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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 few times I’ve seen lasting 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.
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.