Gospel for Abusers by David Dunham

When I found out that he had molested a little girl I had to pray for the strength not to punch him in the throat. I began to question whether or not I could sit across from this guy. I have counseled many people who have been victims of sexual abuse, but this was my first experience counseling an abuser. I needed, in that moment, to remember a great fundamental truth about Biblical counseling: there is always hope for change in Christ. As different as counseling victims and abusers is, the same gospel applies to both.

It’s easy for me to paint certain sins with the “unforgiveable” brush. Sexual assault on children is a particularly gross sin. The harm done to little ones, the graphic violation, makes this a culturally, and I think Biblically, more egregious sin. As a counselor, however, I have to be careful not to deny redemption to anyone to whom God offers it. Sin, even the sin of sexual assault, even the sin of sexually assaulting a child, is not beyond God’s grace. That’s the amazing power of the gospel! God can rescue, change, and restore any sinner. The gospel that provides new identity and healing to victims of abuse provides the same for abusers. Certainly applying the gospel to their particular sins looks different, but the gospel is the same. The hope for change and transformation is the same.

The gospel promises that sin will not define us. That’s particularly good news for the victim of abuse who has been so unwillingly imprinted by the sin of others. Justin and Lindsay Holcomb so beautifully capture this reality in their book Rid of My Disgrace. They write:

Your story does not end with the assault. Your life was intended for more than shame, guilt, despair, pain, and denial. The assault does not define you or have the last word on your identity. Yes, it is part of your story, but not the end of your story. The message of the gospel redeems what has been destroyed and applies grace to disgrace.

The shame and the associated feelings of dirtiness, brokenness, or ugliness that can accompany sexual assault do not have to linger forever. There is hope in the gospel for healing and transformation. I have seen this happen first-hand in the lives of many men and women. It is a thing of beauty to see the power of God’s love restore what man’s hatred has broken. But this same truth, as shocking and startling as it might be, is applicable to abusers too.

Once the reality of his sin caught up with him my counselee was broken. He will never be able to fathom all the long-term damage he has caused, but he has some sense of his own moral wickedness. He knows at some level that he has betrayed the trust of many, that he has wrecked the peaceful world of a little child, a sweet little girl. As the weight of his sin settles on him – and I want it to settle on him – he becomes very depressed. He needs to be broken over his sins, but he also needs to know that there is hope, even for him. He needs to know that this sin does not have to define him. He needs to believe that he can change by the power of the gospel. He needs to believe that he can be forgiven, particularly that he can be forgiven by God. The gospel is fundamentally a testimony to the reality that you are not what you do.

Paul testifies to this, as he recounts his own record of abuses. He shares his story with King Agrippa, saying:

I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 1And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26:9-11)

Paul was opposed to all things related to Jesus. He locked up believers, cast his vote to kill them, tried to compel them to blaspheme (which likely means that he tortured them, perhaps even with his own hands), and he was obsessed with chasing them down, hunting them to the ends of the earth. Paul was an abuser, an oppressor, and he did so even within the boundaries of his country’s laws. He was a torturer, a murderer, and hater of God. Yet what does Paul say about the power of the gospel? To the Corinthians he writes:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (1 Cor. 5:17-21)

Paul was an abuser who knew what it meant to be transformed by the power of the living God. I want to do my best to communicate such hope to my counselee. How I communicate it is important.

In counseling this abuser I want to begin by making sure he has a firm grasp on the reality of his sin. It is important that his sorrow be proper. If his sorrow stems only from getting caught, or even merely from the ramifications of his actions he won’t really change. He needs to feel sorrow for the act itself. He has done tremendous wrong, there’s no skirting that issue. We can’t pretend like it’s not that serious. He won’t come to my office and hear me say, “It’s okay.” Nor will he hear me say, “It’s not your fault.” It is his fault, he is morally wicked. When all the legal issues have run their course he will likely go to jail, and he should. But that’s not the end of his story.

In addition to helping him find genuine sorrow over his sin, I want to help him find hope in the gospel. He can be redeemed. He can be forgiven. He can be restored to a right relationship with God. There are consequences for his sin, and the gospel won’t allow him freedom from those earthly relational and legal consequences. But the guilt and shame that own him now, and the judgment of God that stands over Him, can be removed. He can walk through those earthly consequences with new power, new identity, and new hope. I want to point him again and again both to the reality of the condemnation he feels and to the promise Christ offers that he can take it away.

Counseling this man has been difficult but good for me. I needed to be reminded that the gospel can heal all people, change all people, and free all people. I often say it with my lips, but in my heart it’s hard to believe, hard to desire. In the process of counseling this man God has been counseling me, working on my heart. Though here are some sins which we might categorize as being more disgusting, and which have greater earthly consequences, than others, there is still no sin so great that God cannot forgive it. God’s grace is just that powerful and that comprehensive. My counselee needs to hear that, and so does his counselor.

David Dunham is an associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

Comments
9 Responses to “Gospel for Abusers by David Dunham”
    • Nck says:

      “He won’t come to my office and hear me say, “It’s okay.” Nor will he hear me say, “It’s not your fault.” It is his fault, he is morally wicked. When all the legal issues have run their course he will likely go to jail, and he should. But that’s not the end of his story.”

      I think the calling of police is implicit here…

  1. Nell Parker says:

    It is not implicit in many churches which feel they can counsel the abuser and avoid the police. This needs to be repeated over and over again, loud and clear.

    Also, most pastors do not have the training and experience to adequately counsel pedophiles. This is a notoriously difficult issue with a high recidivism rate even with those who become Christians and confess their sins.

    Pedophiles are highly manipulative individuals. I know a number of pedophiles who could out-preach many a pastor. These people need highly skilled and adept counselors. Even then, the outcome is bleak. Not impossible, mind you, but bleak.

    • Nck says:

      I absolutely agree, Nell. Churches mishandle this kind of stuff frequently. I think frequently the truth that the gospel can change anyone is misunderstood as meaning that such change is easy or automatic.

      I was simply saying that the author seems to imply that law enforcement should be (or already has been) notified. The gospel does not promise to eliminate or mitigate temporal consequences.

  2. Thanks for the comments, friends. Yes, calling the police always an absolute moral responsibility for pastors and counselors. Since this is not a “how to counsel pedophiles” piece there are many things left unsaid that are worthy of discussion.

    The authorities have been involved in this particular case.

    Thank you again for your comments.

  3. RStarke says:

    There is probably no situation which challenges our commitment to the reality that the same gospel than can deliver and restore the abused, can also deliver and restore the abuser. But as others have said, the chronology is critical. If the counsel for a *confessed* abuser is happening anywhere other than a jail cell or holding pen, it’s off track.

  4. anonymous says:

    Thank you for posting this. I wish more pastors and church leaders would consider these issues.

    I’d like to bring up a related but less clear-cut issue: the over 750,000 men in this country who are living with the “sex offender” label. Statistically, less than 15% of these men have committed either a crime against a child 13 or under, a forcible offense, or repeat offenses of any type. The other 85% committed a single non-violent statutory offense involving a minor 14-16 or a single non-contact offense. Many of these men were young themselves–18-27 or so–when they committed their single offense. And yet they will publicly wear the “sex offender” label for decades or life, making it nearly impossible for them to find jobs, housing, or community (and also in many cases meaning they will be denied any form of government or private assistance).

    I am part of a support group for women married to registered sex offenders. My husband was arrested in his mid-20s, when he was in the throes of an online sex addiction, in an online sting operation involving an undercover officer pretending to be a sexually-eager, experienced teen of 15 in an adult sex chat room. A number of other women in the group had their husbands arrested under similar circumstances. Others have husbands who, when they were 19-22 or so, made a bad choice about sexual contact with a girlfriend who was 15. (I know a lovely couple in Texas who is in that situation. He, at 19, dated and had sex with a 15 year old. He did prison time for his crime. He paid the penalty. He gave his life to Christ and turned his life around. Now, at 28, he recently married a wonderful, supportive woman, and after they moved in to her home after they married, postcards were sent out to the entire neighborhood warning them of the dangerous predator who moved in.) Many others are married to men who were arrested for downloading child pornography, in nearly all cases as part of a larger, general pornography addiction that spiraled out of control over the course of decades.

    Our families are often shunned by the churches where we should be receiving grace. This is not about turning a blind eye to child molestation and allowing a person who has harmed children to have access to them or have some sort of easy forgiveness. This is about recognizing that sometimes people make bad choices about sex, and that a young man who, at 20 or 22, makes a poor choice about sex with a willing, eager girlfriend three months below the age of consent, is not a pedophile, a predator, or somebody who poses a lifetime of risk. Ten or twenty years later, after he has done his time, learned his lesson, and grown and matured, he should be able to move on, but he cannot. Even more, the guilt these men feel, particularly over the harm that the label does to their families (and often over their inability to find work even after years and years of diligent searching and a strong desire to support their families financially), is very real and often lifelong. They don’t need people to recoil in horror over the “sex offender” label without bothering to learn their story. They don’t need churches telling them they aren’t welcome there, because having a sex offender in the pews looks bad for PR, even if the man has been a model citizen for 20 years. Society already tells them that the gospel doesn’t apply to them: there is no grace, no forgiveness, no chance for new life, even decades after they have done their time. They need to hear a different message from the church, and have people in their church come alongside them and provide the grace, forgiveness, and acceptance that the rest of society denies them.

    Again, I am NOT suggesting being stupid. This is not about turning a blind eye to child abuse or naively allowing a person who was convicted of molesting a child to have free access to the children or families in a church. But it is about recognizing that the vast majority of sexual offenses in this country do not involve adults molesting prepubescent children, but young men in their late teens or early to mid 20s having sexual contact with willing young women less than a year below the age of consent or online, non-contact sexual crimes (online sex offenses are the fastest-growing prosecutions in the country). We should not respond the same way to the man who, at 20, had a 15 year old girlfriend, and then went on to never commit another crime again as we should to a man who admits to molesting multiple children, even if the state gives both men the same label and puts them on the same list. Churches need to extend the compassion and grace that our punitive nation refuses to.

    • Nell Parker says:

      anonymous,

      I feel for your situation. However, it is vital to state that men (and women) who utilize online sex rooms are promoting, through their actions, the sexual exploitation of minors who, in many cases, are being misused in a criminal context. Some of these teens are victims of chronic abuse. Some of them are even sex trafficking victims. And young men are willing to use and hurt them further to satisfy their own momentary urges.

      Those who use these chat rooms are not necessarily participating in a victimless crime. They are contributing to the further exploitation of these teens-exploitation that can have lifelong consequences for them. There is much, much pain for teens misused in this fashion. If the police were involved, it is highly likely that the particular chat rooms were matters of grave concern by the authorities for the well-being of those minors.

      Recently, a well known Christian leader had to step down from his position because he had an alleged fondness for young women who were just over the age of consent. These women were victims, nonetheless. And his interest in this age group appears to have lasted a lifetime.

      I agree that a 19 yr old guy who has sex with his 15 year old girlfriend may not be a danger to others. The operative word is “may not” since each situation needs to evaluated on its own merits (or lack thereof.)

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