My mom has had a rough go of life. My father, a whiskey-for-breakfast alcoholic, left her for another woman when I was six. Years later I found out that my step-sister—who was just a few months my senior—was actually my half-sister. My dad, Lenny, had been sleeping with this other woman the entire time he was married to my mom. Still, my mom begged Lenny to stay with her, even to the point of giving him permission to continue his affair. After the divorce my mom looked to alcohol to save her, and then to suicide. Neither worked. But things started to get a little better after I walked in on her viciously banging her head against the wall of her bedroom.
My mom was young when all this happened, her late twenties or so. Lenny so damaged her that it took a lot of years, and a few more broken relationships after him, until she was able to scrape together some semblance of a coherent life. Even now, though, some thirty years later, she’ll look at me from time to time and say, “Your daddy was the love of my life.” Love hurts. I guess true love hurts worse.
My New Father-Figure
“Hello,” I answered. “Where’s your mom?” That was my first conversation with George, who would turn out to be the guy my mom finally loved again after Lenny. I was twelve when that phone call came. It had been six years since my parents divorced, and I didn’t like George from the start. There was something about his tone in the first phone conversation that rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t like that he spoke as if we were friends, as if he knew my mom. Despite that it was a whirlwind romance, with vows being taken only three months after that phone call. Mom seemed happy, in love even. And the new church we joined at George’s behest was thrilled. She had really caught a catch. George was a faithful believer, a deacon in the church, and a small-group leader. He owned his own somewhat-successful business.
There were probably warning signs from the start. The wedding came very quickly after they first met. George banned anything “secular” from the house. No non-Christian music—especially not the rap music I liked so much—no non-church friends, unless they were being evangelized, definitely no alcohol. Infractions of these rules, like having an Air Supply or George Strait album, were punished. George would sometimes go out to my mom’s car and turn it on to see what was on the radio. If she had forgotten to change the radio from the country music, she would have to endure a screed about rebelling against George’s authority. God forbid that he ever find out she would sometimes drink wine when he wasn’t around.
The verbal dressing-downs were frequent enough. And it wasn’t always clear what would set him off. There were the big issues, of course, like breaking one of George’s rules about non-Christian influences. But other things would set him off too. Take a glass of tea into the living room? That was an affront to George’s authority, an intentional rebellion against his God-ordained leadership. That sort of thing would not be tolerated in a Christian home, and George made sure that the whole family knew. Buy the wrong kind of deli meat? Also a Christian failure to respect the leader of the home. Surely a man’s wife should know what type of cold cuts he preferred That type of insolence also was not tolerated. On the other hand, things like back-talking my mom or stamping off from her or slamming my door or even yelling at my mom were completely acceptable.
At times the verbal and emotional abuse would escalate into physical abuse, with my mom and younger brother on the receiving end of George’s wrath. Late one night, I must have been fifteen or sixteen years old, my younger brother—around five or six at the time—crept into my room. His sobs woke me up. “What’s wrong?” I asked him. “Daddy.” He turned around and lifted his shirt to show me the belt-wide welts across his back. It wasn’t the first time my stepfather had raged, but I took photos to make sure it was the last time.
I thought for sure that church leadership would do something, anything, to curb George’s abuse. In my mind they were the only one who could control this man and rescue my family. So I took these stories to the church’s senior pastor. He met me in his office and listened while I recounted the screaming, yelling, manipulation, and beatings that took place in my home. The pastor prayed with me and handed me a book, Under Cover: The Promise of Protection under His Authority. I read the book eagerly, but about halfway through I started to think that maybe the pastor was telling me that I should be a better kid, more submissive to my stepfather. Our next meeting confirmed that.
“Did you read the book?”
“Yes, I did.”
“And, what did you think? Do you think you are under George’s cover? Are you submitting to the authority God has placed over you?”
I was furious. I went to the pastor hoping for some way to get relief at home, if not for me then at least for my mom and brother. I just wanted George to stop. And now I was coming under further scrutiny, my appeals for justice at home being met with the same sort of pseudo-Christian conversation about honoring and submitting to authority, no matter what. My last line of defense—the church—supported my family’s abuser. He was, after all, the head of the home. And he was trying to make sure that we were a good, Christian home. And didn’t I know that he was a deacon in the church? A well-respected community member? A faithful evangelist and reader of God’s word? Any discipline George meted out came from God himself, and of course I want to live under God’s protection, so all these stories of abuse are nothing more than slandering a man of God, and they have to stop.
A few months later George forbade me from asking an African American girl to prom. “It’s not God’s will to mix the races, son.”
“I’m not your son,” I responded.
“No, you’re not. But I’ll tell you one thing—as long as you live in this house, you will honor me and respect my authority.”
I moved out that night and lived the rest of my senior year of high school with my alcoholic father.
Forgive Your Enemies?
It wasn’t long after all of this happened that I became a Christian. Sitting on the campus of Ouachita Baptist University the summer before my freshman year of college, I felt the tugging of the Holy Spirit. Now, I’m not a mystical person. I generally eschew emotional experiences and try to avoid worship services with low lighting and minor chords. I have nothing against that type of worship expression—it’s just not my style. That said, the Spirit’s voice was unmistakable. He was calling me to repentance and to walk with him the same way that my grandmother had walked all those years before. She had shared the gospel with me and showed me what it meant to suffer well—and now God was calling me to walk with him also. I repented of my sins and gave my life to Christ.
Christ changed who I was. The only problem, for me at least, was that I still had a lot of anger and resentment because of my stepfather and how the church protected him and refused to confront his abuse of my family. I was angry because the church didn’t believe me. Angry because the church betrayed my mother. Angry because I was told to submit to a man who beat my mom. Angry because they elevated a man who in private was far different from his public persona. And I didn’t know what to do with all that anger and confusion and hurt.
I knew that Christians were supposed to go to church. And I knew that Christians were supposed to forgive their enemies. That much was certain. My problem was that I just couldn’t figure out how to do that. How in the world do I forgive George? How do I trust people in the church? How do I have honest conversations about who I am and the things I’d experienced in the name of God? It’s disorienting to all of a sudden be part of this family—God’s family—that had for the past several years laid the blame for being abused at the feet of the abused.
Reading the Imprecatory Psalms
Once I got to college after the summer I met Christ, I met the director of the Baptist Collegiate Ministries at Henderson University. He talked about pain and suffering and injustice in ways that I’d never heard before. Neal spent a lot of time listening to me as I verbally processed the preceding years of abuse and the complicity of church leadership—and he never once told me that I should submit to authority or be kind or forgive or any of those sorts of things. He nodded his head, grieved with me, and told me to listen to Rich Mullins.
Rich Mullins, for those of you who don’t know, is quite possibly the greatest Christian songwriter to ever live. He wrote songs with lyrics like,
You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt
Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away
Well I memorized every word You said
Still I’m so scared, I’m holding my breath
While You’re up there just playing hard to get.
Rich’s Christianity was raw and real. He expressed the type of things I was feeling—fear, doubt, pain, regret, sadness. I needed this example of telling God just how I felt instead of putting on a happy face and singing along in a church service with a bunch of people who I felt had betrayed me. I needed honesty, and Rich Mullins showed me that a Christian could indeed be sad or angry or any number of other emotions that didn’t really fit in the it’s-okay-to-abuse-your-family and always-submit-to-authority Christianity that I grew up in.
Later Neal told me about these poems in the Old Testament where God’s people cry out for vengeance and justice and ask God to, well, do really bad things to people. They’re called the imprecatory psalms. I’m going to warn you, these are some very dark portions of scripture that don’t get much air time on Sunday mornings. My personal favorite is Psalm 58.
O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
Like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
(Psalm 58:6–10 ESV)
Psalm 137 also ranks high on my list:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
And just for good measure, let’s see what the psalmist has to say about his enemy in Psalm 109:
Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin!
May his days be few;
may another take his office!
May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!
May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation!
May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord,
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!
Let them be before the Lord continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth!
If you’re bothered by these passages, you’re certainly not alone. Every semester when I teach these psalms I can see most of my students squirming in their seats. It’s deeply unsettling to realize that right there in the Bible—in our beloved Psalms, no less—are these vile prayers that God would smash people’s teeth out, make a person’s children barren and starve to death, dash infants against rocks, and be like stillborn children. Not only that, but the writer says that “the righteous will rejoice” at this and “bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.”
If you’re like me, and you grew up in a Christian home (at least Christian in name), then these verses will bother you. After all, doesn’t Jesus say to love our enemies? To pray for those who curse us? To turn the other cheek? And yet right here in the book of Psalms, home of passages like Psalm 23, there are these morbid prayers that God would do unthinkable harm to David’s enemies. But these passages didn’t bother me. They were water to my soul, a bright light shining into my anger and pain and frustration at the church. These passages freed me to express the anger and rage within my soul.
Seeking for Justice
Previously, I thought that the anger I experienced was something that I should repent of, something that I should at the very least try to suppress, something that made me somehow less Christian because I wasn’t able to control it. After all, Paul is pretty clear: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger . . .” I had been taught that the anger I had resulted from my own refusal to submit to authority and to extend forgiveness when I and those I love had been wronged. But right here in the Bible I found several examples of just the sort of thoughts I was having. And I learned that I could indeed “be angry and . . . not sin.” But both the anger and the avoidance of sin came in expressing my rage to God, not in suppressing that rage and trying to put on a happy face.
By reading these cries for justice and the righting of wrongs, I learned that my God does indeed care for the brokenhearted. I would later learn about God’s relationship with the Israelites during the Exodus—God hears, God remembers, God sees, and God knows. I can’t emphasize how freeing this was for me, that the God of the universe is concerned with oppression and injustice, and not just that, but he offers a model in scripture of how to speak to him about the injustices we suffer.
These passages allowed me for the first time to articulate clearly what was so infuriating about my experience. And more than that they showed me that it was possible, and even right, to cry out to God and ask him to bring about justice. They even gave me the words to do so. So, that is exactly what I did. I spent time reading, meditating on, and praying these imprecations. I was freed to express my true feelings to God, to tell him what made me angry and why, and to pray using the same vivid language that was already rolling around in my head.
Over the next several years I spent a lot of time in these passages of scripture, using them as a means to lament to God and to work through the pain and anger that I had for so long held onto. And slowly, ever so slowly, God began to change my heart. Giving expression to these emotions somehow freed me to experience them less, and less forcefully. It was as if I were the psalmist, coming before the judge of all the earth, and laying out my complaints to him. And there were no comments about submitting to authority or forgiving my enemy or turning the other cheek or excuses for why abuse is okay sometimes. There was only the sweet comfort of knowing that my prayers were reaching the one who could actually do something about it—God himself.
Without these passages, I would not have returned to the church or stayed if I ever got there. The culture of covering up abuse taking the side of the abuser was too much for me to handle. But, by God’s grace, he has given the abused and oppressed a model by which we can come to him, exposed in our pain, and offer up genuine prayers that seek justice for the abused. And here’s the thing—it’s not a sin. It’s not a sin to tell God that we have been treated unjustly and that we want him to bring about justice. In fact, it’s entirely consistent with his character as the God who stands on the side of the orphan, widow, and immigrant who seeks justice in a society that so often marginalizes and abuses these most vulnerable members of society.
The author of Ecclesiastes puts it this way: “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.” The pain embedded in this statement is palpable. And it’s all too often as true then as it is now. The powerless are oppressed, and on the side of the oppressors is power. I experienced this in trying to defend my family against an angry deacon in our home. Others have experienced it in other ways. The consistent thread is the despair caused by seeking help, only to realize the systems of power favor the powerful.
So, if you have found yourself in the church—or anywhere else—looking for solace, comfort, and relief from abuse and been met with the reality that “On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them,” then may you turn to the imprecatory psalms and find comfort there. There we hear the voice of those who suffered greatly at the hands of others, and that voice reaches out to us in our suffering and gives expression to our own feelings of grief and injustice.
I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but I have been the victim of domestic abuse and have seen my family members experience such abuse. And I’ve experienced the betrayal of trust that crushes the spirit of so many people who seek help from the church. It’s a hard place to be, and I’m afraid that there are many other folks out there who, like me, sought help from the church and instead were issued platitudes about submission and forgiveness whose effect was to deny justice and protect the powerful. I don’t know how to fix that, so I offer up my story of praying imprecatory psalms as just one way to work through the pain and anger that comes along with injustice.
Cover photo by Umanoide.
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