Abuse is not a new phenomenon. In fact, there is a myriad of examples in Scripture of instances of both trauma and abuse; murder, rape, war, genocide, slavery, and others fill many pages of the Bible. The reason this is so is because of the depth and pervasiveness of sin — one brother murders another because of jealousy, a man rapes his half-sister out of lust, and three men are thrown into a furnace because of a desire for ultimate power. In each of these instances, abuse happens because one person desires something that they should not desire and mistreats another to fulfill that desire.
Put simply, abuse means the mistreatment or misuse of something. When applied to a person, it is the dynamic of an unhealthy relationship that is marked by mistreatment, power, or control rather than mutual honor and value. There are a variety of categories here, both with respect to age (child abuse versus abuse of an adult), category (physical versus verbal), and context (domestic abuse versus abuse outside the home). Child abuse is the mistreatment of someone under the age of 18, including neglect or abandonment. In contrast, domestic abuse happens within the home, typically between adult spouses or partners.
Categories of Abuse
The following are various types of abuse. This list is not exhaustive but gives a starting place for understanding the different categories.
Physical — physical harm to another person, such as hitting, pinching, punching, or throwing
Verbal/Mental/Emotional — injury to the psychological capacity or emotional stability of a person, including put-downs, criticisms, and other harsh words meant to diminish the person’s self-worth
Spiritual — distortion of biblical teaching in order to elevate self and degrade another, or for the purposes of forced submission/obedience
Sexual — engaging in inappropriate or unwanted sexual behavior, including both touching and non-touching (verbal, forced observation) offenses
In all of these instances, it is clear that there are two parties involved (the abuser and the victim), and there is an injustice or a violation taking place. Psalm 58:2 may be a helpful descriptor: “All your dealings are crooked; you hand out violence instead of justice.” In the Old Testament, the term “justice” means “to make something right or as it should be.” The abuser, instead of living rightly with God and others, violates fellow image-bearers. He is crooked, turning away from God, in all of his ways. Contrary to Isaiah 1:17, the abuser does not do good, he does not pursue justice, and he does not defend those who cannot defend themselves. He is the oppressor against whom we are to guard.
At its very core, abuse is about power and control. More specifically, an abuser assumes improper power and control over another human being at their direct expense. Put another way, the experience of abuse is an experience of the impact of the sin of another person directed towards oneself. It is a failure to treat another image-bearer with dignity and honor. And quite often, it involves pain and manipulation.
It is worth noting here as well that quite often with abuse, there is also a level of secrecy that hides what is happening. The secrecy is sinfully used by the abuser to continue inflicting trauma on the victim. So while secrecy by virtue of what it is may be a hidden manifestation, it is very common. Secrecy may be involved through manipulation (“If someone finds out, you’ll be the one in trouble”) or outright lies (“This is your fault”). But the words of Proverbs 10:11 ring true as it relates to secrecy of abuse: “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.” The abuser’s words are not life-giving; they hide violence and are life-taking.
6 Ways to help care for abuse victims
So how can pastors help a man or woman who has been abused? What steps can he take? The following, though not exhaustive, provides some basic guidance:
1. Ensure safety and meet basic needs. First, and most important before moving forward, is case management. Here, safety is established and basic needs are met. If the victim is not safe and is lacking in basic needs, any “counseling” will be insufficient. (Recall Jesus often meeting physical needs of his hearers as he taught about spiritual realities.) Further, the aim here is to get support for daily living — including the involvement of the church or community resources (see more below). Lastly in this category, the caregiver would evaluate for suicidality or self-harm and respond as appropriate.
2. Involve a care team. Counseling abuse can be tremendously complex, especially if the victim has been abused repetitively throughout his or her life. There is wisdom in bringing in others who can speak into this complexity, as well as people who can support the man or woman with practical needs like caring for their children or providing opportunities for rest and respite. Think of it as owning one slice of the “care” pie: there’s a formal counselor for mental and emotional struggles, a physician for medical or physical struggles, the pastor for spiritual struggles, and the church or a small group for relational support. Legal counsel might also be involved if necessary depending on the circumstances. But each person on the care team has their role and each one is vital to healing.
3. Determine if reporting or legal action is necessary. All 50 states have mandatory reporting laws for child abuse — if there is a “reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect,” it must be reported to law enforcement. Further, if the offended party is an adult and desires to pursue legal action, the pastor can support her in doing so. This does not mean that she is not forgiving the abuser. Rather, there are consequences for sinful actions like abuse that are not to be taken lightly. The pastor can help the abused party work through if and when legal action (like reporting) should be pursued.
4. Listen and learn. After establishing safety and bringing others in for additional support, the pastor should ask questions and listen. What happened? How extensive was the abuse and how has it impacted him or her? In what ways is he or she struggling to cope? Throughout this exploration, the counselor should acknowledge sin and grieve the offenses against the victim where appropriate. The pastor should make it clear that God grieves over sin and abuse. The pastor can also work through any spiritual questions or struggles that may arise, bringing encouragement and biblical truth (for instance, pointing often to Ps 9:9, “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.”).
5. Speak into his or her struggle. Here, the pastor moves toward helping the man or woman pursue right living. The pastor can patiently teach proper responses if needed, aiming to counter unwarranted feelings of danger or fear. Together, they can work through thinking on truth (Phil 4:8) rather than uncertainties and living rightly in response to those truths, with the ultimate aim being a heart aligned with the truth of Scripture. This includes gently confronting any sinful responses in the counselee. The pastor might also need to help the counselee learn what God-honoring relationships look like, particularly if this has not been modeled in his or her life. Drawing on 1 Cor 13:4-7, the pastor can walk through what it means to love one another — what authentic, God-honoring love looks like. In doing all of this, the aim is to move towards “normalcy,” breaking the unhealthy or sinful patterns that have developed in response to the trauma.
6. When appropriate, lead towards forgiveness and reconciliation. Lastly, with great wisdom and patience, the pastor can explore forgiveness and reconciliation (though not necessarily a lack of consequence) between the victim and his or her offender. This stems from Jesus’ commands that we are to forgive unconditionally (Matthew 18:21-22), as well as Paul’s instructions that we are to live at peace with all men, “insofar as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18); forgiveness depends on the offended party, reconciliation depends on them both. The pastor can help the offended man or woman pursue what is appropriate given their circumstances.
As we noted above, counseling and shepherding in the wake of abuse can be complex. It is especially important that we are “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19), but we must listen and we must speak. Abuse runs contrary to God’s design of mutual honor and respect shown to his image-bearers. We must be willing to walk with the men and women who find themselves victims of this sin, bearing their burdens with them as they move forward.