Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness are well known. We are called to forgive, just as he did, even on the cross. That’s a tough ask for most of us, because throughout our lives there are people who do things that sometimes wound us so profoundly. Those deeply inflicted wounds can come with long lasting consequences, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There are two types of PTSD– Complex PTSD which is the result of prolonged exposure to toxic stress such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse that is ongoing. Simple PTSD can result from things such as an accident, being the victim of a violent crime, or being in a situation that makes one fear for one’s life. When it comes to PTSD, I have a great deal of experience, because the events of my life have been such that I have both types. I grew up in an emotionally and physically abusive home, later entered into a toxic marriage, and then when I was in the Marines, while working on a piece of heavy equipment, I was crushed between the roll over protection structure and the lift mast and sustained significant injuries to my legs and knees. Had I not been extricated when I was, doctors told me I likely would have snapped one or both of my femurs and potentially would have bled to death because we were so far from a hospital while on a training mission. All of these things have made me more susceptible to the normal stressors of life and profoundly effected by things that are not mundane, quotidian stressors such as loss of a relationship or severe financial burdens.
This brings me to my own personal theological conundrum. Within the past several years there have been some people in my life whose actions include near pathological levels of lying and deception, emotional abuse, and multiple breaches of trust and breaking of community that have lead to an exacerbation of the symptoms that I experience as a result of the aforementioned PTSD. A fight or flight response and hyper vigilance are among the more common symptoms. These can make ordinary daily activities difficult if not impossible for me. As an example, I do not drive nor will I be a passenger in a vehicle on major highways and interstates, which means that when I go somewhere, it takes a good deal longer for me to get there than it does for others. I have to plan my routes ahead of time, cannot work in a job where driving a lot is required, and I sometimes miss out on events or family outings because the stress of getting to them is overwhelming to me. If something so completely mundane can be traumatizing or can make life so much more difficult, imagine trying to apply Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness, open table fellowship, and being in relationship with someone whose actions have made one’s life exponentially worse because of abuse, violence, emotional manipulation, gaslighting, and the like.
That is the theological task that I am facing now. I believe in and have experienced in visceral ways God’s truly amazing grace. That grace led me to go to seminary to continue the process of deconstructing the fundamentalist theology of my youth (which contributed to the C-PTSD as well) and led me to membership in a UCC church near my home. I believe that those who are responsible for the wounds because of their lies, cruelty, and emotional abuse are also worthy of God’s grace and that their actions towards me have not separated them God’s grace in any way. My theological questions about my own situation revolve around my need for healing. When I think of one of the people whose lack of integrity and unscrupulous behavior has literally turned my life upside down, the fight or flight response kicks in and I become LIVID. PTSD alters the brains of those who have it and can make one behave in what would be perceived as awful ways. Where is the grace for me, an aspiring pacifist who deeply believes in the non-violent ways of Christ, yet feels–through no fault of my own–a violent rage inside that may well explode if I were to see this particular person? Cognitively, when I can see past the rage, depression, and despair, I pray for the ability to forgive this person and the others whose actions, which in every conceivable way violated the Golden Rule, despite their complete lack of remorse for the trauma I’ve experienced as a result of their horrible choices. Can I ever forgive so completely that I no longer feel that rage? Where is the grace for me when I go entire nights without sleeping and thus cannot function well in the following days due to the fatigue? Because insomnia is also a symptom of PTSD, especially at times of severe duress, I sleep comparatively little. These incidents of insomnia have increased due to what I am currently dealing with as a result of the actions of a small number of people who behaved in ways universally considered as unacceptable at best and abhorrent at worst. My life and health are being adversely affected. Where is the grace for me in those moments?
My therapist has advice for me during my weekly counseling sessions and it is always excellent and has helped me tremendously to navigate the turbulent waters of living with PTSD. Without this therapy, I would likely not been near as successful in seminary as I was, and the manuscript I wrote about the Golden Rule and Permaculture would not be currently being published by a well known theological press. In a real way, God’s grace has been enacted through my ongoing therapy sessions. Her advice however is from the perspective of an expert on psychology and not theological in nature, and when I do bring up the theological questions, she defers to my well being and getting my mental health needs met. Where, if anywhere, do these twain ideas meet? To take care of myself, I have to distance myself from those who have harmed me, yet Jesus calls us to live out grace towards even our enemies. At times, people have been severely damaged by denying their own mental and or physical health and staying put in abusive or toxic stress situations. That cannot be what Jesus had in mind in my opinion.
I believe in grace. I also believe that our actions have consequences and that victims deserve restorative (rather than retributive) justice of some sort. Does grace really mean that in order to be right with God, I have to be in relationship with those whose actions have legitimately traumatized me and left me with a debilitating mental health condition? Am I to simply pretend that nothing ever happened in spite of a lifetime of negative affects and difficult symptoms? Or does grace mean that for me, I protect myself while working towards forgiveness? Does God make no provision for one’s lived experience as some theologians have asserted? Or does God take each situation as it comes and apply the grace that way?
I believe that for myself and people who have had experiences similar to mine, that grace comes in the form of being able to self-protect, to remove ourselves from toxic situations, and that reconciliation may not mean an active relationship with those who have caused so much harm. I am actively working towards forgiveness for myself (I’m my own worst critic) and to those who harmed me from childhood to now. It’s a journey towards wholeness and healing. And I pray for that same healing for all concerned.
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