A student told me how she had finally confided in her youth leader about what had happened to her at home. Of the two hours she and her small group leader talked, over an hour was devoted to the importance of forgiveness.
She came away determined to forgive, but that turned out to be more difficult than she had expected. It led to a lot of guilt, for not being a good enough Christian to forgive. Also, it seemed that forgiving meant that she had to stop talking about what happened – this would only make it more difficult to forgive, her youth leader kept telling her.
Forgiveness is an important part of the process of healing after a trauma. Without forgiving, hate and bitterness can fester and create long-term problems. But it’s not the first step.
The first step is being able to share your story, sometimes in painful excruciating details, and then having the space to just let that story be. The first step for us as listeners is to do just that, listen. When we listen and give the student the opportunity to really unload, that’s when the proces of healing can start.
You can’t forgive until you’ve been allowed to be angry. And anger needs to turn into sadness, grief even for the person they were and can never be again. And after grief comes acceptance – and that’s when forgiveness is an appropriate topic of conversation.
Of course not all students follow this journey to the letter. Some may jump straight to grief, others will go back and forth, some will find it very hard to come to the acceptance part. But there’s little sense in trying to convince an angry victim of the need to forgive. Anger is an appropriate and allowed response to trauma, as is sadnes or grief. Let that be, before you move on to a phase the student isn’t ready for yet.