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“You shall not surely die.”

It’s the world’s oldest and most insidious lie.

The original deception, the devil’s alluring idea that you can do as you please, when it does not please God, and yet lose nothing. It is the first untruth told to humanity, when the serpent deceived Eve and lured her into the prideful fantasy of gratifying her self without consequence (Genesis 2).

sarah+mcdugal+author+lieThe concept itself flies in the face of everything God is, everything His character embodies. God’s character is rooted in relationship, every action, every interaction, every tone and inflection — all are opportunities to reflect or deflect a representation of Him to others. If God’s laws are an extension of His character, then choosing to break God’s law is in essence choosing to break relationship with Him. Treating other humans in ways inconsistent with God’s character of love and honesty is breaking relationship too.

It gets worse though — like when people assume it’s okay to break relationship with each other but refuse to acknowledge that they have done so. In other words, they act contrary to God’s character-driven laws, and then insist that there should be no broken trust, no repercussions, no restitution, no energy expended to rebuild the relationship.

Perhaps nowhere is this first lie more deeply rooted in today’s faith culture than in situations of abuse. The unrepentant abuser’s mindset is “I can treat you with dishonor, break your trust, and show you contempt and disregard — but if you don’t instantly forgive me and extend me your trust, you’re being unreasonably demanding and you should feel sorry instead of me.”

However, it isn’t only primary abusers who perpetuate this mindset.

Far too often, the same message is communicated to victims by secondary abusers who may have no idea they have been manipulated into the game. Counselors who work with abusive personality disorders such as narcissism, sometimes call these secondary abusers “flying monkeys“. They’re the ones who end up doing the abuser’s work for him, keeping the victim humiliated and cowering, often while meaning well.

For more than a decade, I was married to an addict.

He also happened to be the lead pastor of our church. His addiction wasn’t the obvious kind — alcohol, or cocaine, or other substances that visibly altered his physical or mental state of being. Rather, he was addicted to sex. Scientists today recognize that sex addiction is considered even more intense than drugs like cocaine. Pornography had overtaken his mind, and by extension his heart and body, rooting obsessively since youth. That shattering discovery happened somewhere around our first wedding anniversary, when I learned that I was not (and never had been) the sole focus of his affection.

Our marriage was never quite the same after that.
Not that it couldn’t have been healed.
Not that repair and restoration was impossible.
But because it is impossible to overcome addiction without the addict choosing to completely embrace the process of accountability, humility, and transparent ownership of their reality.

In our situation, that never happened.
Or at least, it never lasted…

Just because it wasn’t visible didn’t mean it wasn’t destructive. Like any other addiction, it carried collateral damage. Lies, deception, hyper-vigilance toward his cycles of arrogant entitlement swinging into toxic shame and depression.
Promises broken.
Trust shattered.
Over and over and over again.

More than a decade later, when church elders discovered his double life and the secrets blew wide open, life as I had known it screeched to a thunderous halt. The emotional whiplash faded slowly, as my children and I rebuilt new lives from the ashes.

I had no doubt that starting over alone with my little ones was the right and safe choice, there was no sacrifice I wouldn’t make to keep them protected from abuse and toxic influences. But I wondered during those early months, just what would become of my social structure.

For more than a decade, he had told me I was boring. That all our friends stayed around because they loved his social prowess, his larger-than-life-of-the-party nature. That they merely tolerated me because they loved being around him.

When you hear devaluing messages for long enough, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a lie, you start to believe them.

I fully expected to move forward into my new reality alone, just me and my children, without significant social support or friendships. Other options didn’t even occur to me, really. Especially not that time or two when I received messages from well-meaning pastoral colleagues, urging me to “just forgive and forget”.

One of those was a pastoral colleague from another state. I knew from past conversations that he shared my ex-husband’s addiction to pornography, and was uncertain why he was calling. He sounded solicitous and compassionate as the call began. But as we continued to talk his tone changed. He began scolding me for holding an impossibly high standard of sexual faithfulness, for not extending instant absolution.

“If you would just stop demanding that he keep faithful to you, everything will be fine. You can’t expect him to change. You are too controlling to insist that he does not cheat on your marriage or watch other people having sex on a screen. This is unreasonable. You should simply trust him! You must simply forgive, and trust!”

I was appalled.

Another time, an administrative church leader managing the fallout of our situation, told me that if I insisted on seeing evidence of changed behavior before restoring total freedom and trust, before extending unfettered reconciliation and all its accompanying privileges — then I was being “unforgiving”. He insisted that expecting accountability in the areas of violence, threats, verbal abuse, and sexual fidelity was just too much. “Just keep giving him chances,” I was told.

Those same types of messages bolstered my abuser’s strong sense of entitlement and endorsement. “You just want me to suffer!” was his favorite comeback, whenever I asked if he had been attending his accountability meetings, or inquired about accountability structures that our counselors had put in place for healing and safety.

“You just want to see me pay! You like seeing me humiliated!” he would lash out angrily. It was a powerful and effective way to deflect all focus away from restitution and restoration.

Biblically, there is no such thing as instant trust after broken relationship.

There is no scriptural mandate or recommendation to extend the privileges of relational intimacy to an unrepentant party. And nowhere in the bible is saying “Sorry!” weighed equally with genuine repentance.

sarah+mcdugal+authorShattered trust and broken relationship are natural results of abuse and dishonesty, and
1) recognizing this brokenness,
2) taking humble responsibility for the actions which caused it, and
3) pursuing voluntary restitution are core elements of repairing relationship.

If the abuser isn’t expected to shoulder the fallout of their actions, their own personal and spiritual growth is hampered. Entitlement is encouraged in human nature when there is no cost paid for sinful choices. Without the chance to refocus energy on building up love through action, an abuser is prevented from the full opportunity to experience genuine repentance, reconciliation, and redemption.

Enabling any abuser to circumvent the process of restoration, and to skip or shorten the experience of making restitution and rebuilding trust over time — is to cut the throat of their journey of transformation.

At the same time, the victim’s devastation is reinforced rather than initiating a process of healing — all because the process was short-circuited by well-meaning people who perpetuate the original lie that sin doesn’t actually kill things.

In other words, hasty reconciliation without time and expectation for an abuser to show the fruit of lasting repentance not only re-traumatizes the victim, it harmfully enables the abuser.

Sin. Kills. Things.

Because sin is relational.
It is the violation of the relational law of God’s character of love.
Sin’s primary destruction is relationships — first with God, then with others. And when you abuse someone, you are violating relationship both with God and that person.

Consequently, when church leaders urge victims to just forgive and forget, to embrace instantaneous reconciliation without any time allotted for the abuser to show heart change, they are simultaneously telling the abuser the lie that “your sin doesn’t cause death.”

Lewis B. Smedes wrote: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” 

Does this mean forgiveness in the heart of the victim isn’t an essential goal? Never. But forgiveness is only one piece of the entire reconciliation formula.

Forgiveness. Does. Not. Equal. Restoration.

sarah+mcdugal+authorForgiving someone doesn’t mean you necessarily trust them yet.
Maybe trust will grow in time.
Maybe it will never exist again.
Trust is an entirely separate beast.
Confusing the two causes immense damage and misrepresents the character of God.

Let’s put this a different way:

When spiritual mentors or counselors imply that victims appear ungodly and unforgiving to wait for evidence of godly character over time before renewing trust, they are doing the devil’s work by perpetuating the first lie of Eden.

It is the lie offered by the Devil since Adam and Eve.
A false comfort which deceives, saying:
You can break trust, and suffer no consequences.
You can lie, and manipulate, and cheat, and break vows, and shatter the reality of those around you — and you can still demand no death of trust.
You can sin against someone without experiencing any breach of trust or relationship.
You can abuse with impunity.
Your marriage will not die.
Your career will not die.
Your prestige will not suffer.
Your family’s peace will not die.
No need to change.
No humility required.

“You shall not surely die” is a LIE.

In the years since my marriage publicly imploded, God has brought the dubious blessing of mentoring countless other women who are living in abusive relationships, typically married to sex and pornography addicts who hold positions of spiritual leadership, or women who have been sexually abused by church leaders. Sadly, the most common scenarios include church leaders bungling the fallout, under-reporting criminal behavior, blaming the victim(s), and ultimately enabling the abuser’s power in some way or another.

This, knowingly or not, removes consequences for the abuser that might actually help with character transformation if there were firm accountability in place, instead. Grace taken for granted becomes cheap grace, which actually prevents repentance.

There is power in giving grace when the other person isn’t fully sorry. But it is only helpful when it leads the abuser to appreciate the gift. That is the message of the cross. And God doesn’t stand in the way if we reject His offer.

Matthew 18’s reconciliation passage directs the person who has been sinned against to confront the sinner once in private. If the pattern of behavior doesn’t change, the second confrontation must include the presence of trusted advisors. Following this structure, a third return to the sinful behavior should be taken before the church and, in the absence of repentance (turning away from the sin), the person should be severed from church privileges and participation.

An understanding of abuse as sin, plus the principles we see in Jesus’ treatment of Mary combined with the principles of Matthew 18, offers a profound practical impact on how church leaders, counselors, and advocates should handle abusive situations.

If an abusive person refuses to submit to the length of time required to prove lasting heart change, or argues against restrictive measures provided by accountability structure, or balks at the practice of investing humble energy into restitution — then they are demanding the privileges of reconciliation without exhibiting change. They have bought into Satan’s lie that sin does not cause death, and internalized it as their truth to avoid authentic repentance. They unbiblically equate the extension of forgiveness with instant absolution.

In addition, any leader or counselor who pressures a victim into reconciling before healing has reached a point where trust is legitimately earned (if ever), or who guilts a victim into extending trust when the abuser has not shown lasting repentance — are, unwittingly or not, collaborating as agents of Satan in perpetuating the first lie. Persistently cherished sin requires escalating consequences to match, in an attempt to bring about redemption.

Because God says, unequivocally, that persistently cherished sin – including the breaking of relationship through abusive behavior – causes death.

For the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:23 ESV)

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