A Domestic Abuse Primer
This has been an awful week for you, I know. Learning about the abuse that your friend has endured for well over a decade (which you also suspected for just as long, but could never prove) is a burden you feel you cannot bear. Your heart is so heavy; it feels like it’s being crushed under the weight of the load. At the same time, you feel relieved and grateful that God has finally given your friend the courage to seek refuge for herself and her children. With such a mixture of anger and grief, gratitude and relief, you’re not sure what to think or say. But you do know you should pray, and pray you will. For domestic abuse is so ugly in all its depraved forms, but the Lord of mercy stands ready to intercede—to help the victim, and to save or judge the abuser…eventually.
Abuse in families who profess Christ is grievously more prevalent than most church-goers know, or admit. Therefore, I want to introduce you to a little book that will help you minister to your friend. It’s called HELP! Someone I Love Has Been Abused, written by my friend and fellow minister of the gospel, Jim Newheiser. Here’s a brief summary of the second chapter, A Biblical Understanding of Abuse.
While the word “abuse” is rarely used in the Bible, Scripture contains examples of victims of abuse and thoroughly addresses the spiritual issues behind abuse. Joseph, the son of Jacob, was physically and emotionally abused by his brothers, who threw him into a pit to starve to death and then sold him as a slave (Genesis 37:18–28). In the days of the judges, the sexual assault and murder of a woman led to a civil war in Israel (Judges 19:25–ch. 20). Jesus was the victim of horrible verbal and physical abuse leading up to his death (Matthew 27:39), which is one reason why he is able to sympathize with all who have been abused (Hebrews 2:18; 4:15). It is important that we define “abuse” biblically. Not everything which the world labels “abusive” is evil. For example, some so-called parenting experts claim that all spanking of children is abusive, but the Bible authorizes parents to physically chastise their children. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15). However, spanking can become abusive when an out-of-control parent punishes in vengeful anger and causes injury to the child (Proverbs 25:28; Romans 12:19). [You will find two resources at the end of this blog post.]
Abuse Can Be Hard to Prove
While all claims of abuse must be taken seriously, accusations of abuse can be difficult to sort out when there are no objective eyewitnesses to corroborate conflicting accounts. Alleged victims may exaggerate or distort the extent of the abuse. In addition to protecting victims from abuse, we must also protect people from being falsely accused. We cannot treat someone as guilty without adequate proof (Deuteronomy 19:15; 17:6).
Don’t Rush to Judgment
Before reaching conclusions we must carefully investigate the facts and hear from all sides. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17; see also 18:13, 15). Appearances can be deceiving.
Abuse Is Sin
It is important to use biblical language and texts as we seek to understand abuse. Abuse is sin. Jesus labels even verbal abuse as murderous: You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:21–22; see also Ephesians 4:29; Proverbs 11:9)
Why Do People Abuse?
The Bible also explains why people abuse: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” (James 4:1–2). People abuse because they want something so badly that they are willing to kill (verbally or physically) if they don’t get it. A desire becomes sinful when we want something so badly that we are willing to hurt others when we don’t get it. A biblical label for this kind of desire is “idolatry,” which means putting anything or anyone above God in our affections.
Abusers Have False Beliefs
Abusers believe that they have certain rights, including the right to be angry (and to express their anger) when those rights are violated. In the moment when they are sinfully venting their anger they believe they are acting justly, giving the victim what he or she deserves for certain wrongdoings. By doing this the abuser is (in his or her mind) playing God, taking righteous vengeance upon those who have wronged him or her (Romans 12:19). Instead the abuser should realize that the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:20)…. Such sins, however, are not limited to those who are guilty of domestic violence. Each of us will be tempted to become angry and vengeful when others fail to meet our expectations. We may choose to express our anger in more socially acceptable ways such as silent, sullen bitterness, but the root of the sin is the same.
Characteristics of Abusers
Abusers lack the fruit of the Holy Spirit, especially self-control (see Galatians 5:22). “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). They tend to be proud and self-centered, rather than considering others more important than themselves (Philippians 2:3–4) and sacrificially loving others (Ephesians 5:25–33). While abusers may profess remorse over their behavior, their sorrow is often a worldly sorrow that falls short of the repentance that is characteristic of true salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Cycles of Abuse
It has been observed that abuse typically follows a cycle:
- Build-up stage. Tension builds as the abuser becomes increasingly irritable, seething with anger.
- Blow-up stage. The abuser loses control and verbally or physically assaults his or her victim(s).
- Remorse stage. The abuser may appear to be deeply troubled by what he or she has done, even crying and pleading for forgiveness.
- Build-up stage. Once the crisis of the blowup stage has ended and life has returned to “normal,” tensions start to rise again.
By God’s grace the cycle of abuse can be broken, either as the abuser is humbled and broken before God, or as the victim is helped to find safety.
[The above post is excerpted from HELP! Someone I Love Has Been Abused by Jim Newheiser. For instruction on the difference between abuse and appropriate child discipline, see HELP! My Toddler Rules the House and Shepherding a Child’s Heart.]