Lisa Gibson knows a bit about tragedy and loss. Her brother Ken was one of the passengers on Pan Am flight 103 which was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. In her brand new book, Releasing the Chains, she talks about the courageous way that she dealt with this experience and her own perspective on forgiveness. She also includes the stories of fourteen others who have walked the path of abuse or heartache and wrestled with forgiveness. Lisa graciously offered me a chance to read this book early so that I could share it with you.
Ms. Gibson writes that the heart of forgiveness is relationship, and forgiveness is meant to be a catalyst for reconciliation. Our whole Christian walk is built around relationship. Forgiveness should not be treated as a unilateral action, where I can forgive a person in my heart and then expect to feel better. Viewing forgiveness in this way means it is important for a victim and offender to have interaction, even confrontation.
What is a victim to do when they can’t reconcile with their offender? Reconciliation is not the same thing as forgiveness. Ms. Gibson says we must transfer our hurts to God’s court, where He is the Judge, Jury and Advocate. This is the way to find release from bitterness, to move on in freedom and peace, and to conquer evil by doing good.
Ms. Gibson talks about the distinction between justice and vengeance. God says “Vengeance is Mine.” However justice is a different matter. We can leave vengeance up to God and still pursue justice here on earth.
The Stages of Forgiveness
Ms. Gibson outlines six steps along the path of forgiveness. First there must be identification of the true offense. Sometimes it is not what appears to be wrong on the surface. Second there must be validation of the victim’s feelings. Often people are pushed to forgive too early, before they have had a chance to feel the fullness of their pain.
The grieving process comes next, with five well-known stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Then, it is time for a confrontation with the abuser. Luke 17:3 requires us to confront the abuser. This gives the abuser an opportunity to fully realize the damage they have caused, and to confess. Of course there are cases where it would not be safe or wise for a victim to confront his or her abuser, or where the abuser might have already died. The abuser also might not take responsibility for his or her actions.
The next step in the process is forgiveness, which is the most difficult step and requires the forgiver to die to a selfish desire to get even. Ms. Gibson writes that if the offender asks for forgiveness, you must forgive. To this I would add but not until you are ready. It would be wrong to rush along the process when you have not fully completed the first four steps. Finally, the last step is to transfer the case to God’s courtroom. This is the action that can free you up and allow you to move ahead, no longer litigating your own case over and over in your head, but leaving it for God to deal with in His own time.
Ms. Gibson talks about the cost of unforgiveness. It is a familiar list: denial, abuse of food, drugs, alcohol or sex, lashing out at yourself or others, mental disorders, detachment and anti-social behaviour. Yet I have to ask the question, are these things consequences of unforgiveness, or are they directly related to the abuse that happened in the first place? If a child suffers abuse that diminishes self esteem, distorts self image, takes away a sense of safety and trust in man and God, isn’t this enough to trigger any of those symptoms and more? By saying these are caused by an unforgiving spirit, it is essentially saying the victim is responsible for the hurt and must fix it himself, when truly the root cause of the hurt is the abuse.
The Stories of Forgiveness
A large portion of this book is made up of the stories that are shared by Ms. Gibson and fourteen others about how they were able to forgive. Ms. Gibson begins with her own story of her brother’s death on the Pan Am flight that was bombed by terrorists. She eventually wrote to the convicted bomber in prison to offer her forgiveness, worked to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Libya and even met with Muammar Gaddafi. Other stories include that of a grandmother who has to come to grips with animosity towards her daughter-in-law after her children’s divorce, a woman who must forgive herself for abusing her own children when they were young, and a man injured in an accident caused by a drunk driver. A woman is held at gunpoint and raped, another woman must decide whether to stand by her husband as he serves time in prison, a whole family is attacked by an unknown gunman who kills and injures several family members, a woman is abandoned by her father, and so on. The stories range from interpersonal and family strife to severe physical violence, and I believe everyone will be able to relate to the situation of at least one of these storytellers.
Encouraging Confrontation and Reconciliation
What if SIM heard an allegation of sexual abuse from the past, and instead of ignoring the victim and advising the accused person not to respond, they tried to facilitate confrontation and reconciliation for these two people? Instead they, and many other churches and missions, stifle interaction between victim and abuser, ignore the problem and hope it will go away, or encourage victims to forgive quietly in their hearts and then not mention it any more. I believe Ms. Gibson’s model of forgiveness with an emphasis on relationship, confrontation and reconciliation is healthier for both victim and offender, even though it might induce a confession by the abuser and bring things out into the open which the mission prefers to keep secret.
One thing I take away from this book is the difficulty of forgiving. Ms. Gibson does not diminish this or tell us we should forgive quickly. The very title of the book, Releasing the Chains, implies a task that is going to require a lot of effort. The strength required to truly forgive can only come from God. Matthew 19:26 says “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” I pray that He will send us both healing and justice.
Releasing the Chains will be available in bookstores and on Amazon in November. You can read more about the book or order online at the publishers web site.