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Because abuse is so broad, it’s not possible to cover in one article all the critical details that a person needs. (Read all our articles on abuse.) This attempt hopefully will bring some clarity to your mind and calmness to your soul. If abuse has been your experience, you will need much more than what I’m offering.
Abuse is not just an event in a person’s life; it is a long, arduous journey. There are things that the abused must know right after the abuse happens, and there is a different kind of help months and years later. The aspect that I’m going to share is for the person who is farther down the road of working through their abuse. They are at the place where they are almost “over it,” as much as one can be.
Please accept my apology if your abuse is fresh and acutely active in your mind. These words might not be as redemptive as they could be because you have not had enough time and space from your abuser. There are no quick fixes for this kind of sin-crime, which is why it’s essential for you to know which mile-marker you are at as you work through overcoming abuse.
I’m going to share with you something that I shared with one of our Mastermind Students during our regular monthly call. Her abuse happened several decades ago. She is older, wiser, and has had the critical counseling necessary to work through most of the residual effect of the abuse. Granted, you never “get over it,” but there is a way to leverage your abuse for God’s glory, which is why it’s vital to talk about it here.
She had read my article, The Reason I Stopped Hating My Dad, and wanted to know how I worked through the physical, verbal, and manipulative abuse of my alcoholic father. She is transitioning from the “counseling stage” to the “counselor stage,” which is part of the reason she is in our training program. In one sense, we’re always counselees, but there comes a time when the shaping influences in your life should not manage you.
You could say that she wanted to “clean up” the last vestiges of what happened to her so she can live in the fullest possible freedom. As she said it to me, “It’s time to move on,” and it is. At some point, every person has to move on from their negative past. If they don’t, the struggler will limp along, carrying the past like a ball and chain.
The process of Christian maturity is a path, not a destination. Like a fine wine, it continues to get better with age. There won’t be a time that you will be all that you could be; you should always be reforming and transforming for God’s fame. You can experience maturity on the journey, but you must not look at Christian maturity as a destination but an ongoing process until you meet Jesus.
In that context, the idea of mortification is vital. It’s the concept of “always making dead” the things that hinder you from benefiting from mature Christlikeness. To mortify is to be regularly “taking the life” out of the enemy’s strength, like sucking the vitality out of Adam’s poison. Rather than experiencing persistent and debilitating weakness, you’re experiencing daily renewal that adds one aspect of God’s strength onto the next (2 Corinthians 4:16).
At the beginning of working through abuse, you’re in triage receiving emergency services. As you progress through your “spiritual rehab,” things aren’t as urgent or acute, but the memories and strongholds of the mind still have a power that wants to manage you (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). At some point, you want to say as my student did: “It’s time to move on,” which is not wishful thinking but a real place.
If you’re at this spot in your progressive sanctification, then it’s time to level the playing field as you think about the person who hurt you. The first step in doing this is by separating sin into two categories. One type is consequential sins, which measure the depth, breadth, and affect of sin. Some transgressions are worse than others. Murder, for example, is consequentially worse than gossiping about someone.
You can test my theory by asking a fundamental question. If one of two things could happen to you, which would you prefer: someone gossiping about you or murdering you? All rational people would ask for the lesser of the two evils because it’s not nearly as bad from a consequential perspective.
In the other category is the ontological individual: who they are “in Adam.” Ontology is your state of being, and our states “in Adam” are the same. The doctrinal label for this is “total depravity,” which means that we’re equally broken, desperate, evil, and alienated from God. You need to understand these two categories because what an abused person may hear is,
I’m the same as my abuser, but I have never done anything remotely close to what he did to me. I dare you to make such an insensitive accusation.
If you filter “we’re all the same” through the grid of “consequential sins,” then I appeal to you to change your filter because that is not the lane you want to walk down for this discussion. What my dad did to me compared to my sin list are two radically different things. I’ve done some bad things in my life, but consequentially speaking, he’s a bigger sinner than I am.
If you read that article about “hating my daddy,” you’ll see that I’m not talking about our comparative sin lists but about who both of us were “in Adam,” without God. Total depravity does not mean we have committed every evil atrocity known to humanity, but it means that we have the potential to do so. Hitler’s “sin stack” is higher and more atrocious than yours. But from an ontological perspective, you and I have the potential of doing worse than what he did, God forbid.
Because we’re equally corrupt, broken, and depraved from an ontological perspective, any person can commit any act of violence against anyone. This sobering truth about who we are without God and our desperate need for Him should have an appropriate humbling effect, which sets us up to think differently about our abusers. After I stopped comparing my dad’s sins to mine and recognized that I’m capable of doing what he did—or worse—my attitude toward him began to change. It did not come quickly, but the ice caps in my heart began to melt.
The next step is practical forgiveness, which can come in one of two ways. There is attitudinal and transactional forgiveness. The first is an attitude of forgiveness that the abuser may never know about while the second is transacting forgiveness—an exchange—with the abuser. Rarely, would I recommend that the abused and abuser come together in an attempt to reconcile face-to-face transactionally. It would depend on the people involved and the sin-crime committed. Facing the abuser is not necessary and could prove to be disastrous.
The primary goal is helping the abused to get out from under the weight of what happened to them. You want that hurting soul at the point where the “abuse event” is not controlling them, which can occur through attitudinal forgiveness. The big idea is to release the abuser in the heart, i.e., “Father forgive them,” as Jesus said from the cross (Luke 23:34). They did not receive forgiveness because they were not asking, but Jesus’s heart of forgiveness “released Him” from having their atrocities managing Him.
Perhaps there can be reconciliation—to some degree, in the future—between the abuser and abused, but that is not your first objective. You want to help the abused work through the weight of what happened and its ongoing effects. Forgiveness is key. Abuse has a way of creating a stronghold in the mind as the victim lives in a perpetual cycle of thinking about what happened to them.
Sometimes in forgiveness scenarios like this, the abused may be tempted to use unforgiveness as an ally to protect them from future hurt. They could think that if they forgive them, the abuser is free to enter their lives and do it again. Thus, they use unforgiveness like a barrier that keeps the abuser from attacking them. It is as though they conflate forgiveness with a future relationship. You want to see if they are thinking this way.
Another way a person may misuse forgiveness is by weaponizing it. In this instance, they are conflating forgiveness with anger. “I won’t forgive him because of what he did to me,” which can be a form of anger that is born out of deep pain. They can’t hurt the abuser the way that person abused them, but they can withhold forgiveness, which becomes a form of punishment. You want to release them from this false narrative.
They must commit that person to God, who judges the right way (1 Peter 2:23). The unrepentant abuser has a more significant problem than their victim’s anger. Once the abused realizes these truths, they can—at least—forgive in their heart, which will be the start of releasing them from the ongoing personal punishment of what happened.
At this juncture, they are at that glorious place of flipping the narrative in their lives. It is Joseph’s commentary on his unjust suffering: “What you meant for evil, the Lord meant for good” (Genesis 50:20). You can see why I said that these ideas are farther down the path of healing for the abused. It takes a while to learn how to embrace this narrative for redemptive purposes.
Ultimately, we don’t have full authorship of our life stories. We are in a relationship with God, and we cooperate with Him, but He’s the author. Every Christian must come to this place of recognizing that all things do work together for good. God has a plan for your life, and the heartbreak is the process that draws you closer to Him, fills you with a deeper understanding, and releases you to work with the Lord in setting other captives free.
If the abused is at this maturation point, they have already seen the possibilities of “narrative flipping.” They have already helped the downcast, brokenhearted, hurting, and afflicted. You may want to ask them to look into their rearview mirrors. Perhaps they will see folks that God has brought into their lives. They were the people who had the perfect word for other wounded soldiers. If they are this far along in the process, there will be those that they have helped already. Encourage them. Help them to see how God is using them already.
Learning how to suffer well is one of the hardest things for Christians to do. The accumulation of the bad things in our lives can build up like soot in an old stove pipe. You want to teach your friend how to “put off” those bad shaping influences, keep on renewing their minds, and put on another kind of attitude. Paul talks about this in Ephesians 4:22-24. This process that I have laid out for you in this article will help them to do these things.
Practically speaking, you want them to understand Paul’s “replacement principle” in the Ephesians template for change. They can’t just stop thinking evil thoughts (v. 22), but they must fill their minds (v. 23) with things that are true, lovely, and of good report (Philippians 4:8). As they keep on forgiving the person in their hearts and flip the narratives from evil to good, you want them to add gratitude to their to-do lists (v. 24). They are actively putting on Christ by their gratitude.
Ultimately, they must see their past as a gift from God that they want to steward well for His fame, their good, and the transformative benefit of many. It will be a process, but the more they practice these ideas, the easier it will become, and the world will soon experience the power of God in that formerly abused, broken jar of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7).