Last week, Jack Schaap, the former pastor of one of the largest churches in the United States accepted a plea bargain of guilt, claiming that it will be the best course of action for his family. It will spare all involved the grueling process of exposure and embarrassment that a claim of innocence would require in court. A survivor astutely pointed out last week that it was ironic that Schaap who has so often commented that he would never accept theological advice from a woman accepted the plea offered to him by two female U.S. Attorneys. Schaap has built a legacy of abusive comments about women and children, and he has often exalted himself as a virtuous man of God and husband by harshly condemning sexual sin. Those who believe that he lived out the standard that he preached were forced to consider that he was both hypocrite and Pharisee. With such a tremendous focus placed on the virtue of sexual purity and conduct in such a harsh manner, those who believed he was virtuous suffer terrible disappointment. In their disillusionment, many cry out that he should be spared justice and offered only mercy – that the alleged “standard bearer” who failed should be spared the standard that he spoke about so adamantly. Like those pious of old, Schaap closed up heaven so tightly for others that he himself could not remotely attain it.
But what of justice? For those who have suffered pain and pestilence because of the sins and abuse of someone they trusted, the idea that such a man should be offered forgiveness without repentance and mercy without seeing justice themselves makes a mockery of all that is right. As rank and file Christians, we are called to be dedicated to forgiveness and mercy, but we are also called to uphold a standard of righteousness, too – even to epitomize what is right and good. Add to this that the Bible calls for teachers and ministers to rise to an even higher standard than the lay person, and add to their status that they hold the sacred trust of many in their hands as even greater ambassadors for truth and righteousness. When the abused are asked to ignore or excuse the actions of those who used them as objects for their own gratification or required them to have greater virtue and self-control than their authorities and religious leaders, it becomes something of a triple threat of injustice. They are required to repent and forgive as the bruised innocents, and adding insult to their injury, many expect them to ignore and excuse their abusers – those who had an even greater duty to righteousness and truth. In the name of upholding righteousness, the Pharisaical system not only teaches injustice, but it obliterates the true spirit of forgiveness and mercy.
But mercy never forgoes justice. Even in our justice system, when someone commits a crime against us, a trial in court must determine whether that person is guilty or innocent. This process establishes justice for the benefit of society so that evil may be punished. In a higher action of the court under a separate proceeding, the judge determines an appropriate sentence after wisely considering many factors such as the nature of the crime, the potential for and degree of continued harm to others in society, the means of the offending party, and how the offending party responds to the verdict. These higher court proceedings which allow the judge the option of mercy and forgiveness cannot be possible without first establishing justice. God expects no less of us in our dealings with Him and in our dealings with one another.
What Does Forgiveness Require?
For an individual to receive God's mercy for the forgiveness of their sins, they must first repent of wrongdoing. Faith in God leading to repentance separates the condemned from the forgiven. Sin requires death, but only through repentance, we receive the gift of forgiveness in Jesus Christ who was put to death in our stead. We are not offered forgiveness without repentance, and we are not obligated to reconcile with the unrepentant. God doesn't cheaply hand out mercy to us without us first declaring that we are just through the Blood of Christ which ransoms us from death. For the Christian who believes in the authority of the fullness of the Word of God, we must first acknowledge our sinfulness and imperfection and powerlessness through the act of repentance first – and this establishes justice as righteousness is imputed to us. Suggesting that God should afford us forgiveness for our sins without this act of contrition and confession to Him shows disrespect not only for justice and His holiness, it makes a mockery of the sacrifice of Jesus. It denies His Lordship, and it lets us sit in the seat of Moses or of God Himself. It is to say in your heart that you are like God, and such a concept is antithetical to Christianity.
It is painful to suffer injustice, and though Peter admonishes Christians to patiently endure injustice at the hands of authority, he does not teach that the Christian should accept the injustice as just. That would violate both of the Two Greatest Commandments by dishonoring others and by dishonoring God. Isaiah 5:20, Romans 12:2-9, and Psalm 52 note that we should never call good evil or evil good. Evil behavior disqualifies leaders from holding a position of authority in the care of other Christians (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1), and those who fail are warned with words of woe. The abused who are required to offer unconditional forgiveness to their unrepentant, hypocritical, and Pharisaical abusers must condone evil by covering it at their own expense, or they risk revictimization by being named as bitter and unforgiving. They must abdicate their right to safety and self-protection and their duty to protect other innocent people. When others suffer as they have, they must quietly bear the guilt of the realization that they could have done something to protect the new wounded who follow in their wake. It is true that love covers a multitude of sins, but to do so without first establishing justice and safety (turning a sinner from his ways) covers sin with more hypocrisy. Those who do redefine loving liberty in a manner that Peter called a cloak of maliciousness.
We have only two choices as Christians. Our sins can be washed away by the Blood, or they can be covered under the guise of virtue through licentiousness and maliciousness through the traditions of men.
When a system of authority requires the bruised and abused to ignore justice, giving assent to injustice and the right of others to trample on others without any consequences, is this really forgiveness? Is this really mercy? It is not. It is required compliance – a behavior, not an act of forgiveness which is an attitude of the heart. It is not something freely given but is a compelled response. The bruised are then required to endure a new injustice and suffer a new lie. In believing that they have offered forgiveness to the one who has done them harm without consequences, yet another virtue is cheapened. The condemning, manmade laws redefine and displace the Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ, as mercy is also cheapened. Mercy flows from love and compassion after justice and triumphs over it and is not something that comes out of the law but triumphs over it. The bruised are also denied the experience of mercy in this false forgiveness. They are denied the liberty that Christ came to offer them in favor of the traditions of men that make even the Word ineffective.
Lust for Justice
What are the consequences of this pseudo-forgiveness and quasi-mercy? What happens to the abused? God says that he will not break the bruised reed or the contrite in heart, and when God sets a bruised person at liberty through Christ, they are tenderly restored. The world becomes a safe place when they realize justice, and their faith in God's righteousness strengthens. Man's traditions of hiding and excusing sin are the mechanisms that drive bitterness into the heart of the downtrodden. It is the redefining of virtue and calling evil good that provokes children to anger. The inconsistency of requiring perfection of those who are innocent while the unjust who should know better enjoy license to do all manner of evil creates its own kind of lust – a lust for justice. It creates an anger of intolerance, and it works against forgiveness. It mocks truth. It creates and fosters resentment, not virtue.
In my own life and in the lives of many others I've studied, injustice at an early age creates a great deal of confusion and distress which often results in a “lust for justice.” Of course, it took more than half my life of seeking God to see it as such in my own life, as I defined that lust as the love of righteousness and striving for perfection. I desired perfection in myself, but I demanded perfection and righteousness in authority figures. I became rigid and controlling, for when I saw people who were just as sinful as me who made mistakes just like I did, I had no forgiveness or mercy to offer them. I offered only angry criticism. I would assuage myself by telling myself that I just had a high standard of excellence. What it really turned out to be was fear of being wounded again and a response to the threat of more sacrifice on my part, leading to resentment that I didn't want to acknowledge.
But could I live up to my own standard? When I failed to meet the standard myself, did I expect the justice I demanded of others, or did I hope for merciful forgiveness? Though I was hard on myself and did demand a high standard of myself, I must admit that I expected a much higher level of mercy and forgiveness from others than I ever offered to them. I did defend truth and righteousness, but I did it for many of the wrong reasons. I did it for for me and my own comfort, not because it was necessarily right.
At about the age of twenty-five, God finally began to get my attention. I'd suffered another great disappointment which angered me, just before embarking on a 3 hour car trip with my husband. We started driving, and I started ranting as we drove. I was furious and railed against people who had truly been unjust to me and caused me great pain. About an hour into my venting, in my mind, I heard words so strong and loud, I could not believe it. An amazing rhetorical question roared loudly in my mind in a spirit that was quite the opposite of my own voice. “Did you receive justice, or did I offer you mercy?” Like Job, I placed my hand over my mouth in awe, for I was deeply convicted. God offered me mercy when I made mistakes, and though I was just in feeling anger over the wrong done to me, I suddenly realized that I had no love and no compassion in my heart concerning that situation.
Let me clarify that I did not interpret this idea, this thought, as a requirement for me to just accept injustice as a good thing to which I was supposed to resign myself. I was still justified in the expectation of fair treatment through justice, but I realized that the attitude of my heart was hard and unkind. I was fine with the letter of the law, but I had lost the spirit of it. Those who had mistreated me were very much non-Christian authorities, but I thought of Jonah when God spoke to him, reminding Jonah that he rigidly expected people “who did not know their right hand from their left” (those who lacked moral discernment). My response was more like that of a young, angry child than that of a mature adult who is able to “consider the source” and the situation in wisdom. I realized that my expectations demanded perfection and a Christian standard of righteousness from those who probably didn't know what that standard was. Into one event and on to one target, I heaped all of my lust for justice that I'd ever felt from all of the places of helplessness I'd ever occupied, and my response was out of proportion to the situation. It poked an unhealed wound created by the injustices I'd suffered at the hands of unpredictable and unjust authorities who required me to pay the consequences for their own insufficiencies and mistakes. The pain provoked me to lust for justice, yet again, and I was convicted to repent.
Just a few years later, I faced a more intense pain when I realized that the spiritual leaders at my church were using and abusing church members for their own gain. This became an even harder situation to work through because these were men who I expected to epitomize the Love of God through modeling true justice. They delivered quite the opposite and devoured the flock. They were my personal Pharisees, full of self-righteousness and intolerance, and again, I was tempted to lust for justice and satisfaction. How difficult it was to reckon, for though I certainly deserved and should expect good and fair treatment, I again found myself in a place of angry lust for righteousness that I demanded of these “men of God.” I remembered the words about mercy I'd heard in the car on my journey years earlier, and though challenged by them, I did not know how to find balance.
I had to learn how to balance justice with mercy, and I hadn't a clue about how to begin in the face of the justifiable anger I felt because of the terrible things that I watched my leaders do without a hint of regret or conscience. I often tell people that I remained angry for many years that God allowed Pharisees to flourish. I wanted Him to rid Christianity of them in the pastorate. I thought that by my standard and on my time table, God would surely work justice for the bruised by holding those men accountable in some obvious and dramatic way. I prayed for months and hoped to see the leaders repenting on their faces before the church in contrition, and I finally ended up walking away for my own sake. Fifteen years later, they still flourish in that church and still practice their special version of Pharisaism. I had to make the choice to move on from the situation, and I had to learn mercy. I had to give them over to God to deal mercifully with them, for I had none in my heart for them, especially while directly under their abuse.
Along the way and early on in the process of my own healing, I asked a wise old minister who had suffered during the Holocaust how I could learn mercy. He said to me that “we learn mercy by the mercy that we are shown.” I wish that I could tell you that his sage words melted my lust in an instant, but instead, it struck a twinge of terror in my heart. Though it took me years to understand, I believe that in that moment, I felt the conviction that I carried the same intolerant attitude in my heart that my abusers did. They demanded their own standard of perfection from me according to their traditions, and I expected a high standard of them. Neither of us had any mercy for the other, and as demanding as they were of me, I realized later that I was just as intolerant. It was not enough for me to walk away from them, and I still lusted to see justice done to them. I didn't seek their harm, but I didn't pray for God to be tender with them. I couldn't. I was still too wounded.
But I would learn mercy. The next season of my life came with much pain and suffering, and I was pushed beyond my limits of control. I became helpless and was faced with my own limitations and flaws. I felt as though life's circumstances stripped me of my accomplishments and my abilities. Misfortunes, illnesses, losses, limitations, and tragedies rocked my world and revealed my own heart. In that season, I became completely dependent on God's mercy and I learned the sweetness of the undeserved and unexpected kindness of others. I fell upon the Rock and rigid intolerance and demands for perfection were shattered as God revealed the original wounds that created these immature and unreasonable expectations in me. Loss and pain brought me to a place that allowed me to see just how Pharisaical I was in my own right, and it was there that God taught true mercy to me. (When I finish that mercy course, I'll let you know.)
The Challenge to the Jack Schaaps of the World
Men like Jack Schaap rail from the pulpits of churches all over the world, spewing screed of intolerance and cruelty, demanding standards of wounded people that even they cannot even attain and maintain. They demand perfection of their children and all of those around them, but they themselves are imperfect which makes these preachers that much more angry. In their efforts to avoid their anger and to flee from their own limitations, they use others to medicate their feelings, just like an addict uses drugs or alcohol. They treat people like objects who only serve to bolster the world they try to create to keep themselves safe so that they can feel powerful. Through striving and works and their own crafted traditions, they try to control the world to comfort themselves, believing that they are making it a better place. That is what they tell themselves, and they let the virtuous end justify their means, both good and bad.
Jack Schaap preached against fornication and mocked young women from the pulpit, all while he used girls like objects for his own sexual gratification, sinning against his family and his church. He suggests that he made his plea of guilt just because it would spare his family the embarrassment of a court trial. (This also allows him to conceal many details about his actions from the public, so I don't know that it is so virtuous.) If he does contend that he is innocent, what statement does he make by intimating that his plea bargain is a lie? This teaches the Christian who still follows him that a person can justify lying for pragmatic purposes. It's okay to take the easy way out, because the Christian is above the civil law?
Here is the challenge to Jack Schaap and those like him. Like me, he can identify with the Pharisee to become a recovering one with the rest of the flawed and fallible human race. He can look into the black abyss of his own heart – that part of it that God has yet to purify – and take responsibility for his sin. He can recognize that God is mighty and holy, and he is not. If he remains proud and rigid in a search for healing, he can fall on the Rock to break away the hardness. He can go through the process of working through the rubble to redeem the shards of virtue that were sown amidst the traditions of men, and then, he can begin the process of healing. He can go to God as the contrite, bruised reed, and He can find true liberty in Christ. He can realize the magnitude of the wrong he has done, asking forgiveness. He that is forgiven much loves much. For all of the hardness and anger and arrogance he's demonstrated for so long, imagine the depth of goodness that God can work through him and in him if he humbles himself! He can become blind man who receives new sight, realizing the breadth, length, width, and height and to know the love of God toward him and all who believe. And he will have a platform from which to communicate that love in contrition and humility.
If he doesn't seek to take responsibility and own what he has done, the Rock will fall upon him and will crush him. ...Eventually.
The Challenge to the Bruised: The Long Journey of Forgiveness through Faith
But this, too, is the challenge to those who wrestle with the lust for justice after they were used and thrown away. We have to make the decision to allow our experience to soften us through true forgiveness and mercy, and we only learn those things through understanding justice. We learn that mercy triumphs over justice. We must learn the hard lessons of how we can balance our needs against those of others. We must learn that our recompense comes from a trustworthy God, and we usually don't receive it from our abusers. We must learn that we are forgiven as we forgive others, and that forgiveness requires repentance. We must learn how to preserve justice by calling evil what it is as we learn that all of us are flawed and fallible. All of this describes a long journey of faith and a choice to follow virtue.
It is in this place of healing that we stop the cycle of abuse, and we can even avoid the “'schizophrenic' survivor wars.” Abusers take their overwhelming shame, demands, and intolerance and pour them into the hearts of others, and the consequences of this experience are especially profound for children who can suffer in many ways. The children of abusers then grow up with shame and pressure and rigid demands that don't even belong to them, and the easiest thing that they can do is vent them on or into someone else when they become adults. It makes them inflexible and demanding people if they fail to heal. If they can learn these lessons and can truly heal, the cycle stops, and they can be sources of comfort and encouragement for others. (Read more about stopping the cycle of shame and abuse here.)
When we do the hard work of healing, those old wounds don't hurt like they used to hurt. Our lust for justice and the rigid intolerance it creates in us tempers and transforms into the expectation of justice in the spirit of mercy. We become more easily disposed to forgiveness because we don't fear injustice. We learn to look to a just God for justice as His gift to us. When we taste injustice at the hands of limited and fallible people, we don't have to sit in the seat of the intolerant Pharisee. We can have compassion and empathy for them, because God has filled our woundedness with compassion and love, displacing the pain that once occupied those places. That same mercy with which God fills us can then be shared with others, and we can also powerfully comfort others who have suffered like we have. Through it all, we learn to trust in the faithfulness of God.