Many of us think of sexual abuse as an unpardonable sin. Its effects are so far-reaching. We have been told repeatedly that abusers can’t change, and recovery means acknowledging that fact while no longer permitting what happened to control us. We hold on to the hope that change is possible for us, but we believe that it is impossible for them. And, somehow we suspect that a just God agrees with us. So, victims become survivors after years of recovery, while we imagine perpetrators eventually end up in hell. What they did to us and those we love is so evil, we would never want that to happen again to another living soul. Society needs to be free from people who abuse the innocent, we reason; justice demands it!
Now close your eyes and imagine God saying that He wants to give your abuser a new heart and a new start. This new heart would enable him or her to respond to you and the world differently from now on. He or she would never abuse anyone again. What type of thoughts flood your mind? Do you hear, “Hell no!” Do words like “impossible” demand a hearing? Do you feel panic, not wanting that to happen? Does it interfere with your sense of justice? Could you trust a God who allowed that?
For several years prior to learning about my brother’s crime against my daughter or remembering my past abuse, I served with a prison ministry team. Jail house conversions were common while lasting transformation was rare. Over time, this reality caused some volunteers like myself to become skeptical. I no longer wanted to serve prisoners because I feared being conned. God’s grace, expressed by easy promises of forgiveness, appeared to be cheapened when lasting change did not occur. I knew something was missing in this understanding of the gospel, but I didn’t know what. This fear of “cheap grace” became even more pronounced after I became aware of my brother’s crime and experienced the painful ramifications head on. What would it mean if God forgave my brother and what response might that require of me?
God used the account of the thieves beside Jesus on the crosses in Luke 23:32-43 to help me understand what genuine conversion and repentance look like. Both criminals witnessed Jesus pray words of forgiveness for his tormentors, and they heard the religious leaders and guards mock him. One thief told Jesus to prove He was the Christ by saving Himself and them! His interest in Jesus was totally self-serving. The other thief understood that he was receiving the punishment his crimes deserved, yet he turned to Jesus in humility simply asking to be remembered when Jesus “came into His Kingdom.” By saying this, he acknowledged that Jesus was in fact the King with the right to rule and reign over him and his circumstances. His was a trusting faith, not an attempt to improve his immediate circumstances by using God.
True repentance involves deep humility that both acknowledges the magnitude of one’s sin and its impact upon others, while fully owning the consequences. It also submits to God’s authority which ultimately leads to lasting transformation that is evident over time. However, the repentant thief didn’t have any time left on this earth to demonstrate this to those who watched! Fortunately for him, Jesus, as God, was able to see and respond to His heart. He saw the transformation no one else could see that would have undoubtedly followed had he lived. A man whose heart has really been changed cannot help but live it out over time.
The real question then became, “If my abuser repents, what impact might that have on me personally?” The answer is whatever impact I permit. As children, our abusers imposed their wills on us, but as adults we are free to choose how we will respond to them or any changes they make. An unspoken fear was, “If God forgave my abuser, He might expect my renewed involvement with him too!”
Yet, proper boundaries are a part of God-given wisdom. Recently God showed me the application of this in His Word. Prior to the Apostle Paul’s conversion, he destroyed the lives of Christians, consenting even to their murders! After Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, members of the Christian community feared him and questioned the legitimacy of his claims (see Acts 9). As I studied the scriptures, I realized that it was many years before the early church sent Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. In the interim years, Paul had a lot of time to demonstrate that his change of heart was real. Later he wrote a letter to the Corinthian church (II Corinthians 7:8-11) that spelled out the hallmarks of genuine repentance that he, no doubt, had experienced himself:
- Earnestness (expressing appropriate concern in response to sin);
- Eagerness to clear yourselves (a desire to make things right, i.e., to make restitution);
- Indignation and alarm (recognizing the serious of one’s own sin or the sins of others);
- Longing and concern (for the restoration of anyone who was hurt); and
- Readiness to see justice done! (taking responsibility and accepting consequences).
Real change includes these heart-felt responses and is clearly demonstrated over time. Cheap grace demands acceptance of others’ claims without evidence (or “fruit” in their lives), which is totally contrary to what scripture actually teaches.
Forgiveness and transformation are indeed possible for anyone, even those who abused us. If our faith in God does not allow for that possibility in others as well as ourselves, then our view of God is much too limited. (Matthew 19:26). However, God does not demand that we embrace professed change without lasting fruit. Instead, He simply asks that we entrust our abuser’s future to Him and allow for the possibility that He has the power to transform anyone’s life in response to heart-felt repentance and trust in His Son. This may even occur at the end of a person’s life as it did for one of the thieves in the crucifixion account.
However, this does not require us to personally reconcile with our abusers as some might suggest. Reconciliation may become an option if God personally leads us in that direction in the future, but it is not necessary for forgiveness to occur. Instead, forgiveness entails a willingness for us to “let go and let God.” Ultimately, we are all dependent upon His mercy on so many levels. Only He can enable us to forgive our tormentors like Jesus did on the cross, and only He has the power to make anyone new (II Corinthians 5:17).
If your abuser truly changed, how might you react and why?