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Tamar Listens to Psalm 61: A Reflection on the Impact of Misused Spiritual Authority

Imagine what it would be like for Tamar to hear true words spoken, inspiring the masses, by the person who enabled and (unsuccessfully) protected her abuser. After all, this is a divinely inspired psalm that contains truth—we are to call out to God as our rock, refuge and strong tower in our hours of need. How many times had David taught Tamar similar lessons during their family devotions? Just as we can be, David was right about God, but wrong about himself. How was Tamar to filter through this; what pieces of David’s fatherly instruction to her were good and right, and which were dangerous and toxic? Fresh and salt water weren’t supposed to come from the same well (James 3:11), but in David, they did. Did everyone who sang Psalm 61 believe David’s version of the story? After all, he was “their king and hero.”

This is the dilemma of every victim when people with spiritual authority misuse their power; not just pastors, but Christian fathers, mothers or teachers who are abusive (physically, emotionally or sexually), and then cite Scripture to defend their role and/or actions. The abuse of spiritual authority makes the “words of life” (John 6:68) which are meant to be “water to a parched soul” (John 7:37-38) seem dangerous and poisonous. We should grieve deeply when spiritual abuse happens because God grieves deeply when it happens (Ezekiel 34:1-25).

Definition: For the purposes of this reflection, “spiritual abuse” is being defined as the use of biblical texts or themes to defend abusive behavior and violations of trust to silence/shame the victim for resisting or disclosing the authority figure’s sinful actions.

Let’s return to David. David is acutely relevant for the modern application of this reflection. It is our respect for David that makes us not want to see these things (again, assuming Psalm 61 was written as David fled Absalom). This is the same dynamic that often gives us a willful blindness, comparable to Israel as they sang Psalm 61, to such offenses in our day.

But God often shows us the great failures of his messengers when it comes to spiritual authority: Abraham (saying his wife was his sister and putting her in sexual danger with Pharaoh, Genesis 13:10-20), Moses (being disqualified from ministry for pride and anger, Numbers 20:1-13), David (as sited above; II Samuel 11-15), and Peter (being hypocritical because of racial biases, Galatians 2:11-14).

We are prone to think that this perspective on Psalm 61 couldn’t be true because it’s in the Bible. Would God allow something so mixed-messaged and confused-motive to become part of Scripture? Wouldn’t that make the Bible less trustworthy and useful?

That is an understandable point of discomfort; one I’ve wrestled with as I’ve written this reflection. But if Scripture speaks to all that is required for life and godliness in a broken world (II Peter 1:3-5), then it must speak to these matters. These actions and the type of emotional turmoil they cause are too common to go unaddressed by God.

The Psalms are the place where God puts into words the most emotional dissonance. If God has chosen to minister through breakable vessels (II Corinthians 4:7-12), then God needs to model how to navigate the tensions that emerge when these vessels break. We should be more concerned if tensions like this didn’t exist in Scripture. This reflection is merely an attempt to interpret this psalm in its historical-and-relational context; allowing Tamar’s experience (the victim of the triggering event) to be at the forefront instead of David’s (in this case, the enabler facing the fallout of his inaction). Victims should not be in the background of the church’s view when leaders fail in regard to their spiritual authority.

So what do we do with this reflection? Here are three, of what could be many, applications.

  1. Believe and empathize with Tamar. Ministry always begins with listening; entering someone’s hardship. The great pains of those who have experienced abuse should be understood by more than the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26). This is a significant part of what it means for the church to be the Body of Christ to those who have been abused. This will require us to…
  2. …be humble about our own and our leaders’ propensity to be self-deceived. The problem of abuse is not an “out there” problem that right doctrine or church polity will protect us from. The corrosive effects of sin impact us at a deeper level than our beliefs. When we find instances of spiritual abuse we need to…
  3. …commit to providing care for those who spiritually are abused. When this abuse is illegal, and not just immoral, this involves seeking justice on behalf of those who are assaulted. That is a larger subject than this post can address, but an introduction on what this entails can be found on this 13-minute video for small group leaders and other church leaders.

May the contemporary Tamars not feel isolated, unheard and unprotected in our day. May they not become the forgotten side story when a story of a leader’s failure comes out. May we choose to keep the afflicted, harmed or vulnerable at the forefront of our care and concern, just as God does.

[1] Two caveats are needed:

First, Psalm 61 may have been written while David was fleeing from Saul. If this is the case, then the reflection has no exegetical value. But can still help us understand common responses to abuse within communities of faith. As a counselor who has worked with abusers and victims, I have frequently heard the self-centered approach to repentance critiqued in this post even if David is not an example of it.

Second, we do not know when, in relation to the events above, Psalm 61 was written, and that would be relevant to this reflection. If Psalm 61 is written in the context of fleeing Absalom, I would assume it was written while David’s sense of personal threat was high; impeding his ability to think of the concerns of others (particularly Tamar). It is normal for repentance to be highly self-centered in the immediate aftermath of a crisis coming to light.

If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.

The original article about the abuse of spiritual authority appeared here.

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Brad serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in  Durham, NC. He also serves as Instructor of Biblical Counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a council member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, and has authored several books including Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk: Why and How Christians Should Have Gay Friends and God’s Attributes: Rest for Life’s Struggles.