Does God Want Me to Stay in an Abusive Marriage?

By Danni Moss
Copyright protected, all rights reserved

This question was asked here and I know the person who asked it is one voice out of many, many more who are wondering the same thing. The answer is both simple and complex.

For the simple answer, God does not want you to remain in an abusive marriage. But before you run out the door, be sure you read the complex part of the answer, too.

Jesus stated the purpose of His coming in Luke 4: 18,19.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

Jesus came for the purpose of healing the brokenhearted, delivering captives, and liberating those who are bruised. That perfectly describes the condition of someone who is being abused in their marriage. Jesus came to rescue people from abusive relationships!

OK, I just heard a whole bunch of “wait a minute…” voices from readers. 😉 Go with me here a minute. The church has reduced Jesus’ purpose to saving souls from eternal damnation. Do you see that in this verse? Certainly it could be considered to be part of Jesus’ stated Luke 4 mission. But why do we limit Jesus’ purpose to less than what the Word plainly states?

Nowhere in the Word is there a place where God applauds or supports abuse. In fact, abuse is inherently opposite to God’s nature. If believers are made new creatures in Christ and partakers in His nature, how can we possible justify or excuse abusive behavior by someone bearing the name “Christian?”

If we assume an abusive spouse is not a believer (which may, in fact, be supportable by Scripture) is a Christian abused partner expected by God to remain in that abusive relationship? The answer is still no. A Christian does not enable another person to continue in sin. By remaining in an abusive marriage, a Christian sends the message that the abusive behavior is acceptable – and affirms the abusers sin.

Here comes the complex part, however. God does not want you to remain in an abusive marriage. But there is also a process for addressing the abuse. If there is physical violence, even just occasionally, an abused spouse needs to call local domestic violence support and carefully, but quickly, get outside the home into a safe place. In this situation, further Biblical steps need to occur from a position outside the same home as the abuser. If there is not physical danger, all but the final step of dealing with an abusive spouse can take place without physical separation.

So what are the steps to dealing with an abusive spouse?

First, I think we are all called to bring every detail of our lives to God for His insight and timing. Almost without exception (I’d say without exception but maybe there could be one) we need to clean our own slates first. As abused spouses we need to maintain first an attitude of, “Lord, change me.” God uses our difficult circumstances to teach us things we would not learn otherwise. So we must appreciate God’s process, even in exposing our own places that need to be refined and conforming us to the image of Christ while we are dealing with an abusive spouse.

Second, we have to maintain a humble spirit, remembering that God loves us all equally. It is easy to get a prideful and judgmental spirit. We have to remember that every person is created in the image of God, even this abuser, and so is worthy of basic human respect. Gal. 6:1 says,

Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.

Third, Matthew 18:15-17 outlines a very specific process for dealing with an offender, which would include marital abuse.

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

So we must first learn how to respectfully address the abuse within our marriage and establish correct boundaries. This is a learning process that can take months.

If the abusive spouse does not change when confronted privately, the abused spouse is to take a couple witnesses to confront the abuser again. These witnesses should be people the abuser respects and that the abused spouse can trust. At this point, I believe professional counseling is in order. A professional counselor can, in fact, be that witness. Another of the witnesses should be pastoral church leadership. This can be problematic because pastors don’t know how to address abuse correctly. But at least give the church the opportunity to do the right thing.

If abuse continues, the Word says the issue should be told to the church. This step is almost impossible to fulfill in the modern church. Pastors generally won’t allow it because they do not understand the Word on the subject. So, the abused spouse should attempt to press the pastor to allow this step, but if the pastor refuses, the abused spouse may need to move on to the final step.

The final step is removal from the relationship. Matthew 18 says to separate from the unrepentant offender. I Tim. 5:8 says a man who does not provide for his family (provision = financial, spiritual, emotional protection and leadership) has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. God calls an unrepentant abusive spouse an unbeliever. That is not my judgment; it is God’s. I Cor. 5:11 says believers are not to associate with, are not even to eat with, a person who is verbally abusive (“railer”). And I Cor. 7:13-15 says that if an unbelieving spouse removes (walks away from the marriage covenant – which can include staying in the house but leaving the relationship) himself from the marriage, the believing wife is to let him go. It may seem backwards for the believing wife to leave – but we have to remember that the “leaving” happens when a spouse does violence to his house (Mal. 2:13-16). The believing wife who removes to safety is not the one who abandoned the relationship.

Some will say removal from the relationship should be for an open-ended period of separation (which could be permanent if there is no repentance); others recommend divorce. I recommend you have a relationship with God whereby you allow Him to direct you because there is not a universal answer at this point. It may very well be that the only way to secure safe custody of children and spousal support for those children is through divorce. This is not out of line. And if the abusive spouse chooses to remarry that will certainly be the final nail in the door to possibility of reconciliation – a choice made by the abuser, not the victim of abuse who took the necessary, and Biblically supported, steps to address an abusive spouse.

God offers hope, not a lifetime sentence, to abuse victims. If you are in an abusive marriage you need to 1) get support for yourself that will stand by you throughout, 2) be willing to take the time to work through the Biblical process, and 3) stay on your face with God throughout the process, asking Him to change you. As hard as it is, this can be the fire that makes you into the person God desires you to be. It is hard and seems far too long in the process, but God is faithful and He does work all things together for good for those who love Him.

147 Responses

  1. The LORD has given you good and Godly insight and wisdom Danni. I appreciate what you shared. Thanks.

  2. Dear Barb,
    Thank you so much for your insight and advice. I don’t know what happened but I guess I was getting caught up in the web and didn’t even realize it. I separated from her father when she was eight years old and even though I had custody of her I was pushed out of the way because he was able to out plan and out schedule me in regards to her. He got her a cell phone when she was in junior high and arranged all of his visitation with her through that. He made arrangement to take her to his church on Sundays and Wednesday for youth group. If I protested she would get upset with me even though in later years she began to figure out a lot of this was done to control her and manipulate her. After all who can argue with a father that just wants to take his little girl to church and out to dinner once a week? He has two grown sons from two other marriages and one twenty four year old son with me; none of whom can get along with him.Our daughter is the only one that has jumped through the hoops and been such an overachiever that for a long time she was his trophy child. As she has gotten older and started becoming her own person with her own likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses she starting sharing things once in awhile about some of the things he says and does. But she gets upset if I try to tell her what he is doing to her. She seems confused about what is really going on and still tries to please him and tells me she feels guilty if she doesn’t go to church with him or do something he wants her to do. He began calling and yelling at her about a week after graduation because she did not have her thank you cards done and in the mail. He would never give her any strokes for being a cheerleader ( because all cheerleaders are easy and sleep with the football team he told her). He came to one of her basketball games when she was cheerleading and she ran up to him and said “Oh you came to my game!” and he said “Not to see you, to watch the game.” (She wasn’t sure whether he was kidding or not) He has told her she needs to focus more on academics and not so much on sports. (she’s on the honor roll) She said she has asked him if she is pretty and he told her she needs to be more humble and not go around asking people to tell her things like that.

    I guess my fear is that my daughter will end up like me and began to see herself the way that he sees her. I was so glad that I got her out so she wouldn’t have to grow up in an abusive home like her brothers did and in many ways I see the fruit of that. But because she doesn’t know how abusive he was I’m afraid he’s damaging her subtly without her knowing its him and assuming there is something wrong with her. My sons have issues with him because they know who he is and what he did when they were growing up. She has issues with him because she doesn’t know who he is and didn’t grow up with him
    . When he got remarried about two years ago he quit paying for her cell phone and didn’t bother her as much to go to church with him. He is very upset with her that she is going to the youth group where I attend though. He is very shame based and attends a church that is very legalistic and authoritarian. She doesn’t like to go there any more because she says the pastor is always preaching sermons about how bad the younger generation is.

    I guess the part that is hard for me is that sometimes she sees it and tells me about it and I assume that because she is starting to catch on she is ready to hear my perspective on it but I think that is where I go wrong. I need to take your advice Barb and just be willing to listen and then be sensitive to how much information she wants to hear. It seems like I am walking an emotional tightrope with her. In some ways I think you are right she has adopted some of her fathers behaviors and I will have to be more on guard and not fall into the trap being laid for me. Wish me luck!

    • Yeah, that emotional tightrope is a good image. It’s so hard know what to say or not say, when a child is sometimes ‘awake’ to the ploys of the abuser, and sometimes unawake. Being unawake is like living in a fog.

      My daughter ping-ponged between love of him and anger at him for quite some time, during the period when her head was getting straightened out and her thinking recalibrated.

      For months after I withheld visitation, she’d say, “When can I see Daddy again? I miss him!” and then half an hour later she’d cry, “How could he have treated me so badly? Why did he hurt me?”

      But woe betide me if I reminded her of how he had hurt her, when she was in the “missing him” frame of mind!
      Gentle empathic rephrasing of what she had just said was the only safe way to proceed at such times.

      I had to let God untangle her, and be REALLY sensitive to what I could or shouldn’t say at any given moment. It took a lot of concentration, and sensing the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

      It was almost like living with two different people.

  3. Thanks again Barbara for bringing me back to the place I need to be. For a long time I let my daughter have the relationship with her father that she wanted to have and that seemed to work until he remarried and she was no longer his primary focus. Also I think when she reached a certain age and began to individuate he couldn’t handle that because he was no longer in complete control. Anyway I guess what I am trying to say is that when he started to emotionally abuse her like he did the other kids I felt like I was living the nightmare all over again and I was determined that he wasn’t going to do that to another one of my children. But the circumstances are not the same and I need to remember that. Thanks for reminding me.

    Also I have a lot of unfinished business that I need to work through regarding my relationship with God and the church that I didn’t have the last time I went through this. It is hard to stay in a marriage for so long hoping things will change(all the while being told that you must like it otherwise you would leave) and then when you get the courage to finally stand up to the abuse and separate you find that you are labeled as one who could not remain faithful to your marriage vows and trust God to change your marriage. Had I gone on to remarry someone that brought healing into my life I think I would have recovered from all of that but it feels like I have gone from the frying pan into the fire and I don’t know where God is in any of this anymore. I feel paralyzed to do anything about my situation this time because I don’t trust myself to hear from God.(and even if I did I don’t know if I have the strength or the courage to do anything. I feel empty) I can’t imagine God saving me from an abusive marriage and then leading me to do the same thing again. But that is what happened if I retrace my decisions that I was making at the time. Am I so defective that I can’t hear from God?

    • Mary,

      It is not that you are so defective that you can’t hear from God. It is a combination of the fact that our own paradigms of reality affect what we think we are hearing from God and that the church is teaching some things about God that aren’t completely accurate.

      Our own paradigms are probably the biggest thing that sabotages us. Those of us who marry into abuse almost always – I’d say always but there is always the rare exception to the rule – have some underlying wrong beliefs about ourselves, marriage, relationships, and even God that are so unconscious we are not aware they influence us. If we were raised in abuse in any way – not necessarily overt abuse – we definitely have some foundation problems we are not aware of.

      Then when we take that into the arena of church, one or both of two things happens. One is that we do not accurately understand the truth because our paradigms color our understanding – for instance, our understanding of God’s love. How can we understand God’s love for us when we have never experienced real love? And we may think we have experienced real love and not understand that what we think is real love is not. If we were raised in an environment where our acceptance was intrinsically tied to our performance, we will see God as having that same standard toward us – which is not true and literally twists everything else around backwards. These are just a couple examples.

      The other thing that can happen in the church is that it may actively teach wrong theology about God, God’s love, the gospel, etc. — all of which will be detrimental to a greater or lesser extent as applied to the issue of abuse. Here again, if we have been raised in an abusive environment (or been in one for years), a church which teaches this type of wrong theology or is even straight-out spiritually abusive will feel right and comfortable to us. This is the type of church we are likely to instinctively choose, just as surely as we are likely to instinctively choose to marry an abuser.

      But the truth us that God is none of these things. And while you may think God told you to marry that person who was an abuser, He didn’t. He couldn’t have; it would be a violation of His character and nature. But we can misunderstand. And God is bigger than that. It doesn’t mean God failed; it just means we have more to learn about God — which is an awesome thing to know! That means there are unplumbed depths to the goodness, kindness and love of God, which you have yet to explore. And it means we can still trust Him — because without that we have nothing.

      Empty is a good place to start. And baby steps are just fine. Is the Word true? That’s the first thing you have to ask yourself. And God knows where you are – Ps. 103:8-14 says:

      The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.

      He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. [Note: in fact, under the New Covenant we are not under God’s wrath. The New Testament says it is being held until the end of time for those who reject Jesus. God is not mad at you and He’s not going to get mad at you.]

      He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.

      For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.

      As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.

      Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.

      For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.

      He knows your frame; He remembers that you are but dust. He knows and understands every emotion, every fear, every hurt you are feeling. And He’s not mad.

      The Holy Spirit has been promised to be our comforter and our counselor (read John 13-17). Is the Word true? Do those words actually mean what they say? Do you need comfort? Do need guidance and direction? Is the Word true? (Yes, I know I said that three times now; it was on purpose.) God can be trusted and He will not be mad at you, remembering your frame, when you ask Him to show you unmistakeable how to truly hear His voice.

      I would even recommend very specifically asking Him to expose and overturn your paradigms of belief that are hindering you from knowing Him as He really is. He will do it — that is my own testimony. He will do it. Not all in a day; not even all in a year. He is a gentle healer. So He can be trusted to deconstruct and reconstruct as carefully and as tenderly as it is possible to do with such a radical work, taking as long as necessary to do it. And all you have to trust with is this one moment at a time.

      Hebrews 11:6 …he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

      Is the Word true?

      — Danni

    • Mary,

      Another thought regarding believing God led you to marry an abuser, I have to say I fully believed God led me to marry my husband, too. I was completely devoted to God and seeking God as fully as I knew to do. I prayed about it alot and specifically prayed many times that if it wasn’t God’s will, God would show me. Everything I knew about God and obedience and the Word said I was supposed to marry my husband. And God knows I was very willing to lay it down if He didn’t want me to do it.

      So after the nightmare started, and then would never end, I had these thoughts, too. Eventually I came to realized that God did try to let me know – but my paradigms made it impossible for me to see and understand what He was saying. My theology, which was mistaken, said I should marry him – but God Himself did not. And He cannot and will not interfere with the authority He has delegated to us on this earth. What He will do, because His grace and mercy are everlasting and eternally long-suffering, is walk with us through what happens next and redeem us when we realize things are amiss.

      If you do not see those hindsight warning signs yet, that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. It just means that your inaccurate paradigms of reality haven’t been overturned yet. And God can fix that, over time.

      — Danni

    • I have amplified on my comments here with a stand-alone piece called How Can I Trust God After Marriage to a “Christian” Abuser? I am also working on some additional material to go with it, which hopefully I will put up in parts over the next few days. No promises! But I’m working on it.

      — Danni

  4. Danni
    I picked up the book “Why Does He Do That” by Lundy Bancroft this weekend. So far it looks like a lot of my paradigms will be changing as I read it. I’m not to sure what to do about my theology though! I would love to send a copy to the pastors and counselors that counseled me during my former and current marriage. I think they need it more than I do!

    • I remember having just the same feeling about wanting my church leaders/counsellors to read Patricia Adams “Verbally Abusive Relationship: and Marie Fortune’s book when I found them not long after my final separation. Then never showed any interest.

      I only read Bancroft recently and yes, he’s amazingly wise and straight talking. I wish every single person would read his book.

  5. Honestly, Lundy Bancroft’s book was the only book of the many I read that taught me to recognize my husband’s manipulations for what they were (and are). Patricia Evans’ books/paradigm kept me locked in a place of compassion toward my husband, which together with my faith (love your neighbor as yourself) imprisoned me in repeated failed attempts to bring healing to my husband. Bancroft gave me the gift of anger, which has been extraordinarily liberating.

  6. Well said, Sherri!

  7. That’s interesting Sherri. I guess what click it for some doesn’t click it for others. But we all seem to agree that Bancrof’s book is superlative!

  8. Patricia Evan’s book the Verbally Abusive Relationship was recommended to me by a marriage counselor my former husband and I were going to. It is the only reason I was able to see what was going on in my relationship at all. If not for this book I would have never gotten out of my last marriage. However I would have to agree with you Sherri it only took me so far. I turned around and married another abuser. This time wrapped in a little different package. He was a former pastor that happened to be there to help me pick up the pieces during my separation and divorce just like Lundy Bancroft’s book says!

    This book is unbelievable! I wish I would have had” Why Does He Do That? “recommended to me instead it would have saved me another trip around the mountain. Don’t you just love that saying? I’ve been wandering around in the dark all of these years looking for answers in the church and then being told it is somehow my fault that I couldn’t figure it out. What a joke!

  9. This is fascinating! What do you think? Should I no longer recommend Patsy’s book on the links page of my website? Should I write a caveat about the book, as I do about Mark Gaither’s “Redemptive Divorce” ? Any suggestions welcomed.

  10. Barbara,

    My experience was similar to Mary’s. I found Patricia Evans (doing an internet search for information on verbal abuse after a particularly harrowing encounter with my husband) before I found Lundy Bancroft’s. Evans gave a context to my experience and, through that, freed me from the lie that I was responsible for my husband’s abuse (I had been told by a counselor that I “trigger [my husband’s] abandonment issues”).

    Bancroft shed a different light on the Evans context, and added another layer to my understanding. And THAT was the layer that brought all the pieces together and into clear focus for me.

    Certain of Evans’ and Bancroft’s ideas are in conflict, but others are complementary. I do think they can be read in tandem to give a deeper comprehension to anyone seeking to understand these complex issues.

    Overall, I think Evans is a great jumping off point, but she gives too much credit to abusers which can trap loving and Christ-minded women (and men) in endless abuse cycles rooted in compassion for their abusers’ childhood traumas. In my opinion, if you are going to recommend Evans’ books, you really ought to put Bancroft’s on your recommended reading list, as well, for a good strong dose of cold hard reality.

    Thanks for asking, Barbara!

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