Recently, I had someone say to me, of my grandfather, “At least you know he’s rotting in hell.”
It took me aback for a minute. I was a little startled, actually. I’ll be honest, it is not something I ever, ever think about. Hell in general, or my abuser’s residence there. I am a Christian, but hell is not really on my radar. When people talk about karma I tend to have the same reaction- usually because when most people reference it, it sounds an awful lot like revenge. Like they’re expecting someone to count up the tally marks on the wall and make it fair, eventually.
I don’t think it works that way.
I was reading Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber, recently. One of the approximately 82 times I stopped, marked a page and made my Favorite listen to me read something aloud was when I came across this:
“Because in the end, we aren’t punished for our sins as much as we are punished by our sins.”
I think that’s what I think. I think the only thing worse than being harmed is being an agent of harm. What a way to move through the world. My grandfather, someone who should have been a shining example of unconditional love in my life, was a black hole instead. Not only did he not illuminate, he took light away. He was a force of darkness.
What could possibly be worse than that?
I believe in God. I believe in a God who redeems everything. I didn’t always. I remember talking to my pastor during the worst of my divorce, and he quoted Romans 8:28 to me,
“And we know that in all things
God works for the good of those who love him,
who have been called according to his purpose.”
I tell you what- I was not buying what he was selling. My pain felt pointless. Pain for pain’s sake.
What’s funny is that he quoted that passage to me on the heels of telling me that my marriage was not redeemable. It didn’t occur to me at that time, but later I wondered at the juxtaposition of those two seemingly incompatible concepts.
I get it now.
My marriage could not be saved, could not be fixed- it was not redeemable, but my divorce was. My divorce was the catalyst that set me on the path to where I am today. If I was still married, I wouldn’t be writing. Bank on it. The situation was redeemed because it shattered me so completely that I started being honest and speaking my truths because I simply did not know what else to do.
So what of my abuse? And my abuser? For most of my life, the idea of that particular trauma having some redemptive value was an anathema to me. Offensive, even. My pain was too all-consuming, too raw for me to accept that as the truth. Some bad things are just bad, right?
What if that’s not true?
I would not wish what happened to me on anyone. I will work the rest of my life trying to prevent it from happening to others. That’s the redemption. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if I didn’t know that trauma from the inside. The boneyard of my childhood provides the very materials I am using to build a ladder to help others climb out of the shame and the destruction. You know how you’ll be in a museum and you see a Robert Rauschenberg combine- all these found objects, this JUNK coexisting in the same real estate as priceless objects? The materials are worthless- it is what you DO with them that makes them treasure, that assigns value, that redeems.
Maybe that’s why I don’t need my grandfather to rot in hell. I believe he and I were given the same building blocks, the same materials. I believe someone stole his light, as he stole mine. I am certain beyond certain he was in pain. Hurt people hurt people. Rather than give his pain a job, he gave it teeth and claws. He weaponized his anguish.
How awful. How completely tragic. Hell, right here on earth.
I had a long conversation with my friend Matt the other day. He is a survivor of abuse as well, and he is hilariously funny and wise. We talked a lot about forgiveness, and what that can look like, and how it’s more complicated with some people than it is with others. He has a book coming out in March called Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain. I cannot wait to read it, especially given that who he is and the way he lives his life is as clear a testament to the truth of that idea as anyone I’ve ever met.
Redemption needs finagling, not because we are inclined to make sure it is happening even when it isn’t but because we have misunderstood it. We have believed that redemption is possible only minus a death. We’re okay that Jesus had to die for his redemptive story, but personally we’re not looking to get into all that. There is no redemption in death, we think. But we are wrong.
I don’t pretend to know how redemption works or to fully understand the ins and outs of God’s grace- but I wonder if He hasn’t found a way to redeem my abuser’s pain, too. I wonder if with each survivor stepping into the light, who finds this safe place to share their stories, the vise-like grip that darkness had on my grandfather’s soul is loosened a bit.
I hope so. I honestly do.