Friday, May 21, 2010

Abuse and the Gospel

If you've lived long enough on this planet, you have experienced abuse of some kind at the hands of another.  Abuse, generally considered, is not so much a one-time sinful act of one inflicted upon another.  It is generally a pattern of sinful relating that degrades and assaults the dignity of the other person.  It may be Abuse (big "A"), such as things like domestic spousal abuse or sexual abuse, or more like abuse (small "a"), such as verbal or emotional abuse, bullying, etc. 

Depending on the circumstances, I think there are similarities of experience.  Lately, I've been reading Dan Allender's The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse.  I was not, as far as I remember, sexually abused as a child.  However, I have experienced some life-impacting abusive situations that have been (and still are) very difficult to get past.  This is not to say I know what a sexual abuse victim feels like, however some of the things Allender notes are remarkably similar to some of my feelings and struggles.  I know what things like shame and contempt feel like, for example.  I know about self-protection when it comes to relating to others.  Because of that, I am getting a lot out of Allender's book.  If you don't know what I'm talking about with the terms "shame" and "contempt" and "self-protection," I'm going to try to explain, imperfectly I'm sure, a bit about what I've been learning that has been blessing me from Allender's book.

Shame and Self-Protection

Abuse degrades a person.  It makes them feel small.  This isn't even an apt description for the horror some people have experienced and still live with.  Nevertheless, it produces shame in the victim -a sense of being exposed and "not right" and dirty and "defiled" even condemned before the eyes.  People who battle shame often are characterized as having "low self-worth."

During the abusive acts, nobody can blame the victim for wanting to do something to self-protect or numb the horror of what is happening.  But years down the road, people who have been abused often develop ways of relating to people that are built around self-protection.  We generally even excuse those ways of relating to people, no matter how destructive we realize they are, because... "who can blame us, after what happened to us?"  Allender gives three archetype examples: the Party Girl, the Good Girl, and the Tough Girl.

The problem is that a self-protective way of relating to others run contrary to God's command to love others.  In fact, it is essentially a way to seek autonomy from God and deny Him the right to use us in the lives of others, for the sake of our own self.  We would rather protect ourselves than submit to God's agenda or consider the interests of others, both parts essential to the fabric of what God made us for.  Consider some of the ways I have sought to self-protect from others:

-Withdrawal... I find ways to withdraw from people rather than getting involved in their lives.  I find excuses of many kinds when it comes to situations where I am called to engage with someone in a close, one on one, manner.  Don't get close to someone, don't get seen and exposed and shamed and hurt again.  Rather than pursue people and pursue involvement in their lives, I am shrinking back and settling for superficial relationships where I can pick and choose what I want from the other person and avoid the possibility of pain involved in truly loving someone.  There are specific contexts in which I withdraw most, due to fear of shame, but the general idea is that withdrawal is the opposite of pursuit.  Might I get hurt?  Of course, and that should be taken into account if it is an abusive person, but love costs by its very nature.  Plus, there are various ways to pursue someone, not just one.  Withdrawal is about avoiding vulnerability, which is an attempt to self-protect and maintain some control.

-"Niceness"... I indulge people, placate them, and seek their approval.  This allows me to fly under the radar and never do the hard work of loving someone by telling them the hard truth or saying "no" to them.  Confrontation might mean being exposed and rejected and abandoned, and I can't have that.  Because of this, I often enable people to continue in sinful and self-destructive patterns, which hurts them and their relationship with God (or the possibility of it).

-"Tough Guy..."  "Nobody will ever hurt me again."  I resolve to put up many boundaries so that I will never be hurt again.  Instead of becoming tender, I become hard and harsh.  I make boundaries all about me.  But Biblically, boundaries are supposed to be the result of love.  They are meant to help me serve the other person better, not myself.  For example, if a friend of mine continually steals and abuses my things, the best way I can serve him (in most cases) would be to set up a boundary and confront him.  He needs to know, for his own benefit and relationship with God, what he is doing and how it hurts me and grieves God.  But that is not what a "tough guy" does.  A tough guy shuts people out.  A tough guy is great at setting boundaries but becomes less and less tender and involved in the lives of others.  Relationships suffer, and he winds up enjoying life less and less.

Though I may have been hurt in the past, it is necessary that I face the reality of my self-protection and how I am refusing to love others and denying God the right to use me in their lives.  I am rebelling, though I may have excused myself for a long, long time, because of what I have been though.


Contempt is another thing abuse victims struggle with.  It is hard to define quickly or explain in its various degrees and manifestations, but we know what contempt means.  We struggle with either contempt for ourselves (self-hatred, one of Satan's best ways to numb us from two conviction of sin and joy-producing repentance) and contempt for others, especially the abuser.  Sometimes we may struggle with both.

In my own experience, contempt often feels good for a while -especially contempt for others.  It makes you feel alive because it covers over the wound.  It takes the eyes off the shame.  You don't feel as much fear and shame when you are busy hating the other person.  You even feel strong, perhaps.  But it just numbs you and cuts you off from your way out.  It is like preferring death to life.  It is emotionally exhausting, too.  You become bitter and dead, rather than face what was done to you and face how you are now responsible for how you choose to treat people.

One of the worst things about contempt, of either sort, is that it numbs you from the Gospel and the resultant gratitude.  Life becomes "poor me, I hate myself" or "poor me, I hate them."  We become blind to our own sin and need for grace, and because of that our experience of grace is miniscule.  The cross of Christ starts to seem small and unnecessary.  After all, to a person filled with contempt, that doesn't address what we think is our biggest problem.  The reality is that we aren't seeing our biggest problem because we are consumed with contempt.

Honesty and Repentance

Honesty means coming to grips with reality.  It means accepting to grips with what really happened to you.    We should name it, admit it, and face it, write about it, remember it, rather than numb ourselves from the pain.  Were you abused? How? How does God feel about it? God is grieved by true abuse against a person.

But what about all this business of exposing our sin, as the victims?  Why, you may be asking yourself, would an abused person want to dredge up negative and sinful things they are doing?  Why talk about how we are self-protective, denying God's right to use us, refusing to love others, and embracing contempt?  Why beat a man when he is down?

It is because exposing the truth leads to joy.  Bringing the light leads to joy.  Repentance for our sins, the things about ourselves we are now denying, leads to joy and growth and healing.  Denial, and focusing solely on the wrong of the abuser, does not heal us nor help us.  It hurts us deeply and helps us remain trapped.

Using myself as an example, I am discovering a number of things.  I am discovering my rebellion in the ways I self-protect.  I am also discovering that because of my contempt for those who have hurt me, and even my contempt for self, I am a "murderer," according to what Jesus says in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5).  My contempt for the other makes me an arrogant judge, seeking to dethrone God and assume the right to destroy them (even if only in my mind).  These are both humbling things to see.  This means that I am really just as guilty as my abusers, though I have not done the same things.  It takes my focus off the abusers and puts it back on me, showing me who I really am in God's eyes.  This leads to humble repentance, which leads to confession and receiving forgiveness, which leads to gratitude and joy and tenderness and hope.  I slowly become free from contempt and free to boldly love people who may hurt me.  I become free to engage in the work of being a "prophet" to those who are around me, loving them ruthlessly for God, telling them the truth in love (rather than contempt).

Repentance is also helps deal with the shame (I am beginning to learn) in the following way:
"Repentance takes away [the victim's] terror of shame because [the victim's] soul has already admitted it is naked, wanting, and undeserving.  In being accepted as a sinner [by God's grace in the Gospel], [the victim] has nothing to hide or fear; therefore [the victim] is free to love others without fear of their response or rejection (Luke 7:47)." (p. 221)
This will take some time, but coming to grips with my sin in this (rather than focusing solely on the abuser's sin) brings me to this kind of humility where I can be totally naked before God, exposed in my actual sin, and yet accepted and loved by God.  Nothing left to hide.  Yes, I am a sinner.  I am flawed.  Look at all of it, but I am accepted and loved.

But I am also discovering freedom from my shame in being able to accept what happened to me for what it is and grieve with God over it.  I can look at what happened to me honestly, grieve what was destroyed or taken from me, grieve the damage done, and learn to forgive -entrusting the justice for what happened to God.  No matter how many people may see what happened to me and want to side with my abusers and justify it, reality doesn't change.  There is no justification for abuse, period.  God hates it, and His heart breaks over it.

There is a lot more that I am leaving out.  The path out, in sum, is a path of losing self, not clinging.  It seems uncomfortable, even counter-intuitive at first, but I see light.  As I continue to read the final chapters of this book, I look forward to posting things about it occassionaly.  I also look forward to reading Allender and Longman's book, Bold Love, which continues the theme of repentance leading to love based in the humility and gratitude produced by the Gospel.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Can You Handle Being a Normal Dog?

Last night, we caught a few minutes of the animated movie Bolt, starring the voices of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, among others.  Actually, it was my three-year-old who caught it.  She wanted me to stop, while I was flipping around, so that she could watch it.  She is still at the age where she likes to watch movies she has seen 3,000 times again and again.

We came upon a part of the film that really struck me for its handling of a pretty deep theme.  I told my sixteen-year-old today about my reflections on it, and he sorta shook his head in disbelief.  I don't know how intentional the writers of the movie were about the development of some pretty mature and deep themes, but there is one that particularly caught my eye.

Bolt, if you are unfamiliar with the film, is a dog who is a television star.  He plays a super-hero dog, with special powers and the like, who constantly saves the day with his little girl owner, named Penney, from the clutches of an evil villain.  The problem is, Bolt believes he really is a super-dog, even off camera.  The director wanted the realism, so great pains were made to make sure Bolt really believed he had special powers.

Soon, however, Bolt is accidentally separated from his owner and finds himself in New York City, three-thousand miles away.  Within a short time, Bolt comes face to face with the utter disappointment of not being a super-dog.  There is a scene where, after saving his feline friend, Mittens, he, Mittens, and the hampster named Rhino are resting easy for a moment, riding in half of a manufactured home on the back of a flatbed truck cruising along the interstate.  The excitement of the escape has died down and suddenly the reality of Bolt's marginal, non-super-hero identity sinks in.  He is crushed.

But a turn takes place.  A "new dawn" breaks in, without all the fireworks and hooplah of being "Bolt, the super-dog!"  He starts asking Mittens serious questions about being... just a normal, ordinary dog.  What is it like?  Well, she begins to show him.  She shows him how dogs drink from toilets, eat everything they can find on the floor, and, most importantly, love to stick their heads out the window when riding in a car -tongue out, of course.  In a sense, Bolt finds freedom in being ordinary.  He actually loves to stick his head out the window with his tongue out.

You are probably shaking your head, like my son, at this point.  I'm going waaaaayyyy too far with this.  Well, maybe, but I think the point is still valid, so let me explain.  So many of us struggle with what our culture calls "low self-esteem."  We don't like ourselves because [fill in the blank with any number of reasons -we aren't pretty enough, rich enough, smart enough, sexy enough, strong enough, manly enough, etc.].  Our culture tells us that the problem is that we think too lowly of ourselves.  The solution, then, would be to find ways to build your estimation of your greatness, your self-esteem.  But in reality we are just like Bolt after he found out he is not a super-dog.  We are downcast because we want to be a hero, we already have high thoughts for ourselves, we need to be great but feel like we don't measure up -and we allow a litany of cultural or personal, externally-based values the power of granting or withholding the greatness we crave.

What we do not realize is that, like Bolt, freedom is found in being what we actually are and letting the narcissistic, super-person dream die a thousand deaths.  You aren't a super-hero.  You aren't so awesome that you can win the applause and favor of everybody all the time.  You aren't the most beautiful creature on earth, and the beauty you have will inevitably fade.  And if things like these are what you think you need to do and have in order to have a good, meaningful life, then you will live and perform like a slave. 

You are a normal dog.  You are limited in more ways than you want to know, even though you also have divine giftings.  And you are a self-directed, self-absorbed sinner who regularly turns from the Creator who made and loves him. 

You aren't superman.  You are more like a grasshopper.  Are you ok with just being a grasshopper?  God is ok with it.  He gave up His Son to die to cover and pay for your sins and expiate all of your uncleanness.  You are loved and perfectly accepted in His sight, but it won't mean anything to you so long as you are intent on being your own super-hero.  You will remain a miserable slave.

Or here is a way to think about it:  The Extraordinary came down and became ordinary, to suffer and die as cursed and sub-ordinary, so that you and I would be freed from and die to the delusion of our own importance and grandeur.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Big or Tall, Great or Small

All of us have gifts.  Some of us have natural abilities in sports, others music, others art, others in intellect and academics.  Some of us are physically beautiful.  Some of us even have more intimate abilities that I won't go into detail about here.  There are variations all in between.  No matter how gifted we are or believe we are, there is invariably someone, somewhere else in the world, that is "better" at that thing.  There are always going to be people better and people worse than us in any number of categories. 

We are all different and unique.  It sounds like something from a television commercial trying to imprint us with healthy self-esteem, right?  Well, it is true.  Some of our abilities are amazing, a true sign of God's beauty.  And some of our abilities range from limited to "handicapped" to tragic.  We are born the way we are.  The body deteriorates the way it does.  And then there are tragic accidents.  Our mind, our beauty, our physical strengths -all gone in a blink.

God tells us in His Word to not compare ourselves to each other.  Our prideful competitiveness longs for our own greatness, by comparing ourselves to others.  Some of us are arrogant, because we think we are in the top echelon of our peers.  And then some of us, on the opposite end of the spectrum, hate ourselves because we want to be great, we want the glory, we crave feeling "worthy" by being great in one or two areas, but we are not.

I believe one of the reasons God tells us to not compare ourselves with each other (other than the fact that it stems from sinful pride) is that it truly misunderstands and abuses what our gifts and differences and limitations are for.

1. Our gifts are meant to be means for glorifying God and blessing others, not ascribing greatness to ourselves and deriving power from being approved by others and considered "better."

2. Our differences and limitations are meant to be means for us to live in love in community under God.  In other words, we aren't meant to be great in every single area by design (not even talking about the imperfection of sin).  This is so we will remember that only God can be our all-in-all (not people) and that we are meant to love and serve one another, giving to one another rather than demanding that others fulfill all of our wants.  In community, in relationships, we give what we have to serve others, joyfully bearing with the limitations of others while they bear with ours, even complimenting the limitations of others with our strengths.

All of the things we have for temporal gifts can be taken away in an instant, and eventually all of them fade.  Our beauty will droop and sag and wrinkle and stretch.  Our mind will start to go weak.  Our athletic abilities will break down with old age.  That is why there is such a danger in using them for other than what they were intended.  When we use them for self, building our lives and identity upon them, we are setting ourselves up for disaster.  We may feel on top for a moment, but it will crumble.

The final thing we must consider is that you and I will stand before God, one day, and give an account of how we have used with every single gift we have been given.  We are each personally responsible for using what we have, for the time we have it, as good stewards.  And I'm not just talking about those of us who have exceptional gifts.  All of us, great and small, will give an account for our stewardship over our abilities and gifts.  Every one of them.

How about your good looks?  You and I will give an account for how we have used our beauty.  Have you used it to self-aggrandize and look down upon others who are less physically attractive?  Have you used it to have people fawn over you and make you feel like a queen?  Have you exposed it and sold it to the world, for the eyes of all to see?  Or have you used it for the happiness of others and saved it, especially, for a person you will love and spend the rest of your life with?

Do you have a working brain?  You and I will give an account for how we have used our smarts.  Have you used it to suppress the knowledge of your Creator?  Have you used it to jockey for position above the "peons" who only have average intellect?  Or have you used it to truly bless the world and point to the greatness of your Maker?

Do you have sexual function?  Some people do not -it is not to be taken for granted.  You will give an account for how you have used even your sexuality.  Have you used it to notch your bedposts and feel like you are a "real man" (or woman)?  Have you used it to use and exploit people of the opposite sex purely for your own pleasure?  Have you used it to put other people down when they don't please you the way you want?  Have you exposed it to the public in order to make money?

While using our gifts and abilities to try to win a place of glory in the world seems attractive, there is a peace in knowing that we have been faithful stewards before our Creator.  Everyone in the world, for their own selfish or warped reasons, may hate us and disapprove of us, but if our Creator sees that we have been faithful with everything we have given, there is a peace and rest in that.  We can hear His voice saying, "Well done, good and faithful servant..."

What do you hear?  What will you hear on that day?