As I worked through a trauma healing program recently, a partner and I talked about how our heart wounds can be healed, but how they sometimes still leave scars that misshape the tendencies of our hearts for our entire lives.
Later, in a time set aside for lamenting, my spirit was almost too heavy to connect to words. After a time of silence and of trying to pray, I was reminded of one of Job’s laments, and his expression of faith in the lament: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.”
Spiritual abuse is one of those heart wounds or mental/emotional traumas that leaves deep scars. Spiritual abuse is a type of control or manipulation carried out by a spiritual authority, often in the name of God. It ignores the dignity of a person created in the image of God, and abuses power to belittle their spiritual autonomy and control their choices and behaviors. When scriptures are misapplied, when someone claims the authority of God backing their decisions or actions, or when a moral code is enforced outside of what the Bible claims is God’s will and law—those actions, claims, and words slowly begin to reshape the spiritually abused person’s idea of who God is. God can become to them not who they read about in the Bible, but who their abuser claims God to be.
In cases of spiritual abuse, especially ongoing spiritual abuse, the face of God slowly changes into the face of the abuser. And that kind of damage is hard to shake. The best way to heal those wounds is for the abused person to re-learn God’s character for themselves by immersing themselves in scripture. But the nature of the harm done often makes it difficult, or impossible for a time, for the victim to read scripture because it has been abused to wound and control them.
For a very long time, and possibly for a lifetime after the spiritual abuse, the victim will struggle against the ‘character of God’ the abuser portrayed to them. The pull is like a gravity of sorts. In off-guard moments they will hear that ‘voice of God’ or see that ‘face’ as God’s rather than who he portrays himself to be to us in his Word. And that is what I mean by spiritual scars. Just as a child who has been abandoned by a father will often expect God to abandon them as well, a spiritual abuse victim struggles to separate their spiritual mentor’s portrayal of God from the real thing.
I have a poster in my room with an artistic portrayal of the Trinity. It is an absolutely beautiful work of art, and I can get lost in the details for hours. The Father stands above the Son, holding a richly embroidered cloak detailing images from the gospels to drape around his shoulders. And the Son hovers above the Spirit, holding what looks to be the source of a spring of water (welling up to eternal life) which pours out around and behind the Spirit’s head. All three persons have rich, brown skin, kind eyes, and welcoming expressions. But the Spirit is imagined in the art as female, just as the Father and Son are imagined as male.
Any portrayal of God assumes a gender the Bible doesn’t explicitly state. In the beginning, both man and woman were created in the image of God, and neither one is less or more a part of God’s image. God is spirit, and has no bodily gender. God’s character encompasses traits we consider both masculine and feminine. And while Jesus walked the earth in the body of a man, the Spirit of God is often described in feminine terms, with sheltering wings like a mother bird, like an eternal mother who gives us our second birth, like a dove, expectantly brooding over the earth charged with the promise of yet-unborn life. These images are not meant to be a literal description of God just as my poster is not meant to portray an actual form of God. But I found the feminine, nurturing, motherly portrayal of the Spirit to be just what I needed to help rewrite some of my spiritual scars that constantly tug at me to understand the character of God as something twistedly masculine.
Job also had spiritual scars from his ordeal of suffering. After his family died or left him, after he lost his worldly possessions and even the wholeness of his own mind and body, his ‘friends’ lectured him about how he must have wronged God to deserve such treatment. After listening to their interminable prattle, Job lashes out to God, perhaps because he has begun to believe what the friends said of him. In chapter 19, Job assumes God is against him, is waging war on him, and has humiliated, uprooted, and ignored him in his most desperate time of need.
But in the true nature of lament, Job pours out his heart to God and then expresses what he knows to be true even if he cannot feel the truth of it:
“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”
Even with the pull toward misunderstanding God’s love for him, Job knows that one day his redeemer will stand on the earth for him.
And the text is even more rich than that. The word ‘redeemer’ there is a beautiful tapestry of cultural meanings. It is the word used for someone who buys a person their freedom. It is used for a family member who avenges a death with the blood of another. It is used in Ruth to refer to Boaz—a close relative who chooses to save a family’s name and inheritance by taking a widow as his wife. And a textual variant of this verse in Job calls this redeemer a defender or vindicator. Job knows that one day someone will stand for him, pay for him, remember his story and honor his heritage, and vindicate him against false claims made against him.
Another possible reading of the text says that this redeemer will not stand upon the earth, but upon Job’s grave. Can you see the faith that Job expresses here? In the end, after he is dead and gone, someone will come to stand on his bones to redeem him. Job will not be forgotten or ignored even in death. And he proclaims this truth about a God he has, in the same breath, accused of ignoring and attacking him.
But Job goes on from here into even deeper faith. He says even after his body has decayed, he will see God with his own eyes—he himself, and no one else, will see God in the flesh. A variant of this phrase is “after I awake, though my body has been destroyed, then in my flesh I will see God.” Even when his life hangs in the balance and he does not know if he will live or die, Job knows that one day when he is raised again, he will see God for himself.
And Job is happy about that.
“Oh, how my heart yearns within me.” Goodness. Even when Job feels the Lord has viciously caused the unendurable suffering he has felt, even when he feels accused by God and by man, Job longs for the day when he will be redeemed, when someone will stand for him to remember him and tell his story. And he does not fear the face of an accusing and harmful God on that day. He longs with everything in him to see the face of a God who loves him and who sees only innocence and wholeness because Job has been redeemed from death and suffering.
My own heart brims over with joy at that. I may struggle through this life and its suffering. I may have a scarred understanding of God’s face when it turns toward me. But I know that one day, when I wake from my grave, Jesus my redeemer will stand on the earth. He will vindicate me from false accusations. He will look on me and see innocence and wholeness because he himself redeemed me and my sins with his blood and his life to make me a part of his family. And the face I see on that day will not be disfigured. It will not look like what I have been groomed to believe of the face of God. Oh how I ache for that day.
Some of our spiritual wounds won’t be healed until heaven, and some of our scars may plague us for the rest of our lives on this earth. But that’s okay because we KNOW they will be healed no matter how much we struggle with them now. One day our living Redeemer will stand in victory on our graves, and when we awake we will see him with our own eyes and not the eyes of another. We will be healed and our hearts will be whole.