This is part 2 of a 2 part series: Part 1

In the first blog, we looked at the damage done to wives whose husbands use Scripture to control and criticize them. This second installment focuses on how to help.

Spiritual abuse occurs when an oppressor establishes control and domination by using Scripture, doctrine, or their leadership role as a weapon. If a husband exhibits control-oriented leadership by lording his power, demanding submission, or using Scripture in daily life or during conflict to shame and punish, then these are signs of spiritual abuse.

When a spiritual abuser twists Scripture to attack his spouse, the damage can feel as though it comes from God himself. Even though the Scripture is out of context, distorted, and weaponized, it can seem as if God is the one doing the shaming. If the abuse comes in the form of Bible verses or doctrine, the oppressed do not usually know that what they are being told is wrong. This makes it challenging for victims to identify the damage and for us to help them distinguish the true gospel from the lies that they have been told. So we must proceed carefully in order to do this well. 

How can we invite weary, burden-filled people to be replenished when their experience of Scripture has been so negative? The following list will help you think through this question.

Listen to learn

First, take the time to know the full extent of the damage. Listen for the exact words and verses that have perforated her heart and stuck with her. You do not want to make the mistake of using the same verses and concepts. When you are speaking to someone who has been spiritually abused, be aware of how the person hears or interprets certain words and terms. Learn how she will hear you before you speak. The less you talk during the initial disclosure, the more you will learn about what the person has been told and believes. It will be tempting to start rectifying false interpretations of Scripture. But it is essential that the person tells the whole story so you can gain a picture of what lies have been heard and adopted.

Seek to know:

  1. What specific teachings or passages have been used to harm or control
  2. What it is like to carry that wound 
  3. How the wounds shape the person’s experience of:    
  • Christians
  • Church
  • Marriage
  • People in authority
  • The Bible
  • God

Knowing a victim’s story, her context, the particular wounds, and how she engages with her community and Scripture will help you as you seek to care for her.

Carefully address distortions 

Second, be aware that victims lack clarity. As you unearth the abuses, you will quickly realize the distortions and grasp how passages were misapplied. You will have clarity on what is wrong with what the abuser said because your minds and consciences were not targeted. You are removed and so have a different perspective. This will not be her experience. She is in the fog of it. She might know something is off, or she might wholeheartedly believe what the abuser said about her and about the Lord. Please keep in mind that appealing to the Bible at this juncture might make things temporarily worse.

Sufferers are prone to hear what they have been conditioned to believe and to import all of the distortions into the passage that we share with them. This process is complex because truth has been twisted and corrupted into lies. Satan did this in the garden. He twisted and corrupted God’s good words. He was able to obscure the truth and do great harm by doing so.

Tend to a wounded heart. Don’t debate.

Third, do not debate or lecture victims. What has happened is wrong, and while you can use the Bible to get at what is true, this is not a battle over correct theological interpretations. We must pursue wounded hearts the way Jesus pursues hearts—gently and patiently. He asks questions. Like Jesus, draw the wounded out. Eventually you will get to restorative teaching but, first, you must know and care for the person. 

One woman, Rebekah, told me that she went to her pastor for help when her son had a 104-degree fever. Her husband had forbidden her to take her baby to the doctor. The pastor said, “You must obey your husband. Your child will only be healed if you obey him.” He told her that God would judge her obedience, and if her child died, it would be because she had failed to honor her husband. The way that the husband and pastor applied 1 Peter 3:1 is out of balance and distorted. However, she was in a marriage and a church culture where leaders perpetually reinforced that distorted truth. She could not untangle it biblically, just instinctively. My conversations with her would have been unfruitful if I quickly sought to reinterpret and explain 1 Peter 3 for her.

Allow for expressions of deep grief

Fourth, it is critical that victims express their wounds. You need to hear the full cries of her heart. You will potentially unearth anger, frustration, fear, and many other messy and confusing emotions. You do not need to have the answers; you simply need to help her speak about and lament over the excessive spiritual burdens she carries and the damage it has done.

Be prepared that victims may not be able to recognize the true, loving God. It is likely that the abuses she endured in her human relationships have misrepresented who God is and how he relates to her. They may have only a twisted view of God and think of him as a harsh and unforgiving judge.

Extend Jesus’ invitation to rest

Fifth, invite her to rest. Jesus invites the weary and burdened to come to him and find rest (Matt 11:28). This invitation recalls Jeremiah 31:25: “For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.” The weary struggle long and toil hard. The heavy-laden stagger under excessive burdens. In Matthew 11, Jesus speaks tenderly to people suffering from the overburdening words and misapplication of the law and Scripture by Israel’s leaders. We can draw a comparison here for those who are suffering in spiritually oppressive marriages. Jesus invites them to find rest in him because he is different. He is the one who replenishes souls by fulfilling the law so that they can be unburdened and at peace with God. It is a rest based solely on what Jesus has done. Jesus then invites them to take on his yoke. This is not the yoke of the Mosaic Law but the yoke of learning about him—or as Colossians 2 states, walking in him, being built into him, and grafted into him after he has done all the work.

Showcase Jesus’ gentleness

Sixth, showcase Jesus’ gentleness. Jesus deals gently with the wounded. He is a different sort of master. Throughout the gospels, we see how he is burdened by his people’s suffering. He, unlike oppressors, is not demanding. He is a burden lifter. Drawing people into seeing the gentleness of Jesus helps restore their understanding of him. It is not the religion or the person that they have previously experienced; it is a fundamentally different encounter with the Lord than they have had before.

Here is an additional portrayal of Jesus’ gentleness that can bless victims. As Jesus is on the cross and in his darkest hour—facing death, experiencing prolonged physical pain, and separation from God—his focus was on the people around him. He sees his mother and asks John to care for her. He sees and shows concern for those responsible for his death, uttering “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He promises salvation for the repentant thief on the cross.

Not only did he care for others, but we also see how Jesus chose to use his power. Jesus had massive strength at his disposal, but he is restrained. He knew that he must die to bring salvation. He put aside his strength and his power. He was meek—for the benefit of the weak. He demonstrates he is not a domineering tyrant, but a gentle King. Here again, is a picture that is the complete opposite of oppressors who misuse power and who are unwilling to sacrifice themselves to lift up others.

Embody Jesus’ gentleness

Finally, how can we capture the surprising gentleness of Jesus for those who do not see him through that lens? It is first expressed by how we deal with the wounded. It is not enough to teach the wounded about Jesus’s gentleness; we are called to embody Scripture for these tender souls. The teachings of Paul capture his pleas to represent Jesus accurately (Gal 4:1; 1 Cor 4:21; 2 Cor 10:1). We have to incarnate his gentleness to give them a taste of the gentle Healer.

Paul tells Timothy to gently instruct even those who oppose him (2 Tim 2:25). We are called to exude tenderness. Be prepared that there will be times when you fail to do this as you walk with victims. When that happens, let her tell you that you hurt her, or inadvertently shamed her, or moved too fast, or pushed too hard, or sounded preachy. This is hard, but critical! These women have been hurt by oppressive people who lack humbleness. We need to behave and respond in sharp contrast. Oppressors do not allow correction, so we should showcase Jesus better by routinely inviting them to share how we have hurt them or how we and others have missed their hearts. We, like Paul, need to lead with our need of Jesus. We are with them, not above them. We, too, are also in great need of a gentle Savior.

It is my prayer that as you seek to love those who have been spiritually oppressed, they will come to know Jesus as he truly is.

This is part two of a two part series: Part 1