That person is like a tree planted by streams of water 1
In the previous post, we started having a look at Psalm 1, which carries such a beautiful picture of the relationship between our ethics and our health and wellbeing. The poet calls us to avoid harmful behaviour but also calls us in a positive sense. Since we are created in God’s image, there is a part of all of us that loves to treat people well. When we spend time reflecting on our own behaviour, and how we can best care for those around us, I suggest that’s us nurturing the image of God in ourselves. It’s just like caring for a garden and can be as beautiful, or as much hard work.
Abusers sure make things complicated…
I want to name a dilemma in talking about the significance of being made in God’s image: A common abusive behaviour is to dominate others and try to tell them who they are.
The study of epistemology2 considers the nature of how we know things. In the light of that question, “How do we know?”, one goal a dedicated abuser might have is to become that source of knowledge: the authority on reality. That includes becoming the authority on who the victim is.
I remember a person who used to tell me how I liked my tea, despite my protestations. Or an abuser might love to say, “You are useless”, “You’ll never get fit”, or, “You’ll never pass.”
A particular danger in faith communities is that a practised abuser can add the weight of scripture or tradition to their words, even though they might be twisting or misapplying those words and traditions to meet their own ends. Part of the reason for The Abigail Project’s focus on the Christian community is to directly fight that tactic by refuting the lies abusers tell. However, that application of spiritual abuse in concert with other forms of abuse can be extremely effective.
Fact: Even good things can be triggering for some…
I have been talking with some abuse victims lately about the way in which abusers have taken and twisted what would otherwise be good and healthy things, and now those things have become difficult and triggering. A tragic number of Christian people have found it necessary to walk away from Christianity because it has all been twisted and used by abusers, and they just need space to breathe away from that environment and the constant triggers it now sadly provides.
And so – here is a dilemma. The Bible is clear we are all made in God’s image. It is clear his image in us carries a deep awareness of right and wrong, and of healthy and toxic. It is also abundantly rich with other wonderful things like our creativity, intelligence, or sense of fun. But this very conversation about who we are could be triggering for some because the abuser has been so disrespectful of their boundaries.
If that applies to you, I am so sorry for what you have been through. I truly am. Please forgive me if my writing sounds oppressive or forceful, or raises memories of people who have tried to tell you who you are. For what it’s worth, while I believe the Bible’s take on this is trustworthy and clear, I also believe that has little value to us personally unless we get to know ourselves, for ourselves, rather than because someone else tells us who we are. What has been done to you is wrong.
…but the same things can be helpful for others
The other side of this dilemma is there are so many people who have been told they are useless, stupid, wicked, or some other lie, over and over. So many abuse tactics reinforce these lies, and one common tactic is for an abuser to find a good-hearted person with a solid, sensitive conscience, and zero in on every flaw or shortcoming to invoke false or overblown guilt, attacking and eroding their victim’s sense of self-worth. It is such an evil thing to do to a person.
So in response to those lies I want to affirm the wonder of what God did when he made humans, and that no matter what else abusers might take away, they cannot take away the fact you are made in the image of God. When Job was falsely accused by those he called friends, while they tried to tell him what a wicked person he was, he replied:
As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice,
the Almighty, who has made my life bitter,
as long as I have life within me,
the breath of God in my nostrils,
my lips will not say anything wicked,
and my tongue will not utter lies.
I will never admit you are in the right;
till I die, I will not deny my integrity.
I will maintain my innocence and never let go of it;
my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live.5
This is you, and me. The breath of God in our nostrils. The capacity to make good choices, and a conscience to guide us.
Job was a tree planted by streams of water
Job’s character is astounding. That might be difficult to see clearly because half the book of Job is full of his friends telling him what a bad person he is. They do so in detail, with specific examples. But they lie.
God says Job’s character is wonderful. It’s his friends who falsely accuse him of all kinds of sins from attacking the strength of his faith6 to saying he had stripped the poor of their clothing.7 Yet Job had a strong awareness of his conscience and of his alignment with the breath of God within him.
I believe Job is the kind of person the poet is thinking of in Psalm 1:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.8
I suspect Job’s strength of self in the face of lies and accusations came from years of digging deep, listening to the voice of God as it aligned with his own best nature. This is not to say Job was relaxed, confident, or happy. He deeply struggled with what was happening to him. Job was truly suffering. He said:
I have no peace, no quietness;
I have no rest, but only turmoil.9
But for all that he suffered and struggled, he made it through, and what seems clear in him is his connection with his rock-solid, ethical core.
Steve WadeA tragic number of Christian people have needed to walk away from Christianity because it has been twisted and used by abusers, and they need space to breathe away from that environment and the triggers it now sadly provides Click To Tweet
- Psalm 1:3
- Epistemology: the part of philosophy that is about the study of how we know things. Cambridge Dictionary
- Psalm 34:18
- Jesus makes vivid reference to this in his talk about millstones: Luke 17:2
- Job 27:2-6
- Job 4:3-5
- Job 22:4-9
- Psalm 1:1-3
- Job 3:26