Category Archives: Counseling Issues

How Can I Ever Forgive Myself?

“How can I ever forgive myself?” It’s a question I’ve heard many times in my years of counseling. In fact, I get it! I know very well how it is to be plagued with guilt and remorse over a bad decision. When I finally broke free from a 23 year abusive relationship, I lived with regret on a daily basis. I couldn’t believe I had been stupid enough to believe the lies  that had kept me bound up for so long, and couldn’t believe how I had foolishly disregarded the harmful impact on my children. As much as I tried to tell myself that I did the best I could at the time, I was overwhelmed with remorse. The fact that I was still living with the consequences of my failures seemed to make it even harder to let myself off the hook.

As with the many other struggles I faced as a survivor of abuse, I went to scripture to find the answer to overcoming the guilt and shame I carried. First of all, I found nothing there that spoke to a need to forgive myself. The Bible urges us to forgive one another, and to receive God’s forgiveness, but never once does it tell us to forgive ourselves. Rather, it reminds us that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). It also lets us know that if we confess our sin He is faithful to forgive and cleanse us (1 John 1:9). My study of scripture led me to the conclusion that rather than focusing on myself, I needed to focus on His finished work on the cross. I needed to accept what He had done for me– anything less would be the equivalent of saying His work on the cross was not effective for my sin. It was also choosing to walk in condemnation even though He had set me free from it.

Although I finally realized I had no right to continue to condemn myself, I was still overwhelmed with sorrow about the consequences of my choices earlier in life. For many years after I left the abuse, I continued to watch my children struggle as a result of their tumultuous upbringing– and my failures as a parent. Over time, I finally learned to establish boundaries with them, but it seemed to be too little too late. In the long run, all I could do was surrender them to His loving hands. All my fear-motivated attempts to control them seemed to push them further away. One day as I was crying out to God about it, I sensed in my spirit that He was not done with them yet, and that He was even sovereign over my mistakes and failures. I realized that just as He was using my pain and suffering for His good purposes, He could do the same with my kids. It took many years to see things turn around, but as I surrendered them to His loving hands He worked in amazing ways.

If you find yourself overwhelmed with the weight of guilt from your past, there are two truths that will set you free –if you apply them. First, you must choose to believe God’s proclamation that you have been set free from condemnation by Jesus’ finished work on the cross. He took the penalty for all your failures, and took the shame on Himself. If you have received Him, you are free from sin, guilt and condemnation. Telling yourself otherwise is to believe the lie that His sacrifice was not good enough. Second, you must trust God’s sovereignty. This means that He will somehow use the pain and sorrow you experienced for His good purposes (Rom. 8:28). Believing He is sovereign is worthless if you do not believe He is good, so if you doubt His goodness you must start by remedying that problem. Scripture is filled with proclamations of His lovingkindness, and suffering does not diminish His character!

He specializes in turning ashes into beauty (Is. 61:3). As you choose to embrace Him in your pain you will experience the reality of this truth. Full surrender to our good God will never disappoint, but holding on shame and self-condemnation will keep you in bondage. Freedom is a choice, and you will find it as you shift your focus from yourself (and your mistakes) to His abundantly sufficient grace.

Deadly Counseling

A few weeks ago I posted a simple question to survivors of domestic violence in a few online forums. The question was, ” Could you share examples of bad counsel you’ve received from churches and counselors?” In less than an hour I had over 50 responses. Below are just some the answers I received.

  • Pray more, have more sex, ask God to show you what you’re doing to make him so angry.
  • “Read this book on how to be a better wife.” “Just stop pushing his buttons; you know what they are.”
  • You need to treat your husband like he has special needs. Step back from things so you can give him your full attention.
  • “He never meant you any harm. Just trust God- don’t fight for anything in the divorce settlement. You are bitter- you need to forgive him.
  • ” Well, I don’t think he was TRYING to kill you all.”
  • “You need to work on being more submissive.”
  • “You married him for better or for worse.”
  • ” Try doing things for him, pay more attention to him, be willing to sacrifice to make him happy.” They didn’t realize that trying to keep him happy was ALL that I was doing. Nothing for myself. And still, the abuse continued.
  • I was given a book on respecting my spouse. It was perfect ammunition for my abuser.
  • It doesn’t matter if he kills you– Jesus was killed too and you’ll go to Heaven too.”
  • “Love covers a multitude of sins”; “Forgive and forget”; YOU sin too.”
  • “It’s an anger issue– if there’s a fire, you can either throw a bucket of water on it or a can of petrol/gasoline.”
  • “Let God handle him; suffer for Jesus.”
  • “You are definitely suffering….we need to help you learn how to suffer well.”
  • “Keep telling yourself “the glass is half-full”.
  • “Forgive him and reconcile, he didn’t mean to hit you.”
  • “Just have more sex with your husband and everything in your marriage will be fixed.”
  • “There are only two biblically sanctioned reasons for divorce so you can’t leave and be in God’s will.”

I wish I could say that counsel like this is the exception, but in my 20 years of working with Christian victims of domestic abuse it has been the rule. Victims are dismissed, told to minimize the severity of what happened, or to try to change their abusers’ behavior by placating them. But it doesn’t work! One dear lady wrote the following:

Honestly, I think the most damaging thing is that pastors place ALL the responsibility on the wife’s shoulders to do things to “change him.” It never works. What’s really needed is swift and strong action against him- if just one person had looked at my ex and said “You are NOT going to treat her this way or there will be consequences” and then did exactly that—he wouldn’t have continued, then and now. His arrogance was fed in my former church—he still attends because it’s safe for him. He’s still abusive, and unrepentant.

This statement is loaded with truth. Studies show that abusers do not spontaneously change without strong intervention. In fact, every survivor I’ve ever met told me that the more they tried to appease their abusers, the worse things got. I know it was true for me when I was in it. The one and only time I’ve been involved in a successful reconciliation after domestic abuse, there was a long period of separation with lots of individual counseling and accountability for the abuser. Counsel that puts the burden of change on the victim not only kills any chance of overcoming abuse, but it could also get someone killed. At an advocacy training I attended this past summer, one of the other advocates shared a story that happened in her hometown. A local pastor told a victim in his congregation that she had to reconcile with her abusive husband, and shortly after her return her husband killed her. Why are counselors and pastors willing to take such risks with their counsel?

I have to conclude that most just lack the knowledge to provide effective intervention, because they operate under several faulty assumptions. 1) They believe that abuse is provoked or that it’s just the result of heated tempers on the part of both parties– rather than a pattern of coercive control on the part of the abusive partner. 2) They believe domestic violence is a marital problem– rather than the responsibility of the one choosing the violence. 3) They don’t consider a destructive relationship abusive unless there is physical abuse– even though domestic violence experts have identified a pattern of “nonphysical” behaviors that can clearly indicate lethality. None of these flawed conclusions are grounded in truth or empirical evidence, but are unfounded notions based on outward appearances.

The truth is that abusive people usually have two personas– one that is seen in public and another that is only seen in private. Abusers are very often charming and likable to outsiders, but cruel and demanding at home. Sadly they are able to instill so much fear in their victims that they help hide the truth. In fact, often they hide it so well that when they come forward people automatically doubt their stories. It is difficult to discern the truth without specific training in the dynamics of abuse.

Victims may also fear telling the truth about what goes on at home to their religious leaders because of their beliefs. Many times pastors and Christian counselors make marriage the priority in their counseling, rather than the safety and welfare of victims and their children. It seems the modern church has learned to elevate marriage over people, even as the religious leaders in Jesus’ time elevated the Sabbath. In our zeal we forget that marriage was made for people and not people for marriage, as Jesus reminded the Pharisees about the Sabbath (Mk. 2:27).

Recently I heard an ultimate example of such religious zeal when I spoke to a dear woman who fled to a local shelter for safety after her husband brutally attacked her. The shelter did a lethality assessment, and she was told the chances of her husband killing her was very high. Less than six months out, her church is telling her that she must reconcile with her husband, even though there have been no signs of true repentance or heart change. They’re focusing their counsel with her on how to stop provoking him. I’ve tried to convince her to stop the counseling with her church, but she won’t. All I can do is pray that she will break free before their foolish and deadly counsel does irreparable harm.

Won’t you join me in prayer for her and the thousands of victims who receive this sort of counsel each year? Better yet, join me in raising your voices to help increase awareness by sharing this post.

 

 

 

 

Raising our Voices Against Abuse

Twenty two years ago domestic violence drove my children and me out of our home. We got out with only the clothes on our backs and bounced from one friend’s house to another, as my husband went on the warpath threatening everyone who tried to help. When I called the police, they reluctantly went over to the house and “tried to calm him down,” but told me there was nothing they could do to stop him from destroying the antiques and other precious items I had inherited from my grandmother. They explained that once I married, my property became his, and he could do whatever he wanted with it.

Since he could not find us, my husband’s rage increased. He began chopping up and burning all the wooden antique furniture in the house. He also bagged up all my personal belongings and carried them to the town dump, making sure to ruin my most expensive clothes by pouring ink all over them. Several hours each day he was on the phone relaying threats against me to friends and family members. He also went to great lengths to convince them I was to blame for everything that was happening. After his own father called to tell me he was afraid for my life, I called the police again. I believed if he found us, I would be killed. The police asked me if he owned weapons, and when I told them he did, they became reluctant to respond and basically told me there was nothing they could do about the threats. In the weeks that followed, I called them several times. Once or twice they went over to try to calm him down. One of those times he told them I was going to “end up in a body bag,” but apparently that was not enough to warrant an arrest.

A friend of mine was married to a deputy, so I called and asked him for advice. He suggested I go take out a warrant against him, and get a protective order. I did it the very same day, and laid low praying that they would get him before he got us. After two days, when I still hadn’t heard anything, I called to find out what happened. They told me he had been served, but they weren’t sure he’d seen it yet. While I was actually naive enough to think they might put him in jail, I soon found that serving him only meant that a pink piece of paper was taped the the door of his house ordering him to court in 30 days . When he got home from a long shift as a staff physician, that piece of paper merely served to enrage him more. The threats through friends and family intensified.

I reached out to my pastor, and he went by to see my husband. Although he had only been a nominal member of the church, while I served faithfully, my pastor seemed to believe my husband’s story over mine. He seemed to think that I had done something to set him off, because nobody would go that crazy without reason. I tried to explain that I’d spent our entire marriage trying to avoid setting him off, but I never knew what might do it. One time, he tore the house up because he was mad at the cat. Another time, he became furious and started breaking things, because our daughter used his hairbrush and forgot to put it back. My solution to that was to go out and buy 17 brushes so that would never happen again. I always tried to smooth the way for him, but nothing was ever enough. We never knew what might set him off. The most stressful time of the day was when he walked in the door from work. Would he be in a good mood or a bad mood? If it was good, nothing would bother him, but if it was bad everything would anger him and all we could do was try to avoid him.

I explained all of this to my pastor, and he suggested we come in for a counseling session. As afraid as I was, I wanted our marriage to work so I went. I arrived 20 minutes early to avoid meeting my husband in the parking lot. When he arrived, he seemed calm and cool. We sat and listened as our pastor told us how he thought we could repair our marriage, but inside I knew none of it would work. In our 13 years of marriage, we had seen at least a dozen counselors or pastors, and nothing anyone had suggested had worked. Somehow they all put the burden for his behavior on me. I was told to boost his self-esteem, to keep a cleaner house, to pray more and ask God to show me my contribution to the problem. Most of the time, I was way ahead of the counselors and already doing what they prescribed. We had learned to tip toe around my husband quite well, except on those rare occasions when something unexpected came up. It didn’t seem anything we did could help us in those situations.

Even though he had been prone to fits of rage of the years, he had only been physically abusive towards me about 4 or 5 times in the entire length of our marriage, so I didn’t really consider myself abused. I just thought he lost control because of his troubled upbringing and long hours at work. I never thought he was intentionally trying to hurt me, so I made every effort to bring healing to our marriage. For a year and a half after that initial separation I reached out to anyone I thought might be able to help. After all, I didn’t believe in divorce! Yet, nobody had the answers I longed to find. Every earthly resource failed us–  from the legal system to law enforcement, from counselors to the church. The violence simply became more frequent and more deadly.

One day my twelve-year-old daughter asked me why I didn’t just leave and give up the idea of reconciliation. My response was that God hates divorce. Immediately she said, “God hates divorce, but he’s going to hate it a lot more when my mom is dead.” Even after hearing that, I refused to give up. It took nearly losing my life to decide I needed to leave, and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, because everything in me wanted to save that marriage. Even after I left, I waited on God hoping he would change my husband’s heart. Not until he remarried five years later did I feel released from that marriage.

During that five year separation I struggled and grieved over the loss of the marriage. I was also overwhelmed with guilt and condemnation because I couldn’t make it work. Still, I knew I had no other choice. Even though I couldn’t find the right help, I felt I had failed somehow. One day as I was reading 1 Corinthians 7 regarding separation from an unbeliever, God gave me peace about leaving. Since my husband claimed to be a Believer, and since he kept saying he wanted to stay in the marriage, I didn’t think the passage applied to us. However, that day I saw that the reason Paul released believing spouses from such marriages was that “God has called us to peace” (7:15). That passage leapt off the page into my heart as I realized I had not had peace in the entire 23 years I had been with my husband (8 years of dating and 15 of marriage). Suddenly I saw God’s kind intention towards me. He wasn’t condemning me for getting out, I was condemning myself and many in the church did too.

In the years since I left my marriage I have reached back to help others in similar situations, and have seen plenty of victims face condemnation from the very people they approached for help. Like me, most have been made to feel responsible for their abusers’ actions. I’ve seen them struggle with the same unbelievable lack of resources I faced. It wasn’t that people didn’t try to help– they didn’t know how!  People perish for a lack of knowledge (Hos. 4:6), and when helpers don’t understand the dynamics of abuse, they very often make things worse. They minimize or deny the problem and fail to believe victims who finally get up the courage to come forward. They elevate marriages over lives, and fail to recognize the deadly nature of domestic violence.

Recently a woman I know fled to the local domestic violence shelter for help. When they did a lethality index, it indicated she has a very high chance of becoming a victim of domestic homicide. Yet, a month later, her pastor was encouraging her to come in for couples counseling. I wish I could say it’s an exception to see domestic violence mishandled by the church, but sadly my experience with hundreds of women has shown me it is the rule. Every time I hear a story like this, I become more determined to make a difference.

The bottom line is that abusers continue to abuse, because we close our eyes to it. We try to pretend it’s not all that common– even though the American Medical Association says one in three American women will experience it– even though statistics are no better in the church– and even though it “is widely accepted by abuse experts (and validated by numerous studies) that evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assault their wives.”

Not only do we ignore the problem, we actually make it easier for abusers when none of the systems in place are able to effectively protect victims, including the church. When I look at scripture, I see God’s heart for the oppressed and his mandate for us to “loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and.. break every yoke” (Is. 58:6).  That is our calling as his people, and we need many voices if we are ever to overcome this awful plight.

November 3-4, 2017 in Raleigh, NC, Called to Peace Ministries will be hosting its fall conference, “Developing a Church-wide Response to Domestic Abuse” with domestic violence expert Chris Moles. This conference will help equip those who want to help and be a voice for those oppressed by domestic abuse. To those not local to the Raleigh area, we will have live streaming via Facebook. Please visit our Eventbrite page to register. We hope you’ll join us and become a voice for the oppressed.

Where Faith & Depression Meet

The first time I met with “Jennifer” she told me she was struggling with severe depression. As usual, I spent our first counseling session gathering information about her past, and wasn’t surprised to learn that she had experienced sexual abuse at the hands of an older cousin from the time she was 8-years-old until she was 13. When the secret finally came out, her mother told her not to say anything to anyone, but just to avoid being alone with her cousin. She wasn’t even sure if her mom spoke to her cousin’s parents, and somehow she was made to feel responsible for what happened.

For years Jennifer carried the shame of what happened to her. She grew up and married, but he turned out to be physically abusive, and by the time her son was 5 she was divorced. As her marriage was falling apart, a friend invited her to church. Within months of visiting the church, Jennifer fell in love with the One who suffered and died in order to redeem her soul. Her life was changed, and she felt peace like none she had ever known. Yet, five years later she was meeting with me because of depression.

As a survivor of abuse I could relate to Jennifer’s struggle. Getting out of the abuse was much easier than getting the abuse out of my head. It had warped my thinking, and caused me to believe lies about God and about myself. I found myself consumed with negative thoughts, and the more I thought about things, the more depressed I became. I wondered why God allowed the abuse to happen, and felt that my experiences had damaged me for life. It seemed as though I was engulfed in darkness, and suicidal thoughts plagued me. If  not for my children, I’m not sure I would be here today. But that wasn’t the end of the story for me. Misery drove me to scripture. Between my own private bible study, and a few solid group studies, I became determined to “cast down” the negative thoughts that overwhelmed me (2 Co. 10:5). I often tell people God brought me through an intensive period of supernatural cognitive behavioral therapy that eventually set me free.

Jennifer was looking for freedom from depression too, but when I asked her about her thought life, she just looked at me and said, “I really don’t think about anything.” That is the day I came up with the idea of keeping a “thought journal.” I asked Jennifer to set a timer to go off several times a day (especially those times when she was feeling depressed), and to write down what she was thinking about during those times. The idea was to write out any negative beliefs that were fueling the depression, and then to find scriptures to counter them. When I met with Jennifer a week later, I asked about her journal. She told me that the timer had worked, because she realized that she was constantly thinking discouraging thoughts. Even though she had been out of abusive relationships for years, her abusers still had power over her. Deep below the surface she felt she was unworthy of God’s love. Even worse, she doubted it altogether.

The solution for Jennifer, and for anyone struggling with negative emotions, is to identify beliefs that are contrary to God’s truth. I often tell ladies in our support group to print out specific passages of scripture, and to say them out loud any time the destructive thoughts come. I also believe that singing along with praise music is powerful, because it makes God bigger than our problems. In his presence there is fullness of joy (Ps. 16:11), and depression will have to flee. I used to imagine myself being held by the Mighty Warrior as he quieted me with his love and rejoiced over me with singing (Zep. 3:17). There is nothing more healing than being in his presence. Those who make the effort to find him in the midst of their pain will not be disappointed. He gives us “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Is. 61:3). 

God is a healer! I have never seen him fail to restore those who have tenaciously determined to believe his truth. It’s not a quick fix, but it is a powerful one. Nothing gives me greater joy than to watch the faces of God’s precious children learning to embrace the freedom he offers. If you are plagued by depression or anxiety, please know that he offers “liberty for the captives” (Lk. 4:18), even as you learn to “take every thought captive” to his truth (2 Co. 10:5). Identifying false beliefs about God and about yourself, and replacing those thoughts with his promises will heal your broken heart. Ultimately, his peace, that surpasses human comprehension, will protect your mind from worry and your heart from despair (Phil. 4:7).

 

If you read this article, and are wondering where to begin, please contact me  for a list of helpful scriptures.

When Praying Makes Things… Worse?

Have you ever prayed fervently for a situation to change, only to find matters getting worse? I know I have. I have seen it many times in my years of working with victims of domestic violence. In these situations, things often escalate to unbearable in spite of ardent prayers and abundant effort. It sometimes seems as if God doesn’t see or care about our struggles. After all, if He was on our side, wouldn’t circumstances improve? However, if scripture is to be our guide, we need to look at how He worked with His people there to see if that expectation is valid.

This morning as I was reading in Exodus, I found the story of the Israelites’ plight after Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh to let the people go and worship. According this passage, God had heard the cries of the Israelites, and sent Moses to plead on their behalf. However, instead of helping the situation, it hurt! Pharaoh severely cut the supplies needed for their work. The situation seemed hopeless all around, and even Moses became discouraged.

The Israelite overseers realized they were in trouble when they were told, “You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day.” When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, and they said, “May the LORD look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” (Ex. 5:19-23-emphasis added.)

The story could’ve have ended right there, but Moses took his confusion and complaints to the Lord. Even more significant, he continued to obey God in spite of negative circumstances. Moses was full of doubt about his own abilities, and he was discouraged about the Israelites anger towards him, but he still continued to follow God’s path. We all know the outcome. God used his obedience to bring about a miraculous deliverance—just when things seemed impossible. In the end, terrible oppression made liberation seem even more incredible.

When I think of my own story of escaping abuse, I can see His hand in every painful experience. All I knew to do was cling to Him, because everything else had failed me— from the courts to the church. Even people who loved me and wanted to help had no clue how to do it. In the long run, the overwhelmingly impossible nature of the situation made me desperate for Him. I spent long hours in prayer and scripture, and even came up with a database of passages that were particularly helpful.[1] I made a decision to believe His promises, because nothing else was working. All I could do was hold on to Him for dear life, and He was faithful. Circumstances did not improve in the beginning. In fact, they became worse, but in the end my faith in Him became stronger than it had ever been and He delivered me. I often tell people that even though I would have never chosen to suffer like I did, I am grateful for it, because it drove me to Him. My relationship with Him became my anchor, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

If you think that circumstances are a measure of God’s care, or lack thereof, you are missing a beautiful opportunity to allow Him to redeem your story. God is not a magic genie who snaps His fingers and makes everything suddenly all right. He also will not force anyone to follow His ways, but He will use your pain for good. Please understand, I am not saying you should stay in a harmful situation. Scripture is filled with examples of God’s people fleeing danger. Instead, I am saying, cling to the One who loves you most, and you will not be disappointed. He will use your trials to grow you and your faith. I’ve worked with survivors of domestic abuse for over 20 years, and those who have held onto Him have simply amazed me. I have never met more amazing people than those who have proven Him faithful in the midst of great suffering.

If you think you don’t have what it takes to become an amazing example of His redemption, I encourage you to go to scripture. God specializes in using reluctant and under qualified people for His purposes. He not only wants to redeem your situation, but if you let Him, He will use you to help others who will face the same battles you’ve faced (2 Cor. 1:4). Take your doubts and struggles to Him, and determine to hold on to His promises. Just keep walking in His direction, and don’t let people or circumstances warp your view of Him. He will deliver you in due time, and in the process you will develop faith that is unshakeable.

[1] If you’d like a copy of this scriptural database, please email me at info@calledtopeace.org.

Sacred Cows in the Church.

When Christians Honor Marriage Over People

Recently our ministry hosted a conference on domestic violence in the church. We promoted it to pastors and church counselors, but the majority of participants turned out to be former and current victims of abuse. As participants introuduced themselves, I heard an all to familiar story. Several mentioned surviving abuse only to find themselves being hurt again by their churches.

One dear lady said she left the church altogether after she reported the abuse and separated from her abuser. Her husband was in leadership at the church, and the other leaders believed his story over hers. Rather than finding help when she mustered up enough courage to reach out for help, she received blame. According to the church, she was desecrating the holy institution of marriage by separating from her husband, and there was no way she could convince them otherwise. Eventually, she chose freedom from bondage over the church, and she has been out of church ever since. She gets sermons online and on the radio, but she is afraid to trust Christians in a community setting again. There were other participants with similar stories, but most moved to other churches rather than leaving the church altogether.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this story over my years as an advocate of domestic violence victims. Why do churches so often seem to honor institutions over people? Apparently, it’s fairly common among religious people. Jesus regularly offended the religious leaders’ understanding of the Sabbath. In their eyes, he was constantly violating it, but Jesus responded with “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, when God ordains something, it is out of love for his people, but too often we get religious and elevate the institutions above the ones they are intended to bless. Even in ancient Israel this was a problem.

Say to the people of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to desecrate my sanctuary—the stronghold in which you take pride, the delight of your eyes, the object of your affection. The sons and daughters you left behind will fall by the sword. Ez. 24:21

It’s interesting to me that when God brought judgment on Israel, he even destroyed his own sanctuary. The thing he had set up as holy and valuable would become completely desecrated. As a parent, I know how difficult punishing my children could be—sometimes it hurt me as much as it did them. This had to be the case for God. He could no longer sit by and watch their self-destructive course, and the only remedy was severe consequences, because all the warnings in the world had not even fazed them.

They had turned his sacred sanctuary into an object of idolatry, and as a result he even allowed it to be destroyed. He cares far more about our devotion than any institution. The modern church certainly seems to have their own set of idols, and marriage seems to be at the top of the list. When we allow a good thing that was instituted by God become more important than those it was intended to bless, we miss his heart. It reminds me of the sacred cows in India. People die of starvation daily while they walk around unfettered and unused as a source of food.

In the modern church, marriage has become a “sacred cow.”  Yes, marriage is a wonderful thing, but when one partner chooses to break the covenant it can become a source of harm rather than blessing. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to save failing marriages, but when that is not possible, we must never condemn someone for leaving a harmful situation. God cares more about people than institutions—even those he established. Legalism cares more about the institutions, even when people are perishing in the midst. My heart grieves for people like that dear lady who came Saturday. Since she was not honored above her marriage, she has walked away from another institution (the church) that should be speaking life into her wounded soul.

Lord,  awaken your church, and help us learn to love you and your people above anything else– even good things you have ordained. Amen

Why Nobody Believes the Victim

How Churches Unwittingly Promote Domestic Abuse

The other day I sat down with a precious daughter of the King and listened to her story. As survivor of domestic violence and advocate for victims, I almost knew the ending of the story before she got half way through, because I’ve heard similar accounts so many times. Once again, I was grieved to hear that another church had turned its back on a faithful member, and embraced the abuser. Once again, I saw the hurt and bewilderment that comes from being first abused by the one who promised to love and cherish till death, and then suspected (even blamed) by the church entrusted with the care of her soul.

I’ve worked with victims of domestic violence for nearly 20 years, and in all this time a several common patterns have emerged, but the most egregious is that when they finally get up enough courage to reach out to their churches for help, the overwhelming majority of them are not believed. Pastors have come straight out and told me they believed the victims were making up lies in order to deliberately destroy their husbands, or others have said that that it’s nearly impossible to know who’s telling the truth in such cases.  Several times, pastors and church counselors indicated that my judgment in advocating for victims was certainly clouded by my own history of abuse. In one case, I prayed that God would not allow me to be fooled. I went back and interviewed 17 people who had worked with or knew the couple in question, and the only evidence of lies I could find were those told by the abuser, yet the church continued to believe his story rather than hers.

Why in this world is this such a problem? As I’ve continued to ponder this question, I come up with several possible answers.

  1. Victims are taught to cover up and hide the abuse, and most do not come forward until the pain becomes unbearable. Being in an abusive relationship is a bit like being in a cult. Victims are conditioned to protect and make the abuser look good to the outside world. Many times they’ve done such a good job that people naturally doubt their stories.
  2. Abusers can be the nicest folks you’ll ever meet! (At least in public they are). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been shocked to find that someone I admired and respected within the church turned out to be abusive. One of the common traits of an abusive person is the Jekyll/Hyde syndrome. They are often charming and charismatic in public, but cruel and demanding in the privacy of their own homes. Since they may seem more put together and stable, it is easy to assume that the anxious wife is the main source of the problem. 
  3. Abusers work very hard at discrediting their victims. Over the years I have seen abusers spread deliberate lies about their spouses being unfaithful, mentally unstable, unfit parents and so on. Once a man a man came up to me and indicated how glad he was that his wife was taking one of my classes at church. He said “Maybe you can help her,” indicating that she was deeply troubled. Months later, she came to me in tears about the way she was being treated at home. However, because this man was considered to be a leader in the church and because of his earlier conversation with me, I found myself doubting her story. She did seem frazzled and unstable. It was only my training in domestic violence that enabled me to keep an open mind, and refrain from making her feel foolish for coming forward. The interesting thing is that she wasn’t even sure of what to make of what was happening in her home. She didn’t really come to accuse him; she came to ask me if her perspective was wrong, and if she was overreacting to his treatment.
  4. Misplaced Biblical Doctrines on Male Headship. Although I tried to deny its existence for years, I have become painfully aware that many non-abusive Christian men hold beliefs that encourage abuse. I have seen pastors take the side of abusers whose biggest complaint was that their wives were not being submissive. On more than one occasion I have heard church leaders discuss church discipline against women for being “unsubmissive.” Experts in domestic violence are clear that a sense of entitlement is a foundational element among those who perpetrate violence at home, and harsh interpretations of biblical passages on male headship can serve to support that sense of entitlement. The Greek term for submission in the New Testament, hupotassō, indicates yielding for the sake of order. Even more conservative scholars recognize that it is not something that should be forced.* Yet, churches often unwittingly foster abuse when they attempt to force something that was intended be voluntary.
  5. The Belief that Domestic Violence is Provoked. Even when victims have sufficient evidence to prove abuse, many counselors and pastors operate under the faulty assumption that they must have done something to set their abusers off, or that the violence was mutual. While there are some victims who do play into the violence, the majority I have known have done everything in their power to avoid it. They describe it as “walking on eggshells.” The sad part is that they can never predict what might set it off. For one woman, leaving a cup in the sink caused her husband to flip out, for another a misplaced hairbrush led to destruction that looked like a war zone in her home. It takes very little to provoke an abuser, and victims can never do enough to prevent the violence. There is never an excuse for domestic violence, and counsel that questions how the victim might have provoked the abuse is not only counterproductive, it serves to enable the abuser.

In my experience, the factors above explain the main reasons nobody seems to believe the victim. Of course, I know saying they’re never believed can’t possibly be true, but it sure seems to be that way far more often than not. Sure, there are false accusations in the world, but they are the vast minority of cases. Research shows that an overwhelming majority of abuse accusations can be substantiated, yet in all my years of dealing with domestic violence victims, nearly all were doubted or even blamed for their marital problems when they reached out for help. They couldn’t all have been lying, but that was the consensus among the church leaders who were petitioned for help. Sadly, even in cases where the truth of the abuse came out beyond dispute, the bulk of the burden was placed on the victims to improve the situation. Many were told to do more to make their husbands happy—to submit, have more sex, read their bibles or pray. Unfortunately, such advice only serves to promote an abuser’s sense of entitlement, and encourage cycle of abuse.

God’s heart is for those who are oppressed and maligned, and he hates it when justice is perverted in his name. “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Is. 1:17). Yet, too often those who claim his name are unwittingly doing the exact opposite. I am not writing this in order to condemn. I certainly understand how easy it is to unintentionally promote wrong for “righteousness” sake. For years, my own convictions on marital submission and divorce made me a lousy friend to those who divorced as a result of abuse. I was so opposed to divorce that I encouraged them to stay in situations that were clearly destructive. My beliefs also served to ensure the eventual failure of my own marriage. I thought I had to submit to any and everything my husband demanded. In the end, my strict beliefs only served to promote his sin, and the cycle abuse worsened over time as I gave in to it.

The only way to overcome abuse is to, first of all, admit the truth. That requires believing it when it’s presented to you. Being able to recognize the truth often requires specific training on the dynamics of abuse. There are well-established typical patterns common to most cases. Overcoming abuse requires holding the abuser accountable, rather than making the victim responsible. It all starts by listening and being open to believe the oppressed who come to you for help. My prayer for our churches is that we will open our eyes to the epidemic of domestic violence in our midst, and learn to be the solution rather than part of the problem.

 

 

*(Mahaney, C.J., “How to Encourage Husbands to Lead” in Pastoral Leadership for Manhood & Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem & Dennis Rainey. (Wheaton, Crossway Books, 2002), 204.)