Forgiveness that liberates after decades

A woman named Kathy thought she had forgiven the high school classmates who had assaulted her when she was sixteen. Decades later, she realized she had more work to do.

Kathy told her story to Nancy DeMoss Wohlgemuth in an episode that was broadcast today on Revive Our Hearts.  “One of the things that had made it so painful was, it was done by boys who I thought were friends, and there was more than one boy. All of the years that I had buried this, I told no one. I thought, Well, it will go away. It will go away. I did bury it deep. For a long time, as a matter of fact, it did go away, but I would have flashes back. I kept remembering how I hated, how I hated them.”

Decades later, while on a church retreat, she realized she had not forgiven, even though she thought she had. “I think one of the reasons I thought I had forgiven was that two of the men had died and there was nothing . . . That was kind of a question then, ‘Do I need to forgive? They’re gone.’”

But, as she says, “God did a work in my heart. I talked to Him a long time at an altar. We just had a long conversation about this. Then I began to feel like, ‘Well, maybe I haven’t totally forgiven.'” She realized that, for her, totally forgiving would include expressing that publicly. She told her husband, and she told other women during a church conference on forgiveness:

“I have really striven to be faithful to God and to try to do His work. But I know that until I release all of those things, no matter how far past, I won’t be free. And I say in front of you today, I forgive those boys who are men now, older than me. I forgive them, and I pray for them.”

She reports that it was liberating: “It was joyful. It was painful, too, because it’s like letting go of something that’s been a part of you so long that it almost hurts to get it out. But once it’s out, it feels so good. It’s a part of you that is there, that in some way justifies, I guess, the way you feel.  But once it comes out, then you feel clean, and you feel whole. And you feel like, ‘That was something I didn’t want there after all.’ It was like a crutch, and I got rid of that.”

Forgiveness is hard enough when the offender repents and confesses; Kathy received none of that, yet she was still able to forgive, by the grace of God. She chose to work through forgiveness even though two of her assailants already died; that fact didn’t diminish the benefits of forgiveness. It’s interesting that she felt a need to state publicly that she was forgiving; it’s a good way to hold herself accountable, knowing that one day she may have second thoughts about this, human nature being what it is. Note that, even in her public statement, she never identified her assailants, resisting the temptation to humiliate them in revenge. Forgiveness experts remind us that God doesn’t tell people about our sins when God forgives us, so neither should we tattle if we really aim to forgive. There are exceptions, of course; see RT Kendall, Total Forgiveness. Kathy exemplified genuine forgiveness by not revealing the identities of her offenders; she’ll leave that to God.