Category Archives: Counseling Issues

Will Abuse in the Church Overshadow Greear’s “Gospel Above All” Agenda?

I live my life in the trenches ministering to victims of domestic abuse. It’s no place for the faint of heart, and because tragic stories like the ones I see daily are played out below the surface, the rest of the world finds them easy to overlook. However, in recent weeks some of what I see regularly has become big news. A few weeks ago, we saw prominent Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leader Paige Patterson lose his job over mishandling of abuse cases, and suddenly what has flourished in the darkness was dragged into the light. In response to the Patterson uproar and other scandals involving a significant number of evangelical churches, many in church leadership have made strong statements about abuse. J.D. Greear, recently elected president of the SBC, wrote a poignant apology to victims and abuse advocates. Greear is one of the youngest presidents ever elected and represents a new brand of Southern Baptists that seems more focused on the gospel of grace than the letter of the law.  Our ministry is located in the same area as Greear’s Summit Church and ladies in our support groups who attend there love it. They tell us they find a great amount of support and encouragement at Summit– which is definitely not the case for many of survivors we serve. For this and other reasons, I’m very pleased to see Greear take the lead at the SBC.

However, as a seasoned advocate I’m concerned that in spite of the apologies and promises of change we’ve heard, it will be business as usual once everything calms down. Obviously, one man cannot singlehandedly change an entire denomination, especially one that stresses congregational autonomy. Still, he does have influence. His proposed platform stresses “gospel above all,” which is undeniably a compelling focus. However, when I first heard it I couldn’t help but think how often the gospel has been tarnished by evangelical churches in their handling of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and couldn’t help but think that if nothing changes the gospel will continue to be maligned by the very people who claim its power. In other words, we can’t convey the power of the gospel until the people who are proclaiming it begin to “act justly and show mercy”  to victims of abuse (Mic. 6:8). We must begin to elevate lives above institutions in a way that shows the world we love well or our words are meaningless.

Statistics show that domestic violence is no less common in the church than in the population at large. That means that as many as one in three women in our churches are or have been victims of domestic abuse, and most of them have children who likely have been affected by the abuse in their homes. These statistics refer to physical abuse only, so when you add in the number who have been subject to threats, intimidation and other nonphysical forms of abuse the numbers are likely much higher. Without a doubt, we have a serious problem– one that is largely hidden and misunderstood. For the last few decades advocates have been raising their voices trying to help our churches see, but in general it has been denied or minimized. Even though more and more churches are taking measures to improve their response to abuse, far too many are not.

Years ago, I worked at a local domestic violence shelter. Within weeks I began to meet women who were confused by their churches’ response to the abuse. One lady asked me, “Why does my pastor care more about my marriage than my life?” My non-Christian counterparts simply shook their heads with a look that inferred that if was what Christianity looked like, they wanted nothing to do with it. Over the past 20 years I have worked with hundreds of Christian victims of abuse, and in so many of those cases they came out doubly harmed– first by their abusers and second by their churches.

Many victims faced church discipline for leaving their abusive spouses, many were told they could not file for divorce or legal separation while their spouses used their lack of action to their advantage and depleted their entire savings accounts. Many Christian wives were told to submit to abusive husbands as long as they weren’t asking them to sin, which only heightened their husbands’ sense of entitlement . Again and again I’ve watched counsel like this cause unbelieving friends and advocates to feel justified in their belief that Christianity is not for them. In addition, I have met scores of Christian abuse survivors who refuse to ever set foot in a church again because of the way the abuse was handled. Even worse, I have seen many children from abusive Christian homes reject the gospel altogether, because their fathers used scripture and authoritarian interpretations of male headship, to justify their oppressive ways. Many of these kids have told me that God seemed cruel and unjust, especially in cases where their churches’ advice appeared to sanction their fathers’ claims.

Do I think churches actually intend to harm victims and their children? Absolutely not. At least not in the vast majority of cases. However, I do believe that churches with more authoritarian positions on male headship in marriage provide fertile ground for abuse. I also believe that the complicated nature of domestic violence makes it very difficult for those unfamiliar with the dynamics to handle it. If there ever was a time to refer out to experts, suspicion of domestic abuse is it. Sadly many counselors and pastors miss it because the severity of the problem is never disclosed in counseling, or the abusive spouse is completely charming in public, while the victim is frazzled and anxious. The problem thrives in secrecy so much so that it can be hard to believe when a victim finally speaks up. Without an understanding of the dynamics of abuse these factors can make it very tricky for churches to determine the best course of action. That is one reason our ministry and others offer to come alongside those who want to help in these situations and help navigate. Domestic violence does not respond well to marital counseling, and there are many other factors, including the effects of trauma on victims and their children, that must be considered when attempting to help.

Until the SBC and other evangelical churches begin to understand the inherent difficulties of working with domestic abuse, their efforts to help families affected by it could very likely continue to do more harm than good. People will continue to “perish for a lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). The message to victims, their children, their friends and other helpers will be that God cares more about marriages than lives, and that will do nothing to draw them to the gospel of grace. My prayer is that God will open the eyes of His people, and that we will begin to show unbelievers the truth of the gospel of grace by loving one another well.

A final note

In recent months, Called to Peace Ministries has been working with several local SBC churches as they navigate cases of abuse in their congregations. We have been so encouraged to see them willing to learn how to help families in crisis. In fact, when these churches have gotten on board the outcome has been so much better than we normally see. They have actually been able to step in and protect victims from further harm. The world cannot provide what the church can! There is power in the community of faith. It’s been amazing to watch sacrificial love at work– love that is willing to be inconvenienced and reach out to hold an abuser accountable or to provide for the physical needs of a survivor. It is a beautiful thing to watch the Body of Christ fulfill its mission to care for God’s sheep. In the few cases we’ve seen, the power of the gospel has been crystal clear to unbelievers. In fact, one of the ladies whose church has risen to the occasion told me that one of her unchurched friends has been so impressed by her church’s support that she is coming to church for the first time ever. That, my friends, is “gospel above all” in action! My prayer is that more and more churches will follow suit so that the power of gospel will not be overshadowed by injustice in our midst.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

Repentant Abusers & Hard Hearted Victims?

We don’t often post our videos on this blog, but we’ve received so much feedback on this one, we decided to do it. It’s long but worth your time if you’re a people helper and want to know the common pitfalls helpers (counselors, friends, pastors) often face when dealing with domestic violence and destructive relationships.

Often pastors and counselors who work with victims of domestic violence tell us that even when they see evidence of repentance by abusers, their victims become “hard-hearted” and refuse to consider reconciliation. In many cases this leads to the victims undergoing church discipline, even when there has been a clear pattern of domestic violence. This conversation between Chris Moles (PeaceWorks) and Joy Forrest (Called to Peace Ministries) discusses the faulty assumptions and dangers behind this sort of counsel. WATCH NOW!

Don’t Confess Your Sins to an Abuser!

HOW COUNSELING VICTIMS TO CONFESS THEIR SIN EMBOLDENS ABUSERS

Last week in our support group for survivors of domestic abuse, one of the participants approached me after class to tell me about a counseling session she had with a biblical counselor at her church a few days earlier. This dear lady is living with a very harsh husband who constantly berates her. He tells her how worthless he thinks she is regularly, so she went to counseling in hopes of finding a way to have peace in the midst of a very destructive marriage. Her counselor rightly told her that the only person she can change is herself, and then began to help her uncover her sins and shortcomings as a wife. The focus was on the marriage, and in the end, my friend left with a popular book on how to be a godly wife. As she relayed the story tears came to her eyes. She explained how she had spent years trying to be a better wife, and looking at her own sin, but that only seemed to worsen her husband’s sense of entitlement.

My friend also told me about the many counseling sessions she and her husband had attended together over the years, and how the counsel in those sessions was nearly always the same. Somehow she was made to feel responsible for her husband’s sin. If she would just be more submissive, more “quiet and gentle,” and more loving maybe her husband would be won without a word. She was always encouraged to look at her own sin, and never to keep a record of the wrongs done to her. For over 2 decades that is what she has done, but things have only gotten worse.

In joint counseling sessions, her husband usually listened very intently to all the instructions the given to her, as well as her confessions of missing the mark in their relationship. It actually seemed those counseling sessions gave him ammunition when they got back home. The counselors had merely confirmed his beliefs about her incompetence as a wife, and proven that he needed to take a stronger hand in leadership. The truth is that their counselors had probably confronted his sin as well, but he simply chose to ignore those parts of the sessions. Besides, he was able to get his wife to freely admit to more than her fair share of the blame, so it was easy to turn the main focus of most sessions to that.

Abusive people are skilled at diverting the focus of counseling to less important issues. They also love to find counselors who will focus on marital roles rather than heart issues. Counselors who encourage wives to submit and yield to their husbands’ leadership can cause great harm. In all my years of working as an advocate, I’ve never seen a situation where submitting to sinful mistreatment saved a marriage. Usually, it has the opposite effect. It only serves to empower and embolden hearts that are filled with pride, while victims are left taking on the burden for the entire relationship.

No matter if the counseling is balanced, and equally focused on both spouses’ sin, an abusive person will only hear instructions aimed at his or her spouse. As a result, even the best marital counselors will find themselves doing more harm than good. They may not see it in a session where the offending spouse is nodding his head in approval, and acting extremely motivated for change. However, things change once the couple gets back home, and the abuser begins to taunt his spouse using the advice of the counselor. When it comes to abusive and destructive relationships, marital counseling just doesn’t work. Instead, it usually makes matters worse– particularly counsel that focuses on the victim’s sin in front of an oppressive spouse.* If you’re living in an abusive relationship (read more here if you’re not sure), I encourage you to steer clear of joint martial counseling, or any counseling that puts the burden of the relationship and the abuse on you.

Let me just say that I am a biblical counselor! I believe in the sufficiency of scripture, and acknowledge that sin is the root cause of the overwhelming majority of problems we see in counseling. However, as an advocate for survivors of domestic abuse, I’ve seen a very troubling trend when it comes to our counseling strategies in cases of abuse. We’ve been taught that we need to get to the root sin issues with our clients, and rightly so. The problem occurs when we fail to recognize clear patterns of oppression that are nearly always present in cases of abuse. When we put couples in the same room for marital counseling and ask victims to confess their sins to their oppressors, we are arming their abusers. God’s heart is for the weak and afflicted, and he opposes proud oppressors (Zec. 7:10, Ps. 72:4, Ps. 82:3-4). May he give us wisdom to do the same.

“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. Ps. 82:2-4

*Of course, victims are not without sin, but when we encourage confession of sin in front of an abuser we merely feed both spouses’ faulty assumptions that the victim’s sin caused the abuse. In my years of counseling, I’d have to say the victims’ sin is rarely what counselors assume– it’s not provoking the abuse! More likely, it is being ruled by “fear of man.” Counsel that puts the burden for the abuse on the victim is not only ineffective, but extremely harmful.

 

How it All Began…

This week I was featured on my friend Chris Mole’s Peaceworks podcast. He interviewed me, and asked me to share my story of survival, as well as how Called to Peace Ministries got started. Click here to listen.

 

The Self-Righteous Face of Abuse

When you’ve lived through abuse, and heard hundreds of stories about it, you realize there are some pretty clear patterns when it comes to the abusive mentality. In his book, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, Lundy Bancroft suggests that “An abuser almost never does anything that he himself considers morally unacceptable. He may hide what he does because he thinks other people would disagree with it, but he feels justified inside.”* Sure enough, an attitude of entitlement and superiority has been present in nearly every case of abuse I’ve witnessed. It’s not always evident to those looking in from the outside, but victims know it well. They understand how skillfully their abusers twist truth with lies to promote their own selfish agendas. Most tell me it’s so convincing that they start blaming themselves for the abuse they’ve endured.  The tactic is as old as mankind. It was first seen when the serpent twisted God’s words, and caused Eve to doubt what He had said. This morning as I was reading in Mark, I saw it again with the religious leaders.

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?
Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. (Mk. 12:13-15)
These leaders sandwiched their cruel intentions with truth, and even flattery. If they had come right out and insulted him, the crowds (that they feared — Mk. 11:32) would have been upset. Instead, they missed the hidden agenda of these self-righteous hypocrites, because their words sounded good and righteous. We see this all the time at Called to Peace Ministries. Victims come in wondering if they’re crazy, because their abusive spouses have twisted the truth so much they wonder what reality is. Self-righteous abusive people are so convinced they are right they often convince others the same, and then lead them down a path to destruction (Mt. 23:13-15).
Thank God Jesus saw through their schemes. The one who is the Truth was quick to recognize the trap. Later when the Sadducees tried to trap Him by twisting truth again, Jesus replied, Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?” Yep, He actually told those who specialized in the Scriptures that they were ignorant of them! Even worse, He accused them of denying the power of God. These were the two reasons they were “in error.” While Jesus’ words did nothing to correct or change the hearts of his accusers, they should impact us.* We need to realize that there are wolves disguised as sheep among us. They know all the right words. They can quote the scripture, and be extremely persuasive, but their knowledge is merely head knowledge. They twist the truth to oppress rather than set free. Their knowledge of God is faulty, and they use their warped view of him to tear down rather than restore. 
Lately, the news has been filled with glimpses of secret lives and abuse being uncovered, but our churches still don’t seem to get it. Take it from somebody on the front lines of battle against abuse– it’s an epidemic in our churches! However, when victims speak up, their stories are doubted, because it’s so easy to believe the words of people who can quote scripture while missing the heart of its Author. It’s easy to believe it’s a marital problem rather than oppression. If we don’t love people enough to confront sin, and support the oppressed we are missing God’s heart.
Please join me in prayer that God’s true people will no longer be fooled by self-righteous oppressors, but instead will proclaim freedom for the captives (Is. 61:1). The first step is knowledge, and without it people will continue to perish (Hos. 4:6). Until we learn how to recognize those acting like wolves (but who look so much like sheep) we are simply empowering the abuse.
Lord, please open our eyes to see the truth that will set the oppressed free!

 

 

*Bancroft, Lundy, Why Does He do That? (New York, Berkley, 2002), 31.

*There were some religious leaders who came to Jesus, but only those willing to humble themselves entered into relationship. At least in one case we know that brokenness drove a leader to Him (Mk.5:21-24). Jairus came to Jesus in desperation, because his daughter was dying. Quite often, in cases of abuse, the only thing that might spark repentance is allowing an abuser to suffer the consequences of his or her sin. Treating the problem as a marital issue only makes matters worse.

“Hopeless” is a LIE!

Christmas Day 1995 was one of the worst days of my life. It wasn’t just bad because of the magnitude of horrendous things I had endured up until that point—it was terrible because I had lost hope. In my journal that day I wrote:

It's been a rather lousy day- I keep remembering that scripture that says that God won't allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear & I wonder if it’s a misprint. Or perhaps it applies to temptation only & not trials. I feel like my blood pressure must be 200\150, and I'd love to just leave this world forever.

Thoughts of suicide plagued me, and the only thing that kept me from following through was love for my children. I didn’t want them to have to deal with the loss of their mother after everything else they had endured. In the ten months since we had left our home (and their father), they had seen and heard more than children ever should. We all suffered signs of PTSD from living with the trauma of domestic violence. I remember asking God if He could just take us all in heaven that night, because I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had no hope for the future. All I had was God, and at that point He didn’t seem powerful enough to change things.

Thank God I didn’t give in to my feelings that night. Instead I continued to call out to Him in the midst of my distress. I spent hours in scripture looking for answers, and while I didn’t find an immediate fix for my circumstances, I began to find that God’s heart was for me. When I felt as though He had forgotten me, I found Isaiah 49:14-16. “But you said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me. Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…” This passage spoke to my heart as a mother, and let me know that His love for me was even greater than my love for my children, and He proved it at the cross.

As I continued to seek Him in the midst of my hopelessness, He did not disappoint. He met me and became more real to me than I could have ever imagined. I thought suffering would destroy me, instead as I sought Him in the midst of it, I came out with a faith that is unshakeable! I often tell people that I am grateful for what that suffering accomplished in my life. Looking back and remembering His tender care still brings a sense of profound gratitude to my heart. For several difficult years, I just held on to Him and He was faithful, but the outcome could have been very different.

In my desperation I ran to the only Source of Hope I knew. I sought God and made a decision to believe His truth over my feelings. I printed out scriptures and posted them all over my walls. Any time I was feeling particularly hopeless, I ran to one of those promises and read out loud several times. Often times, through many tears, I yelled out those promises (as if to remind Him). I refused to let hopelessness take over again. Twenty-two years later, I can say that God has turned my ashes into beauty (Is. 61:3), and I am so grateful!

After coming out of abuse, God gave me a ministry to work with victims and survivors of domestic violence. Over the years I have watched many women experience the same deepening of faith I experienced in my distress, but others have allowed hopelessness to rule them. The best they could hope for was a way to escape the pain of the scars of the past. Some have run to alcohol and drugs, some to new (and unhealthy) relationships, and some to various other substitutes for true healing. Often I’ve wished I could just push a button and impart some of my faith to these precious souls, but as much as I desire their healing, it can never be forced.

In order to find true hope and healing, we must decide to believe the truth rather than the lie of hopelessness, to esteem truth over our negative feelings, and to hold on to Him through the storms. I’ve never seen anyone disappointed who did that, but I have seen many who have never healed for failing to do it. We should never settle for a hopeless existence when He offers abundant life. Yes, this world is filled with trouble, but He has overcome it (Jn. 16:33) and enables us to do the same when we allow our troubles to drive us into His loving arms instead of to despair.

 

Note: If you find yourself struggling with hopelessness and would like a copy of the scriptures I complied as I was leaving abuse, please contact me. 

 

 

 

When Your Abuser Turns the Children Against You

Lately our ministry has seen more than its fair share of mothers* struggling to co-parent with abusive spouses and partners. Not only do they worry about sending their children off to spend unsupervised time with spiteful exes, many even find their children turning against them and siding with their abusers! It defies all logic that the kids would choose to side with fathers who have caused such harm to their mothers, but it happens far too often. By its very nature, abuse is anything but logical. I often tell people that living in an abusive or emotionally destructive relationship is very much like being in a cult, because the way abusers can distort their victims’ thinking, and children are most susceptible to this sort of brainwashing.

The US Department of Justice actually touches on this dynamic in its definition of emotional abuse. “Undermining an individual’s sense of self-worth… is abusive. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one’s abilities, name-calling, or damaging one’s relationship with his or her children.” Scripture is very clear on the power of words. They can be as harmful as drawn swords (Ps. 55:21, Pr. 12:18), and they can even teach children to attack their greatest human ally. So what’s a mom to do when her abuser turns her kids’ hearts away from her?

There are no easy answers to that question, but I think there are some things that can help your children see more clearly. Number one is to learn not to react to your abuser! Do not let him push your buttons and make you angry! When you “lose it” in front of your children, he will use it to justify his criticism of you. One of our clients told me that her husband would berate her mercilessly, and when she finally blew up he had the oldest daughter standing nearby to record it on her cell phone. He then used those recordings to prove to their pastors what an “ungodly” mom she was. When she learned to stop reacting to him, it made him angry and the children got a much clearer picture of who the real troublemaker was. I know how difficult it is to listen to unfair accusations, and how hard it is not to want to defend yourself, but you have to remember that it will only make things worse. Learn the power of disengaging, and realize it’s your spouse who has the problem, not you. You have nothing to prove.

The second thing you can do is to show consistent love to your children. Remember that love does what is best for them, which means you set boundaries– even when your ex may be using the “no boundaries” approach to parenting as a means of winning their support. If they refuse to obey you, let them know your concern for their welfare and the reason for your decisions, but don’t let anger or fear drive your parenting. It’s not good to let your frustration drive you overreact. When I was coming out of abuse, I found myself acting like a dictator, which did far more harm than good. In the long run, I had to learn to let natural consequences run their course, because I found that my attempts at hyper control only pushed my children further away. Sometimes survivors of abuse will face periods of estrangement from their children, but showing consistent love and concern (without trying to force them back into relationship) will usually win them back over time.

There are several other things you can do to help your children see how their thinking has been skewed by abuse, but there’s not enough room in a single blogpost to list them all. I would commend to you Lundy Bancroft’s book Helping Your Children Heal the Wounds of Witnessing Abuse. Bancroft has produced an abundance of helpful work on parenting and abuse, but to my knowledge he is not a Believer so I will leave you with one more piece of advice from a Christian perspective. Surrender your children to God! Remember that He loves than more than you do, and He can redeem their stories even as He redeems yours. One of the best things you can do is continue to cultivate your relationship with Him, so that you can model His unchanging character to your kids. I’ll end with a story of a mom who did just that.

My friend “Beth” was a full-time, stay-at-home mom of 5 children. She didn’t have the resources to pay for an attorney and when she went to family court for their custody hearing, the judge granted full custody to her ex. Beth was devastated, and as she told the story in our support group there was a collective gasp. But then she said, “I lost custody, but that was the best thing that could have happened!” We all stared at her in disbelief as she explained that in the year she lost her children she learned to cling to God in a way she never had. She said that she spent that year healing in His loving arms, and began to fully trust Him for her children’s future. At the end of a year, her ex showed up at the house and returned all five children. He had only taken them to hurt her, but as she gained strength and learned not to react, he found that his “victory” was harder on him than her.

Beth says that year made her a better parent, because in losing everything she learned that Jesus was enough. Her relationship with God deepened as never before, which she says made her a much better parent. Today Beth’s children seem to be thriving, but I think the outcome could have been much different if she had allowed her circumstances to rule her rather than her faith. If you are reading this and struggling with an abusive spouse or ex who has influenced your children to turn against you, be encouraged. This is not the end of the story. God is more powerful than any man, and He wants to redeem your children’s lives. Give Him the reins and trust His loving heart.

 

* We’ve actually seen a father in the same situation recently, but over 90% of our ministry’s clients are women, so my post will use descriptors that reflect our demographic.