What should you do when you learn about abuse? For the past two weeks, we have been talking about abuse, what God says to the abused and what God says to the abusive, urgent messages that I hope you can find online if you haven’t heard them yet. But what should you do when you’re not the victim or the victimizer, but rather the friend, the family member, the fellow Christian who learns about abuse?
Years ago, I had to wrestle with that question. A woman came into my office and confessed to me that she did not have a happy home life, that her husband was hurting her—never physically but verbally and emotionally. What was more, I knew the guy, I was his pastor too, which meant that I would have to address the issue. What would I say to her, to him? What would I do? And what would you? Given the widespread numbers of abuse, all of us know and love and worship next to people who have been impacted by abuse. And sometime, in some way, the truth will reach your ears. Your friend shares some concerning details of the fight she had with her boyfriend, and while she says, “It was my fault,” the bruise on her wrist tells a different story. Your nephew jokes about your brother’s parenting in a way that feel...off. Your roommate starts dating a girl who belittles him in public and checks his phone in private, the girl he constantly worries that he might make angry. Someone tells
the story of an emotionally abusive mother. Or someone confesses that they have been a verbally abusive father. In those moments, what should we, as people, as God’s people, do?
There is one passage of the Bible that answers that question. It’s a tough passage to translate from the original Hebrew, but it gives us clear guidance on how to love both the abused and the abusive. Check out Isaiah 1:17— “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.” God wants us to learn to do the right thing, to seek justice (that means protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty), and to defend the oppressed. One dictionary says that oppressed means “ill-treated, tyrannized, or...abused.”
So, right here, God wants us to defend the abused. The word “defend” makes me picture an ancient city, like Jerusalem, with its towering walls and strong gates, a place built to keep dangerous people out there and to keep people safe in here. So, picture yourself standing on top of the wall, with people you love huddled inside, and an abusive person comes riding up towards the city? How do you protect them? How do you defend the oppressed? Two strategies come to mind. First, you defend the oppressed with TRUTH. Abuse can only exist when lies get the last word, so when we immerse ourselves in truth, in what God sees, in what God says, we defend the oppressed. For example, an abuser lies to his victim and says, “This is your fault,” even though it isn’t. “This isn’t abuse,” even though it is. “You made me do that,” even though he freely chose it. But truth turns up the lights, takes off the makeup, and shows things for what they really are. More truth leads to less abuse. Which is why we put this together a resource list to help you know the truth. You’ll find websites, sermons, books, and qualified counselors that can help, that want to help, resources that describe what abuse is, how abuse survives, and how you can avoid or survive abuse. Like this book. God Made All of Me is a book for parents to read to their 2–8-year-old kids to fill them with truth. Truth about their bodies. Truth about how God made them. Truth about the danger of keeping
secrets. This book is like a wall that defends against the lies that abusers often use. Parents, you should get this. And you all should read this—Rid of My Disgrace is an honest, professional, grace-centered book on sexual abuse by the same authors who wrote the other book. It opens eyes to see what abuse can look like in a relationship and how Jesus heals and cleanses and is with people who have endured abuse. Whatever resources you choose, choose truth, because that’s how we defend the oppressed.
Second, defend the oppressed with GRACE. With underserved, persistent, enduring love. I know a man who is being abused by his significant other. The details of what he had suffered were heart-breaking and hard to hear...and yet, despite the cops being called, he went back to her. And I realized how complicated this all is. There are factors, childhood wounds, generational sins, and decades-long habits that keep us caught up in abuse.
That’s why grace is so essential. Your willingness to wait, to still be there, to love. As your friend fights to believe it really isn’t his fault, grace waits. As your sister moves out and then moves back in with him, grace prays. As you daughter goes back to the guy you want to hit with your truck, grace is there when she calls. Abuse is more complicated than you think. You don’t just say, “That’s bad! Run away!” and it works the first time. So, grace is being ready whenever they’re ready, like the father of the prodigal son who waited until his boy came home. And while you wait, grace gives the gospel. If the abused is a Christian, you can say, “You are a child of God. You are so precious to our Father. He loves you. He delights in you. He doesn’t think you’re worthless or stupid or useless. He smiles when he thinks of you.” If the abused isn’t a Christian, you can say, “God wants something better for you. He is a Father who doesn’t hurt his children. Jesus is a husband who doesn’t use the “head of the household” to get his way but to love his bride. Jesus understands what you are going through. He wants you to have the hope of a place where there is no more crying or tears or abuse.” Give the gospel and you give the best grace of all, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Defend the oppressed, God said. Defend them with grace. Defend them with truth. But what about the oppressor? What do you say to the abusive? Well, this same passage might say something about that too. Isaiah 1:17 said, “Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed,” but I bet your Bible, like mine, has a little footnote, a little letter to click on in your digital Bible, a note that says, “Or—here’s another valid translation—correct the oppressor.” I know that’s kind of confusing but sometimes a sentence can be understood in two ways. This might be saying that we should learn to correct the oppressor. Confront the abuser.
There was a woman that told her pastor about her abusive home life. Well, he got to confront the abuser. In recalling the event he said “I’ll never forget that conversation, because of how much he cried and how much I didn’t. He told me, swore to me, wept to me that he never did any of it. But I didn’t believe him. God, forgive me if I was wrong, but I was 99% sure he was trying to manipulate me to maintain power and control. So I said—this is the only time I’ve ever said this in counseling—'I don’t believe you. No, you are lying to me’. I straight faced him, because I felt that defending the oppressed meant correcting the oppressor.”
Warning—Abusive people are, as one expert stated, “tough nuts to crack.” When lies have been your language for so long, the truth seems strange. When you’re used to doing anything to come out with control, being asked to confess and submit and be humble is the hardest thing in the world. Especially in churches that value the beauty of a husband’s call to lead like Jesus or the power of limitless forgiveness, abusers can take truth to places that God never intended, to redefine words in ways to which Jesus would have objected. To help an abuser become a safe person who is welcome inside the walls is not for the faint of heart. So, what do you do? You correct the oppressor with TRUTH. Here’s the truth—Abuse is your fault. Abuse is your choice. Yours. Even if he...even if she...you made the choice to do that, to say that. Okay, you were drunk, but you made the choice to drink. I know you were stressed, but not every stressed person does that. This is on you. This is your issue. God isn’t into excuses, so stop making them. Adam tried to blame Eve, but God wasn’t hearing it. Own it. Confess it.
Because if you hurt one of God’s kids, our Father is not going to be happy with you. That power you feel when you rule under your roof— that power will cost you paradise. And the truth is that you need help. You need professional counseling. You can’t turn off your anger and jealousy and craving for control like a light switch. You need someone, someones, who can help you. I’ll help you. We can find a counselor, meet with the pastor, keep you accountable. But you need help. Humble yourself. Give up the power. Give up control. I’m not running away from you, but I am telling you to leave behind your lies. That’s the truth.
But an abuser needs more than truth. They also need GRACE. 159 members of St. Peter’s Lutheran in Appleton, WI completed a survey to help prepare for these messages, and one of the themes that came up a lot was not letting abusers become like modern tax collectors, not letting our church decide, because of the hurt and messiness, that some people aren’t allowed here, no matter how sorry they are or how hard they are trying to change. That's right. Just look at what God says next. The very next verse in Isaiah 1, after exposing the ugliness of oppression and sin, says, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Yes, abuse is a sin that stains us in ways that we can’t wash out. But God can. Jesus was abused on the cross so that even abusers could be saved, so that you could come to him with all of the consequences and end up with no condemnation, so that God himself could look at you and see someone that brings him joy, someone that has been rescued by Jesus. Grace and truth. For the abused. For the abusive. Truth to see sin as it really is, to see ourselves as we really are. Grace to heal our wounds, to ease our consciences, to get us back to God. It might be messy,
it might take time, but grace and truth are how we defend and correct, how we help, and how we love. In those 159 surveys, there was one comment that stood out. It reveals what is at stake as we talk here at church about abuse. One response admitted that the person had been abused and then added, “If you can save just one person from the situation they are in, you have done a wonderful thing.” I hope that grace and truth, for the abused and the abusive, from me today and through you in the days to
come, saves many more than one. Because, in God’s eyes, that would truly be a wonderful thing.