We will deal here with a subject that, in the last years, has more and more come to our attention. Hardly a week goes by or we hear about abuse in one form or another. We hear of child abuse, date rape, spousal abuse, elder abuse, and then there is substance abuse, such as drugs and alcohol.
This subject of abuse is not always easy to discuss. I only mention two reasons, the first one is that those in abusive situations have a difficult time to speak about it. In the second place because abuse is very complex.
The recent attention for abuse has its good sides and its bad sides. The good side is that we have become more aware of the way abuse operates and what it does to those affected by it. It helps us to detect it, to deal with it, to try to find a way out of it. The not so good side is that it becomes fashionable to deal with it so that people overreact. The media play a role in this.
This means that on the one hand we must be realistic; there is abuse, and it is terrible, but on the other hand we need not accept everything that is said by our society about abuse. We must be aware of our position as believers in all this, and without denying the reality the solutions can be totally different.
Therefore, it is my purpose to explain to you what abuse is and how we have to look at it. As for the first, to explain what abuse is, we will outline how it starts, then how it keeps going, and how destructive it is. As for the second part, how to look at abuse from our perspective, we will look at what the Bible says about authority; whether abuse is a new phenomenon; whether abuse is sickness or a sin; how our faith can be affected by it, and what we can do to help.
There are two comments I want to make before proceeding. In the first place I do acknowledge that abuse happens also in our community. And just like society on a whole is becoming more and more aware of it and trying to come to terms with it, so do we. I have no reason to believe that within our community the abuse is worse than in other circles. Although I hope to show that abuse in our families and relationships can have its own problems.
Next I realize that I can only deal with abuse in a general fashion. Every situation is different; every type of abuse is different. Yet they have many similarities. Usually the abuser is called a he and the victim a she, but it can also be the other way around. Because I speak about abuse in general this speech is not to be looked at as a solution to the pain that abuse can cause, but rather as an attempt to explain the general picture and to make you aware of what is involved.
What is Abuse?
The term abuse is used in different circumstances and situations.
We Speak About
substance abuse, alcoholism and drug addictions;
physical abuse, physically hurting someone, a child, a spouse, or an elderly person;
sexual abuse, then we are dealing with an abuse of sexuality, incest, date rape;
emotional abuse, then the scars are inside, that is to belittle a person, to continually ridicule a person.
They are all different, and yet they have many things in common; the way the abuse starts; what it does to both the abuser and the victim; how it is maintained and how it destroys relationships. I will concentrate on three types of abuse: alcohol, wife and child abuse.
The best way to start is to look at a very general definition of abuse.
Abuse is any behaviour that is designed to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation and verbal or physical assaults.
To put it very briefly, abuse is abuse of power. Someone misuses a position of power, and doing this gives the abuser a good feeling and/or an excuse to continue in the abuse. It starts small, but has to grow in order to be satisfactory for the abuser. There is a process, a cycle.
How is it gained?
When we then first look at alcohol abuse, then we can say that at one point in time, for whatever reason, a person cannot stop going back to the alcohol. An alcoholic is not one who is always drunk; some alcoholics are hardly ever drunk, but an alcoholic feels the need to go back to the alcohol because of what it can do for him. He may try to hide the use of alcohol, but cannot do without it. The alcohol puts him on top of the world. It makes that he forgets all the tensions, difficulties or his own mistakes. That feeling justifies for him the act of taking the alcohol. It was worth it.
However, in sobering up the alcoholic is confronted with reality, the results of his behaviour. Often he is confronted with the blame. This is where the people who live around him come in the picture. They also see and feel the results of his behaviour. They can cover up; do as if nothing was the matter, and the alcoholic thinks everything is perfectly alright. Or the people around him, by their angry reactions, give him an excuse for further drinking. The alcoholic can manipulate the situation, and use his power and/or anger to make the others angry so that he has a reason to drink again. In all this the alcoholic does not see the real problem.
The terms “wife abuse” and “wife assault” are used when a man hurts or threatens a woman he is in relationship with. Today, in our society that means they may be married, living together, dating or former partners. Wife assault includes:
Physical assault: hitting, slapping, shoving;
Sexual assault: forcing a woman to have sex against her wishes, making her do sexual acts she doesn't like;
Emotional abuse: threatening to hurt her, threatening her badly in front of others, controlling where she goes and what she does, degrading her. (From a pamphlet produced by The Haldimand-Norfolk Coordinating Committee to End Violence Against Women.)
Wife abuse starts already at the very beginning of the relationship. (From: Forward, Men who hate women.) Already in their dating and engagement times there were incidents which point in this direction. To give some examples:
he thinks she must do what he says and will not tolerate that she has a different opinion.
he can buy her and her love and thus she belongs to him.
he makes her to be perfect with the result that she is bound to fail. Every failure is a reason that she deserves to be hurt.
often there was no meaningful communication.
These symptoms were ignored. The girl is so flattered by his behaviour, or is afraid she will end up without a husband that she decides to push certain bad symptoms to the background, whereas, the positive things she overemphasized. Thus you end up with an unrealistic picture. Or, if she sees the negative element, she sees it as her mission to rescue him. She feels sorry for him. She fools herself and does not see him as he is.
An added element is that in such a relationship the physical aspect plays an important role. It is not unusual that already from quite early in the relationship there is a sexual relationship and the marriage is not based on mutual respect and trust.
Related topic: Dating violence, date rape. The teenager who takes a girl out on a date demands sexual favours, physically hurts or threatens. The girl is intimidated and afraid to talk about it.
Generally speaking, child abuse (which also implies serious neglect) encompasses those non-accidental situations in which a child suffers physical trauma, deprivation of basic physical and developmental needs, or mental injury, as a result of an act or omission by a parent, caretaker or legal guardian.Child Abuse, A handbook for Social Workers in Ontario, 1983, page 4
It is usual to distinguish between three categories:
Physical maltreatment: beating, wounding, burning and poisoning; actions which result in non-accidental injuries such as fractures, bites, bruises, cuts, burns and internal injury.
Emotional/mental maltreatment: results from psychological aggressive actions, this includes overt rejection, repeated belittling, open “disowning” of the child, unreasonable demands for competence, repeated threats.
Sexual maltreatment: the use of a child for the sexual gratification of an adult, or the allowing of such use of a child by a parent, caretaker, or legal guardian, exploitation of the child for pornographic purposes.
This last category also includes what is called incest. The criminal code defines this as “intercourse with a blood relative.” Today it is used for any sexual contact with a relative, or even any sexual contact that has to be kept secret.
Child abuse is a difficult subject to address. And if for us it is difficult, how much more for those who were or are abused to speak about it. Child abuse usually provokes in the victim a horrible sense of shame; therefore the best thing to do is to leave it covered and deny it. The typical response of a victim is: Why would I tell about it? Why suffer again all the pain and shame? How is that going to help? It will only hurt others. The abused child does not realize that to deny the past leads to a life of denial, which is no life.
In explaining this type of abuse it might be helpful to begin with a question which invariably comes to mind when dealing with physical and emotional abuse. Where does the boundary lie between proper discipline and abuse? How do you know that you are dealing with a situation in which a child is rightly punished or a situation where abuse is taking place? Some say that physical punishment should never be used. As soon as the parent spanks the child we can call Childrens' Aid. We would not agree. There is a place for punishment. But the punishment must be within bounds, not out of proportion with the offence. And the punishment should also be accompanied with speaking to the child, explaining why certain actions or words are unacceptable.
Abuse occurs when parents or those who take care of children use their position to control the child and in the process inflict harm. Every parent at times punishes a child; that does not have to be abuse, nor does this have to cause lasting wounds in the life of the child. Every parent makes mistakes too, also that does not have to lead to abuse.
In a book dealing with child abuse I read the expression “toxic parents” and this expression stuck with me (Forward, Toxic Parents). The word toxic is used in this connection to indicate that the care which a parent is supposed to provide for the betterment of the child here harms the child. I quote:
All parents are deficient from time to time… No parent can be emotionally available all the time. It is perfectly normal for parents to yell at their children once in a while. All parents occasionally become too controlling. And most parents spank their children, even if rarely. Do these lapses make them cruel and unsuitable parents? Of course not. Parents are only human and have plenty of problems of their own. And most children can deal with occasional outbursts of anger as long as they have plenty of love and understanding to counter it. But toxic parents inflict ongoing trauma. (page 5)
Abusive parents want to control their children completely and any indication of independence, be it as baby or teenager is seen as rebellion and a personal attack on the power of the parent. Therefore what do you do? You squash that rebellion and make sure they do not challenge you. With the help of physical force, humiliation or intimidation the parent wants to control the child. The punishment is not at all in proportion to the offense; it is unpredictable. Though the child knows the abuse will come, he doesn't know when and what will trigger it off. In trying to control, the parent takes away every feeling of self-worth of the child.
Child abuse therefore can be done physically, as well as emotionally or verbally. Just because we see no bruises, the hurting is no less and the damage is just as serious. Words can be just as destructive as deeds. Insulting names, degrading comments, belittling criticism will have consequences for the wellbeing of the child when done frequently and systematically. The child can only survive in constantly denying its own will or opinion. The child is not allowed to have his own personality.
Sexual abuse and incest is the most destructive and bewildering of categories of abuse. Sexual abuse most often happens between a child and someone it knows or trusts, a family member or trusted friend. At times the child is confronted with the abuser. The abuser has a face, a voice and a smell, which when met, even in totally different circumstances, trigger off the painful memories of the abuse. This leads to an unbearable tension in the child's life. There is this terrible secret the child does not dare to speak about.
Sexual abuse is an event or a series of events that occur in a context. There are several stages. Though in each case the time and situation is different, yet it all works basically the same way.
There is first of all the stage in which intimacy and a sense of being appreciated is created. The victim is made to feel special, for example, she is the only one who really understands him. This is followed by repeated violations of the child's boundaries. It is in this climate that abuse occurs.
Next the abuser subtly changes the child's feelings and reactions. They are not right, or nonexistent.
The final stage is that the abuse is maintained by means of threats and blackmail.
This has brought us already to our next point: how is an abusive situation maintained?
How is Abuse Maintained
Why is it that the cycle of abuse is so hard to break? Why is it that people who live in abusive situations seem to be unable to walk away from it? To answer these questions let me refer to something I read about alcoholism is this regard:
Alcoholism is like a dinosaur in the living room. To an outsider the dinosaur is impossible to ignore, but for those within the home, the hopelessness of evicting the beast forces them to pretend it isn't here. That's the only way they can coexist.Forward, Toxic Parents, p.73
If you cannot change the problem, then change your perception of it. Say to yourself it does not exist, or that it has a reason, or it is not that bad. The victim begins to rationalize and minimize the existence and effects of the abuse.
Let me mention some of the things that play a role in the lives of those who live with abuse which prevent them from dealing with it (from Murray, Loving an Alcoholic, part I):
There is shame: for a long time you think it is only a little problem, but as time goes on you become aware that it is much greater. You feel ashamed of it. You feel the condemnation of the whole community.
There is anger: you realize the situation and the frustration makes you angry. Usually the anger is deflected. There is anger at self, because you made a mistake; anger at the abuser, if he really loves me he would quit; and anger at others, such as the parents of the alcoholic.
There is the feeling of guilt: I have caused the whole thing. This ingredient is one of the most powerful things to keep a person in a situation of abuse. The abuser puts initially the blame on the victim. After some time the victim comes to believe it as well: “It is my own fault, I deserve it, if only I had been better it would not have happened.” And because the victim fails to solve the problem the only way she can carry the burden of guilt is by seeing it as the punishment she deserves. The abuser knows how to control this guilt feeling very cunningly. He will use the guilt feeling to manipulate the victim and remain in control.
There is denial: you tell yourself, he had a reason to do this, or it is only temporary, and he is really trying to quit the drinking. The victims easily fall for false promises and hopes. Denial is one of the most basic defense systems of a person. The denial can become so great that all other problems in the relationship are subjected to it, e.g. that all the other problems will go away if only the drinking problems will be over. This is not so, for, once the substance is gone then the other problems will rear their heads even more painfully. The abuse has hidden all these relationship problems.
Last but not least there is fear: fear of being discovered, of taking actions, of reprisal from your family, and friends, being afraid of the future, ending up alone, or making the same mistakes again.
In making up excuses the victim accepts the abuse. Therefore these excuses do not help; on the contrary they make the abuse worse, for they convey to the abuser, it works and he goes on.
The alcoholic so manipulates and controls the situation by his drinking that all involved in his life have to serve him. At the same time he uses their ser vice as an excuse to continue his drinking. He has two mighty weapons to maintain his power. He can arouse the anger of the others, which in turn justifies his drinking, and he can arouse the anxiety of the others. Thus the family members become his slaves. As long as they give in and make up excuses for the alcoholic, the family reinforces the alcoholic's conviction. In his point of view it works.
When the first warnings of abuse come, then it may be a seemingly insignificant incident which sets off a fit of anger and the victim is subjected for no reason at all to an unreasonable attach on her character. The anger is not at all in proportion to the mistake made. At that time the victim often chooses to rationalize his behaviour. He could not help it, because he had a busy day, or, he is right the house is a mess, I should have cooked a better supper, etc.
There are certain factors that help this rationalization, for instance the unpredictability of his behaviour. Between bouts of anger he is liable to be as charming as in the beginning. To the outside world the abuser can be a very friendly and considerate person. Such change makes her think that the bad is only a dream, not the real him.
Another factor in rationalizing the situation is that the victim blames herself. If he can be so wonderful at times, then his anger must be her fault. Thus she accepts responsibility for what he does. She has stepped into his system of thinking.
A woman stays in such a relationship for several reasons:
She has come to think that by not questioning his behaviour she loves him. For her to love him means to do as he tells her.
Because of psychological abuse: scare tactics, insults, yelling temper tantrums, constant criticism, implied threats, verbal attacks, unrelenting criticism. In addition, subtle manipulation: I don't remember it, or denial: no that is not how it happens, rewriting history and shifting the blame, it was you who did it. If that is kept up she will believe this in the end.
Because of physical abuse: usually the result of extreme jealously and possessiveness. Such an attitude spells danger and should be taken seriously.
There is the hope that one day it will change.
There is the fear, and the guilt, she believes she deserves it, and she believes his version of reality. He is only doing it for her improvement.
In explaining the abuse she accepts these attacks the door is open for more and more serious ones.
What keeps a child hooked to such a situation and what prevents it from speaking about it? In answering these questions we come upon the same symptoms as in the previous points. The child has come to rationalize and minimize the abuse.
There is, in the first place, the blame, I deserved it. Once a child has accepted the view that the parent is always right, the situation deteriorates. For if the parent is right, then the child can only blame the abuse on itself. The child believes it deserved the abuse. The abuse is explained and accepted as normal. “My parents do it for my good.”
Next, is the fact that a child has a great sense of family honour, you do not betray your family. Often this type of abuse occurs in families where there are more problems, where there is no communication. The children are afraid of talking about the abuse because of what this may do to their own family. They will be blamed for the possible breakup of their family.
Further, there is distrust for all grownups and the question of credibility. Who will take the word of the child when it comes to his word over against the word of the parent? And do not underestimate what the unpredictability of ambiguity does. There are good times between the bad. These good times cause uncertainty. Abuse and love is a bewildering combination.
The abuse is maintained by threats and blackmail. These threats can be that the abuser will take the life of the victim, or that the abuser will take his own life, or that the family will fall apart. To the child, to talk about its pain will cause pain for others.
How it Destroys
All these elements we just mentioned tend to become a vicious circle, or a downward spiral. The abuser must more and more abuse his power in order to get satisfied, the victim must more and more live in the defense systems. This makes that neither abuser nor victim can see the real issues. What both sides do not realize is that in the long run this destroys the family, the relationships.
The family allows the abuser to be the “little god” he wants to be, and so the situation gets worse. The alcoholic has placed the guilt on the other side, the people living in that situation must accept that guilt and accept the abuser's system of thinking or life will become impossible. The victims do not realize that in accepting this blame they open themselves up for more and worse abuse.
There is here yet another element. It is a recognized fact that mood altering substances as e.g. alcohol will in the long run do physical damage to the person. It effects the brain and can also lead to death. I have not even mentioned then that because of a blackout or accident someone's life can come to an end. For our topic it is of importance to note that substance-abuse affects the relationships in which we live.
Once the abuser has control he will systematically curb her life and make her dependent on himself, destroying her self-esteem in the process. He criticizes and belittles her abilities as a housewife or mother. He criticizes her behaviour, her dress and physical appearance, often in front of others. He may use his earning power as a weapon to control his partner, she gets only so much and if she spends it in a way he does not approve of she will be punished, or, she must beg and beg for a bit of money. She is only allowed to have certain friends of which he approves. He will make social contact so unpleasant that you prefer to stay home rather than go out and get hurt again. He will also control contact with the family. He takes her personality away. She has to renounce her own feelings if she wants to have any peace at all, thus opening up herself to more and worse abuse again.
In addition it must be said that eighty-five percent of domestic murders is men against women.
Also with regard to this type of abuse we see how in the long run the personality of the child is destroyed. It is not allowed to have its own personality.
Sexual abuse is even more destructive. I point to two elements. It is the betrayal of trust between a child and an adult and it makes use of legitimate feelings. The first one will be obvious. A child trusts an adult, it depends on an adult, and therefore when the adult slowly but surely does what causes pain and confusion and the child is told not to tell anyone, the child's world is turned upside down.
The other element is that sexual abuse involves legitimate physical feelings and reactions. The Lord has so made our bodies that we have sexual feelings that can be stimulated and enjoyed. It situations of sexual abuse these feelings are misused. The child cannot stop its own feelings and is confronted with emotions it cannot handle, thus it starts to distrust its own body. For the women and men abused the enemy is certainly the abuser, but the greatest enemy is the longings of their bodies. Their bodies betrayed them.
We can now see some of the damage done by this abuse:
There is the feeling of powerlessness: The sexual contact was never wanted or invited. It seems impossible to stop what has begun. This in turn leads to doubts and despair.
There is the sense of betrayal: the one who was betrayed assumes that she could have prevented the betrayal if she was less needy and naive. In her opinion nobody can be trusted, especially not herself. It leads to loss of hope and intimacy. A relationship can neither be enjoyed, trusted, nor be expected to last.
There is the sense of ambivalence, that is, feeling two contradictory emotions at the same time. How is it possible to experience pleasure in the midst of agonizing physical pain and crushing relational betrayal? The very thing that was despised also brought some degree of pleasure. As a consequence the child makes pleasure suspect and dangerous, and develops a hatred towards longing and passion. They can begin to have contempt for the body.
This damage makes it extremely difficult for a child to speak about it. The child does not trust its own feelings, even denies it has happened. The safest thing is to hide it all. The child has been told all along that its feelings are wrong and nonexistent, so why tell someone else? In addition, who believes a child, when its word stands over against the word of the abuser? To minimize what the child says can mean for the child to be sent back to an abusive situation which in turn can lead to suicide. There is no excuse for sexual abuse. In God's eyes it is a terrible sin.
In summary we note two things. In the first place, abuse runs deep, and in the second place, abuse is cunning. The first, that abuse runs deep forces us to take it seriously. Abuse is not just a disagreement between a husband and his wife, or between a parent and a child. Simple solutions, such as, “she is not an easy woman to live with,” or, “the child must have deserved it,” do not solve the problem but only harm the situation. It is better first to listen and try to understand the situation before coming with our answers and solutions.
Abuse is cunning. It can remain hidden for many years. In opening up the victim takes a tremendous risk. If the abuser finds out, worse abuse will follow. The abuser can present himself as a very pleasant person to others, but as soon as the others are gone things are different.
Abuse and Power
“Abuse” is abuse of power. Power is misused in order to gain control over the other. Power is misused to keep the other in control. We will begin our evaluation then by looking at what the Bible says about power, or rather, authority. The Bible teaches us that all authority comes from God. This means that authority is never a purpose in itself and may never be used for selfish purposes. He who has authority has received it from the Lord and will have to give account to the Lord how he has used it.
In abusive situations this power is divorced from the Lord and seen as a tool to serve the abuser. Therefore abuse is in the first place an insult to God. The abusive husband who tells his wife that he is her head should first of all realize that he has Christ as Head. The parents who want to control their children should realize that their position is one given by the Lord. Ephesians 5 and 6 and Colossians 3 clearly speak of all relationships of authority as in the Lord.
Here we see then the difference between the way we look at abuse and the way this world does. This world operates from the idea that man is a power unto himself, man has rights which may not be infringed upon. Therefore the injustice and hurt of the victim stands in the center, even runs the danger of being idolized. We acknowledge that all authority comes from God, is to be received from Him in faith and used in loving obedience to Him. His love, His justice and right stand in the center. Both abuser and victim will find their help in the Lord, that is, in God's saving love in Christ.
It is remarkable that Paul stresses in Ephesians 5:22-33 that the position of authority of the husband is to be ruled by Christian love. This love reflects the self-sacrificing love of Christ for His Bride. Therefore, the love of the Christian husband, his position of head of the family, may not be a matter of selfish domination. Rather, it is a matter of giving, sacrificing and caring love in which the wife and child is safe, can feel safe and is protected.
The same message we find in Colossians 3. The position of authority in the relations between husband and wife, between parents and children, and between masters and slaves, is placed under the theme of the loving and giving care of Christ. In the vv. 12-17 we read:
Put on … compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience … And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts … Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.
In this context children are admonished to “obey their parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.”
This context also leads to a warning for the fathers, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”
Here is spoken of fathers who seek the spiritual, mental, and physical wellbeing of their children in the light of Christ's caring and self-sacrificing love.
Old and New
Is abuse something new of the 20th century? No, abuse is as old as sin is old. All through the centuries there has been abuse. For abuse is the abuse of power. Man has from the beginning rebelled against the authority of God. We all have abused His love. The consequence of this disobedience is also that human relationships can become abusive. Already in the O.T. we find references to and warnings against alcohol, abuse of power in marriage, sexual abuse and incest. The N.T. also warns against being filled with wine, instruct husbands to deal wisely with their wives, as their own body, and commands fathers not to provoke their children to anger. The Bible certainly warns for the abuse of power and also realizes that abuse can and does happen.
There is nothing new under the sun, also when it comes to abuse. What is new compared to 50 years ago, is our awareness of the effects of abuse, and that we are prepared to say that abuse cannot be tolerated. The husband who abuses his wife has broken his vows and his marriage, and the wife is justified to leave him if he makes it impossible for her to live a Christian life. The rule to be more obedient to God than to men also applies to marriage and the relationship parent-child.
Though this openness in itself is good, yet we should be aware of possible overreaction as well. You see such an overreaction in our society. In fact, because our society does not want to acknowledge that all authority comes from God it is unable to give the proper answer to abuse. This leads to contradictions and aberrations. For is not abortion a most terrible form of child abuse? Or, to give another example, a child can with one malicious allegation destroy the name and career of someone he does not like. And the media which highlight cases of abuse also feed society with violence, selfishness and sex. Similarly, our world wants to give the victim the feeling of self-worth. In doing this they replace the power of the “other” with the power of “self.” But how can a person receive a proper self-worth, except before the face of God? In Father's eyes I am a person, for He calls me by name.
This contradictory reaction of our 20th century society is a result of not wanting to accept the authority of God. Abuse can only be dealt with from the perspective of God's will and His claim on man.
Sickness or Sin
This brings me to a question we cannot escape, namely is abuse a matter of sickness or sin? Is the alcoholic, the wife beater, the sexual abuser a sick person, or do we regard his actions as sin? Some say it is a sickness, it is a condition not an act. Give medication and professional help and that should solve some of the problems, or perhaps it will never be solved. Others say no it is sin. Confess and repent from your selfishness and you will be healed.
Abuse is sin. Abuse involves a wrong use of power, thus the person who abuses wants to take the place of God. The abuser has in his own view absolute power and imposes this on the other. This is sin. The Bible shows that every relationship is in the Lord. All authority we receive is delegated to us, and must be used in submission to God. The Bible also indicates that the body, also the victim's body, is a temple of the Holy Spirit. There is no excuse for abuse. Both victim and abuser must know this.
To see the sinfulness of abuse we can refer to the Ten Words of the covenant, the Law of God. The Lord introduces His law in proclaiming our redemption by His power. God's power is a power manifested in redemption. With regard to the first commandment we can say that the abuser has made power into an idol. The second commandment says that we must serve the Lord according to His will, not according to our own will. The abuser does it on his own terms. And does not God say in the fifth commandment that all authority comes from Him? In the sixth commandment the Lord forbids dishonoring and injuring others by thoughts, words, gestures much less by deed. Does not the seventh commandment imply that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit? It is even remarkable that in the O.T. to steal, forbidden in the eighth commandment, also applies to stealing people.
If a man is found to have kidnapped a fellow Israelite, enslaving him or selling him, that kidnapper shall die; thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.Deuteronomy 24:7 JPS transl.
See also Exodus 21:16. Abuse is evil in the eyes of God.
While maintaining that abuse is sin, we should not close our eyes either for the fact that the abuser himself has a distorted view on reality, or the possibility that the one who abuses has certain things in his life that may prevent him from seeing his sin clearly. There can be trouble or even abuse in childhood; there can be an inferiority complex; there can be many different things. Abusive behavior has a pattern and a history. This is important in dealing with the victim because the victim has put the blame on himself. The victim supposedly could have prevented the abuse. This is also of importance in dealing with the perpetrator. It may take much to make him see his sin.
I say this not to excuse the sin but to be able to focus on the repentance. The abuser must repent, but that repentance must not be outward or superficial. When you see that abusive behaviour as sickness, then part of the responsibility goes away. Can he help it that he is sick? The solution is then professional help, and as elders we can perhaps function as helpers who stand by the sideline. (Every professional method of treating abuse has a philosophical basis that should be scrutinized.) But if it is a sin for which repentance must be shown, then we have a function as elders. For then also the use of the keys of the kingdom comes into the picture.
How should we use these keys? They must be administered so that the sinner, by the power of the Holy Spirit, comes to repentance. He has to acknowledge his wrong and do his utmost to seek help. Not forgetting that the goal of all discipline is to reconcile the sinner to God.
Abuse and Faith
Within our community the effects of abuse can be deepened by a misuse of what Scripture teaches us about authority. The abusive husband will point to the command that women must be submissive and abusive parents often use the commandment “Honour your father and your mother.” The Bible is read with a view to what the other has to do. The name of the Lord is used to gain or maintain control over the life, the emotions or the body of someone else. Such use of the name of the Lord is abuse of His name. For it is used to condone or cover up sinful practices. In addition a tremendous burden is placed on the shoulders of the victim. For in the mind of the victim to oppose the abuse becomes equal to opposing God. In such circumstances we may tell the victim that God is a loving Father, who forbids abuse. The life of the victim is in His hand.
God reveals Himself to us as a Father. He uses a title that we are all familiar with. For this reason, abuse in the earthly relationship, e.g. of father and child, can have consequences for the victim's relationship with the Lord. If the earthly father is unpredictable and abusive, then it can become difficult to address God as Father. It is therefore important to keep in mind what we confess in Lord's Day 9, namely, that the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Chris is for His sake my God and Father. God's fatherhood cannot be separated from the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. This shows that Father in heaven is not a tyrant, but a loving Father who gives what is most dear to Him in His love for us. When the apostle Paul in Ephesians 6 says that the relationship between parents and children is one in the Lord then this element is certainly included. The calling of parents with regard to their children is to show this love. They may instill in them the understanding that their mutual relationship is one in the Lord. Not the parents give the children their place, nor do children give their parents a place, but both receive their place from the Father in heaven through the Lord Jesus Christ. Abusive parents by their controlling attitude tend to obscure this grace of God and can thus seriously hurt the relationship of the victim with the heavenly Father.
I mentioned that at times Scriptural concepts are used to reinforce abuse or to ignore its effects. The abusive husband will tell his wife that she must be submissive to her husband, and an abusive parent will tell the child that children must honour their parents and have patience with their weaknesses and shortcomings. These statements are indeed true, only the situation in which they are used and the purpose for which they are used make them so “poisonous.” For in the eye of the victim to go for help or even to go against the abusive husband and parent is nothing less but disobedience to God's command. It puts a tremendous burden of guilt on the victim and undermines a proper understanding of what forgiveness is. For in this way repentance means to be forced to do what the abuser wants you to do. This is a total caricature of the Biblical understanding of repentance and forgiveness.
The relationship between abuse and faith comes to the fore also in other ways. Many victims ask themselves the question, Where was God when this happened? If this is wrong why did He not stop it?
These questions are already difficult to deal with. It becomes, however, more difficult yet when the abuser comes to the victim to ask for forgiveness while the abuse continues. Not only can this lead to a warped understanding of the Lord forgiving our sins, it can even bring about hatred against the Lord. In addition, the feeling of guilt makes the victim feels that he or she has no “right” to the promises of God. There are victims who were able to endure much because of their faith, this is true, but it is equally true that abuse can distort one's view on the promises of God and destroy the certainty of faith.
Help and Healing
Helping, of both the victim and the abuser, begins with taking abuse seriously. Helping begins with listening and being open for the thoughts and fears of the other. But it will not stay there. It must progress from there, though that may take a lot of time. For all the defenses which we mentioned above must first be broken down. The denial, the guilt, the fear need to be addressed. That can take a long time. For the victim these defenses give a measure of security. What they don't realize is how these defenses do not help but rather make it more difficult for the person. These defenses have also covered the main issue. Therefore what you will see once the defenses come down, is that the pain and the hurt comes up. That is to be expected. But it will make the victim say, “Why did I do this? Not telling and living with the lie is nicer than dealing with this pain.” This is not true. To live with a lie is not Iife. The victim must become aware of what has to happen in him or her. Help is possible.
Who can help? Do you need to be an expert in order to help? There are two things I want to stress. In the first place know your own limitations. Abuse runs deep and is cunning. Wife abuse is not just a marital disagreement, child abuse is not just a minor incident. Therefore we should not reject professional help off hand. Such help can be instrumental in dealing with the abuse. In the second place we should not think little of what we can do in being a hand and a foot to each other in the congregation. With the word of God we can be of help also in these situations. The grace of God is sufficient also for situations of abuse. A professional counsellor has only 1 hour in the three weeks, but we can deal with each other on a much more frequent basis. Certain scars may never go away, but we can help each other to live from the grace of God.
That brings us also to the question what task the office bearers in the church have. The office bearer is not a professional counselor. I would say he is more, he is charged to take care of the souls of the congregation. The minister is not a professional counselor either. His task is to be a pastor and teacher. As pastor he has to deal with the difficulties in the flock, including abuse. Office bearers also have to know their limitations and not be afraid to make use of professional services. On the other hand they should not relinquish their task to counsellors. For the office bearers have something that the counsellors do not have, the keys to the kingdom of God. Abuse is a sin against God, it is God who forgives sins, who also heals and helps. He has given us His servants, the office bearers, who, with all shortcomings, are called to take care of the members. They may do this with the Word of God and the help of the Holy Spirit.
It is here that the difference in approach to abuse is very significant. I said that this society puts man and his hurts in the center. In order to solve the problems you need experts. We place the justice of God in the center … (to solve) problems in this context (you need) and that gives the office bearers a place. The grace of God and the mercy of Christ come to us through them. Both victim and abuser must see their place before God, only then healing is possible. God's grace and Spirit are more powerful than the forces of darkness. And in this life that is seen in part, after this life it will be completed, for we are on the way to a kingdom without abuse.