This is the third in a series of blogs on the sexual abuse of women in marriage. My goal is to help counselors and pastors to recognize when a wife is being sexual abused by her husband and then offer appropriate help. In the first two blogs, I described what marital sexual abuse is and discussed why women might not realize what is happening to them. In this third installment, I offer some thoughts on how to help women in this situation.
When God places women in our care who have been sexually abused in marriage, he is entrusting us with a tender and clear mission. These women face tremendous suffering and need us to care for them with gentle wisdom. They also need us to be strong—calling evil acts what they are—evil. This is not a comfortable calling, but it is a critical calling, one after Jesus’ own heart (Luke 4:18-19). Often it means we, ourselves, need to acquire additional wisdom and learn what it means to embody Jesus to these dear sufferers. The last thing we want to do is to inadvertently hurt them when we try to help. So, let’s start with the basics. We know we are to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), especially when someone is facing evil (Rom. 12:9-12). We are to be compassionate, gentle, and patient in our care (Eph. 4:2; 1 Pet. 3:8). In addition to these basics, here are some practical ways to walk alongside and minister to these women.
1. Ask. Sexual abuse in marriage is frightening to reveal. Sadly, a large percentage of my counselees who experience physical and verbal cruelty are also experiencing sexual abuse. It is not something that women usually disclose because shame, stigma, and confusion contribute to silence. But speaking about it and receiving support is crucial to safety and healing. One way to help victims is to bring up the topic. I usually say something like: “More than half of the women I see in oppressive marriages experience hard and difficult things in their sexual relationship. Are there ways that you struggle with physical intimacy? Things that make you uncomfortable? Do you experience any unwanted sexual activity? Do you ever feel pressured?”
Sometimes victims are only ready to say “yes” to these questions but are not comfortable discussing the violations themselves. Do not press, just periodically check in asking them if they are ready to talk or have questions.
Consider, especially in a church setting, inviting a woman to bring a female friend and supporter with her to counseling. It can be overwhelming to discuss such abuses with a pastor or other church leader and the tangible comfort provided by such a person will reduce her sense of isolation and vulnerability.
2. Listen. Abuse is not something you can solve with words; there are complexities and evils that our words are inadequate for. Do not feel that you need to say something to make it better—you can’t. Sit with the suffering. Your presence alone is powerful, lifting shame. Keep in mind it is good and right for the victimized to feel hurt, fearful, and angry. Do not sanitize their speech but trust that, in time, God will shape their lament. Right now, the important thing is for them to tell their story. No matter what it sounds like, they are bringing the terrible secrets of their life into the light which is a beautiful act of trust and faith.
3. Listen for ways they wrongly feel responsible. Husbands who abuse their wives in this way are master blame-shifters and convince their victims that everything is their fault. With sexual abuse this is particularly damaging, so it is important to be consistent in reminding them that they are never responsible for another person’s sin (Mark 7:20-23). Oftentimes, bad teaching from Scripture sets them up to believe their husbands’ lies. Be alert for ways that the misuse of passages like 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 (sex is their “wifely duty”), has compounded their guilt and suffering.¹ Clarify that marriage does not equal consent to unlimited sex or unlimited types of sexual acts.
4. Let victims know repeatedly that the abuse is not their fault. Once you discover the ways they feel responsible, work to lift shame and guilt. Never tire of making these declarations and affirming this truth.
5. Protect their story. Do not to ask too many questions about the details. Questions can cause further exposure and shame. Go at the woman’s pace by asking broader questions, taking her cue as to what and when she is comfortable sharing. Consider your role. What will it be like for her if you know details? This is especially important if you are a pastor or elder. Sometimes in a church context, it is necessary to share information, so be clear about who you will tell and what you will say. To the extent possible, do not expose the tender details of her story. Ask her who she is most comfortable with knowing. To honor her story, ask those whom you tell to make an effort to connect with her. Even if it’s via a note, they should acknowledge the woman’s suffering. I have heard from too many victims that silence from those in church leadership who know their story is excruciating; it feels like rejection and disgust.
6. Share how their story affects you. Sexual abuse is isolating, and it can feel like no one, not even God, sees or cares about what is happening. Horrible things have happened and we need to embody God’s heart for them. God hates what is occurring and is grieved by it. Your heartfelt responses and tears can be healing for them.
7. Provide needed resources. They need to know that they are not alone. Offer to connect them with an advocate, pastor, counselor, medical care, legal support, another victim, or a trusted friend.
8. Speak beautiful truths. Being sexually abused comes with a special sense of shame. It can penetrate so deeply that the victim begins to believe horrible lies. The woman might come to believe she is repulsive, unlovable, dirty, permanently disgraced or even worse that her story will contaminate you. Remind her that she is a treasured possession (Deut. 7:6), chosen, holy (Col. 3:12), beloved (Deut. 33:3), God’s child (1 John 3:1), Jesus’ friend (John 15:15), holy, blameless (Eph. 1:4), and redeemed (Eph. 1:7).
9. Be patient. Sexual abuse in marriage is devastating trauma. Research has shown that it is harder to reveal and experience sexual abuse by an intimate partner than by a stranger. Worse, many women go on living with the husbands who violated them.² We do not expect sexual assault victims to have contact with their rapist let alone share a home and bed. It is quite unimaginable what they are going through, so be patient.
Trauma victims also tell repetitive and circular stories, and it can be hard for them to make decisions, or even consistently believe that they are victims of abuse. Keep in mind it is not always possible for them to face the trauma while they are living in it. Oftentimes, we have a greater sense of urgency about their situation than they do. To care for them well, we must live with this tension and proceed at their pace. This can be hard on us when we see the amount of pain and suffering they are enduring, but it is vital for them that we do this. God has never-ending patience with us, and never tires of communicating to us life-giving truths. Imitate him.
10. Do not tell them what to do or make decisions for them. Due to the power and control dynamics fueling abuse, these women often do not have the freedom to make choices at home. Hence, they do not need one more person telling them what to do. It is important and redemptive that they make their own choices, especially considering that they are the ones who must live with the after-effects. Whether they stay, leave, confront, or remain quiet, their choices will lead to more pain. Help them by providing wise options. Pray through the choices and process potential outcomes. Encourage them with the knowledge that God will supply the wisdom they need and let them know that they have your support.
11. Involve the necessary authorities. It is not always easy to discern how and when we should interact with the legal system so here are some guidelines. Rape within a marriage is a crime, but few women wish to report it and ultimately that is their choice. While this might leave us feeling fearful for them, we should remember that they have to endure the fall-out and be ready to take self-protective measures. Police know this so they usually require the victim to make the complaint (not the counselor) unless life-threatening violence is present. We do not have a legal obligation to report domestic violence, but we should be communicating the value and potential protection of involving the police. When a victim is ready to make a police report, help her through the process—it will be an extremely difficult experience.
A notable exception to women making their own decisions concerns children. Anytime children witness sexual abuse (or they themselves are physically or sexually abused), it is considered child abuse and we do need to make a report. Keep in mind that this will create a dangerous situation for the mother and child. The woman needs to know that you are reporting the abuse, and a safety plan should be implemented.
12. Lament with them. When unspeakable things happen, it is hard to even find the words to describe what has happened. For these women to pray, they need words—words to connect their hearts to God and others. Telling their story and sharing their heart is essential to healing. Help these women find the words. Help them speak to God and others (wise helpers) about their suffering. Locate passages of Scripture like Psalm 22, 27, 55, 109 and 140 that give words to their experience. Pray with them. Pray for them. Give them words they can bring to God—words that expose the darkness with light (Eph. 5:13) and that bring redemption and healing.
It is my prayer and hope that this list equips you. But more than that, I want it to encourage you to move towards women who have been violated by their spouses. You might already know who these women are, but it is far more likely that there are many unknown sufferers living in your midst. They need wise and gentle helpers who are ready with the compassion of Christ and words of God to guide them.
²While it might be best for a separation to occur, there are many reasons victims do not leave, which means, at least for a time, continuing to live with their abuser.
This is the second in a series of blogs on the sexual abuse of women in marriage. My goal is to help counselors and pastors to recognize when a wife is being sexually abused by her husband and then offer appropriate help. In the first blog, I described what marital sexual abuse is. In this blog, we will talk about why women might not realize what is happening to them. And in the third installment, I will offer some thoughts on how to help women in this situation.
Over the years, I have had hundreds of conversations with women who are being sexually abused by their husbands but do not realize it. They know something is wrong but do not know what it is. In fact, most of these women come to me seeking help for something else, usually anxiety, depression, or even a desire to foster a richer marital relationship. As I sit with them and learn more about their marriage, it’s often plain to me that they are being grossly mistreated. But they are confused, and often struggle to call the things they endure abusive or sinful—let alone evil. They worry they are exaggerating, believe they are responsible for what is happening, and doubt their own memory when recounting an abusive episode.
These women need us to help them understand the reality of their situation, but the fact that they do not perceive or portray it accurately can be a barrier to that. If you follow their lead, you will miss the larger abuses that might be taking place and focus on the personal problems they present. It is important that we work to cut through their confusion and see what lies behind it. If you suspect that abuse is occurring, continue to ask questions. If you discover sexual abuse, then great care must be taken to explain how these violations go against God’s design for marriage.
This task is challenging but important. Proverbs 25:26 cautions us, “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.” We need to speak clearly about the things the Lord hates, lest we, too, muddy the waters leaving room for abuses to perpetuate and the wicked to prosper. Our goal needs to be bringing victims the pure and refreshing living water from Scripture—lifting misplaced guilt and bringing clarity. God’s healing words will tend to their wounds.
To help you see past the confusion in these situations, let’s turn now to a discussion of the pressures that bring it about. There are two main sources to the confusion experienced by women who are victims of marital sexual abuse. Together, they create a powerful dynamic that can make it difficult for them to understand what is happening in their marriage.
The first is the pervasiveness of bad and unbiblical teaching about sex in marriage. These teachings have placed the responsibility for a man’s purity on his wife’s ability to provide unlimited sex. But it is not a wife’s job to keep her husband from sin—each person is responsible for his or her own sin (Luke 6:45). Yet, women have been told:
Imagine how these teachings play out in the mind of a wife who is sexually abused by her husband. God’s call to a healthy, willing mutuality is ignored and sex-on-demand is made to sound like God’s will. This produces false guilt, and wrongly portrays a God who is not just indifferent to her suffering but sanctions it. This creates a wedge in a wife’s relationship with God when she needs him the most.
Sex is not simply an act or a need; God created sex to be an expression of relational and spiritual intimacy. When abuse pollutes that relationship, the physical expression of intimacy is also corrupted. We, as counselors, need to be clear on God’s design for sex so we do not add to the chaos that is already occurring in a victim’s heart and mind.
The second contributor to a wife’s confusion is the manipulative tactics employed by her husband. These men want their wives to be off balance and disoriented. If wives believe they are responsible for the distress in the marriage and feel sorry for their husbands, they are easier to dominate. We need to be on the look-out for these tactics and be ready to intervene with counsel and care to counteract them.
Here are four common ways sexually abusive husbands manipulate their spouses.
First, after an abusive incident, there is often a period where an abuser appears calm or even expresses remorse. He might use gifts or affection in an attempt to repair the relationship. It is important to understand that these seemingly remorse-filled actions are usually not true acts of lasting repentance grounded in godly sorrow.¹ Instead, they are attempts to reset the power and control dynamic. The abuser’s focus remains on what he wants—his world back to the way it was with him in control. If an abuser was truly horrified at his actions, he would seek help to stop being oppressive. The counselor’s goal here should be to help victims discern the difference between godly sorrow and manipulative apologies and actions. Teach them how to refuse these counterfeits.
Second, abuse is not always constant. On quieter days, an oppressor will be helpful and even kind. This is very confusing and disorienting. In these lighter moments, the wife often feels badly for not having loving thoughts towards her husband. She may wonder if she is exaggerating things and making a big deal out of nothing. In periods of peace, a wife might have a hard time recalling the darker memories and not understand why she now feels cold towards her husband. During these times, she might even desire physical intimacy or enjoy sex with him. She may wonder, “How can I be abused if I desire or enjoy sex?” Though it is natural that she will still feel hurt by what happened in the past, her newer, more positive memories make the situation even harder to understand. To help a woman combat this, have her keep a journal of abusive incidents. This can help her overcome these disorientations, lifting guilt and confusion.
A third way that an abuser generates confusion is by using coercion to get his wife to consent to his demands.² For example, if a husband asks for sex repeatedly and his wife knows that if she does not comply that he will lecture her for hours and be frighteningly harsh with her children, she might give in to the demand so as to avoid an escalating punishment. What is confusing about coercion is that if she acquiesces, she believes: “I agreed to it.” It is then very difficult to have clarity about what happened prior. So, she might feel defiled but thinks that it is unreasonable to feel this way. We need to combat this by helping these women to identify coercive tactics and by making sense of the emotions that they are feeling.
The fourth way that an abuser generates confusion is to make his wife feel sorry for him. Abusers are master blame-shifters and are adept at finding excuses to avoid taking responsibility for their demandingness. They blame alcohol, a stressful job, the temptation of pornography, their jealousy—but especially their spouse. Wives report being told things such as:
By claiming to be a tortured sufferer, a sexually abusive husband preys upon his wife’s kind heart, hoping she will feel sorry for him and then do what he wants. If that does not work, he may use threats of adultery, porn use, and even self-harm to gain sympathy. These men are very convincing.
Keep in mind that they will also work on you, the counselor, pleading their victimhood in an effort to distract you from the ways that they are sexually domineering. Be wary of this and do not shift your focus off the effect that an abusive husband’s behavior is having on a victim. Untangling his excuses and threats will help free up his wife from believing it is her job to meet all of his sexual demands.
Is it any wonder then that these wives are vulnerable to confusion about their situation? As their helpers, our goal should be to carefully dispel and dismantle the myths that ensnare them. To do this, we refute the bad teaching, expose the manipulation, and reconnect them to a rescuing God who grieves with them and desires their protection.
¹ Godly regret is focused on how sin offends God and produces true repentance (2 Cor 7:10).
² I discussed coercion in the first blog as well. I repeat it here because it is a key source of confusion for abused wives.
We know that all Scripture is meant to shape us for good (2 Tim. 3:16-17) but what happens when we encounter passages that defy connection to our daily lives? Numbers 5:11-31 is one such passage–if you’ve never read it, now would be a good time! Briefly, it records the procedure to follow when a husband suspects his wife of being unfaithful in the absence of witnesses. The jealous husband brings his wife to the priest who mixes “bitter water” for her to drink. She takes an oath—and if she is guilty, the water brings a curse—pain and inability to conceive children. If she’s innocent, no harm will befall her. If you’re like me, your first reaction may be, “Huh?!” Or “I think I’ll skip ahead to chapter 6” (Oops, no good, that chapter is about taking Nazirite vows, also not something that I plan on doing anytime soon.) Numbers 11 perhaps? Ah, there’s something I can identify with–the Israelites are grumbling and complaining to God. Now that’s applicable!
But God doesn’t intend for us to cherry-pick passages and verses that seem to connect easily with our lives while ignoring other passages, which on first glance, have nothing to say to us. Remember that God addressed Numbers 5 and Numbers 11 to his people at the same point in history. If Numbers 11 is “applicable” and Numbers 5 is not, what are we saying?! Are parts of God’s Word more valuable than others? No, we should always expect God to speak meaningfully into our lives wherever we are in Scripture. His revelation is meant to inform and transform his people, both when it was originally given—and now.
So, where do we start when reading Numbers 5 or some other very challenging passage? I would encourage you to engage by asking three questions: (1) What was the pastoral importance of this revelation to God’s people then? (2) How does this story connect with the life of Jesus? (3) How should it impact my life now? An even simpler way to remember this approach is to consider a text’s meaning with respect to “three pronouns”—them (God’s people in antiquity), him (Jesus), and us.
Them: It’s easy to get caught up in the “bizarre” factor in this passage—it’s a highly stylized legal ritual. Or to react strongly to the woman’s “guilty until proven innocent” status (although many commentators point out that this procedure actually allows protection and vindication for a woman who is unjustly accused, an unusual statute compared to other ancient near eastern societies). We quickly (and rightly) recognize the huge historical and cultural chasm that exists between the original receivers of this revelation and modern believers. But as you linger in the passage certain themes emerge: God cares about what is done in secret. What is done in secret can ultimately defile a marriage and even the community of faith. Purity matters. God is just. Innocence is pardoned and guilt is punished. Rather than furrow our brows and move on to something more palatable, we begin to realize these themes have impact right now for our lives.
Him: Prayerfully consider how this “test for an unfaithful wife” connects with the story of redemption culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Scripture portrays Israel as a wayward, adulterous wife and Yahweh as a jealous husband (Hos. 1-3; Jer. 3:6-10). She is guilty and her sin awaits full and final punishment. And then something remarkable happens. Her jilted husband steps in and seizes the cup before it touches her lips. Jesus Christ drinks the cup of God’s wrath to its dregs. The punishment due his bride for her unfaithfulness—our unfaithfulness!—he willingly bears (1 Pet 2:24). We instead receive the cup of God’s blessing (1 Cor. 10:16). Living water flows (John 4:13-14), not bitter water that brings a curse.
Us: We live in the post-resurrection age. We rightly exclaim with Paul, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). True, but God still cares about things done in secret that dishonor him. Purity for God’s people still matters (Eph. 5:3-15; 1 Cor. 5-6). In that sense, the relevance of this passage remains, although we never lose sight of the glorious and gracious way this word from God finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. As people united with him, this passage prompts us to ask, “Am I harboring secret sin that dishonors my husband Jesus? Am I drifting from the constancy of his love in my thoughts and attitudes? Is there something I need to bring out into the open before God and others?” If the answer is “yes” remember that the final word for you is one of forgiveness, restoration, and love renewed. Benediction, rather than malediction. Jesus drank the cup for you. So, confess your sin and turn from it, knowing that “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
See what you would have missed if you had skipped to Numbers 11? Take the time to prayerfully ponder difficult passages as you encounter them. Expect God to speak to you through his Word by his Spirit. In light of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, gospel treasures await you in the most unlikely places.
These and similar questions about bringing life to Scripture and Scripture to life will be addressed further at the 2018 National Conference. Click here for more information and to register.
This is the first in a series of three blogs on the sexual abuse of women in marriage. My goal is to help counselors and pastors to recognize when a wife is being sexually abused by her husband and then offer appropriate help. In this first blog, we will define what marital sexual abuse is. In the second, we will talk about why women might not realize what is happening to them. And in the third installment, I will offer some thoughts on how to help women in this situation.
God created marriage to be something beautiful and sacrificial in which the hearts and bodies of a man and woman are united as one. Sex is supposed to be a culmination of this emotional and spiritual relationship expressing unity, peace, and love (Gen. 2:24; Prov. 5:18-19; Song. 7:6-12). Given this foundation, the possibility that marriage could be a place where sexual abuse or violence occurs is almost unthinkable. But sadly, it does happen—and with surprising frequency.
Though the recent #metoo movement has revealed the prevalence with which people are violated sexually, my heart remains heavy for wives who are victims of marital sexual abuse. Their stories remain untold, and I am concerned that many pastors and counselors are unaware of its occurrence. I hear many stories (too many stories) of women being abused, violated or even raped by their husbands. It is a frightening reality for these women—one that they usually endure in isolation. The Lord is not silent on such horrors, nor should we be. My goal, therefore, is to identify what sexual abuse in marriage looks like so it can be recognized more readily and these women can get the help they need.
Sexual abuse in marriage occurs when husbands make demands on their wives that are not based on love .¹ These demands for sex are not sanctioned by 1 Corinthians 7:3-5,² though the passage is often used as a goad to require a wife’s compliance. To be clear, the men who do this are troubled themselves. They usually have deep-seated problems including a weak or non-existent relationship with God and an inflated sense of entitlement. They believe that other people (including their wives) exist for them—for their comfort and to meet their needs, including sexual ones. When their wives fail to respond as desired, it often results in a pattern of coercive and punishing behaviors designed to force their compliance.³
Sexual desire perverted by entitlement damages a couple’s sexual relationship in many ways. Here are a few examples of what it looks like:
I have found this pattern to be the most destructive in relationships where the husband is also disengaged from other foundational areas in the marriage such as parenting, household management, and connecting relationally.
Coercive sex abuse can be very confusing because after being “persuaded” (a.k.a. bullied), consent was technically granted. The victimized wife is left wondering, “Was I sexually assaulted or did I agree to it?” Whatever form of coercion is used, be it physical, financial, or emotional, any sexual act which is not based on mutual consent constitutes sexual violation. It leaves a wife feeling confused, dirty, betrayed, and assaulted.
These patterns are disturbing and have no place in a godly marriage.
Marriage does not equal consent. It does not obligate spouses to participate in any sexual act at any time. But devastatingly, many Christian women have come to believe that sex-on-demand is their “wifely duty.” Thus, they have a hard time separating being violated from what they have come to believe is their responsibility. Confusion, shame, and guilt are compounded.
Those suffering from these distorted, abusive demands should not be left questioning what God says about such evils. The Apostle Paul speaks clearly here. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Col. 3:5-6). Paul is calling on us to eradicate all sexual sin that stands against our identity in Christ—any sexual impurity. He is not setting a low bar here and saying “just don’t cheat on your spouses.” He is saying: Wipe out all sexual covetousness—all your greedy taking—for all sexual impurities deserve the wrath of God.
We, too, must identify these behaviors for what they are—evil. Like Paul, we need to call for the cessation of such terrors and clearly give voice to God’s hatred of such abuses. We need to speak up on behalf of victims—and speak with the full weight of Scripture behind us.
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust.” (1 Thess. 4:3-5)
¹ Women can sexually abuse their husbands, but it happens at a substantially lower rate.
² This passage is often incorrectly applied. It does not give husbands permission to demand sex from their wives and does not sanction pressuring women into thinking that it is their “wifely duty” to give in to such demands. These distortions fail to account for the fact that sex is a gift from God designed for his purposes, not our own. Space does not permit a full discussion of the passage, but for a better way to look at 1 Cor. 7:4-5 see Tim Challies’ blog “Two Different Ways to Think about Sex in Marriage”
³ I have written two mini-books on this subject. See them here.
“I am not ok.” It’s the first thing the voice of self-hatred says. While it takes a hundred different forms, it always says the same thing—you are lacking.
I’m a failure.
I’m way too messed up.
I’m a disappointment to everyone.
I am worthless.
I am weak and pathetic.
Many of us are familiar with the voice of self-hate. It shows up amid the small talk and self-talk of our daily life. We’re familiar with it because it comes from within, and it inevitably comes out.
Self-hate’s strategy is subtle, and calculated. It takes advantage of one of the most fundamental things about us—our social nature. Relationships are our life context. People are our environment. We live before the eyes of others, and they live before ours. We take our cues from them, and they from us. We evaluate, and we are evaluated. We size up, and are sized up. We compare, and we are compared. Within our desperate striving to be “ok”, “acceptable,” “adequate,” “legitimate,” “worthwhile,” and “satisfactory,” self-hate spins a seductive lie—our thoughts about others and their thoughts about us are the ones that really count. We are tempted to believe this and live out of it.
Thankfully, this is not the true arrangement of things. We do not live in a world where our evaluation of ourselves and others is ultimate. God is there. God, too, is our environment and we also live before his eyes. We live before the maker and sustainer of all things. We live before the one who has absolute authority. He, too, evaluates and sizes up. He declares and announces reality.
Liberation from the clutches of self-hate and the endless striving to be “ok” is available only in our relationship to God through Christ. Liberation begins by giving ear to what the loving voice of God says about us. We don’t have to guess how he thinks or feels. In the Scriptures, he tells us clearly. Authoritatively. Repeatedly. Lovingly. He is not fickle or flippant or shifty. He does not change like the shifting of a shadow, nor does he show partiality or favoritism.
Just as self-hate zeros in on our identity (“I am a ____), so too the loving voice of God has something to say about who we are. Whereas the voice of self-hate proclaims “I am a piece of garbage,” or disgusting and unwanted, the voice of God announces,
I want you, you belong to me. (Psalm 18:19)
I love you and my love does not have strings attached. (Deut. 7)
I cherish you. (Psalm 8)
I will do what is needed to save you. (John 3:16)
I have given you a true and lasting name. (1 John 3:1; Isa 43:1)
In no uncertain terms, the voice of God, tells us that we are perpetually and substantially “ok.” This does not mean our failures and sins and limitations and struggles are not real or insignificant, but rather, despite the presence of all of these things in our lives, our “ok-ness” does not change. Our spiritual status is not up for debate. It is permanently established through Christ.
The voice of God proclaims an alternative to the identity that self-hate argues for. Because you cling to Christ, you can repeat what the God the Father says about you. Because you cling to Christ, you can own what the God the Father thinks about you. “I am ok.”
This is part 2 of a 2 part series: Part 1
Season 2 of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why was released last week. This series is based on a novel written by Jay Asher. After classmate and love interest, Hannah Baker, commits suicide, Clay Jensen is left reeling to understand why. He returns home from school to find a package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside, he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah. She tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life, and Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why.
What we know of season 2 thus far is that it will continue the story and do so using some of the same themes. It will depict lives full of secrets, poor decisions with grave consequences, sexual assault, violence, guns, substance abuse, and the on-going impact of suicide. It will also encourage a resurgence of curiosity in the first season.
People have very strong opinions regarding the benefit and potential harm of this series. Some argue it is beneficial to bring to light hard topics that face youth today and believe it encourages conversation on these important topics. Others argue it glamorizes the worst of teen culture and portrays rape, liberal sexuality, substance abuse, lies, and violence as normal in the lives of teens. Many families would find this far from normal, while for others, it may hit close to home. What I hope we all agree on is this: while it is good to encourage healthy conversations on tough topics, we also do not want our kids to accept as normal the culture this show describes, nor do we want their choices/decisions to mimic what might be seen there.
If there was anything positive in the message of the first season, it was that choices have consequences (at times, very serious ones) and that we all must take responsibility for our own actions. That, however, was not enough to sway the opinion of the National Association of School Psychologists. They acknowledge the potential for more harm than good by stating: “We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.”
Should your child choose to watch the series or you choose to watch it with them, it is essential that you discuss the program together. Here are some of the themes, some obvious, and some not so obvious, that you may find in the series:
These false messages must be exposed, discussed, and bridges built with young people. They need to know that if they open up to their parents or another competent adult, there is help and support and understanding. We can, and must, do a far better job of engaging young people on these topics than any tv show. (See my blog about Season 1 for some thoughts on this).
Regardless of what you think of the series, realize this: kids need reasons to live. They need to know that they can face hard things, even traumatic and insurmountable things, and get through them with God’s help. They need to have hope and know they are not alone. We can offer them that hope. We have someone even greater and more intimately involved in their struggles: their Creator and Savior. In my blog from season one, I offered a list from the Bible of 13 reasons why life is worth living. Use them to help kids connect the dots from God’s promises to their struggles. Show them that God knows what is going on in their lives—that he longs to interact with them personally and offers them an abundant, rich, hope-filled life. In fact, do this even if your kids aren’t watching 13 Reasons Why. It’s something we all need.
This is part two of a two part series: Part 1
The threat of danger impacts our children on a regular basis. Tragic school shootings, violent crimes and the like all incite an array of heartache and anxiety. Even when the threat is not at our front door, it is booming from media outlets into our homes. The likelihood that your child is impacted is high. Regardless of where you live or how stable your family life is, the lives of kids and teens are being touched by violence to some degree and we must help them make sense of it.
Rather than react out of fear, we must help our kids by demonstrating an appropriate level of sobriety and sorrow by such events, while exhibiting that our hope is in Christ. The challenge is to find the right balance—teaching young people awareness and caution, while equally encouraging trust in a sovereign God. The most hazardous thing we let our children do is to ride in a car, yet we rarely fear driving them to school or church, or the mall—nor should we. Young people must learn to live life fully, and not overshadowed by fear.
So parents—engage with your kids about these threatening realities. Do your best to explain them and be willing to discuss why evil exists. Model godly grief and educate your children on what is right and just. Our kids will be able to walk with confidence in a troubled world if they are educated on how to think, feel equipped to respond, and have grown to put their confidence in their Creator. We want to teach children how to both navigate this world, and trust an unrivaled God.
Below are five suggestions to help children to feel prepared in the face of potential violence.
1. Have a plan for potential dangers. We know it is helpful to have a fire escape plan at home, school, and work. Likewise, help kids develop a plan they can follow when they become aware of possible violence. Being prepared does not avoid the event, but gives a child a sense of confidence that he or she can respond well and get through it safely.
2. Role play, role play, role play. As you instruct your children on what they should do in various types of emergencies, do so in a calm and matter-of-fact manner being sure not to frighten them by talking about it. Then, practice. Describe hypothetical situations and have them tell you what they would say or do. This helps children to react efficiently and swiftly in a high pressure situation.
3. Be a safe, trusting adult to go to and identify other safe adults that can help in a crisis. If your kids know in advance who to go to for help in an emergency, they will feel less fear. To the extent possible, be sure these people (including yourself!) are able to offer appropriate comfort, poise, and direction based on the situation. This means being able to respond in a way that neither minimizes nor overreacts to the threat at hand. A balanced response during and after an emergency will help your children going forward.
4. Lead them to the God of all comfort. “Do not be afraid” is mentioned 365 times in the Bible. The solution to fearful situations is always God’s presence. He offers himself as our comfort, strength and portion. Look for ways to make this tangible and real in a young person’s life.
5. Know what Scripture has to say about life, tribulations, and sufferings. When kids ask why something terrible happened, it is important to give simple and honest answers. Young people need to make sense out of life accurately and redemptively. Help them look beyond present sufferings and remind them a faithful God cares for them. God’s will for their life cannot be thwarted. As Jeremiah 29:11 states, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
We cannot promise young people that tragic events will not happen, but we can give them the knowledge and resources to navigate such events. The better equipped they feel, the less anxious they will be. Equally important is the reality that kids will always be making sense out of their experiences. The question is, will do they do so accurately? It is imperative that our kids grow up with a worldview that is biblical (accurately interprets the world we live in) redemptive (God takes what is broken and restores/ make all things new) and hope-filled (confidence in the character of God and anticipation for the good he will do). We can all pray that violence will not directly touch our children’s lives, but in the meantime, wisdom prepares them in case it does.
It is always their “birthday.” Today, tomorrow, and the next day are dedicated to their interests and desires, so don’t expect that you will be known or understood. No empathy here. No room for guilt either. If you interfere with the party, expect to receive their anger. That anger might come at you as a bully who wants power and control or one who doesn’t even have time for you, so they turn away. Expect lasting grudges. Perhaps, if you are penitent, you might be able to get back into an orbit that surrounds them but they will not move towards you in return. It is always their birthday, but they never seem to grow up.
There are different versions of this self-absorbed style, commonly called narcissism. They are all maddening. Some are dangerous. And this very real problem is worth much more time than I will give it here.
As a catalyst for thought, I read Disarming the Narcissist by Wendy Behary¹. Though not a Christian book, I was helped by her kindness and insight, and she actually rekindled my interest in engaging those who fit the narcissist description. Rather than review the book, I will identify a few of the points that helped me rethink how to love those who show this level of entitled self-interest.
Say “no” to your anger. Your anger will not help you or the self-absorbed person. If you expect the other person to actually be moved by your anger and change—you will be disappointed. In fact, your anger will be interpreted as further evidence that you are the problem. Instead, you need a calm and measured engagement that invites discussion.
If you are feeling great pain and rejection from the narcissist’s predictable outbursts, you also will be unhelpful, unless you are able to seek the good in that person, even in the midst of your pain. We believe God gives grace for this, and we expect that our own growth here will be hard fought.
Somehow, people who fit the narcissist description can make fools of us all in that they know how to irritate us and we begin to act like them. Instead, conversation will be more productive if there is at least one thoughtful person in the room.
See the other person as a child. I have found this helpful; it limits my expectations. It’s similar to how I view people who have a long-term history of addiction: the addiction essentially shields from the challenges of life that mature us, and the addict is easier to understand as a twelve-year-old rather than a forty-year-old. Though this could be an affront to most children, the image fits more than it doesn’t. The benefit is that you will be more patient with the person if your expectations have been adjusted.
Practice your own empathy skills. Empathy is the ability to step into someone’s world in a way that the person feels understood. It is not approval of that world, but it is an understanding of it. An apparent absence of empathy is what is most difficult about narcissist-types. They do not understand either your world or their own. In response, we redouble our efforts to grow in empathy, to which there are so many ingredients. Here are three:
Don’t expect such discussions to help the person directly though. Those who lack insight are rarely enlightened by their past. More often, they see past hurts as no big deal and resist our attempts to suggest long-term patterns. But these insights encourage our own patience and kindness.
Among the helpful features of Behary’s book were words that someone could speak, which bring together empathy and wisdom. Here is a response by a wife, spoken with preternatural calm, to her fuming husband (not me, a different Ed).
“You know, Ed, I don’t believe a word of that. It’s not that I think you are lying. It’s just that I know you, and I know how difficult it can be for you to tell me that you miss me. When I’m distracted, like this week, you often feel as if you are unimportant to me. I can understand how upsetting that must be for you. But there is no need to put me down or blame my job. You aren’t giving me a chance to care about you when you speak to me that way . . . I’d like to start the conversation over. How about you?” (pp.158-159).
To speak to a self-absorbed person like this might not bring instant repentance, but you might have helped.
I am raising a number of issues and questions in this brief reflection. How do we help self-absorbed people? How do we help their family and remaining friends? And how might we be helped by secular literature? Secular literature is most helpful when its descriptions of difficult-to-understand behaviors are coupled with years of experience and when its practical suggestions come close to the wisdom and love we find in Scripture. With the behaviors that are called narcissistic, we know that the Spirit can change us and teach us more about how to love wisely, and we invite all comers to give their ideas on ways to love.
¹Wendy T. Behary, Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed, Second Edition, New Harbinger, Oakland CA, 2013.
The passage is from Genesis 3:16. The Lord is speaking about the consequences of sin to the woman.
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
The question is, how do you understand this, and how does your interpretation affect your pastoral care?
A common interpretation of the passage suggests that a woman will desire control over her husband, but her husband will resist that control and respond in even more dominating ways of his own. John Piper says this. “When sin has the upper hand in woman, she will desire to overpower or subdue or exploit man. And when sin has the upper hand in man, he will respond in like manner and with his strength subdue her, or rule over her.”¹
My concern is that, with this interpretation, we might make hasty decisions about a woman before we understand her. We would begin with a theory—women are prone to a quest for power and control—and then we would find evidence for our theory, whether it is there or not. So we better be absolutely certain that our theory is true.
The passage, however, is open to different interpretations. The context is that God is identifying the consequences of sin to the serpent, the woman and the man. Both the man and woman will experience trouble with fruitfulness—the man with the ground, the woman in giving birth.
With the man and the serpent, there is one consequence and some explanation. The consequence of Cain’s sin follows the same formula. (Genesis 4:11-12). This would suggest that the woman is receiving only one consequence (trouble in childbirth), rather than two (an additional instinct to dominate). If the section about “your desire” is linked to childbearing, Irving Busenitz suggests the second half of the verse could read like this: “”yet you will still desire [as you did before the Fall, though now tainted by sin] your husband, and he will still rule [as he did before the Fall, though now tainted by sin] over you.”² In other words, contrary to what we might expect, women will not avoid marriage and sexual intimacy even though childbirth is painful and will instead continue to desire both, allowing the earth to be populated.
This interpretation has plenty of supporting evidence. Women do still desire marriage and can go through the most difficult labor and two hours later be open to having yet another child. Men, meanwhile, have a sense that if it were up to us to give birth, there would be no children born at all.
This interpretation does not suggest that there will never be power struggles in marriage. It does suggest that we should not assume that all women want power over their husbands.
²Irving A. Busenitz, “Woman’s desire for man,” Grace Theological Journal 7.2 (1986), 209. https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/01-genesis/text/articles-books/busenitz-gen3-gtj.pdf, p. 209
This question is among those that have been coming to CCEF in advance of our 2018 conference on Scripture.
Given this question, most of us would start with, “Please, tell me more,” or perhaps, “What’s up?” Without knowing the direction of such a dialogue, let’s assume that the person is actually reading Scripture and Scripture seems to be yielding very little.
First thought: This person is reading Scripture, even when Scripture has the same impact as that of an old phone book. What could be more impressive? The person knows where to find water and is drinking. Perhaps he or she hears stories about how others are so emotionally uplifted by Scripture and now guilt is layered on this struggle. The reality, however, is that the normal Christian life can sometimes be a slog, and Scripture is filled with words to an ancient world that are hard to bring into today.
Second thought: The person remembers a time when Scripture was lively. Perhaps his or her reading schedule has taken that turn into the minor prophets, endless lists in Numbers, or inscrutable Levitical laws, and it is time to get into the Gospels for a spiritual breather. But something has changed for this person, and advice about a new reading plan doesn’t capture it. The person is saying, “I feel lifeless, and I continue to feel lifeless when I am in Scripture.”
This brings us back to “Please, say more. What has been different in your life?” I am especially concerned about recent losses—health, relationship, job, death of a loved one, and other events that can leave a long-term mark on us. I wonder about depression, which oftentimes has no apparent reason.
Third thought: How might Scripture give words to this person’s experience? Psalm 42/43 comes to mind.
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise. Why are you cast down, O my soul? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation (Psalm 42:1-5, condensed)
It’s all here. The psalmist wants to be satisfied in the Lord, and remembers the time when the Lord was close, but now life is misery and that former experience feels far from him. It turns out that the person who feels so parched and far away has been unintentionally plagiarizing the experience of the psalmist. Even more, since the psalms are underwritten by the divine psalmist—Jesus himself—could we say that Jesus is a kindred spirit who wrote the psalm before your friend did and, with your friend’s words, he or she is actually being brought into Jesus himself? This is not so much an answer to the riddle of the spiritual dryness and five steps out; it is simply to say that the Lord is closer than we think. He is so close that he is revealing his very heart.
All is not immediately well, but it is a start. Perhaps it might even be accompanied by a hint of life.
These and similar questions about bringing life to Scripture and Scripture to life will be addressed further at the 2018 National Conference. Click here for more information and to register.