Trigger Warning: This article discusses childhood verbal, emotional, physical & sexual abuse.
Growing up in an abusive household left me with a lot of questions about God.
Often, people’s advice to forgive and obey my parents didn’t seem to take into account the full impact of the abuse I was experiencing. I felt like Christians were giving me poor advice to look past the severity of my pain and ignore the lasting damage that childhood abuse has. Fortunately, I’ve found that God’s plan is not for us to ignore or downplay injustice. In fact, He has a just and loving response to everything I’ve been through.
I wrote earlier about my experience of being the ‘Bruno’ in my dysfunctional family. (If you haven’t read it, check it out here— it’s an on-ramp to the depths we’re going to go in this one.) When I put the label of child abuse “out there” for the world to see, it temporarily destroyed my family. And just like Bruno, they blamed me as if I were the cause instead of the messenger. The extended family, and several of my siblings, labeled me as the person who “broke” the family. Thankfully this is no longer the case. A lot has happened since that call to children’s services.
The first few years were a roller coaster of events and emotions. My mother and youngest sibling came to live with me while courts, police, and medical got involved. Without going into too much detail (we have a large family, and we are all in different stages of healing), I can say that all of the children were victims of my dad’s abuse in some way.
Between us, we survived verbal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, financial neglect, and medical neglect. And because of my father’s narcissistic ways, we were trained to put on a show as though everything was going well. One of my siblings even told a teacher - someone mandated to report - and the teacher didn’t believe it. That’s how good the act was.
Trite responses I got from churchgoers about my family dynamics left me questioning God’s goodness and didn’t help me get any closer to real, true healing. But luckily, as I got older and studied the Bible further, I learned that many of these canned responses were taken out of the context of the Biblical passage, and not in the character of who God really is.
When I look at the entire passage on dealing with difficult people and difficult situations, I see healthier, and clearer answers come through. Here is where I currently stand on some of my big questions for God. I’m sure God will continue to reveal more truth to me as I walk with Him through more scenarios. I’m sure that my understanding of His love and responses to challenging scenarios is not complete and will continue to evolve. But my hope is that this can help others who have similar experiences and questions.
What about the verse about obeying your parents?
Ephesians 6:1 commands children to obey their parents. My dad loved to use this verse against me. He hit me across the face and knocked me over when I continued the passage and said, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children” (Ephesians 6:4).
I looked up the definition of exasperate. It is to “irritate or frustrate someone intensely.” You know - like repeatedly telling your children why they’re not good enough for your love and approval. Or repeatedly teasing them in front of their friends until they cry, then teasing them for crying. Or dropping them off on a random street corner in a random city and driving away as a “joke” while they’re left there crying. Or leaving a drowning pre-schooler in a pool to “teach them a lesson” and only pulling them out when they started to lose consciousness. Or holding their face within inches of a hot burner until they said their headache was gone. Or holding their hand in scalding hot dishwater and yelling that the dishes weren’t clean enough while they cried about the burning pain. Yes, all of these happened to me. And according to people’s interpretations of scripture, I was supposed to obey him, like he had no responsibility towards my well-being.
If you read the entire passage of Ephesians 6, it is all about various earthly relationships and our responsibilities towards each other. One may be in authority over the other, but we both have responsibilities towards one another in order for the relationship to function. Yes, I was supposed to obey him. But he was supposed to raise me in the context of Biblical teachings. Somehow he always forgot that part. If the person in authority isn’t fulfilling their duty honorably, then it becomes impossible for the person under their authority to fulfill their duty. I was in an impossible situation. God knows this. I like to think God overlooks those times I disobeyed my dad’s commands when he told me to harm my siblings or mother in some way.
What do I really want for my dad?
This took a lot of soul-searching. The final answer is that I want justice. This could be done in two possible ways. Note that none of them leave it up to me to administer this justice.
One way to dispense justice is to turn my dad over to the authorities, to be tried and punished on earth for his crimes. God encourages this in Isaiah 1:17. He says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless.” (Technically I wasn’t fatherless. But this sounds like God commanding his people to stand up for people like my siblings against people like my dad - so I did).
I’ll admit that I felt slightly guilty for praying this. Yet Psalm 109 is an entire prayer for justice against someone who wronged the author. The Bible is filled with asked and answered prayers for God’s justice to be done. Our desire for justice was put there by a just God.
The other option is to let him go to hell for his crimes, to be punished after death. I couldn’t ask for this option without facing my own failings. The Bible says that we all make mistakes and miss the mark, and we all deserve punishment for it (paraphrased Romans 3:23). His issues are worse than mine by the world’s standards, but none of us meet God’s standards. My mistakes and his mistakes are all so incredibly far from where God wants us that the difference in severity between his mistakes and mine really doesn’t matter. The question is—do I want sin to equal hell, or not? If I want there to be a way out of hell for me, then I have to be OK with a way out of hell for my dad.
In order for my dad to receive the kind of justice I really want for him, I need to let those tasked with implementing justice do their jobs, and pray for them to have wisdom. I reported my father’s abuse and let the law take over from there. I still want justice to prevail on earth, and I pray for it whenever I think of him. I also want him forgiven in heaven. I don’t want him in hell any more than I want myself there.
What about forgiving him now?
The church always taught me that God commands us to forgive in order to maintain relationships. That’s good advice, but restored relationships only works if the other person has an invested interest and feels responsibility towards maintaining the relationship as well. How does forgiveness look when the other party continues to repeat the behavior, with complete disregard for the pain it causes others?
Matthew 18:21-22 tells us to forgive them not 7, but 77 times. (To clarify, that is not a literal 77 times. We don’t keep score). It means we keep forgiving them as often as it is needed. I couldn’t help but wonder if a piece was missing here whenever people gave me this advice.
There was, in fact, a piece missing. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus tells people how to confront sin in their congregation. The short version: you take escalating measures to explain to them (first privately) how their behavior hurts others and encourage the person to change. If all of those escalating measures fail, they are dismissed from the community (Matthew 18:15-17). God made a plan for people who refuse to change. Those people are cut out of the community like a tumor that is harming the body. You forgive what they did, you give them repeated chances to change, and then you cut them out so they do not destroy you - literally or figuratively. (Special note: refusing to change is a different issue than trying to change but struggling. This rule doesn’t apply to those who want to change and struggle. They need increased community support.)
In financial terms, you can loan someone money. If they are unable to pay back the loan, their debt can be forgiven. It means the debtor and loaner are free and clear and don’t owe one another anything. The debt is forgiven—gone. But only a fool would keep loaning them money without a demonstrable change in circumstances. That’s the fine line between forgiving someone while also gaining wisdom from what happened and not letting it happen again. I can forgive my father and walk away, knowing we owe each other nothing. But I cannot keep him in my circle and let him repeatedly destroy me. He had to go.
Do I still want a relationship with him?
Yes, and no. I want a relationship with a version of him who worked through his issues, healed, and made efforts to change. Until that happens, the relationship is unhealthy. The things he said to me, and the way he treated me, made it difficult to see myself the way God sees me and believe I could be loved the way God loves me. I know God values my relationship with Him more than my relationship with others, no matter who they are. God wants reconciliation between families and people, but isn’t afraid to separate us from one another if that relationship destroys us or our relationship with Him. Maintaining an ongoing relationship with my father led me to believe that I was someone who was never quite good enough to deserve unconditional love. I think God needed to pull me out of that relationship until my father’s behavior changed. When the behavior changes, and only then, do I believe God is ready for the relationship to be restored. (This fits again with Matthew 18.)
How can I “honor” a father like this? Does he even deserve it?
God does not want to honor sin, yet He commands us to honor our parents. It is one of the Ten Commandments, so it must be important, right? How do I reconcile this? Well, here’s my approach—as long as my father is alive, his name and my name will not be attached to things like this article. I will share my story in small groups with people I know and trust, or with the authorities whose job is to dispense justice. Anyone else will need to hear the story anonymously. I will not publicly shame my father in an open forum for the world to see. That is the most I can do to honor him as long as he still has a chance to change.
The other thing I can do is take away his opportunity to continue his mistakes. Romans 14 addresses what we should do if our behavior causes another to stumble. Paraphrased, it says, “what you’re doing isn’t necessarily wrong, but it really provides an opportunity for the other person to consistently mess up when they’re exposed to it. So please stop doing it whenever they’re around.” How does this apply to my situation? If my presence continually prompts my dad to spin out of control and start hurting people, then I remove my presence from him. Period. In reality, this benefits both me and him.
Do I believe my family can be restored?
I have absolute faith that my family could be restored with God’s intervention. I already see it beginning now that my father is out of the picture. One by one, family members all cut him out of their lives and reunited. We are still in various stages of healing, and we are trying to become a family again (without him). We still behave awkwardly when we are together. But slowly and surely, we are shedding the labels he put on us. And we’re getting to know one another’s authentic selves for the first time, without him in the picture distorting our views of one another. We are still trying to figure everything out and learn to trust one another.
Every day, my prayer for him is for justice on earth and forgiveness in heaven. My prayer for others who have been through a traumatic upbringing is that God will find a way to remove you from ongoing abuse and help you heal. That the hurtful things said and done (or not done) by those who were supposed to help - and didn’t help - will be replaced by a new outlook on how God feels about the situation. And that what He wants us to do about it will be made clear. That all damage done will get tended to. That you will find yourself in safe relationships. That people will stand up for you against your oppressors. That God and his people will show you unconditional love. And that your relationship with God, yourself, and safe family members, will be restored.