Saturday, November 17, 2012

Abuse and Forgiveness: Reconciling Safety and Sainthood.

Q:  Have you ever had to cut ties with someone because they were either abusive, unhealthy or manipulative? How have you applied the Atonement and forgiveness?

A:  When I was young I experienced years of systematic emotional and physical abuse at the hands of my father.  After my mom threw my dad out and we got a protective order, many members of my ward kept putting pressure on me to forgive my dad and let him back in my life.  They even went so far as to help him to violate the protective order on several occasions.  I kept insisting that I had forgiven my dad, but they would invariably and solemnly declare that I hadn't truly forgiven him, the implication being that I was a bad person because I (and my family with me) would not allow him to return to our home.  As a teenager I experienced a lot of self-doubt and wondered if I was sinning because my local church leaders whom I trusted and respected had basically informed me that I was a bad person for not allowing an abuser to return to a position of power over me. (Included in this group were young mens leaders, bishop's counselors, etc. but NOT the Bishop--thank God for a righteous judge in Israel!)

Fortunately I am older now, and I am able to understand that these brethren had no idea what they were talking about.  I can say this because I have researched this subject on my own and I am happy to report that the church holds the opposite of that bad counsel to be true, and that the church rightly acknowledges that to allow such a person back into your life could be potentially dangerous, and detrimental, even in the name of forgiveness.

"Emotional [or any kind of] abuse and mistreatment that occur over an extended period of time can be devastating. Those so wronged have the right and responsibility to protect themselves.  If a perpetrator is not a family member, avoiding all contact might be easy. But terminating contact with an abusive family member is difficult, particularly for Latter-day Saints, because of the emphasis we place on the importance of family ties. Nevertheless, victims of abuse must protect themselves from family members and others who freely choose to mistreat them."  (Maxine Murdock, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, June 1994, 60–61)

Here's a link to the article I just quoted (make sure to scroll down to "Am I in error...?").

The church has included  more generalized statements about forgiveness in many of their manuals that I think apply to this question as well.  Here is one excellent example:

"Explain to class members that forgiving others does not mean approving of their wrongdoing or offense. Forgiving someone means that with the help of our Father in Heaven, we can cleanse our hearts of anger or hatred toward the offender, cease to dwell on the offense, and feel peace. This process is not always easy or quick, but Heavenly Father will help us as we try to forgive."  (“Lesson 34: Forgiving Others,” Preparing for Exaltation: Teacher’s Manual, 197)

After sending his disciples "forth as sheep in the midst of wolves" The Savior counseled his disciples to "be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."  I think that this counsel applies perfectly to a situation in which you are called upon to forgive someone who has been "abusive, unhealthy or manipulative."  As doves, we wish the person no harm, in fact we may even wish them well, but as serpents we are wise enough to recognize a wolf who, given the opportunity, will most likely return to their old patterns and just hurt us again.  We owe it to them, as much as to ourselves, not to place them in such a position unnecessarily.  As the old saying goes:  "Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me!"

Here is a link to a recent Ensign article called "Forgiveness and Making Up for Losses" that also deals with the subject of forgiving those that have hurt/abused you.  The quotes at the bottom from Richard G. Scott are particularly good.


  1. I think this is a great article and these ideas really need to be emphasized more often.

    I think it is easy to talk so much about "unconditional love" and "not being judgmental" and "you must forgive everyone" that we forget that unfortunately in the real world there are some that are so genuinely abusive that if you are not careful you might perpetuate victimization if you don't realize some people have to be restrained.

  2. I think the "Wise as serpents, harmless as doves," quotation is fantastic to apply to the idea of unconditional love. I do think it is possible to open your heart for love without leaving yourself wholly vulnerable to an abusive person, and I applaud you keeping yourself safe while seeking to extend forgiveness and gain peace of heart. I hope everything goes awesome for you, and thank you for posting this. :)

  3. Thank you for your well considered comments. I wrote this in response to a friend's question in a Facebook group and then I sat on it for a few months with no plans to do anything with it. Then one day it occurred to me that there must be all sorts of people who could use some advice concerning the balance between forgiveness and personal safety. I hope that this article saves some people some grief and anxiety over when and how to forgive after abuse.

  4. There is love, and there is forgiveness, and there is trust. They are NOT mutually inclusive. You can love/ care about someone, and NOT trust them. Forgiveness does not require that you trust someone to do no harm. Forgiveness means that you wish for them all that is good for them in their growth and happiness, which includes repentance for them. I can love someone, and care about their eternal salvation without wishing to associate with them whilst they are still working on their own issues. Well said.


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