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.
I just love this post. So much wisdom. I can say from my perspective, having been diagnosed with DID in Bible school of all places, having married abusive men, 2 in a row, when I was shown love in my damaged state, it touched me deeply. As I have walked with God, He has healed me through many of Graham Cooke’s teachings. I recommend “Uncommon Love” to those who may be struggling with loving the unlovely.
He has told me a few times that when I encounter the unlovely I get a chance to love Him. I never forget Mother Teresa’s story about hugging folks with maggots all over them. She said she didn’t even notice it. Once when we ministered to a fella who was very obviously an alcoholic living on the street, he surely didn’t smell too great, and I was surprised afterwards that when I hugged him I didn’t smell anything!
We have so much to learn about agape love. Get that teaching from Graham Cooke, and it will open up a brand new world of loving as He does. And we get a chance to put a smile on His face. That just got me covered in goosebumps.
excellent post PM…there’s a lot of wisdom here, while also challenging, thought provoking going on in me as I’m reading through it…it all makes perfect sense and sounds like the wisdom Jesus would have shared…
Awesome post P.M- I look forward to more from you on this subject (as I have no doubt that it will come) 🙂
Not an easy walk, but seeing them as God sees them does help. Ans speaking out who they were created to be with a thankful heart also works. Maybe n private.
I appreciate your transparency. Definitely a tough situation to deal with. Your revelation on the subject is thought provoking and full of wisdom. I thought of a few people I should view differently.
Yes, seeing them through God’s eyes is key because they are actually not the being we are seeing with our physical eyes. This topic is a huge door that is opening right now in a way we’ve never seen before.
I have only one thing to say. A softly spoken, “yeah.” <3
God’s ways and thoughts are higher…
I am convinced this is absolutely true – love is what changes people. Our Father says spent years teaching me this, and asking me to serve those who have abused me (and walking away when necessary too, but still continuing to pray).
Your post is very timely, as I am currently struggling to continue to believe that difficult people can change.
I have been surprised by how easy it is to believe that God can perform amazing miracles in natural realm, but struggle to believe He change a hard and stubborn human heart when He has made a promise that He will.
In spite of my struggle with doubt, I stand on this – nothing is impossible for God. That which He said He would do, He will indeed do.
Waw, amazing. I love this article. Love IS the answer to all mental illness, not matter how bad it is. I’ve had the grace of God to understand this a long time ago. I use this filter when I look at people; I look through Love, the cross and myself in light of the Father. To me it makes all the difference, since we aren’t perfect neither. We think sometimes that we are, but in light of God we are a stain of a white canvas. Jesus has cleansed us from that.
When you remember all those things and we are honest in the sight of God, forgiving becomes an easy task… or rather, a task from the heart, even if it is hard to do so, but eventually you will forgive, since you’ll understand. 🙂
I thought showing love to my narcissistic abuser would get him to stop abusing me. But, like an addict he just ate it up and spit me out. The more I gave the more he took. I ended up a mess. I know love is important because it heals but sometimes we have to be careful from what source and why we are loving. I just want to say that to protect victims who think they can change someone else without Jesus.
God bless you, Kirsten. I’ve been there, too. But I realize now that sometimes love walks away. I guess for me when Love healed me, I realized that I no longer needed to be near someone who didn’t really love me, they were damaged as well, and we both needed healing. And as I learn what Love really means, I realize I have so much more to learn.
Thank you so much. I agree. When we get our love from God we do not need destructive love. Sometimes trying to use our love to get someone else to love us can be soulish and manipulative. We must make sure we stand in the right source of Gods love. It seems like love sometimes causes one to turn the other cheek and other times to turn over the tables. Can we really say we love someone if we see they are being hurt and we walk away? There is a difference between peace keeping and peace making. Keeping peace might look peaceful but can be destructive and making peace is often not peaceful. False love keeps peace and real love makes peace.
my thought is how do you love abusers and not allow them to continue to abuse? I know we need to love, but that doesn’t give those who have had a hard life to continue to use and abuse others. that does not justify bad behavior. We all have had hard trials in life some more that others but the effect is still the same. Just some people choose to allow those bad things to justify their bad mean behavior toward other. Just like Jesus with the women who comment adultery, He forgave her but told her to not sin again. When He dealt with the Pharisees He did not justify their bad conduct, He gave them the “woes” of bad choices and exposed them for who they really were..they abused the people of that day,,the religious leaders of this day do too for that matter.
That is a hard question and I do not have a good answer. But I have decided that when I put myself in a dangerous situation (such as exposing myself or my children to an abuser) and sit in prayer for the Lord to rescue me, it is like putting God to an inappropriate test as in Luke 4:12. I think the Lord gave us a mind and discernment to keep us safe. My ability to forgive, release, bless and love an abuser is a different ballgame than me putting myself in a position to allow them to abuse me or my children. Please keep yourself and any children safe.
Blessings and prayers for wisdom, discernment, a hedge of protection and to hide you in the shelter of the Most High
If it were easy, I would have done it already. Pretty much my thoughts on this. It may take some time and I’m positive it takes a degree of maturity and that is where the hope comes in. I believe if we have hope then we are at least looking for a way to love those who have hurt and abused us. If we only look at loving them as a duty – something we are commanded to do, it will never happen. We have to become love through knowing how much we are loved by the Father, before we can walk in this type of love (At least that’s my belief)
There is so much depth to what you said. I love it! In the Bible there are 3 types of love. So the point is what kind of love is it? When a person is abused they often learn to hate themselves. Then if they try to love others as they love their self they have empty wells. In my case I can say I loved my abuser and still do but I believe it was a sick love that kept me stuck in abuse and opened me up to a spirit of fear. Then you drum up love in your flesh out of duty and end up stuck in abuse and burnt out. I have to pray for God to keep pouring his love in me. I think it is healthy to step back and ask the Father to fill your well so you are drinking from the right source.
When the abuser is a parent, the sting is more profound and lifelong. PM, can you please talk about how to honor your father and mother when they are the abusers?