When we were kids we used to talk about the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys were heroes who got everything right; the bad guys were villains who reveled in doing wrong. That simplistic paradigm works in the world of Superman and Inspector Gadget, but when we try to read the Bible that way, it gets really confusing.
For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
1 Peter 3:5-6
Sarah was a good guy, right? She was the beautiful, beloved wife of the ultimate hero of faith, Abraham. She herself was the model of submissive faith, held up by the Bible as the example for all Christian women to imitate. So how could she be an abuser?
Abusers are bad guys. They use their strength to hurt other people. They use their positions of power and authority to keep others under their control. And when their superiority is questioned or their control is threatened, they respond in ways carefully calculated to put those under them back down in their place. Whatever it takes, no matter the damage, they will maintain their precarious position of power.
Treating another person as if they are not made in the image of God, as if they are not loved and valued by Him, is abuse.
When I used to read the story of how Sarah treated Hagar, it messed with my tidy paradigm. Even if it did seem a bit extreme to me, I wanted to find a way to explain Sarah’s actions other than as abuse.
So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.”
“Your servant is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.”
Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert.
But God had no such qualms. When He told the story from His perspective, He called it what it what it was. Abuse. Sarah treated Hagar wrongly. Whether that involved physical violence, verbal assault, or some other form of demeaning treatment, the word the Bible uses indicates an overpowering, oppressive, possibly even violating humiliation. And lest we try to justify Sarah’s behavior by pointing out that Hagar had been misbehaving, God follows up their little incident by showing up to comfort and affirm Hagar, not Sarah. Yes, He directed Hagar to go back and to submit to her mistress (until He later freed her properly), but He did not defend Sarah’s behavior. Nor did He cover it up. He named it and recorded it for the world to read.
Abuse at the hands of godly people, especially spiritual leaders, can be too confusing to identify. We either want to see them as total bad guys, or we want to keep them in our good guy category by explaining away their abusive behavior as somehow good and right. But no matter how hard we squint or from how many angles we look at it, treating another person as if they are not made in the image of God, as if they are not valued and loved by Him, is abuse.
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Belittling comments. Silencing tactics. Intimidation moves. Power plays. All of these are efforts to push down and control, the very opposite of how God builds up and empowers. When we accept or justify such behavior within our families or churches, we perpetuate a system antithetical to God’s. Sacrificing the dignity of His image-bearers for any agenda, no matter how good, is a corruption of His charge to serve and tend His people.
The good news is that when God’s representatives get it wrong, He shows up to make it right. The rest of Hagar’s story goes on to show that God does not tolerate any form of abuse, even when the abusers are the good guys.