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First Thoughts

Five Sins Regarding Abuse

I should start by being clear that I am not saying there are precisely five—and only five—sins regarding the issue of abuse and that you will find those five sins catalogued here in an authoritative fashion. That is not my point.

My point is that we are living in a time when many in the church are dealing constantly with issues related to abuse. As we go through this season, it is crucial to make clear that when we are talking about abuse, we are talking about sin. This issue is about something that is morally repugnant in the eyes of God. And we are not only talking about sin—singular but sin—plural. There is more than one moral monster in view here.

Here I am going to talk about five sins that Christians must grapple with if we are ever to find our way out of this current darkness into the clear light of grace.

1. Abusing People

The first sin is, perhaps, the most obvious one. It is a clear sin for anyone to use their power to mistreat people made in God’s image. This reality has to do with the very heart of God, “The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5).

It is at odds with the character of God to harm weak people. That means that any Christian—not to mention any Christian leader—who engages in an act of abuse engages in blasphemy that misrepresents the character of God they claim to serve. There are many ways to engage in abusive mistreatment of people—verbal abuse, sexual abuse, wrongful termination, and character assassination—just to name a few. All of them are detestable, and all come with horrifying consequences.

2. Failure to Protect Against Abuse

Violence against the weak and needy is abhorrent to God, and so Christians have a much higher calling than merely not abusing people. We are also called to protect those who are potential victims of abuse, “Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:4).

The call to protect the weak is a mandate for all of us in church leadership to employ the highest standards in protecting the children in our ministry. At First Baptist Church, this demand means that we engage in the careful screening of all staff and volunteers, including comprehensive background checks and interviews; that we establish clear policies on how we care for children and who can do that; that we carefully train all staff and volunteers on these policies; and that we rigorously enforce these policies.

We do this because it is a sin to fail to protect the weak and innocent people entrusted to our care.

3. Covering Up Abuse

Christians are called not only to avoid abuse and to protect people from abuse but to refuse to conceal abuse when they know it is happening. Proverbs 10:6 says, “The mouth of the wicked conceals violence.” These words of God make it a sin to encounter abuse and look the other way, blame the victim, help the abuser exit quietly, or else feel more compassion for guilty predators than the innocents they abused.

Christians are required to report all abuse to relevant authorities, which is exactly what we do with any reports of abuse we receive at First Baptist Church. It is wrong to fail to report abuse because it is wicked to conceal violence and give abusers the chance to hurt more people.

4. Failure to Care for Abused People

We live in a sinful world where abuse will happen, and God is going to send people our way who have been abused. Christians must be determined to care for these precious and struggling people. Psalm 147:3 says of God, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Christians are like God when we establish systems of care in our churches that help abuse victims find community, express their grief, understand their shame, and discover hope through the shed blood of Jesus. It is sinful godlessness that turns our backs on such people asking them to work out their own problems. It is something God would never do.

5. Being Embittered After Abuse

This one is different than the others. The other sins I’ve mentioned talk about the responsibility of the community surrounding abused persons. This sin talks about the responsibility of the abuse victim. Talking about the responsibilities of those who have suffered mistreatment is delicate and tender work. I need to slow down a bit in order to explain. Let me describe several realities.

First, this sin is every bit as biblical as the others I have mentioned. Ephesians 4:31-32 names the responsibilities for those who have been abused when it says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” This passage of Scripture is in the Bible as much as any of the verses I’ve referenced, and the demand to let go of all bitterness applies as much to victims of abuse as it does to anyone else. We cannot be choosy when it comes to embracing the truth of God’s Word.

Second, Christians should not brandish this truth against abuse victims the way an attacker wields a machete. This is not a passage we quote at someone with whose struggle we are unfamiliar or that we express in our first encounter. There is a time to weep and a time to mourn (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Victims of abuse have experienced monstrous evil, and Christians must move carefully, slowly, and lovingly before applying hard truth.

Third, Christians need to apply this truth the way a surgeon applies a scalpel. We apply this sharp implement with great care, precision, and patience. But we must apply this truth, which is crucial for every victim of abuse.

Let me apply it here in very personal terms.

I have not made a secret of my experience of childhood abuse throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. I spent more than a decade of my life hating my mom because of her violent acts of aggression against me, my brother, and other instances of mistreatment against others in my family. My hatred of my mother felt well-placed, appropriate, and deserved.

But I grew in my relationship with Jesus. My understanding of divine forgiveness increased. I learned that nobody had ever sinned against me as much as I sinned against God. I learned that the grace of Jesus meant God was no longer angry at me and that I should not harbor anger towards others.

It took me a long time to develop that understanding. There were long seasons of struggle. The ability to look at my abuser with grace and love did not come easy. But it did come. And that is the point I wish to make. Today, over thirty years after my abuse ended, If I were as angry today as I was in those early years, there would be something wrong with me. Eventually, each of us who know what it is to be abused also must know what it is to experience the tender love of Jesus, turning us away from bitterness over our abuse and toward grace and forgiveness. If we do not move in this direction, we are guilty of sin before the Lord.

The Sins of Abuse and the Grace of Jesus

Those are five sins of abuse that Christians need to be aware of in these days. I went a little slower on that last one because of the tenderness of the topic. But I also wanted to take some time to explain the emphasis on grace and forgiveness, which is as much the hallmark of a Christian view of abuse as is the diagnosis of abuse as sin.

At the end of the day, Christians are not just the people who understand that abuse is sin. We are also the people that understand that God has made provision to address all sin, even abuse, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The reality empowers us to bring uniquely Christian clarity to abuse conversations.

We are the people that know that all abuse is more than just wrong—it is high treason against the God of heaven who makes people in his image.

We are also the people who know that there is grace from this King to forgive every abusive transgression and comfort every victim. We don’t need to sound bitter, shrill, or afraid. Instead, we can speak to this massive problem with hearts full of conviction, hope, and even joy. We do this because God took the abuse that Jesus suffered on the cross and used it to bring light and life to every person under heaven.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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