The situation described in the following letters continues to be 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.
If you don’t mind, I would like to spend at least one of my letters on a topic you didn’t ask about, but which you have almost certainly dealt with on some level. This may seem like a disparate collection of issues, but I wanted to be sure to cover this with you at some point. So excuse me as I plunge right in.
A number of young women in this position have developed a series of coping mechanisms as they have sought to deal with, or banish, or manage, the shame. One of the perverse realities in all this is that your father was the one guilty of the shameful behavior, but you are the one who feels like you need to carry the shame. You did not do anything wrong, but rather were wronged, but part of that wrong that you carry around with you is the sense of shame. You are one whose own father did this to her, and so what must that say about your worth . . . or so the late-at-night self-recriminations run.
These coping mechanisms vary, but they all have something in common. A number of young women, especially young women whose abuse is not yet discovered, find (very temporary) relief in cutting themselves. Another related measure for many is getting tattooed, or various piercings. Given that this is now common enough to have become a fashion in its own right, we do not want to say that any young woman with tattoos or piercings must have been abused—but going the other way there really is a significant correlation.
There are at least two pressures toward this. One is acting out on the shame—in effect owning the shame. Since someone who should have treasured you treated you like dirt, you conclude you must be worthless. (Concluding this emotionally and concluding it rationally need not be the same thing.) And if you are worthless, then it is only right that you should experience some pain. Cutting is a kind of pain that relieves or distracts from the deeper pain of abuse and rejection. We humans have a deep conviction that suffering atones, and since this feeling of shame feels like there must be something to atone for, then bringing the suffering to yourself seems to make some emotional sense.
So pain and atonement is one part of it. Another part of it has to do with control over your own body. When your father began abusing you, you felt trapped, claustrophobic, helpless, nowhere to turn, suffocated. If there was anything that described your state of mind it was helplessness and slavery. When it came to what happened to your body, you were not in control. You could not get free. You could not do with your body what you wanted to. You felt like you were in no position to say no to what was happening.
Although the ordeal itself is now over, you can scarcely believe it. You still feel like you do not belong to yourself, and so you feel like you need to make some sort of statement that your body is your own, and if the world doesn’t like it, the world can go suck lemons. Enter the tattoo artist, who for a modest fee will make a permanent mark on your body in just the way you request. He will put the tattoo where you want. He will inscribe what you want. He will use the colors you request, and the whole world will be able to read that statement, your statement, for the rest of your life. The same goes for piercings. So take that, world.
And most of the world will think exactly what you want them to. But some of the people you deal with will be shrewd enough to wonder something else. “I wonder what his name is, and I wonder what he did.” There will be a great temptation to resent such strangers assuming such things about it, especially if they happen to get it right. It is simply a fact that many young women use this sort of thing as an attempt to regain control of their own bodies, and it is a method that is frequently visible to others.
But aside from the guesswork of strangers, there are two things I want to urge you to think about in all of it—the cutting, the marking, the piercing. The first is that it is a drastic course of action that does not really work. The second is that it is superfluous, because something else—the grace of God—is way ahead of you on this.
Now when I say that these measures don’t work, I do not mean to say that they do not work at all, at any level. People wouldn’t do them if that were the case. My conviction is that these sorts of self-therapy are effective in the short run, but are subject to the law of diminishing returns. There is relief, but it is temporary, and the next step you feel compelled to take will need to be more drastic. When the cuts heal, you are still a vulnerable girl wronged by her father. The cuts may have healed, but he is still living in your head. Maybe if you cut more deeply, or more extensively, the relief would last longer—but remember the devil is a liar and cheat. He doesn’t care about bringing you relief. He is lying to you. He wanted to torment you through your father’s twistedness, and now that you are struggling with the results of that, he wants to torment you further. Your father is in jail, but the devil isn’t. He wants to cause even more damage. The devil hates women, in case you hadn’t noticed. What he whispers doesn’t work. On the other side of the cuts, the piercings, the tattoos, you will still have the same kind of sleepless nights.
The only thing that can bring lasting relief, permanent relief, is the grace and peace of God, the Holy Spirit Himself. But when the Holy Spirit comforts someone in your position, He doesn’t do it by patting your hand and making religious platitudes appear in your mind. No—God did something far more profound than that. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). And when Christ died for us that included everything that was entailed in that dying.
The impulses you have in this direction (and you would be unusual if you didn’t have them) are impulses that do reflect something about how God created the world. There is a deep reality represented here. These things that you want to do to deal with the shame are things that do have to be done in order to deal with the shame. But the good news is this—God has already done them all in the cross of Jesus Christ.
You don’t have to cut yourself because Jesus Christ was cut for you. You don’t have to pierce yourself because He was pierced for our transgressions. You don’t have to mark your body because the mark of His death was already applied to you in your baptism. That is the only tattoo you need. And the fact that baptism doesn’t leave a mark or a scar is testimony to the glorious second half of the gospel, which is the resurrection from the dead. Jesus bore His scars in His resurrected body so that you would not have to bear your scars in your body now.
If baptism were just a quaint religious rite where sacred water was sprinkled on you, then there would be grounds for being dubious about its efficacy. But baptism is baptism into His death. And the apostle Paul promises that those of us who were baptized into His death will be raised to life together with Him (Rom. 6:1-6). What happens there is far more profound than anything we can arrange for ourselves.
You wanted out. Jesus wanted out. You felt trapped. Jesus was also bound. You felt imprisoned by an enemy. Jesus was imprisoned by His enemies, dogs surrounding Him, bulls of Bashan on every side. His hands were bound and then pierced, and also His feet. He couldn’t move. After His death, a spear was rammed into His side. When blood and water came out, the apostle John took special note of it and why? So that we might believe (John 19:35).
In short, Jesus suffered every imaginable indignity, and the Bible is plain that He did this for us. He paid this price so that we need not feel the compulsion to pay it ourselves. We did in fact pay the price, but we paid it in Him. We may pour out our lives in imitation of Him (in fact, we must), but we do that kind of thing on the other side of having received His gift to us. When believers suffer, they are doing it as a gift to others, not as the price of admission for themselves. The price of admission into the grace of God, in which we now stand, is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Nothing else. As the old hymn puts it, “Jesus paid it all.”
You don’t need to cut yourself, because the cuts that Jesus suffered are entirely sufficient. You don’t need to mark your body because Jesus gave us water to mark your body—and the message of that completed mark is that you have died and you have risen. You have been raised into newness of life, which is why there is no baptismal scar. You don’t need to be pierced for anything because the suffering has all been completed. This is because “the deepest stroke that pierced Him was the stroke that Justice gave.”
The glory of this is that it is all available to you, right now, in the present, whether or not your father ever repents. If he does, then that would be wonderful, but your freedom is not linked to his. The grace of God offered to you is not dependent upon what he does with whatever has been offered to him. You may have looked at his response to his sins with dismay because somehow you felt as though you were both standing in line waiting for the grace of God and, as usual, you were standing behind him. If he won’t receive it, then you can’t receive it. But this is entirely false. The grace of God has touched you immediately, in the grace of your baptism, and this is what that baptism means. It means that you are free. You are not behind him in line.
So when you look at the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, undertaken for others, and you believe, then you have believed unto liberation. The just shall live by faith. The grace of God is extended to you, and your father is not in between you and that grace. He does not have that kind of authority.
This is just another way of saying—and I promise to end with this—that the solution for your struggles is not to be found in books, shrinks, therapy, letters from me, Christian counseling, or what have you. The balm for your soul is found in Jesus Christ Himself, Christ for you, Christ pierced on your behalf. All of it is there, all that you need. Your father tied a fearsome knot, a Gordian knot. And that knot was undone by God in a very similar way—it was sliced by that Roman soldier’s spear.
Cordially . . .
And remember Jesus was killed like a criminal. On a cross. Naked. In shame.
You can give your shame to him.
Amen! Something I really like about scripture, Jesus says, “it is finished,” but He also goes to the cross, “despising the shame” on our behalf. Shame is not ours to carry, we should set it down at the foot of the cross.
Hebrews 12:2 says, “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
And Gabrielle, while it’s ok to have a drink once in a while, any shame we may have, should not be drowned by alcohol or numbed by drugs.
It can be cast off completely as we trust that God has relieved us of it, along with any condemnation, for anything else!????????????
Amen! Well said. We bear His watermark, indeed. Perhaps something left out about cutting is the focus pain brings to you, the clarity, the single mindedness. I was reminded of this the other day when I smashed my finger under a rock. For two whole days I did not over think a single thing. Pain will totally numb you out to any other concerns. There’s no shame,no ability to make decisions,no deep thoughts. I think there’s some real gender differences there too,our brains our simply wired different. Guys certainly get into cutting, piercings, have eating disorders, but not as frequently… Read more »
Man is a creature of external agency. In providing for and protecting his family, in begetting his children, his energy is directed outwards. Likewise the destructive passions of a wounded man are usually focussed outwards.
God made woman to take into herself, to grow her children inside her own body and to feed them from it. She makes her sacrifices from the inside. So it should not be surprising to us that a woman wounded in heart will seek to process or express her pain upon her own body.
This has been a great series, and I really like this one that shows the origin of a lot of “appearance” things people do.
“conviction that suffering atones“?
But suffering doesn’t really atone for anything, does it.
It’s a symptom. It’s a reaction. It’s evidence of the occurrence of something else.
Doctor Dentist doesn’t offer the best fix through thorough suffering.
It strikes me here that expressing these sentiments is all well and good, but at the same time it strikes me that if I’m really dealing with someone who’s been abused and needs encouragement, one of my first offers is going to be to pick up the phone or meet in person. Nothing wrong with letters, mind you, but there’s a tremendous amount of information in tone of voice and the like that just might be tremendously helpful.
I think Doug also would advocate that, but he’s modelling some things you might say in such a meeting.
We have such a great Savior.