God-talk and violence – physical, sexual, mental, or spiritual – have mixed for centuries. Sadly that same mixture shows up in even “Christian” homes. Let’s agree that abuse of any kind is not what God wanted when He created marriage. But in our broken world too many face the reality that their “Christian” spouse is abusive. What then?
It may seem easy to look on from the outside and say, “God hates divorce, so deal with it.” Or, “Abuse is wrong. Just leave.” But for the person feeling stuck in such a hurtful marriage it’s never really that simple. Shame and guilt are heavy – sometimes almost heavy enough to take you out. You ask yourself questions like, “Can’t prayer fix this?” “What’s wrong with me that I can’t make this work?” “Doesn’t Jesus expect me to forgive?”
Yes, God can – and does – resurrect dead things and turn impossible situations into glorious displays of His grace. Nothing is too hard for Him.
But that – in part – depends on human choices – yours, and your spouse’s. God does not control your spouse’s free will, and you cannot control it either.
God hates divorce not because of some legalistic hierarchy of sin and righteousness, but because it hurts His children. Scripture makes clear that in our broken world there are times marriages are not saved. And God is neither surprised nor absent in your marriage dilemma.
So what do you do if your spouse is a Christian and abusive? Your emotions are certainly heavy and complicated. But putting emotions aside for a moment, here are some important things to know.
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Your spouse has hurt you. Guaranteed. If you haven’t been hurt by your spouse, you either got married five minutes ago (and you’re not reading this!) or you’re lying. There is absolutely no way you can connect your life that closely with another human being and not get hurt. The question now is, how can you forgive your spouse when they have hurt you?
When you hear the word forgiveness in the context of marriage you likely have one of two reactions.
- You cannot imagine forgiving your spouse for what they’ve done. You respond to your spouse with the kind of treatment you believe their shortcomings deserve. You internally keep score, and feel justified in your less-than-loving behavior because of what your spouse has done to you. You may manipulate and control, using your spouse’s weakness as a weapon to “keep them in line.”
- OR You are resigned to suffering as you “forgive.” You feel somehow entitled to your misery because of how your spouse has treated you. You’re determined to follow Jesus’ command to forgive, and that means you’ve chosen to “take it.” Whether the offense is small or large, current or long past, you see your wounds as yours to bear. You think you’re loving your spouse when you put up with their bad behavior.
Neither of those choices is forgiveness. You know deciding to wound your spouse in return for their wrongdoing is not forgiveness. But neither is the second choice – becoming resigned to suffering. Neither option gives any hope for restoration of your relationship.
Forgiveness is This, not That
Forgiveness is not an easy thing to learn, but once you do it opens the door to amazing freedom, connection, and love. I had to learn about forgiveness – as I believe everyone does – the hard way. Thankfully I had learned enough about forgiveness before I got married to make our marriage happy, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. I believe you can learn how to forgive now – even if you’re in the middle of a miserable marriage.
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Marriage is supposed to be forever! When you said “I do” you looked forward to joining your lives, building your family, and probably growing old together. And then something happens. Your spouse leaves, and you can’t let go.
Here’s part of a message Gerry (not her real name) wrote to me recently: “I am unable to let go of my husband. He left me a few years ago for another woman. He still relates cordially with me and our kids, but it’s so painful to watch him go home to another woman. It hurts. I desire to have him back but he seems disinterested. I am sexually starved and feel so empty and worthless. I don’t know how to cope.”
It’s difficult to describe the trauma that happens when your relationship breaks apart, and your former spouse acts as if there was never anything between you. In some ways it’s more painful than if that person had died. They’re still out there, but they’re not with you. You can’t get rid of the images in your mind – either real or imagined. The what-if’s won’t leave you alone.
A marriage unites two people together, and there’s no way to separate them from one another without significantly tearing your soul in shreds. God hates divorce not because of some arbitrary directive from on high, but because of the way in which it hurts his children. And it’s especially painful when it appears your former spouse is doing great even though you’re in agony.
It’s bad enough to have to learn how to live single again after being married. But Gerry talked about something much deeper.
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Many in the popular media seem to relish exposing “skeletons in the closet” whenever an individual or a group that claims to be Christian does something bad. “Hypocrite!” they shout. “Why do you think you can judge others when you are doing worse things yourselves?” A recent media circus has made political fodder of a Christian family’s pain, and that’s wrong.
But even though the circus is wrong, it’s normal and understandable. This is only one of the more recent scandals involving those who claim the name of Christ. Those who would rather continue living without any restraint on their lifestyle love to demonize those who fail to live up to the standards they themselves portray as right. “Bad” people feel justified in their badness when good people do bad things too. And talk of “forgiveness” and “bad choices” doesn’t address the real issues.
The media will not be silenced when Christians engage in bad behavior involving sex, lies, or money. While such publicity may be personally excruciating and publically damaging to the name of Christ, I want to look deeper. While there are real benefits to adopting an openly Christian lifestyle, why are the lives of many who claim Christianity no better than others?
The data is not all negative, but there’s plenty of evidence to say that on many fronts Christians are behaving badly all too often:
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Denominations. Cultures. Traditional vs. contemporary. Grace vs. good works. Community. Just love everyone. What is Christianity really about anyway?
Controversy has been a part of Christianity ever since Jesus ascended back to heaven. It took some time for Jewish and Gentile believers to work through what was essential and what wasn’t. Persecution pressed the believers to carry the good news farther and farther until the then-known world was turned upside down. (Acts 17:6) Even so, nothing could stop them.
What was it about having been with Jesus that so changed the first believers? What was it that so burned in their souls? What was it that continued to compel the gospel forward in the face of both internal conflict and external opposition?
If you had to sum up Christianity in one word, what would it be?
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