Tag Archives: christian counseling

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.

 

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 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.

 

 

 

 

Caught in a Deadly Cycle

Guest blogpost by “Stephanie.”

I am 22 years old. I am going through a divorce from my first abusive marriage when I meet my second abuser. I have no clue what the next few years will be like. My mother is dying from cancer. My father has lost his job, and it’s all my parents can do to live off unemployment and pay the nearly $1 million in cancer bills for my mom’s care. I feel scared, worried, and very uncertain of the future. Mark comes into my life, and I feel like he brings stability in a time when I’m very vulnerable. He is quite a bit older than I am, and he works with me. He definitely knows all the right things to say, and in no time at all, he has swept me off my feet. Flowers, sweet notes, and he even programs my computer at work to have sweet messages pop up when I log in to my computer, as he is the software developer for the company I work for. This is it, I think. I have found the one! Within a year and a half, we get married.

It doesn’t take long for me to realize that Mark is a very jealous person. He bites and pinches me, saying that it’s just a joke, telling me he’s leaving his mark on me so people will know that I am his. The bites and pinches leave bruises, and people start asking me why my arms have black and blue marks all over them. My mother has since passed away, and, being adopted, I reach out to try and find the birth mother who gave me up.  It was my mom’s dying wish for me to find her since she knew that she wouldn’t be here for me. When I do find her, we have many phone conversations trying to catch up for the years lost. Mark gets very jealous, and he starts counting the minutes I spent on the phone with her, even though those minutes were spent on my 45 minute commute home from work and it doesn’t cost anything extra.  He also begins to count the number of text messages I send to her and other people, and compares the number of text messages on our phone bill to the number in my cell phone. He goes through my phone regularly, and when he notices the number of text does not match the number on the phone bill, he interrogates me. He has a drinking problem and it is very evident. Whenever I get home in the evenings, he is always drinking. He works five minutes from our home, and I work 45 minutes away, but he tells me that because his job is more stressful and because he brings in a higher income, the bulk of the cleaning and maintaining the house should belong to me.  I should be very grateful for him providing a six-figure income, he says. He goes behind me and wipes his finger on the furniture looking for dust and inspecting my work, after I clean, almost always telling me I need to do better. His punishment of choice when I do something he doesn’t like is the silent treatment.
He sits away from me and refuses to show any affection or love, and won’t communicate, but rather, sits there staring off into space. I feel like nothing I do is ever good enough and trying to win his affection is the hardest thing I have ever done. There are no more flowers or kind notes or sweet words from when we were dating. No, it’s like pouring water down a rat hole trying to make this man happy. It’s a never ending struggle. Being a people pleaser, I try to keep the house spotless, but there are many nights I’m tired from driving 45 minutes each way to work, and I’m also expected to cook dinner most nights.  One of his rules is that there must be two vegetables cooked with every meal.  This is something, he says, his first wife would not do. He always talks about how fat and lazy she was and how terrible of a person she was. I later find out that none of this is true, as I talk to her myself. She is a cute, bubbly, very happy girl who has a lot to offer, and he tore her down.  He monitors how long I walk the dogs, and tells me it needs to be at least 2 miles a day. It’s never his responsibility though, it’s always put on me. He often spends time upstairs locked in the spare bedroom playing video games.  Eventually, I start finding evidence of pornography he has viewed, although he denies it and tells me it must have accidentally downloaded. I know better.  He tells his parents that I accused him of viewing pornography, and his father called me on the phone, telling me I need to apologize to him, that he would never do something like that, and then begins to blame me, saying I must’ve been the one that looked up those videos.  Over our marriage, I have noticed his father is very controlling and dominating over his mother, and his mother suffers from severe depression, and I think that is the main reason why.  The pornography makes me feel like I’m not good enough, as he must want to look at other women for fulfillment.
 When he drinks, Mark gets more and more belligerent and angry. And he drinks very frequently. One night, he starts verbally slamming my birth mother and telling me that eventually, I may have to choose between him and her.  His parents back him up on this, telling me that I may have to choose between him and my biological family. I try to stand up to him for once, and I tell him that if he’s going to be like that, maybe I need to leave for a while to sort things out. This is when he jumps out of his chair, lunges towards me, grabs my shoulders, and slams me up against one of the square columns in our big, beautiful, very expensive house. My spine hits the corner of the column as he shoves me against it and I can’t move. I am terrified as the wood digs into my back and spine and he grabs my arms with every bit of strength he can.  I finally manage to wiggle out of his grip, but he grabs me with both arms and is squeezing me so hard and in such an angry rage that he is shaking. I begin to suffocate, as he has my mouth and nose sealed off.  Finally, he lets me go, and I am hyperventilating and walking in circles. He tells me that I’m doing it for attention. I truly can’t help it, how I wish he would see that. He tells me that if I tell anyone anything about that night, he will divorce me. Not wanting to be alone, not wanting another failed marriage, I don’t tell anyone. The next morning, I wake up and go into the bathroom and see my body is covered in bruises.  It is almost summer, so I have to wear long sleeves to work to hide it. This isn’t what a marriage is supposed to be, is it? How could I have made the same mistake twice?  All I ever wanted was to be loved. I know that I have a lot to offer a partner. My parents taught me how to be a loving person, and although I’m not perfect, I want a happy marriage and to be in love and share my life with someone who loves me back. And, if I leave this one, who would possibly ever want me? Especially with me only being in my 20s.  What’s more, who would believe me anyway? He seems like the nicest guy you would ever meet to anyone who doesn’t live at home with us. He holds doors for old ladies, knows everything right to say, and seems very mild-mannered. No one knows the violence I live with at home.  I keep asking myself why he hurt me like he did. After all, when we first started dating, he actually had tears in his eyes when he told me he couldn’t believe the things my first husband did to me, and how he would never lay a hand on me. And now look at what has happened.  Shortly after this incident, Mark tells me he wants to buy a handgun. I keep wondering why he wants a gun, as he has never had one before. It frightens me.
 Not long after this incident, I finally get the courage to leave. Mark tells me that I need to pay him thousands of dollars, even though he has over $100,000 of his own in the bank. His reasoning is that there was a short time in the marriage when I did not work, and I need to reimburse him for, as he puts it, taking care of me. Not wanting to argue, I write him a check for the amount he asks, emptying my savings in the process. His parents hate me, and by this point, he has told everyone that I cheated on him, which I did not. He has made up things about me and made me feel so humiliated. I just want to crawl into a hole and die.
 I’m 26 years old, and I have left my second abusive relationship. I don’t know it yet, but this is not the last abuser to come into my life.
Thanks to my dear friend “Stephanie” for sharing her story.  I’ve know her since her first abusive marriage was ending, and have seen the devastating effects of domestic violence on her life. But I also stand amazed at her resilient spirit. Please pray for her continued healing and restoration. 

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 2

Part 2 in a Series.

In order to recognize the signs of domestic violence, most experts rely on a tool called the Power and Control Wheel. This resource was created by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project of Duluth, Minnesota in 1984,[i] and is based on observation of several focus groups of women who had been physically abused. When project personnel began to interview these women, they discovered several patterns of control and manipulation that seemed to exist almost universally within the groups. As they began to document these common behaviors or tactics, the result was a tool that has been used by victims’ advocates for over three decades. The first time I laid eyes on a Power and Control Wheel I cried, as have numerous victims I have shared it with over the years. It’s pretty easy to deny a relationship is abusive until someone puts a detailed description of your life right in front of your eyes!  For years I suffered in silence, thinking that nobody knew what I was going through, but when I picked up the “Wheel,” it seemed as though somebody had been a silent observer in my house over the years. I was also amazed to find that I was not alone, and that an estimated one in four women experience physical abuse from an intimate partner within their lifetimes.[ii]

One thing that stands out to most observers is that the majority of behaviors listed on the Power and Control Wheel do not involve physical harm. I had denied that my relationship qualified as domestic violence simply because physical altercations were somewhat infrequent. However, the tactics described on this chart happened on a daily basis. According to this tool, bodily harm is simply a last resort when all other tactics fail to achieve the desired power and control. Domestic violence is not merely about physical harm, but about abusers establishing patterns of complete domination over their victims. Basically, the motivation is far more telling than the behavior. In his book, The Heart of Domestic Abuse, Pastor and biblical counselor Chris Moles states that abusive behavior “is driven by a heart of pride and self-worship.”[iii] True domestic violence is not merely a reactive pattern of behavior, but one that is intentionally self-serving. A look at the behaviors listed on the Power and Control wheel show just how self-seeking abusive conduct really is.

As we continue this series, my upcoming posts will describe each of the eight characteristics found on the wheel. Stay tuned!

power_and_control_wheel

[i] “Wheel Gallery” http://www.theduluthmodel.org/training/wheels.html. Accessed January 17, 2016.

[ii] Please note that the focus of this work is to highlight the more prevalent issue of male against female violence; however, we do recognize that women can also be abusive.

[iii] Moles, Chris, The Heart of Domestic Abuse: Gospel Solutions for Men Who Use Control and Violence in the Home (Bemidji, MN, Focus Publishing, 2015), 43.

The Worst Kind of Counselor

Recently, I began reading the book of Job in my quiet time. I love so much about this book, but I always find myself wanting to fast forward all the well-meaning advice from Job’s friends.  Job’s friends’ counsel seems all too familiar to one who has lived through, and helped others escape, the horrors of domestic violence. It is so easy for one who has never suffered intensely to come up with godly sounding advice, and even to misapply perfectly good scripture in a way that implies the victim surely must have done something to bring on the trouble.

In his book Domestic Abuse, pastor and biblical counselor Chris Moles mentioned his experience of being invited to speak to a group of Christian women in a support group for domestic violence survivors. The thing that stood out to Chris as he listened to these ladies share their experiences was that nearly everyone of them had reached out to their churches for help after enduring years of controlling and violent behavior, and the result in the majority of cases was that the church counsel had eventually turned against them. 

This common scenario usually goes something like this. A woman musters up the courage to reach out to her pastor for help. Sometimes he believes her (although he thinks she’s probably exaggerating the severity), but often he doubts her story. After all, he knows her husband to be a godly man. He then goes to the husband to ask about his wife’s allegations. The abuser explains to the pastor just how absurd that is. He indicates that has tried to encourage his wife, but she is clearly unstable and responds to his support with disrespect.

Afterwards, this man goes home and scolds or threatens his wife for talking to the pastor. In some cases, the result might be physical harm. When the couple goes back to the pastor later for counseling, the wife is strangely silent or perhaps too emotional. When the pastor asks her to voice her concerns, she gives a briefer, sanitized version of her earlier account, or defers to her husband. The pastor then gives some advice about how they can improve their marriage, assigns some helpful reading, and closes with a prayer. The husband approves, thanks him for his time and assures him they will work on things. The wife leaves feeling completely dejected. Even though she is clearly a victim behind closed doors, the counseling session put equal or even more of the burden on her to change the situation. Hopelessness begins to set in. Like Job she knows that the counsel they received completely missed the heart of the problem.

Over the course of time, counsel like this ends up harming rather than helping to restore abusive marriages. No matter how much scripture is quoted or how much this wife works on herself, things will likely go from bad to worse. That is because the true problem is hidden. In Job’s case, nobody involved knew the interchange that had occurred between Satan and God. His friends, being good students of wisdom, naturally assumed that Job must bear some of the responsibility. Even though there was truth in their words, they did not see the whole picture, and unfairly accused him. In the end, God was angered with their charges against Job.

In my 18 years of working with abuse victims, I have witnessed modern versions of Job’s counselors multiple times. In fact, I’ve been one myself. Before my marriage failed, I operated under the faulty assumption that marriages failed because people didn’t try hard enough. When two of my own family members experienced divorce because of abuse, I secretly judged them in my heart. Surely, they could have done something to make it work. I was far more concerned for their marriages than their well-being. In the end, I applied the same sort of counsel to myself, and ended up working on my marriage until I nearly lost my life. One day as I was crying out to God and studying his Word, I realized he cared more about me that that that broken covenant. I understood that there’s no way one person can make a marriage work if the other isn’t willing. Like the Pharisees, I had elevated an institution over the people it was intended to bless. While they missed the point about the Sabbath, I missed it about marriage. I failed to understand the true source of the problem, and consequently did more harm than good.

The church is filled with well-intentioned counselors who are doing the same thing to victims of abuse. Women in these situations have come to me baffled and hurt when the tables have turned on them. Rather than getting help they got blamed. I fully understand why God aimed his wrath at Job’s friends. They assumed too much, blamed too quickly, and refused to believe Job’s pleas of innocence- even when their previous interactions with him supported his claims. They even used their knowledge of God against Job. Rather than trying to understand the whole story, they arrogantly assumed and placed the blame where it did not belong. They were in a position to love and support, but instead added insult to injury, and as a result became the worst kind of counselors.

 

A Biblical Account of the Abusive Personality

People often ask me for specific biblical counsel on domestic violence, and though there is not a specific case of blatant spousal abuse in scripture, there are numerous accounts of abuse. The very first example of family violence came very early in the history of mankind when Cain killed Abel. The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were known for their wickedness, which apparently included blatant sexual abuse on a regular basis. Joseph was abused by his brothers. The Levite in Judges 19 casually threw his concubine out to a mob to be raped, and when she died as a result of her injuries he cut her into pieces to show Israel how his property had been destroyed. Family violence touched king David’s household when Amnon raped Tamar and later Absalom killed him. If I were a betting woman, I would bet that Abigail’s husband Nabal was abusive towards her. Scripture tells us he “was harsh and evil in his dealings” (1 Sam. 25:3), and as a former victim I can relate to the ways she tried to make up for her husband’s foolishness. The Old Testament is filled with violence, and God’s prophets regularly preached against it. In the New Testament, we see God in the flesh enduring abuse at the hands of his own children. He came to earth and took on the worst abuse imaginable in order to redeem his fallen creation. What amazing love! We have a God who cares about abuse, and we have a bible that is by no means silent on the subject.

Although scripture is filled with examples of violence and abuse, one of my biggest frustrations with churches over the years has been a severe lack of knowledge when it comes to the dynamics of abuse. Scripture indicates that a lack of knowledge causes people to perish, and nothing is truer when it comes to abuse. I have had some limited success in sharing secular resources that describe the characteristics of abuse in church and seminary trainings, and even though they are based on observation I feel sure pastors and counselors would prefer to use scripture as their guide. For decades, each time I have read the story of Saul and David I have recognized the dynamics of abuse in play. Saul seems to be the embodiment of just about every abuser I have ever known. And while this is not an account that deals with intimate partner violence, I believe it is very applicable. Abuse usually just boils down to one person asserting malicious control over another, and that is exactly what we see here. We also see Saul abuse his position of authority over David, which is often the case in spousal abuse, particularly for more conservative Christians.

Recently my yearly bible reading plan brought me to the story of Saul and David in 1 Samuel, so I decided to make a list of the common abusive traits I recognized in Saul. Abusers tend to become attached to their victims very quickly, and we see in the same was true in this account. David was hired to play the harp for Saul, and it said that “Saul loved him greatly” (16:21). Obviously, this love was based on what David could offer Saul. Another trait that is very common with abusive personalities is the tendency to be insecure and jealous. Although the jealousy here is a little different that in an intimate relationship where the abuser fears losing the affection of the victim, the root is still the same. In this story, Saul was afraid of losing the affection of the people to David. Fear and insecurity are very common attributes of abusers. It is what drives them to control, and Saul was often consumed with fear.

Those of us who have lived with abuse know all too well that abusers are prone to sudden mood swings for no apparent reason, and that was certainly true of King Saul. One day, as David was ministering to him with music, Saul suddenly hurled a spear at him. Most people believe that abuse is provoked, but nothing could be further from the truth. During my time at the domestic violence shelter, I met scores of women who shared their stories of unprovoked abuse. It seems that little things could set off their abusers, from folding towels the wrong way to putting something on the wrong shelf in the refrigerator. Sometimes, like Saul, their abusers would be in a good mood and suddenly turn on them.

While many people assume abuse is born out of passion and a lack of self-control, the story of King Saul and David shows is it is far more insidious. Even when Saul was not in a rage, he made efforts to hurt David. His decision to give his daughter to David in marriage was so that she would ‘be a snare for him” (18:21). I have seen this seen this characteristic show up often in counseling situations within the church. Abusers have a talent for making malicious decisions look generous and kind to the outside world, while only their partners know the cruel intentions behind them. In one situation, church counselors told the husband to do something tangible to bless his wife. The action he chose was to offer her something he knew she hated and when she declined his invitation, he went back to the church and reported that she refused him. He made it seem as though he was doing everything in his power to make it work, and she was flatly denying him. He was much more vocal than she was in counseling sessions, so the outcome in this particular case was that the wife was labeled as antagonistic and resistant to her husband’s leadership. It seemed as though he was the victim rather than she.

Most abusers do see themselves as the victim, and Saul was no exception. When the priests at Nob aided David and his men, Saul lamented that everyone seemed to be conspiring against him, and that no one was sorry for him (22:8). When the Ziphites reported David’s whereabouts to Saul, he thanked them for having compassion on him (23:21) as though he was the underdog in the situation. David was hiding out in caves in an effort to preserve his life, yet Saul still saw himself as the victim. This is such a common trait among abusers. They are masters at turning truth upside down and making their victims seem to be the perpetrators. To outsiders it can certainly appear that way. Abusers love to influence the perception of others by causing them to think their victims are equally responsible for the violence.

While public perception often tends to place blame on victims, the vast majority I have known did not incite the violence in their marriages. Many women (like I once did) have strict understanding of biblical headship and submission. They are told in their counseling sessions that they should submit and win him without a word. Then if he does wrong, then God will surely deal with him. However, the case of David and Saul shows us that submission and honor do not necessarily result in stopping the abuse. David never did anything to intentionally provoke Saul—like most victims he was completely baffled by the abuse (20:1). In fact, Saul’s violence often occurred when David was ministering to him (18:10, 19:9). While abusive people seem to truly believe their victims are provoking them, in most instances that simply is not the case.

Those who desire to help families affected by domestic violence must learn to recognize common abusive traits, such as these found in the story of Saul and David, and realize that victims do not cause the abuse. Absolutely, I have seen situations where the victim has learned to be angry (Pr. 22:24-25), and perhaps seems equally violent. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases I have observed within the church, this has not been the case. (And even if it had been, abuse is never justified!) My experience in conservative, bible-believing churches has been that Christian women who tend to be victims also tend to be very passive. I tell people I once subscribed to “doormat theology;” meaning I truly believed if I submitted and showered my abuser with kindness he would certainly change his ways. Unfortunately, somewhere in that process I inadvertently enabled his sin. Of course there were times when I tried to break out and went to the church for help, but most of them failed to recognize the dynamics of abuse. The result was that they too unintentionally enabled him through their counsel. Even those who were wise enough to help me take a stand against the violence missed the boat when it came to reconciliation, because they did not understand the propensity for abusers to feign repentance. In the end, I always reconciled too soon, because I believed he was sorry, and I thought that forgiveness meant I had to trust him again.

In the story of Saul and David, it is clear that Saul never truly repented. Sure he confessed, he cried and he acted broken over his sin (24:16-17, 26:21), but David knew he still could not be trusted. True repentance involves a change in behavior over a course of time. Saul “repented” in chapter 24, but by chapter 26 he was seeking to kill David again. Domestic violence can easily turn deadly, and churches need to wake up to this fact. Too often our counsel is so anti-divorce that it ends up sending women and children back into harmful situations. Encouraging reconciliation without true repentance, and without someone helping the wife hold her husband accountable is just plain dangerous! In the past year alone, in my small county, I have had personal ties to 2 women who were killed as a result of domestic violence. They were both Believers and part of local churches, yet when I reach out to churches to offer training on domestic violence, most pastors indicate that they do not believe it is a problem in their congregations.

Statistics indicate that as many as 1 in 3 women will be physically abused by an intimate partner at some point in their lives, and these numbers are no better for women within the walls of our churches. Domestic abuse thrives in secrecy, and victims go to great links to protect their abusers from exposure, so whether you are aware or not, it is happening in your church. The question is whether or not you will educate yourself enough to help rather than hurt when someone finally musters up the courage to let you in on their family secret. Recognizing the characteristics is one of the first steps in learning to help rather perpetuate the problem. Scripture is not silent on the subject, and this story of the first two kings of Israel can help you better understand the dynamics of abuse. My prayer is that God’s people will rise up, and decide to be part of the solution when is comes to overcoming this hidden epidemic.