wealthy coworker who conspired to get her fired and almost succeeded. He managed to turn all her other co-workers against her even a friend who became fixated on somehow finding "equal responsibility" since two people were involved. He even charmed those above her for a while. In the end, she managed out on top (sort of). She is still recovering from the horrific event, but God's reality is evident in her life because she had the opportunity on multiple occasions to sabotage one of the people who smeared her and she didn't--even as that person was still actively trying to sabotage her! That is God at work. Forgiveness does not equal "letting it go" or healing or reconciling, or trusting (except in God), but in acknowledging sin without holding it against the person. These other things may or may not follow from forgiveness along with time and a safe context.

Forgiveness may be given and then need to be given again if the other person wrongs you again or you find yourself falling back into patterns of bitterness or vengeful thoughts. In time, forgiveness, depending on the wrong and level of sanctification, may just become a state of being coming out of the overflow of your love for God and all he has done for you 70x7 regardless of a sincere apology. Jesus declared "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." God offered forgiveness to all of us through Jesus on the cross (while we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly) while we rebelled against him...and yet we do not all accept the offer.

Desire goodwill, but do not be deluded. Where possible reflect God's society by being reconciled, and where impossible protect yourself and navigate your unique setting with wisdom identifying those who will continue to harm you and those who won't. For those who won't let God's kingdom reality be evident through you, hold no grudges as you protect yourself. Be patient with yourself when you do not show proper deference, but strive towards it none-the-less. Still, forgiveness does not bow the knee, it pardons on a personal level (not institutional/legal). In everyday life, this means avoiding trash talking those who have trash talked you wherever possible. It means acting generously towards those that wronged you whether it is in defending them when they need to be defended (and are in the right), or it means not taking those opportunities that present themselves to act in kind (doing so is a sin against God). It also means ignoring many small slights and giving freely where it does not involve funding their sin further.

III. The God of the Impossible

I love C.S. Lewis' description of this reality in The Great Divorce. In it, one could take a bus ride from hell into heaven, but without guarantee, one will like it or want to stay. In it, a man is indignant because he discovers in heaven his loved one and the murderer of that loved one getting on as the best of friends without any care. In heaven, it is a natural relationship, but truly bizarre from other vantage points. I love this description because it portrays our future (not necessarily present). I believe we can reflect this reality just a little bit by letting the love that God has kindled in us continue to grow so that our heart leans fully in this direction towards this future. Lean towards this reality, but do not pretend this reality. Life is a series of tears and broken pieces and sometimes there must be a crucifixion before the resurrection.

God is indeed the God of the impossible. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Because God has not held our wrong doing over our heads but has shown us his abundant love we can certainly show this towards others. Sometimes we are wronged significantly, and yet sometimes the other person acknowledges it fully, are horrified by their actions and pledge to never do it again. Recognize the manifestation of the Spirit wherever He is, even eagerly go looking for Him like someone in love. Know that We could easily be in this situation ourselves of needing forgiveness. This is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to move forward and restart new. This is one of those good things God has prepared ahead of time for you. Take it and be delighted with it! Do not feel superior because it is a gift from God to you. See Christ in them and be compelled with joy to be a small part of God's work in the world, being thankful. Act as though the wrong has never occurred where possible.

And sometimes all you can do is also refrain from evil. Forgive regardless of their insincerity again and again as many times as they wrong you, but if you can help it, do not play their game and pretend.

IV. Forgiveness Is Stepping Out In Faith

To forgive is to be vulnerable within the context of God's power. But in order to forgive one must oppose evil. Evil must be named for what it is and sometimes pardoned by one from a lowly position (the wronged). It means standing squarely against the powers of darkness, sanitized narratives, and those who believe violence requires violence and insults demand insults. It recognizes God's reality in the person doing evil and their potential in Christ. Often it means, though all appearance to the contrary, that you know God is present and at work reconciling the world. You can be a small part of it and represent his good will to others. This snatches power away from the perpetrator, evil within and from without and looks up to the Lord. It is the process of walking (as though a baby taking her first steps) through the waves and saying, "God, I am undividedly yours." It is being still in the midst of turmoil and acknowledging God is God.

Evil persists where it is not illuminated and exposed for what it is. In Ephesians, we are called children of the light. Be in close relationship with God and you just may be put in situations to expose evil. Evil that is exposed by the light, becomes light and this is a testament to God's power when you can expose it. Don't be surprised either if God acts on your behalf either! Once the night before I was compelled to pray for a situation by the Spirit and was told to step out in faith when I saw the icon of Peter meeting Jesus on the water. Bewildered I wrote in my journal: "I guess I will know what that means when the time comes???" The next day I had to make a difficult choice and saw it. It's enough to say events took a drastic turn. 

In line with my post on Seeing Christ in the Dark, I conceive of forgiveness and exposing evil as part of walking through evil, not in pushing it mentally away or ignoring its twisted reality or danger. It is our duty as believers to resist evil at every turn, illuminating it and exposing it for what it is according to our capacity. This is a worshipful endeavor that is part of our vocational calling to love and holiness representing God on earth. In this vein, forgiveness itself (though not exclusively) can also be an act of resistance against the powers that be. We belong to a different social and political system called the Kingdom of God that is breaking into our present and as such our priorities and dispositions must at times go against our context. They want us to be silent? We won't. They want us to take vengeance or turn the tables of power to our benefit? We refuse. As heirs of God's kingdom and image bearers representing God on earth we get to walk in forgiveness manifesting God's reality.

Forgiveness is a kingdom reality embedded in the reality of the transformative work of Christ in, around and through us. The world may require vengence or complacency, but we can step out in faith, joining Christ on the water despite the danger because we know who he is and who we are in him.

 

Until next time.

-AQ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still, watch your back!