Falsely accused! What to do?
Have you ever been falsely accused? I suppose if you’re old enough to read this post, you almost certainly have been. Maybe only in small ways, by a parent or teacher who jumped to conclusions about who was to blame (or a sibling or classmate who dropped you in it). Maybe in must more serious and painful ways like the three men who featured in a recent Channel 4 documentary. They recounted how, during Operation Yewtree a decade ago, they were accused of sexual crimes but were not found guilty in court or not prosecuted due to lack fo evidence. Their stories are varied, but share some features: a mixture of anger and despair; confidence in their innocence; and trusting support from those closest to them (although not without some initial doubts). Perhaps that sounds all too familiar to you.
I have certainly experienced the injustice of being falsely accused of something (although not of a crime or a sexual misdemeanour). I remember the conversation vividly. I raised concerns with a senior person in an organisation about wrongs done by another person under their leadership. After initial agreement about what had happened and the fact that it was wrong, the discussion took a turn I had not expected. The senior person said they had no intention of doing anything about the wrongdoing and that they intended to protect the wrongdoer. That was worrying enough, but what followed truly shocked me. The senior person began to accuse me of things I simply had not done (being prone to self-doubt, I checked the facts with a person they mentioned, who confirmed that the accusation was false). Sadly, my accuser was adamant that they were right and was not open to reconsider.
Wrongdoers often accuse their victims. The acronym DARVO, coined by psychologist Jennifer Freyd, describes a tactic abusers use to deflect accusations against them. It stands for ‘deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender’. What happened to me was not the full DARVO. It was just ARVO. There was no denial of the wrong the other person did. But I was certainly attacked and made to seem to be the offender. Thankfully, this experience did not cause me great harm beyond discouragment and sorrow. I was not dependent on my accuser and they had no power over me (although I'll never know what harm they could do my reputation, which is another story!) DARVO can be devastating for victims. Having plucked up the courage to confront the one who wronged them, they find themselves painted as a wrongdoer. If you have experienced this, my prayers are with you.
So, what can we do when we are falsely accused? This coming Sunday, I will be speaking in Scrabo Hall, Newtownards, on Acts 21:17-40. My title is ‘Falsely Accused’ because this passage tells of the apostle Paul facing a false accusation in Jerusalem, leading to his arrest. I won’t explain the passage here, but as I studied it, I recognised four principles that may help you to cope with false accusations. I see these in how Paul acted and also in the example of the Lord Jesus in the Gospels when he was falsely accused at the trial shortly before his crucifixion. I don’t claim them to be the only things we need to think about, but I hope they help you.
1. ACT WISELY: do what you can with integrity to protect your reputation
We must recognise that malicious people, and Satan, will use any tactic to destroy us. Our reputation as a Christian (especially if you are a leader) matters because your life either commends the gospel and reflects Jesus or it does not. So, we should guard against temptation and set boundaries around our lives to preserve us from being tempted to sin or being unable to defend ourselves against false accusations. Some simple principles can help, like bringing someone with us as a witness if a conversation is likely to be tense or keeping a record of the gist of a challenging discussion. We should be wise in acting openly in a way that makes it harder for people to gain false impressions.
As I watched the documentary I referred to earlier, I said to my wife that I am glad that I have only ever been sexually active with her. That should make it easier for me to guard against any possible accusation of sexual wrongdoing. A boundary, like the ‘Billy Graham’ rule (he never met alone in a private place with a woman) so that we are kept from temptation and can defend against impressions of wrong doing. We can aim to be transparent in how we live and serve. We can go above and beyond what is necessary to guard our reputation. Our culture may not agree with me here. Rightly, someone may say that innocent people should not have to fear accusations and the problem lies with the wrongdoer. But as a servant of Christ, I should willingly restrict my own freedom for the sake of his name and that may mean putting limits around my actions that will keep the reputation of the gospel from slander.
At the same time, I must ensure that I maintain integrity. Integrity matters more than reputation. Guarding my reputation should not become a driving force in life. If it does, it may reflect a lack of trust in God and an unhealthy fear of people. People pleasing is a curse for Christians. If not kept in check, it will cause usto compromise integrity. We will be tempted to hide minor misdemeanours, creating a space in which bigger problems can begin. We may become defensive, fighting with everyone about everything. Most importantly, we will be distracted from God’s calling of making disciples and serving others in love. So, we must aim for transparency and honesty, which are the hallmarks of integrity. The apostle Paul and the Lord Jesus both exhibited these qualties.
2. SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE: the ‘court of public opinion’ tends to follow mob mentality’
The familiar saying 'there's no smoke without fire' is not correct. Neither the apostle Paul nor the Lord Jesus was at all guilty of what they were accused of. The 'smoke' around them came not from their actions but from others' jealousies, fears and malice. In our age of 24-hour news reporting and social media, falsehood can spread rapidly. A mob in the street is dangerous enough, but a mob online is deadly. The crowds in Jerusalem around Paul in Acts 21 and around Jesus in the Gospels, bayed for their blood. The same happens daily in the twittersphere.
ocial media platforms take mob mentality to a whole new level. Anyone can say anything with little fear of recourse. Rumours are passed on as fact. Echo chambers based on algorithms that preference the sensational and feed us what we want to hear compund the problem. Once something is alleged online or on screen, even if no evidence is found to substantiate it, it can be impossible to remove the taint on the accused's character. The ‘court of public opinion’ is cruel and utterly unjust. Christians should not be swept along with it and they certainly should not be carelessly fuelling the fires of gossip and rumour.
Sadly, when some horrific stories of abusive leadership by Christian leaders have broken, some have done just this. They have cast aspersions on others who are not guilty. Or they have been quick to reach conclusions without considering the evidence. I am not saying the stories are untrue – sadly, there is ample evidence that many are – but that we should be more measured in how we report them and social media is seldom a helpful place to discuss them. It generates a lot of heat but very little light. We can seldom access all the information we would need to make a fair judgement, so we are often best saying nothing and simply expressing our concerns to God (and perhaps one or two trusted confidants).
Christians must not take the view that ‘there's no smoke without fire’. In the great cosmic conflict from which all other conflicts emerge, between Satan and God, only one party is at fault. Accusations can be utterly false. Even if the accused is guilty of lesser misdemeanours (who is not?), they may not be guilty of the more serious accusation. Similarly, the lesser faults of the accuser (often the basis of the A in DARVO) should not be used by the accused to deflect the accusation. We must be slow to judge, quick to listen and utterly committed to the truth. Only by establishing truth can there be forgiveness and reconcilation, or faithful discipline and distancing if there is no repentance.
3. TRUTH IS NOT RELATIVE: make a clear defense without counter-accusation
The culture we inhabit is sometimes called ‘post-truth’, meaning that people are more influenced by emotion than reason when in comes to political decisions. Behind this pehnomenon lies the wider cultural confusion about truth. The postmodern idea that absolute truth (if it exists) cannot be known with certainty and the relativistic claim that your truth is not my truth (everything is biased; everone has an angle) come together to leave us doubting whether there is such a thing as truth to be disambiguated from the rumours. Pilate's retort, "What is truth?" (John 18:38), when Jesus spoke to him of truth, could be a tagline for our culture. At least until we face false accusations. When that happens to us, we all seem to care about absolute truth. It simply won't do to say that everyone's perspective is equally valid when someone slanders you or denies they have abused you.
Christians (at least when they have been true to the Bible) have always known that truth matters. There is right and wrong. Truth is not relative. God is true and he knows that is true. like the sun behind clouds, it may be difficult for us to see truth through personal and cultural confusion, but that does not mean it isn't there or that it won't ever become clear. Indeed, the Bible tells us both that we can know ultimate truth in Jesus (which doesn't mean we'll know the truth about everything, but about what truly matters most) and that the day of judgement is coming, when no falsehood will remain because everything will be laid bear in God's light.
With these truths in mind, we have two options when falsely accused. We can do what Jesus did during his trial before the Sanhedrin: say nothing. I suppose that may be the best option when no one is listening and we can see that saying anything will only cause further antagonism or be futile. The alternative, which may be best in most circumstances, is what Jesus did before the Roman governor Pilate and what Paul does in Acts 22: make a simple defense. We can state the facts plainly, without any embellishment or exaggeration and with a lid on our emotions (maybe we can do it in writing or ask someone else to recount our words if we fear we cannot control our emotions).
Remarkably, neither Paul nor Jesus went beyond a simple statement of the truth. They did not make counter-accusations against those who falsely accused them. This is the polar opposite of DARVO. Rather than a guilty person accusing the innocent one, here we have the innocent one refusing to attack those who are guilty. Jesus even went further, praying for those who crucified him. As the apostle Peter writes, urging us to do the same, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:23). This is the grace of God in action. It is profoundly counter-cultural and points to the heart of the gospel. If we can go even further as Jesus did and bless those who wrong us, we will certainly heap burning coals on their consciences (Romans 12:20-21). They may even see their error and repent.
None of this is to say that we cannot state plainly that the accusations are false. Indeed, it is usually important that we do so. I find Nehemiah’s example helpful here. When falsely accused, he replied to his accuser, “No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind” (Nehemiah 6:8). We can do this simply, praying for strength to control our emotions, and carry on as he did with the work God has given us.
4. TRUTH WILL OUT: commit yourself to the true Judge and live in light of his assessment
The saying "at the length truth will out"comes from William Shakespeare's play the Merchant of Venice. It is not spoken there in the context of false accusations, but is often quoted when there is some dispute about the facts of a matter. It expresses the hope that sooner or later the wrongdoer will be found out. That often does happen in real life (you may be able to think of examples), but we do not live in one of those TV detective series where the sleuth always gets his man. The fact is that the truth does not always out in this life. This is why the perspective of the final judgement is so important. There can only be ultimate justice - every wrong exposed and righted - when the ultimate Judge intervenes.
Paul's false accusation and handing over to the Gentiles by the Jews in Jerusalem as recounted in Acts 21 clearly echoes what happened earlier to Jesus, his Lord. In being ready to suffer in this way, Paul followed in his Master’s footsteps with the same attitude Jesus had. In the verse I quoted in part above from 1 Peter, the apostle continues to say, “but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Jesus entrusted himself to the only perfectly just Judge, his Father. We can do the same.
Wonderfully, though, when Jesus suffered, he not only experienced the injustice of humanity. He became its solution. The next verse in 1 Peter explains that Jesus took that injustice and every other aspect of our sins on himself and bore the just wrath of God against us (1 Peter 2:24). In the cross, God himself dealt with our offence against him within himself. God's justice for Jesus was not only done after the cross - sinful people killed him; the just God raised him. The cross was an act of divine justice was done at the cross - sinful people killed him; the just God received his sacrifice for their sins and on this basis delcares just those who trust in him. We can be justified (made right with God) without God acting unjustly because of Jesus' sacrifical death in our place (Romans 3:26). Sin is not ignored. It is paid for and punished at the cross of Christ.
Shakespeare was wrong if he meant the truth will out in this life. But in God’s scheme, he was right. The truth will always out. Peter writes later in the same letter that everyone “will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). Nothing is hidden from God (Hebrews 4:13). On the final day of judgment, everything that is hidden will be brought to light and, Jesus tells us, this truth should free us from fear of others who may seek to harm us (Matthew 10:26).
This difficult truth is vital. It allows us to release the desire for revenge when we are wronged. It also enables us to feel pity for the wrongdoer who will face God’s wrath. It may motivate us to pray for their salvation or even to act to help them towards it. That includes bringing their wrongdoing into the light now either directly to them or sometimes publicly through the criminal justice system (though victims of serious abuse should never feel that they must be reconciled or be the agent of justice - it is not always possible).
Above all, though, realising that the day of judgement is coming should keep us humble. We too will give account. I cannot allow myself to take on a victim mentality. I may have been the victim of some horrible things, but I am not sinless and I need God’s mercy. Discovering his grace, I can become more than the wrong that was done to me and I can continue to serve through the false accusations. I can live for the day when he will assess my life and allow him to work in me to make me more like Jesus.
I am sure more could be said about each of these points and there may be other principles to add, but I hope you can be helped towards a biblical perspective on false accusations through what I have said. If you are struggling with your emptions around a false accusation, please take time to meditate on Jesus, the victim of the greatest mistrial in history. He, who was perfectly innocent of any wrongdoing (you are not) suffered at the hands of sinful people (as you have) so that you could be forgiven (as you must) and can become a demonstration of his transforming grace and power (as you can). I pray this will be your experience.