Deep Dive: Abuse Survivor’s Forgiveness Definition

Rachael Denhollander did an interview with Christianity Today. 

Her responses to how coming out as a sexual assault victim of Larry Nassar, the disgraced gymnastics doctor and convicted predator, has impacted her in her Christian community are profound. I did a whole blog post on my thoughts in dialogue with her responses in that interview (click here).

Of all her responses, I really believe taking a deep dive into one answer is warranted. In particular, I really appreciate how she defined forgiveness in the context of forgiving her abuser.

What does forgiving her abuser mean?

Denhollander says:

“It means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously. It simply means that I release personal vengeance against him, and I trust God’s justice, whether he chooses to mete that out purely, eternally, or both in heaven and on earth.”

-Taken from “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But there is more to the gospel than forgiveness”)

Let’s apply this astute definition of forgiveness to adultery situations:

The first thing I note is how forgiveness looks like giving up one’s vengeance campaign against our cheater and handing them over to God. I totally agree with this understanding of forgiveness.

Now, I do not think we get to this place of forgiveness over night. It is not just one decision but multiple decisions to hand over our cheater–i.e. our abuser–to God.

We have to work the process of forgiveness to eventually end up at a place where we feel at peace handing them over to God.

Next, I really appreciate her two statements about what forgiveness does NOT mean:

“It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously.”

This means we do not minimize adultery and its powerfully negative impact in our lives even when we forgive our adulterous partner (or ex). It is a big deal whether or not we forgive. Forgiveness does not change this reality.

Also, forgiveness does not mean we excuse the cheater. In other words, we do not pretend we brought this sin upon ourselves. There is no excuse for committing adultery. Forgiveness is not about excusing sin.

I agree pursuing justice on earth does not mean one is unforgiving. How this applies to adultery is pursuing a divorce, in my opinion.

Marriage is more than a legal contract, but it is not less than one. When one spouse breaks that marriage “contract” by committing adultery, that spouse ought to expect to suffer the legal consequences. That is a legal divorce.

Getting divorced from a cheater is not an act of unforgiveness. It is an act of pursuing justice on this earth (and for many faithful spouses, it is an act of self-preservation from their abusers).

Finally, I want to highlight that forgiving someone does not mean we have to give up our hope for justice to be done. We are simply allowing God to mete out that justice as Denhollander explains. That could mean in this life or the next.

“Forgiveness” is such a tricky subject for Christians dealing with abuse and adultery situations. I appreciate the clarity of Denhollander’s statement, and I hope this deep dive has brought further clarity on the matter for you, my readers.


1 thought on “Deep Dive: Abuse Survivor’s Forgiveness Definition”

  1. Defining forgiveness is kind of like defining love. It really takes a few descriptive sentences to be close to accurate. I think her definition is one of the clearest and best I’ve seen. Thank you.

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