You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones, ‘You shall not murder’ and ‘Whoever shall murder shall be in danger of the judgment.’ But I tell you, that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna. If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are with him in the way; lest perhaps the prosecutor deliver you to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. Most assuredly I tell you, you shall by no means get out of there, until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:21-26 World English Bible)
To introduce this message I want to share with you some stories I found in researching today’s topic, from Christians who have dealt with it. A number of these quotes come from the Hidden Hurt website.
My meeting with Paul was really just a typical ‘boy-meets-girl beginning. I was an eighteen year old single mother. Initially, there was no attraction for him, but I developed one. He was good looking and very funny. He moved in with me.
I didn’t know what early warning signs were at the time, but boy, if I had known then what I know now! He was overweening at first, courted me with roses, charm and passion. But he was terribly possessive, and didn’t like me talking to other men, and had a sort of strutting, stereotypical masculinity. He could be very crude about women at times, and I found myself constantly justifying him to family and friends.
The violence started, as I now know it does, with name calling, which graduated to pushing and hair pulling. It eventually became violent battery. I was ashamed, and covered the bruises. I feared him, but I also pitied him. I didn’t know that he used his story of a terrible childhood to manipulate me. All I saw was an abandoned child.
… I believed I deserved it. Many friends left me because I would not leave him. Desperate to hang on to the few I had left, I started to lie and say he was not hurting me, that he’d changed. In six months, I was not the young woman he’d met. Life depended on keeping him happy so he wouldn’t hurt me.
At first, I believed him when he said he was sorry, and that he would change. I started to not believe it after a while. But by that time, I was terrified. I fully believed he was capable of killing me (he did go on to murder a male).
The sexual violence seemed to utterly despoil all my fantasies of loving and being loved. He would sometimes tell me I was a stupid, prudish bitch who needed a good fuck; he seemed to enjoy desecrating my highest ideals. I wondered if they were worth hanging on to.
I didn’t know what to be to stop it; it didn’t occur to me to think it was strange that sometimes he said he was doing it because I was a whore, and at other times, because I was a prude. I now know that it was not about anything that I was or was not. It was about him. At any time, I was never permitted to say no. Strenuous refusal met with beatings.
But you know, I never stopped thinking about escape. While I was busy telling him that yes, I was looking forward to marrying him so he didn’t beat me bloody, I was secretly looking for a way out. Being honest about leaving meant beatings, violent rape, death threats. I tried to leave several times; once I got the police to come and get him out. The lady across the road persuaded me to take him back.
Of course, I sometimes felt that I loved him too…
Another quick story:
I chased after the Lord, wanting nothing but to live my life for him. Yet something happened when I started dating Thomas.
He was two years older than me. He was also the son of my youth leader. He grew up without a father in his life, and struggled a lot with feelings of anger and abandonment. I knew all of these things very well, but have always had such a mercy heart. To this day, I do not know why I didn’t listen to the wise counsel of my family and friends. I think that I thought I could save him.
It was three months into the relationship that I knew deep down in my heart that something was wrong. The emotional abuse is what I saw originally. The way he could manipulate me was amazing. He was a brilliant talker. He was my first boyfriend, so I seemed to think that it was all normal.
After about three months, was when the verbal abuse began. By this point, I was so brain washed that I thought I deserved what I got. The more the lies were poured over me, the I more I believed that it was true. All of the horrible names, all the horrible descriptions of who I was. My character was smashed. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t seeing my family. I was so isolated. That fall I moved into my dorm room at a lovely, private liberal arts college. I wouldn’t listen to anyone about how I needed to leave him. I was so convinced that everything that was wrong with the relationship was my problem. That as long as I tried a little harder, if I could fix all the things that he said were wrong with me, that Thomas and I would be fine.
Then the physical abuse started. The twisting of my wrist, the smack across my face, the shove to the ground, the hand around my neck. I was so weak. I weighed in at 90 lbs at this point. My fear, my anxiety level was sky rocketing. I couldn’t keep anything together. I felt so small, so vulnerable.
Just a month after I moved into College, my parents withdrew me. They had no idea how horrible it all was, but they knew something was terribly wrong. It took two months after that for Thomas and I to completely lose contact. I changed my phone number and talked to the police. The longer I was away from him, the more I really saw what had happened. And that is when all of the healing had to start. I started seeing a counselor, and even at this point, almost two years later, I see her about once a month. Jesus Christ brought me through all of it a lot stronger. I was so angry for a while, not understanding why God let it all happen to me. And I still don’t know. I know it was my own mistake to not listen to the wisdom of my gut, and the wisdom of my leaders, to not have started that relationship with him.
These are but two of the stories I read in researching today’s sermon, but there are hundreds, even thousands, not just of women but also men; not just of adults but also children; not only straight people but also gay and lesbian. All the stories have something in common: being physically, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually used and abused. And many, though not all, also recount how the church failed to be there for them – at times by simply not talking about the issue; and other times by encouraging them to stay in the abusive situation in the name of forgiveness.
Does God’s Word give us any wisdom about situations of abuse like these stories depict? Does it speak to some of us who are victims of abuse? Or family members of abused? For that matter does it speak to any of us who may be abusers ourselves?
I believe that our Gospel reading describes clearly the pattern of behavior that leads to abuse. As it does so, it gives us a Word for abusers. It also gives us a message for those who are victims. Finally, it provides a challenge for all God’s children.
To begin with, I said that our Gospel reading describes the pattern of behavior that leads toward abuse. Jesus of course is answering a question not so much about abuse directly, but about murder. Jesus warns us that we often think that murder is simply an act, where we kill another person. So we say “sure I cussed Gary out” or “I hate Terrence to the core, but I haven’t shot them in the head, so I’m golden.” Jesus says, no, you’ve got it wrong. Murder does not happen in a vacuum, out of the blue for no reason. Murder is the end result of a way of thinking, a way of relating. If you have that way of thinking, that way of relating in your life and heart, you already are on the path of the murderer. Murder begins in the heart. The answer Jesus says is not just to avoid killing people but to avoid the attitude toward others, the way of relating to those in our life that lead to murder.
“Yawn,” you might be saying, “preacher you said you were going to talk about abuse. What does this have to do with that?”
Turn to someone and say, “Abuse is murder writ small.” Turn to someone else and say, “because when you abuse another, you kill a little part of them every day.”
You see the pattern of behavior that Jesus describes leading to murder is the same pattern that leads to abuse. In fact, if you really follow the news you would be amazed at the times a man or women kills their spouse and children in a fit of rage – and often kills themselves as well – when things are studied by the authorities, they find that man or woman had a history of abusing their spouse and children emotionally, verbally, and physically. This is why I say that abuse is murder writ small. The ultimate end result of the attitudes and actions in abuse are murder. A person being abused is murdered a little every day. And often the physical abuse will escalate to the point of accidentally killing someone; the emotional abuse can become so damaging one is driven to take their own life.
Let’s take a moment and look at the pattern of behaviors Jesus describes. First it begins in one’s heart. Jesus begins by describing the first step toward abuse and murder is being angry without cause. This does not mean that anger is a sin. It is talking about the tendency to outbursts of anger and rage, not based on real injustice but as a reaction to situations. For example, I have had people in secular jobs I have been in who came to me, knowing I was a pastor, describing a spouse or friend blowing up at them because they didn’t make their coffee just right or because they talked to another person without anything romantic going on, but their spouse was irrationally possessive and jealous. We should become angry when we are mistreated, we should speak out and act to stop mistreatment. But these bursts of rage, outbursts of anger, at times over trivial things, are a sign that something is not right in our heart. It may be a sin of possessiveness, it may be emotional damage that needs to be worked through. But these outbursts of rage without cause, or not in proportion to what has gone on is the first step toward abuse. Elsewhere in the book of James the Holy Spirit inspires the Lord’s brother to write, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:19). Again when someone is quick to blow up into a rage, this is the first step toward both abuse and murder of passion. Jesus says allowing yourself to blow up like this, over tiny things is sin. It is murder writ small.
This does not mean feeling angry is sin – but allowing your feelings to cause you to blow up at others. If you have this problem, you need to address it right away. You need to go to God about it, ask for help to learn to control your anger. You need to avoid the sin of blaming your anger outbursts on others. All that is making excuses. For some people praying, meditating, and having Christian friends to hold them accountable is all they need to stop anger outbursts from escalating to abuse. But for many people – and almost all for whom these outbursts have moved from just feeling upset to blowing up in abusive ways – this change cannot happen without real professional help. Get help! You may say “God can heal me” but remember, God can use others to help you heal. Saying “God why don’t you change me” when you don’t pursue the help available is like the man who said “God save me from the flood” and refused to take the boat, the raft, and the helicopter that came offering to rescue them. That person didn’t want rescue on his terms. Don’t be like that with your relationships. Get help now.
To those in relationships where people seem to be blowing up about little things – be careful. Yes, at times, all of us blow up at others in frustration. But if the person you are with has a pattern of this, how do you not know they won’t get worse, not better? Turn to someone and say “you deserve God’s best, not leftovers.” Turn to someone else and say “don’t be a doormat to anyone.” When you stay in a relationship with someone who blows up at you at the smallest thing, when you excuse it as if it is nothing, you are paving the way for being turned into a door mat your whole relationship. If someone consistently does this they need to be told “you can’t be in a relationship with me unless you get help.” The road from angry outbursts to actual abuse is a slippery slope of but a few steps.
The next step on the journey is words that kill. We say “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” and then we read in the news as we discussed last Sunday about young people committing suicide because of verbal and emotional abuse – words that kill. This is not just true of teenagers – many adults are driven to suicide by constant verbal and emotional abuse. This is why we are warned “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21) Our words can kill.
So Jesus describes two types of abusive speech, words that kill. First insulting another and next calling them ‘Raca’, which is to say “fool” or “useless person.” As one of our stories illustrates insulting another can become a form of abuse. When we say “you are so stupid,” “You are so ugly,” and phrases like that we may not be hitting someone with our fists, but we are emotionally hitting them. We kill them a little each time we do that. “Raca” is a term sometimes translated “fool” that is from the town Jesus grew up. It means “empty-head” or “useless.” We have a lot of words like that in English, like whore, the b-word, f-er … most of which like them I don’t use in church. But we can say similar things without cursing. Those words treat another person as if they are garbage, as if they are trash. And you can see if you think of it how anger outbursts, fits of rage, can naturally lead into these words that kill.
Friend, if you have fallen into the pattern of tearing down the person you are with, you are not acting in love. You are killing them with your words. You are tearing down their self-image. Jesus says that these sort of words kill, they are murder writ small. They are verbal and emotional abuse. I you love them, you cannot let yourself keep doing this. And if you say you love God, you need to stop, get on your knees, and ask God for the power to change. You cannot verbally abuse another person and stay in friendship with God. This is why Jesus warns you if you are abusing another, doing these words and actions that kill, you need to leave the gift on the altar. Don’t even worry about it – God doesn’t want it from you right now. You can praise Jesus all you want to with your lips, you can give big offerings, you can appear religious and even be a pastor in a church. But you will not be right with God while you are killing others with your words. And as I said with anger outbursts, if this is a pattern in your life you probably cannot change without serious and professional help.
Friends, if you are in a relationship where someone is tearing you down every day, you need to that the Bible says love builds up (1 Cor. 13) not tears down. God made you for better. You don’t need to take it. You know sadly some people are a like a drug, we get them in our system and we are hooked. At first they feel good, but they things go bad and they begin to destroy our heart, our life, our family – just like drug abuse does. But we begin to believe the words used to kill our souls that we are worthless, useless, a waste of space. Friend, you are not, never were, and never shall be useless or a waste.
Turn to someone and say “You are a Child of God, in whom God is well-pleased, you deserve better than that.” Turn to someone else and say “don’t settle for less than God’s best.” God’s best for you is not being used, abused, put down day in and day out. Just like the alcoholic has to give up the bottle to get well, you need to give up whatever relationship is tearing you down in the name of love. For love builds up, doesn’t tear down.
The next step in the path to murder of course is a refusal to stop, which leads to murder. The end result of abuse is murder, because who knows when the person wailing on you – or you, if you are the person abusing another – will not stop soon enough and someone will die? And truly who knows when your acts of hurting another will become too much and that person will take their own life instead of enduring another day of a truly living hell.
Jesus may not directly describe the physical abuse that a person with fits of rage who tears you down through words that kill will engage in if they are allowed to continue and refuse to seek help, but jumps directly from that to the end result – murder. But other Bible verses make it clear that physical violence, abusing your spouse and children is a sin before God because it is killing them a little every day. Notice these words of God’s:
The LORD trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth. (Psalms 11:5 )
In the same day also will I punish all those that leap on the threshold, which fill their masters’ houses with violence and deceit. (Zephaniah 1:9)
“I hate […] a man’s covering his wife with violence, as well as with his garment.” says the Lord Almighty….”You have wearied the Lord with your words.” “How have we wearied him?” you ask. By saying “all who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them,” or “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:16-17 NIV alternate translation)
Friend, if you are in a relationship in which someone is hitting you, kicking you, wailing on you, God does not want that for your life. God made you for better. Get out now, before it is too late. You do not know when they will cross that line and kill you – or worse yet, damage your children beyond repair.
Friend, if you are a person physically hurting, hitting, kicking, using, abusing anyone else – I don’t care if it is your partner, your spouse, the person you date, your children, their children, whomever – you need to get on your knees before God. You need to repent. Jesus says to leave your gift at the altar, and set your pattern of violence right before you approach him. That means finding help to overcome your abusive pattern of life is more important than coming to church, saying your prayers, or giving your tithes. It definitely is more important than being a church leader. I can’t tell you how many pastors, deacons, elders, Sunday school teachers I have known over the years who on Sunday would talk a good talk about Jesus’ love, and Monday would beat the tarnation out of their spouse or child. They needed to put that gift back at the altar. You are in no position to lead for God while you are locked in a pattern of abusing others. If anyone here is locked in a pattern of abusing others, you need to repent of it to God and go get help to change.
A final word, to the church. Too often we make the situation worse. We mistake Jesus’ command to forgive with the need to go back to the person and have them in your life. Forgiving another for their sin does not mean you go back into a situation where they can sin against you. No. It means you give the situation to God and begin to work through your anger and pain, so what happened does not hold you back. Too often people get the message “forgive, work through your problems” and get the message that they need to stay with someone who is using and abusing them. This, friend, I believe is never God’s will.
Even these words of Jesus’ get twisted into a weapon to hurt victims when people say “look! It sees go and make peace before you come to the altar” and they send the victim to go and try to reconcile with the person who has used and abused them. Friend, that is twisting Scripture in a particularly evil way. I say this because if someone is abusing another person, the onus is not on the victim to “fix” the problem. The onus on the victim is to get to help and safety, and to get away from danger. The onus to fix the problem is on the perpetrator. They must take the initiative, they must change, they must get help, and they must prove they have changed in order to have any type of godly relationship again with the person they have abused. And by change I do not mean moving from beating a person 3 times a day to 3 times a week.
When I counsel couples with a history of abuse, even if they have a desire to reconcile as a couple, I encourage them to consider separating while they both get help. The reason? I do not think a victim needs to stay in a relationship being beaten and put down every day waiting patiently for someone to stop treating them like a punching bag. No. If that person says they love you and wants to change, they will not stand in your way of you both separating until they get help and change. And they will not want you in a situation where because of their brokenness and sin you will ever be able to be hurt by them again. If they are insisting you give them a chance to learn to stop beating up you up with their fists and their words by you staying where they can keep hurting you, how much do they really love you? If they really want to make it work, they will move out and give you space until they have learned to change their behavior and they will prove to you they have changed before ever asking to come back.
Church, we need to make sure we support the victims of abuse, we stand by them, and we become a safe place for them to find help, and we quit making them feel blamed for wanting to be treated like a human being.
Rev. Micah Royal serves as Pastor of Life’s Journey UCC in Burlington, N.C. Having earned his Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Campbell Divinity School, he has served in ordained ministry in various contexts throughout the Carolinas and southern California, including on the board of the Eastern NC Association of the United Church of Christ.