Learning to Love Your Abuser
Author’s note: Some readers will have an aversion to this subject. I would encourage you at some point to consider reading this article (when you’re able) as part of your healing journey.
I once laughed at the Israelites for their hard-heartedness, which caused them to spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness instead of entering the promised land. As I approach the end of a 35-year career in medicine, I’ve come to the painful realization I’m just as hard-hearted as them. They knew giants inhabited the promised land and thought it too difficult to overpower them, so they disobeyed God. My failure has been to do the one thing He has asked of His people—to love others unconditionally.
It isn’t difficult to love those who treat us well, but it seems impossible to love those who are cruel to us. The command to love my enemies has been hammered into my head. My brain understands the message perfectly, but it doesn’t seem to have penetrated the junkyard that has become my soul. And it’s there, among the wounds and raw emotions of my past, that the admonition to love others has remained powerless.
While working in Tacoma, Washington, I regularly transported a drunk who had made a career of pestering paramedics at the most inconvenient hours. In the middle of the night, we’d go out in search of him. Once we found him, we’d toss him on the gurney and dump him off at the nearest hospital. He’d bitch and moan on the way there about how bad the ride was and if he was having a worse than normal day, he’d shower us with spit and hurl curses at us. I remember the time he asked my partner to shake his hand. She innocently grasped his hand and he gripped it with all the force he could muster until she let out a scream and yelled for him to let go. He did things like this every day. He felt a sense of pleasure (or maybe accomplishment) when he inflicted pain on others.
I’ve counseled people who have suffered abuse and torture at the hands of their relatives. I’ve heard of things being done to them that are so perverted and sick it makes me wonder how they’re still alive. How can we ever come to love such mean, perverted, and heartless people the way Jesus asked us to?
If it were easy, I would have done it a long time ago. Instead, like most people who work in health care, I’ve repressed my thoughts of loathing and hatred toward the people I’ve transported, because that’s what’s expected of me. My employer can make me act professionally toward an abusive patient, but they can’t keep me from hating them. And I’ve spent most of my life silently hating many of the people I’ve transported. When paramedics and nurses gather in the break room of an emergency department, they share their favorite stories about the system abusers they treat. It’s how we bond. And perhaps more importantly, it’s how we justify the hatred we feel toward them.
Those who abuse us do so because they’re broken and emotionally wounded. People who abuse others as adults, tend to have been abused as children. Like many things, abusive behavior is something we learn.
A couple of years ago, after seeing success with physical healing, I became discontented with not seeing healing of mental illness. So I asked God for the key to healing mental illness. One night, He gave me a message in a dream. The message was simple: mental illness is healed through love.
I didn’t like that answer. I was expecting some kind of formula (even though I know He doesn’t use them). Consciously, I objected to the idea because it seemed too simple. Subconsciously, I objected because it seemed too difficult. Loving others is a simple idea until you consider actually doing it.
The desire to harm and abuse others germinates and spreads in an environment devoid of love. And if the absence of love is the cause of a malady, the presence of it is certain to be the cure.
When we withhold love from those who are emotionally traumatized—the ones who abuse us out of their own pain, we withhold the only thing that can cure them. If they are ever going to be healed, they need to receive love. And ironically, love is the one thing we are unable to give them.
At this point, I’d like to make clear what I’m not saying:
I’m not suggesting we allow abusive people to continue abusing us. No one deserves to be abused. It’s not a good idea to remain in an abusive relationship if you have the ability to leave. I’m also not justifying abusive behavior. Abuse is never an acceptable response. I’m only offering a theory of how it happens and suggesting a way in which it might be cured.
The world is full of broken people who would harm us if they had the chance. It seems unlikely we can avoid abusive people entirely since in many cases, the behavior doesn’t begin until several years into the relationship. It seems there are three ways we can respond to abusive people:
One option is to guard ourselves against them and treat them like an enemy if they try to come near us. A second is to ignore them and try to keep their behavior from affecting us. A third is to choose to see them the way God sees them: as wounded, hurting children who don’t understand what they’re doing and don’t know how to get free of the cycle of violence they’re trapped in.
The only way I’ve been able to consistently show love and compassion toward someone who makes me want to scream is to picture them, in my mind’s eye, as they might have been at the age of 3 or 4. If you’ve ever dealt with children, you know it’s easier to give them grace to make mistakes. We don’t hold children to the same behavioral standards we do adults. And since, in some cases, we’re dealing with people who have fragments and alters that are at the developmental age of a child anyway, it might be more appropriate.
I’m not suggesting we treat an abusive person as if they were a child. That will only annoy them. Rather, I’m suggesting that we see them (internally) as if we were seeing a child and extend to them the same grace, and patience we would a child. It’s an internal response. A choice to love them in spite of the messes they’ve made.
My friend Steve Harmon has been working for years with severely traumatized people who have schizophrenia, psychosis, Dissociative Identity Disorder, and other behavioral problems. He’s found that of all the techniques he’s used, nothing heals broken people as quickly as loving them unconditionally.
Jesus didn’t give us the command to love others because He wanted us to wrestle with an impossible task. He gave us the command because the power of love sets people free. It frees them and it frees us.
Loving our abuser is impossible to do in our own strength. But once the darkened places of our soul have been enlightened by God’s love, it becomes easier to love those who are cruel to us. The starting point is encountering the radical, life-giving love of God. If you haven’t been embraced by the Father’s love yet, ask Him to show in a tangible way how much He loves you.