A Theology of Forgiveness: Hope, Sin, & Humanity

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I’ve spoken and written a disproportionate amount on what forgiveness is not. And for good reason. I have found that on a fundamental level, many Christians around me do not know what it is. The term has been loaded with inadequate, vague or simplistic notions that end up oppressing those severely hurt by evil, preventing the Christian community from being lights in a dark world while becoming obstacles to true forgiveness. And this is more than tragic because forgiveness is part of our birthright as Christians, it is the gift of Christ within our hearts that we can give freely to those around us. It is a powerful weapon we all have within us to fight the powers of darkness. It is a visible proclamation of the Kingdom of God over and against those with a zero-sum conception of power that simultaneously invites them also into new life or condemns their continued rebellion against God.

When we hollow out the term “forgiveness” and replace it with merely “letting go” (of what?), not being angry or making friends with vicious predators, abusers or those who, for whatever reason, wish to continue to hurt us or our loved ones, we functionally support a kingdom of unrighteousness, injustice, and social system where might makes right. Ironically, by insisting that an abuse victim “forgive” the man who just raped her 5 seconds ago, we have despised the Son of God who stood up for and became one with the abused. We have heaped inappropriate and oppressive burdens, and messages on targets to not bother us with their pathetic cries of pain, desperate pleas for solidarity and desire for a world of true peace where they are seen, heard and safe.

Instead, we have opted, inadvertently, to maintain the hold of the one who thinks they should be in the place of God and that they have the right to mangle, warp and rape the image of God. And ironically, by our own simplistic understandings of forgiveness, and like the servant in the parable of the forgiving King, we have refused to “forgive” targets of abuse for sins the perpetrator and community committed. That is, we have insisted targets pay in full a debt they never accumulated both making them reconcile or make right the sins of the perpetrator and by wrongly insisting they harbor a “sin” of bitterness in their trauma thus releasing the rest of us from the responsibility of setting right what we allowed to happen or placing the task of restitution squarely on the one who exploits. We the community further abuse targets as we project onto them the labels of “bitter,” “unrepentant” or “unforgiving.”

That said, before I get further into a theology of forgiveness built off of how I understand biblical teachings on forgiveness, out of necessity, here are some things which forgiveness is not: limited to the ambiguous “letting something go” (the PTSD & traumatized brain will replay the wrong over and over again and this is a brain change and injury not a heart problem), reconciling, enabling further abuse, putting oneself or others in harms way, becoming unjust, denying, pretending or conveniently forgetting something happened rather than do the hard work identifying or sorting through the wrong, always a one time instance that magically makes all the trauma go away, lack of consequences on many levels, automatically restoring one to their original status, remission of ingrained habits and patterns, or impersonal or purely distributive. Additionally, note that forgiveness is one of many things Jesus did AND not everything Jesus did falls under the term “forgiveness” i.e. reconciliation may be related to or made possible sometimes by forgiveness, but is not itself forgiveness.

And now we turn to forgiveness: what it is, why we do it, and how it can be accomplished.

Forgiveness

What is forgiveness? Forgiveness may be defined as, “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” This is not a bad definition. I prefer the following based on how I understand the Scriptures: “Forgiveness is giving up one’s right to hurt another for hurting you. That is, it is forfeiting malice, hate and revenge for specific wrongs committed (whether by commission or omission, on accident or on purpose).” If the conditions are right, forgiveness might serve as a starting point enabling reconciliation, restored or new positive relationships, or, at the very least, prevent a spiral of vengeance on top of vengeance. And if anything, forgiveness as an outworking of the fruits of the Spirit identifies those who are in Christ or are responding (even progressively) to the Spirit’s work.

Forgiveness is rooted in God’s goodness and love that embraces all people without exception. Hence human dignity, value and accountability are also embedded in the forgiveness process and are key to justice. Legal Justice (in a just society or organization) may still hold you accountable for murdering my nephew to ensure more murders do not happen and to identify your behavior as wrong, but I will not be killing yours as payback. You may spread lies about me to my neighbors, bear false witness to authorities or try to tear be down, but I will not do the same towards you. I will not seek to tear you down nor undermine you, I will instead seek your good ‘and’ speak the truth. You may not deserve anything from me, but I did not deserve anything from Christ. I have been given a gift and a new way of living and so I give this gift to you and invite you to join me in doing the same. You grabbed for power, sought to harm and lacked compassion and restraint. I will act out of love, mercy and grace even while still hurting and even when there is no justice or safety for me. I will do this even while seeking safety and well-being for myself. Martin Luther King Jr lived by this while facing abuse, death and racism. Still, he consistently sought “constructive ends” over destructive ones towards those who sought to harm him in a context where he could not get justice for death threats, beatings and murder. He both lived and died by the Gospel of peace both seeking justice and exercising forgiveness while looking ahead towards God’s reconciling work that was possible in even in his time.

A necessary component of forgiveness is identifying, illuminating or voicing the wrong committed internally and ideally, externally. One must recognize a wrong has committed in order to forgive it. This may occur in an instant or over a “pilgrimage.” Many abuse survivors enter into the process of forgiveness as they spend years figuring out what was done to them in the first place, declaring forgiveness anew as new layers of pain and injury are recovered. Additionally, sometimes hurt comes up again and for some this hurt can start to sow bitterness (best not to assume pain = bitterness) and one simply needs to forgive again. To feel these things are not sinful, but they can become so if they are not put under the power of Christ and re-purposed. Forgiveness is both a spiritual battle and a sacred process as one embraces safety in Christ, while delving into moments of pain, suffering the material reality of being unsafe.

Naming the sin empowers those who are injured because it identifies it as something wrong done to them. It is a step in the right direction of justice. Enabling the target to vocalize the wrong committed allows the one who was wronged to stand up straight and say: I am a someone, a person who is worthy of respect. I matter. As such, there are constraints on you to act rightly towards me. Its important to allow this publicly because it also marks a change in community values from protecting the perpetrator to the reintegrating and coming alongside the one wronged. The basis of this ability to name or illuminate the sin is the imago Dei, just as it is also the basis for forgiving another.

In Matthew 8 for example, where it speaks of forgiving one’s brother 70x7, it also says in v15, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault…” and includes layers of others gradually getting involved if the person will not stop their behavior. The immediate basis for this in the text, is God being on the side of the “little ones,” taking great pains as a shepherd to not lose even one, and it being better not to have an eye if it will cause one to stumble. In turn, since God takes great pains to care for, protect and restore his sheep we are warned against doing the opposite to the vulnerable: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” In other words, God is watching and refusing to care for those who are vulnerable or outside the circle will not go unnoticed.

God’s Word further conveys the necessity of one who wrongs another having to face the wrong committed (and not sweeping it under the rug) with this command: “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). In other words, those in charge and the community are not to support or buddy up with the perpetrator in order to display an unbiblical form of “grace” or “forgiveness.” This is called marginalizing the target and promoting injustice. This is not what Jesus did when he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes (the underdogs of society). Rather, the community and leadership are told to visibly side with the target or one wronged and not associate with the one who demonstrates 1) they will not acknowledge their specific sin or 2) change their behavior.

Interestingly, in Revelation 2:20 the term for “forgiveness” is used, but in such a way as to indicate how one should not exercise forgiveness. Note, ἀφεῖς or “forgiveness” is the term used in many other passages on forgiveness (cf. Mark 11:25, Matt 6:9-15, 12:31-32; 18:15, 21-22, 27; 26:28…ect). In Revelation 2:20 the church has “forgiven” or tolerated very wicked behavior, in this case idolatry and sexual immorality, from a false prophet Jezebel who was given opportunities to repent, but wouldn’t.

But I have this against you: you ἀφεῖς that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.

We have multiple indications that a biblical practice of forgiveness is not “wiping the slate clean” or “forgetting” the wrongdoing of someone who persists in sin. The community is not to act as though no wrong is committed when it continues to be committed or when there are not concrete indicators (described above) that the person has repented. “Forgiving” in this unbiblical manner will continue to influence others. In the case of ongoing abuse, one also has a person to defend, protect and restore on top of not allowing someone who will not repent to keep doing evil. Part of what forgiveness is involves the community publicly siding with what is right and with the one who is vulnerable and not publicly acting as though no wrong has been committed in the name of peace. Doing so is not promoting peace, but saving face at the expense of others, and it is acting against God’s expressed wishes.

Further, in my opinion, it is a good idea for a target not to associate with someone who demonstrates perpetual, targeting and destructive behavior towards them since we are told not to associate with those who persist in rebelling against God who call themselves believers, but also because doing so puts you at risk and may serve to further allow them to abuse you. From another angle, don’t help them sin! Limit contact as much as is safe and possible. Unfortunately, this is often not possible when you are not kept safe by or kept safe from the wider community when they side with the perpetrator in their actions.

Truth telling and the naming of sin is necessary for the good of the perpetrator(s). Jesus said, “the truth will set you free,” in the context of his identity and connection to the Father (John 8:32). In this passage, he is referring to those who have held to his teachings and are not enslaved to sin. Those who sin or wrong others are in bondage to sin and cannot be free until they embrace truth in a multifaceted way. They must recognize their sin for what it is and actively pursue a different path, the way of Christ. One who is repentant and actively Christian will demonstrate remorse in the context of acknowledging the wrong without minimizing it or manipulating. I.e. not a letter someone shared with me from an abusive mother where years of physical and emotional abuse were cloaked in an “apology” for an inability to adequately “express her love.” I’ve gotten plenty of these types of letters before too. They belong in the trash.

That said, the target or receiver of a wrong does what is best for themselves and the community and the perpetrator when they name the sin. Without facing sin, there is no transformation and no freedom in Christ. We all need Jesus and we all need each other. Even the well known “sinner’s prayer” involves admitting one is a sinner. Identifying sin allows another person to rectify a wrong and change their heart. It may also help the one wronged avoid festering bitterness or resentment that morph into malice and revenge which are sins. The corruption and nihilism of one person does not necessitate the corruption and forsaken hope of another.

Forgiveness is expressed commitment to God’s values, future, kingdom and fruits of the Spirit even when tempted by others to abandon them. The former holds true even in the absence of wrongs committed against you. Forgiveness is an instance of exemplifying the values of God’s vision of humanity whether those who betray us acknowledge it or not. We seek to be conformed into what God wanted a human to be, the image of the Son. The Son full-heartedly embraced God’s vision for humanity with his ethics even to the point of death and so we also will be willing. In Matthew 26 Jesus acknowledges one will betray him even while saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness in God’s reality remains constant whether or not the one forgiven ultimately choose forgiveness or personal destruction as was the case with Judas. Forgiveness reaches out to the other, but does not force the other. Forgiveness is not based on the merits of the one committing evil, but on the merits of Christ and one’s active agreement with his new way of living (faith). All the better when the one who does the wrong decides to enter into this kingdom reality with us!

Yes, forgiveness has the potential to wipe the slate clean on a relational level, though it is not to be equated with wiping the slate clean interpersonally. And, we can always wipe the slate clean in terms of not holding grudges or seeking revenge (no eye for an eye). However, it is not always possible to do so in the sense that the relationship is restored depending on the level of trauma committed or the unrepentance of the perpetrator (i.e. the ultimate act of forgiveness is not always the person who becomes best buds with her rapist afterwards). Forgiveness has occurred to the ultimate degree by Christ and yet not all forgiven receive eternal life. Some do not want to enter into that kingdom reality like Judas above. There is indeed tension between God’s kingdom reality and things not being quite right in the here and now, yet no contradiction when it comes to following after Christ. Hebrews 10:17 recalls, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” for those who the law of God is written on the heart and yet also, “he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool” (v13). And even in Numbers 14:18-25 we get a lengthy expression from Moses on God’s forgiving and merciful heart. God decides to forgive Israel for their wrong, but still rules that those who tested him will not enter the promised land. It turns out, God has boundaries.

All of this to say, yes the Bible speaks of hurling sins into the sea, but not without context or qualification.

Still, relational restoration is often possible when there is forgiveness and whenever possible should be pursued! When everyone cooperates with God, amazing things happen. I can see in the face of each person the potential of God’s love to transform them into the person they were meant to be just as I can be transformed. There is hope for every person in Christ. It is this hope that led Martin Luther King Jr to speak of his oppressors as brothers! And to look ahead to the day when they will walk “hand in hand.” He did not only see murders, de-humanizers, and racists, but also sick brothers who although they claimed the cross, still needed the cross. They said they worshiped a crucified Christ and yet nailed and hung black men, women and children, loved by God and agents of his world, to trees. He did not deny reality, but saw more into it.

Even when one looks in the face of another who is full of hate or fear or power lust we can see hope for the present and if not the present, overcoming someday…in the Lord’s day if they will give their lives to God and renounce their demonstrated allegiance to Satan and the world. This drive can inspire us to forgive again and again 70x7 through trauma, through continued slights, disrespect, dehumanization, and destruction and through loss. Forgiveness is our offering to Christ even if a restored relationship will only be realized in the eschaton. “See you then!”

Forgiveness is compatible with safety and distancing.

When someone has slighted me, I am generally quick to overlook it. I generally also make tons of allowances for extenuating circumstances, disorders, people being deceived, immature, dropped on their heads as children…etc. And really, its not like I am perfect either and I hope others will forgive me when I have been grumpy, selfish, desperate, or misinformed. I also tend to have a quick bounce back and am not easily injured regardless of how “mean” someone is, and so I am generally able to resume as normal even if someone does not do the right thing and own up to it. Frankly, I usually do not even remember what they did a couple of hours or minutes later. Sometimes, forgiveness can be forgetting especially if the slight need not be significant. But then there is prolonged abuse and trauma which creates changes in the brain that are out of one’s control.

When someone has caused me severe damage (no, not hurt feelings), habitually abused me or exhibited patterned behavior and I am in a context that is safe to have boundaries, I gauge whether someone is ready for reconciliation or whether I should believe them when they make overratures before I restore relationships with them. Although, it does not mean I will never try and restore baseline friendliness if they still hate me, are angry or hostile. Contrary to popular belief, most people who cannot “let it go” are those who hurt others and won’t own up to their actions. They want to keep believing the people they hurt are the problem or attempt to force subservience and silence in the name of peace. Far from the good Samaritans, they are the thieves that attack the vulnerable and leave him on the side of the road to die and prefer he remain out of sight and out of mind.

That said, here is what I look for if someone who has done something habitually and extreme enough wishes to be friends or have a relationship that goes beyond casual, baseline friendly or required professionalism:

1) Have they named their specific sin? Or have they owned up to something much smaller, minimized it, avoided, or denied it?

2) Have they apologized for their specific sin? Not: “I am sorry you feel that way” or other variations that avoid actual responsibility.

3) Have they indicated remorse and committed to not doing it again?

4) Have they actually made restitution or attempted reconciliation?

That is, have they attempted to set things that they made wrong right? If they told lies about you have they set the record straight? If they injured you have they paid your medical bills? If they stole X have they replaced it or if unable to directly undo the damage made an effort to help in a way that they can?

In the context of those exhibiting predatory and abusive behavior, further:

5) Have they bound themselves with an outside force of accountability so that they will not easily be able to hurt you again?

6) Have they gotten help? Abuse is a habitual pattern of behavior based in problems with the love of power (i.e. sexual abuse is not about sex and physical abuse is not about anger). They need professional help to address this.

Without these, I do not trust they have repented or that I will be safe with them so I keep them at an arms length. Some of the above I apply towards a community or group that exhibits sexist, racist, or marginalizing behavior on purpose or not, but it depends on the pervasiveness and severity of the marginalization or joining/buying in on abuse or siding with the predator if there is one. One size does not fit all.

Some red flags that you should try and keep even more distance from the person if they exhibit these in the context of your attempts to lay down some basic boundaries or if they do these when “apologizing:” Go on a psychotic rant or fit of rage about your inferiority and their superiority (trust me, it happens), attempt to manipulate you or keep you in line, attempt to confuse you by making it all about you and your issue somehow somehow, attempt to make themselves your “resource” for recovery (power play). If you see/hear these, stay away and seek further protection. Head over heart here. Yes, they may indeed be hurting, had a sad life, have extenuating circumstances…etc. but that is something for them to work out with their therapist, not you. Don’t be their power drug “supply.”

Scripture calls us to be oriented towards peace, not revenge. The former should be our active disposition regardless of any wrong committed. We pray for everyone so “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2). Still, although we may seek peace, not everyone will. Some will seek the destruction of others for their own gain and some (including ourselves) will have moments of vice and selfishness. Romans 12:14-21 tells us how to treat those who wrong us in the context of a general Christian disposition of recognizing the value in others and not seeing ourselves through an inflated lens: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse,” “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” live in peace as much as others will allow for it, and seek the good of those who seek what they think is their own good at your expense. The entire passage is as follows:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

A last word on this before moving forward, those who have a distorted view of themselves will not like it when you meet their evil with loving-kindness and decency, when you do not regard them as superior, but as an equal and when you treat yourself as a fellow human being. They will be enraged and insulted. But there will also be those who will be grieved and want to make changes, even if it takes a long time. The Bible consistently calls for those considered “low” to see themselves as higher up and those who perceive themselves “high” to lower themselves so that we can rightly see one another face to face. Many who habitually hurt others are unable to grasp this reality for whatever reason. They are like rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was unable to “see” Lazarus while alive and so was not truly a child of Abraham. Even while in hell, perhaps connected to his way of life, he still could not perceive “Lazarus” rightly, demanding that Lazarus leave Abraham’s bosom to come and serve him! Its absurd, but it is the prison many live in. If you are in the right frame of mind, have pity on those trapped in a hell of their own making.

The key here is to continue on proclaiming a new kingdom with new social norms and continue to be transformed into the image of the Son. Others can take it or leave it, join in or not. Let God deal with it.

Why Forgive?

Why forgive? Because, in keeping with the wording of Romans 12 (some of which is quoted above), it is the logical or natural (λογικὴν) response for a life oriented towards worship of God and transformation (12:1-2). The Spirit has worked in us to bring about a different character and way of navigating through life than those around us. The world patterns itself in such a way as to elevate the self, whereas we pattern ourselves after Christ. How we act at our jobs, churches, online or in person matters. We do not start to live our “real” lives once we leave work. How we worship God in our treatment of others defines us in all places.

Our overall disposition must be one of loving others. Who we serve whether God or the world, is evident in who we associate with and how. Put another way, those who want to move up the ladder in organizations to accumulate power, position and wealth for themselves position themselves towards this end by associating with and flattering those above them. Those pursing a calling and future with the Lord, associate with and lavish on others based on their inherent worth as human beings. This includes those who others discount, those who cannot “repay” them. Biblicaly, it is more imperative to associate with the latter given the example of Christ who also pointed out that God notices when one invites “friends” who can pay us back while leaving the poor out. Forgiveness is an extension of the general principle of giving without strings attached, and without expecting anything in return since we are “storing up treasures in heaven.” Our actions reveal what we have invested in whether God’s future or the worship of the self or idols.

We forgive because we desire the thriving of others whether friends or enemies. In 1 Timothy 2 we are told to pray for others on the basis that God desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of him. Additionally, 1 Corinthians 13 tells us what love is: patient, kind and that it does not envy or boast…really it paints a picture of one who values others and does not value themselves at the expense of others. Unlike worldly conceptions of power, one’s position is not viewed in zero sum terms in Scripture. When someone wrongs us and we are in a position to hurt them with or without them knowing, we refrain. When someone is repentant and has demonstrated it, we do not attempt to shame them by reminding them of their wrong. When the other must be held accountable for their actions, we do not try to shield them from it, but we do use self-restraint and not try and inflict maximal or as much damage as possible. Maybe we do on occasion refrain from having them face the consequences (be careful here). One size does not fit every situation.

There is generally no reward for helping someone who has proven they will keep being your enemy, but we can do it out of love. Often those we must forgive will not accept forgiveness. They might. But often they won’t. Either way, we continue on in our worship of God whether wronged or just going about our day. Our bodies are offered to God as “living sacrifices” hence we follow a different path than others that is consistent with out life orientation. We have bought into the vision of God’s kingdom and walk accordingly.

Ultimately, alongside the inherent worth of a human being, our basis for forgiveness moving forward is that we were forgiven by Christ. In Ephesians 4:31-32 we are told to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” God knew we would crucify him yet he still came to live among us and show us a better way. God wanted us to see how far he would go to forgive us and asked that we would follow in his footsteps. We owe forgiveness towards others to the God of love.

What about anger? Well, sometimes we get angry. Jesus was angry at times. Its human. Jesus was human and without sin. And it is ok to be angry at someone and certainly at a horrible situation. The sentiment we should follow in the above passage (if we do not want to contradict with other passages) is not to cease to be angry perse, but not harbor it in a way that wants harm for the person or resents them. Just right above this statement we are told how we are to be angry. Ephesians 4: 25-28

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Interestingly, the behavior attached to anger in these verses is a slew of outright sins all associated with the consequences of not regarding others as part of oneself: lying, deception, brooding, and stealing. In the place of negative actions are positive things: telling the truth, working instead of stealing so that one can share with others. The idea here is not to remain in a perpetual state where one entertains hurting another person or sinning. And note, most of these sins in the context of not being angry seem to easily go with the one who wrongs the other! Sometimes in our quest for vengeance (a twisted form of restitution) we have failed to see that we are actually the perpetrator!

We are to look upon others with compassion. They are a person and people make mistakes, sin on purpose and can also be quite cruel. None of us were not made for those things, but it is what some do. Those who continue to sin, refuse to be reconciled with those they wrong or repent are described as enslaved to sin (see discussion further above). They are not free. They do not know that life in Christ is worth all of the punishment they can dish out and more. Often, they are not easily able to do other than sin because they have not been liberated. They have not pledged their allegiance (faith) to Christ or are not listening to or working with the Spirit. If they did, their life would be so much better. They would not need to try and survive with layers of pacifying lies and manipulations, with power plays, by hiding and avoiding, by stealing, by projecting their faults onto others. They would not need to live drowned in their own torment and guilt offset by compensating “greatness.” They would not need to become their narcissistic masks. And all of us sin. No, not all sins are equal (the Bible describes degrees of punishments depending on wrong doings and has a list of what God hates the most), but we all have those parts of us that are not surrendered yet to God. We all have work to do and it is an honor to enter that process with another person. When we forgive and restore relationships (where possible) we have opportunities to grow ourselves.

How to forgive

How does one forgive? Maybe it will look different for different people in different situations. Ideally one forgives almost automatically out of the abundance of the life and hope given even in those days where one is flooded with fear, despair and depression. When days seem darkest and one is plagued by horrific images: the flash of the eyes, the patterns on the wall and the years of personal deconstruction from years past (people go through many things over the course of a life time). Or when that person(s) you helped turned on you even after swearing they would never do it again. When you just got back from the ER and those who helped marginalize you snicker behind your back as you struggle through the day. When others did not do all that they could or thought it was ok for your health to decline because they had other priorities. Or when you have been traumatized and act traumatized and the people who caused it use it as proof that you were X all along or lacking in character and you feel helpless.

For me personally, I see through a lot. I’ve also been tricked. I have trusted people I shouldn’t have, people I had no choice but to and in varying degrees. I’ve been let down in major and minor ways. This is part of life. I’ve seen a million and one apologies and “apologies” made to various people including myself. Many were manipulative, some by those who merely felt bad and wanted to save face after exposed (they did not apologize again when it mean exposing themselves), some from people who felt they meant them (even had me fooled) and then did it again, and some by those who made real changes. I’ve been told by this or that person through the years that they were going to help me in X way, make X changes…etc. One even looked me in the eyes and said “I can tell you don’t believe me, just watch.” Nothing changed. They checked in to make sure I was saying “hello” to my predator.

Given life experience for major or minor things, when I forgive I generally do not believe the people I am forgiving will change. Often I don’t feel anything when I am severely wronged or when someone tries to turn it around, too much has happened over the years. But somehow the promise of the kingdom and participation in it and with it forgiveness, seems greater than the consequences of the hurt.

And I speak generally of no one instance in this space.

Generally, I try and think about how to get through or survive another day. To be honest, forgiveness at this stage in my life is not something I struggle with much. I’ve had years of practice. I am not saying it was not easy or that I am perfect. What has helped me in the past that has been internalized was seeing Christ in the dark. To see beyond the painful and dark present and into the light that will be manifest. I would think of the love of God that both embraces me as an individual in all my particularity and also wraps around and covers everyone around me. It was understanding that although I was the lonely child who did not have anyone to sit with at lunch that had Jesus visited my school he would have sat with me and simultaneously being taught by the Spirit and Scripture that I was to do the same. It was the Spirit teaching me over the years how much he loved all of us and wanted us to be with him. I’ve bought into the Incarnation, his life, death and resurrection. Ultimately, I want what he wants and believe anything is possible in the present because of God’s future.

I have learned that one is emboldened to forgive when they want more than anything to be like Christ, are open to the work of the Spirit—and ask for it often—and take a good look at themselves sorting through and working through everything not of God. Even now, I try my best to own up to personal failing, mistakes and those corners of the self one would like to hide from, cover or pretend do not exist and expose them inwardly, bringing them to God and continuing to ask for help. It is being mindful of that feeling that one is frozen and scared of that inner darkness and slowly releasing it and thinking “its ok, God is with me.” It is being able to go to others to admit wrong doing whether normal mistakes and imperfections or moral failings and trusting in God and his formation. That way, when someone comes to me for forgiveness or slights me in the moment I can let go of that same part of the false “self” that wants to hold tight to a false image or hold tight onto a twisted form of status or ego and instead open my hand and then take theirs. Love in the context of forgiveness both insists those “above” are really your equals in the Lord (it perspectivally lowers them if they are in power), but also attempts to raise those who feel low, up.

For me, having empathy for another person and trying to see things from their perspective, their internal walls and obstacles also helps with forgiveness. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with their actions, outlook on life or reasoning, but it helps to bring those who anger or hurt me into perspective. Personality wise, I already tend towards “liking” people. On the downside, when I misjudge people it tends to be for the better and this can be dangerous. Still, on the advantage, I find it helpful to perceive and bring out their good qualities which are God given and formed and be constructive when interacting with them when I can and where possible. I do not make up good things or pretend good is there when it isn’t, but everyone is made in God’s image and there is usually some good. And where it is not perceived there is always Jesus to remember.

So, to sum up how I forgive: I use what was developed and learned from my relationship with God to recognize the human in myself (both in terms of what I was created to be and what still needs formation), in others and in Christ and let the latter animate and re-contextualize the good and bad of the former. Despite my tendency to try and snatch joy and happiness from snippets of life, my life is not always happy. But I find it worthwhile. I know very well what it is like to be an injured human who does not always feel good and my understanding of forgiveness informed by Scripture helps me to be patient with myself and others going through hard times. And I am able to see suffering, lack, deprivation and shortcomings great and small through the lens of the Crucified Messiah who rose again and will raise us up with him one day. Life is not easy, but I see forgiveness as an opportunity, one of those good things we can do in the name of Christ and hope that others will do the same for me.

-AQ

Christians: How Not to be Flying Monkeys for Predators

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Not contributing to abuse is difficult these days. Not only does one have to be slightly more nuanced when interpreting others, but must actually do something constructive occasionally. Gone are the days when one could just sit back, relax and let group think do the difficult work whether it be finding witches, evaluating sexual harassment claims or reminding victims of crimes that we have all moved on—without them.

Jokes aside, most of us are not the kind of people who would knowingly help someone abuse another person. And yet, enough of us are used to do just this by predators whether we play a large or small part in the abuser’s demented symphony. Using others to help abuse another person or do one’s dirty work is a common strategy for predators, narcissists or other abusive individuals. It keeps them from being accountable, or getting caught and it allows them to continue their abuse as long as possible.

A “flying monkey” is a person who is used as a tool, extension or resource of the types of people mentioned above to optimize the level of abuse, control and protection of the abuser at the expense of the target. Most flying monkeys do not even realize they are being used this way. They think they are just being a “supportive friend,” “good Christian,” following orders, or bending rules to return a favor. And, predators manipulate. They will take one’s morals, values and intuitions about people and hijack them. They love “nice” people. They will attempt to make you believe you are doing the right thing, helping them defeat evil, helping them punish someone who has wronged them, helping them mend a relationship, or helping a sinner find grace and forgiveness. When the predator gets in trouble, they will lead you to vouch for them while believing you are just being there for a friend, or they will play the sympathy card to have you spy on, humiliate, ostracize or force a target to return to the abuser over and over again. You will intimidate and pressure the target into not resisting further abuse.

And yet, we ask ourselves, why do predators get away with severely injuring so many people for so long? Ex) Men who molest boys average 150 victims before they are caught (Ken Wooden, 2014). In the end, the answer is two-fold: 1) Because a predatory individual knows how to manipulate the target and those around them, and 2) because the rest of us let them continue their abuse unchecked. A predator is able to thrive in contexts where they have minimal or any consequences for their behavior (which usually starts out minor) and are able to successfully isolate the targets they select. If you, your family, church or organization knows they have an individual facing extended abuse still, then you have not sufficiently communicated to the predator that you will not stand for their behavior or made them sufficiently accountable.

In sum, predators may not have empathy, but they understand it and will use it. They will make you think they have empathy for you, their precious monkey, and their beloved, even if unwilling, target and then get you to turn on others for them. While they tell you what an amazing person you are, they will also bombard you with messages direct and indirect about a certain person they are after and make it sound like they are concerned, worried, or confused as to why the person wants to stay the hell away from them. They will portray themselves as well-meaning, jilted or wronged in some way. You will feel so sorry for them and wonder why their beloved target wants nothing to do with them. They will try and get you to see their behavior towards this person as innocent, generous, non-creepy or non-obsessive…etc. I don’t know why she overreacted that way to me. I am just a friendly inclusive person/like to give hugs/have that personality. And of course, they kept trying to give the “hugs” to the target even though they were unwanted. But you need not worry, the predator is “long suffering” and will not give up on their target.

Of course, most normal people do not go through excessive lengths to build network connections and friendships around targets just so that they can abuse, destroy or pick off a particular individual, but predators do. Know their behavior. And do not be their flying monkey at church, work, home, online...anywhere where you and people exist.

What Predators Do

Put simply, a predator will: 1) select a target, 2) groom them &/or their environment to accept the abuse, 3) isolate or entrap their target so they can’t escape, 4) then change the relationship with their target to be more overtly cruel and 5) maintain control as long as possible or until they get bored and reset the process with a new target. For a recent example involving a prominent pastor of a church, check out my paper on theology and abuse here.

A target is typically selected because: 1) They have something the predator wants (they may be attractive in some way, their “type,” highly skilled, a social obstacle or any number of things. Usually whatever it is it comes down to the predator’s need for a power trip whether it is a small, vulnerable child or an adult who is unprotected and down on their luck. 2) The predator believes s/he may get away with exploiting them either because the target looks like they will not put up a fight &/or the context won’t. Does this person have high self-esteem? Do they look like they will have adults, supervisors, peers, coworkers, other church members who will defend them or who they could go to if something goes wrong? If they like the target, can the predator cut them off from support channels long enough? Time to see.

Next, the predator will test the waters. They will have already extensively ingratiated themselves to the target and community through favors, flattery, or becoming some sort of pillar of the community. They will have peppered the target with compliments, appear to help them, try and fill a void in their life all while sneaking in some not so nice things just to see what they will do. It might be a slightly off comment or it might be some slightly inappropriate touching (i.e. brushing up against a knee). If they are not confronted on these little power plays by either the target, the group, adults or leadership, but get away with them, they will proceed and escalate. Depending on the target’s context, it may not matter if the target resisted if the adults in charge give them unlimited access regardless of protestations. The key is: will they be stopped? No? Perfect.

Still, intermixed with the beginning abuse or slight off or inappropriate behavior will be little “niceties” to confuse the target and those watching. I.e. the stranger does not just tell the kid to get into the car, but offers the child candy. Gifts and compliments may be given publicly to communicate how nice the predator is. The gifts can also function to gaslight the target or individuals who might be on to them or showing visible resistance to recent abusive activity. Doing these things publicaly also helps ensure compliance and communicates to the target that everyone else already knows how wonderful the predator is. Key here is that gifts function to deceive and control.

Problem: To continue the metaphor of strangers bearing gifts: Essentially we tell the target “Why didn’t you go in the car with him when offered you candy!!?” Or, “Yeah, that person keeps following you with his car and telling you to get in, but he must be nice because he offered you a candy.” We the community point to the gifts and tell the target how nice the predator is being and that they should really give them a chance never mind the gifts are unwanted and given in the context of creepy or abusive behavior. In the end, the gifts are not so nice when they function to deceive/cloud their unsavery behavior to the wider community, there are strings attached or they are used as instruments of control.

Problem: Further, many of us in the church are conflict avoidant, heap blame on victims telling or treating them like they are making a big deal out of nothing, have problems with “forgiveness,” “grace,” just have an “interpersonal conflict,” or ourselves ignore these little power plays as insignificant or easily explained away thus giving the predator the green light. They will not be challenged any time soon.

Problem: Already and possibly before overt abuse occurs, the context will often not have basic accountability structures in place, will likely have conflict avoidant or enabling types in gate-keeping positions, or may have a top down authority structure. The basic principle is: Can someone easily move into the context as it is, do something horrible and get away with it if they are well positioned in the community? Ex) Someone in a position of authority who does not have to answer as much to outside forces can easily exploit those below him or her.

Next, the predator will ensure all escape routes for the target are cut off. In the wild, the animal that is not with the pack gets eaten and predatory animals will strategically try and isolate one animal from the pack so they can be eaten. The same holds true here. They will have created networks of trust in themselves (usually built off of flattery, lies and easy favors) around the target and will start to ensure that these same people will not help or believe the target or anyone who defends them. They may lie about the target so that others have an unfavorable opinion of them, use theology, the Bible or leadership to ensure compliance if they show signs of trying to escape, or may get the target to feel guilty for X so that they do not go for help.

Problem: At this stage many of us have accepted the predator as trustworthy and the target as “the problem.” We have already come to believe that the predator likes/understands us, has our best interest in mind and really, many of us have already displayed tendencies of avoiding conflict. It is unlikely we will help someone in distress. Instead, we will tell them to forgive or that it is all in their head. Maybe we perceive the target as evil because they say negative things about our “friend” or “pastor.”

Progressively, the predator will become worse and worse with their abuse whether physical, psychological or using the group to punish the individual. The lies will get worse. The physical activity will escalate. The group itself will get more hostile towards “the known problem.” Escape routes have been managed and they can keep up the abuse for a while since no one will do anything substantial enough to end the behavior.

Problem: The group has by now accepted new norms towards the target. Anything goes. The target will also by now have long been exhibiting signs of trauma which may further confirm the predator’s narrative that they are unstable, unkind, someone to avoid/not listen to or take seriously…etc. Leadership that is not doing the predatory (many predators are in positions of power) activity may have already taken several disciplinary actions towards the target, endorsed/supported the minor or major power moves of the abusive individual or firmly established in their behavior that they will not be helping the person targeted in any significant way.

The predator will keep going until checks and balances start to appear and until those around them stop overtly tolerating their behavior or giving them slaps on the wrist instead. Eventually people may start to realize that their treatment of person X is a bit excessive and perhaps some of the predators hidden face behind the mask will start to appear or maybe they go too far one time? Once they think they will be found out or get bored they will move on to another target or another context to start everything all over again.

Unfortunately, the sick part of this entire situation is that it is not just about what predators do but how the rest of us often maintain the control of the predator and ourselves create an abusive environment. It is bad enough for the target to have a creepy person after them, but worse when everyone lets it happen, supports their efforts or exhibits marginalizing behavior towards the target. While processing abuse they may be told by the rest of us that abuse is not occurring because the idea of it makes us uncomfortable. Implication being: the rest of us were fooled, we are not the church/organization/people we thought we were, or we may have to do something uncomfortable for us.

How Not to be a Flying Monkey

So, above is what predators do. We know its bad. I don’t think I need to bore you with tons of Scripture telling you abuse, lies, deception and not caring for people exploited by others is wrong. But where does that leave you when you are in the middle of everything? When you have already been excessively flattered, given gifts and are not sure what to believe when an accusation is brought against someone you just know is an amazing person? After all, they were there for you at X time, talk about the Bible a lot, say they are _____ kind of person and ______ kind of person wouldn’t intentionally harm another person…etc.

A flying monkey is someone who does the villain’s bidding. Another reason the predator has built up extensive network connections of people who will love them is that they want you to 1) Keep the target under control (ex: the Pastor who tries to convince the battered wife to return home from the shelter), 2) Marginalize or ostracize the target so that the predator can get X—marginalization takes a community, 3) Attack the target for them so that they do not get caught as easily, and finally 4) so that you will defend the predator should any evidence come to light. You will jump in with character references, declarations to the target that the predator has been nothing but kind to them so they should shut up or will bend the rules to ensure they do not get held accountable.

You might be a flying monkey and do not know it if: you are constantly taking the path of least resistance in “interpersonal conflicts,” are insecure, you are distancing yourself or helping to ice out someone in your community you were warned about or “who deserves it,” get irritated with someone insisting on consequences or who is always complaining about stuff happening to them, are spreading gossip or rumors, you are in charge & someone under you is still being harassed months or years after making you aware of the problem, you are a human, your boss keeps calling you “my pretty” and sending you out on air raids.

In that vein, here are just some suggestions on how not to be or become their flying monkey!

  • Do a background check before you become their monkey. Mark Driscoll has started a new church….guess what isn’t on his CV. Another way to look at it: Does the person you are hiring or a volunteer working with certain populations (i.e. children) have a history? Does the person accused of bullying have a history of demonizing others at his or her other jobs/departments? Were you 100% convinced X was evil the last time they had you turn on X person and now they want you to turn on person Y.

  • Do not further marginalize the target. It takes a villaige to marginalize. People excuse themselves very readily by saying they do not have to be the target’s “best friend” while they at varying levels ice them out and are buddy buddy with the predator further isolating the target. Worse, all too often when targets come forward about what happened to them the community is too quick to try and silence them and pile on guilt and gas-lighting in order to restore the “peace.”

    A community marginalizes the target further when they retain the predator as the pillar of the community whether it be by keeping him or her in leadership/positions of power over the target (formal or informal), as gatekeepers or orchestrators of community events. It is also done by failing to actively reintegrate and support the target after public damage was done to their reputations. These are instances of the community reinforcing the predator’s narrative and maintaining their power. It functionally cuts off the target from community involvement even as predators or well wishers maintain they are “always welcome.” It also functions to shift responsibility from the community to the target.

  • Don’t spy for the predator. Do not share person information about others even out of “concern” or listen to others who excessively bad mouth others or particular individuals. Other people’s business is other people’s business. If your new “friend” who just so happened to attach themselves to you after you interacted with the target wants to know this or that about them, or appears a bit preoccupied with what they are doing, don’t tell them anything. It is none of their business. Do not help the predator keep tabs on this or that person because the target is “up to no good.” You are helping them control and intimidate and creating an additional hostile environment for the target.

  • Respect boundaries. Do not guilt trip targets who are uncomfortable about body contact, gifts, or other unwanted displays of affection. Do not try and convince the wife to return home to her abusive husband from the shelter because he had a conversation or is really really sorry and means it this time and we should forgive…etc. Note too that the predator (or narcissist) will become enraged if they cannot control their target physically or mentally and will very quickly enlist you to keep them in line or punish them for attempting to escape.

    Be very wary of public displays of affection from former predators towards targets. They are usually unwanted, but not easily turned down. After all, you will remind the target directly or indirectly that the predator has been so very nice and that they are being rude or ungrateful. Worse yet, maybe the predator made it a community affair—of course channeled through them—and you even signed the card or pitched in to remind the target that you and the predator have their best interest at heart.

  • Take reports seriously. Most reports of sexual abuse do not happen. That is, the reports themselves are never made. When reports are made, most of the time they are real and come after the abuse has become unbearable and the person is at their breaking point. If you are in leadership investigate that matter and do not stack the deck with “friends” of the predator even if you “know” so and so would never do such a thing. Is there evidence to take action against a predator? In the mean time, protect the target! Keep them away from the predator. Do not give the predator access to the target even if they are playing nice for a while (hint: they know what you want to see and may act accordingly for a while). And, just because there is not enough evidence to convict or punish a person, this does not mean there is not enough evidence to keep someone being harmed away from danger. Do not give them access even if they are pretending to be best buds with their target. Patterned behavior does not disappear over night and even if the target seems to be ok with it, they often have to be to keep themselves safe from you.

  • Context: Smear Campaign. Do not act out against another person when you hear gossip or possible lies. Get to know and talk to the other person before making a decision. Hear both sides of the story. Is one person constantly warning you about person X and person X just tries to stay away from them and doesn’t speak poorly of others? At the very least be a good neighbor and do not spread bad things or reports about others that you do not know are true even if someone you “trust” says it. I had someone recently (about a year or two ago?) pepper me with tons of very weird over the top compliments they thought I wanted to hear over several days. Next moment they wanted to warn me about person X and get me to agree with them! They would also publicaly say nice things about their teaching abilities and then try and turn me against them in private. Yikes and a 1/2!

    If you are in leadership investigate claims before talking to person X about bad behavior that may or may not exist. Be suspicious of spurious reports if person X is already known to be targeted by someone. Context matters. Also note that in many cases you will be dealing with a mob of people the predator is using and hiding behind. You will have lots of people convinced person X is evil and after a while person X will start appearing “unhinged” with sleep deprevation and psychological torture if it has been months or years. Look for patterns. Are the accusations starting out ambiguous or over the top? Is the person accused an outsider?

    On the flip side, if you hear a report and do your due diligence and find it to be accurate…Surprise! The person we hired has left several other institutions in financial ruin, has a history of making serious accusations against others that turn out untrue, have criminal backgrounds involving rape…etc. Get involved now. Not later.

  • Hold people accountable for their actions. If a person gets caught in the act do not listen to their sad story about this being their first time, they are so embarrassed, they didn’t know what they were doing/not in control of their faculties, its not what it looks like. Have them answer for it. They will be very persuasive and convincing, this is not their first time & even if it is, it really should be their last! Your tendency will want to project your own sense of empathy and human compassion onto them: You wouldn’t do such and such unless it was an accident…you would want someone to give you the benefit of the doubt…etc. They are not you.

    The predator will tell lots of lies. They will say X. X will not be true. Hold them to it. Or maybe they manipulated and got caught: maybe they told one person one thing and another something different in order to play them against each other. Do not try and come up with elaborate reasons for why a boldface lie is not a lie. Do not come up with some crack pot/pop psychological explanation to explain their lie away: i.e. they just tell lots of lies and manipulate people without knowing it! It takes mental energy to say something obviously untrue and to manipulate others. They said they had $100,000 in the bank and they really had $1000. They just forgot a few zeros? Yes, they are doing it on purpose. Do not explain it away, make them answer for it. Put their sin in the light i.e. expose it and be a just person. Expose it so that it can’t keep happening and they can’t keep getting away with it.

  • Don’t be conflict avoidant. Similar to the above. Predators absolutely love conflict avoidant leadership and people. It is a free pass to do whatever they want. You may have this hope that being quiet, giving into their demands, siding with the predator in conversation against the target even in a small way (to show you are being fair or not taking sides) will make the tension go away. It won’t. They will excellerate their activity and do it again and again. You have just rewarded them and they are pleased with their new pet.

  • Recognize your own susceptibility to group think. You are a human. You have mirror neurons. We pick up subtle cues from the people around us and make decisions based off of how we see other people acting. We notice that everyone seems to discount person X? Without even thinking about it, we are likely to engage in it to if we do not pay close attention. A predatory individual will utilize non-verbals to convey what they want you to believe about the target sometimes without saying a word. If you do not think you are susceptible to non-verbals then you may be less politically savvy than you think you are. Perfect.

    The predator will also try to hijack group think by simultaneously collecting a large number of people who will think they are an incredible human being by being super nice to them so that they can target that one person or group. That way, you and the merry band will quickly inform the target of abuse that X person has been nothing but wonderful to you aka “shut up!” or that they should let the past be the past when they go to you for help or confide their legitimate fears in you. You will feel pretty good about yourself too while you cut off yet another escape hatch for the target.

  • Be secure in yourself. I.e. build up a strong sense of self so you are not constantly afraid or insecure about your own place in the community that you readily attach yourself to otherwise transparently predatory, abusive or narcissistic characters. It will also mean that you will not be swayed by this next tactic.

  • Be wary of excessive, unearned flattery. Predatory individuals know you like you and that you like people who see you as the amazing person you know yourself to be. They are also good at picking out insecurities in others and controlling them with flattery. They know just what you want or need to hear. Ever notice your new friend who keeps saying you are AMAZING—keeps repeating the word amazing—over and over again? You handed them a pencil and now you are the savior of the world! A wonderful giving saint!? …should go without saying and so I will end here. ;)

Jesus, The First Born of Creation: An Offer of Peace to a Hostile World

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The Son is the image of the invisible God,
        the one who is first over all creation,

Because all things were created by him:
        both in the heavens and on the earth,
        the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
            Whether they are thrones or powers,
            or rulers or authorities,
        all things were created through him and for him.

He existed before all things,
        and all things are held together in him.

He is the head [i.e. source of life] of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
        the one who is firstborn from among the dead
        so that he might occupy the first place in everything.

Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
        whether things on earth or in the heavens.
            He brought peace through the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20

Identity

The story of our relationship with Jesus does not begin in a manger. In Colossians we learn that the story of the Incarnation in relation to us goes back further than one might have first thought—to creation. Our access to God and life has always come through Christ, Jesus and we were in fact, created by, for and through him.

Regarding the latter, an interesting way to understand in what way we were created through the Son is to consider that something “other” than God can exist because there is distinction within the Trinity. Creation and humanity can exist on the basis of the Son’s free self-distinction from the Father (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Vol 2, 30). Further, our existence as image bearers has always been based in the natural image of the invisible God—Jesus—and of course that gets into some very odd, yet highly plausible understandings of time.

*Exiting the Dr. Who universe now.

That said, we have always had access to God in Christ. Our very identities as image bearers are premised off of his identity and ultimate unity with us by nature. We were called to represent God in this world of whom Jesus is the perfect representation.

In the beginning we were created to be like priests or divine images set up in God’s temple, the earth (Genesis uses Near Eastern temple language to describe creation such as for example the 7 days/time periods among other things) . We were told to rule the earth together and to see one another as counterparts (i.e. the correspondence language all over Genesis).

And yet, we rejected God’s vision for us. We rejected our calling.

Rebellion

Our ancestors and the rest of us when we pattern ourselves after them, choose “wisdom” apart from God. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was not an “evil” or bad tree, but we were told to depend on God and not partake of it at the time. We thought we could live well apart from the source of all life and wisdom. We decided to rebel against the God we were supposed to represent, the one whom all rule and authority was created for and as a result we sought to dominate one another, avoid responsibility, exploit and even murder.

The earth itself suffered. And continues to. Romans describes creation itself as groaning.

God sent us many messengers and envoys and made many accommodations to our warped understandings of power (i.e. Israel insists on a King and God finally relents). Yet we killed his messengers and refused to follow his ways again and again. And we all suffered. And most of our suffering comes from other humans.

Finally, the true and perfect “image of the invisible God” was sent to offer us peace and help us pattern ourselves after him. We killed him.

But what hate destroys, love resurrects.

God Shows Us How To Be Human

The birth , life, death and resurrection of Jesus stand concretely as a declaration of God’s power and love and hope for our future. While we were “estranged and hostile in mind” to God’s purposes, he reconciled with us with his own body. He showed us a new life orientation, one that surrenders zero-sum understandings of power, grandiosity and self-love at the expense of others.

Our egos and desperate efforts to have pride of place at the table were met by the true owner of the table who took the last place and welcomed those we looked down upon to it. He dared to side with the marginalized in front of us. He found those people we exploited and labeled as undesirable “sinners” and not only welcomed them but told "telling” stories in front of us all where they were set as the heroes, true sons, or valued and we were cast as the “sinners” or in rebellion against God (i.e. the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, The Two Sons, The King and Debtors…etc). He named our sins in front of everyone. He outsmarted us as we tried to trap him into saying something to get himself killed. It didn’t work and so we made stuff up and found him guilty in secret so no one could call us out for our evil.

He not only valued and raised up the marginalized, he became the marginalized. And he knew he would. He knew what kind of people we were when he came. He knew how tightly we held onto power and our false gods, ourselves. He kept living, modeling how we were called to act and would not stop. He did say that in order to truly live one must be willing to be brutally killed for living the way we were supposed to live—pure allegiance and devotion to our true calling.

In the end, we had to crucify him. We had to humiliate him, distort who he was and get rid of him so that we could continue what we were doing. People liked him too much and they started to think in ways that were not so beneficial for us. And really, he did say he was willing to pay this price. But nor our evil narratives nor the crushing power of Rome would have the final say.

God Unveils His Future

The physical body of Jesus was brought back to life but in such a way that transcended even a prefall state. God had sent us an offer of peace in human form and we more than rejected it. Jesus’ resurrection not only vindicated his message (he was not cursed by God), stood as God’s answer to injustice, but renewed the offer for peace. He lived the life we could not live as God’s representative and paid the ultimate price for it uniting the human with the divine and opened up the doors for us to also live as he did and except the offer of peace with God by the Holy Spirit. His resurrected body is also the first of many. His resurrection is a sign pointing out our own future and what it could be and look like, a reversal of the damage and transformation into something godly.

Our next move?

Surviving Psychological Warfare From Abusive People

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"Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

-Psalm 46:10-11

Initially, I did not want to believe what was happening even as I sensed it. What were the chances? And yet, I felt the threat in my environment before my brain could make all the connections. Once I acknowledged what was happening to myself, I quickly started running through my checklist of what to expect. I knew more than likely I would have no help, the wider group would turn on & try and punish me believing the abusive person in part or entirely. I also knew to expect to either eventually be eliminated (any reputation I had would not matter) or suffer for possibly years. Oh, and then there would be those instances that somehow it was my fault to X degree I was targeted and questions about forgiveness if I ever, ever told anyone about it. I was not so concerned with this part of it, I am frankly used to it. Still, one more thing to deal with.

I was scared. I knew what was ahead and did not want to go there, yet go there I was. Still, it helped to go in afresh already understanding some basic power dynamics and having some tools in my tool bag.

What follows are only some of my basic strategies for dealing with abusive people. More specifically, how to survive psychologically while being repeatedly targeted. "Targeting" is behavior that is ongoing (if not predatory), harmful and directed at you. The behavior can take the form of a person(s) continually projecting their insecurities onto you by continuously harassing, belittling, physically hurting, trying to humiliate, embarrass, isolate you and/or ruin your reputation. I've even had at one time someone follow me around and lie about me to everyone I tried to talk to as a new person at some point in life.

The goal of the abusive person is zero-sum: In order for me to maintain my image of myself, become greater or feel big you must be destroyed. It is a mistake to attribute this to insecurity. Rather, it is an inflated ego that must consume all in its path at whatever cost. It is about their need for power and control and they have targeted you as a threat to that. I do not have any special education in this area, only my own experience, and some informal research. Take my advice as just that and adapt according to your specific situation and seek professional counsel in cases of physical abuse. For prayer, more specific examples or strategies (including tactics) that are not included here please contact me via email: allisonquient@hotmail.com.

Before I begin, please note that I am absolutely opposed to revenge and believe you should, if you can, remove yourself from the situation or avoid these people! However, this is not always possible. Sometimes they will try and use people in power to try and yank you back into their clutches (or are the people in power). They may even try and follow and sabotage you. Apply the following as aids of resilience to help you hold out until you can escape:

  • Formation of Your Core

  • Being Still/Quiet Inside

  • Know the Board/Battle Field

Formation of Your Core

Understand that at its core the abusive behavior is about power and control. They want to have control over your person and identity so that they can be "bigger." You must have a strong sense of self to resist their advances. In elementary school, people with weaknesses are targeted for those weaknesses, but more often among adults, it is done toward those who are in some way or another perceived as "threats." More than likely you were targeted because you represent a threat, not because you are deficient.

A narrative of "deficiency" is a tactic the abusive person employs, not the motivating factor. This might be because you have something they want. Perhaps you are liked, talented, you threaten their paradigm, you are different in some way...etc. It could also be that they have this hole in their life and need to project their faults and motives onto someone else. In the case of bullying, statistically bully targets are independent, highly skilled, have a high level of emotional intelligence, altruistic, intelligent and otherwise well liked. I even experienced a backlash at one point because, in addition to everything else, I would not go along with at least three attempts of a targeter to smear a leader who was correcting this person's errors. Sadly, the favor was not returned by this leader when it was my turn. Regrets? NOPE. All of this to say, it is not you, it's them, 100%. Don't give equal validity to the characterizations of manipulative and abusive people.

Primarily, you are engaged in psychological warfare and must be resilient and established in your sense of self. Your objective once you know you are being bullied, harassed, abused: survive and continue your right to your vocational calling to live out of God's love. Let God be manifest in your situation and form you in the process of destruction (Seeing Christ in the Dark). If you cannot leave or remove yourself from the situation, think: You may do X to me but I will pray, be formed in the light of Christ and oppose you with all the means at my disposal. However, they will wear you down with their negative messages whether you believe them or not and you must keep resisting especially when they gaslight you or make you think it is all in your head (switching between them having your best interest in mind, but then again, you are just an "incompetent piece of crap"). This can also take the form of constant subtle messages that are highly contextual and will make you sound like a crazy person if you try and tell anyone else.

Clear the next several months if possible and figure out ways to lower the inflammation in your body (low impact exercise, massages, herbal remedies...etc), buy some food that your stomach can handle under extreme stress when you do not want to eat (ex: Miso), and you will probably need Vitamin B Complex (or nutritional yeast) in a few weeks. 

Over time you will start to not be able to recognize yourself as easily. You will be constantly on edge from hypervigilance, may have internalized some of the narratives, or started to act and think in ways adapted to a dysfunctional environment. After I had gathered enough information to know what was going on, develop and implement a survival strategy, I found I was still on edge and way too aware of everything around me. After several months this was unsustainable and I was drained. I had even absorbed another person's anxiety (INFJ habit)! It was time to consciously remember who I was and separate myself from what I was absorbing from my environment while still allowing myself to perceive what I needed to (contact me for details on how to create psychological boundaries).

That said, contact several friends outside of the situation who can remind you of who you are over an extended period of time. Be proactive now so you are in a better position to put up a fight because eventually, you will not be able to think as clearly. You are a human being and humans need community and belonging. Expect pain from extended isolation and personal attacks even if going in prepared.

As believers, our sense of self comes from our identity in Christ, our God who will never leave us nor forsake us and sees within us infinite value, worth, and dignity. What will ultimately keep you going is: 1) Hope, 2) A clear understanding of who you are and 3) conviction that you are not alone. First, recognize that this will not last forever and rest assured in God's future reconciliation of the world. Take a moment to breath realizing it may not seem like it, but this will not last forever. Our hope is in God's kingdom come and his will done on earth as it is in heaven. On this basis, we can pray for our everyday sustenance and survival in the here and now. God's hope is 'why' we can keep fighting and pressing on (Resisting Evil). Find passages to meditate on (Psalms are great) in times of discouragement and find liturgical prayers and icons for when you are run down, and your mind is less articulate (there will be physiological changes over an extended period). 

Second, know yourself very well. Regarding weaknesses, DO NOT let abusive people define you. They will twist minor things into major things and even make stuff up. They will block you from social resources and barrage you with crazy messages about yourself. It's their pattern. Expect it. Don't even take the time to consider the supposed "kernel of truth." If you need outside input, depend on people who have proven themselves to be friends calling you out when you are wrong and encouraging you in what is good. In other words, internalize NOTHING from an abusive person since their thinking and habits are distorted and unreliable. Do NOT grant anything to them and do NOT use their evil behavior as opportunities for reflecting on your faults. This also means having strong psychological boundaries where the abusive person's reactions are on them and you do not take responsibility in any way shape or form. Those of us who have grown up in abusive contexts often have what I call a rigid cause and effect type thinking. I spilled the milk, therefore, I am responsible for you flying off the handle. Or, you did X horrible things, I reported it and you got in trouble, therefore I am to blame for what happened to you. You are not responsible for their mess.

To complicate matters further, those around you will most likely turn on you, try and heap guilt and responsibility on you, and if someone is actively lying about you, others will most likely believe them! Expect it. Plan on it. Move your next several months around and plan out little retreats. If they have not completely bought into the abuser's narrative, they will at least think you are responsible for not defending yourself properly, for not just "ignoring" it, or you somehow had it coming in some way. Often the abusive person has sucked others into their constructed narrative about you to rationalize their behavior and sabotage you ahead of time. At the very least, hold onto who you are and don't get lost in the narrative yourself. Listen to God's voice in prayer and in his word and let him breathe truth into your mind when everything gets chaotic and distorted. 

Lastly, know you are not alone. God is with you. You must pray, and pray often because God will help protect and form your inner self during this awful time and because sometimes he will rescue you from the situation itself. Much could be said on this point (see my other posts). That said, get outside help in the form of friends, coworkers, people from church, family...etc anyone who will support you. Avoid like the plague those who have the knee-jerk reaction to assign you blame or add moral responsibilities of forgiveness, politeness or anything really while you are in the middle of fighting for your life.

Unfortunately, you must be calm, collected, outwardly snap happy and polite, but out of necessity so that others do not attack you, not out of moral obligation or imperative. I watched in awe as a woman who was still being harassed legally by a rich physical abuser (beat her up while pregnant with racial slurs) spoke to him on the phone. Think: fake Flanders family from the Simpsons. She knew she had to be polite, cheerful and careful otherwise it would be used against her. This is not something I do well as an introvert. When I am gloomy I want to be by myself and hide! Do your best. No one is perfect. Still, count on the abusive person using your "bad attitude" against you after they run you over for months or years. 

If possible get people who will keep you grounded, will concretely protect you, will help you navigate/strategize and will stand up for you if they are in a position to. You will need the wisdom of others to counteract the trauma or fatigue from having to be fake happy or calm for extended periods while fighting off the barrage of cloaked intentions, insults, overt aggression...etc.

 Being Still/Quiet Inside

Coming out on the other side of an anxiety disorder I have been learning what it means to be still and quiet inside in the midst of chaos, but as a healthy individual whose mind will not be flooded with abnormal amounts of anxiety outside of my control. In Psalm 46 it describes having a solid trust based off of who God is, the works God has done in the past and hope for tomorrow amidst poetic catastrophe. When you are being attacked verbally or physically, are having to frantically deduce pieces of gossip/lies being spread about you, or are shocked to discover you have been manipulated by someone, breathe. Internally take a step back and try and see the situation for what it is without panic. Your heart may still be racing and your head swimming because your body perceives a threat. You are being threatened and let your body respond accordingly. It is ok. You can be calm even while your body is flooded. Focus your mind on Christ who went before you and is beside you, the Spirit who is in and around you and the Father who loves and guides you. 

Directing your attention to God,  separate yourself internally from any lies, distortions or catastrophic thinking (hopelessness). Know that God is with you and on your side. Ask him for help and direct your mind to the "fight" part of fight or flight using your body's readiness for survival to your advantage. What can you observe in the moment? Do you see any openings or useful pieces of information? Become fluid and adaptable without fixating on disturbing elements. Survival depends on you being able to see the changing landscape and being able to change accordingly. You can be adaptable because your stable core is Christ and this will free you to let go of the fear in some moments and get things done. This also means being open to the Spirit's work and voice and following what is said. It also means reading the room and your opponent if you are physically or metaphorically fighting. What are his or her eyes telegraphing of their movements? If you fixate on the hand or foot coming at you, you will get hit. Look for where the abuser is going and react accordingly and wisely. Can you move out of the way? Is there a door near by? If it is the room you are reading, what do you hear or see and when? I was able to deduce some key lies being spread about me on time simply by noting silences, pauses and an innuendo or two and figuring out the themes/common elements. I was then able to figure out I was in danger, what I could counter and what I had to let go and move around. 

If you are being manipulated or harmed covertly, do not be given over to desperate moves out of panic. Calculate, but do not hesitate. Move when there is a clear or more reasonable path (you may need to use other people's minds to help you see clearly). And for heaven's sake, do not tell the villain of the story you know all about their evil plan! Sure they may have been doing this forever, and you will feel better and dignified in the moment, but it is better to keep your cards close to your chest. You may be able to out step them since you know their game. Think of it as a game. If you know how they will attack, you can be prepared and turn their attack against you against them. If you tell them what you know, they will try something else. Also, note that if someone is exhibiting predatory behavior (habitual + targeted) you will not be able to reason with them or confront them in a healthy way. You are probably high in empathy and just want peace. They don't. Don't tell them anything. Move out of their way and protect yourself instead. 

Also, note that outwardly you are not allowed to be upset. Is this horribly dysfunctional? You bet. Unfortunately, as the victim, being upset only works against you. If you are visibly offended, hurt, angry or sad often the group will turn on you faster and the abusive person will only go further in for the kill. It's messed up, but mostly true. Be hurt and sad with people you trust outside of the situation and bring it to the Lord. For now, push it aside to process in a safe place. Seek counseling if you begin to have PTSD symptoms resulting from this drawn-out encounter. 

Eventually, you will get worn out and it will cost you some ground. It's ok. Regroup, and fight another day. Try and take control of the moment when you can, but be prepared to play the long game. Many people beat themselves up about not having snappy comebacks to give to abusive people. I had tons of snappy comebacks this last time around (these people were not difficult to outsmart even without my resorting to insults or equal meanness). It didn't matter, they just went behind my back. Still, I was regularly able to take control of the moment and buy time in the long run. My aim was not to feel better about myself, but to buy time. I played dumb (What? You are speaking "covertly" about me in front of me??? I have no idea!) and wrote down their behavior for my own analysis and in case I needed to connect it to evidence later. Your advantage over most abusive people will be your ability to plan ahead, predict behavior (because you have observed their trends/patterns of behavior) and think several steps ahead to the future.

Know the Board/Battle Field

In any good strategy game, it is key to know the playing field and terrain. Know what areas are open for you to move to safety, what you can avoid and what you cannot. Use your flexibility to bend what you can bend and move around what you cannot. Know what areas your opponent is not prepared to fight you and try to move him or her to that place. You may even be able to bait them to move their attacks with a fake weakness you create over weeks. They will figure it out eventually, but you will have bought time and gathered more information. Sometimes you can get your opponent to move to attack a fake weakness. This can function to confirm their intentions in that in-between time when you feel you may be insane and are not sure if something is even going on. It can also allow you some breathing time if they were continually attacking a point of agitation.  

But first, you have to realize you are being targeted in the first place. This is difficult because often you find out late in their game. A recent bout I had was difficult to detect because it thrived in a culture of jokes and pranks. It was fun. To start with, those that know me know I tend to take very little personally (even when folks are directly and intentionally insulting). For a long while, I just didn't care and did not read in any malicious intent. However, sometimes the first clues are subconscious. At other times, you just think you are dealing with some other dysfunctional behavior and don't read too much into it. Either way, I still recommend not jumping to conclusions, but looking for prolonged patterns of behavior. Still, if you have grown up in abuse sometimes it is difficult to realize you are in it, even if the person is physically harming you. It may help to just look at the behavior patterns and separate your judgment from it so you can at least see that something is occurring: maybe they fly into fits of rage several times a week and blame you for a messy house that they had a hand in.

Once you have a sense of what is going on, do not try and confront them yourself. Statistically, this seldom works. If you have others who will back you, great! In most of my encounters or in those friends I helped, this was not the case. Still, do not try and just avoid them, they have targeted you and will continue to come after you. And beware of giving the metaphorical Hitler more tiny countries to appease his power lust. They will just keep after you and take more. A relative had her bully constantly trying to take her vacation slot not because she wanted/needed it, but because she didn't want her target to have it knowing it meant a lot to her. It was another means of control. Expect lots of little power plays aimed at making you feel worthless and powerless. Be careful with granting these because they will keep advancing if you give in, but if you fight overtly you will appear petty and unreasonable. 

By virtue of being targeted, you are starting out at a disadvantage. Their object is to destroy you and your object is to survive. Here is the terrain advantage you can know they have going in: 1) They have the element of surprise. If it is not physical abuse or done by a person no one likes, chances are they are good at what they do. It has probably taken a while to figure out what has been going on unless you are a paranoid disordered person yourself with a thin skin who sees threats under every rock and in every corner.  2) They are attacking you and using unethical means to do so (you are in the position of defense and must remain ethical). 3) They have probably already gotten others on their "side" through gifts, smiles, flattery...etc. Hey, they survived this long without getting the boot. They probably have some sense. And the sad reality is, people usually believe the lie.

Knowing the basics of your position, try and sniff out an outline of your situation including any particulars available. Who is the instigator? This may be several people. They may be difficult to detect since the group will often follow the leader and also try and clobber you. Sometimes you can figure out who the leader is by looking to see who people are constantly trying to please. Don't obsess too much. Know who is friends with who and see if you can win anyone to your side if you are not already too deep in and completely ostracized. Is there anyone trying to help you behind the scenes? How much? Are they friends with the people after you? Are people telegraphing information with awkward silences, pauses, intonation, avoiding eye contact? Are you being iced out? If you are iced out you know that you are now "other" and will probably not receive any basic rights, protections or human contact from them. They all probably "know" you are a horrible person. Try for resources outside of the group icing you out. Avoidance of eye contact often means they are trying not to identify with/empathize with you (but not always). Note this as well and see if you can make eye contact so as to humanize yourself in their eyes. Is anyone trying to help you indirectly? If you find someone like this try and use the tools they throw your way, but cautiously.

Know your own strengths and weaknesses early in the process (you will get disoriented later). They targeted you for a reason, consciously put your talents and abilities toward your survival. They may have the advantage, but statistically, you are probably smarter and more skilled than they are, USE IT. They also feel threatened by your strengths and sometimes you can use them to scare your opponent into exposing information or their moves. Be careful not to antagonize because it will not end well for you. Also, don't get too confident. It is more difficult to defend ethically and survive than destroy unethically.

However, the strength of your opponent's position is often secrecy. They thrive in the shadows and in distortion. Your aim as someone trapped if they will not leave you alone: expose them. Sometimes you can make them overextend their evil behavior into visibility so that you can get the attention of sympathizers (not always, be careful with this one). This one is tricky and should only be tried if you already think fast on your feet and don't mind taking some hits. An advantage of this strategy is that if no one comes after you, no one gets harmed. It also has the advantage of being more a matter of movement/arrangement of what your targeter is already doing to you and does not involve much on your part other than anticipating where they will step and constructing safety nets for yourself that will simultaneously expose anyone who tries anything.

Also, research some key features of people who do these kinds of predatory behavior (ex: check out the Workplace Bullying Institute). A big weakness your opponent has is that even if intelligent, they are arrogant. Hence the super-villain telling the hero their evil plan or the Riddler giving Batman clues in the first place! Look for mess ups and openings to expose their behavior either in the form of a log, trail (maybe you can find others or there is a record somewhere) or concrete proof. Maybe they will get too bold one day and you can point out their behavior without appearing to directly confront them. It helps to play dumb while you do this. It will only work for so long so choose your moments. Wait and collect information until you have enough so that it is difficult for leadership or others (who may not help by the way) to refute what they are doing or make you out to be crazy or "sensitive."

Try and figure out if this has happened before and what moves the abusive person made. Often they are not terribly creative (just enough) and will do the same thing again. I helped a friend navigate out of being targeted for firing by someone who wanted her job by 1) helping her identify the instigator from the group 2) separating herself from their narrative and 3) identifying his tactic so that she could be prepared the next time around. And he did make the same move again! The first time he did not succeed in getting her fired but did get 2 people to quit in her name, turn her friend against her and embarrass her in front of her leadership (she was his boss). Next time around she hired people with qualities that would not easily turn on her and got in good with them. She was also successfully able to bring up concrete things to her supervisors about this person to get them annoyed with him as well (he really was a bad worker). Basically, she took steps the next round and he ended up getting the boot.

And there you have it, a sampling of what I have gleaned over the years. Again, note that I am not a professional and my advice should be taken with a grain of salt based more from experience and a theology background. My final advice for this post is again, try and leave if you can because if you are not a glutton for punishment, it is just not worth it. Still, if you are going to leave play the game before you can get out.

AQ

[P.S. This barely scratches the surface as I have already long ago anticipated possible recon & vetted what I share here.]