1. The Gospel Rewrites Our Narrative
While the abused tell one story of their life that doesn’t include abuse, the memories of abuse have no narrative and make no sense. In some ways, it is discombobulated and detached from their life. In other ways, it defines their life. The gospel helps the abused understand their own story and, over time, deal with the memories of abuse. Here’s how.
The gospel begins with the fact that they are not worthless but created in God’s image. Yet because of sin, they suffer in darkness. In redemption, their defective view of themselves is redefined by Jesus. Jesus doesn’t merely forgive sins, we are in Christ. Doctrinal clarity on the believer’s Union with Christ must be identified and effectively applied to the abused. Finally, the gospel tells us we do have ultimate hope. One day, our very bodies will be made new. The scars of abuse will forever be forgotten.
I remember working through this with one of our church members who was abused by his own mother. His defense mechanism was fighting. His fight would be to belittle me, elevate himself, and prove he’s better. I watched as the gospel rewrote his own story and, over time, the gospel narrative superseded every other narrative of his life, and he began to fight less.
2. The Gospel Gives Us Categories
Diane Langberg points out that the life-narrative problem is a categories problem. Trauma doesn’t fit. It simply lives alongside one’s story. In the gospel, we have a category for abuse. That is oppression and evil. In abuse, a human being treated you as if you were not an image bearer and thus lied to you about who you are. This is not only a lie about you. It’s a lie about God.
As Ecclesiastes laments the powerlessness of the abused, they know what it’s like to be under the power of another. The gospel speaks to that memory, and says there is a greater power who will bring justice. God’s wrath poured onto Jesus on the cross shows us God’s hatred of sin—including the sin of abuse.
Isaiah 53:3 says Jesus was “despised and rejected by mankind.” In verses 7-8, we read of Jesus being led like a lamb to the slaughter. Justice was denied Him. His life was taken away. But the irony is that God had not lost power. This was all God’s plan! Though sin incurs death, there is a remedy. God would accept a substitutefor sin. For centuries, bulls and goats were offered by Israel but they never took away sin. Isaiah highlights in verses 5–6: But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The abuser will stand before the just Judge and receive what he deserves. But what if he repents and believes? God doesn’t let him off the hook. On the contrary, Jesus took every bit of the wrath belonging to him.
Sol Fenne of 20schemes poetically captures this reality with the words of his song, “We Long for that Day.”
Finally oppression will be overWe Long For That Day, 20schemes Music
Secret acts of cruelty made known
Nowhere left to hide for the abuser
Every deed laid bare before the throne
On that day we’ll stand before our Maker
To face our debt of sin which must be paid
There is no-one righteous, none can measure
the perfect standard Christ alone displayed
But there is hope for all who trust in Jesus
For all who know forgiveness in His name
He faced the wrath deserved by ruined sinners
To save us from our anger, fear and shame
The gospel gives us categories of evil, justice, and redemption. And all of these, over time, can help the abused face the memories and heal.
3. The Gospel Gives Us Courage to Face the Memories
Over time. Time is key here. As pastors and ministry leaders, we have a lot on our plates. So often we want a quick fix. We want people to just get over it. But they’re not going to get over it because the memories are still there. The gospel rewriting one’s narrative and giving biblical categories allows the abused to have the courage to face the dark feelings. The trauma. To learn what to do with these bad feelings and terrible memories.
They need the courage to face these things. The gospel itself gives us courage. As Tim Keller recently said in an interview, “If Jesus rose from the dead, everything really is going to be okay.” Jesus’ conquering death gives us courage to face all of the lesser problems of life, as big as they are.
No longer must the abused cope through fighting. No longer must the abused anesthetize the feelings through drugs and alcohol. No longer must the abused shut down and shut people out. But they have new courage to face head on what they never previously were able to face. And that leads to the fourth way the gospel helps. As they face the memories, they finally deal with shame.
4. The Gospel Deals with Shame
In abuse, they were told they are not worthy. That they were merely an object. A thing to be used for someone else’s gain. That shame sticks with them. Shame of being deprived. Shame of nakedness. Shame of powerlessness. Shame of weakness. Shame of bearing the guilt for someone else’s crime. Jackie Hill Perry said of her own abuser, that she was able to discover in the gospel: “His evil was not my own.”
The abused need to be released from all kinds of shame, and the gospel has that power. As it rewrites our narrative. As it gives us new categories and fresh courage, the gospel removes our shame.
Think about it: Jesus was stripped naked. In his vulnerability, He was mocked, ridiculed, and spit on. He was shamed in our place. He knows, more than any of us, what it means to be shamed. Hebrews 12:2 tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, not only for forgiveness of sins, but for His motivation to go to the cross: “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame.”
For the joy of redeeming a people for Himself, what did He do? Endured the cross and despised the shame. Notice that it doesn’t say He “enjoyed the shame” or even “dealt with the shame,” but rather He despised the shame. He hated it. Shame took all He had in this earth. His friends abandoned Him. He was stripped of clothing. He was tortured. Stripped of dignity. He was told by the world that He was utterly worthless.
But he hated the shame so much that He dealt with it. Fully. Finally.
John Piper elaborates on what the writer of Hebrews means in “despising the shame”, pointing out that it’s as if Jesus is saying:
Listen to me, Shame, do you see that joy in front of me? Compared to that, you are less than nothing. You are not worth comparing to that! I despise you. You think you have power. Compared to the joy before me, you have none. Joy. Joy. Joy. That is my power! Not you, Shame. You are worthless. You are powerless.
You think you can distract me. I won’t even look at you. I have a joy set before me. Why would I look at you? You are ugly and despicable. And you are almost finished. You cover me now as with a shroud. Before you can say, ‘So there!’ I will throw you off like a filthy rag. I will put on my royal robe.
You think you are great, because even last night you made my disciples run away. You are a fool, Shame. You are a despicable fool. That abandonment, that loneliness, this cross — these tools of yours — they are all my sacred suffering, and will save my disciples, not destroy them. You are a fool. Your filthy hands fulfill holy prophecy.
Farewell, Shame. It is finished.
Brothers and sisters, the gospel heals the damage done by abuse. It’s going to take time to heal. My coworker, Stephanie, who works with many sufferers, once explained it to me like this: Over time, abuse becomes a piece of your story, but it doesn’t define you. The gospel doesn’t take it away, but it frames how we carry it.