Is there anything in the Bible that can help one justify the estrangement of an abusive parent?
February 2, 2011 8:53 AM   Subscribe

Is there anything in the Bible that can help one justify the estrangement of an abusive parent? I know that not speaking to my mother is the right thing to do, but what does the good book say?

I am 28 and the child of an abusive, bi-polar, alcoholic mother. My brother and I had to leave her when we were still in high school and moved away to live with our father.

We tried to keep in contact with her, but, it was extremely painful. She has a particular love of rehashing everything with blame and recriminations.

People who do not know the specifics of the situation and are trying to help often will suggest that I "forgive" her and try to reconcile before it it is too late. Well, personally, I don't really feel like I need to forgive her because I see her situation as a product of a disease. I am not angry at her anymore, just know that I can not have any contact with her, else it will begin to eat me away again.

What might the Bible say to me, as a child of such a toxic person? Am I right to keep away?
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Here's how I view it. The Bible commands one to honor one's mother and father. In an abusive situation, being around your mother makes it impossible for you to honor her because she creates frustration, tension, guilt, pain, conflict, etc. But if you're apart from your mother, then you can focus on what good memories there might be and the pain of the bad memories will fade. So if people ask you about your mother it will be easier for you to honor her by speaking of the good things. And it will be easier to honor her in your own thoughts.

Basically, there is a point at which the only way to honor a parent is to have nothing to do with them because associating with them will only lead to dishonor.
posted by jedicus at 9:15 AM on February 2, 2011 [8 favorites]

This post on Christianity Today might get at some of the issues you're encountering--in particular, addressing the myth that forgiving means you excuse the offender's hurtful act.

I'm not saying you should feel ready forgive her right now, I just want to point out that people who tell you that forgiveness must come with reconciliation are foolish. You can forgive someone (let go of the anger and bitterness you hold against her), while still being in a situation where you simply can't be around her. You can't reconcile with someone who hurts you, repeatedly, and won't change that hurtful behavior. It's not healthy for you (spiritually or emotionally), and it's not productive for the relationship (you can't repair a broken relationship by going back for more abuse).

A person who tries to pressure you to be back in contact with someone who repeatedly hurts you and is unwilling to change is giving you bad advice, even if they claim to back it up with scripture.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:16 AM on February 2, 2011 [8 favorites]

I'm also estranged from my mother. I'm not aware of anything in the Bible that specifically references handling abusive parents. It does say to forgive and to turn the other cheek in general. You say you feel you don't need to forgive her because you're not angry and realize she has a disease. Sounds to me like you've already forgiven her! But I don't think you're committing any sin by staying away. I would even say it's dangerous for you to keep her in your life. She's no longer behaving like a parent, for one. I would, however, suggest being there for her if she reaches out to you in need. Other than that, reconciliation isn't a requirement and does not have to go hand-in-hand with forgiveness.
posted by katillathehun at 9:22 AM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Whether or not you're a part of a religious community, I would suggest talking to a Priest. Faults aside, it is exactly this kind of biblical thinking (or some might say justification) that they're trained for. At least in the Catholic Church, being a member isn't really an issue- most Priests I've known are more than happy to talk to a person in help regardless of their religious background.
posted by jmd82 at 9:30 AM on February 2, 2011

Luke 8:20-21
posted by availablelight at 9:31 AM on February 2, 2011 [11 favorites]

It also sounds to me like you've already forgiven her, and that the uniformed are mistaking forgiveness for forgetfulness, and self-protection for holding a grudge.

Being in contact with her makes her and you worse people and worse off. You'd only be in contact with her to "look good". I'm pretty sure there's scripture on the topic of adhering to the outward form of rituals without honoring the spirit of them (like, much of the Gospels).
posted by endless_forms at 9:31 AM on February 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Some possibilities here, it seems.
posted by Decani at 9:35 AM on February 2, 2011

There are a couple of related lines that invert it a little bit in Luke 11:11-13:

What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him?
posted by jquinby at 9:42 AM on February 2, 2011

Forgiving and understanding she is abusive due to illness vs. protecting yourself through estrangement are two ENTIRELY different things. In other words, you're in the clear.

From a religious or spiritual standpoint, the most important factor is what you hold in our heart for your mother. IMHO, you are not supposed to put yourself (or your friends, family, or future spouse and children) in harm's way, so practical association and relations with your mother are wisely avoided to protect yourself and others. If you forgive her, wish her well, and hold no grudge against her - good. If you pray for her recovery - better. If you understand she must seek recovery of her own free will due to the nature of her illness, this is best.

I have no bible verse to offer you, but I have given this a great deal of thought because your question applies to my life, too.

Another way to look at it? In this life, her soul has chosen a heavy burden of illness and abuse. Honor her soul's choice by acknowledging the reality of this illness. Participating in the illness with her or allowing yourself (or others you are responsible for) to be further victimized is not the right thing. Allowing your mom's choices to play out is absolutely correct.

Live a good life yourself and be a positive example, but don't interfer with your mom's choices. She is an adult and in the throes of something you can't change. She's on her path. Honor her choices by reacting in ways that minimize the pain and destruction to yourself and others.
posted by jbenben at 9:59 AM on February 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Matthew 10:34-37:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
posted by Flunkie at 10:55 AM on February 2, 2011

I do think there is something to forgive, in that just because she is bipolar does not mean she has to be abusive OR drunk necessarily. So there's that.

Having said that, just because you forgive does not mean you need to put yourself back in a position to be abused.

I can't think of anything Biblically specific either way but I think the Christian thing to do is to at least have a third party you trust who can update you on how she is doing. If at any time she decided to actively pursue help and treatment you can always rethink your choice.

There is a difference between saying "You are dead to me" and "I love you but I cannot be in your presence or in contact with you for now as it is not healthy." I guess what I am trying to say is you need to be able to feel you are honoring her as your mother but at the same time not putting yourself in a position to be abused. Later on if you feel stronger you might be able to initiate very limited contact but only you would know whether or not that is feasible. As to what the Bible says, it says to pray for those who persecute you. How sad it must be to have that person be your own parent.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:15 AM on February 2, 2011

Unfortunately, there are more passages in the Bible condoning child abuse than there are rejecting. This is especially true of the Old Testament.

If you believe that the written word of the Bible is the only true answer, then I am sorry to say that you are in a tough spot. Because in the Bible, parents clearly can beat their children with rods, and children are clearly condemned for turning their back on their parents.

However, the Bible says all sorts of wacky things. It is a sin to wear fabric woven from two different materials (Lev 19:19) and fathers can sell their daughters into slavery (Ex 21:7-11).

Are those things the true message of Jesus Christ? Surely not!
The message of Jesus is love and respect. You must find your own way to follow the call of Jesus - there is no passage in the Bible that has the depth of grace you can find in your own heart.
posted by Flood at 11:29 AM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I sympathize with your situation, for it is nearly identical to my own.

My mother is mentally ill and has been almost all her life. I attribute most of the abuse that I suffered to this fact. After I started my adult life, I severed all ties with her. It was 90% spite and 10% self-defense. Over the intervening years, I came to be a Christian and that 90/10 balance began to shift.

In time, I forgave her for the things that she did. The specific point of her mental illness as it pertains to her culpability isn't relevant to me. What matters is that I no longer hold her actions against her in an emotional way; I have relieved her of her obligation to apologize.

I do, however, consider her mental illness when it comes to decisions about how to interact with her. I'm now old enough and wise enough to be able to be in her presence and process the venom that sometimes escapes her lips. I can contextualize it and not let it harm my thought processes. My three young children, however, cannot. So, I don't let them spend time with her. I don't worry that she's going to harm them physically. I worry that she will say something poisonous that festers in their minds and alters how they view their other family members.

I see nothing in scripture that requires me to put myself or my children in harm's way for the sake of "honoring my parents". Quite to the contrary, one of the things that scripture tells us is that we should take precautions to prevent a weaker brother (or sister) from stumbling. I do this by removing opportunities for her mental illness to affect other people (e.g., my children).

My children will grow up with a memory of their grandmother as a friendly woman who was always happy to see them. To me, that is honor.
posted by DWRoelands at 11:37 AM on February 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

In Matthew 18:8-9, Jesus says, "Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire." I take this to mean, among other things, that we should avoid situations, places, and even people that we know are going to lead us into bad things. Like, if you have a drug problem, you should avoid that one street corner where you know the drug dealers hang out. If you have an alcohol problem, don't go to the liquor store, even though they sell that really delicious grilling marinade you love. And if there's a person in your life who always causes you to lose your temper or who always tempts you into doing something you'll regret, it's a good idea to keep that person at a distance. I have had to stop going to social events where a few certain people are going to be present, because I don't trust myself not to lose my temper when they start frothing at the mouth on certain political subjects. My point is that it's to protect myself, rather than to punish those people by avoiding them.

Forgiveness doesn't mean excusing what someone did, or justifying it, or pretending it never happened, and it doesn't necessarily mean reconciliation either. It's possible to forgive someone for hurting you without wanting that person to be a part of your life. However, a lot of people can't grasp this notion. See this previous AskMe thread for some more perspective about cutting relatives out of your life and dealing with outsiders who butt in on that decision.
posted by Gator at 12:35 PM on February 2, 2011

1 Corinthians 15:33 - "Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character." (NIV)

You are an adult, responsible for yourself before God. So is your mother. If being around her makes you miserable, forgive her... and move on 'til she changes.
posted by skypieces at 4:30 PM on February 2, 2011

Jesus: "If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" Matt 6

This might sound impossible for you, and it is. But you, as a child of such a toxic person, seeking to forgive his/her parents understand this: Christ laid his life down for the most toxic, rebellious people on the planet who hated him (Romans 5:10), and for those who put their trust in Him, they will be given the grace to be able to forgive even the most toxic and vile of people.

If you have come to the conclusion it is "not right" to speak to your mother then you need to look no further. Paul makes it clear in Romans 14 and especially in verse 23 that if your conscience convicts you of anything, it is sin.

So, if you have already made your mind up as to what you want to do and are looking to the Bible just to justify yourself, don't waste your time in polling it. But if you are seeking to learn how to forgive, look no further than the One who can give you the freedom to forgive others' sins.
posted by yoyoceramic at 4:58 PM on February 2, 2011

Jesus laid his life down for toxic people but the only time He felt the obligation to let people abuse Him is when He went to the cross.

The OP is right that the issue is not so much about forgiveness as it is about taking care of oneself. Forgiveness does not mean carte blanche to let the abuser keep on abusing. For one thing, the abusers are reaping the results of their own actions, i.e. the estrangement. If the mom in this case were taking steps to change, it would be one thing but the OP has not indicated this is the case.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:10 PM on February 2, 2011

(O.P. If you want to discuss this further I have memail. )
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:11 PM on February 2, 2011

Adding to what Gator says about avoiding negative situations and people, there's this:

Romans 16:17 -- "I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them."

Her blame and recriminations are obstacles in your way. As jedicus says, you can't honor her, which is the "teaching you have learned."
posted by erloteiel at 6:56 PM on February 2, 2011

I can't remember where I heard this--it's not biblical, but it's about Abraham sacrificing Isaac. The story goes that when Abraham lifted the knife, he looked at his terrified son and instead of saying, "God commanded me to do this," he said, "I hate you. I never wanted you." And then when God stayed his hand and Isaac was saved, Isaac asked, "Why did you say that?" and Abraham replied, "Because I'd rather that you hate me than hate God."

I don't know if Isaac and Abraham really repaired their relationship after that (oh, the family therapy sessions!) but the moral is basically that sometimes we love best by turning away.

Not sure if that's exactly the knd of thing you were looking for, but I always thought it was a beautiful story.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:42 PM on February 2, 2011

You can forgive her and love her without having contact with her.

"Forgive" doesn't mean that everything is okay and the offense didn't matter. It means not carrying anger against that person around with you.
posted by desuetude at 11:27 PM on February 2, 2011

(I hope you see this. I try to post it yesterday and then lost my internet connection.)

I was in the ministry for twenty years. I've talked with church members who are dealing with these issues, and for quite some time my own wife was estranged from her toxic parents. Not only did we have to work out these issues with our own family, we also had to deal with people in the church who were aghast and disappointed that the pastor's wife didn't talk to her parents. "What kind of example does that set!"

I'll tell you some of the conclusions that we came to:

1) Yes, the Bible says to honor your parents, but it doesn't really address what to do when they are dishonoring themselves. We said this again and again to my wife's sisters, who were indoctrinated to believe that pointing out their parent's bad behavior or setting boundaries was a failure to honor them. My position then and now is that their refusal to set healthy boundaries and limit bad behavior was really what was dishonoring their parents, because it assumes 1) that perpetuating dysfunction is a good thing for the parents (whereas it is actually detrimental to anyone in the family system) and 2) it assumed that their parents could not rise above their toxic behavior. The idea that they couldn't change and that the best we could do for them is to continue to let them make a mess of their lives and relationships is a far more dishonoring view of their parents than my view that 1) when they are thinking clearly they want mature and healthy relationships, so we honor their best intentions, not their unhealthy moments (even when they outnumber the good ones) and 2) they are capable of changing and growing, and I am doing a good deed to them by creating a space and opportunity for growth, even if it means an extended separation and limited contact.

2) Yes, Jesus calls us to serve others, even to the point of laying down our lives, but he also calls us to deal with them honestly and to correct them when they engage in practices that are hurtful to themselves or others. Can you imagine Jesus encountering a situation when one person was being blatantly abusive to another, and whispering to his disciples "We'd better just let that continue. After all, I'm here to serve." Never! Again and again he rebuked and corrected because an integral part of his service was pointing toward a better way.

3) Jesus taught that you are to "love your neighbor as you love yourself." That's a lot different than "love your neighbor instead of loving yourself." Yes, look after their best interests, but don't ignore your own.

You can find a verse to take out of context to give yourself permission to be estranged from your mother, but I don't think that's the best approach. I would say:

1) You are going to honor your mother's desire (no matter how poorly expressed) to see her children mature in healthy ways by doing what it requires for you to have stability and personal growth, even if that means time away from her,
2) You are going to honor your mother as moral agent in her own right by believing that she can grow and change, and that she can learn self-management. You will honor her by helping her in the process by refusing to play your part in old dysfunctional scripts, and by gently correcting her misbehaviors, if needed.
3) You will honor and love yourself by doing caring for your own emotional health. Loving yourself is a way of loving your mother, because you are caring for her child--and doing it better than she herself could. Isn't it always an act of service to someone else to love their children?
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:04 PM on February 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

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