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.

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