What happens to our own faith when Christians turn out to be abusers?

I’m not going to speak here about any individual cases, including the high-profile story that has rocked the evangelical world recently, the one that has even hit the mainstream press. Instead, I’m going to write about the questions that arise in our faith when Christians turn out to be abusers, whether they’re famous or unknown. I hope this may help anyone who might be struggling, whether it be because they’ve been abused themselves or because they are shaken and sickened by revelations that have come to light of Christian abusers.

Whether the abuse is verbal, physical, spiritual, sexual, medical or psychological, so very many questions are thrown up: Why does God not intervene? If God loves us and ultimately is responsible for our existence, doesn’t he have a duty of care to look after us, to be at least as loving as any earthly parent? Loving parents would do anything to stop their child from being abused so how can God love us as much as he says he does, if he doesn’t even intervene when any loving human parent would? How can we forgive God? Has God betrayed us, let us down, even maybe sinned against us (*theological gasp*) when he doesn’t stop the abuse from happening? Were the abusers ever “real” Christians? Did they ever truly know God? Why would we want anything to do with God if God also loves the abuser, loves the person who damages others so deeply and maybe permanently? If the abuse happens in childhood, brain development and immune system responses are drastically altered by abuse. The person you were meant to be, is changed forever. How can God forgive the abuser or even bear to listen to their prayers? Surely if God loves those who have been abused, he would cut off the person who did the abusing? Surely it would be a betrayal for God to still be in contact with them, to still listen to their prayers? Should we ever be asked to forgive abusers?

These are questions that most people of faith will face at some point in their lives. We all have to wrestle through the questions with God. We will probably go through every possible emotion, every state of doubt and faith in our struggle. We might have times of complete doubt, while all the illusions on which we built our faith crumble. It might take a long time. Don’t panic if belief doesn’t seem to be coming, if you can’t believe for a while. Keep coming to God, even if you don’t think he’s there. Gradually, something real and true will emerge from the ashes.

I can’t answer all the questions but what I can offer is where I myself have landed after a long journey (I still have a lot to learn though):

I love that God is the exact opposite of an abuser. God never forces, never controls or coerces, never compromises our autonomy, our freedom of will or mind or crosses the boundary even to influence in any way, apart from to share his love. My experiences of awful, powerful people in this world, are that they always seek to control, to manipulate, use their cunning to influence, to curate people’s perception of them. I love that God is the opposite of that. That he goes to such great lengths not to do that.
The restraint and pain it must take, when he has all the power. I imagine that he wants to use his power to intervene even more than we want it (which is a LOT), to stop our suffering (whether individual suffering or the larger collective suffering of natural disasters and war), the suffering of the people he loves. The restraint it must take to still not rush in to save people when we question his love and care and goodness for not helping, for not intervening. Because to intervene would somewhere along the line take away someone else’s autonomy, choice, their complete freedom, even if it is a person doing an evil thing. Even though it means that he doesn’t intervene when he would want and when we would want/need. Everything is sacrificed to protect our free will. I used to be furious at him. I used to tell him that we are his responsibility; he created us so he should take care of us. But somehow, in order to prevent us losing freedom, freedom of choice and of belief, this is what seems is necessary. And he makes himself vulnerable to being hated by those he loves when he doesn’t intervene. Just so that he will never mess with our autonomy or consent or choices or thoughts. Never crosses the boundary to influence us. I love this about him. Because it means we can trust him. If God has gone to this much trouble and pain to keep our autonomy, then he’s not going to just throw all that out when we die. It must be key to everything.

So it is not a lack of power that restrains him but it is love that restrains him. Even though it feels like the opposite.

Also, God lives in us, so surely any wrongdoing that an abuser does to someone, the abuser also does to God at the same time as well? God is with us in the abuse and suffers it along with us too.

I find that Christians often rush to offer forgiveness and welcome to abusers instead of supporting the victims/survivors of abuse, instead of keeping safe possible future targets of abuse. This may be because Christians are keen to emphasise that everything can be forgiven, that everyone has sinned and needs forgiveness, so who are we to judge? But it’s not the same. Some sins are worse than others. Some sins damage and harm others, instead of ourselves. There is a big difference between things like rape, child abuse and murder – life ruiners – and things like stealing some penny sweets one time or getting irritable every now and then. There are different degrees and the difference in damage done to others is immense. People who have been abused have higher rates of suicide, higher rates of substance abuse and are more predisposed to chronic illness due to the physical changes that take place due to the effects of abuse during body development.

The only people who have the right to offer forgiveness (apart from God) are surely the people who are victims of the perpetrator of the crime in question. Anyone who hasn’t suffered at their hands should not have a say in the matter of their forgiveness. Those not directly affected by their crimes can more easily forgive because their life hasn’t been permanently damaged/ruined. Nobody should ever be asked to forgive their abuser. Maybe, once the healing process has been started, God might eventually put it on someone’s heart to forgive their abuser, but might not. God might never put that on your heart and that’s fine too.

Tanya Marlow (writer, and Friend Extraordinaire) and I were once having an informal email conversation about a specific case of abuse; what she wrote was powerful, important and insightful. She has kindly given me permission to quote her words here:

“looking at the way an abuser interprets things can make you question your reality and experience. But what they think does not equate to truth or reality.

What I have been thinking is this – yes, God does forgive, but forgiveness is for the repentant. You have to feel the weight of your sin, appropriately, in order to be repentant. And you need to make reparation. Think of Zaccheus – when he realised his sin, he didn’t just jump and yell, ‘hurray, I’ve been forgiven! And maybe now I won’t steal any more (after all, I am quite rich now…)’ He paid back everyone he’d stolen from. Not only that, he paid back four times more than he had stolen. The first is called justice. The second is called reparation.

So my question for a “Christian” child abuser – is he truly repentant? Let’s start with timing – when did he repent? Was it when:
a) he became a Christian,
b) having already been a Christian he experienced a conviction of spirit at the wrong he had done
c) he got found out?

When he ‘repented’, did he
a) immediately turn himself into the police and
b) acknowledge the full weight and seriousness of what he had done, knowing that abuse has the power to wreck the lives of the victims and
c) stay away from all children as a precaution and admit the fault to his church/employer so they could monitor him?

Or did he
d) say that going to the police himself wasn’t necessary because he’d changed now and learnt his lesson so didn’t need to be punished.
e) Figure that if he got caught then he would plead guilty (because he’d be convicted anyway and that would probably get him a lighter sentence) and
f) claim God to be on his ‘side’ as a forgiven sinner, thus dismissing the need to be forgiven by the parties he had wronged and silencing those whose lives he had ruined, and dismissing the need to face justice for his actions.

Are abusers skilled at ‘grooming’ environments and people so that they are seen by the public as trusted people and ‘good’ people who can’t be blamed for anything, so it must be the victim’s fault? YES
Do abusers continue to do this after they have been discovered? YES.

It’s very hard to change, and they generally need a lot of in-prison therapy to come to terms with the weight of what they’ve done. It is hard to live with the degree of shame and guilt that they should be feeling if they realise the enormity of what it is they’ve done. So in order to survive, they minimise the guilt, just as they had to minimise the crime in the first place to justify it to themselves. They’ve ‘groomed’ themselves first and foremost, to persuade themselves that they are a good person and that what they’re doing isn’t bad, or at least not that bad.

But it IS that bad. And if you are an abuser, it takes a lot of therapy to realise the weight of what you’ve done, understanding that you will probably never be forgiven by your victims, and having to live with that, accepting your legal punishment as a small token towards justice, and seeking to make ‘reparation’, for example, by avoiding children and talking to other convicted abusers and talking them through the process of realising their guilt.

Most don’t make it that far. Most just stick to the abusing persona that’s got them through their lives. ”I’m different, I’m not like a real abuser, I’m the exception” is the common thought of an abuser.

‘It’s not my fault, it’s because I was abused as a child’ is not a valid excuse, even though it might go towards an explanation, because most abuse victims don’t turn into abusers themselves. ‘I’m a good person in so many other areas of life’ is not an excuse. It is the mindset of the abuser to believe that they are the exception to the rule, and don’t deserve to be punished.

I think God doesn’t ‘micro-manage’ this world – and that miracles are unusual for a reason. I struggle with this, but I still believe it to be the case. Which means that what happens in the law courts is mainly a result of our legal system rather than anything else. (I hate that it puts the victims through so much.)

So – an abuser does NOT get to control the narrative. An abuser is already skilled at manipulating the general narrative so that they look good to other people – but it’s not the truth. The Bible has things to say on what it means to repent in order to be forgiven. Jesus had angry things to say about those who harmed children.“

When it comes to ‘forgiving’ God, I think of this quote from ‘The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Christian Speaker Aged 45 ¾’ where Adrian’s character is giving a talk and gets the feeling that there might be some people present who need to ‘forgive’ God:

‘I mean there must be some of us who want to climb up into God’s lap like small children and bash at his chest with our small fists and say “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I asked you to help me and you didn’t
help me. You knew what I was feeling – you knew what needed to happen and you didn’t do it. You say you love me but you don’t! If you did you would have done something, but you didn’t! I hate you!”’

Suddenly spotted Gerald’s face, his eyes wide with surprise at what I was saying. Remembered when he was just a little boy.

‘When my son was very small,’ I said, hoping Gerald wouldn’t mind, ‘he did exactly that once or twice. First, he’d be really angry, and then when he’d worn himself out with crossness, he’d cry, all curled up in my lap. Then, when he’d cried the last drop of energy away, he’d just fall asleep and I’d hold him for ages. And the important thing is – I think the important thing is that he had to go through all that fighting and fretting to get the nasty spiky feelings out of himself, and he did it all in the safest place he knew, which was in my arms.’

God can take it all.

I don’t know if any of this blog post will help anyone. Questions are always a great place to start, anyway. Let me know if you find any answers!

I will leave you with the penultimate stanza of my poem ‘Then the whispers started’, which is what I believe and imagine God says to all who have been abused:

I love you
You are a good thing
My love is fierce and inextinguishable
I will sit here in your heart
and my love will burn away
the damage that was done to you.
I will burn away the lies
that you came to believe to be true –
the lies that burrowed into your soul
and whispered to you,
telling you that you were bad
and undeserving of love.
I will hunt down each lie
and flame them out of existence.
I will tell you of the wonders I see within you,
I will tell you again and again and again
until you come to believe the truth
instead of the lies.
For I love you
I delight in you
and I say that you are good.

1 thought on “What happens to our own faith when Christians turn out to be abusers?”

  1. Thank you, Jenny and Tanya – this is so important to say because so much theology puts the language of the abuser (especially the domestic violence or coercive control abuser) into God’s mouth: eg ‘You are nothing without me, you will never survive without me, I know what is good for you better than you do’. This is bad theology and not consistent with the Father of Jesus.

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