It is not as though anything you have had to deal with in this ordeal has been easy, but this next issue is, unless I miss my mark, particularly difficult. I am talking about dealing with those times in the middle of a sleepless night where you struggle with accusing or blaming yourself. The grist for this might come from something you heard somebody else say, or it might come from your own imagination, or some combination of both.
Women have a natural tendency to assume responsibility for more than they should (just as men a natural tendency to assume less than they should). If you combine with this with the fact that abusers will often groom their victims to put up with outrages, with part of the grooming to inflame this particular tendency that is there already, you have a potential for complete distortion. In your case, this was accomplished by accusation and a constant stream of criticism, which kept you constantly on your heels. Whenever you walked into a room where he was, you needed to be braced for some comment, some critical remark, some pointed disappointment. This had the effect of creating a reflex of self-criticism that was badly distorted.
You need to correct this distortion with clear thinking—and not with an opposing distortion. I am fond of saying that there is a ditch on both sides of the road. Clear thinking, laid out for you in Scripture, will get you back on the road. Simple reaction against anything that your father might represent to your emotions will simply land you in the opposite ditch.
So here it is. What you need to do is begin with a set of two fundamental distinctions. The first is to mark the difference between a simple active/passive situation (as happens in a rape or kidnapping), on the one hand, and a very complicated and layered set of relationships, as you had to deal with in your family. And the second distinction is related to this, which is to mark the difference between a victim, which is what you are, and the Victim, which is what Jesus was. He was the only one in human history whose victim status was entirely uncomplicated by the lure or possibility of self- recrimination. More on this later.
The world we live in is a world full of sinners, ourselves included. When we are confronted with the grotesque sin of someone else, as you were with your father, it is a temptation to blame yourself for what he did. He is responsible for what he did, and he alone is responsible for what he did. If you try to take any of that on yourself—“maybe I did do something to encourage it,” etc. you are embracing vain speculation instead of sober reflection.
I should say something here on the difference between doubts and questions. Doubts have no answer in principle. There is no way to settle it, and they always begin with words like maybe or what if. If you find yourself asking “what if I did something to encourage it?” the only responsible way to answer that is with “what if I didn’t?” A question has an answer. When you ask questions, you are pursuing wisdom. When you give way to doubts, you are being pursued by the devil.
A question would be something like, “why didn’t I come forward with my story sooner than I did?” That is a good question to answer, and there will be wisdom in it for you. From what I have gathered from your aunt and uncle, the answer to that question was a combination of fear of what he might do to you (he had threatened you), and reluctance to bring very hard consequences down on him (he had told you how horrible it would be for him if this came out). You reported him two years ago. A question might be, why didn’t you do that three years ago? There is an answer to that question—you were afraid of his threats, and you were confused by his self-pity.
Now here is the part where you must be very careful. Suppose you ask yourself the next question. Suppose you ask whether you were in the wrong for being afraid of him, or if you were wrong to be “sympathetic” with him because you were reluctant to be the one to send him to jail. This is what I was referring to above when I said these things were layered.
I myself believe you came forward as soon as it would be reasonable to expect a daughter to come forward in a situation like this. What you did took a lot of courage, and it was a principled action. I was very proud of you. But if you had not ever done so, at some point you would have transitioned from one of his victims to someone who was also enabling him. Surely that should be obvious?
Think about your mom. I know that bitterness against her is an ongoing struggle for you, and the fact that you do fault her shows that you understand such transition points exist. We know that your father mistreated her horribly in the early years of their marriage—she, like you, is a victim—but what she has subsequently done (in deserting you, for example) adds another layer to the whole mess. Your father drove her where she is, and he is responsible for that, but she is not where she ought to be, and she is responsible for that. Do you see what I mean by complicated?
Another example of this would be your father himself. We know that his childhood was wretched. At one point in his life, he hadn’t done anything of these things to you, but rather was a small, bewildered boy having awful things done to him. He was a victim in that, but because he gave way to an entire self-pity, the kind that made him out to always be the victim, this rendered him incapable of taking any responsibility for his own actions. He really was a victim at the start, but he handled it in such a way as to become an abuser. In saying this, I am not exonerating him, but rather trying to understand him.
Since you and I began corresponding, I have exchanged a few letters with your father from prison. The thing that is remarkable about his letters is that they are crammed with self-pity. The entire world is against him. The entire world refuses to understand. Nobody in the world wants to let him explain. Now one of the most common features of abuse situations is that abusers were often abused themselves. When they respond to that abuse by assigning absolutely all the sin in the world to others, and none of the sin in the world for themselves, they have taken the first major step toward being able to abuse others.
I said this was a place where you have to be careful in your thinking. It is also a place where I must be extraordinarily careful in how I express this. You are a victim in this, and I am in no way “blaming the victim.” But since you are not the Victim, because you are not Jesus, there are things you do need to take responsibility for. You do not need to take responsibility for what your father did, as I said earlier. But you do need to take responsibility for some things that are things that you have done.
Fallen men and women have a hard time confessing our sins in any scenario. But when we are grievously sinned against, it becomes that much harder.
So you must not confess your father’s sins. You must not assume or believe that you are responsible for your father’s sins. But you are still a moral agent, created in the image of God, and you have a responsibility to follow Christ and His Word in how you live your life now. You need to learn how to recognize your own sins, and learn to confess them in such a way that you experience God’s absolute cleansing (1 John 1:9). You need to respond to this mess more wisely than your mother has done, for example. It is not “victim-blaming” your mother to realize this. She is not responsible for what was done to her, any more than you are responsible for what was done to you. But she is responsible for what she is doing with what was done to her.
In counseling situations, I have often said that no situation is so bad but that you can’t make it worse. This may not sound like something very encouraging, but it actually is. It is likely that you will marry one day, and that you will have children of your own. You should desperately want the downward cycle represented by your family line to be broken at that point. Breaking the cycle of backsliding disobedience is something that God offers to us in the gospel.
“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:5–6).
God visits iniquity to three and four generations. That is a boundary, a limitation. This is not an instance of God losing His temper. Rather, He is setting fixed limits on the iniquity of the fathers with regard to their children. The iniquity of your father is bounded. Notice what comes next. God shows mercy to thousands who love Him and keep His commandments. Thousands of what? The context makes it plain that He is talking about thousands of generations. A couple chapters after the Deuteronomy rendition of the Ten Commandments, God makes this point explicit. “Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9).
Three and four generations of this is enough. God’s covenant and mercy is extended to you (and your children) in Christ. He is the only absolute Victim, which means that He took to Himself all the sins of all His people. Because He did that, it is safe for you to acknowledge that although you have been a victim, this is not your fundamental identity.
If Christ is the Victim, who did it to Him? Who victimized Him? The answer is that all of us did. When we acknowledge this, when we confess our own sins (and not those who sinned against us), we are welcomed into an everlasting grace. In teaching us how to pray, Jesus insists that we begin here. We ask God to forgive us (for our sins against Him, the ones that were placed on Christ’s shoulders) in the same way that we forgive those who sinned against us. Jesus is not denying that others have sinned against us. He presupposes it. But gospel liberty prevents with starting there.
Well, enough for now.
Cordially in Christ,
The situation described in the following letters is entirely fictitious, including persons, names, crimes, sins, relationships, circumstances and all particulars. The kind of situation that is described, however, is all too common and my hope is that biblical principles applied to this fictitious scenario may be of some help to individuals tangled up in a real one.