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Hermeneutics for Spiritual Abuse Healing
If anything can be said of the New Testament church with confidence, it’s that they interpreted their present experience in the drama of prior revelation. I recently wrote a lengthy newsletter demonstrating this by weaving my own experience of spiritual abuse into the narrative of ch. 9 of the Gospel of John. Such reading has been a source of great comfort for me. If you have endured spiritual abuse, or if you help survivors, I hope to encourage you to likewise see yourself in the gospel story. Not generally, but specifically, as those who share in the religious abuse sufferings of Christ. But first, let’s lay some groundwork for a hermeneutic that comforts those healing from spiritual abuse.
Christ’s apostles, under the inspired direction of the Holy Spirit, continually pointed the early Christians back to God’s Word to understand what they were facing in the present. For example, Paul asked the Christians in Rome, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (Romans 8:35). And before answering, he quotes from Psalm 44:22 to interpret the Christians’ experience of suffering: “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered’” (Romans 8:36).
Paul later explains this way of reading Scripture in Romans 15:4,
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
I think this kind of experience-interpreted-by-Scripture comes naturally for what we might call “worldly suffering”: evil and injustice dealt by the hands of nature and the unbelieving world. For example, as a young Christian I remember hearing Jesus’ words in John 15:18-19 framed as comfort in the face of persecution for following Christ:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
But what about when evil and injustice is dealt by the hands of other Christians? Can that experience be interpreted by God’s Word? Or is it an anomaly, an outlier, something unaccounted for and thus untethered to the consolation of Scripture?
These are not casual, unimportant questions. With the rising incidence and awareness of spiritual abuse and religious trauma—harm inflicted by God’s representatives, in the name of God, in the context of the communion of the saints—knowing whether and how God has spoken into that trauma is essential for healing.
To answer this, consider with me just a few examples from the Gospel of John which apply the Old Testament to the story of Jesus and his followers.
Shortly after Jesus’ statements in John 15 about expecting hatred from the world, he gets more specific:
“I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” (John 16:1-2)
Margaret Davies believes this could be an allusion to Isaiah 66:5:
Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at his word: “Your brothers who hate you and cast you out for my name’s sake have said, ‘Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy’; but it is they who shall be put to shame.
This inter-testamental context helps us understand what Jesus/John means by “the world.”1 We must resist our impulse to think spatially, because the meaning is spiritual. It can refer to those without as well as those within the people of God. Indeed, Isaiah says “your brothers who hate you and cast you out.” Jesus says “the world hates you, and they will put you out of the synagogues.” I’m sensitive to the potential for pride in presuming brothers and sisters in the faith are in fact members of the world. But Jesus tells his disciples what to expect beforehand “to keep you from falling away” (John 16:1). And what he tells them to expect is not mistreatment from the outside world, but from worldly leaders within their own community.
In fact, Jesus said this on the basis of his own experience as interpreted by prior revelation. At the beginning of the farewell discourse of John 13-16 Jesus reveals his coming betrayal by one of the twelve. In John 13:18 Jesus says, “I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’” The Scripture being fulfilled is Ps 41:9:
“Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.”
We Christians are familiar with seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of a Davidic psalm. Jesus truly saw Judas as his friend, one appointed to shepherd the flock of God. Not just a friend, but one he loved “to the end” (John 13:1), washing the very heel that would later be lifted against him. And he saw Judas’ betrayal through the lens of David’s experience of betrayal by an intimate friend.2
Can we extend that psalmic identification to followers of Christ? Alicia Myers offers that interpretation in her dissertation Characterizing Jesus: A Rhetorical Analysis on the Fourth Gospel’s Use of Scripture in its Presentation of Jesus. What follows is a lengthier quote, but worth reading in full. She is commenting on John 15:25 where Jesus says “But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’”
In this scene, Jesus again places himself as the speaker of a Psalm, drawing on the passage to characterize his own future suffering and that of his disciples…Jesus’ choice to suffer encourages his audience to do likewise. By aligning their own suffering with that of Jesus and with the Scripture passage he quotes in v. 25 [probably Psalm 69:43], the evangelist succeeds in establishing Jesus and his followers in the scriptural narrative. Moreover, the fulfillment of Scripture by the world through its persecution of Jesus’ disciples parallels Judas’ fulfillment of Psalm 41(40) with his betrayal of Jesus. In this way, the evangelist creates a synkrisis [comparative connection] between Judas and the world, highlighting their similarity to complement the similarity between Jesus and his disciples. Such a move further solidifies the intimacy between Jesus and the Gospel audience, who is meant to identify with Jesus in their own suffering, and therefore, participate in the fulfillment of Scripture foretold by him.4
That is my argument for this newsletter in an academic nutshell. Christians, as disciples of the Good Shepherd, inhabit the same biblically scripted story as their Shepherd. The world hated Jesus. The world will hate Jesus’ followers, too. Intimate friends of the faith betrayed Jesus. Intimate friends of the faith will betray Jesus’ followers, too. Only in our day, they do it in the name of Jesus.
Stories abound of sheep being killed on the altar of church power. Pastors and elders “think [they are] offering service to God” when they fire whistleblowers, abuse and blame survivors, and excommunicate pastors who raise their shepherds crook against the wolves in their midst. Jesus tells us that all of this will happen:
“I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.” (John 16:1)
He wants us to know beforehand, wants us to be settled into his sovereign victory over spiritual abuse and pastoral betrayal. Those who have been harmed by and in the church can identify their trauma with Jesus’ own wounds at the hands of his friends and religious leaders. For it is by his wounds that we are healed.
Quote from Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J.
“Jesus suffered like all of humanity, yet He gives far more than an example of heroic perseverance. Rather, His suffering has a power to redeem believers from sin and to heal those who connect their own pain and suffering to his…Based on these teachings [about suffering with Jesus, eg Luke 14:27, Gal. 5:24, 1 Pet. 4:1], disciples of Jesus find power, meaning and purpose in the sufferings of jesus Christ as well as in their own pain, whether it is due to the accidents of life or to the suffering imposed on them by the sin of others. This does not preclude the possibility—indeed, the necessity—of doing all in one’s power to end injustice and its consequences, as well as the suffering that simply comes from sickness, natural catastrophes, and other inevitable sources of human pain and grief. Still, until all suffering is ended, ultimately in heaven, those who endure in pain and agony can find meaning and power in it by considering the suffering and death of Jesus in faith, and then uniting their personal suffering with His…The strength that results from Christ’s healing will do more than merely aid victims to cope with life, their anger, and other forms of pain. Those who recognize their own biographies in Jesus Christ’s pain will know Him as the Redeemer who brings them salvation.”5
Wheat and Tares: Restoring the Moral Vision of a Scandalized Church, by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J. While this book is specifically written for those within the Roman Catholic Church, and while I’m cautious because I haven’t read it cover to cover, Fr. Pacwa has very helpfully meditated on stories from the Gospels and connected them to the experience of abuse survivors.
Are you finding yourself in Scripture? If you are a spiritual abuse survivor, how does it feel to imagine your suffering as sharing in the suffering of Jesus? It’s ok if your first reaction (or 2nd or 3d) is not immediately a positive one. Would you be willing to pray for help from the Spirit in connecting to this story? For Jesus promised that the Spirit would “take what is mine,” even including Jesus’ experience of spiritual harm and betrayal, “and declare it to you” (John 16:14).
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“κόσμος in John most often refers to the human world, and the word takes on negative connotations because this world sees itself as independent instead of acknowledging its reliance on God.…[I]n the Fourth Gospel, 'to be of the world' is contrasted with 'to be of God' (15.18-19), 'to be of the world' is to seek honour from fellow human beings instead of from God (7.18; 12.42-43).
Margaret Davies, Rhetoric and Reference in the Fourth Gospel (Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), p. 155.
There is a long tradition from Jewish interpretation that sees the betrayal of Ahitophel, David’s counselor, in 2 Samuel 15 as the historical context of Psalm 41. There are further echoes of 2 Samuel 15 in John 18:1 where Jesus “went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron”, the same brook that David crossed in 2 Samuel 15:23. Shortly after crossing the Kidron David expresses surrender to God in a clear foreshadowing of Jesus’ “not my will but yours be done” (which John’s Gospel omits): “Carry the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the eyes of the LORD, he will bring me back and let me see both it and his dwelling place. But if he says, ‘I have no pleasure in you,’ behold, here I am, let him do to me what seems good to him,” (2 Samuel 15:25-26).
Cf Trevor Laurence, Cursing with God, p. 202-203.
Alicia Myers, Characterizing Jesus: A Rhetorical Analysis on the Fourth Gospel’s Use of Scripture in its Presentation of Jesus, p. 177, 178.
Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J., Wheat and Tares: Restoring the Moral Vision of a Scandalized Church (Irondale, AL: EWTN Publishing, 2020), p. 78-79.