PODCAST: What Does Healthy Forgiveness After Trauma Look Like?

by | Mar 21, 2024 | Podcasts, Theology of Marriage and Sex | 7 comments

Forgiveness After Trauma podcast with Susannah Griffith

Forgiveness is a concept that has often been weaponized against victims.

Whether it’s people married to abusers, or people married to someone who has cheated on them or hurt them in some other way, often in the church as long as that person apologizes, the onus is now put on the victim to forgive and reconcile and act like nothing happened.

But that’s not the way that trauma works in our bodies. We can’t just rid ourselves of trauma by saying “I forgive you.”

And is that even what the concept of forgiveness means in Scripture?

I was sent an AMAZING book to review recently, and honestly, it was life changing for me. The author, Susannah Griffith, is a pastor and a biblical scholar, and has taught at seminary. And she was also in an abusive marriage. 

Her husband was one of the rare ones that owned what he did and changed. But now she had to deal with the aftermath. What did forgiveness look like when she still had trauma? Do you  have to reconcile? 

It’s honestly an amazing book, and I was so excited to have this conversation with Susannah today. 

Or, as always, you can watch on YouTube:

What if the Bible is much more nuanced and richer about forgiveness than you’ve been taught?

Chances are you were taught, “if you don’t forgive the person who hurt you, and reconcile, then how can God forgive you?” So the onus is put on the victim to make things right. And then, if the victim is still having panic attacks or still needs to draw boundaries for their own protection or mental health, they’re told they have bitterness and don’t really believe.

But what if God has a bigger picture of forgiveness? What if reconciliation doesn’t mean going back to the way things were? What if God is actually concerned about justice–and what if most of the passages in the Bible about forgiveness are more about that?

This book was such a fascinating (and easy read) romp through what Scripture says about forgiveness, with a deep dive into the Old Testament and prophets, and then zeroing in on many of Jesus’ sayings.

Susannah Griffith Forgiveness After Trauma

Susannah talks about several elements of forgiveness, and how they don’t always mean what we think they mean:

  • What forgiveness means
  • Anger
  • Lamentation
  • Accountability
  • Reconciliation
  • Release and Rebirth

I have this book totally marked up and underlined and starred everywhere! And I was quite emotional as I got to interview Susannah. I hope you find this fascinating, and I know the book will really help heal so many (it releases next week, but you can pre-order it now!)

Meet our Sponsor–The Kingdom Girls Bible

Kingdom Girls Bible NIV

I am so excited about this Bible! I first found out about it in our Patreon group when people were sharing pictures and talking about it, and when I looked into it, I knew this was something I could get behind. And I wanted to spread the word!

Zondervan created this Bible designed for girls, but really great for anybody! It’s filled with beautiful pictures and a bio of every woman you come across in Scripture. It’s time to read a Bible that helps girls and women feel included in the story. It’s healing, and it’s wonderful.

Things Mentioned in the Podcast

Our Sponsor:

To Support Us:

Links We Mentioned:

Future Speaking Events:
Belleville, ON: 
St. Thomas Anglican Church in Belleville, Ontario is throwing a party for us to celebrate The Great Sex Rescue and She Deserves Better! March 23, 2:30-4:30 pm. Q&A, crafts with toxic books, and more.
More information here. 

Have you been given a view of forgiveness that leaves you feeling empty and unheard? Let’s talk in the comments!

Transcript

Sheila: Welcome to the Bare Marriage podcast.  I’m Sheila Wray Gregoire where we like to talk about healthy, evidence-based, biblical advice for your sex life and your marriage.  And I have a great interview with you today that really impacted me personally about a wonderful book, Forgiveness After Trauma.  Before we get to that, though, I want to thank our sponsor.  We have such an exciting sponsor for this podcast.  The Kingdom Girl’s Bible from Zondervan.  It’s a NIV Bible.  It’s supposedly for girls ages 8 to 12 or even teen girls.  But honestly, we started talking about this in patron group.  And so many of the adult women have gotten it.  I can’t tell you how excited I am about this Bible.  First of all, it is absolutely beautiful.  The illustrations are lovely.  But the main thing about it is that whenever a woman is mentioned in the Bible there is a full page spread on her with wonderfully, racially sensitive diagrams and the stories of these women.  So girls, when they read the Bible, they’re going to see themselves included in it.  Just think about the power of that for your daughters.  So check out the Kingdom Girl’s Bible.  The link is in the podcast notes where you can get it and see more and see the beautiful illustrations.  It’s just incredible.  And, of course, we also want to thank our patrons, who do so much to support the work.  They give as little as $5 a month, but they can give more than that too.  And that let’s us do what we’re doing.  As well, they get to join our amazing Facebook group and get unfiltered podcasts and more.  And so you can join as well.  That link is also in the podcast notes.  Or if you want to give more to some of the big research things that we’re doing and some of the big things that we’re doing to get into peer reviewed journals, if you’re in the U.S., you can get tax deductible receipts through the Good Fruit Faith Initiative of the Bosco Foundation.  And so, again, check that out.  And now without further ado, I would like to get to this life-changing interview about what forgiveness really means.  Okay.  I have an interview for you all today that is just going to be awesome because this book blew my mind.  So I have on with me, Susannah Griffith.  Hello, Susannah.

Susannah: Hi.

Sheila: Currently, you help run a homeless shelter.  You’re going to be a chaplain at a hospital.  You’ve been a minister.  You’ve been a seminary prof.  You’ve done all kinds of things.  

Susannah: That’s right.  Uh-huh.  (cross talk)

Sheila: Yeah.  And that’s wonderful.  And you brought your work as a biblical scholar, as someone who has studied trauma to write this incredible book that really, honestly, just blew my mind.  And I’ll tell you a bit about why as we go on in this interview, but it’s called Forgiveness After Trauma.  And it launches—what?  On March?

Susannah: March 26.  It’s coming up so fast.

Sheila: Okay.  So that’s just next week, everybody.  In five days, this book launches.  Y’all need to get it because this is profound.  So what you did—as a biblical scholar, you brought everything that you’ve learned.  You’ve brought the things you learned about trauma, and you really brought them to bear on what was happening in your own relationship and then shared it with us.  So you’re a domestic abuse survivor.

Susannah: That’s right.

Sheila: And you went through some pretty horrific things.  And then you had to decide what to do and were in a church that tells us you need to forgive, Susannah.  You need to forgive.  And you need to believe that God can restore all things, right?  And that’s what we’re told.  And that can often cause a lot of trauma.  So in this book, you’re wrestling through what forgiveness means.  I can’t tell y’all enough—and I don’t even say y’all.  This is how excited I am because I’m saying y’all.  I wrote truth bomb.  I have TB written down so many times in the margin of this book—

Susannah: (cross talk)

Sheila: – as I’m reading it because it’s just—it’s really, really profound.  And so I want to walk through a bit of Susannah’s story and then talk about, primarily, what she’s saying about forgiveness but also what she’s saying about a few other things too.  So let’s set the stage.  Can you tell us a little bit about what your marriage was like so people know where you’re coming from?

Susannah: Yeah.  Yeah.  Absolutely.  So I was married to someone, who I met in seminary, who was my best friend, who was just this incredible, creative, smart, funny guy.  Man of my dreams.  And he and I had a great relationship prior to marriage and prior to the birth of our first daughter.  But during my oldest daughter’s infancy was the time when there first started to be some really disturbing behaviors coming out.  He, at times, was physically violent to me.  He would then threaten suicide when I talked about leaving and would do some very suicidal gestures and also, bracket this, but all this comes with a huge content warning, right?  For we’re talking about some very traumatic topics.  But he would do things like put a rope around his neck or put knives to his throat to threaten to kill himself when I tried to leave situations that were physically and emotionally unsafe for me.  And sort of in between he would also be loving and affectionate, and he was a great dad.  We had a lot of fun together.  We were friends.  And for the longest time, I was really struggling because on one hand I knew that this was abusive.  And on the other hand, I loved him, and I cared about him.  And I cared about his relationship with our daughter.  And I was also just a good Christian girl.  And good Christian girls don’t get divorces especially not from the father of their children.  And this played out over a span of about five years.  I had three children with him ultimately.  And I was in grad school for a long time, so I was kind of in a financially insecure place myself and wasn’t sure how I was going to make ends meet.  And he did get better.  He did the work.  And after the birth of my second daughter, there were no more instances of physical violence in our marriage.  And I think that’s fairly unusual that somebody does the work and takes some degree of responsibility for their actions.  But for me, the marriage was gone essentially.  And I still wanted to leave in spite of the fact that things had gotten better.  And ultimately, I did leave him once I was in a more financially secure place.  During the pregnancy with my third daughter, he had a mini episode.  So it wasn’t physically violent in the way that it had happened before, but there were some of those warning signs.  And I was about 20 weeks pregnant at the time.  And I decided I was done.  And I bought a house for myself and my daughters.  I was a professor by that time which helped a lot with the financial side of things.  And I went through the rest of my pregnancy on my own.  And Indiana, which is the state where I live, you can’t file for divorce while you’re pregnant which is kind of an interesting side effect of our culture, I think.  I had the baby.  And I filed for divorce.  And then kind of under a lot of pressure from the community after a few months, I did let him back to live with us again for a time.  And I realized that I was honestly better off.  I was happier, more peaceful, a better mom as a single mom.  And our marriage relationship was just kind of done, and I did finalize the divorce.  So that’s kind of the super quick version of the story.  I’m sure we could get into more, but that’s kind of the way it all played out.

Sheila: Yeah.  And one thing I do want to make clear is, in your case, it was really—your husband had some mental illness issues, and so that was a lot of what was precipitating this.  And I want to reiterate that the reason that that I want to talk about this book is not specifically about abuse.  I mean Susannah’s story is one of abuse, and I think anyone who has been through abuse will really relate to it.  But to look at the broader issues of what does it mean to forgive when we are the victim whether it’s a victim of serial adultery, whether it’s the victim of trust being broken in some other way, emotional abuse, spiritual abuse, financial abuse.  It could be any number of things.  Chronic pornography use.  A lot of us, and men as well, are in these relationships that are fundamentally destructive.  And what do we do with that?  And what your book is doing is it’s not really giving a map of how to process abuse as much as it is how do we theologically struggle with what does the Bible say about forgiveness and how do we deal with that.  And so that’s what I want (inaudible).  I really, really appreciate it.  If you don’t mind, just give us that moment when you were 10 years old.  I thought this was so powerful of what you told yourself when you were 10.  Can you tell us that?

Susannah: Yeah.  Absolutely.  So I also grew up in a home where there was violence going on.  There were also good things going on, and I think many of us can feel that tension of what Jill Dillard has called thorns and roses, right?  Where there are things that we—that are positive and life giving and also things that are really painful.  But I remember there was an episode of violence going on, and I think that it was one of my older sisters who was being physically abused at that time.  And I was sort of just peripheral to the whole scene.  I ran into the basement just to get away from it all.  And there was a full length mirror in the basement, and I looked at myself in the mirror.  And I looked awful.  Hair falling out of my pony tail, red eyes, puffy face, nose streaming because I had been crying so much.  It was a scary situation.  And I remember talking to the mirror and saying to the mirror, “God, is this who I am?  Is this what I deserve,” and remember hearing the voice of God saying, “No.  You’re my beloved.  And you are worth so much more than this.”  And from that, it was a very seminal moment in my life.  And going forward, I held this promise to myself that I would never again allow myself to be in a situation where I was being abused.  And that physical abuse and even the emotional abuse that were in my relationship were hard boundaries for me.  And when this started happening in my relationship, I hated myself because I felt like I was breaking the promise that I had made to myself as a child that I would not allow this to happen to me.  And I was desperate to leave.  And at the same time, as a 10 year old, I could never have anticipated how hard it would be to leave because of the deep love that I felt for my partner.

Sheila: Yeah.  Yeah.  Exactly.  All right.  So let’s fast forward now.  And you’re in the midst of all of this.  And tell me what the church was doing to pressure you to reconcile.

Susannah: Yeah.  I think that the—one of the hardest parts of my experience was not the abuse itself but the fact that when I tried to share about this with pastors, with church leaders both male and female, there was so much doubt that I was telling the truth.  And there was so much doubt that I was making the right choice as I talked about leaving or took steps to leave.  I remember one time I had texted a pastor of a church that I was going to that I was leaving for a hotel.  And this choice to go to the hotel followed an episode of abuse from my husband, and this was where I was going to be.  I was okay.  I just wanted somebody to know—someone safe to know where I was.  And he forwarded that text to my husband as part of this effort to bring us back together.

Sheila: Right. 

Susannah: And it happened again and again.  People told me when I shared that I was seeking to leave the marriage.  That they prayed reconciliation was possible.  People told me that I was failing to forgive my husband.  People told me that I was breaking my family, that I was ruining my children’s lives.  It was absolutely devastating.  And, of course, at the same time, there were wonderful instance of people helping me and people seeking to make it possible for me to live as a single mom with my three daughters.  As I write about in the book, the person who probably most singularly helped me leave the marriage was a pastor named David, who I am really grateful did that and is still a wonderful friend and mentor to me.  But there were so many voices telling me that I was doing all the wrong things.  And that was incredibly painful. 

Sheila: Yeah.  So you’re sharing this is what’s happening to me.  This is the trauma that I’m experiencing.  And rather than care about that and enter into that with you, they’re telling you you  need to ignore it and forgive and reconcile.  And yeah.  Yeah.

Susannah: Absolutely.  

Sheila: So they don’t care about you.        

Susannah: Yeah.  My safety always felt secondary to this abstract ideal of forgiveness or reconciliation that I was failing to live up to.  

Sheila: Right.  And so not only is your abuser telling you that you don’t matter, now the church is too.  That just add a whole other level of trauma to it.    

Susannah: Yeah.  Absolutely.

Sheila: So I need to read you this passage because this is actually really healing for me.  Because I’ve been going through something where I’ve been afraid to admit this to myself or say this out loud, and this is why I think this book has been so transformative—oh my gosh.  I might even get teary here.  But as I’ve been doing the work I’ve been doing, sometimes I look at the Bible, and I think, “If we honestly follow that, that’s not emotionally healthy.”  And I’ve been struggling with that especially with some of the things that we do say about forgiveness and about how you need to die to self.  And I’m like, “But at some point, we need to live, and we need to matter.”  I want to read this to you.  So you’re talking about grappling with the story where Jesus says you need to give not 7 times, but 70 times 7, and you said, “These words were painful for me to read at the outset.  Christians have certainly weaponized them in ways that have been harmful to trauma survivors.  And throughout my experiences of trauma, I’ve often felt Christ close to me, suffering with me, advocating for me.  But reading those verses, I felt like I was encountering a Jesus I barely knew.  A Jesus, who didn’t take seriously how deeply I had been harmed.  Or a Jesus, who wanted me to let my abuser off the hook.  That Jesus wasn’t someone I could honestly follow.  But that’s not who I thought Jesus was.”  And I think a lot of us have had that experience where we know God loves us.  We know that God is here.  We know God is holding on to us, but then we read this stuff.  And we’re like but then how am I being cared for.

Susannah: Yeah.  Oh, yeah.  And I think that sometimes I’ve absolutely had that very, almost physical, feeling of God’s presence and knowing that that feels true, but also the Bible is supposed to be true.  And what do we do with that distance?  And ultimately, I think that we have to look to—sometimes people talk about the Wesleyan quadrilateral.  So the different pillars like intellect and tradition and experience as well as Scripture and put all of these things together.  And I think that’s what I’ve tried to do in this book because I honestly believe that the message of the Gospel is life.  It’s not death.  So what do we do with these Scriptures?  How do we understand a Jesus who wants to help us when we’re being abused? 

Sheila: And that’s something I really appreciate about  this.  This book is so deeply rooted in Scripture.  You got so many different passages that are wonderful from both the Old and New Testaments and going in deep and seeing things that I didn’t see.  I didn’t realize that was there.  And we’ll talk about some of those in a minute.  But I just love how you opened that with something that I’ve been really struggling with too.  And so I’m like, “Oh, okay.  I think God has something to tell me in this book,” so that was really neat.    

Susannah: That is such a (cross talk) to hear.  Thanks.

Sheila: Yeah.  And then you talk about what we often assume forgiveness is, right?  Letting it all go, forgetting, et cetera.  But then you give these five points of what forgiveness actually is.  And you set this up at the very beginning of the book.  And I’ll just read the five things.  “Forgiveness requires physical and emotional safety.”  Okay.  So it’s not a process we can undertake when traumatic experiences too closely on us.  “Forgiveness needs to be based in the reality of what happened.”  So you need to actually look at it.  “Forgiveness needs to come from a place of communal empathy, so you can’t carry these things alone,” which I so appreciate.  “Forgiveness allows for lament.  And forgiveness must be centered on the experience of the person who received the harm,” because so often it’s all about the offender.  And it’s like no.  No.  You matter.  So that’s so good.  And then I have to read one more thing from this intro that I just loved, which is—I think this is one of the best descriptions of trauma I’ve ever read.  Let me just read this to you.  “I regard trauma, not as a stigmatizing diagnosis, but as an adaptive reality of how our bodies, emotions, and spirits seek to survive in a world shattered by circumstances beyond which human capacity can manage and integrate.”  Yeah.  It breaks you.  It breaks you in a way.

Susannah: It breaks you.  And then everything that you thought was true isn’t necessarily true anymore, or it’s different than what you thought.  

Sheila: Yeah.  So that was—and then you go into different aspects of forgiveness, and we start with forgiveness itself and—which is where I want to focus most of this interview on.  But I do want to get a couple of things from the other chapters.  So often, as Christians, we’re told—and we say it in the Lord’s prayer.  “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  If you don’t forgive, how can the Heavenly Father forgive you?”  And so we’re told that we’re—we’re really pressured into forgiving.  As if you don’t forgive, you somehow aren’t Christian, right?  You somehow don’t love God enough.  And you said this, “I knew I felt love for everyone with whom I was setting boundaries.  I was not vengeful.  I was not trying to cause harm even though others certainly felt I was sowing discord.  All I wanted, all I needed, was for my relationships to reflect that I was a child of God worthy of safety, dignity, and love.”  And, everyone listening to this, you are a child of God worthy of safety, dignity, and love.  And you deserve to be in relationships that reflect that.  I think that’s really important.  And when we’re pressured to pretend something doesn’t happen, then it’s like that’s forgotten.  Yeah.  You go on, and you talk about what forgiveness was in the Old Testament.  And you talk about how so much of it, which we miss, is actually rooted in fixing injustice.  So can you tell me a little bit about that?  

Susannah: Absolutely.  I think that a huge orientation of forgiveness in the whole Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, has to do with forgiving literal debts of people who have less than we do.  And, oftentimes, this is very economic in the Bible.  It’s not just feelings.  It’s very literally you owe me money, and you can’t pay me back.  But I’m going to let you off the hook for that.  I am going to release you from that.  And then the Old Testament concept of jubilee, which every seven years land was supposed to be returned.  People were supposed to be released from slavery.  It was this idea of resetting everything.  And this idea of jubilee carries over into Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament and the Lord’s prayer.  This idea of forgiving our debts as we forgive our debtors.  So that sets up forgiveness very much as a concept of someone who is very powerful and has a lot.  Not holding captive someone who is less powerful because they aren’t able to pay you back.  So that’s primarily what forgiveness looks like in Jesus’ teaching.  And then when we get into the letters of Paul, there is also this concept of unconditional forgiveness where this—(inaudible)  the grace of God that you let someone go.  You release someone from their bondage to you simply because that mirrors the character of God.  So that takes out a little bit of the power dynamic situation that Jesus is talking about where it’s a person who might be considered as being more privileged than somebody else, forgiving, and kind of expands that concept as well.  But what I think is so important about Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness is that they’re very, very linked to somebody being in a position of power over somebody else.  And what I notice about that is in abuse the person with all the power is the person doing the abusing.  And then to just copy and paste Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness, which have to do with this power dynamic, on a situation where the power dynamic is the opposite doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.  And that’s not to say that I don’t think that forgiveness is very, very important and that there’s a place for forgiveness and healing from abuse.  But I think it looks really different from what people often think it does.

Sheila: Yeah.  And that’s the case you’re making is you’re not saying you didn’t forgive your husband or that we shouldn’t forgive those who hurt us.  You’re saying that our concept that forgiveness means complete reconciliation and just deciding not to feel bad about something anymore is just not what is healthy or biblical.  Yeah.  Which I really appreciate.  And you kind of talk too about—that there’s sort of two different kinds of forgiveness.  There’s this absolute forgiveness that God does which really only God can do.  But when we look in the Old Testament at issues of forgiveness where it’s person to person, they are always preceded by the offender repenting in some way.  

Susannah: Yeah.  Accountability is part of forgiveness.  That’s a biblical concept.  And so often, I think, we’re—we, as church people, talk about forgiveness in a way that blames the victim when any kind of accountability is asked for.  And I think that asking for justice absolutely is part of forgiveness, and I think that, if there is going to be any kind of reconciliation at the end of this process—and I think that forgiveness and reconciliation are different things.  And forgiveness does not necessarily have to include reconciliation.  But if there’s going to be that hope for reconciliation, there has to be accountability in that process where it’s just not relationally feasible for anything to happen relationally after that.

Sheila: Yeah.  There is one point where you’re talking about that episode again.  Not 7 times but 77 times that Jesus says we’re supposed to forgive.  And you talked about how it had to do with power dynamics.  I truly never saw this.  This was mind blowing to me.  Can you explain that?  

Susannah: Yeah.  Absolutely.  Well, what Jesus is talking about really is—I believe that’s in the same story as the king and the servants and the ungrateful servant.  So the king forgives a servant, and then that servant goes on to be unforgiving to somebody else.  And so that’s what frames Jesus’ whole understanding of forgiveness.  That it’s when you have the resources to let somebody go and you have more power than they do, then you should absolutely do that.  That’s the context in which Jesus says 70 times 7.  Whenever you have the power and privilege to let somebody out of your bondage, you should definitely go for it.  Another way that I like to think about that 70 times 7 story though is that not necessarily that we’re letting somebody hurt us 70 times 7 times because that would be a lot of times to go through that same trauma.  But in my experience of healing from trauma, very literally as a person who struggled with PTSD for many years, I experience the same act—the same flashbacks, the same memories over and over again.  And each time I have to decide how I’m going to relate to those memories.   

Sheila: Right.

Susannah: Will that lead me into vengeance against those who hurt me?  Or will that lead me on a path towards healing?  And so I think it’s actually very psychologically savvy the way that Jesus talks about 70 times 7 because this is what trauma survivors experience.  We are haunted by these memories, flashbacks over and over and over again.  

Sheila: Yeah.  That’s so interesting.  This is Sheila parachuting in to the podcast just a reminder for any of you who actually live in my neck of woods in southern Ontario.  We are having a huge party on Saturday, March 23rd.  So that’s just two days after this podcast is out at 2:30 in the afternoon in Belleville, Ontario at St. Thomas Anglican Church.  Bring some toxic books because you can trade them in for some prizes.  We’re going to have crafts.  We’re going to have a Q&A.  We’re going to have goodies to eat.  There’s all kinds of stuff happening, and we would absolutely love to see anyone who lives in the area or who wants to drive a couple of hours.  Whatever you want.  We would love to see you.  So check out.  There is more information on that in the podcast notes.  Okay.  I had another holy cow moment like whoa.  When you were talking about where Jesus says in the book of John where he appears after the resurrection and He says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they’re forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  And I’ve never really understood what that meant.  That didn’t really make a lot of sense to me.  It’s sort of one of those things you read, and you go, “Huh, that’s weird.”  But you go on and talk about how the concept of retaining sins is actually quite important for victims.

Susannah: Yeah.  I think it has so much to do with affirming victims dignity.  That no.  You’re not crazy.  These things really happened, and we can sit with those things that have happened.  We don’t just have to sweep them under the rug.  We’re choosing to retain them and look at them and figure out how to support you because we take you seriously.  And I just so much wish that we would hold all of Jesus’ words together in that we wouldn’t back away from uncomfortable things like the idea of retaining sins of offenders.  That’s not to say that forgiveness can never come into the picture.  But what I see in so many church contexts is that the focus is on reconciling the offender back into the community without taking seriously what has really happened.  And that’s so dehumanizing.

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  Absolutely.  I’m going to read to you your words here at the end of this passage because they’re so powerful.  “I wonder how much of my life would have been different if, in my church communities during my adolescence and young adulthood, there had been those who recognized that retaining sins was as valid a part of Jesus’ forgiveness teachings as letting them go.”  Yeah.  Because maybe we do need to retain some and sit with them and hold some people accountable and that that should be the emphasis and I thought that was really powerful.  So you’ve built up this case on what forgiveness means in this chapter.  And near the end of it you have this beautiful picture of it.  I’m just going to read this to you.  You said, “When I say I forgive you, I mean I am not seeking punishment for you.  The wrong you did to me need not, as far as I’m concerned, stand in the way of your growth into wellbeing and wholeness.  When I look at you, I will see you as a child of God, and I will think of you and treat you with grace.  To see you and treat you in this way, forgiveness may mean letting you go.”  Yeah.  I know there’s someone listening who needs to hear that right now, but that might be what forgiveness is.  

Susannah: And I think that very often people think that the conclusion of my story is that I didn’t forgive my husband because I divorced him.  And I really, really, really want people to hear that the opposite is true.  That the most profound that I knew to forgive my husband was to divorce him.  And when I did that, I felt that I had an ability to love him as a human that I was not able to in the marriage that we had together after the abuse.

Sheila: Yeah.  Yeah.  And so let’s go into more of your story that you talk about as we go through the other elements because you build up to this really well.  So the next thing after forgiveness we talk about anger.  And you open this with how anger and often the things that make us the most angry and the scars that leave the deepest trauma aren’t even necessarily from the abuser or the person who has done us harm but it’s from other people who then react out of that.  So for you, it was the church community, but it was also Child Protective Services.  Can you explain that a little bit?

Susannah: Yeah.  So probably the most traumatizing thing that happened to me during the five years in which I was trying to leave my husband was that, at one point, I decided that I was going to make a police report after a severe episode of physical violence.  And I thought that it would be important to have that police report for when I did divorce my husband as I was trying to work out custody and things like that.  I wanted a paper trail of what had happened.  So I made a police report.  And about a week later, CPS came and knocked on my door.  And they said a lot of things that were unhelpful.  But among the worst of them was, “What did you do to make your husband hurt you?”  And they told me that if they heard any reports about our house again, any more reports of domestic violence, that they would take my children away from me.  And CPS came again after the birth of my second daughter because my husband pushed me when I was about 37 weeks pregnant.  And he went off and had this whole episode, and my water broke.  And I had my baby that night.  And after I got home from the hospital as I was nursing my day old baby, DCS came again and repeat performance of what had happened before.  And as a new mom, who was trying desperately to keep my kids safe, keep me safe, be the best mom that I knew how to be, that was the most devastating and shameful feeling thing that happened to me.  And that, honestly—it’s still difficult to talk about.  And I think that, more than anything else, made me really angry at my husband for his actions precipitating this chain of events.  

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  And I think that’s really important for people to hear is that sometimes in trauma somebody may not have actually done the thing that caused you the worst trauma.  But they precipitated it.  Without their actions, this still wouldn’t have happened to you, right?  So it wasn’t your husband who said those terrible things to you.  It wasn’t your husband who threatened to take away the kids.  But because of what he did, you got those threats.  And so in a way, he still caused that, and that’s a deep wounding that you had that you had to process.  And I love how, in the anger part, you walk through what Scriptures actually say about anger.  How God chose anger, when God chose anger, and what the anger is working towards, and, so often, it is really working towards healing injustice, right?  And fixing injustice.  But then you also said that, as angry as you felt, you knew that you couldn’t sustain that level of anger.  It wasn’t good for you.  It wasn’t good for you body.  It wasn’t good for your kids.  You had to move past that.  So it’s important to feel it, but you can’t stay in it.

Susannah: Yeah.  Absolutely.  And I think that learning to respond to the cues of my anger and listen to the messages that they were trying to tell me in healthy and productive ways has been a huge part of my journey.  But we can’t just skip over—I am a southern girl.  I’m from Georgia.  I’m very socialized to be a nice, polite, and happy woman.  But we can’t bypass that anger. 

Sheila: Yeah.  You have to listen to what the anger is telling you.  And so then the next section you got is lament, which is really profound because this is something the church has lost which I don’t understand why because so many of the psalms—well, we even have a—we have a book called Lamentations.  

Susannah: A whole book.

Sheila: And so many of the psalms are laments.  And yet, we have lost that.  Can you explain what a lament is, first of all? 

Susannah: Yeah.  I would say that a lament is a cry out to God about the injustice or sadness of a situation and almost kind of a demand for God to be God and do something about it.  

Sheila: Yeah.  And to listen.  I love it.  And yet, instead of that, you think about all of our songs are all how much we love God and—which we do.  And how happy we are, and I’m happy.  And I have a smile on my face.  But that’s not—David didn’t do that.    

Susannah: Yeah.  There’s a  lot of angst and anguish.

Sheila: Yeah.  And if we can just create a faith where we can reincorporate some of that, then maybe we’d have a much better theology of a lot of this stuff.          

Susannah: I agree. 

Sheila: Yeah.  That’s really good.  I think in your story of lament—you actually wrote out all of the different parts, and this wasn’t you dwelling on them.  People think, “Oh, she’s just dwelling on it.  You’re supposed to think about whatever is pure and lovely and good.  Why are you dwelling on that,” right?  But listing all of the things unless we can look them square in the face then how can we forgive because we haven’t named what we’re going to forgive.  

Susannah: Forgiveness comes from reality.  It comes from facing what’s actually happened.  It would be a false forgiveness if you’re only thinking about forgiving the things that are—I don’t know.  Less dark or less painful to think about.  That’s kind of a superficial forgiveness.

Sheila: Yeah.  I also love your interpretation on Habakkuk.  There’s this line in Habakkuk where it tells women to teach their daughters to sing dirges.  That’s so interesting.

Susannah: Yeah.  And it’s a very—in the ancient world, it was a very female, very gendered thing.  Women were the lamenters, so let’s go, y’all.

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  And that kind of takes power back in some way.  It fixes a power imbalance because we’re allowed to say, “Hey, y’all did this to me.”  

Susannah: Yeah.  And I think that lament also presupposes a sympathetic and supportive listener.  God mainly.  That you don’t—we’re not just crying out into the abyss.  We’re crying out because we have faith in a God who listens to us.

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  Okay.  I have to read some more of your words.  Seriously, this is just so good.  Okay.  So this is at the end of the lament chapter.  “Rarely have I heard within church context that lament is encouraged for survivors of domestic violence.  The pressure to forgive and reconcile is intense while the invitation to detail as much or as little as desired what has done lasting harm is virtually nonexistent.  In the Bible, lament takes up more space than teaching on forgiveness.  So here is a message for the church leaders out there.  Don’t talk to me about forgiveness unless you’ve made space for me to lament the full story, the messy parts, the painful parts, the parts I wish I could forget, even the parts I’m grateful for.  Don’t talk to me about forgiveness until you can sit through my entire lament.  If you can’t bear to sit and heart the lament, then you probably aren’t in a position to tell me what to forgive and what to retain.”  

Susannah: It sounds like I had some feelings while I was writing that.

Sheila: Like boom.  Oh yeah.  Amen.  So after lament, we have accountability.  So you talk about what accountability looks like.  And this chapter you got a little bit more personal, and maybe you could tell us because I think this is such a common dilemma people get into in relationships is in order for you to heal you had to keep—you had to talk about this stuff.  You had to make sure that your husband understood what he had done.  You had to make sure that he knew how you were still feeling.  But for him to feel like a new person and like he could go on, he couldn’t handle it.  

Susannah: Yeah.  And I think, ultimately, that’s probably what ended our relationship was that we related so differently to the traumatic events that had happened.  And yeah.  I’m thinking about people who—couples who lose a child together which I haven’t experienced personally.  But that people often need to heal really differently, and somebody might need to talk about it a lot and process it verbally.  And somebody—for someone, that’s just retraumatizing over and over again.  And I can appreciate how, for my husband, it was honestly retraumatizing to have to hear me talk about these things over and over again because it was traumatic for him too.  He did things that betrayed his own character.  And he did things that hurt somebody he loved.  And I can understand now why he couldn’t sit with that.  And I can also give grace to myself that there was no other way forward for me.  And at that point, our needs were just so conflicting that we had to end our marriage relationship.

Sheila: Right.  Right.  And, again, we are not trying to tell everybody that this is what you have to do.  This book is not about that.  This book is not telling everyone who is a victim of adultery or abuse or whatever that you need to divorce.  What this book is really doing instead is walking us theologically through what forgiveness and reconciliation actually are biblically, and they’re very different from what we’ve been taught.  And I really, really appreciate that.  And accountability has to be part of it.     

Susannah: Yeah.  I think that if there were—whatever relational possibilities there are after these kind of traumatic things in relationships there’s got to be accountability if you’re going to continue to go forward in any way.  And the relationship that I have with my kids’ dad now I think we would not have if he hadn’t taken accountability to the extent that he could for his actions.

Sheila: Yeah.  Yeah.  Okay.  So then we move on to reconciliation.  All right.  And I thought this was really quite profound because you’re talking—you open this by recounting, again, all the messages that you were being given, how we’re praying for reconciliation.  We’re praying for all of this which actually is a form of spiritual abuse when people do that to you, I think.  And I’ve done that.  I was one of those people years ago to a friend of mine.  And I’ve talked to her about it.

Susannah: I think a lot of us are.  

Sheila: Yeah.  And I really, really do regret that now.  But it is hard.  And here.  I want to read you this bit here.  “The communities where I lived, worked, and worshipped had an embedded theology of reconciliation that played out to mean that no matter what I had been through it was less important than reconciling with my husband and staying in my marriage.  The message conveyed was that speaking up and getting help to leave the traumatic relationship were unkind and even violent actions but staying in a marriage where I had physically gotten hurt and emotionally been imprisoned was part of God’s peace.  Reconciliation was a façade that shielded community members from confronting conflict.”  And I want to talk about that last bit there because I wonder how much of the pressure on people to reconcile is less about the people and more about the fact that we want to beat the atheists.  So we want to have a zero divorce rate.  And we don’t want to have to grapple with people’s trauma.  We don’t want to have to help people move out and help single moms get meals and help with babysitting.  We don’t want that.  We don’t want things messy.

Susannah: It’s hard work, and it’s messy.  And we don’t like conflict as a culture especially as a Christian culture.  And I think particularly in the community that I was part of which was Mennonite, so that’s part of the Anabaptist family.  So Amish, Mennonite, other brethren, other groups—they’re peace churches, right?  They’re very, very focused on being part of God’s peace in the world which, theoretically, is a really beautiful thing.  But relationships dissolving doesn’t feel peaceful.  We should all be reconciling.  And I think that was a component of my experience in that community that I think aggravated exactly what we’re talking about.  About conflict averse and having the façade of everything being right in our churches.

Sheila: So here you are.  You’re trying to reconcile with your husband.  And you’re still having panic.  You’re just still feeling it in your body.  And when you get away from him, you feel peace.  And you’re trying to figure out what to do, and you talk to one of your mentors.  And he said, “There’s a difference between reconciliation and reunification.”  And explain that to me.

Susannah: Yeah.  So my friend, David, is a pastor that has been very formative in my spiritual journey.  And I approached him because I had kind of run out of people who weren’t telling me that I—he was a colleague at the time.  We worked in the same place.  And I’d sort of run through my church and everyone telling me, “You’re not reconciling.  You need to reconcile.”  And I’m like, “David, help me.  I really want to divorce, but I feel like a bad Christian because I’m not reconciling.”  And I tell him a little bit of the back story.  And he’s like, “Well, it doesn’t sound like people are wanting you to reconcile at all.  It sounds like they’re wanting you to reunify with your husband, and those are two different things.”  And I think that we have a bad habit of making our vision for reconciliation too small.  We tend to think about it as the institutions of our lives staying intact like marriage.  God has a bigger picture for reconciliation.  God’s vision of reconciliation is reconciling all of creation to Himself.  And that’s so much bigger than my marriage or anything I can do.  I mean we can all be part of reconciliation.  But at the end of the day, reconciliation is the work of God.  And it doesn’t rely on my marriage staying intact for it to happen.  I think that what David was encouraging me towards is thinking about what would reconciliation with myself look like because I had shared I hated myself for staying in the marriage where there was abuse.  What would reconciliation with my hole look like so I could feel safe being in my home?  What would reconciliation with my husband really look like because we weren’t—we were still married, but we weren’t reconciled.  We were not happy together.  And ultimately, when we ended the relationship, our relationship as friends and supporters of each other became much stronger.  

Sheila: Yeah.  I really like that part of your book when you talk about what—how you can cheer him on now.  You can bless him in what he’s doing.  You can wish the best for him.

Susannah: Yeah.  I love him.  I absolutely love him.  I love him as the father of my children.  I love him for who he is as a person.  And the fact that we are not married anymore makes that love deeper.  

Sheila: Yeah.  Yeah.  Which I found really, really profound.  And, again, we are not saying everyone needs to take the same route.  That’s not the point of the podcast.

Susannah: I don’t even know what to do with my life.  I am not trying to tell (inaudible) own.

Sheila: Yeah.  But it’s inviting people to see that forgiveness, reconciliation, and reunification are different.  They’re intertwined, but they’re not synonyms.  And we’ve made them synonyms.  Okay.  And then the last chapter is release and rebirth.  When you let things go.  And when you let the shame and the anger you feel at yourself go too, then you can really—you can be free.  And you say that in the Bible we’re so often told, “You just need to die to self, right?  Jesus didn’t consider His own life something to be saved.  And so why would you because you’re supposed to follow after Jesus?”  And this is what we’re taught again and again and again, right?  And you said this, “But what about when survivors and victims have already born the cost of abuser’s sins time and time again?  What about when we do not want to die as Jesus did for the sins of our abusers?  What about when we want to live?  And are we not allowed to want to live?”  And you talk about hearing those three words from God.  Go, and live.  Tell me what that felt like. 

Susannah: Scary.  I think the greatest challenge for me in the Christian life are how are we now to live in the freedom of Christ.  Hearing those words meant that I was going to have to do something really scary and I was going to be alone.  And I was going to have to face hurting my husband’s feelings, and I was going to have to go against the will of my community as I perceived it.  And I had to go through a lot before I could start and to really experiencing that life, I think, that God had for me.  But I think that forgiveness is that.  It’s finding the places in our lives where we can be free to really love and really love.  And that’s a journey for us often.    

Sheila: Yeah.  I think one thing that really struck me in your book—I guess two things that I want to end with.  One is that if we know God is good and we know that God wants us to live abundantly then we need to wrestle more with these concepts because we’re hurting people.  People are really hurting, and we shouldn’t be afraid to wrestle with those concepts.  And honestly, if you have questions Scripturally about what forgiveness means and all this, seriously.  The book again is Forgiveness After Trauma by Susannah Griffith.  And it goes into it so well.  The second thing that struck me and that I found quite convicting is that it was because of community that you got out and that you got free because you had people who were willing to sit with you.  

Susannah: Absolutely.

Sheila: And I don’t know that I’ve done that very much with individual people.  

Susannah: I bet you will after this podcast.  People are going to be hitting you up.    

Sheila: For those of us who are not in an abusive marriage or a marriage with adultery or whatever, we’ve got to stop giving people pat answers.  Oh, I’m praying that your marriage will work out.  No.  How about I am praying for clarity?  I am praying for life.  I am praying for healing.  

Susannah: Or how about I watch your kids so you can go to therapy or do the laundry for you so you can have a break and process and take care of you.

Sheila: Yeah.  Like the professor that stepped in and helped you.  I love how you said he also brought us soup and he brought us food.  He stepped in, and he helped practically too.    

Susannah: And I think that being willing to just walk with people and to do that for as long as it takes knowing that people are going to double back and change their mind.  You might have to be that presence and witness to what they’ve been through.  And if they’re doubting themselves, remind them, “This is what you told me.  This is what you’ve shared with me.  And I believe what you shared with me.  And for that reason, I am concerned about you still.  But I’m still going to walk with you even if you’re doubling back and making choices that maybe I wish you wouldn’t.”

Sheila: Yeah.  Yeah.  I really appreciate that.  And thank you too because just you’ve helped me resolve some deep angst I’ve had about the Bible recently.  So I really appreciate that because—    

Susannah: Thank you.  It’s such a gift to be able to talk together and process the book which I’m obviously still processing a little bit.  

Sheila: Yeah.  No.  It’s great.  And you have born a personal cost for this because in writing about this—you told me before we started recording that you lost a job.     

Susannah: I lost my job at the seminary where I was a professor and still have a lot of feelings about that that I’m working through.  But, again, I believe that God calls us to truth and to life.  And I’m still walking in that.  And I’m still waiting to see all that God will open as I continue to feel this cost.

Sheila: Well, I think this book is really going to be healing for a lot of people.  So highly recommend it.  Where can people find you, Susannah?  Or where can they find the book?  

Susannah: Yes.  The book can be found on the Baker Books website, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, at your local independent book store, wherever books are sold.  You can find me on Instagram, @susannahgriffith. I am currently, hopefully by the time people hear this, will have a website at susannahgriffith.com.  And yeah.  I really welcome people to reach out and share their responses and their stories because we’re all walking together.

Sheila: Awesome.  I will put those links in the podcast notes.  And I want to let your own words end our interview here because I just—the hardest part of writing book, I got to tell everyone, is writing the end of it.  How am I going to end this?  And I don’t know that all my endings are really that great.  But your ending is awesome.  So I want to read you this.  “Step into that life.  Do what it takes to get to that life.  Maybe that life is different for you than it is for me.  But know that life should be yours for the taking.  Forgiveness may follow, but I don’t think it precedes.  So turn your face toward light, toward life, and take the brave first step holding on to those who will walk this road with you because you are beloved and life should be yours.”  Yeah.  Thank you for writing this, Susannah.  I am honestly just so grateful for this author just for her authenticity and her openness in sharing what she went through and reading it really helped heal some stuff in me.  I’m going to be talking about some of the things that we talked about on this podcast in more detail on the blog in the next little while because I think we need to talk about this stuff.  Forgiveness has been weaponized.  It’s been so misunderstood.  And when we see reconciliation more as a community and what that means as a community, I think that’s a lot healthier.  So thank you for joining us on this podcast.  I hope it affected you as much as it affected me.  And if you are tired of feeling like you have been left out of church, then please, again, check out Zondervan’s Kingdom Girl’s Bible.  I am so excited about this.  I’m going to be posting about this more and showing some of the amazing pictures.  But your girls, and you women, deserve to be included in the Bible, and that’s what this does.  You get to hear about all the women in the Bible.  It’s so cool.  So check that out.  And we will see you again next week on the Bare Marriage podcast.  Bye-bye.

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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7 Comments

  1. Jo R

    Forgiveness is not a synonym for reconciliation. Forgiveness is not a synonym for a complete and total lack of consequences. We need to stop saying that those three things are a perfect circle when drawn as a Venn diagram.

    When Jesus told people they were forgiven, He also told them to go and sin no more. He most emphatically did not say, “You have no responsibility to avoid that behavior in the future, so don’t bother making any changes in your life at all.”

    Forgiveness in the OT was often about restitution, the restoration of property damaged or destroyed, or imposing on the offender the equivalent damage that could not be undone (an eye for an eye). While murder entailed a death sentence for the murderer, what we would today call involuntary manslaughter required the offenders to uproot their lives to go live in one of the designated cities rather than be able to stay in the place where they had lived. The offenders had to massively change their circumstances, leaving behind everything they knew and the communities and lives they had built up.

    Paul said that God cannot be mocked, that we reap what we sow. That means consequences ought to follow sin, and that means unpleasantness, behavioral adjustments, and that aforementioned restitution. You can choose your actions, but you can’t choose the consequences of those actions.

    When the prodigal son came home, he found that his father forgave him “instantly.” I’d say the father forgave the son long before the son came home, but the son did not know or receive that forgiveness UNTIL HE CHANGED HIS BEHAVIOR AND ATTITUDE. If the son had never realized his sin against his father, if he had never decided to repent, if he had not determined to change his remaining life’s future behavior, then he would have had forgiveness, but he would not have had the reconciliation and restoration (nor would he have even known he was forgiven).

    2 Timothy 3 says in part, “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, demeaning, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid these people.”

    Do we ignore this passage even when the people who do these things call themselves “Christians,” go to church every Sunday, and can quote a few Bible verses, and especially if they’re husbands?

    Reply
    • JG

      Thank you for what you said. It is exactly what I am dealing with in relationship to my dad.

      Reply
  2. Laura

    I think this book is going to be a great read and one I need to own. Oh, if only I had something like this over 20 years ago when I was dealing with the trauma from my abusive marriage. I was taught that in order to be fully forgiven by God, I had to focus on forgiving my ex and forgiving him was the only way to heal. I didn’t know I could take time to process the trauma, then forgive when ready. I feel like that did some damage to me. This was not a relationship that could be reconciled because I did not want to stay with my rapist (husband). Thankfully, I did not feel pushed to stay with him and after the divorce, I thought I was finally free from the abuse. I was free from being abused, but I was not free from the aftermath of the abuse. It would be more than three years after the divorce when I started having nightmares about the abuse and I felt on edge all the time. Turned out that I had PTSD, which I thought only happened to those who served in the military.

    I think this book would benefit survivors like myself.

    Reply
  3. Lisa Johns

    I think the church has a one-size-fits-all response to trauma: forgiveness. Nightmares? You need to forgive. PTSD? You need to forgive. Hypervigilance? You need to forgive. Inability to relax in someone’s presence? You need to forgive.
    The thing is, forgiveness does NOT automatically make such symptoms disappear, nor is that ever a biblical concept. “Unforgiveness” is not the source of all trauma, nor does “forgiveness” make it magically disappear. We need a clearer view.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Absolutely!

      Reply
  4. Jeni

    So much to ponder and grab a hold of here. I was impressed by her comments near the end about continuing to
    work through her job situation. We are so pressured to almost immediately forgive and forget and move on with little
    to no time to process and work through. My story over 38 years of marriage often included being told to forgive and forget
    as one of the first pieces of “advice.” In fact, I wasn’t allowed to confront or talk about any of the pain and grief for almost
    35 years so it had always felt so fresh and recent.

    I’ve been divorced for about 2 1/2 years now and still fight the voices in my head that insist I am
    to just forgive, forget, and move on, and yet I can’t seem to do that. And I’m finally starting to believe and know
    I can take the time to work through it and it’s okay and right and normal versus sin that I’m not.

    Reply
    • Lisa Johns

      “Forgiveness” is also the instant solution for feelings about having been abused, and for the abuse itself. But I can attest with you that it is NOT the solution! I stand with you as you work through your pain; take all the time you need.

      Reply

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