For people of Christian faith who are going through a difficult experience of abuse, this can be a frightening question. On the one hand, Christians are taught that “God is love,” “God’s mercy endures forever,” and so on—God is full of grace and kindness and healing love. On the other hand, there are parts of the Bible that sound quite different, even harsh, and sometimes that harshness seems aimed right at the place of their pain. What’s worse, sometimes texts are used in ways that are harmful, adding a spiritual dimension of abuse to the other forms of violence experienced. Scriptures can become weapons wielded by perpetrators, and thus it can be frightening for a person who has experienced abuse (and internalized a twisted view of Scripture) to ask, “what does the Bible say?”
This website wants people to realize that the Bible has “words of life,” a message of hope and healing, specifically for people who are dealing with situations of abuse.
Here are some common questions of faith that are raised by those who have experienced abuse, and some responses that come from the pages of Scripture.
Do I have to submit?
The New Testament uses the language of “submission” in several ways, including of the relationship of wives to husbands, most famously in Ephesians 5.22-24. But this passage (and others like it; Col 3.18, 1Pet 3.1) does not in any way condone a husband domineering or abusing his wife. The overarching idea is a “mutual submission” (submitting to one another) shaped by reverence for Christ (Eph 5.21). While a different word is used for the husband’s relationship to the wife, that word is “love,” in the sense of divine sacrificial love. This is what a husband is called to, specifically in Eph 5.25; and what all believers are called to, in Eph 4.32-5.2. In such a relationship, submission is never the experience of a harsh and domineering imbalance of power, but the embrace of a self-giving love that works for the flourishing of the partner. If the model of submission is the church submitting to Christ (Eph 5.24), think of the disciples in the upper room, submitting to Christ as he chooses to wash their feet in an act of total servanthood (Jn 13). This is the Bible’s picture of submission. It is beautiful and life-giving, and never obligates women to endure violent or harmful behaviour.
Do I have to forgive?
There is much in the Bible about forgiveness, including both God’s offer of forgiveness, and the call for people to forgive each other (see, for example, Psalm 103.2-3, Eph 4.32, or even the words from the Lord’s Prayer, in Matt 6.12). Forgiveness is a spiritual reality at the heart of Christian faith. But it is also a psychological reality that becomes complicated especially in situations like sexual violence, where there is a serious power imbalance between the victim and perpetrator.
Authentic forgiveness only comes when it is voluntary. It can’t be forced, or manipulated, or demanded by someone else (whether that is the person who abused, or a well-meaning “friend”). True forgiveness may come at some point in the victim’s journey of healing; but remember that even Jesus’s work of forgiveness came only “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4.4; see also Jn 17.1) and there were occasions when Jesus said, “my time has not yet come” (Jn 2.4; see also Jn 7.30, 8.20). Only the person who was violated can determine when that time might be.
And if a person isn’t ready for the hard work of forgiveness, that shouldn’t become a source of guilty feelings. God is gracious, patient (and forgiving!) enough to wait for people who are struggling on their journey of healing.
An excellent article by Gayle Gerber Koontz further explores the relationship between justice, forgiveness, and healing from abuse.
What forgiveness isn’t: By Denise George
What about divorce?
The Bible shows us that God has the highest standards for marriage. God intends for marriage to be a sanctuary—a life-giving mutual relationship founded on sacrificial love and the building up of one’s partner. And while this is God’s desire for every married person, we live in a broken world, and Christian marriages are not immune to damage and brokenness.
Divorce was permitted under Old Testament law; but it was also regularly condemned. We need to see why it was spoken against: not because it’s an abstract “evil” to be avoided, but because it is a sign of a broken relationship which results in pain, vulnerability, and potentially violence, for the wife who is “sent away.” Divorce in Old Testament patriarchal culture favoured the husband at the expense of the wife. Thus prophets like Malachi speak against divorce, not to reinforce the inherent violence of a power imbalance between husband and wife (that is, to trap a woman in an abusive relationship), but to challenge that very violence. A careful reading of Malachi’s words (Mal. 2.14-16) shows that God is opposing the practice of men abusing their wives through either marital infidelity or divorce. God remains on the side of the “widow and orphan,” those who are marginalized, disadvantaged, or disempowered. And there is this: God seems to choose the messiest and most fractious of family situations as the preferred location to carry forward the divine story of salvation.
Jesus re-establishes the centrality of God’s ideal for marriage. At the same time, he recognizes that even in the patriarchal culture of his era, there are times when divorce is permitted (Matt. 19.8-9). The early church continued in this trajectory, trying to hold on both to God’s holy ideal, and to the necessity of God’s grace for the broken places in our relational lives (see, for example, 1Cor 7.10-16).
Our culture and our understandings of marriage have changed significantly since biblical times. What remains constant is God’s desire for the flourishing of all creation, including in the realm of human marriage. Also constant is God’s ability to extend grace and a second chance to all of us who find ourselves in a broken and incomplete world.
Am I being punished by God?
Many religious systems contain some idea of “payback,” or karma—we do something wrong, and the gods, or God, or whatever fates that rule the universe, get us back for doing that thing. And to be sure, it is hard to escape consequences for some actions: “you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.” But much more of life is shaped by the mysteries of complex (and often unfair) consequences, as well as the mysteries of grace. One person smokes his whole life, yet never gets the expected lung cancer; another person lives healthfully, and yet she dies young from cancer. Our lives are far too complex to be able to draw conclusions about naming things as “punishment.”
The Bible does contain stories where God is said to do harmful things to persons or communities. But those stories should not be used to explain our own experiences of pain or abuse. Here are three reasons why:
First, because of how we should read the Bible. Stories need to be read with care; it’s too easy to read our own issues into the text (especially when we’re preoccupied or overwhelmed with issues of our own experience), and ignore the clues the text gives as to the larger purpose for telling the story.
Second, because of the character of God: the most basic message of the Bible is “God is love.” More specifically, from beginning to end God is concerned with “the widow and orphan.” That means people who are particularly vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and silencing. God declares that divine love, God’s grace, is about protecting the defenseless, nurturing the weak, and empowering the vulnerable. This is God’s desire, and every time Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth…”, that is central to what we are praying for.
Jesus himself rejects the idea that God punishes individuals because they sinned (Luke 13.1-5; John 9.1-3). He declares God to be a God of parental love, who gives good gifts of sunshine and rain “to the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5.45)
Finally, because of the action of God: There are Christians who hold that the holiness of God should be seen as an absolute divine intolerance for sin, something that demands a response, demands “punishment.” But if this is so (and it is a debatable point), the Bible is even more clear that Jesus took this on himself, in his death on the cross. This means, no one should ever think that God is punishing him- or herself. This is the heart of the most famous verse in the Bible: this is how God loved the world: God gave his Son, so that everyone who trusts him will not be destroyed.
Abuse happens as the result of someone else’s decision to abuse, not as payback for one’s own actions. God declares divine preference for the vulnerable. Jesus takes on himself, and diverts from the rest of humanity, any and all cause for divine retribution, at the same as he proclaims that the heart of God is love, redemption, and grace.
Where was God when I was being abused?
This is one of the most urgent, and most difficult, questions to ask about God. There is no easy answer. The Book of Psalms acknowledges that the faithful do ask this question, with many psalms accusing God of negligence, inaction, or absence in times of difficulty or despair. Jesus himself cried out one of the most haunting lines, as he hung dying on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Psalm 22.1)
This may not be a comfort—but it does send the signal that Jesus knows, intimately and deeply, the pain of abuse. And for those who believe that in Jesus we find the most profound articulation of divine presence, even divine Incarnation, this becomes a remarkable reality. God, at the core of divine Love, understands the experience of abuse, abandonment, and suffering.
We can’t say where God was, during experiences of abuse. We can say, God understands, God knows, and God can help you move forward. Sometimes the past, with its wounds and scars, is hard to understand, and feels unjust. But we can look towards the future, and ask how God might redeem this pain. We can trust that God meets us in our brokenness, and wants to bring hope and healing.
Sojourners – Troubling Texts: Domestic violence in the Bible
Sojourners – 100 sermons on sexual violence