The man who robbed my wife of her childhood innocence recently died. Like many perpetrators who work to build their reputation in the community and even in the church, he went to his grave admired by some and abhorred by others.
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse are not always able to bring their perpetrator to justice. Perhaps the perpetrator has died, the statute of limitations has expired, or there is insufficient evidence to establish a case. How can husbands and survivors respond when it appears the perpetrator gets to go free?
I’ve met some husbands of survivors who wanted to take justice into their own hands, and almost did. As a researcher, I interviewed Dan who once went hunting with his wife’s perpetrator. Dan said, “I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to shoot you [the perpetrator] in the back of the head.’” Fortunately for Dan and the perpetrator, he unloaded his gun.
Do the sexual abusers of our wives deserve to be punished? Yes!
Was Dan’s anger understandable? Yes! Was Dan’s anger justifiable? Yes! But murder of the perpetrator would have been unjustifiable. God calls us to act in justice (Micah 6:8) but He does not put us in charge of justice.
The Scriptures highlight three best responses for acting justly.
- Distinguish between being motivated by your own spite or by God’s Spirit.
In the Old Testament, Moses was spared the injustice of ethnic genocide when the ruler of Egypt slaughtered male Hebrew infants. As an adult and after having been enculturated and educated in the Egyptian system, Moses “went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people” (Exodus 2:11).
It got messy when Moses took justice into his own hands. “Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (v. 12).
Moses had to run in order to preserve his own life, ending up on the backside of a desert where he had no one to talk to but God and himself. Something transformative happened there because the next time Moses encountered injustice, he responded in an entirely different manner. One day when Moses was sitting by a well, seven young women “came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock” (Exodus 2:16-17).
The strong sense of justice that was part of Moses’ nature was still there. But Moses’ action was a result of God’s control over his life rather than Moses attempting to control life. Moses’ action was motivated by God wisdom rather than his own vengeance. God’s Spirit rather than his own spite motivated Moses.
Vengeance is easy, it’s enticing (see Rage). But God calls us, not to act out of vengeance but out of justice.
- Add mercy to your sense of justice
God speaks of justice and mercy in the same breath. “. . .And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
My wife has been an example for me of justice and mercy. Justice was not ignored, though the attempt of she and another survivor to bring their perpetrator to justice was unsuccessful. And news of his death brought finality of any hope that he would make things right.
In mercy, my wife knew that God who dealt with her sin is the same God who has dealt with her abuser’s sin. The forgiveness that she granted 7 years ago was renewed by a prayerful attitude of mercy regarding his death. God who requires mercy is generous in supplying mercy.
The first two responses lead now to the third best response for acting justly.
- Focus on the ultimate injustice against God rather than the immediate injustice against you
There’s no shortage of injustices in this world and childhood sexual abuse is among the most injurious of injustices. But the greatest injustice of all was done against Christ.
“He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.” (Isaiah 53:3-5 The Message)
Injustices, childhood sexual abuse among them, often cause us to focus on how we are affected whether as survivor or the spouse of the survivor. For some, the experience of injustice ensnares them in resentment or perhaps rage. However, the experience also presents an opportunity for transformative living and liberation just as with Moses.
The tendency to get even can become an opportunity to identify with Christ. Christ not only faced injustice FOR us but also FROM us. As we do identify with Christ, we then experience true and lasting liberty and justice.