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Responding Biblically to Childhood Abuse

Truth In Love 328

Christians who experienced abuse from their parents when they were children yet want to obey God’s call to honor their parents face a dilemma.

Sep 13, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast I have with me, Josh Zeichik. He’s a graduate twice of the Masters University with a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in biblical counseling. He served as a youth pastor and a church planter. He’s currently serving his local church as a certified member of ACBC, which I am grateful for. I have loved getting to know Josh. I had an opportunity to meet his wife Harmony as well. They love working with students at their local church. And they have three kiddos, Jackson, Charles, and one is on the way. Josh, I’m just really excited that the Lord has kindled our friendship and you’re actually student here at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I’m excited about the work that you’re doing. In fact, we’re going to talk about some of that work even today.

So you’ve written a little booklet that I want to be the focus of our time today, and the booklet is called Help! My Parents Abused Me When I Was a Kid and it was done by Shepherds Press, put out as a part of their Life Line booklet series. We’ll have that in the show notes, but I want us to have a discussion. It’s always good to hear from the author. Sometimes in writing, as someone who’s trying to write a book even now, you don’t feel like you can always explain in detail your thoughts and I just want to give him an opportunity to talk through this. This is a sensitive subject. We’re very aware that this is a very very sensitive subject on childhood abuse. So Josh, let’s just start if we can by thinking through this particular question. How do you know when there’s childhood abuse or what are some of the indicators that help us to see that there might be some issues or a problem going on?

Josh Zeichik: Yeah, I think abuse is a tough word. It’s a tough word to define. It’s a tough word to use. It’s a general word. It explains something that is kind of overarching and truthfully, you can start to ask specific questions. There are people who don’t know they’re being abused. They presume the best of their parents. They wouldn’t label everything as abuse. They wouldn’t have said, oh my childhood was abusive. My upbringing was abusive. And then there’s others who would label it very quickly abuse. I think it’s better to actually get away from the word. I use it in the title of this book because it’s a commonplace word, a culturally accepted word. But I actually think specific questions, what happened? Okay, mom and dad raised their voice a lot. Well, okay, where they harsh? Yeah, they might have been harsh. Okay. Did they get physical? Well, yeah, my dad took swings at me. Okay, now we’re getting really specific and we can understand these are things that Scripture would absolutely forbid. And then criminally, when you start to see sexual sin against a child by a parent, there’s no question, right? This is obvious abuse of the parental relationship. 

Dale Johnson: Part of the context that we’re talking about this in is — for those of us who counsel — is how do we think through this when a child is sort of working through some of these issues and us trying to recognize—and you’re right. I mean, these are difficult things. If we consider even what’s normal to the child. You mentioned that they might not know that this is abuse. They might not have a category for what is good and what’s evil at that particular point. That’s absolutely right. Why? Because the child has grown up in that home and what they do in the home is going to seem normal to him most of the time. So we do have to be cautious and careful and then we have to be careful even with some of those accusations and how they come out. And that would force us to ask probing questions and then for us to be very aware of the legal side. What does become criminal? Where does that line become crossed, right? The word abuse doesn’t have to be used in order for that to trigger us to be a mandated reporter. So we need to be aware of those types of things. Now, equally, I think to be biblical, we have to understand as well, what types of fault solutions have people tried? So they have a heart that’s very tender. They want to run after helping those who are in situations who are oppressed. They don’t know what to do, like children. The Scripture tells us that pure and undefiled religion is making sure that we work well with those who are oppressed. So we have to be cautious and careful about running to fault solutions. What are some of the things that you’ve seen people try that might not be helpful solutions biblically? 

Josh Zeichik: Yeah, that’s a helpful distinction. I actually target this mini book towards an adult who experienced childhood abuse and what you would gather in that is, as an adult, they have attempted multiple things to address the struggle. And what I sense is there’s this tension that exists for an adult who wants to honor Christ, but maybe protect themselves from this parental relationship. So there’s these conflicting ideas that exist in them. One of the common ways in which folks typically respond to abusers, or those who they have now labeled as an abuser, is to write them off completely. Just, I’m done with you. It’s, let me get out of here. I don’t want anything to ever do with you again. Of course, that doesn’t always reflect a gospel reconciliation or a desire to love enemies that Christ calls the church to. And then I think the other would be retaliation. Another extreme here is just to go the other way and just be aggressive. If they’re going to hurt me, I’m going to hurt them worse. I think even in the Christian community, even in the church, these are the default fleshly responses to those who abused us. 

Dale Johnson: I think we have to be careful with those because we find ourselves wanting to repay evil for evil. When the Scripture doesn’t justify our sin just because we’ve been sinned against that. Now that doesn’t mean we lay down and do nothing, right? The Bible tells us what to actively pursue in trying to make things right and how we address ways that we’ve been sinned against. And that’s exactly what you’re trying to do. So I want to talk about that. You know, we’re going to contrast now some of the fault solutions that we try to pursue often when these things happen, but now talk about Scripturally — we’re not saying to do nothing. We are saying to seek after solutions. What are some of those right solutions we should be pursuing Scripturally? 

Josh Zeichik: Yeah, I do think there is much wisdom in discerning, what is ongoing? Do you have a set of parents who acted foolishly and sinfully towards you as a child, but now they desire to repent? You have to discern that. You have to understand that. You have to put yourself in a position, at least enough relationally, to hear them out.

Maybe you have parents who you want to reconcile with, but they don’t want to own anything. No sense of personal responsibility. One of the things we talk about in this mini book is this idea of having a heart of forgiveness, a willingness to pursue reconciliation. I think that reflects the gospel. It calls us to move towards people, even our enemies, with love and forgiveness, and truth. And what we find is parents, sometimes, are willing to repent as they maybe get saved, you know, turn to Christ themselves in repentance, and now they want to restore that relationship with their now adult child. But there’s many times that they don’t.

I think what is important is to exercise discernment. The Scriptures call us to move towards even our enemies with love, forgiveness, a heart of forgiveness and truth. We need to be willing to speak the truth. And I think what’s important is a willingness to involve the church community around you. There’s times when our own views will be distorted because of the experience or the emotion of the experience that we had even 15, 20 plus years ago. And it’s good to bounce our ideas off of those who are discipling us or pastoring us, to say, am I being foolish here? Am I just kind of putting myself in a scenario where I can be re-abused or manipulated, or am I moving towards people with a heart of loving my enemies? And let’s not be inconsistent here. When parents abuse their kids, they are functionally enemies towards those kids. 

Dale Johnson: What a great point. This is the point where so many people get confused, Josh, about the subject, right? They think what it means to seek peace — Romans 13 as far as it depends on us — means that we make ourselves completely open to the rehashing of abuse. That’s not the idea that we’re talking about when we talk about biblical solutions. It does mean that we become vulnerable to some degree, but it’s not an excusing of sin. The Bible never tells us when we pursue reconciliation, even as the victim here, that we excuse the sin of the other person. Biblical peace and biblical reconciliation means that there is true restoration that happens not by just one side giving in fully—that’s not the biblical mandate — but the other side needs to pursue forgiveness and being forgiven, acknowledging what they’ve done that’s wrong. So we are not arguing at all biblically speaking that the one who’s been abused needs to just completely forget and walk away from the things that have happened. That’s a fault solution and a dismissal of sin and the destruction of it, but we are called to pursue biblical reconciliation to seek peace that demonstrates Christ. So that’s exactly what you’re describing here.

Now, a couple of other things that I think it’s important for us to get into. Especially when we think about, you know, if we’ve been the one who’s been abused as a child or we’re counseling people who this is a part of their past, how do we help somebody, an individual particularly, respond in a God-honoring way? Those who have been impacted by this type of abuse — How do we help them walk through these very difficult, often very hurtful — things that have left scars on their heart for many, many years often — how do we help them walk through this in a way that’s honoring to the Lord?

Josh Zeichik: Yeah, that’s a good question. The thing that has been most transformative as I’ve talked with people is to give some biblical examples of those who have been abused. And how did they respond to therapies? David is actually a great example. Imagine his relationship, you know, with Saul. Saul was abusive. He was literally physically trying to murder David. David, his responses were always to honor Saul as his father-in-law, as the king, but never to allow himself to be manipulated, to be injured physically. He was quite the example of someone who upheld two almost conflicting tensions: let me honor my abuser while not allowing myself to be abused.

I also think probably there’s just a good sense of — for a biblical counselor to ask good probing questions — we need to really adequately define what is a very nebulous word, abuse. So when someone’s describing their upbringing of their parents and, you know, they’re still hurt, you know, they’re still bitter, maybe they’re wrestling with sin in response to the sin that was done to them, we need to actually define what happened and categorize it properly. If your parents were unloving, if they were unrepentant, they never asked for forgiveness for anything — Okay, those are sins. Maybe they’re not abuse. Maybe they’re just bad parenting, but when they are physical, when they are violent, when they are doing things that Scripture is clearly calling heinous acts of sin, we need to call it that and we need to try to walk our people through, what does it look like to love your enemy? Not grow bitter but still move forward in this heart of, my greatest call is, how do I honor God in my responses to those who sin against me, rather than how do I just protect myself and keep those painful emotions at bay?

Dale Johnson: Yeah, we don’t want to add sin to sin, right? Because sin is destructive. So we want to be able to respond—I think the nuancing that you’re doing here is appropriate and very important for us to hear biblically. We still are called to respond. We’re called to even love our enemies and when people have abused us, especially when they’re not willing to acknowledge that as sin and so on, we need to respond to them in that category that they are acting as an enemy of us. A second point that I just want to make off of what you’ve said here is, even as pastors we have to think through this issue. It is our duty to protect those who are vulnerable. We need to make very clear that the person who has been a victim of abuse, particularly in this case, childhood abuse, we’re not asking them to—that it’s on their shoulders for reconciliation to happen. They don’t have the power within themselves to make this whole thing right. They have a responsibility primarily to God. That’s what we’re calling them to do. But we’re not asking them to be shameful and guilty if the other person is not wanting to engage or to admit that what they’ve done is sinful and wrong. So, we need to as pastors be able to protect them in that because so often the shame and the guilt that a victim feels in moments like this is just overwhelming and insurmountable. So we want to make sure as pastors that we are protecting those who are vulnerable.

So, a couple more questions that I want to ask, Josh, because I think this is — if the empirical data is true — this is something that is increasing in our population, not decreasing, so the church needs to know how to deal with these things. So how do you reconcile God’s design of submitting to authority? Because this is one of the most critical points that we need to make any time we talk about this issue of abuse. Our culture just wants to destroy authority all together. As Christians, we don’t have that option because authority is a part of God’s design. He is an authority. He is the supreme authority, the Sovereign. He has delegated certain roles of authority that we are called biblically, in a Christian way, to respond to appropriately. We don’t want to destroy authority altogether, but we do have this question when an authority is being abusive — like parents in this case — how do we deal with this? What do we do with God’s design of submitting to an authority when they’re being abusive like this? 

Josh Zeichik: Yeah, and again, I’m addressing mostly adults in this book who experienced childhood abuse, and at that point the authority structure has been removed. The parent is no longer functioning as an authority in that adult child’s life. In fact, that is actually one of the common discernment issues that you’re wrestling with an adult counselee here is that, you have to understand, yes there is this call to still honor but not obey. You’ve now left—presuming this person’s married, they need to leave and cleave and they become their own family. They’re of course still under the authority of church leaders and other civil leaders, but there’s this important distinction that you do not have to do all the things that a parent, especially an abusive parent, might be manipulating you to still do.

Dale Johnson: This is really an important piece here. All of those caveats in the Scripture — when there’s a delegated earthly authority, whether it be governmental, whether it be in the church as pastors, or whether it be parents in the family — the caveat is always in the Lord. So if they’re asking us to do something that’s in the Lord, then we obey. If they’re asking us to do something that’s sinful in this case, which was abusive use of authority, then we don’t have to obey that authority. You make a great point relative to adults, that adults are typically not now under the authority of their parents. They are part of a new institution of a family and so they don’t have that responsibility. But we do need to guard their heart relative to being able to still honor a person and respond to them in the appropriate manner that God calls us to.

So one final question, Josh, as we sort of sum this up is, what does it look like to offer grace? And this is really important, biblically speaking. What does it look like to offer grace even when it seems that the offender is unrepentant? Because this is common, especially after such a long time has passed. What do we do in situations like that?

Josh Zeichik: Yeah, I give an example in the book that I’ll share here. There’s this counselee that I have, and I actually change his name to Peter, just for the sake of the book. But this individual had childhood abuse, had experienced it. And the challenge for him was now as an adult with his own wife, his own kids, how much do I allow his parents, his past abusers to now influence the life of his kids and his family? Through counsel and through time together, the loving decision, the graceful decision that he decided to move forward with, was to allow them to have supervised time with his kids. So, you know, grandma and grandpa often will do things like grandma’s weekend, grandpa’s weekend, and they do things overnight. Peter was not at a place where he could trust his folks to have his kids overnight by themselves. It was all supervised and then they started instituting these weekly phone calls and FaceTime visits and this was a way to move towards the abusers with love and kindness, but not allow for additional manipulation, abuse, or potentially even harmful things to happen to his own kids. 

Dale Johnson: That’s really important because what it means to seek the peace of God doesn’t mean to move toward an unrepentant sinner like that. Right? We have to be cautious in opening ourself up back to that type of vulnerability. So, I think that’s a really important caveat for us to make.

Josh, I know this is one of the subjects that you’ve written on and it’s really difficult even in the time that we have, 15, 20 minutes, to have a discussion like this because, in abusive situations, there are so many caveats. There are so many variables. There are so many scenarios. So it’s hard to talk about these issues in sort of a blanket statement. But I appreciate what you’ve done. I appreciate what you’ve tried to do in at least raising the issue, that this is an issue that we’re going to face in the churches we counsel. And then how to think biblically through some of these issues as we try to seek the peace that God offers, but being very wise relative to making ourselves vulnerable to those who are unrepentant. Thanks for leading this discussion. Thanks for being here today on the podcast. Really appreciate that.

Helpful Resources

Help! My Parents Abused Me When I Was a Kid by Josh Zeichik