A challenge that complicates the journey towards a godly response to abuse is the mass of popular literature which counsels victims from a feelings-centered position. Much of the literature available focuses on self-protection, rather than holiness, as a primary goal. For example, in their book Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend make it clear that their ultimate goal is to help victims of abuse regain control of their lives by creating boundaries. They write, “Just as homeowners set physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.”
Cloud and Townsend are correct in wanting to help their counselees prevent any future abuse. Practically speaking, they seek to help their counselees avoid the ungodly response of becoming a functional doormat. Establishing boundaries that past abusers cannot cross in order to prevent future abuse is a necessary step of discernment for the victim of abuse, and Boundaries does seek to help its readers develop that discernment.
However, the problem with the counsel given in Boundaries is that it starts from a victim-centered approach. In other words, the basis laid out for discerning proper boundaries starts with the emotions of the victim and what the victim thinks he or she can handle or should have to handle. But rather than asking how much we feel we can handle, we should ask, “What does God require of me in this situation?” The approach of Cloud and Townsend could inadvertently direct a person to think that he or she should seek to avoid all difficult circumstances. Avoiding all difficulty could in fact prevent a victim from growing in wisdom in the midst of a trying circumstance (James 1:2–8), or from caring more about God’s commands than personal comfort.
In contrast to what Boundaries calls the victim to avoid, James actually calls his readers to face difficult experiences with joy (James 1:2). He tells his readers to see difficulties as times when their faith in God is being tested, and he goes on to say that as a consequence they will grow in patience and wisdom (James 1:3–5). Applying this principle to your own life as a Christian victim of abuse will undoubtedly be challenging, but it should also be encouraging as you learn that God has a good purpose for you in your trials. In other words, God will not let the abuse that you suffered go to waste, but will use it for your good (Romans 8:28–29).
An additional problem that you will face by simply establishing boundaries in your relationship with your formerly abusive parents is that this response fails to reflect the gospel. The gospel calls us as Christians to move towards our enemies with love, forgiveness, and truth, while Boundaries begins with a self-protective premise. While it is important that abuse not be condoned or allowed to continue, your ultimate goal should be to honor the God of reconciliation by seeking reconciliation with your parents, just as Christ sought reconciliation with his enemies (Romans 5:6–11). Boundaries seems to focus more on what is comfortable for the victim of abuse, rather than calling the Christian towards holiness in the midst of significant suffering.
Many counseling systems start with the philosophy of reclaiming what is rightfully yours and regaining control of your own life, which you believe was taken by your abuser. This approach is born out of the objective to forbid any additional abuse. While this objective is appropriate, if it becomes your sole focus you will become primarily concerned with self, personal comfort, and total control. You will ultimately lack a God-centered worldview in regards to the abuse that you experienced, and you will also lack a heart of reconciliation towards your abusers. This man-centered premise does not reflect the call of the Scriptures: Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31–32). Neither does it reflects Jesus’ teaching when he stated, But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27–28)
As painful as it is to begin to think about loving or blessing those who hurt you, as you look to Jesus’ response to his abusers, you can find strength to love as he loved.
[This post is an excerpt from the new mini-book, HELP! My Parents Abused Me when I was a Kid.]