Sometimes Christians speak of being “pro-family” and having “strong family values” as though this would be, to everyone, a positive picture of Christianity. For many, though, the idea of “family” is terrifying. Many people have found their deepest suffering, even profound trauma, at the hands of family members.
One woman who had been through profound suffering at the hands of her stepfather told me she didn’t think she could ever be a Christian, and the cross is the reason why. She heard the gospel preached, about the account of Jesus crying out, “Forgive them Father, they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). If this is Christianity, she told me, she wanted nothing to do with it. She knew what she had experienced, and she couldn’t simply wave that away as though it were nothing.
I understand what she meant. If I thought that were the gospel, I wouldn’t believe it either. But it’s not.
God’s Wrath against Abuse
Many throughout the centuries have sought to protect the reputation of God by downplaying his wrath. To some degree, the impulse here is good, because many have a false view of God as an angry, sullen, punitive deity, not as the God of overflowing love Jesus revealed to us. God’s wrath isn’t a temper tantrum. On the other hand, those who point us away from the wrath of God do so at the peril of eclipsing God’s own revelation of himself as holy and just, the One who “does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex. 34:7). At the cross, the apostle Paul wrote, God “condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). This is important for us to know, especially those who have survived awful things.
The skeptical woman I talked to was right in her intuitions. She wasn’t vengeful. She knew, though, that someone who would cover over what had happened to her is someone unjust. God agrees with her. He embedded in our consciences the understanding that the one who “justifies the wicked” is evil, as is the one who “condemns the righteous” (Prov. 17:5). Indeed, a major obstacle to belief in God is precisely what this woman senses: the fear that many acts of horrifying injustice get covered over and are never brought to justice. That ought to trouble us even more than it does. Our innate sense of justice, and disposition to oppose injustice, is part of our most basic humanity, not due to the fall but due to our creation in God’s image. This is true even of those who would claim to horrified by the idea of a wrathful God.
At the cross, God’s wrath and God’s love come together; they don’t cancel one another out.
The Civil War-era song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is direct with biblical imagery of God “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” and wielding a “terrible, swift sword” against the evil of slavery. The Americans singing the song were reminding themselves that slavery wasn’t merely a matter of regional conflict, but of moral accountability—an accountability that would have begged for resolution even if the war hadn’t succeeded.
Likewise, the civil rights movement grounded its nonviolent resistance to Jim Crow wickedness in the same terms, with Martin Luther King Jr. denouncing the violence of the Alabama police forces: “We will leave them standing before their God and the world splattered with the blood and reeking with the stench of our Negro brothers.” He was pointing to a judgment seat where evil is held to account. He was saying what, in the same era, the folk-singer Odetta would sing to the terrorist forces of the Ku Klux Klan: “You may run on for a long time, but, let me tell you: God Almighty’s going to cut you down.”
All of this is grounded in the Scriptures themselves, both Old and New Testaments—God doesn’t turn a blind eye to evil. If anything, the cross reaffirms that justice.
Church’s Response to Abuse
Sadly, this hurt woman’s view of the gospel probably came from professing Christians who wrongly represent God as she described. To our shame, many do this especially as it relates to the most hidden, and most horrifying, acts of physical or psychic horror against defenseless children. How many times have we heard of silence against some shocking act of abuse of a child or a spouse or someone else being covered over by religious people, sometimes even churches, because the predator is “forgiven by the blood of Christ”? This sort of cheap grace isn’t the good news of Jesus Christ.
Wherever there’s the abuse of the powerless by those in power over them, the church should demand accountability.
Wherever there’s the abuse of the powerless by those in power over them, the church should demand accountability. Where such misdeeds are violations of the civil law, the church should immediately alert those with the commission, given by God, to “carry out God’s wrath on wrongdoers” (Rom. 13:4)—that is, the civil authorities. Moreover, the church should do everything possible to see to it that predators don’t use the spiritual cover of Christ’s name to commit their horrors. That includes the disclosure of any potential act of harm, and diligent cooperation with investigative bodies any time there is the suspicion of harm to a child or a spouse or anyone else.
Even as we do so, we know there are people walking about, maybe even in our own pews, who assume that because they were never caught in their physical or sexual or psychological abuse that means they’ve escaped accountability. We should remind such people that there’s “nothing hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17)—if not in this life, then in the one to come.
At the cross, God’s wrath and God’s love come together. They don’t cancel one another out.