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Rebecca Mitchell experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of her dad, and it's resulted in her grappling with the idea of God being her heavenly father. Ahead of Father's Day this Sunday, she explains why 3 common Christian teachings on forgiveness and sin are so damaging to those who have suffered violence, especially at the hands of their dads
Father’s Day is a Sunday I have come to dread as a Christian.
Dad jokes, stories of admiration and comparisons with God - “our Father in heaven" - abound.
That doesn’t really work for me. I have had one dad, and in many ways I don’t want another one.
I grew up in a home where physical and emotional violation at the hands of my father occurred on a daily basis. This also extended in my case to sexual violence. This confusing and damaging upbringing led to a heavy dependence on alcohol as a young adult as well as sexual re-victimisation.
Then, at 22, in the middle of the drinking, confusion and assault, something incredible happened.
Strange circumstances led me to attend a Christian meeting where I became convinced that Jesus could help me, and I made a commitment to turn my life over to God.
As I lay in bed one night shortly after my conversion, memories of incest flooded back. I was shocked and horrified for myself - and in honesty for God. Surely this God I had recently found, so pure and holy, could not deal with this?
Thankfully, I have found this is not the case. In fact, it has been my experience that God is able to deal with the very worst scenarios you could imagine.
However, with God's family – his Church - things have not been so easy. I've had some amazing Christian friends and counsellors, and I am so grateful to them. However, there have also been times when the shame and pain of the past has been intensified by the response of other Christians.
There are three main areas that have caused me particular anguish; and speaking to other Christians who have also suffered sexual violence it seems they too have had similar experiences. They are: The pressure to forgive and reconcile no matter what, the teaching that all sin is the same and the concept that Jesus experienced all pain including sexual violation.
The pressure to reconcile
There's a common teaching among some Christians that it's always possible to reconcile. All you need to do is forgive the other person.
As a young Christian under pressure from a Christian leader I went to my dad and told him I had forgiven him. I was assured that this would lead to a reconciliation.
It turned out to be one of the worst days of my life. My father became violent, denied everything and told me I was not his daughter anymore. I never saw him again.
Looking back, I can see this was not God's fault. Rather it was naive thinking that failed to acknowledge how, sadly, there are people in the world whom the Bible is not afraid to name as evil or wicked. We don’t like to think about this and it is rarely talked about either inside or outside of our church contexts. But the truth is, some abusive people are not going to change. We can forgive them, but trying to form a relationship with them leaves you only vulnerable to more damage. As Proverbs says “The one who rebukes a wicked man will get hurt” (9:6).
'All sin is the same'
I was told that I had to forgive my dad, because in God’s eyes I was a sinner too - and not only that – in God's eyes, my sins were just as dreadful as his.
I am in no doubt that I am a sinner in desperate need of redemption. However, as a parent, I have never, ever, wanted to sexually abuse my child.
Jesus himself rejects the claim that no sin is worse than any other. In Matthew 23:23 he says to the Pharisees: “You have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness”.
Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees in this passage centers on the fact that they focused on the lesser matters of the law, while neglecting the more important. This suggests that Jesus does not hold that all sins are equal.
I can’t begin to describe how freeing this revelation left me – somehow it separated me from my dad and led me into a much deeper relationship with God.
Jesus experienced this
I've been taught - based on Hebrews 4:14-16 - that Jesus has experienced every single emotion and pain that we have. This left me confused and anxious. I did not want to think of Jesus suffering incest at the hands of his father.
I do not doubt for a moment that Christ's experiences of pain, agony, disappointment and heartbreak far exceed my own. On the cross it is clear to me that Jesus endured more suffering than I will ever have to. But what is not clear to me is the theory that as a human Jesus suffered sexual abuse at the hands of either his earthly or heavenly father - and certainly not his heavenly father. That is not the God that I serve.
The verse in Hebrews only says Jesus was "tempted" in every way. It does not say he was "sinned against" in every way. The distinction is important.
I do not understand why God allows sexual violence - but I don’t believe he is the author of it. Clarifying this in my own mind has helped me draw near to a God who is without darkness.
Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in California provides a “sacred space” for infertile women on Mother’s Day to grieve their loss. I wish churches here would provide something similar for Father’s Day for the many of us who have suffered violence at the hands of our dads.
Am I a victim of my past? Possibly. Yet I'm mindful that despite his victory on the cross, Jesus still bears his scars on nail-marked hands. One of my scars is that I struggle with the concept of God as my heavenly father. Perhaps though, my final acceptance of a dad in heaven will be when I get there. Until then, I can only hope and pray the damaging teachings I've encountered from other Christians will not be passed on to anyone else in the future.
Rebecca Mitchell is a Survivor and Trained Counsellor, she founded Into The Light CIC a counselling and support project for Survivors of Sexual Abuse. She has also written many articles on recovering from sexual abuse and a Self Help Book for Survivors called New Shoes.
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