I’ll be honest; I don’t often turn to the Bible for guidance. I’d probably fit pretty nicely in the stereotype of Catholics not knowing the Bible nearly as well as our Protestant brothers and sisters do (lol). All the same…I’d say my relationship with the Bible soured the most when I was forced to swear on my childhood Bible to never talk to friends online again about what happened at home. It took time, therapy, and spiritual direction to even pick it up again, and it’s still sometimes a struggle.
The few times I’d take a peek in the Bible on my own is when I hear about a story or verse that I can connect with as a victim/survivor of abuse. In these times, I’d often come across a gem, and one of these gems in the 18th chapter in Matthew’s gospel; when I read it in its entirety, I came to see it as a chapter written especially for victims/survivors of child abuse.
It’s a bit of a read, and then some with my thoughts and feelings on how it’s been helping me on my healing journey (when I remember to read it). So…get comfortable!
A/N: like some Bibles, I’m going to make everything Jesus says in dark red. I did it in one of my last posts very briefly, and I’m going to try continuing that through the blog
because it’s cool for emphasis.
Jesus is teaching when he brought a child into the circle to answer his disciple’s question on who is “greater in the kingdom of heaven.” (18:1) He tells them, “whoever will have humbled himself like this little child, such a one is greater in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever shall accept one such little child in my name, accepts me.” (18:4-5) Here, he tells us how precious the child beside him, all children ever created, are gifts to their parents from heaven’s treasury, and thus how important it is for people to love them, care for them, and treat them with dignity.
He further drives this point into their hearts when he says that one line I often come back to: “But whoever will have led astray one of these little ones, who trust in me, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck, and to be submerged in the depths of the sea,” (18:6). It’s a very grave thing when someone fails to fulfill that command to love by abusing children, teaching them those lies about themselves (“You’re worthless, unloveable, ugly, disgusting, etc”). Jesus makes sure they, and we, know that.
We can also see how he does hold the abusers primarily accountable when their victims would fall into “wearing their pain” as my priest-friend would say, living in ways that are very self-destructive and self-abusive, as almost all of us end up doing at some point in our lives.
I’d say it’s plausible, too, that at least a small part of the abusers realize this, as it’s said that things like this are “engraved on our hearts”, and that’s why they often would do all they can to try to tie that millstone around the necks of their victims instead. That’s what makes Jesus’ next words so powerful: “Woe to the man through whom temptation arises! So if your hand or your foot leads you to sin, cut it off and cast it away from you. It is better for you to enter into life disabled or lame, than to be sent into eternal fire having two hands or two feet. And if your eye leads you to sin, root it out and cast it away from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, than to be sent into the fires of Hell having two eyes. See to it that you do not despise even one of these little ones.” (18:7-10)
As I read this sequence in the order as it was written (and not cherry-picked out of context as it often is), I can see it as an admonishment against my abusers’ grooming and victim-blaming. Jesus speaks very strongly against the excuses my abusers (and some disrespectful men) would give, about not having full responsibility for their hands and bodies, where and how their eyes look at me, like something to use instead of love. Finally, he reminds them why, because “their Angels continually look upon the face of my Father, who is in heaven” (18:10), what St. Raphael the Archangel told Tobit and Tobias is an honor reserved for Angels of higher rank.
This is all very important, validating stuff, but the chapter doesn’t stop there: now that Jesus has established just how strongly he (and God the Father and the Holy Spirit) condemns abuse, the rest of the chapter teaches us victims/survivors the importance of accountability and forgiveness.
See…many of us want to blame all of our own maladaptive behaviors on our abusers (or heck, anything that upset us) as a way to excuse it. Mother did it when she sobbed how grandpa used to beat her in response to me trying to make her understand that she abused me. I even do it myself, more times than I’d like to admit. Part of it, I think, comes with the black-and-white belief that to not blame them completely is to fall into the trap of believing what they taught me: that I’m evil and I deserved it.
That’s probably why Jesus opens this next part gently and with affection, telling the parable of the Good Shepherd, who leaves the rest of his flock to find one lost lamb: “For the Son of man has come to save what had been lost…And if he should happen to find it: Amen I say to you, that he has more joy over that one than over the 99 which did not go astray. Even so, it is not the will before your Father, who is in heaven, that one of these little ones should be lost.” (18:11, 13-14) He doesn’t want any of us to be lost. He doesn’t want us to act in ways that harms ourselves and the ones around us, and when we can overcome these things we learned from our abuse, he’s more joyful. He’s proud of us every time we step away from our maladaptive behaviors, and towards the love he offers in friendship and in himself.
From this encouraging story, he tells us what we ought to do when we are wronged: “go and correct him [the one who sinned against you], between you and him alone.” (18:15) In other, lesser situations when someone has wronged me, this step is often all that’s needed, and the relationship is repaired. However, if your abusers are anything like my uncle, it makes perfect sense to me why you wouldn’t do this – if nothing else, they proved themselves to be ones who would say “no, I’m not sorry,” (and that’s if you’re very lucky!) Meanwhile, I did try to reach out to my parents and my cousin, who called me “out of my mind,” and/or deflected the matter whenever I tried to address it.
This leads us to our next option: “But if he will not listen to you, invite with you one or two more, so that every word may stand by the mouth of two or three witnesses.” (18:16) I’d say this is ideally someone you trust and/or hold some authority on the matter. I did two family therapy sessions with my dad, both of which consisted of again denying, and putting the blame on me “leading him on.” This is just one example though; going to the police is applicable, as is going to a trusted family member, a social worker, a teacher, or a priest/pastor, the last of which complying with Jesus’ final step for reconciliation: “And if he will not listen to them, tell the Church. But if he will not listen to the Church, let him be to you like the pagan and the tax collector,” (18:17) who are held with the lowest regard in his time.
So…that’s it, right? I did all the steps, and now I don’t have a relationship with my abusers anymore.
What I do still have, though, are the memories of abuse that haunt me, the maladaptive behaviors that hurt me and others around me, and the possibility of letting my rightful anger turn to a burning hatred like my mother. There’s even the possibility that I could keep my poor understanding of boundaries, and give up on my lessons on true love, family, and friendship like my dad did, putting any children I have in danger of enmeshment…or worse.
I don’t want that. What can I do?
Jesus says, “Amen I say to you, whatever you will have bound on earth, shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you will have released on earth, shall be released also in heaven.” (18:18) Like my therapist and priest-friend said, forgiveness is key here. I’d learned from them, books, and studies like this that forgiveness isn’t the same as reconciliation, and to be merciful is not to let people abuse me as I was groomed to believe. If I can continue to let go of the hurt my abusers inflicted, distinguish their lies from the truth, and reject them from my life, I can therefore be the healed, whole person I want to be.
My priest friend would go on to insist as he has for the years we’ve been friends that this isn’t something I can do alone: as Jesus says, “If two of those among you have agreed on earth, about anything whatsoever that they have requested, it shall be done for them by my Father, who is in heaven” (18:19). We need people to support us, to care for us, to walk with us as we heal. My inner circle of trust has gotten very small over the years I’d been taking this healing journey, but then, there are broader circles of friends I may only share a smile with once in a while. I struggled with this a lot, trust and friendship, especially at the start, knowing literally nothing about healthy boundaries. It caused me a lot of heartache that still hurts now and again, so much that I want to just hide from any and all friendships. Something doesn’t let me hide as often or as long as I used to though, something good and hard to word.
Anyways, Jesus closes the chapter with further lessons on forgiveness. Peter asks that question, “how many times shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Even 7 times?” to which Jesus replies “even 70 times 7 times.” (18:21-22) He then tells the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, who owed a huge amount of money to the king. He begs the king forgiveness, and the king forgives him of his debt. Meanwhile, the servant comes across another servant who owed him a much smaller amount. He takes that servant by the throat, violently demanding the money he’s owed. When the king hears of this, he rages at the now “wicked servant” for not giving his fellow servant the same compassion he (the king) had just shown. He then “handed him over to the torturers until he repaid the entire debt,” to which Jesus ominously concludes, “So, too, shall my heavenly Father do to you, if each one of you will not forgive his brother from your hearts.” (18:34-35)
Lots of times, when I try to read the Bible, I just get lost in it all, and that’s when I’m not fighting urges to run away from these beliefs that contradict what my abusers taught me. I’d imagine it’s a challenge for others, too, if just for how huge and heavy a book it is.
This is easily said about forgiveness, too, especially for abuse victims/survivors. Like, “How can I ever forgive them? This isn’t just some small offense; this is huge! How am I ever going to get past that?” By ourselves, it’s impossible, but that’s still what Jesus calls us to do. He assures us, though, that it’s worth it: there were psychological studies on the benefits forgiveness gives people. They end up happier, more at peace. Near the end of Unbroken, Louie forgives his abusers, letting go the identity of a “broken man” they tried to force on him, and almost all of his trauma-related issues of abusing alcohol, smoking, pornography, or even having flashbacks, compulsive hand-washing, getting inordinately angry…all of it went away when he let that all go.
I once read, “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of burning someone else.” Mother abused me and the rest of her family to get revenge on my grandpa and others for abusing her, who abused her most likely as a revenge for what he and his family suffered in war. Many times, a lot of us fall into the trap of just doing the opposite of what our parents did, being lenient where they were strict, but that rarely ends well. My extended family has some examples of this; that coal is still burning in their hands.
Looking at all this, it’s clear that the only real solution is to let go of the hurt, and forgive the debt.
It’s not going to happen at once; even after all the coals I’m holding are dropped, my hands need to heal from the burns, especially when a coal was especially hot, or was held for a long time. I’d sometimes agitate my burns, or even try to pick the coals up again. It always hurts when I do, but there’s something satisfying about it. I won’t deny it. I’m not sure why it’s satisfying, but it is, in spite of the pain it causes me. Maybe that’s why friends are important; with their hands holding yours, bandaging and putting medicine on the burns, you can’t pick up the coals.
Finding things like Matthew 18 to guide me has also been helpful. If nothing else, it tells me that Jesus had me, had any victim/survivor of child abuse, deep in his heart and mind before we were even born. What he describes sounds very fair all around, but I know it isn’t easy. It probably never will be easy.
Worth a try, I guess, if for no other reason than the fact that he loves me.