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The Godly Art of Child Abuse

In retrospect it is rather obvious, but while I was there the cataract of denial was too great: the natural product of an abusive religion is an abusive household.

And it hurts. It hurt not only me, but my parents, too. They got it from both sides: being the victims and the perpetrators. The questions that came to me so often were, “Where did this come from? Why is this happening to me?” The answer is more than just, “Well, in their anger they were a little too severe.” The answer is more than, “It’s been in the family for years.” It reaches further than that. This little piece of hell reaches clear to heaven.

This notion, first realized, was more frightening than anything I received at the hands of my parents. The God who loved me enough to die for me is really the one most responsible for my abuse? Yes, most certainly. My Southern Fundamentalist family, in a desire to please our God, was only trying to follow his example. It’s the example we were taught all our lives and admonished to obey.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother, which is the first commandment with a promise, that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth. And fathers … bring them up in the discipline of the Lord. (Ephesians 6.1-4)

One of the earliest Biblical references to God as our Father is in Deuteronomy 32.6: “Is He not your Father who has bought you? He has made you and established you.” (We’ll overlook the ‘bought’ portion of this phrase, though it is perhaps the most insightful word in the verse.) As this chapter continues, we are given a very detailed look at how he views his role as Father. Poetic descriptions are given for how he had rescued Israel:

He found him in a desert land

… [and] cared for him

… [and] guarded him.

Like an eagle that hovers over its young, He spread His wings and carried them on his pinions. (Deuteronomy 32.10-11)

This great care is further illustrated by the smorgasbord detailed in the following verses, where we see that Israel was treated to the best the world could offer. Or so we are asked to believe. At this point they had been wandering in the desert for 40 years eating quail and manna. Hardly a gourmand’s delight.

This view of God is what we hear the most from his followers–they tell of his care for them, how He saved them, how great things are theirs because of him. We hear little of the middle section of Deuteronomy 32. In great detail, God lists what he will do to Israel if they forsake him. Behold the discipline of the Lord:

I will heap misfortune on them, I will use My arrows on them:

They shall be wasted by famine and consumed by the plague and bitter destruction.

The teeth of beasts I will send upon them, with the venom of crawling [serpents].

Outside the sword shall bereave, but inside terror…. (Deuteronomy 32.23-25)

Terror, inside. It is one of the tools used by abusers to extend their power and control. Cripple the victim with fear and they won’t report what has happened, they won’t leave, they won’t confide in a friend, they won’t resist. The terror of what might happen next will immobilize them.

Deuteronomy 32 continues, where we find that even Jehovah has his limits:

I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces and remove the memory of them from men,” had I not feared the provocation by the enemy, lest their adversaries should misjudge, lest they should say, “Our hand is triumphant, and the Lord has not done all this.” (Deuteronomy 32.27)

This is the most chilling part of all: He would be willing to kill them were he not afraid of what the neighbors might think. And notice what he’s afraid they’ll think: not that he was a bad father, not that he might be held accountable for his crime, but that others might consider him weak and ineffective. His only thought is for himself and the image he projects of being strong, powerful, and in control. This mirage of power is frighteningly echoed in Deuteronomy 32.39: “… there is no one who can deliver from My hand.”

Accountability is not one of the things he fears. It’s one thing most domestic violence perpetrators never have to worry about.

Leviticus 26 offers similar blessings and threats. Were the children to remain obedient, they would receive peace in their land, fertile soil, victory over their enemies, godly removal of all harmful beasts, and best of all, “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” He then reminds them of how he saved them. He does this repeatedly in the Old Testament, lest they forget the extreme debt they owe.

“But if you do not obey me,” he warns, “I will appoint over you a sudden terror, consumption and fever that shall waste away the eyes and cause the soul to pine away.” This is only the beginning: He threatens them with over 40 punishments from verse 16 to 39, ranging from pestilence to war to cannibalism. When he’s finished, he declares, they will fear even the sound of a rustling leaf.

This, then, is the image he presents of himself as their father, in the early days of the relationship when you’d expect everything to be butterflies and buttercups. If we look at his ensuing actions, we’d have to give him credit for actually following through on his threats. As least he wasn’t a liar. He raised his sword against his children time and time again, he abandoned them, he sent them into slavery, he brought them back out and started the whole cycle over again.

But there are more subtle things he does as well. He controls their daily activities down to defecation and nightly discharges. He exiles people for natural healthy bodily functions. They have to cut their hair a certain way and dress particularly. Their diet is strictly prescribed. They cannot mingle too much with the outside world. Though he demands their faithfulness in these minute details, he informs them that their compliance is like filthy rags to him.[1]

Domestic violence is about power and control. It’s about manipulation, intimidation, humiliation. It’s about emotional abuse, isolation, denying, blaming the victim, coercion, threats. It’s a wicked set of tools, and the God of the Bible uses them skillfully.

Some among the faithful would object to my characterizing God in this way. They’d make claims that this is the Old Testament image of God, and that the New Testament presents a kinder deity.

Does it, really?

A quick comparison of Jesus’ New Testament statements with Jehovah’s Old Testament vows shows quite the opposite.

  • Jehovah states that he will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, down to the third or fourth generation,[2] while Jesus brings it all the way up to the generation he visited.[3]
  • Jehovah sanctioned stoning as a punishment for some sins,[4] while Jesus prescribes an eternal burning hell for all sins.[5] Stoning, though unforgivably violent and brutal, is at least temporary.
  • Jehovah’s threats of punishment were directed primarily against his own people, as we see in the examples above. Jesus, however, expands his curse of hell to the entire world of nonbelievers.[6]
  • Jehovah destroyed the ‘sinners’ of Sodom and Gomorrah with a rain of fire and brimstone.[7] Jesus threatens to make the fate of some cities even worse.[8]
  • Jesus’ promises of good things also exceed those of Jehovah. Whereas the former God promised peace and fertile soil, the New Testament God promises eternal riches. The stakes are higher, the manipulation greater, the costs more dear. In an interesting twist, avarice is now used as motivation.

This comparison of these two images is important, for two key reasons. First, it is the New Testament under which Christians operate. That is, it provides the context for their belief and actions. It dictates how they live their lives and how they treat people. Secondly, the delusion of a more gentle God being presented in the New Testament only worsens matters. It increases the extent of our denial, and it further skews the justification offered for the punishment administered.

What is the justification that is offered, in either Testament? Love. “I am hurting you because I love you.” That is one of the most frightening things a person can ever hear. Yet it is the ultimate reason given, repeatedly, for why God treats his children so harshly. Two similar passages from the Testaments illustrate this plainly.

My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord, nor loathe his reproof, for whom the Lord loves he reproves, even as a father [does] the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3.11-12)

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives. It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? (Hebrews 12.5-7)

The word “discipline” is used in these verses, and it could be argued that discipline itself is not abuse. That point is valid until we consider how God defines discipline. We quoted from Deuteronomy earlier, to illustrate the terror-based abuse Jehovah laid upon his children. In an earlier verse, he draws a very disturbing comparison:

Thus you are to know in your heart that the Lord your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son. (Deuteronomy 8.5)

He set it up perfectly. He obtained their agreement early: “I’m only treating you like any good father would, right?” Then he terrorized them with abuse that has never been equaled. Through their fear they proclaimed their love for him, and promised to do better next time so he wouldn’t be forced to beat them.

The verse quoted from Hebrews above is apparently an echo of the sentiment in Proverbs 3.11-12. But note how this latter writer has expanded upon the concept of discipline-equals-love. He adds: “He scourges every son whom He receives.” The writer then makes it all sound very logical and acceptable: “What father doesn’t do the same for a beloved son?” How can you argue with that?

As if this first justification isn’t bad enough, a secondary reason is often appended: “You provoked me.” Look again at our chief reference, Deuteronomy 32. Throughout this tirade the people are reminded, repeatedly, that they have provoked Jehovah. It’s not his fault, it is their fault. They made him do it.

This same principle is the undercurrent in Leviticus 26. By disobeying Jehovah’s commands, they have acted “with hostility” towards him, thereby leaving him no choice but to do the same.

A casual reading of the Old Testament–if such a thing is possible–reveals this time and time again. The people repeatedly provoke him to kill them, whether it be for building a tower,[9] making an idol out of gold,[10] or for doing what he himself provoked them to do.[11] They are the ones at fault. He’s only trying to be a good father.

A third, almost unspoken motivation is that it is “for the greater good.” Attach a Noble Cause, and it becomes justifiable, approved, encouraged.

We are disciplined by the Lord in order that we may not be condemned with the rest of the world. (I Corinthians 11.32)

He disciplines us for our good, that we might share His holiness. (Hebrews 12.10)

This forms the subtle and sinister core of the Fifth Commandment:

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.[12] (Exodus 20.12)

“That your days may be prolonged….” This phrase was always a bit mysterious to me, until one day my own father deciphered it for me. It’s a clever statement, cloaking a very negative thing in a very positive manner.

Perhaps a better rendering is, “Honor your father and mother, so you will not be killed.”

That’s the promise Paul spoke about in our earlier quote from the Letter to the Ephesians.

If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city … and they shall say to the elders of his city, “this son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear. (Deuteronomy 21.18-21)

The Noble Cause in this Commandment is that the child might live. Notice how even the phrasing of the commandment sounds as if it is a favor: “… that your days may be prolonged.” Not being killed is now a reason for a child to rejoice. Any discipline administered up to this point, however harsh, can now be excused. The parent was only trying to keep its child alive. As the supreme father himself has demonstrated, anything is allowable: beating, starvation, disease, terror, sword, stone.

This notion of the greater good extends beyond the rebellious son. Notice the last portion of the above-quoted verse from Deuteronomy: “… so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear.”

It’s not enough to save this one child. We must now save all of Israel. The child is a threat to the nation, therefore we must make an example of him. We must kill him, publicly, so all will see and fear. The reign of terror continues.

One of the most disturbing examples of this is found in Joshua chapter 7. We find a soldier by the name of Achan, who hid some contraband items in his tent following the destruction of Jericho. Joshua secured his confession, then did as the Lord instructed him. Achan and all his possessions–wife and children included–were stoned to death and burned. The innocent along with the guilty. One can only wonder at the necessity of killing the children, of abusing the entire family for the sin of their father. But then it comes to us: “I will visit the iniquity of the father upon the children.” “All Israel shall hear of it and fear.” Joshua took “all Israel” with him to mete out this punishment. It was for the greater good. It was done because God loved Israel and only wanted the best for them. He helped them remove the evil from their midst. He prolonged their days upon the earth.

I remember one Sunday ten years ago. I had attended a church service at the request of my son. The preacher at this church always began the service by telling a Bible story to the children. He’d call them up to the front, sit closely with them, use a storyboard to illustrate, and enrapture them with tales of great biblical heroes or Jesus’ miracles. This particular morning, however, he chose to tell them the story of Achan.

I listened, appalled. He cheerfully and engagingly told them this story wherein children were punished for something they’d not done. Not only punished, but brutally killed. Murdered. For the greater good. Because God loved Israel. Because someone else was so wicked that they provoked Jehovah.

No one in the congregation that Sunday raised a finger at this story. No one objected. They had all, long ago, consented that it was good. It must have been good, because God did it. There was no questioning it. We only needed to accept it as being good and if it were beyond our understanding, then we must trust God and his purpose. He loves us and everything he does is for our greater good. Besides, his power is too great to defy. He is in control. It is our lot to obey.

This is painfully reinforced by the New Testament. As I mentioned earlier, the stakes are higher now. Old Testament stoning was immediate and short-lived. But sinners are now faced with an eternal hell, promised by Jesus to all who transgress. A loving parent would do anything to keep their child from that fate. The examples before us teach us that even extreme discipline is acceptable. “If I don’t discipline my children properly and keep them in control, their souls might be lost!” “Raise your children in the discipline of the Lord.” “… whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son….” It has now become okay to hit a child in order to save his or her soul. That’s enough to scare the hell out of anyone. It’s a reign of terror from the Lord of Hosts all the way down to the lord of the house.

The story of Achan, and others in the Old Testament, brings up another painful aspect of domestic violence: The perpetrator is rarely held accountable for their actions.

God gets away with it every time. Never is he confronted for his abuses. His power over the people grants him immunity. Who would dare even accuse him? To do so would require universal solidarity, and there’s no way you can obtain that. In an abusive household, the children are divided and therefore weakened, and the same is true among Jehovah’s children. We see them continually at odds with each other. The only time they work together is when He directs them against an outside enemy. But that unity doesn’t last for long, for someone gets greedy or a little independent and then all the others have to deliver the punishment handed down by the Father. And as they watch, they are filled with terror that it might happen to them. They are disabled by fear and never raise a finger about what is being done.

On that Sunday morning it was happening again, before my eyes. Everyone in the congregation was convinced that what was done was good and holy and loving and beneficial to all mankind in the long run. Heaven forbid anyone be so bold as to question it. “Our God is a consuming fire,” the Scriptures tell us.[13] That should evoke a little godly fear into anyone, so much so that they’ll never have the courage to question the abuse that they are experiencing or witnessing. But I did question it. I remember my hand shaking as I wrote in my journal:

Perhaps this is why they crucified Jesus. God had been killing their innocent children for centuries, and now they saw their chance to get even.

Accountability. Finally delivered. It wasn’t the people’s sins that nailed Jesus to the cross. It was his own.

The only problem is that the abuse didn’t go away. It was immortalized. It is now accepted by the church, and even practiced in some. Once sanctioned by the church, it becomes accepted in the home. The model of good that is continually held up before us is as wrong as it can be in the eyes of rational human beings. But faith can overcome rationale and accept anything.

Domestic violence, it is widely acknowledged, is severely underreported. The victims are too shattered to be able to talk about it, too disabled by it to rebel, too ashamed by it to admit it is happening, too divided to organize against it. We’re afraid some fault will be found with us, some justification will send us back in to get another dose. We’re told repeatedly that we are loved–though undeservedly so–and that it’s only for our own good and if we’d just cooperate or help the perpetrator get past his or her own troubles, we’d all be better off. There’s always a big glorious payoff if we’d just behave and not provoke him or her to hit us again.

In bitter truth-is-stranger-than-fiction fashion, domestic violence is reported over and over again in the Bible. And it is presented as holy. It’s hard to overcome such momentum.

Add to this the fact that the Bible never addresses domestic violence as a problem. Even in the New Testament, wives are admonished to be subject to their husbands, children to their parents. The worthiness of the husband or father or mother are never questioned. The parents are told to not spare the rod, but instead to beat the child with it, being assured that “he will not die”.[14] Be a father like your heavenly Father. The momentum continues.

As the parents are saving their children from a burning hell, the church watches. What is there for them to do? It’s not the church’s job to raise the children. Much like society-at-large, they don’t want to overstep their bounds. They don’t want to get involved. And besides, the parents are just doing what the Lord has commanded them to do. Souls are at stake and severe actions are warranted. If those children would just obey, their parents wouldn’t be so hard on them. And who knows how many in the congregation have been there, or are there, themselves? The train keeps a-rolling.

Is it possible to overcome all this inertia?

Yes. But not while in the fold. There is no room in there for a questioning voice, a dissenting spirit. There isn’t even any consolation in there. Search the Scriptures and all you can find is, “honor your parents so your days may be prolonged.” That’s the size of the Lord’s House. No room for any questions. No grievances heard.

There’s not even an advocate for a child within the church. The Scriptures provide them nothing other than the mantra it repeats over and over again: “Children, honor and obey your parents.” There is no comfort offered, no remedy given. The parents, on the other hand, do have comfort and remedy. They are comforted by knowing God approves of their actions and that he’s granted them immunity as along as they emulate him. As far as remedy, well, anything short of death might be employed.

So where are the children to go? In the Old Testament, Jehovah was very plain about who the Israelites belonged to: “I am your God, and you shall have no other,” he says repeatedly. When they tried to go to another, he hunted them down and killed them. They had no where to run, no where to hide. He could find them anywhere. They were fully dependent upon him, subject to him, and lived at his convenience.

In the New Testament, we hear Jesus’ voice saying, “I am the way and there is no other. If you don’t believe in me, you will be damned.”[15] Once again, we have no where to run, no other path to take. Our eternal fate is dependent upon him and his good nature.

In abusive households, this trickles down to the abused children or spouse. “No one else will have you,” they may hear. The idea that they are weak or unworthy or unlovable elsewhere has been driven into them, making them fully dependent upon the abuser, living at their convenience and good will. There’s no room in such a house for a dissenting voice, no advocate, no comfort, no remedy. The only way out is to take a leap of faith greater than any that the Lord ever required. It takes more strength than heaven can offer.

It takes courage to leave. But leaving alone isn’t enough. Until the perpetrator is confronted and held accountable, the abuse will remain. Even if the victim is removed from the abuser’s vicinity, the crippling fear will continue. You can’t mask it, you can’t medicate it, you can rationalize it away with heroic denial. You must face it. You must return to face your abuser, perhaps even your God, with strength and conviction and honesty and fearlessness and faith like is never taught in Sunday School. You must look them in the eyes and call them a liar and a thief. You must reclaim what they stole from you. You must not let them excuse it or explain it away. They must answer for their actions. And they must know, by your standing in front of them, that they can never hurt you again.

Only then can you become whole and find peace. Only then is your life your own, not subject to the terror and blows of another. This is the true Noble Cause.

I was able to reclaim my life. This is not a boast; it is said with all the thanks my soul can muster. Am I stronger than those before me? No, I can’t say that I am. That’s an impossible thing to measure. But I do know this: This plague has been in my family for generations. I know how this disease consumes people, how it terrorizes them inside, regardless of which side they’re on. Most of the children have received it only to pass it on again once they are parents. Being on both sides of this sickness must be the true definition of hell.

I have to believe that each person before me has fought it in their own way. It is the strength of all those generations that has kept us alive. All the willpower of all those children and parents and victims and inwardly torn perpetrators has culminated in me. It is their strength and willpower and endurance that I have been able to draw upon. It is because of them, and for them, that I have broken free.

Just as I have drawn on the strength of those before me, I have learned from them as well. I’ve learned, for one thing, who the real heroes are in those old Bible stories. The heroes are those who never buckled under, who never gave up, who were able to withstand every ounce and pound and metric ton of abuse thrown at them. The heroes are the ones who collectively survived, long enough to break free from the tyrant who imprisoned them with fear. It still sounds a bit bold and fearful to say it, but the heroes are the ones who secured the Final Accountability. Their willpower was far greater than that ever possessed by any god.

In my own family, stretching back over who-knows-how-many generations, I see the same. I see the will of the children surviving. I see the strength of the victims overcoming the terror of the abusers. I see the struggles as their positions shifted from that of bewildered abused to that of shocked abuser. I’ve seen us all try to find balance between what we know we should be versus the example we were scripturally and culturally admonished to follow. But one cannot serve two masters. He must cling to one, and forsake the other. I am willing to risk the plagues that Deuteronomy prescribes for one who forsakes God. I have much more strength than he can penetrate with his arrows.

I am the last of the line, I hope. My parents are the last to play the double role. I have raised a standard in the wilderness, like Moses’ brass serpent, and the plague has ended[16].

Where there’s life there’s hope, we often say. My parents and I have reconciled, and thankfully no one died in the process. My god and I won’t be as fortunate. He died a long time ago, having been held accountable for his actions.


[1] Isaiah 64:6

[2] Exodus 20:5, repeated in numerous other OT passages

[3] Luke 11:49-51

[4] Numbers 15:32-36; Leviticus 24:10-16

[5] Mark 3:28-29; Matthew 10:28; Luke 16:19-31

[6] Mark 16:16

[7] Genesis 19:24-25

[8] Matthew 11:20-24

[9] Genesis 11:1-9

[10] Exodus 32:1-10. It is interesting to note that here Jehovah refers to the Israelites as Moses’ people, whom Moses brought out of Egypt. Somehow it’s Moses’ fault now.

[11] 2 Samuel 24: 1-16

[12] Exodus 20:12. While compiling the Scriptural references for this article, I stumbled upon an amusing but significant item: The Ten Commandments are divided and numbered differently among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. It seems that even the most basic of doctrines is subject to dispute.

[13] Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29

[14] Proverbs 23:13

[15] John 14:6; Mark 16:16

[16] Numbers 21:8-9