The King's Gardeners Ministries
Reverend S. L. Gardner
Spokane Valley, Washington U.S.
- The Issue of Abuse -
How Does an Abused Wife Respond to Her Abuse?
Fear grips the heart of an abused wife who at some level struggles to be loved and wanted. The fear that her husband's abandonment will destroy her coupled with the anger that he is abusing her are two main factors that motivate her external response to being abused. Most responses can be categorized as either passive or vindictive. In many instances, fear prompts a passive response and anger arouses a vindictive response. An abused wife is capable of both, though a passive response is far more common.
The Passive Response. This is the response that tolerates the abuse. It occurs in all three stages of an abusive marriage. A passive response pursues peace at any cost and flees from any kind of confrontation. Many would view a woman responding this way as a "doormat" for her husband to trample. While she may be angry over the way he's abusing her, she cowers at the thought of doing anything that might incur her husband's anger.
She labors to appease her husband and "walks on eggs" so as not to arouse the sleeping giant lest she or her children bear the brunt of his violent rage. Some would interpret this woman's passive response as a way of showing love to her troubled husband. But is she loving well? Is she helping her husband by not confronting his sin? Focusing on her own self-protection is understandable. But facing the possibility of physical risk isn't the greatest danger. Worse would be the prolonged loss of her own honor. Worse would be following a path of self-protection that allows the abuse to continue and her own love to grow cold and weak.
The Vindictive Response. Occasionally, an abused wife will lash out at her husband. Although she's still frightened about many things, there are occasions when she's been pushed far enough for her anger to dictate her response. To some degree, she feels disappointment and seeks to do harm to the man who has cruelly mistreated her. Instead of passively enduring the abuse out of fear, this time she is going to make her husband pay. At times, an abused wife may try to get even with a sarcastic or demeaning comment. She may even try to physically strike back or threaten to seek a divorce.
Quite often, however, an abused wife's revenge is more passive-aggressive. She may let the house go, or make her husband late for church or social engagements, or fail to give him an important phone message. This is her subtle way of getting even and controlling him for a change. The thought, "How can I best love my husband?" is the furthest thing from the mind of a woman who's seeking revenge. And that's a problem.
Peter told us that if we are following Christ's example of suffering, we will not retaliate nor threaten those who have harmed us (1 Pet. 2:23). Instead, we are to entrust ourselves into the hands of "Him who judges justly." Romans 12:17-19 says that revenge is not a weapon that God has placed in the arsenal of the Christian warrior.
There is a better way for a wife to respond to her husband's abuse. This higher path is not easier. It doesn't offer any guarantees of immediate outcome. In some ways it might even increase the risk of loss. But as we've already suggested, there is no easy path for an abused woman. There is no way to play it safe.
The only real choice a woman has is whether she is going to try to seek the security of her own strategies, or whether she is going to place herself in the hands of God while trusting in His presence and in His ability to provide for her, even in the middle of a troubled and chaotic existence.
The Godly Response. There is no better path for an abused woman than the path that bears the footprints of the One who suffered for her sins. For a woman caught in the confusion and chaos of abuse, it is a path that must be taken one step at time. Trustingly and patiently she learns to walk in a way that reveals the heart of God to her husband. Her goal is not merely to survive, but over a period of time to let God develop her own heart even as she lovingly and courageously challenges her husband to be the kind of man God wants him to be.
In 1 Peter 3, Peter described a submissive wife as being a woman of inner beauty, which does not fade with age. She has a soft, gentle heart that she neither hides nor hardens but willingly offers to her husband.
She is not demanding or contentious (v.4).
She is a hopeful woman (v.5) because her hope is not in her husband but in the Lord. Her hope is in her Shepherd, who values the beauty of her heart enough to die for her (1 Pet. 2:25).
Peter told women that they will become daughters of Sarah by faith if they "do what is right and do not give way to fear" (v.6). That statement is critical for a woman to understand if she is going to learn how to be submissive in a godly way. "Do not give way to fear." By this phrase, Peter reminded us that a godly woman will not retreat from the road of obedience because of her fear.
While still being clearly aware of the risks involved, she will put her hope in God and choose to do what is best for her spouse. While still being afraid of his abuse or abandonment, she will conclude, with David, that in spite of all the dangers, "As for me, I trust in You" (Ps. 55:23). Her security will not be in her husband who is unreliable, but in her trustworthy God whose perfect love for her has allowed her to break free from bondage to her fear (1 Jn. 4:18).
"Do what is right." This phrase calls a woman to be devoted to doing what is good for others. Some have labeled abused women as loving their husbands too much. That probably isn't true. It is not likely that they loved too much but that they developed a distorted view of what is good and loving for their mate.
Jesus addressed the issue of doing good when He said, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?" (Lk. 6:9). Note the contrast and the explanation. The contrast: In our relationships with others, either we are on the side of doing good or we are on the side of doing evil. There is no middle ground. A person's heart is revealed by the way he treats others.
The explanation: Doing good means doing what is necessary to save and preserve life. Doing evil means doing what is necessary to kill and destroy life. By implication, a lovingly submissive wife is called to be engaged in doing what she can "to save" and preserve the life of her spouse. This is submitting to (aligning herself under) God's good purposes for him as a man and fulfilling God's design for her as a woman.
Later in Luke 6, Jesus taught the paradoxical truth of loving one's enemies. He used the same word for "do what is right [or good]" when He said: If you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. . . . But love your enemies, do good to them . . . . Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked (vv.33,35).
By implication, a wife is called to do good to her husband even when he is abusive. What does it look like to "do what is right"? Rather than tolerating abuse, a biblically submissive and loving wife will creatively learn to be as shrewd as a snake and as innocent as a dove (Mt. 10:16) in exposing him and letting others know about the destructiveness of his abuse, and to invite him to know the goodness of God's mercy.
Doing good involves a degree of surprise that exposes and disarms the abuser's attempts to control and do harm, while providing him an opportunity to repent and begin to love and lead his wife sacrificially. In doing just that, one woman wisely used a voice-activated tape recorder to capture the barrage of verbal and physical abuse that no one in her church believed she was enduring in her home. Her husband had convinced others in his church that she was the problem. But when the evidence was heard, the truth became abundantly clear and the process of church discipline began (Mt. 18:15-20).
Another woman began to enforce consequences in her relationship with her husband by informing him that if he ever hit her or physically intimidated her again, she was going to report him to the police and press charges. Following through was the hard part. A restraining order, a legal separation, and requiring him to have extensive counseling were all part of respectfully holding him accountable for his actions and inviting him to repent.
There is no guarantee of how a husband will respond to a loving wife who exposes the evil of his abuse. Even Jesus, whose love was perfect, at times aroused hostility from those He loved (Mk. 3:1-6). All too often, the abuser has so hardened his heart that he is unwilling to admit his sin and accept any responsibility for harm caused to others. In such cases, separation may be the only "severe mercy" that can be offered to him. A godly woman does not let her abusive husband off the hook. She makes no excuses for his abuse. Rather, she uses her freedom in Christ to expose the evil of the abuse so that the secret is out and others now know what he has been doing. Her reason for exposing him is not to be vindictive, making him pay for the way he has violated her. Instead, she will be motivated by her loving respect for him because she believes in his potential of becoming the kind of loving man he could be if he submitted to Christ's leadership in his life.
WHAT IF YOU ARE AN ABUSED SPOUSE? If after reading this you recognize that you are living in an abusive marriage, there are some important steps that you need to consider:
1. Admit that you are the victim of spouse abuse. You didn't ask for this. Don't take responsibility for the abuse. Don't pretend it will get better if you just ignore the problem or work harder to pacify your husband.
2. Get to a place of safety. If you are living in a situation of immediate danger in which you fear for your life, go to a friend or family member's house where you can safely call for help. If you don't have anyone you can go to, call a local shelter for abused women in your area.
3. Notify the authorities as soon as possible in the event of an attack. In most states, mandatory arrest laws have recently been passed to help ensure the safety of the victim of domestic violence.
4. Break the silence. If you have been terrorized by an abusive spouse, tell someone you trust about the abuse. But by all means, refuse to keep it quiet any longer. Tell your pastor, an elder, or a church leader. Talk to a counselor. Call a local domestic violence hotline in your area.
Don't stop talking about it until someone begins to listen to you and takes your situation seriously.
Above all, when you feel as if there is no one else to turn to, you have the invitation of the One who suffered and died for you. It is Jesus who said, "Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Mt. 11:28).
Authors Tim Jackson and Jeff Olson are licensed counselors in Michigan and work in the RBC biblical correspondence department.
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The King's Gardeners Ministries is based in Washington State U.S. with all proper Corporate Reports on file with the Secretary of State for Washington U.S. Reverend S. L. Gardner President and CEC.