“Abuse (and the trauma that results from it) causes not only the anxiety of meaninglessness and the anxiety of guilt, but also the anxiety of non-being.
…mind-control is the perfect metaphor for emotional abuse. Maybe it’s because the human will is so core to what it means to be, that if you take it away—whether through physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, social or financial coercion—you violate a person’s humanity on an elemental level. You take away that person’s ability to say I am.”
—Maylin Tu, “Jessica Jones, Abuse, and ‘The Courage to Be’”, Christ & Pop Culture
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
—1 John 4:18
Abuse makes the victim feel as if she is dirt, worse than dirt – just something to be used, abused and discarded. It violates her sense of self and her identity as a person made in the image of Love.
In my experience, abusive people have grown up with over-controlling parents, or absent parents. When they have not received love from the people who brought them into being, children are in danger of growing up thinking that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. They internalise the idea that they were not worthy of being loved unconditionally. If they do not heal, they are prone to inflicting pain on others in a misdirected search for justice and reparation. We are meant to be loved.
Patterns of Sin
“Give your children these two things: roots and wings.”
Over-controlling people are dominated by fear – fear of the world, fear of the unknown. When they demand that their children conform completely to their narrow vision, it pinions the growing wings of the child, suffocating him and sending him the message that he’s not good enough as he is, but has to become something else in order to appease his parents and be loved. Fearful parents are in danger of bringing up children malformed by fear, unable to strike out on their own paths and swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other – fearfully appeasing people when they ought to say no, or controlling other people whom they deem weaker than themselves.
Absent parents deny their children an identity rooted in nourishing love. How often do you hear friends gushing over a baby to a parent, “She’s just like you!” We are stamped with the features and mannerisms of our parents; “we are of our parents before we are of ourselves.”1 I have watched people with absent parents look for love and attention in all the wrong places,2 hungering for the nourishment denied them in their earliest years. They become desperate for a resolution, something which can fill the aching void in the core of their being.
St. Paul reminded the Romans: “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father).” (Romans 8:15). When you have an identity rooted firmly in Christ, confident in the loving providence of God and His steadfast abiding presence no matter where you go in life, you are able to break free of any crippling chains handed down from your imperfect parents. It is true, you may have to struggle with the vestiges of generational sin throughout your life – but Christ is there with you in the struggle, purifying you and using your weaknesses as openings for grace.
Love is the Rule that Gives Freedom
“Your family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, and imagination must be summoned constantly to keep any relationship flourishing and growing.”
True love respects the free will of the person. The gardener may prune the plant now and then, but he allows it to develop naturally in its own time, fertilising it and watering it with dedication while it transforms energy from the sun into its own food, glucose. Likewise, God the most loving of parents may permit us afflictions to prune us of unhealthy attachments or attitudes – He may allow us to go through a trial, even a trial that seems to wrest us from Him, only in the end to bring us back safely, after which we realise that half the suffering could have been avoided if we had just trusted more in Him.
Like a gardener practising companion planting,3 God sends us good friends who help us flourish. He fertilises our souls with the nourishment of the scriptures at every Mass, and He waters them with showers of blessings – it is a blessing to even be alive and breathing! But like a gardener, God allows us to develop according to our nature, through which He too is quietly working. What is our nature? It is to produce the sweet food, the life-sustaining glucose, of Love.
“Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such.”
–Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est
“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate in it intimately.”
–Pope John Paul II
“To the extent that we fail to grasp what love really is, it is impossible for us to give adequate philosophical consideration to what man is. Love alone brings a human being into full awareness of personal existence. For it is in love alone that man finds room enough to be what he is.”
–Dietrich von Hildebrand
“You asked for a loving God: you have one… not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.
When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not rather then first begin to care? Does any woman regard it as a sign of love in a man that he neither knows nor cares how she is looking? Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal. Love is more sensitive than hatred itself to every blemish in the beloved. Of all powers he forgives most, but he condones least: he is pleased with little, but demands all.”
—C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Sin Leads to Non-being
“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost
Sin “wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’” (CCC #1849) Evil warps or destroys what is good. As pests consume crops and blight a garden, sin corrupts a person’s soul, dividing it from God, the source of all life and love.
Fr. Chris Ryan MGL writes:
“God’s unfailing offer to all human beings is the gift of Himself, which is the gift of His unconditional and unfathomable love. However, God utterly respects our freedom, which means that we can reject this love. This rejection can continue in and through further actions that deny or reject love to the point that such a choice, such a rejection, becomes fixed, irrevocable. Hell is thus not a punishment imposed upon the human person but is rather, the definitive outworking of the human person’s decision to define themselves in isolation from God and others. Hell is self-exclusion from Heaven.
Hell, moreover, is not a place. Rather, it is non-relationship. Hell is “where” the possibility of all relationship is ended… Heaven is other people – people living in a rich and vibrant communion with each other and with God. Hell is actually definitive loneliness.”4
When I was fourteen, my father brought home a pamphlet from church about abortion. I had already watched a video on abortion when I was eleven, in school (my non-Catholic schoolmates are against abortion to this day). But suddenly, the horrendous enormity of not existing struck me full in the gut, and I began to weep inconsolably in front of my parents, sobbing, “What if I had never been born?”
Sin divides us within ourselves and sunders us from God and neighbor. It destroys both harmony within the soul and harmony between persons. In the end, it can kill us – forever.
Professor Eric Johnston writes:
“We live in a world of cheap grace. In a way, the amoralism of our culture is a kind of deformed Christianity. On some level, our culture believes that all sin is forgiven, that God is merciful. But our culture’s understanding of this forgiveness is impersonal. Our culture’s understanding of God’s forgiveness is just that God doesn’t care about what we do, so we needn’t even ask forgiveness. God is a very distant father.
To the contrary, to ask forgiveness is a personal encounter. Pope Francis talks about the caress of God’s mercy on our sin. We are meant, not to ignore God and our sin, since our sin doesn’t matter, but to bring God into contact with our sin, by asking forgiveness.”5
Marc Barnes wrote: “If [God] is outside of time, if He is suffering right now, then, and this is really the crux, our sins directly increase His suffering that day on Calvary, His constant suffering.”6
God the eternal Logos, Who is Reason itself, has created an intelligible universe with rules of physics, mathematics – and morals. These rules, like traffic rules, allow us the freedom to travel along the paths of life. But when we stuff up, we are bound by the consequences. Also, the repercussions of our sins emit shockwaves throughout the world, into the lives of others, even those we may never meet. Broken relationships leave wounds that are passed down through generations. Just look at Romeo and Juliet.
How do we repair this damage? God has granted us the insurance of His mercy. By participating in the Sacrament of Confession, we receive the sacramental grace not to sin again. By performing penance, we offer God our puny loaves and fish to be multiplied by His grace into nourishing food for thousands – the food which is eternal redemption, that is, God Himself, the source of Life. When we stuff up, we do what we can to make amends, to right our wrongs, and trust in God to bring healing and reconciliation in His time.
“In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”
—C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain7
The Good News: We are Not Our Sin
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said in his keynote address at the 2016 Spirit in the City conference: “The pagan world is just, but merciless, with retribution. You are no more than your crime or your sin. The woman caught in adultery must be destroyed.
“Mercy is the more, seeing with the eye of God. The pagan eye always sees less.”
God became sin for us so that we may become justified in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ took on the sinful, unlovable identity of mankind so that we could take on His Divine image, the image shattered by Adam and Eve when they turned away from God, mistrusting His loving providence. Through Christ, we may enter into the life of the Holy Trinity, becoming fully alive, transformed by Love into beings who can give pure love to all the world.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Gloria Dei est vivens homo; vita hominis visio Dei:
The glory of God is man fully alive; the life of man is the vision of God.
—St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, Book 4 Ch. 20.
3 Jennifer Gonzalez, “Find Your Marigold: The One Essential Rule for New Teachers”, Cult of Pedagogy.
4 Fr. Chris Ryan MGL, In the Light of the Cross: Reflections on the Australian Journey of the World Youth Day Cross and Icon (St. Paul’s Publications Australia, 2009).