Tag Archives: violation

A Prayer for the Persecuted

"Sanctuary" by Cadi Clark
“Sanctuary”
by Cadi Clark
What do rape victims and the persecuted church have in common?

Both have faced the invasion and desecration of God’s Temple. Both have survived atrocities that leave them scarred and damaged. And both are left with some serious questions about why God didn’t protect them from evil men.

Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross echoes through the voices of the Psalms, some in response to national disaster and other in response to personal abuse. This is the same question that I have encountered in counseling sexually abused women and in interacting with Nigerian Christian leaders. The inevitable conclusion their hearts struggle not to feel is that God has somehow forsaken them.

Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? Remember the people you purchased of old, the tribe of your inheritance, whom you redeemed– Mount Zion, where you dwelt. Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins, all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.
Psalm 74:1-3

How can they not take it personally? God’s Word has set them up with certain expectations that they are valuable in His sight and therefore worth protecting. They could even tell stories from the past of how He did deliver and honor them, including their testimony of salvation. But if they are still so precious to Him, then how in the world could He stand by and watch their devastation?

Your foes roared in the place where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs. They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. They smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets. They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
74:4-7

What hurts deeper than the physical assaults they have endured is the sense of violation and desecration that remains. Their bodies are no longer their own; their sacred places have been contaminated. The very place where they communed with God has been damaged, hindering their ability to share that intimacy with Him again.

They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!” They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land. We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.
74:8-9

How could God allow that level of destruction? Physical suffering is one thing, but that He would permit such an assault on their souls seems unthinkable. Doesn’t He want to have relationship with them? If so, then why didn’t He draw the line around how far the enemy could go in attacking them?

How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
74:10-11

The spiritual discouragement that settles in seems like it might be the new normal. It seems the enemy got what they wanted after all. Is God really going to let them get away with this? If so, that sends a pretty loud message to His devastated people. He must be angry with them. He must have rejected them. If God won’t act on their behalf, there’s not much point in going on.

But you, O God, are my king from of old; you bring salvation upon the earth. It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. …It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.
74:12-17

A brief survey of history reminds them that this isn’t the first time God’s people have faced opposition. And always before He has been the sort of leader who uses His power to rescue, defend, and make things right. If that’s how He’s done it in the past, then surely there is hope that He will do it again today.

Remember how the enemy has mocked you, O LORD, how foolish people have reviled your name. Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts; do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever.
74:18-19

With slightly renewed confidence in their relationship with God, devastated cries of abandonment can shift to bold pleas for help. Their world not longer feels like a safe place and they are still defined by the mockery and abuse that were heaped on them. But if God will acknowledge the depths of their ruin and address it, there is hope that they may yet be restored.

Have regard for your covenant, because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land. Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name. Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; remember how fools mock you all day long.
74:20-22

After all, they are His people! He is the one who reached out to them in love in the first place and established a relationship with them. They bear His image and His name. Any mistreatment of them is actually an assault on their God. His honor is on the line as much as theirs. Because they are His beloved people, they are His cause to defend and to promote.

May our response to their predicament never give them cause to doubt whether God still cares.

Some of us can relate with this prayer more personally than others, but all of us should join in praying it. Any attack on a part of His Temple is an attack on the whole. So we stand with the battered church around the world in praying for God to rise up and restore them. And we stand with our persecuted brothers and sisters here at home, unwilling to settle for the disgrace that has been heaped on them.

May our response to their predicament never give them cause to doubt whether God still cares.

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Sweeter than Revenge

nail-in-handWhat’s wrong with wanting revenge? Isn’t revenge merely the fair response to injustice, a way of affirming the value of the person who has been wronged? When our dignity has been violated, we need something to restore it. Without revenge, we are left with the message that we are worth no more than the way we were treated.

And yet Jesus calls us to forgive.

For the longest time I have been struggling with how to hold these two together. Asking a woman who has been beaten or raped to forgive her abusers seems to me to add insult to injury. Requiring a man who has been maligned or berated to turn the other cheek seems to me to reinforce his degradation. What happened to affirming the dignity of the image of God within each person? Isn’t it right to defend that image?

And yet forgiveness means giving up our right to revenge.

Heartfelt forgiveness is no more a matter of one-time, personal choice than emotional healing is.

I suppose my hang-up over the common Christian assumptions about forgiveness is that they seem to deny the value of the person who has been hurt, to overlook the need for their worth to be reaffirmed. Having personally struggled with the profound shame that follows abuse, I can’t accept the trite answer that forgiveness is simply choosing to forget about the hurt. If only it were that simple! But heartfelt forgiveness is no more a matter of one-time, personal choice than emotional healing is.

So I am left with the question: How can a damaged person forgive while still holding on to any scrap of self-worth? In my heart I’ve known that revenge isn’t really the best way to re-establish damaged dignity, but at least it is a start. Revenge solves the problem with corresponding negativity. But is there a positive way to receive the affirmation we so desperately need?

And once again, Jesus leads the way in showing how it is done.

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Psalm 22:6-10

Talk about a degraded image of God! At the end of a lifetime of criticism and questioning. After an eternal night of being tortured and molested. Pulverized. Victimized. Ridiculed. Rejected. In the midst of agony and mockery on the cross, He neither sought His abusers degradation nor gave in to His own.

Jesus could forgive those who tore Him down because His Father kept building Him up. Descending doves. Assuring affirmations. Repeatedly the Father had reminded Him of how valued He was, firmly establishing Him in His status as God’s beloved Son.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Colossians 3:12-13
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us…
Ephesians 4:32-5:1

And these are the same affirmations embedded in the multiple texts that call us to forgive. Dearly beloved children. Cherished people. God is not calling us to let go of our worth; He is leading us to assert our position as His kids by responding to others the way He responds to us. Forgiveness based on our relationship with Him is not further degradation; it is proof of our glorification.

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:19-21

And lest we worry that in embracing this higher call our abusers will somehow get the message that the way they treated us was OK, our Father reassures us. He will make sure we are avenged. In the meantime, we get the pleasure of exercising our freedom from being defined by how others treat us. We get to repay their evil with good, their cruelty with kindness, because we know who we are to God.

Forgiveness based on our relationship with God is not further degradation;
it is proof of our glorification.

Healing from emotional wounds takes time. Forgiveness does not come easy nor is it achieved overnight. But I have found that as I grow in my security as a treasured child of God, my need for revenge is steadily dropping away. Instead I find myself increasingly consumed by a greater desire: to receive and reflect my Father’s love.

Sweet revenge. Sweeter love.

What Can Wash Away My Shame?

“How can I go on living in this defiled body? If my body is the temple of God’s Holy Spirit, how can He bear to dwell in it, either? I am ruined, and I can’t escape. My dwelling place is tainted, but I can’t leave it. So here I am, desolate, defiled, and trapped. Is there no way out of this perpetual nightmare for me?

O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple, they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble.
Psalm 79:1

Strangely enough, the cries of the Israelites following the invasion of Jerusalem mirror the cries of the raped or sexually violated following the invasion of their bodies. Their city had been their holy refuge, the place where they could freely meet with God. They had guarded its purity and celebrated its beauty. But now it lay in ruins, devastated by forces that they had been unable to resist.

Your foes roared in the place where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs. They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. They smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets. They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
Psalm 74:4-7

With their status so fundamentally altered, they were left with no other recourse but to cry out to God, narrating the details of just how awful it had been. Enemies had invaded their sacred space. Dirty men had come pushing in, taking what they wanted and leaving behind nothing but a desecrated wreck. Their beauty was tarnished. Their purity was ruined. Their glory was gone. And there was nothing they could do to bring it back.

We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.
Psalm 74:9

Could God even want them anymore? Would the Holy One turn His back on His spoiled inheritance? How long would they be left like this, a ruined, has-been heap?

God doesn’t plan to restore our former glory.
He is at work to increase it.

But God’s unconditional love was not repulsed by their ugliness. His great compassion was not hindered by their impurity. He didn’t pretend like everything was fine, nor did He cast them off as tainted goods. Instead, He acknowledged their desolate condition and came near to restore them.

“Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. …You will forget the shame of your youth …
Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. “O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.
Isaiah 54:4, 10-12

In time He moved the hearts of foreign kings to help them rebuild their city and its temple. The healing process was long and arduous, with plenty of setbacks and obstacles along the way, but with God’s help they persevered. Brick by brick the walls took shape. Stone by stone the temple rose out its rubble. But even with their external beauty restored, their internal glory was still missing.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
Isaiah 61:2-3

Finally, God Himself showed up. For years His defiled city had carried on, physically functional but spiritually a shell of her former glory. Now it was time for His Spirit to return, to cleanse her of her shame and to fill her with glory greater than she had to start with. He entered her gates riding on a donkey. He cleansed her temple with zealous intensity. He healed her wounded, comforted her mourners, purified her unclean, and honored her despised. And in the end, He gave Himself as a cleansing sacrifice, His blood as a purifying flood.

You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
Isaiah 62:3- 5

Though that city has been remodeled as the Kingdom of God and its temple rebuilt with the living stones of His Church, it stands as a testimony of hope for all who have experienced the desolation of sexual defilement. The story does not end with us in a ruined heap, desecrated, broken, and abandoned. Though the healing process is long, painful, and at times so slow that it seems to be moving backward, God is at work increasing our glory. He is purifying our desecrated bodies and rebuilding our devastated souls. As hard as it is to believe at times, He will one day rejoice over us as an integral part of His beautiful bride. Where we end up will be better than where we started.

Beauty for ashes. Robes of righteousness for rags of shame. This is our inheritance, because He is our God.

A Righteous Response to Rape

Desolate: empty, alone, grim.

The Bible chose this word to describe what became of a godly woman when she was sexually abused. Not “overcomer,” not “unshaken,” not even “rejoicing in affliction.” Just desolate. Broken. Used up. Tossed aside. Devoid of feeling, of beauty, of future, of life. The walking dead.

Extreme external reactions are mere reflections of ongoing internal realities.

Tamar hadn’t always been that way. Once upon a time she had been beautiful and regal, strong, well-spoken, and wise. She had walked the palace halls with dignity and grace, confident of her position and secure in her place. She had worn the elegant clothes that fit her station as a pure young woman, an honored daughter of the king. And she had spoken up with self-assured boldness when someone tried to treat her in a manner less dignified than she deserved.

David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.” So Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was lying down. She took some dough, kneaded it, made the bread in his sight and baked it. Then she took the pan and served him the bread, but he refused to eat.

“Send everyone out of here,” Amnon said. So everyone left him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, “Bring the food here into my bedroom so I may eat from your hand.” And Tamar took the bread she had prepared and brought it to her brother Amnon in his bedroom. But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.”

“Don’t, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me. Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.
2 Samuel 13:7-14

How could she have seen it coming? Amnon was her brother. She had trusted him. Their father had trusted him, too. After all, he was the one who had sent her to take care of Amnon when he claimed to be so ill. She had been there out of compassion for her brother, out of submission to her father.

What could she have done differently? She had behaved as modestly and appropriately as she knew how. She had only gone into his bedroom when he asked because he seemed too weak to get up and eat. Even when he grabbed her and she realized what he intended to do, she had kept her wits about her and tried to reason with him not to do it. She had resisted such demeaning treatment of herself, fighting with all her bodily strength when her mental strength had proved inadequate. But at the end of the day, none of that had been enough. She had failed to stop him, and now she was ruined.

Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!”
“No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.”
But he refused to listen to her. He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of here and bolt the door after her.” So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her.
2 Samuel 13:15-18

Spoiled. Tarnished. Fundamentally altered. Despite her best efforts, completely against her will, her status had been changed. Her body was defiled. Her self was degraded. As a righteous woman, her soul recoiled from the idea of impurity and evil. And yet it had entered her, even if by force. It remained with her, long after the deed was done.

She was wearing a richly ornamented robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornamented robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.
Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.”
2 Samuel 13:18-19

Torn robes. Ash-smeared face. Loud weeping. Public ranting. Tamar’s external reactions were merely reflections of her internal reality. Her body had been treated as if it were shameful and worthless, and her soul had gotten the message. Marred and broken on the inside, she could hardly go back to the life she had known before and pretend like everything was fine. She couldn’t be silent and spare others the horrific details of what had happened to her. She couldn’t dress her body up or treat it as if it were deserving of honor. And she couldn’t smile and socialize with her family and the others who still belonged to the club of the spotless and good.

What would become of her? Who could love her anymore? How could she live with herself? Where could she ever get rid of her disgrace?

And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.
2 Samuel 13:20

These are the heart-rending questions that any sexually exploited person, Christian or not, is left to grapple with. Simple answers and quick fixes won’t make them go away. Surface remedies only drive the issues deeper underground, stranding abuse survivors alone in their struggle. Tamar needed to be allowed to express her anguish, to lament what she had lost, to enact her body’s debasement, to hide in self-imposed exile, and to wrestle towards true resolution. She and those of us like her need to be listened to, not silenced; protected, not pushed; accepted, not conformed; and loved, not turned away.

Remember.

What does Holy Week have to do with abuse? Everything. Meditating on Jesus’ experience of abuse illumines the path of healing from our own experiences of abuse. It also invites us to enter into a deeper, more significant relationship with Him.

Painful memories. Violent memories. Memories that won’t go away and leave me alone.

Voices that reverberate through my mind. Undermining questions. Devastating accusations.
“How dare you go against us! Who do you think you are? ”
“You son of a devil. You are nothing.”
“Liar! No one cares about you. Where is your daddy now?”
“Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?”

He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver. I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long. He has filled me with bitter herbs and sated me with gall. He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust. Lamentations 3:13-16

Sensations that travel through my body. A gentle kiss on my cheek. The harsh blow that followed. Cold chains on my wrists. Hot welts on my back. Wet spit hitting my face. Dry thorns piercing my scalp. Blows and more blows. Split lip. Pierced hands. Gasping for breath. Struggling to survive.

I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD.” I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
Lamentations 3:17-20

Experiences that stay with me. Betrayal. He was one of my trusted friends. Denial. He was my best friend. Mockery. No one came to my defense. Violation. They took off all my clothes, molested me, and strung me out naked for everyone to see. They stripped away my glory, leaving me defiled, degraded, and desolate.

My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief, until the LORD looks down from heaven and sees. Remember, O LORD, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace.
Lamentations 3:49-50; 5:1

Look on my pain, oh God! Remember all that I have been through. I won’t stop bringing it up until you acknowledge the wrong that was done to me. My body was broken. My spirit was crushed. My scars continue to bear witness.

But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you… You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry … in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more. Psalm 10:14, 17-18

But even in the midst of my unresolved pain, I have hope. I look to you, because I know you will make it right. You saw all that they did to me. You heard all that they said about me. And you will vindicate me. Into your hands I commit my spirit.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked. “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They all condemned him as worthy of death. Mark 14:61-64

I cling to the truth that you will you will give back all that has been taken from me. You will rectify my wounds. You will heal my memories. You will give me the spot right beside you, with even greater dignity and honor than I had before. And you will show off my glory for all to see, both to shame those who degraded it and to delight those who revel in it.

“… do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19 “…and you will be my witnesses…” Acts 1:8

But even as I wait on you, I want friends who will be part of the process. When they remember my suffering, they validate my experience. When they speak the truth about me before those who doubt or question, they restore my honor. When they praise me with their lips, they bless my heart.

In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
Revelation 5:12-13

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.

Abuse: An Assault on God

“Why should I care about abuse?” Cain asked God almost the identical question, right after he beat his brother to death. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Genesis 2:7, 15; 4:2, 8

The irony of Cain’s question makes me laugh every time I read it. Had not God just created a magnificent world and placed people in it to tend and “keep” it? Was Cain not a devoted gardener, a “keeper” of the soil and a nurturer of its tender plants? He had embraced his God-given role to rule the earth in a way that made it more fruitful, more beautiful, more full of life, but did he not understand that his care for fellow humans was an inseparable part of that created role?

The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
Genesis 4:10-12

If Cain thought it was possible to tend his own business without tending his brother, he was in for a big surprise. Even the land had noticed his abusive treatment of Abel, and as a result, it was boycotting his business. It refused to cooperate with his efforts to make it productive, righteously protesting his abusive behavior and compassionately receiving his victim’s broken remains.

Abuse is an attack against the image of God within us. What is done against us is done against God.

But the land wasn’t the only one that had noticed. God saw the way Cain had treated Abel, and He took it personally. Abel was precious to Him. He had lovingly fashioned Abel’s body and spirit according to His unique design. Abel was God’s handicraft, and Cain had defaced it. Even worse, Abel was God’s image, and Cain had desecrated it.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.
James 3:9

Abel, like every other human on the face of the earth, had been created in the image of God. That meant that his body, his personality, and his very life were a sacred representation of God Himself. Any mistreatment of Abel was, in fact, a direct attack against the God in whose likeness he was made. When Cain raised his fist to strike Abel, he was really assaulting God. And as the Scriptures go on to make clear, when we raise our voice to lash out at another, we are really attacking God.

“And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
Genesis 9:5-6

God does not tolerate such abuse, against Himself or against the ones He loves. He confronted Cain for His reprehensible conduct, allowing him no wiggle room for excuses or diverting questions. Like any good property owner, God required Cain to give an account for the way he had cared for his brother. And like any offender caught red-handed, Cain was left powerless before God. Everything he had said or done to Abel was laid bare before God, and all he could do was beg God for the compassion that he had refused his brother.

The story of Cain and Abel is just the first in a long line of abuse stories that are an integral part of our Bible. God does not turn His face away from abuse, nor does He allow us to. He will require us to give an account for how we have looked after each other, not just in terms of whether we have abused others or not, but also in terms of what we have done to protect, nurture, and build them up.

When I stop to look at myself and at those around me as living, breathing, touchable images of God, I am moved by a deeper, more connected love for humanity. What happens to us happens God. His glory is bound up in our frail lives.

Abuse is an attack against the image of God within us. Loving our neighbor as ourselves is an affirmation of that image.

So am I my brother’s keeper? Even the dirt knows the answer to that one.

Finding the Line

Having ridden the swinging pendulum from a polite but distant relationship with God to one that is more familiar and unreserved, it is easy to forget that God has boundaries. There are lines that He maintains around His glory that even we are not allowed past.

David discovered one of those lines by crossing it. He had come a long way in his relationship with God, too. From starry-eyed shepherd boy singing beautiful poetry, to traumatized warrior begging for relief, to jubilant king exalting his Benefactor, David had learned to walk intimately with God through the ups and downs of life. He had become confident in God’s unfailing love and bold in approaching His throne in raw, uninhibited prayer. Laments, complaints, requests, questions, thanks, praise: the full range of human emotion and relational interaction flowed freely between David and his God.

So David assembled all the Israelites, … to bring up from there the ark of God the LORD, who is enthroned between the cherubim–the ark that is called by the Name. They moved the ark of God from Abinadab’s house on a new cart, with Uzzah and Ahio guiding it. David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, cymbals and trumpets.
I Chronicles 13:5-8

The climactic moment of their relationship came when David finally became king over all Israel and established his throne in Jerusalem. The crowning touch was to be united with the ark of the covenant, the footstool of God’s throne and the actual place where His glory dwelt. David called all of the people together to participate in this momentous occasion. More glorious than a royal wedding, this procession was bringing God home to live in their midst.

When they came to the threshing floor of Kidon, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he had put his hand on the ark. So he died there before God.
1 Chronicles 13:9-10

Joyful singing. Jubilant music. Exuberant dancing. Burning anger? Devastating blow! The procession ground to a halt. David was in shock. One of his men lay dead next to the ark, struck down by God. David was angry. The man had merely been trying to steady the ark on the jolting cart! Did God really have to be so extreme about protecting His glory?

Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah… David was afraid of God that day and asked, “How can I ever bring the ark of God to me?” He did not take the ark to be with him in the City of David.
1 Chronicles 13:11-13

The day was ruined. David wasn’t so sure he even wanted God so close by, after all. What had happened to the God who was always on his side, always on hand to listen to his prayers and to help him in his struggles? Why hadn’t He cooperated with David’s plan and made their big day a success? Disillusioned, angry, and scared, David left the ark behind and returned home alone.

Our God is both tender friend and consuming fire.

It would take three months of reflection by David and re-affirmation by God to overcome the polite distance between them. David had to come to grips with a God who welcomed him into a warm, loving relationship but who still maintained distinct boundaries around His holiness. He had grown so comfortable in his relationship with God that he had forgotten to take God seriously. God had given specific instructions about how He wanted His ark to be transported, and He would not tolerate even the most intimate of His friends ignoring them.

“It was because you, the Levites, did not bring it up the first time that the LORD our God broke out in anger against us. We did not inquire of him about how to do it in the prescribed way.” … So the priests and Levites consecrated themselves in order to bring up the ark of the LORD, the God of Israel. And the Levites carried the ark of God with the poles on their shoulders, as Moses had commanded in accordance with the word of the LORD.
1 Chronicles 15:13-15

Once David cooled down and realized where he had gone wrong, he had a decision to make. Was sharing a close relationship with God worth the risk? As he had witnessed, close proximity to God could bring extraordinary blessing or phenomenal disaster. Sobered but undeterred, David once again led the crowd in approaching God’s holy presence, but this time according to God’s terms.

Now David was clothed in a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and as were the singers, and Kenaniah, who was in charge of the singing of the choirs. David also wore a linen ephod. So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouts, with the sounding of rams’ horns and trumpets, and of cymbals, and the playing of lyres and harps.
1 Chronicles 15:27-28

Wild dancing. Loud shouting. Blissful abandonment and exuberant worship accompanied by purified priests and prescribed offerings, ordained carriers and organized worship. This kind of procession held together the tension of spontaneity and order, of familiarity and respect. And God was pleased to bless it.

Intimacy and reverence are not mutually exclusive. We have a God who is both tender friend and consuming fire. He invites us into a full-on, open relationship, but also maintains a distinction between Himself as God and us as His people. A line does remain between us, but it serves to magnify our marvel over a God who comes close in holy communion.