What I’ve Learned from Child Abusers
As much as I hate to admit it, we all have some similarities
I saw the headline: another adult arrested for child sexual abuse. My stomach constricted dangerously.
Then I saw the picture. And the room spun.
I didn’t know how to process the shock: someone I knew, and never suspected, was accused of a terrible crime. Violating innocence. Carving emotional scars that would never go away.
Every time I see a headline like this, as we all do, I shake my head in disgust and anger. I fear for my own children. But when I recognize the face staring soberly back at me, my horror feels like a frozen form of nausea.
In recent years, I’ve experienced this three times. A relative was convicted of abuse. I caught a news story about a former schoolmate who preyed upon girls at a school where he worked. And most recently, I saw the headline with a former coworker’s photo.
Hearing about abuse always feels like a punch in the gut. But when the accused is someone I know, I’m forced to confront a difficult ambiguity: child predators aren’t scaly monsters. They’re fully human. And sometimes, they’re nice people.
Moments of terrible shock can be moments of great and sudden growth. Perhaps our minds are especially open to reorientation around truth. As I’ve grieved for the victims of people I’ve known and worked through my own shock, God has deepened my understanding of a few key spiritual truths.
• Satan masquerades in some pretty attractive costumes. He even hides himself in good deeds and intentions. The apostle Paul expressed his lack of surprise that false teachers had worked their way into the Corinthian church: “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). The church can and does harbor people who privately indulge and rationalize dark temptations and publicly worship God on Sundays.
• Ultimately, we can’t place blind trust in people. Placing blind trust in people is an exercise in stupidity. Isaiah warned us: “Don’t put your trust in mere humans. They are as frail as breath. What good are they?” (Isaiah 2:22). We must rely on one another and take risks—but shrewdly, knowing that no one will fail to fail us. God, though, will always follow through, be the same, be worthy of our trust.
• We can’t trust ourselves either. While we’d all like to believe we’ll recognize danger when we see it, our discernment is flawed. We may be wise in our own eyes, but our eyes deceive us. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God” (1 Corinthians 3:18–19). The Holy Spirit is our source of true wisdom and discernment, and cultivating his growing presence and voice in our lives is the only way to grow in wisdom.
• We’re all depraved. We place people in categories—good and bad—but we can’t really define what separates them. We usually believe we belong in the “good people” category, but none of us do. “As the Scriptures say, ‘No one is righteous—not even one. No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one’ ” (Romans 3:10–12). But for God’s grace, we are all lost to depravity. And even under grace, we’re still capable of choosing destruction.
• I’m no better than anyone else. I’m not a child abuser, predator, or criminal, but I’ve still broken God’s law every day of my life. On my own, I’m completely and irrevocably stained. The fact that I’m redeemed by Jesus’ sacrifice doesn’t make me better than anyone; it just makes me very thankful. I can’t point to anyone—even a sex offender—and claim I don’t have the same capacity for sin. The apostle Paul said, “‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’—and I am the worst of them all” (1 Timothy 1:15). We are all examples of Jesus’ grace toward the worst sinners. When I shake my head at child abuse, I look at a reflection of my own soul. My reaction to my own sin should be as nauseating.
In no way am I excusing child abuse or diminishing the abhorrent nature of this sin (Jesus said some damning things about those who harm children). My point is that even the worst offenders can find the same grace that saves everyone. In the face of the daily news—child abuse, scandal, murder, deeply disappointing truth about people we hoped would never be newsworthy—our hope is in the Lord, the only righteous one, the only one who is truly trustworthy, who always has been, always is, and always will be good.
Note: If you suspect someone is a victim of abuse, state laws vary, but you may be required to report your suspicions to proper authorities. If you’re not sure what your local laws require, you can anonymously contact your department of children and family services for consultation. You can also call a child advocacy agency for advice and help. As a Christian, if you have strong evidence that may give you the power to rescue a child from abuse, you have a duty to do so.