Paths of Wisdom – Dr Jo Jackson

In the recent past, disturbing reports of abuse perpetrated by leaders of churches and Christian organisations have come to light.

These abuses have taken place primarily against individuals who have been profoundly wounded in ways that are hard to comprehend. These reports also reveal deeply destructive church cultures that require careful and honest reflection and action.

Some of us will be impacted by these revelations in a direct way – either because we have experienced this abusive leadership ourselves or know those who are victims. For others this will bring back painful memories of abuse in other contexts. Still more of us will have been participants in, or at least witnesses to, the type of church cultures that have been described: that of fear, warped power dynamics, authoritarian leadership, prioritising the ‘ministry’ or organisation over individuals, valuing gifts over character, and intentional or unintentional gross denial of sin.

Being confronted with these things challenges us intellectually and will likely leave us with more questions than answers: How is this possible? How could it go on for so long? Who can be trusted? How should I respond? These revelations also challenge us emotionally, provoking a destabilising array of shock, horror, anger, fear, disillusionment, hopelessness, along with a deep sense of sadness and loss.

How we process and work through these questions and emotions is hugely important if we are going to be able to provide loving care and protection for the vulnerable, and seek to uphold the justice and integrity that Christ desires for His church. This will no doubt involve listening carefully to the voices of those who have been harmed, facing our own fears and sins, repenting of the desire for personal preservation and comfort, and choosing to speak the truth in love even when it is costly and painful. But the starting point must be on our knees before our Lord, crying out to Him for wisdom, help and healing.

Crying out to God

This crying out to God, or lament, is perhaps the primary way the Bible encourages us to respond to such troubling situations and accompanying questions, thoughts and feelings. Among other important steps, lament (both individually and collectively) will certainly be foundational to a good and right response to abuse in the body of Christ.

The Psalms provide us with a rich array of laments that we can draw upon, even when our own words fail us. Through these laments, the Lord invites us to pour out our heartache and confusion to Him – the One who is in control, who is faithful, kind, good, holy, just, who sees and who knows. As we lament, our Heavenly Father not only hears and acts, but transforms us and His church too.

Whether you are familiar with lament or not, Psalm 5 is a good place to start lamenting over abuse in the church. I hope the following will help you and your church family in crying out to God in this season of judgement and refinement of His church, as we hold onto the sure and certain promises of the Lord.

Psalm 5 as a lament for abuse

As you prepare to lament, make time and space that is unhurried and uninterrupted, where you are safe to call out to the Lord honestly and openly.

Take time to slowly read and say aloud vv.1-2, pausing between each verse:

Listen to my words, Lord,
consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.

We are intentionally and primarily turning to the Lord, rather than any other sources of wisdom, guidance and comfort. We are asking our Almighty Lord to listen, consider and hear our lament, for He is our King and our God.

With assurance of God’s inclined ear and expectation of His answer, we boldly lay out our requests before Him. As you move to verse 3, take time to be specific with your requests – the things you desperately need help with, your burdens for the abused, and your longings for the church. Say them out loud or perhaps write them down, engaging both your heart and your mind and note the prompt to wait expectantly:

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly. 

As you speak verse 4, 5 and 6, we are moved to tremble at God’s holiness and hatred of wickedness, arrogance and deceit:

For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness;
with you, evil people are not welcome.
The arrogant cannot stand in your presence.
You hate all who do wrong; 
you destroy those who tell lies.
The bloodthirsty and deceitful
you, Lord, detest.

Consider and name before the Lord ways in which we have seen these sins displayed – by abusers, by those who have denied, ignored or downplayed such sin, by arrogance within our church cultures, and the reflection of these sins in our own hearts. Humble ourselves before this King who is never light on sin, and who detests those who unrepentantly abuse, wilfully or ignorantly. Ask Him to help us to hate what He hates and to fill us with godly fear of His right and terrible judgement. Shout out, or weep if you need to, as you name the wickedness you see.

Meditating on the Lord’s deep-seated and powerful hatred of abuse and wickedness leads us to come before Him with no merit of our own, but casting ourselves on His mercy. Consider kneeling before the Lord, bowing down with our bodies and hearts in utter reverence and humility, remembering that it is only – but assuredly – Jesus’ blood that covers our sins and opens up the way of forgiveness and redemption. With childlike dependence and confidence, we remember that while God’s judgements are measured, His love is immeasurable for those who come to Him. Spend some time meditating on this and after speaking this, verse 7, consider singing to the Lord about His love and mercy shown towards you in Jesus:

But I, by your great love,
can come into your house;
in reverence I bow down
toward your holy temple. 

As we move into the second half of the Psalm, use the words in verse 8 to recommit ourselves and our churches to the Lord’s leading, over and above our own wisdom or anyone else’s leading. Our desire is for His righteousness and our duty is wholly to the Lord, rather than to institutions or individuals. Ask Him to give us clarity of sight and unswerving obedience to His ways.

Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness
because of my enemies –
make your way straight before me.

In the circumstance we find ourselves in, it can be hard to tell the truth from lies. But the Lord will certainly and decisively declare His true and right judgment on the guilty. As we rehearse verses 9-10, let’s ask the Lord for discernment as to who can and cannot be trusted. And let us urge the Lord to take action against his false shepherds, for it is ultimately against Him that they rebel:

Not a word from their mouth can be trusted;
their heart is filled with malice.
Their throat is an open grave;
with their tongues they tell lies.
Declare them guilty, O God!
Let their intrigues be their downfall.
Banish them for their many sins,
for they have rebelled against you. 

Our lamenting will often involve groaning and weeping. This is good and right. But even as we do so, we do not lose sight of the gladness, joy and rejoicing that awaits us. Even now, as we take refuge in the Lord, we can be confident of his protection and blessing and experience joy amidst sorrow. We find our rest, not in our circumstances, but in the Lord Himself. He will not fail us or His church for whom He died. Repeat verse 11 and 12 out loud, perhaps two or three times, letting your mouth proclaim, your mind take pleasure in, and your heart experience the peace and protection that comes from these glorious truths and precious promises:

But let all who take refuge in you be glad;
let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may rejoice in you.
Surely, Lord, you bless the righteous;
you surround them with your favour as with a shield.

We stand together as we lament and repent, and also find ways to rejoice even in the light of abuse, confident that the Lord, our Lord, will hear and answer our laments.

Amen and amen.

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