Yesterday I began this two-part article by describing a dangerous home and offering five short suggestions about returning to such a home. Today I want to focus on two things: forgiving dangerous family members and setting a course for future relationships. I speak as a theologian and pastor, but also as a man who grew up in a violent home. I’m not attempting a full theology of forgiveness in this blog—others have done that. I hope to connect aspects of the biblical teaching of forgiveness to some hard questions: Should I go home as an adult when home was dangerous and may still be? What should I expect if I do go home? Let’s begin with the basics of forgiveness and move from there.
First, we must forgive our families for their sins against us.
Those who receive God’s grace extend that grace to others. The forgiven forgive. Paul said disciples must forgive one another “as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). In Jesus’s parable of the unforgiving servant, the king (who represents God) says we should show mercy to others, just as he has mercy on us (Matt. 18:33–35). Jesus also said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,” even up to seven times in a single day (Luke 17:3–4).
Second, forgiveness is complex.
Jesus offered forgiveness freely (Luke 23:34). And yet forgiveness comes with a cost and a condition. The cost is the blood of Christ. The condition is that the sinner must repent (Luke 17:4, 24:47). Humans forgive similarly (not identically). We forgive freely—“from your heart,” Jesus said. The cost is letting go of our hurts and our desire for perfect justice. If we forgive, we drop thoughts of vengeance. We don’t call for God’s wrath, we pray for his mercy (Rom. 12:19–21).
Again, the condition for perfected forgiveness is that the sinner must repent. We can fully forgive someone in our heart, and yet, if a sinful family refuses to repent—and they often do!—matters are not quite closed.
Jesus sometimes tells us to forgive, period, and sometimes tells us to forgive if the sinner repents (compare Matt. 6:14-15 and Luke 17:4). We harmonize these commands by distinguishing the subjective and objective elements of forgiveness. We forgive an offender subjectively or inwardly by loving, praying for them, and seeking peace with them. But to complete the objective element of forgiveness, the sinner must repent. (Richard Winter calls this the attitude of forgiveness and the transaction of forgiveness.) Even after we forgive inwardly, we are responsible to call sinful family members to repentance. As Jesus said “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault. . . . If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matt. 18:15; cf. Gal. 6:1–2). Moses says God’s people should rebuke or reprove a sinning neighbor and he treats that as an act of love (Lev. 19:17–18).
Yet even if someone says, “I repent,” the objective side of reconciliation can still be incomplete. Suppose someone steals my car. Three days later, I spot my neighbor driving it. When I confront him, he says “I repent. Please forgive me.” If I am sensible, I will say “I forgive you. Now give me the car.” If he refuses to return the car, the matter is not closed. The same holds if someone slanders me. If they repent, they need to tell the truth and restore my reputation. This principle applies to family members too. But it’s more complicated to work things out with family. If they have inflicted or threatened bodily harm, they must repent and promise “Never again.” Speech that wounds or brings shame is harder to define, but it is right to set boundaries there too, and to stick to them.
Sadly, evil people typically have little interest in repenting or setting things right. Therefore . . .
Third, if you have dangerous family members, don’t assume they will repent.
They may have no ability or desire to set things right. You may never know complete peace or reconciliation.
Paul wisely said “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” The double qualification is necessary because reconciliation can be impossible, since it takes two (or more) parties to make peace (Rom. 12:18).
Godly people know their sin and quickly repent (1 Tim. 1:15). Bullies, abusers, thieves, and slanderers commonly have a weak or “seared” conscience, which makes repentance harder (1 Tim. 4:2). Indeed, it is impossible, unless the Spirit renews them.
Evildoers tend to be oblivious to their sins. They smash a violin and say “We were just horsing around.” They deny or forget their sins, or remember events so differently that progress is impossible. Normal people assume that a father would remember throwing a son down a flight of stairs or punching a daughter in the face, but they don’t—or they do, but lie about it convincingly. They also project their sins onto others. Sexual abusers sometimes say, “She asked for it,” “She liked it,” or “He never complained.”
Moreover, evildoers often believe they have been mistreated. Godly people typically repent of sin more quickly than evildoers. Terrible sinners seem least likely to repent. Family members even “facilitate” this by excusing their behavior. (“Yes, your father hits us sometimes, but he is under a lot of pressure.”)
Understand the implication. If your home was a truly dangerous place, your sinful relatives may never repent. So be realistic if you return to a dangerous home. Understand that you may never find closure or peace.
Fourth, the phrase “forgive and forget” can be true or false, depending on the meaning of “forget.”
Forgiveness does not require that we literally forget the sins we suffered. When God says he will remember our sins “no more” (Jer. 31:34), he means he will not hold them against us. God knows all things and can’t literally forget anything and we rarely forget traumas. Besides, the phrase “forgive and forget” never appears in Scripture. So then, when we forgive someone, we “forget” the desire for justice. But we shouldn’t pretend nothing happened.
It’s no virtue to let offenders hurt us. Jesus told his disciples to protect themselves in Matthew 10:16–23. He even said, “When they persecute you . . . flee.” So “forgive and take steps” is a better summary than “forgive and forget.” We must forgive, but we shouldn’t let family continue to wound us—that hurts both us and them. Adult children may separate from dangerous relatives. Remember Paul’s statement in Titus 3:10: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.” We can both forgive an offender and stay away from him. So then, it is possible to forgive and love your family and still decide not to go home. If married, even if you can go home, your spouse may find it too painful. Patiently work through that kind of issue.
If you do go home, keep expectations realistic. Things may not change much. Or they may. Bestselling authors Pat Conroy (in articles) and Andre Agassi (in Open) have both written eloquently of their fathers’ tyrannies and of the healing they later enjoyed, even though their fathers never fully repented. Both were gifts of common grace. Redeeming grace can bring ever greater restoration. We have every reason to pray for that.
Fifth, hope is a Christian virtue.
If this issue is fresh for you, I urge you to talk to a pastor, mentor, or counselor, as well as a spouse or close friend. A short article can’t take you very far! There is much more to say; let me close with a word of hope.
Whatever happened in your home, God loves you with an everlasting love. God can restore what was lost after the destroyer leaves (Joel 2:18–25). He plants his people in families. Father, mother, brother, and sister may betray you, but the Lord says “I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18). On earth, look for family in the family of God, the church, and perhaps in other relatives. If we learn wherever we can, by God’s grace we can find substantial healing and build a healthy family of our own.