There are times when I consider moving along this journey in private, working it out quietly in my own head and keeping it all to myself and then trying to move on and leave the past in the past. But when I consider this option, I see your face. You stare me down with your sadness, your confusion, and your sense of isolation. You need answers. I can’t shake the feeling that leaving the past in the past means abandoning you. And I know there are other girls like you out there. I am writing to you like this is an intimate conversation between the two of us, but I know you will never get this letter in reality. Author Mary Ann Shaffer says, “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”[1] Books will love, guide, and support you when the people around you do not. Maybe this letter can do the same for someone else.

You are sixteen now, eager to leave home and start a new life as soon as possible. Things will get better once you are no longer living with Mom and Dad, but I must warn you: While you can leave a bad situation, the bad situation does not always leave you. Your exodus from home will begin when you go to college, but it will continue for years afterward. I offer insight now in hopes that this might help you start your journey a little sooner and perhaps move along it with less angst, self-blame, and confusion.

First, and this will be hard to hear, you cannot save Dad. I know you want to help him change, but he is not a lost soul in need of love and compassion; he is an abusive man in need of correction and consequences from someone in a position of power and authority. I think a part of you already knows this. Now that I have confirmed it, you can begin to accept it. As a child, you lack the power to offer the kind of correction he needs. You cannot simply pray abuse away. Your prayers, tears, and attempts to save him will not work. You cannot save Mom either. She has already made her choice and found the necessary justification for it. She essentially points her finger up to heaven and cites God as the inspiration for her choice to stay with Dad and, as she says, “do nothing.” Unfortunately, you believe her. And beliefs are stubborn things, like stains. They are hard to remove once they make their way into your mind. They don’t always go away simply because you think they should. The head can understand things long before the heart.

Dad has just started coming back to church, and you feel terribly conflicted because you don’t want him there, and you think this means there is something wrong with you. Mom has told you, “Your dad is trying to change. We just need to forgive him.” But abusers rarely change, and forgiveness is an inappropriate response to abuse. Many church members think that forgiveness is the answer to every problem, the panacea for every hurt. It is not. While forgiveness is a virtue in many contexts, the misuse of forgiveness is no virtue. Mom misuses forgiveness as a way to avoid confronting something she doesn’t want to confront. Dad misuses forgiveness by treating it like it is a privilege he is entitled to, something he can simply demand from you. One day he will say to you, “What you need to do is forgive and move on. If you can’t do that, then that part of the sin is with you, not me.” What no one is telling you right now is that abuse is really about selfishness, which means that forgiving Dad won’t heal anyone. Granting him unearned forgiveness simply feeds into his selfishness. Forgiveness should be an act of empowerment, a gift of grace voluntarily offered by a completely free agent, especially because abuse is always about an imbalance of power and an attempt to control the victim’s choices. But when an abuser misuses forgiveness, they take that empowerment away. Forgiveness becomes just one more thing the abuser thinks he can take by force. Rather than being a gift and a choice and an act of personal empowerment, forgiveness becomes further victimization. Forgiveness can never be healing or empowering to you under your current circumstances. I tell you this to free you from unnecessary shame and pressure—the self-inflicted kind and the kind imposed on you by other people.

I know you are hearing a lot of forgiveness messages at church. Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Forgive seventy times seven. Of you it is required to forgive all men. He that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.

In the lessons and talks you hear at church, forgiveness doesn’t seem to require accountability from the offender, so you believe you are supposed to forgive Dad no matter what he does. Forgiveness is presented to you as a requirement to be in God’s favor. You hear people at church say that if a person can’t forgive, it means they are prideful. You also hear them say that unforgiving people are essentially rejecting Christ’s atonement. You have come to believe that you must be under greater condemnation than Dad in God’s eyes, that your feelings don’t matter as much as your ability to forgive. You imagine that God will be angry and disappointed in you until you forgive. You believe that trying harder will work, that if you are simply more righteous, you can will yourself into forgiveness. You hear people say that forgiveness means never feeling hurt or angry again, which leads you to believe that if you feel hurt or angry, you must be doing it wrong. In this context, forgiveness doesn’t sound like a long, complex process; it sounds like a passive, one-time, spectacular event in which Christ simply waves a magic wand of healing over you, and you are forever afterward redeemed. In nearly every story you hear, the truest sign of forgiveness is reconciliation—a perfectly repaired relationship.

These lessons teach that forgiveness brings peace and healing, but the more you try to forgive Dad, the more ashamed, inadequate, and confused you feel. And in your mind, shame is a sign from God that you have sinned, that you are wrong. Scriptural stories of God’s anger frighten you and lead you to believe that God will be quick to punish you. Church lessons teach that God is kind and loving, but to you, each forgiveness lesson feels like a hot, sharp slap on the wrist from heaven, a divine frown of disapproval.

Forgiveness is not what you think it is. And it is not your fault that you have misunderstood. When you are older, you will see that these church lessons, talks, books, and discussions often pull forgiveness scriptures out of context. The well-discussed verses on forgiveness that cause you pain are actually surrounded by scriptures on how to judge righteously, how to hold offenders accountable, how to seek justice through the Church, how to look for signs of sincere repentance, and when to cut people out of your life. But you have to really look because we usually skip over those parts.

People define forgiveness in different ways. To some, forgiveness is simply moving past anger. To others, it’s personal healing. To some, it’s reconciliation with the offender. If we really believe God will hold us accountable in the next life for our ability to forgive, then it seems to me that the only definition of forgiveness that really matters is the one offered by Christ himself. Christ says, “Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.”[2]

At first, it sounds like Christ is saying, “I condemn you more, and you have to forgive everybody no matter what.” In church lessons and discussions, people often stop reading after this verse. But if you keep going, the next verse says, “And ye ought to say in your hearts—let God judge between me and thee, and reward thee according to thy deeds. And him that repenteth not of his sins, and confesseth them not, ye shall bring before the church, and do with him as the scripture saith unto you, either by commandment or by revelation. And this ye shall do that God may be glorified—not because ye forgive not, having not compassion, but that ye may be justified in the eyes of the law, that ye may not offend him who is your lawgiver.”[3]

Christ’s standard of measurement here seems to be the ability to say in your heart, “Let God judge between me and thee.” He doesn’t say we must feel a lot of love in our hearts for the offender or never feel anger or pain again. In this instance, he does not say we must be patient and turn the other cheek or pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us. He does not say we have to repair the relationship or save the offender with our unconditional love. He simply says we have to trust that God’s judgment will be just in the end. That’s it.

To understand this idea better, it helps to read in the Book of Mormon where Christ says, “Whosoever transgresseth against me, him shall ye judge according to the sins which he has committed; and if he confess his sins before thee and me, and repenteth in the sincerity of his heart, him shall ye forgive…And ye shall also forgive one another your trespasses; for verily I say unto you, he that forgiveth not his neighbor’s trespasses when he says that he repents, the same hath brought himself under condemnation.”[4] The Lord doesn’t say, “Don’t judge others.” It’s the opposite. He commands us to make righteous judgments. And he makes it clear that forgiveness follows sincere repentance. He says we are only under greater condemnation (meaning our progress and growth are more impaired), if the offender sincerely repents and we never forgive (i.e. let God be the ultimate judge). The condemnation here does not come from God; people impede their own progress.

Here is another example to consider. Christ’s instruction to Peter to forgive “seventy times seven” is prefaced by Christ’s instruction on how to handle offenders. He says that if our hands, feet, or eyes offend us, we should “cut them off” and “cast them far from thee.” In Joseph Smith’s translation of this Bible verse, he says that “a man’s eye are they of his own household,” which I interpret to mean family members. Christ then tells Peter that we should bring offenders to the church, and if these offenders neglect to hear the church, he says, “Let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.”[5] Christ also tells Peter that those who offend little children would be better off having a millstone hung about their neck and drowned in the depths of the sea. All of this comes immediately before his instruction to forgive “seventy times seven.” I can’t imagine that Christ would recant everything he just said about justice and accountability to tell Peter he should overlook offenses “seventy times seven.” He would be contradicting himself. And Paul taught that God is not the author of confusion.

Seventy times seven equals 490 offenses. Christ is not telling us to give offenders 490 chances to hurt us. In Doctrine & Covenants, Christ says, “As oft as thine enemy repenteth … thou shalt forgive him until seventy times seven.”[6] But if he is not repenting, Christ says, he gets only three chances: “If he trespass against thee the fourth time thou shalt not forgive him.”[7] Whether you take these numbers literally (four strikes and you’re out) or more symbolically as just a rough guide, there is scriptural precedent for not forgiving. Dad probably reached four unrepentant acts of abuse within the first few months of his marriage to Mom, and almost certainly within the first few years. I interpret these verses to mean that if you have given someone a fair chance to repent, but they keep hurting you, you are justified in withholding forgiveness. Christ says, “Thine enemy is in thine hands; if thou rewardest him according to his works thou art justified.”[8] This wasn’t merely instruction for Joseph Smith either. Christ says, “This is the law I gave unto my servant Nephi and thy fathers Joseph and Jacob and Isaac and Abraham and all mine ancient prophets and apostles … This is an ensample unto all people, saith the Lord your God, for justification before me.”[9]

You often hear people at church say that judging others is wrong, that we shouldn’t judge people, that we should avoid being “judgmental,” but Christ didn’t teach us to not judge others; he taught us to judge righteously. If our decision to forgive or not depends on whether or not the offender’s repentance is sincere, then it would seem we must learn to become excellent judges of other people.

There are scripture verses on forgiveness that you never hear in church, like this one: “And the mean man boweth not down, and the great man humbleth himself not, therefore, forgive him not.”[11] It should be clear that forgiveness is not the right response to abuse; justice is.

Unfortunately, you often hear people at church talk about justice like it is a bad thing, like it is the opposite of forgiveness, like it isn’t something righteous people pursue. Seeking justice and seeking revenge can sometimes sound like the same thing. People at church often use the phrases interchangeably. They often lump justice into a trio of shameful things to avoid: anger, vengeance, and justice. They say things like, “Instead of anger, vengeance, and justice, we should choose forgiveness.” They set up justice and forgiveness like they are diametrically opposed. Sometimes they talk about justice like it’s harsh punishment, like it’s something “nice” people don’t do. The underlying message becomes, righteous people seek forgiveness; less righteous people seek justice.

But justice is not revenge. Justice creates conditions that make repentance more likely. In the scriptures, peace doesn’t follow unearned forgiveness. Long-lasting peace follows justice. Nephi, for example, “frankly forgave” his abusive brothers, but there was no long-lasting peace until he did as the Lord commanded him and physically separated himself from his brothers, who wanted to kill him. Every scriptural reference to justice is a positive one. Here are just a few examples: Touching the Almighty . . . he is excellent in power, and in judgment, and in plenty of justice. Do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God. Glory, and honor, and power, and might be ascribed to our God; for he is full of mercy, justice, grace, truth, and peace. My soul delighteth in his grace, and in his justice, and power. O the greatness and the justice of our God. The plan of restoration is requisite with the justice of God. Thus saith the Lord, Keep ye judgment, and do justice. To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. Every man is to speak according to equity and justice. The justice of God did also divide the wicked from the righteous.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.”[12] What you need to heal is not forgiveness; it’s justice. What you need from your church and from God is not revenge; it’s love.

In the scriptures, Christ teaches that there are limits to forgiveness, that there are times to forgive and times not to forgive. He teaches justice and forgiveness together, side by side, as equally righteous, equally important principles. Our Sunday lessons and discussions do not. Church curriculum and church culture are light on justice, heavy on forgiveness. And this imbalance is one of the primary reasons you feel so confused. If you really want to understand forgiveness as Christ taught it and as the scriptures teach it, then you have to look at it in the context of making righteous judgments, looking for signs of sincere repentance, and appropriately seeking justice. We run into problems when we divorce forgiveness from these other principles and treat it as an isolated commandment, when really, it is intricately connected to these other principles.

I know that you feel incredibly angry, and I know that you don’t know what to do with this anger. You hear people at church say that anger is a sin, that the Holy Ghost will leave you if you feel angry, that anger is not the Lord’s way. So you push your anger down and try to ignore it for fear of spiritual abandonment. But anger has a story to tell if you can push shame aside long enough to hear it. Anger is simply an emotion, one that can be used as a destructive weapon or as a catalyst for change. You get to choose. Your anger and Dad’s anger do not come from the same place. His anger comes from a belief that he is entitled to control you. When you resist, he gets angry. Your anger comes from the belief that you, Mom, and your siblings deserve love and respect. When he mistreats any of you, you get angry. His anger and yours are not equivalent and do not belong in the same category. Don’t let anyone convince you that your anger is just as bad as his anger or that your anger is cruel, harsh, and destructive like his. It is not. Anger is not a sin. Even God feels anger at times. It’s what we do with our anger that matters. There are 841 scriptural references to God’s anger and wrath, which means anger can actually be the Lord’s way after all.

In the Church, I think we sometimes put Christ into a box. We erase the vast complexities of who he was in order to make him fit into the narrative we have created. We simplify him down to only a few traits and thereby limit our view of him. When we say we should be “Christ-like,” we often mean we should love our enemies, forgive, be kind, and be obedient, which, of course, is true. But there is more to the story of Christ. Christ taught us to love our enemies, but we learn what that looks like by examining the way Christ responded to his enemies: He fled from Herod for his own safety; he rebuked the hypocrisy of the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees; he angrily drove moneychangers out of his father’s house with a whip; he called Judas out on his betrayal; he told Satan “Get thee behind me”; and he testified to Pontius Pilate that he was “a witness for the truth.” Being Christ-like, then, must mean more than being “nice” in the traditional sense. Being Christ-like must also include being strong, holding people accountable, setting boundaries, rebuking hypocrisy, judging others righteously, expressing anger in appropriate ways, and speaking the truth even when it is not comfortable and even when it might not be well received on the other end.

Woman Writing by August Macke (1910)

One day, a therapist will tell you, “When it comes to abuse, forgiveness is about getting stronger, so strong that the abuser loses all power over you, all ability to negatively influence you.” This definition of forgiveness is the only one that has ever brought me any peace, the only definition that has ever felt right to me, and the only version of forgiveness that I have ever actually wanted. So I am sharing it with you now. The first step on the road to healing is not forgiveness; it’s acknowledging the truth—first to yourself, then to other people. As your therapist will say, just put forgiveness up on a shelf for a while and forget about it. You have a lot of other things to work on first.

And for the times when this does not quite work to console you, and you fear that God will condemn you for your unforgiving heart anyway, remember that you would not want to spend eternity with a God that cruel anyway.

Over the years, friends will tell you to go to God for healing, but they don’t realize what they are asking. It is too far of a leap for you right now to go from where you are into God’s arms. When you are eighteen, a friend’s aunt will express concern about your low self-esteem. She will say, “Just repeat after me: I am a daughter of Heavenly Father who loves me.” You will immediately recognize this as a reference to the first line in the young women’s theme, words the teenage girls at church stand to recite each Sunday. You will fumble with your fingers, stare at the ground, and try to change the subject. “What’s wrong with you?” she will interrogate, confused and frustrated by your lack of cooperation with her “good” advice. “Why can’t you say those words?” she will ask. She will make you feel like something is wrong with you if a rote recitation of a theme can’t cure you.

One day, soon after you are married, your husband will begin saying you should “give it to God.” He will recommend some sort of reconciliation with Dad—healing and forgiveness “for your own sake,” he will say, thinking that he is helping you. You will feel betrayed and alone without fully understanding why.

When you are 33 years old, you will visit a stake president. After you say, “My father was abusive. I am thinking about ending all contact with my parents,” he will lecture you on forgiveness for an hour and say, “I wouldn’t be too quick to write off your parents.”

Sometimes, members of the Church will offer advice or counsel that makes things worse, that adds to your burdens. They will say insensitive things. They will assume they have all the answers. They will fail to offer what you really need. Their stories, messages, and advice will feel totally out of touch with your lived experience. Remember that they mean well. They have good intentions and most of the time, they sincerely want to help you. They are merely sharing lessons that work in their own lives, lessons based on healthy relationships, not toxic ones. What you must understand is that all the rules change in abuse. What works in healthy relationships does not work in abusive ones; it backfires. They speak from ignorance (and perhaps a little arrogance at times) but not malicious intent. You can be kind but also clear. The things they say add to your pain and confusion. They do not mean to hurt you, but they do, which means that their ignorance is not really harmless and it is not really acceptable.

The next thing you must understand, and I hope this is more clear to you now, is that anyone can be wrong about anything at any time—no matter their position of power or authority over you. This includes parents, teachers, bishops, stake presidents, and even prophets and apostles. The gospel is true, but that doesn’t mean everything you hear at church is true. There is a difference between the perfect gospel of Jesus Christ and the imperfect church that houses it. The Church, like any institution, is a house filled with imperfect, fallible human beings prone to bias and misconceptions. Be careful with accepting other people’s advice. Trust your own feelings and experiences more. Because on the flip side of understanding that anyone can be wrong is the revelation that anyone—no matter their lack of power or authority—can be right. This includes you.

When you finally begin to speak, you will feel incredibly alone, as if your words evaporate into the air like puffs of smoke moments after leaving your mouth, but don’t give up. Maya Angelou says, “One person standing on the word of God is the majority.”[13] Someday you will go to the scriptures with new eyes and find what you need to defend yourself. You’ll realize that perhaps you are not as alone as you think.

Your faith is not simple or easy. The seeds of complexity are planted and already growing. You feel this, though you fear it and do not yet understand its source. I am not here to destroy your faith. Because of Dad, you know what it feels like to have someone try to do this to you and it is a terrible thing to do to anyone, but it is an especially terrible thing to do to a child. I waited a long time to write to you because I wanted to be able to write about this in a way that did not break anyone’s faith, especially yours. But I have learned that real healing begins with truth, even if that truth is uncomfortable and even when it challenges and stretches faith. Some people might call this “the ugly truth,” but I don’t think the truth is ugly; it’s people’s actions that are ugly. The truth is liberating.

Mom and Dad cannot provide real answers because there is no honesty in abuse; there is only deception. Some parents provide building blocks for their children while others create stumbling blocks. Mom and Dad will ask for forgiveness to make themselves feel better, not to make you feel better—because what would make you feel better is full accountability from them. They ask for forgiveness while simultaneously denying that they really did anything wrong in the first place. It is an act of selfishness to ask for forgiveness without offering any accountability. You will eventually find that you no longer need to salvage anything with them. You will have more to say to them, of course, but they will not have ears to hear it. They are more interested in hiding than in healing. Over the next few years, you will spend a lot of energy trying to prove that your version of the story is right, that Dad was, in fact, abusive, despite his elaborate denials and many excuses. But it’s not really about whose version is right or wrong. The best version of any story is the one that heals you, the one that lets you move forward. Their version cannot heal you. In Mom’s version of the story, she is innocent and God is responsible. In Dad’s version of the story, he is innocent and you are cold, cruel, confused, angry, mentally unstable, ungrateful, and unforgiving. Ultimately, you must learn how to take control of the story yourself.

I want to give you a happy ending, but the story is not over yet. Healing is an ongoing process. Perhaps I will just leave you with the message I hope to hear from my future self: There is nothing wrong with you. You are not crazy. God was always on your side.

[1] Shaffer, Mary Ann and Annie Barrows. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. 2008.
[2] D&C 64:9
[3] D&C 64:11-13
[4] Mosiah 26:29-31
[5] Matthew 18
[6] D&C 98:40
[7] D&C 98:44
[8] D&C 98:31
[9] D&C 98:32,38
[10] JST Matt. 7:1–2
[11] 2 Nephi 12:9
[12] Martin Luther King, Jr., “MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church,” Stanford Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.
[13] Luscombe, Belinda. “The 13 Most Moving Things Said at the Celebration of Maya Angelou’s Life.” Time Magazine, 14 September, 2014.