Spousal Abuse: A Starting Point to Think Biblically
Last week Leslie Vernick spoke to the marriage class on spousal abuse. I invite Leslie to do this every year because spousal abuse is more common within the church than you might think and we can all use as much help as we can get learning how to respond wisely to abuse situations.
Her lecture this year got me thinking about how the church reacts to the word “abuse” itself. It’s a powerful word. When we use it we are immediately sounding an alarm. It is a call to take action. Marriages, families, even lives are at stake. We need words like that. But I’ve noticed that the word abuse can have different effects. For the abused it often provides a whole new way of understanding what they’ve been experiencing. They begin to see their spouse’s behavior as something more than an anger problem and they stop blaming themselves for the abuse. What seemed a horrifying and shameful experience has reasons, has happened to others, and there is a way forward.
For others the word causes concern. They fear that abuse is used in a way that points to something other than sin, that it is more of an autonomous psycho-social category that operates beyond the biblically fundamental categories of sin, repentance, reconciliation, and the sanctity of marriage. And some have seen abuse serve as a sort of trump card that simply transfers all of the power and resources from the hands of the alleged abuser into the hands of the other spouse who appears equally willing to be controlling and manipulative.
I don’t pretend to have the issue figured out and I don’t have a carefully crafted definition to offer, but come along with me as I think “out-loud” about this term and what it describes. These types of marital situations can be complicated and confusing and there are many ways to mishandle them. One of the easiest mistakes to make is to reduce it to an anger problem. Obviously, anger is often a major ingredient of abusive behavior but it is usually just one element of a complex set of motives, sins, and behaviors. So, one of the ways the word abuse functions is to indicate something bigger and more complex is occurring. It rightly broadens the scope of concern because it turns our attention to what is really a web of behaviors rooted in demands for power, control, and egregious, willful exploitation which cannot be adequately understood or addressed if it is seen as one or two isolated displays of sinful anger. The abuser isn’t just an angry person, but someone who is destroying and cannibalizing the people and relationships around them for a host of reasons.
Perhaps, then, the word abuse should invite us to think more deeply about the ways that we talk about and respond to sin in these situations. The Bible itself tells us not to think of sin as isolated behaviors and motives but to understand how it is part of the larger complex of evil. Ephesians 6:10-12 follows careful instructions on family relationships by reminding us that our battle, ultimately, isn’t against flesh and blood but against “powers of this dark world” and “spiritual forces of evil” (Eph. 6:12). Do we speak to and respond to those who exploit power in relationships as those who are aiding and abetting the Enemy, practicing darkness, and in need of more than an extra dose of self-control? Similarly, are we alert to the way the Bible warns us about the “deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13, Jer. 17:9, Eph. 4:22)? We are often blind to the ways that we are ensnared by sin, and blind to how we are destroying our lives. Do we really expect unacknowledged and established patterns of motives, thinking, and behavior to give way to a few warnings or rebukes?
The Bible doesn’t just describe our sinful behaviors as discrete acts that sort of just happen, but regularly calls us to consider what kingdom we are aligned with, what path we are on, what manner of life are we living. Perhaps sometimes we treat the wounds of God’s people lightly by failing to plumb the depths of abusive behaviors and simply treat it as an “anger problem” while a host of deadly evils go unaddressed. I consider the word abuse as an invitation to take sin and evil more seriously; to be careful not to settle for a superficial application of the gospel. I want to be alert to situations that call for more than a simple rebuke or a one-time confession and be ready for a larger battle. We shouldn’t expect “abusers” to see things clearly or welcome our involvement. It is likely to get ugly and take a lot of effort. The same sorts of threats, intimidation, and attempts to control will be aimed at the larger body of Christ as we respond and try to help. Help is going to require persistent and sustained involvement.
And we dare not forget that abuse also points us to those who are on the receiving end of that web of motives, sins, and behaviors. Abuse tells us that someone is suffering and the call of discipleship requires us to help those who are being destroyed by vicious words and violent behavior. The word abuse can alert us to our duty to help, protect and care for those who are the target of the abuse.
Obviously there is much more to consider carefully about the nature of abuse and how to care for all who are touched by it, abuser and abused. I’m simply suggesting a starting point. Instead of just reacting to the word let’s slow down and think biblically about what we’re being asked to see and then decide how to respond.