My friend Jeff once flew bush planes in Alaska.
He gained great skill as a pilot and also learned how to service his own plane. The reasoning went something like this: If Jeff’s engine ever conked out while he was flying over the remotest parts of Alaska, he’d better be able to land the plane and then get it airborne again on his own.
As a result, Jeff has a garage full of tools to work on engines: plane engines, car engines, you name it. But when it comes to wood-working, Jeff still has some lessons to learn.
Recently, Jeff bought a staple-gun which looked similar to the one his father used when Jeff was a boy. Jeff—bush pilot, mechanic, and an all-around smart guy—loaded the silver-colored gun, placed it against his project, and promptly stapled his own hand.
It turns out that the gun is built almost in reverse to the one Jeff’s father owned. It operated the opposite of Jeff’s expectations, and as a result, Jeff caused a self-inflicted wound.
Unforgiveness is like that.
But in reality unforgiveness is like Jeff’s staple-gun: every time I pull the trigger, I hurt myself.
Cult survivors—or those who have experienced spiritual abuse in their church or family—frequently struggle with unforgiveness toward the person or people who hurt them. Very natural. But if cult survivors want to move forward in obedience to God and in their own path of healing, they must learn to forgive. There it is.
I still struggle to forgive my former pastor, a man who wielded spiritual authority like a prison-guard’s baton. I’d be lying if I said anything else. Victims of spiritual abuse are captives in a twisted system which causes pain and loss. The very subtlety of the system can sometimes mask its diabolical nature and make the pain more confusing.
But I also know that the Bible says if I don’t forgive I won’t be forgiven. And I remember Jesus’ words in Luke 7:47 that “he who has been forgiven much loves much.” While time soothes some wounds, there are layers to the human soul that only forgiveness can heal—forgiveness received and forgiveness rendered.
Let me give an example.
I just finished a stunning book by Laura Hillenbrand called Unbroken. [*Spoiler alert*] It’s the epic story of Louie Zamperini, the long-standing National High School record-holder in the mile, an Olympic athlete (finished 8th in the 5,000-meter run in 1936), B-24 bombardier in World War II, crash-survivor, life-raft survivor (47 days in a rubber raft in the Pacific, a record), and prisoner of war of the Japanese for 2½ years.
During his time as a POW, besides the normal hellish torture, Louie performed slave labor and was singled out for brutal beatings because of his international stardom. He experienced the darkest depths of human depravity and it shook him to the core. Struggling after the war with unforgiveness towards a particularly sadistic guard, Louie began to drink himself into oblivion.
But alcohol couldn’t make the nightmares go away. Every night in his dreams Louie saw the same Japanese guard, nicknamed “The Bird,” beating Louie’s head with a brass belt buckle or kendo stick. Louie would try to choke the man but the Bird would never die. Every night, Louie woke up screaming, covered in sweat. His drinking grew worse and his marriage started to unravel.
Louie couldn’t help it. He drank more desperately and began to hatch a plot to deliver himself from his nightmares: he would travel to post-war Japan, hunt down The Bird, and kill him. He lavished care on his death-plot even as his marriage crumbled.
One night, Louie experienced a particularly vivid dream in which he finally got his fingers around The Bird’s throat. Louie squeezed and squeezed until The Bird started to scream. Louie suddenly snapped awake, his fingers around the throat of his wife. Instead of bringing healing, Louie’s unforgiveness was destroying his own family.
In September, 1949, a man named Billy Graham stepped off a train in Los Angeles and started a tent revival. The meetings gained steam and Graham stayed for weeks. On one of those nights, Cynthia Zamperini, Louie’s heartbroken wife, attended a meeting and her life was changed. She begged Louie to come. He would not. Instead he nursed a bottle and continued plotting vengeance against The Bird.
Somehow, Cynthia convinced Louie to attend one meeting. Graham spoke of the woman caught in adultery, from John 8. Graham quoted Jesus: “If any of you be without sin, let him cast the first stone.” Something in Louie stirred. He left the meeting in a panic. At home, a few glasses of Scotch helped douse his burning conscience.
Cynthia dragged him back several nights later. This time, Graham spoke of the marvels of Creation which speak of their Creator. Louie squirmed. He remembered a night on the life raft so many years ago. The men’s water had run out days before. Louie had prayed for the first time in his life: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.” That night it poured down rain. But Louie’s abuse in the POW camps made him wonder if God existed. If he does, Louie thought, he must be a sadist.
Graham next spoke of God’s promises to sustain his children. God never promises a life free from suffering, said Graham, but rather the grace to sustain us through it. Louie had never thought about that. But he knew that were it not for that night of rain on the life raft, he never would have survived at all. As Graham spoke, Louie remembered his own promise made to God: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.” Full of anger and anxiety, Louie jumped from his seat and ran toward the exit. Instead, his body turned toward the altar and he found himself on his knees, begging forgiveness from God. His hatred for others evaporated and never returned.
The following year, wanting to forgive his persecutors in person, Louie flew to Japan and visited the prison where his guards were housed, war criminals all. Louie recognized several of the worst prison guards sitting near the back: men who had tortured him, starved him, and smiled at his torment. The Bird was not there—he had gone into hiding and many thought he had committed suicide. Nevertheless, the prison commandant asked the other men to come forward to meet Louie.
They never reached the podium.
Instead, “Louie was seized by childlike, giddy exuberance. Before he realized what he was doing, he was bounding down the aisle. In bewilderment, the men who had abused him watched him come to them, his hands extended, a radiant smile on his face.”
To Louie, forgiving these men brought redemption and a marvelous feeling of freedom and liberty. It was a healing moment for him.
Years later, “The Bird” resurfaced from hiding after Japan offered amnesty to all war criminals. Louie found out and went to meet him, hoping to deliver a letter of forgiveness. It read in part:
As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare…. Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me… but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, “Forgive your enemies and pray for them.” As you probably know, I returned to Japan… and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison… At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian.
“The Bird” refused to meet with Louie, or even to admit that he had done anything wrong. It didn’t matter. For Louie, his choice to forgive meant that his war was finally over.
He was finally free.