Tag Archives: spiritual abuse

Confessions of an Abuser

Preying on the vulnerable, exploiting the faithful, manipulating the loyal, harming the weak: abuse in any of its many forms is utterly despicable, a violation of God’s image within His people and a frontal assault against Himself. But what happens when an abuser repents? What does it look like when someone guilty of such heinous crimes confesses their wrongs and wants to be forgiven? Incredibly, we have been given access to the personal diary of a repentant abuser.

God receives the confession of an abuser.

David was guilty of all of the above, and worse. He had done the unthinkable with one of the women in his congregation and had tried to cover it up with the “accidental” murder of her husband. Full of justice and righteous indignation, God had confronted David with his crimes and pronounced him guilty. What recourse was left for this convicted abuser? Where could he go from here?

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
Psalm 51:1–2

God had always been his refuge in times of crisis, but this time God was his judge, not his defender. This time David was the perpetrator of evil, not its victim. Turning to God would mean getting closer to his accuser. David knew how God dealt with the wicked. How often had he prayed down God’s judgment and vindication on others? Terrified. Defenseless. And yet David also knew that God was his only hope, the only one who could rescue him from himself.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
Psalm 51:3–4

And so David flung himself at God’s feet, with no grounds for appeal except for God’s compassion. No excuses, no avoidance, no self-defense. He openly admitted just how wrong he had been. He grieved over how deeply he had offended God and acknowledged that God had every right to be angry with him. He affirmed God’s ruling: God was right, and he was wrong.

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
Psalm 51:5–6

As David examined himself in God’s presence, his understanding of himself became increasingly humble. He was deeply flawed. In fact, he came to realize that he had always been flawed; he had never been above such depths of depravity. Of course God held him to a high standard of integrity and righteousness in all of his dealings, both public and private. But that was beyond him, apart from God’s help and intervention.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Psalm 51:7–10

David lost all confidence in himself, but he gained a greater hope in God. He had blown it, but God could make it right. He was tainted, but God could make him clean. He was ruined, but God could restore him. He was faulty, but God could re-create him.

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Psalm 51:11–12

God could do all that for David, but the outstanding question was: would He? David had seen what happened to Saul, his abuser, when God had confronted him in a similar way. God had stripped him of his honor, rejected him as a leader and, worst of all, removed His Spirit from him. The memory of Saul’s tormented face was fresh in David’s memory. Terrified of being abandoned by God, David begged God not to leave. All he could do was plead for God to save him, to restore him, and to keep his heart and mind in the right place from now on.

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:16–17

David knew he had no leverage with God, no way to obligate Him to put his inexcusable actions behind His back and restore him to leadership. He couldn’t bribe God with extravagant offerings; he couldn’t appease Him with sacrificial service. All he could bring to God were his brokenness over what he had done and his deep desire to change.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you. Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
Psalm 51:13-15

If God would accept these, if God would restore him, then David wanted nothing more than to use his failures to aid him in helping fellow sinners discover God’s redeeming grace. He would not cover up the abuses he had perpetrated; he would allow his weakness to be shown so that the incredible extent of God’s love could be put on display.

David recorded his failures and fears, his laments and longings for God and all the rest of us to hear. His prayer of confession not only models what a righteous response to personal sin looks like, it also holds out hope for all abusers who grieve over the damage they have caused others and the pain they have caused God. God receives the true confession of an abuser. He welcomes all who come to Him with a contrite heart. And as the story of David goes on to show, He uses broken leaders to build up His church.

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Abuse Exposed

Abuse is such an ugly topic; it pains me to write about it. But left unaddressed, its sinister message continues to radiate through layer after layer of its victim’s soul, damaging the very essence of the image of God within. Following my own devastating experience of abuse, I wrestled for years with gut-wrenching questions about what I was worth in light of the treatment of me that God and others seemed to deem “beneath their notice.”

They clothe themselves with violence. … They scoff, and speak with malice; in their arrogance they threaten oppression. … They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?”
Psalm 73:6-8, 11

Did God not see what was happening to me? Did He not hear me calling for help? I thought He was the righteous Judge of all the earth, the One who sees everything and calls the wicked to account. So why did they get away with treating me this way? Is this really how He is going to let my story end, with me a broken mess and my abusers perfectly unscathed?

The outcome of our story is not a matter of “if” but “when,” because it lies in the hands of a just, faithful God.

But that isn’t how the stories of His other abused children turned out. God saw what had happened to Bathsheba. He took note of how Uriah was handled. And He was not about to turn a blind eye to such abuse, even if it was at the hands of one of His favorites, a man after His own heart.

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. … Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
2 Samuel 12:1-4

How could David live with himself? Surely he knew that his actions were wrong, and yet somehow he managed to justify them to himself. Despite his un-confessed sin against Bathsheba and Uriah, David maintained a strong sense of his own righteousness and a quick willingness to judge others. After all, he was God’s appointed leader, the one called to make sure everyone else was obeying God’s law.

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
2 Samuel 12:5-6

What David could not see in himself, he readily identified in others. So when the prophet Nathan approached him with the case of one man using his power to take advantage of another, David did not hesitate to judge such behavior as intolerably wrong, deserving of severe punishment.

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. … I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own.’
2 Samuel 12:7-9

In one of His grand reversals, God yanked the carpet out from underneath David’s royal feet, leaving him flat on his face, defenseless and exposed. Who did he think he was, taking all the privilege and position that God had given him and using it to get more? God had not given him the right to treat others however he deemed fit. He named the people David had abused, cataloguing his crimes against them. They were precious to God too, and He was here to judge the judge for their abuse.

The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants? … But suppose the servant … then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants … That servant who knows his master’s will and … does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. … From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Luke 12:42-48

David was not above the law, somehow an exception to the standards that he held for others. In fact, God judged him all the more severely because David knew His standards and ignored them, because he used his position of leadership to get away with his own self-indulgence. God had entrusted him with much, and he had abused it. Did he really think that God wouldn’t notice?

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’ ”
2 Samuel 12:11-12

God had seen every action, heard every word, noted every detail of their mistreatment. What David had done in secret, God was going to make public. What David had thought he would get away with, God was going to repay in the sight of all. And the price was going to be high, so much so that anyone who heard of it would wince at its brutality.

For all those who have suffered at the hands of others, who have wondered if God really notices or will ever right such horrible wrongs, the story of God’s harsh retribution of David’s crimes lays our questions to rest. (If anything, it moves us to compassion on behalf of our abusers, making us want to ask God to go a little easier on them.) Yes, He will vindicate our suffering; He will expose our abuse, no matter how important or invincible our abusers may seem. This is what we are worth to God. The outcome of our story is not a matter of “if” but “when,” because it lies in the hands of a just, faithful God.

Power Plays

Uriah showed up in his pastor’s office dusty, worn, and still reeling from the intensity of battle. For weeks on end he had been in the trenches, grappling with a powerful enemy by day and constantly on high alert for an attack by night. He had stared death in the face more times than he could count, and he had watched as many a comrade in arms had fallen prey to it. But he soldiered on despite it all, believing body, mind, and spirit in the worthiness of the cause he was serving.

Being suddenly called off the front lines of battle by his leader came as quite a surprise. The job wasn’t done, his friends were still in the thick of the fight, and he was desperately needed. Nevertheless, he dropped everything and came, trusting that their leader must have some more urgent assignment for him.

So David sent this word to Joab: “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent him to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked him how Joab was, how the soldiers were and how the war was going.
2 Samuel 11:6-7

High, cedar-beamed ceilings. Pristine corridors. Ornate furnishings. A smooth, polished handshake. Have a seat? Something to drink? Uriah wasn’t really up for the small talk. His mind was still on the battle, his instincts still honed in on the urgent matters at hand. Since when had his pastor been so concerned about the details of how he and the men were getting on? Why didn’t he just get to the point of why he had taken him away from the battle? But that would have to wait.

Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” So Uriah left the palace, and a gift from the king was sent after him. But Uriah slept at the entrance to the palace with all his master’s servants and did not go down to his house.
2 Samuel 11:8-9

Before Uriah knew it, the interview was over. He was being dismissed with a casual order to take a break and “enjoy” his wife. The pastor’s secretary came after him with a fruit basket and a gift card. None of this made sense. It was so completely incongruent with the life and mentality that Uriah had been immersed in, that his pastor had preached to him time and time again. His every action was directed by a passionate commitment to serve the kingdom of God, no matter the cost. His pastor of all people knew that sleeping with his wife would make him ritually impure, disqualifying him from the spiritual battle in which they were currently engaged. Why would his pastor tell him to just forget all that and indulge in a delightful but forbidden diversion? It must be a test.

When David was told, “Uriah did not go home,” he asked him, “Haven’t you just come from a distance? Why didn’t you go home?”
Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my master Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open fields. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and lie with my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!”
2 Samuel 11:10-11

The next day Uriah was called back in to the pastor’s office. Why didn’t he go home to his wife? Wasn’t he long overdue for the pleasures of a “normal” life? Finally, he had the opportunity to speak his mind, to talk with his leader about the issues that perpetually churned in his mind and burned on his heart. Of course they shared the same values. Of course his leader would understand where he was coming from and would support him in his actions. But again Uriah left his pastor’s presence confused. Something just wasn’t right, but who was he to question his spiritual authority?

The “process” was becoming ridiculously long, and Uriah still couldn’t figure out what it was all about. Why was he here? Why were his time and energy being used up in endless, seemingly pointless meetings?

Then David said to him, “Stay here one more day, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. At David’s invitation, he ate and drank with him, and David made him drunk. But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his mat among his master’s servants; he did not go home.
2 Samuel 11:12-13

The next evening he was invited to a nice dinner with his leader. This, too, felt like a violation of his commitment, a betrayal of his co-workers, but how could he refuse? Sumptuous food. Free-flowing wine. Uriah politely tried to turn it down, but his leader insisted. By the end of the evening he left the party reeling under the influence, but still he did not go home. He refused to compromise his purity. He refused to be corrupted.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, “Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.”
2 Samuel 11:14-15

Little did Uriah know it, but that was the last straw. His incorruptible integrity threatened his leader’s corrupted agenda. His straightforward loyalty unmasked his leader’s hidden betrayal. And that just couldn’t be tolerated. The pastor’s subtle power plays had failed, so he dealt his final card.

So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest defenders were. When the men of the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in David’s army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite died.
2 Samuel 11:16-17

The pastor had to find a way to eliminate the threat while keeping his own “integrity” intact. He would never consider cold-blooded murder, but he knew someone who would do his dirty work for him. A short but to-the-point note to the church administrator: Uriah needed to be gotten rid of. A conveniently arranged accident: Uriah became a casualty of war.

David told the messenger, “Say this to Joab: ‘Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another. Press the attack against the city and destroy it.’ Say this to encourage Joab.”
2 Samuel 11:25

“What a shame, but unfortunately, these things will happen. It’s just as well; this will work out for the greater good.”

But the thing David had done
displeased the LORD.

2 Samuel 11:27

A Lamb Exploited

For as long as she could remember, the young woman had been surrounded by people who adored her pastor. She had grown up hearing her father tell stories about the amazing things that he had said and done. Both her father and her husband had devoted themselves to full-time service under his leadership. Their work took them away for long months at a time, but they always came home full of praise for their leader and full of delight over the significant ways that he was using his great influence to change the world for God.

The woman herself was deeply moved by the things of God. Like her husband and her father, she wanted her life to be pleasing and devoted to Him. She paid great attention to keeping herself pure and clean, following the practices for godly living that she had been taught from His Word.

So one evening when she received a rather unusual message from her spiritual leader, she had little reason to question it. Her husband was away on one of his long trips, and her pastor was requesting that she come and meet him right away. It did seem a bit odd to be asked to his home after hours, but frankly, she felt honored. The men in her life were always getting summoned into his regal presence, interacting with him face-to-face and being sent on important assignments. But she was just a woman; he had never really had a reason to take note of her. She hurried to his home, wondering what he wanted with her.

She was so fully convinced of his righteousness that it never occurred to her to question his intentions.

The interaction that followed was incredibly confusing. She was so fully convinced of his righteousness that it had never occurred to her to question his intentions, but the way he was treating her made her increasingly uncomfortable. It didn’t feel right, and yet she kept telling herself that somehow it must be right. He was a godly man. Everyone respected him. Her husband trusted him with his life. The least she could do was cooperate with whatever he wanted her to do.

This man had always been so closely associated with God that being close to him felt like finally getting closer to God.

As things heated up between them, she felt increasingly torn. By now it was painfully obvious that what she was involved in was wrong, but she didn’t know how to stop it. Maybe she wasn’t completely sure she wanted to stop it.  It felt really good to be noticed by someone so important, to be the sole focus of his passionate attention. She had always craved intimacy with God. In her eyes, this man had always been so closely associated with God that being close to him felt like finally getting closer to God. At the same time, she had never felt farther from Him.

Tainted. Dirty. Guilty. The woman tried to wash away the impurity of her adulterous affair. She went back home and tried to return to her normal life. But nothing she could do now would erase what had done. She had defiled herself. She had betrayed her husband. She had sinned against God. And now, everyone was about to find out. She was pregnant.

What would everyone think of her? What would they think of their leader? His reputation would be destroyed, all because of her. This must somehow be her fault. She had led him astray. She should have known better. God must hold her responsible.

The LORD sent Nathan to David. …
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. … I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. … Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’
2 Samuel 12:1, 5-10

But He didn’t. Not primarily, at least. God confronted the shepherd who had abused his position of spiritual authority and relational power to take advantage of one of the sheep under his charge. His message was severe: You devoured what was yours to protect. You took what did not belong to you. You were heartless, pitiless towards those weaker than you. And in abusing them, you despised Me.

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. When she had purified herself from her uncleanness,* then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”
Samuel 11:2-5

The Scriptures tell this story about Bathsheba, whose father and husband were among the inner circle of mighty men who served David, the shepherd of Israel. But it could just as easily be told about any number of vulnerable women (or men) seduced into inappropriate relationships by someone they respect. In a strange twist on the way things are supposed to be, their spiritual strength is exploited by a spiritual leader, who manipulates their love for God and uses it for his own twisted purposes.  But God is not blind, either to their actions or to their deeper desires. He extends forgiveness for the wrong choices they willingly made. He extends grace to cover their confusion and hurt at how they were used. He brings healing to restore the dignity and the trust that were destroyed. And He calls to account those who indulge in such spiritual abuse.

Godly Abusers?

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.
Genesis 16:3-7

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.”
Matthew 20:25-28

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.