How could God have allowed this to happen to me?
Wendy1 was born to a drug-addicted mother. She was rescued from a roach-infested closet by her grandparents when she was too young to remember—her mother had gone out and locked her inside. From then on, her mother drifted in and out of her life. Whenever Wendy lived with her mother, she was often dirty, underfed, and forced to live in squalor. She was also subject to her mother’s volatile moods and blamed herself for the resultant beatings. As she grew older, she experienced abuse not only from her mother but also a string of her mother’s boyfriends who lived with them. She was kept out of school whenever her bruises were too visible, and eventually her mother forbade her to go to school at all.
At 15, she was rescued once again by her grandparents, this time for good. At that point, Wendy had been so starved that it had delayed her puberty, and she flinched whenever anyone tried to touch her because her abuse had been so severe and unrelenting. Although Wendy had been separated from her abusers, she was left with physical, mental, and spiritual scars. Her grandparents had introduced her to Jesus when she was younger, but how could a loving God see her being abused and let it continue?
Child Abuse Is an Attack on God’s Design for the Family
April is National Child Abuse Awareness month. Of all the dysfunctions that happen in human relationships in the fallen world, child abuse is one of the worst because it victimizes the most innocent and vulnerable among us—often by the very people who are supposed to keep them safe—and the effects often last a lifetime for all involved. Christians should be prepared not only to report abuse when they become aware of it but also to respond to the issue in a biblical light. Tragically, it is statistically likely you know someone who has been a victim or perpetrator of this abuse.
In order to respond to abuse, we must be able to recognize it. Neglect is the most common form of child abuse—the failure to provide for the child’s basic needs such that the child’s wellbeing and safety is threatened. Physical abuse is inflicting any intentional injury to a child.2 Abuse can also be emotional, such that the child becomes anxious, depressed, withdrawn, or aggressive. Perhaps the most horrific type of child abuse is sexual.3
None of these forms of abuse were part of God’s design for the family. God created human beings to “be fruitful and multiply” within the setting of a family headed by a married father and mother. God’s first command to Adam and Eve was, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Even after the fall, children are presented as unmitigated blessings. In God’s curse on the serpent, it is Eve’s children, and one descendant in particular, that will wage war against the serpent and his offspring, even though childbirth would be painful and dangerous for the mother from then on (Genesis 3:15–16). Nowhere is a child described as a curse, a consequence of sin, or an inherently bad thing.
When sin causes someone to harm children in their care, it is seen as especially heinous. Sacrificing children to Molech is forbidden multiple times and in the strongest terms as something especially offensive to God himself (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2–5; Jeremiah 32:35). When Ahaz sacrificed his own son, it was not only an abomination, but indicative of the dire spiritual state of the entire nation (2 Kings 16:2–3).
The Bible doesn’t use the words “child abuse,” but that doesn’t mean Scripture is silent.
The Bible doesn’t use the words “child abuse,” but that doesn’t mean Scripture is silent. Scripture condemns people given to anger and wrath (Proverbs 22:24–25, 29:22; Ecclesiastes 7:9). The New Testament qualifications for pastors include being self-controlled and gentle, not violent (1 Timothy 3:1–7). The apostle Paul exhorts, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21). Elsewhere, he says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). When the disciples tried to keep parents from bringing their children to Jesus, he rebuked them and welcomed the children and blessed them (Luke 18:15–17). Given the overall biblical exhortations to be sober, self-controlled, gentle, and loving, child abuse could not be more antithetical to the disposition God calls us to have as believers.
Child Abuse in a Fallen World
Child abuse is a sin as well as a crime, so it is important that the church be prepared to respond. Anyone who becomes aware of a situation they believe may be abusive has a moral obligation to report this abuse to the relevant authorities. People in certain positions, like teachers, doctors, nurses, or social workers, may have a legal obligation to report as well. Sometimes people feel hesitant to report a situation for various reasons, but the systems in place, though imperfect, exist to protect children and even save their lives.
How to Minister to Survivors
Statistically speaking, any sufficiently large church has survivors of child abuse, and if you are engaged in evangelism or just “loving your neighbor,” you are sure to come across them as you live out your faith. While every survivor is different, often survivors have particular difficulties that we need to be ready to navigate.
A victim of child abuse has been harmed by someone bigger and more powerful than them. Especially if they had a male abuser, they may have difficulty relating to God as Father initially because of their abusive earthly father figures. They may have difficulty with the idea of an all-powerful God who didn’t come in to rescue them from their abuse. They also may be very defensive and closed off to relationships with other people because their formative relationships were so terrible.
All of these aspects were true for Wendy. In her case, a friend invited her to a youth group event, which gradually led to her attending that church. Certain families in the church took an interest in Wendy, buying her clothes and inviting her on outings with their families. She began to see positive family dynamics, and through the kindness of the church over months, her heart began to open to the gospel. The church paid for her to go to youth camp, where she became aware of her need for salvation and gave her heart to Jesus. The church’s job did not end there; over a period of years the church ministered to her and counseled her to help her heal from her past abuse and to live in the newness of life Christ gives (Romans 6:4).
The purpose of Child Abuse Awareness Month is to make us stop living our lives in ignorance of the plight of others. As believers, we need to take it a step further. When we are aware of potential abuse, we must do what we can to intercede on the victims’ behalf to stop the abuse. But we also need to be aware that even when the abuse stops, these families and individuals are changed forever; they may need help recovering in everything from physical and developmental deficits to mental health and intimacy issues. While social work and medical care can help with many of these needs, a loving, praying Christian friend can show these families and individuals the ultimate cure.
While social work and medical care can help with many of these needs, a loving, praying Christian friend can show these families and individuals the ultimate cure.
Jesus Christ created us, knows our needs, and lived and suffered among us. Hurting people need to know that Jesus also suffered for the very same reason that abuse still happens today: sin. The world is groaning due to the sin of people and their rejection of God’s very good plans for humanity (Romans 8:21–23). This God of the Bible—far from the false gods of other religions—cares so much, he stepped into the world to suffer and die himself to do something about it. Jesus, the last Adam, conquered sin and death when he rose from the dead and will one day restore everything that the first Adam broke (Genesis 3; 1 Corinthians 15:20–28). He now offers hope, healing, and an eternal family with a Father who is perfect love.