This is part 1 of a 2 part series: Part 2
I often sit with wives whose husbands have used Scripture as a weapon to control them. Beth was one such woman. When I asked her how her husband, Joe, prays for her, she shared the most recent example. “Last week, he prayed Matthew 6:24 over me, ‘No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.’ He asked God to help me not be so selfish and greedy, and that Jesus would save me from serving the wrong master. He pled with God to watch over me because I cannot be trusted.” Through her tears, she continued. “He prayed that my inability to control myself means that I do not serve God and God would be right to cast me out of his kingdom. He pled with God to grant him the ability to tolerate what God barely can.” After more conversation, I learned this was how Beth’s husband—an elder at their church—responded to her overspending on groceries for a family of nine by $6.
After years of having Scripture prayed over her in this way, it was nearly impossible for Beth to open her Bible without believing that God condemned her, just as her husband insinuated. She was wrecked by this. Praying had become near impossible. Worse, she began to confuse the words of her abuser with what God said about her. She came to believe she was unworthy of the Lord and his care.
When husbands use Scripture to control and criticize, they are using it in the exact opposite way God intends. God calls husbands to use Scripture in a sanctifying way that lifts shame.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 5:25–27)
Husbands are to bring their wives the Word in such a way that she knows that Jesus cherishes her as his radiant bride. She is one whom Jesus loves and sacrificed himself for.
But when religious teachings are used to shame and highlight failure and guilt, people feel cut off from the reality that Jesus’ sacrifice united them to him and demonstrated just how much God values us. Wives degraded by harsh teaching or rebukes are left without hope and grace. They come to believe they are worthless, because the focus remains on them and their failures, and not on what Jesus has done. It sets into motion all types of distortions.
Jesus has a stern warning for those who preach but do not practice, for those who tie up heavy loads and place them on others’ shoulders, but who will not lift a finger to help bear them. In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces seven denunciations against those that add oppressive burdens. Jesus’ words are harsh because there is so much at stake. Those who followed the Pharisees and scribes were burdened with the wrong things, and this kept them from following God. Like Beth, so much of what was spoken to them was in direct contradiction of God’s actual Word.
Jesus desired that people would come to know God and be reconciled to him. The Pharisees created a barrier to that. Jesus’ denunciations make it clear that he stands against what they are doing. He proclaims seven deep griefs that breathe life into sufferers as they see him rebuke the treatment that they experienced. He is clear in calling out what is wrong.
Here, I want to focus on Jesus’ words that showcase the serious harm Pharisees and scribes do to those they are called to care for. This will help us better understand the wounds of marital spiritual abuse. Jesus says that the Pharisees:
- Shut up the kingdom
- Steal from the vulnerable
- Lead their converts on the wrong path
- Make them children of hell, meaning they are converting them to an untrue religion, preaching performance over relationship with the Lord (v.15)
- Make false and deceptive oaths, which destroy relationship and trust (16–22)
- Are obsessed with trivialities while neglecting the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness—which leaves people vulnerable
- Are full of greed and self-indulgence, taking advantage of those they are supposed to care for
- Persecute those they are called to shepherd.
To summarize, the spiritually oppressive Pharisees were leading others away from God. Their guilt and shame-filled words inflicted tremendous damage. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees so strongly because his heart is broken for them. We, too, should be heartbroken when we encounter such damage.
When we are seeking to help those who have been spiritually abused in marriage, we need to be aware of the damage, and especially attuned to the specific harm that has occurred in a victim’s relationship with the Lord. We need to be aware of and sensitive to the wounds people carry so that we do not do more harm when we move in to help.
Think about a wounded child. Children express fear as you move in to help. It usually sounds like. “Don’t touch, don’t touch; it’s gonna hurt, mommy. No!” Your child would rather conceal her wound and cry then present it for mending. She instinctively knows it is going to hurt if you touch it. Or consider a burn victim. You do not even have to touch his wounds to cause him more pain; you need only walk too close to create a painful breeze. Spiritual wounds are similar. When we get close, when we poke around a person’s story, and even when we use Scripture, it can cause more pain. Even our good intentions and faith-filled words can hurt victims deeply.
As we move in to help, the goal is to help victims see Jesus accurately and to help repair their relationship with him. The challenging part is how to work toward that goal in effective ways. The process needs to be just as redemptive as the goal.
So what should the process look like? We will look at specifics ways to restore wounded hearts to Scripture in part 2 of this two-part blog series.
This is part one of a two part series: Part 2