Our Father: A Reflection on Spiritual Abuse.

Last time, we looked at how calling on God as our heavenly Father is a daring thing to do.  Today, I want to look at the little pronoun, “our.”  Jesus taught His disciples to pray “Our Father in heaven,” not “My Father in heaven” nor just “Father in heaven.”  It’s “Our Father in heaven.”  [Yes, I know that Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer omits the “our.”  However, the version of the prayer that has universally come down to us as the form said by Christians in prayer, is Matthew’s version, the one that begins, “Our Father in heaven.]  Only Jesus calls out to God as My Father.  Jesus is the express image of the Father.  He is most literally the Son of God in that He is of the very substance of God, made of the same stuff, you could say.  And in His incarnation, when the eternal Word of God humbled Himself and became human to save mankind, in His incarnation Jesus expresses exactly what the heavenly Father is, in so far as it is possible in a human being.  And of course one of the great scandals of the judeo-christian faith tradition is the claim that human beings were created in God’s image, that human beings were created to look like God.  And the reason why Jesus is the only one who can call God, “My Father,” is that He is the only one who fully and completely preserves and manifests the image of God.  All other human beings have fallen away, have marred the image.

Nevertheless, God has not abandoned us.  God, the scripture tells us, remains faithful even when we are faithless.  God has not abandoned us but has come to us and revealed Himself to us in His Son Jesus so that we can see again what God “looks” like.  And, of course, when I say “looks” I am not referring to physical attributes like colour, size or shape.  What I am referring to are spiritual qualities, qualities that can be manifest in any human being regardless of colour, size or shape; and regardless of age, sex, cultural background or status in society. What makes us look like God are inner, spiritual qualities that manifest themselves in what we commonly call the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.  This is not an exhaustive list, but it gives us a clear enough idea of what God looks like enfleshed in a human body.  These are the qualities that manifest the image of God in a human being.  All of these qualities were manifest in Jesus, fully, completely and all of the time.

Along with the fruit of the Spirit, there are also what St. Paul calls “graces” (Eph. 4:11) or “gracelets” (1 Cor. 12:4).  This word is often translated “gifts” in English, which is not wrong, but it is misleading.  These gifts or ministries or manifestations of the Holy Spirit are workings of God’s grace in our lives.  When we refer to them merely as gifts or ministries, we easily forget that they are not some thing that God has given us, but rather they are the very working of God, the manifestation or ministration of God in and among us.  God does not give someone the gift, for example, of pastoring so that the person now has some thing.  The person does not now have the thing called the pastoring gift.  No, not at all. When someone has the spiritual gift of pastoring, means that God is working in that person so that God Himself, by Grace, pastors in and through that person.  God shepherds His flock in and through human pastors.  God cares for and strengthens and saves His people in and through His people.  It is something God is doing, but God does it in and through people in whom His grace is working—or not.  And there’s the rub.

Whereas Jesus, as a human being, had the fullness of the Holy Spirit working in Him and thus could call God “My Father” because Jesus fully manifested His Father on earth, individually we each manifest our Father only in part.  We followers of Christ are each members of a whole, we are each a brick in the building, a part of the body, vessel in the house—to use some of the metaphors found in the New Testament.  We each manifest the grace of God partially.  The work of God on earth is accomplished in and through us together, not ever in any one person individually.  When we pray “our Father,” we are saying something about our ecclesiology, we are saying that we cannot come to God alone because our relationship with God is as a part of a family.  We, together, make the one Body of Christ.  Or as several Church Fathers have put it, “One Christian is not a Christian.”  There are no Christian Lone Rangers.

I have a friend who works for a Protestant group that sees itself as ministering to those who have experienced spiritual abuse.  What they mean by this is that they are trying to encourage the faith of those who have left church (any church, real or so-called, Protestant, Roman Catholic or Orthodox) because they have experienced abusive authority figures.  Seen in one way, I completely understand, and I am perhaps supportive of such a service.  The church is made up of sinners who each have some manifestation of the grace of God, and who must work together, but who generally do a very poor job of it (yes, even in the Orthodox Church).  All of the human problems one finds in the world, one can find in the church.  Why?  Because the church is made up of people who are being saved from out of the world, and each one is given only a portion of what is needed for the whole to be saved.  Added to this, there is also the problem of “false brethren,” those who have no intention of changing, of being saved, but who use the church as a cover for their sinful intentions.

But even if there weren’t any false brethren, the brokenness of the best intentioned people can cause a great deal of pain and suffering to those around them.  Even with every intention of repenting and being transformed by Christ, a bishop with a self-control problem or a priest with anger issues or a mother with an alcohol addiction these can cause immense pain and spiritual damage, spiritual abuse, on those who depend on them and who look to them for spiritual guidance and help.

My friend likes to use the example of Hagar in the Old Testament as an example of spiritual abuse and how God heals it.  At the time of Abraham and Sarah, God had revealed Himself only to them.  That is, in the whole world at that time, only Abraham and Sarah knew God.  God had promised Abraham to give him a heir, but Abraham lost patience and took his wife’s servant and impregnated her—thus, you could say, making a sex slave out of her.  Once she conceives, Hagar begins acting a little too uppity for Sarah (perhaps Hagar had thought that she might be promoted from slave to second-wife status), but Abraham rather gives Sarah his blessing to “deal harshly” with her.  As a result, Hagar runs away to almost certain death in the desert where, instead of dying, she meets God.  Hagar then becomes the third person in the world God has revealed Himself too, and she becomes the first person to name God giving Him the name: the God who sees.

Consider Hagar’s problem.  The only people she had to show her what God is like end up abusing her.  What is she going to think God is like?  What is she going to think of the people of God?  Of course she runs away.  Of course she flees abuse.  This is what any healthy human being would do.  However, having fled, Hagar meets God.  Hagar herself now knows the God of Abraham and Sarah.  And here, at this point, my friend stops telling the story.  But it is not the end of the story.  For having met God, the God who sees, while she is fleeing Sarah in the desert, what does the God who sees tell her to do?  He tells her to return to Abraham and Sarah and to submit to them.  With the promise of son, “because [God] has seen her humiliation,” God sends her back and protects her and fulfills His promise to her.

Yes, people sometimes flee the Church because they encounter abusive people or situations there.  And yes, we need to love, minister to, care for and most of all be patient with those who flee the church because of the bad experiences they have had.  But still, there are no Lone-Ranger Christians.  We are not taught to pray to “My Father in heaven,” but “Our Father in heaven.”  God is the God who sees.  God sees our suffering.  God knows what we have been through.  And God wants us to find our safety in Him.  But this safe place in God is not a place far away from the Church—after all, all you have to do is pick up a newspaper to realize that the Church has no monopoly on the abusive use of power.  There is no place on earth to flee in order to escape the risk of being abused by people with power.  There is no place on earth, but there is a place in heaven.  And so Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven.”

We don’t go to heaven by leaving this world.  We go to heaven by fleeing to the desert.  The fathers and mothers of the Church teach us that the desert is a metaphor for the place in our heart where we meet God.  Meeting God in the desert, in our hearts, meeting the God who sees, we are then able to join our broken brothers and sisters in the community of faith.  We are strengthened with the promise that God sees and that God is with us.  But we must return to the Church with humility.  It is common knowledge that people who abuse children, for example, were almost always themselves abused as children.  Those who have experienced abuse, if given the opportunity, are themselves very likely to repeat the abuse.  Of course we very seldom see ourselves as abusers.  We might see ourselves as weak, as making a mistake, as having a lapses in judgement, but not as abusive.  This is why humility is called for.  Only with humility will we be able to hear the faint cries of those we step on, those we ignore, and those we thoughtlessly use.  Humility is absolutely necessary to break the cycle of abuse.

As a priest, I hear lots of people’s stories, the sad stories of lives that look much like Hagar’s.  And sometimes I find myself in the place of the Angel who helped Hagar see the God who sees.  And when that happens, like the Angel, I too must say what might seem cruel to some, but it is the only medicine that heals, the only medicine that stops the cycle of abuse.  I must say, now return to the Church with humility.  Yes, speak the truth.  And no, do not hide or cover over abuse for the sake of convenience.  But now that you know the God who sees, the God who sees calls you back to His body so that you too may be further healed and so that what God has given you may also be shared with those who need it.  Salvation with take all of us.  For the Church to manifest the body of Christ, we must all and each contribute what God has given us to give. And this is at least part of the reason why Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven.”


  1. Thank you for your post.
    Am I correct to understand that you are advocating returning to the Church, but not necessarily returning to the abusive situation? Or are you saying that if a person experiences abuse in a parish, they should stay in that parish?

    1. Dear Pat,
      Generally, yes. One should (with God’s help) return to the Church but not to the abusive situation if it can be avoided. Jesus taught his disciples to flee persecution, not to seek it. That said, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions, for God’s gifts and callings differ in each of us. However, generally speaking, one should not return to an abusive situation if it can be avoided. At least that’s my opinion and what I normally advise people.

  2. Returning to the Church but not to an abusive relationship is good advice. However, when leaving an abusive situation in a one church only leads to another church where abuse is experienced. What is a person to do who seeks a relationship with Our Father? Do we attempt to “grow where we are planted”? How can we in true humility address the abuser without judging him or her? If forgiveness is the criterion by which we become Christ to each other, it must be a mutual forgiveness and not one where we become subservient to those in power. This is a stumbling block that impedes progress towards being Christ to each other. I think that what is missing is that true humility is often preached but infrequently practiced.
    Any suggestions?

    1. Abuse in relationships is a very personal thing. That is, what one person considers abusive, another considers just dealing with difficult people. A monk once told me that all relationships in this fallen world are to some extent abusive and abusing. A lot depends on our ability deal with it (or our ability to learn how to deal with it). If a relationship seems to be destroying me, I should probable get some help and maybe even flee, if I can. But if I keep running into abusive relationships, then there’s a good chance that I’m the one with the problem. I’m the one who needs to get help to change (to learn how to deal with difficult people). But again, each person and each situation is different.
      It seems to me that humility is something we must each put on (to use St. Peter’s expression [1 Peter 5:5]), not something we can evaluate in others. There are many different kinds of power in the world and it is distributed very unevenly. Yet this is the very world we have to find our salvation in. If we keep pulling away from relationships and from the church because authority doesn’t function as we think it should (or even as we know it should), then we will end up in an isolated delusion. This is why we must clothe ourselves in humility. Eventually, like Hagar, we have to trust the God who sees, even when that means returning and submitting to Abraham and Sarah——the ones with power that they don’t handle very well. But if I know that God sees, then I know that God sees even me and my suffering. God sees the cross, the grave and the resurrection—even when all I see is the cross.

  3. I was baptised as a baby then my parentrs divorced and it was an ugly one. We lived with my grandparents in an abusive home. I didnt have much belief or faith in God and went about my life. We didnt go to Church either. In college I felt a calling and started searching for God everywhere but orthodoxy. I began attending a non denominational church bible study. My mom knew a retired priest that left a monastery to go on his own and he presented himself as a spiritual father and began mentoring me. The relationship turned terrible. It started with the “God is an angry and wrathful God” conversation that snowballed into you can lose salvation talk right from the beginning. During our phone confessions he would berrate me about my sins, and chastise me telling me this was love by screaming and yelling at me, swearing and slamming the phone on me. I was not in a good place having been rejected by my estranged father and his wife and had multiple mental hospitalizations while in college. Who am I to break Gods laws he screamed at me. Of course I couldnt leave because of the obediences he would put on me and failure to obey resulted in more evil falling on me and punishments. I lost my girlfriend of 5 years, graduate school and much more and am now in thousands of dollars or student debt. After several years i broke away finally after hallucinations of demons, nightmares and much more I experience on a daily basis. I am in a state of hatred, unrest and hyperviligence now, suicidal most days and I keep crying out to God no avail. I contacted our archdiocese only to be brushed off, ignored and pushed to the side. I talk to the parish priest and he reads me prayers and offers unction but nothing changes. I was christmated at a monastery after a few years of getting nowhere locally. See when I was starting out and at the protestant church they told me I should be baptised and like an idiot I listened. Apparently if one does that they must be christmated to recieve communion but the bishop wouldnt do it. I have been suffering for years and hate my life. I hear him screaming at me and controlling me inside myself and feel like my insides are moving around. I keep having horrible thoughs and hallucinations of 666 as well as nightmares. I hate God at the moment want nothing to do with Him. He hasnt helped me and my life is ruined. During my “chastisements” I would be accused of being scandalized and mocking God as well as snarled at and reminded not my will by Thy will be done.

    1. Dear Alex,
      I am so sorry that you had to go through such terrible experiences. May God help you to find a healthy place with healthy people so that you can heal.
      Fr. Michael

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