Morning friends,

I’m up at our cabin, being nana this week, but I have a treat for you. I’ve asked my friend Gary Thomas to guest post for me today from his newest book When To Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People. I love hearing a pastor’s voice and heart validate the horrible effects of emotional abuse on a women’s soul, spirit, and body. He confirms what I say, a wife is not an object to use, but a person to love.   

The Standard Isn’t Surviving; It’s Thriving

Gary Thomas

Christine was in bad shape: five feet seven inches tall, yet she weighed just ninety-eight pounds. Even so, every time she lifted a potato chip to her face her husband Rick said, “Sure you want to eat that?”

Christine wasn’t sure why Rick cared what she ate. They hadn’t had sex for eight years, though Christine had tried everything she could to interest him, including stripteases, bubble baths, candlelight dinners, and “everything short of standing on my head in the corner to get him to look at me.” Others called them “Ken and Barbie” but Christine began to feel like the ugliest woman on the planet. Rick preferred pornography and eventually even prostitutes to a real wife. 

Believing that a “dutiful Christian wife” must endure such disrespect, Christine pressed on. They went to thirteen counselors in seven years. Christine wore herself out trying to get her marriage to work, but one fateful Christmas morning, Rick told Christine, “I don’t love you anymore and I want a divorce.” To be honest, Christine felt relief. As a Christian, she had tried everything she could think of to “fix” her marriage. Having it taken out of her hands felt like a giant burden had been lifted, until Rick added, “The truth is, I think you’re sick and I’m going to have you committed.”

Christine replied, “Rick, it’s not my head that’s sick; it’s my heart. You’ve killed me from the inside out. I’m not sick in the head, I’m worn out.”

The threat of having her committed turned out to be a ploy to strike fear in Christine’s heart, another marital gambit to gain a bit more control over his already beaten down wife. Christine eventually realized she had one of two choices: be destroyed or end her marriage. She chose to file for divorce. She explained to Rick, “I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t my problem; this is your problem.”

Rick went ballistic, threw everything off the countertops, slapped Christine’s glasses off her face, and put her in a chokehold.

Looking back, Christine believes she waited too long to leave but understands why she put up with what she did. “I wanted to be able to stand before Jesus and say I did everything I knew to do in order to save my marriage.” 

Christine finally got the courage to let go one morning when she read Psalm 116:16

Truly I am your servant, Lord

I serve you just as my mother did; 

you have freed me from my chains.

As God met intense financial needs for Christine and her daughters, Jesus seemed to be drawing Christine closer through this painful ordeal. Unfortunately, her church didn’t follow suit. Though some who knew the entire situation remained very supportive, Christine still got kicked out of the choir as soon as others found out she had been the one to file for a divorce. 

A few years passed, and the church finally seemed open to welcoming Christine back into music ministry. She worked with a Kids Praise program. Her church put on a big Broadway kind of play once a year and Christine was eventually asked to direct it when the former director had to step back. 

The passage of time transformed her in the minds of many from a “divorcee” to a “single mom.” The latter drew compassion more than judgment so the moms gathered together to collect $500 for a Target gift card to thank her for heading up the big show.  

Christine wept. 

It wasn’t just the money. It was the church people saying, “You’re okay. We don’t judge you. We want to help you.”

After the show, a mature Christian woman voiced what many wanted to say, “Christine, God has fully restored you to ministry; I see the light in your face and it’s such a blessing.”

This ushered in a spring thaw, spiritually speaking. Christine was invited to teach a women’s Bible study, which exploded with a rich harvest. Years later, she met a wonderful Christian man. They got married and began teaching together. Christine remembers how Rick mocked her ministry efforts, saying no one would ever notice. Her new husband attended every class she taught for seven years straight, never missing a single one. He laughed the loudest, cried the most, and said aloud “amen” more frequently than anyone else. 

Christine tells me that ministry with him “brings life,” not just to her, but to so many others. 

If the mission matters, the end result of Christine’s actions has been a fruitful harvest. In the minds of some, she may be defined as having broken a “rule” (divorce). She was headed toward death, being spiritually assaulted on a daily basis. Today, she breathes life and hope and actively serves others. She never wanted to leave a husband behind, but she eventually realized she had to leave the toxicity behind, and being married to an unrepentant, toxic man, divorce was her only option. 

A Weapon and a Gift

When divorce is used as a self-indulgent weapon, when a man or woman leaves their spouse because they’ve grown weary of keeping their vows or have found someone they think is “better” and others are left to support the victim and clean up the mess, you learn to hate such selfish foolishness. 

On the other hand, in the face of unrepentant and unrelenting evil, divorce can be an effective tool rather than a weapon. Megan Cox, an abuse survivor’s advocate who was herself delivered from an abusive marriage, refers to her divorce as a “gift of grace.”

Because evil exists, we need to condemn the cause of divorce rather than the application of divorce. Christine was being destroyed in a toxic marriage and her ministry outside that marriage was almost completely quenched. When you see her now, full of spiritual life, ministering to others, you realize how much that thirteen-year-marriage cost her and the Kingdom.

I hate divorce in the same way I hate that anyone has to undergo the ordeal of chemotherapy. What a tragedy. But if a doctor has to order that action to attack the cancer threatening someone’s life, it becomes what we call a “necessary evil.” If a toxic person forces a spouse to seek the protection of divorce, don’t fault the person who is acting on behalf of truth—fault the toxic spouse who is using marriage to prey on a victim.

Megan Cox puts it this way: “The real tragedy is what happened to lead up to a divorce. The piece of paper is simply the stamped approval of the state on a devastated marriage. The devastation was probably what is much more evil than the signed document. The pain we all went through for years of toxicity, darkness, and abuse is what we should really be hating. Saving marriages is noble but Jesus died to save lives. Our lives are more important than our marriages. Jesus places more of a value on life than on marriage.”

Jesus once said, “No one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30).

Did you get the part that Jesus here explicitly says some will be forced to forsake even their spouse in service to him?

Jesus was all about the Kingdom, making it the centerpiece of His teaching: “Seek first the Kingdom of God…” (Matt. 6:33) and pleading with His disciples to pray for more workers (Matt. 9:38). While we undervalue the work of the Kingdom we tend to overemphasize family. It’s not that God isn’t passionate about the family—He created it!—it’s that Jesus came bringing and teaching values that supersede everything, including the family.  

Abuse destroys joy, and the Bible says the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). Click To Tweet

Abuse thus threatens to make us weak, which undercuts our service. Abuse and gaslighting also destroy self-confidence, and a lack of self-confidence destroys the necessary fortitude we need to step out into service. I don’t like pitting family life against Kingdom service—nobody does—but victims of abuse often have the choice forced upon them. 

Too often, the question has been, “can she still survive?” But that’s the wrong question. If Kingdom work is so important, the real question should be, “Can she still thrive?” In a fallen world that wars against each Christian’s individual service, we need to support our spiritual soldiers rather than be a party to ploys that leave them weak, confused, and unable to participate in every believer’s most important calling—seeking first the Kingdom of God. 

Friends, how has Gary’s message, you were made to thrive, resonated with you today?

39 Comments

  1. Annie on July 1, 2020 at 8:11 am

    Thank you for bringing recognition to this problem. This was me having lost myself for the sake of marriage and family. Everything was about my husband. I could not bring up issues. 30 years later it was revealed that there were affairs and still could not talk about it having been through many counselors. Lies and manipulation continue. We are now headed towards divorce.

    • Shannon Grace Sokol on July 1, 2020 at 12:14 pm

      Amen! As a pastors daughter, I too am going through a divorce and have spent 10 years in an emotional, verbal, and sexually abusive marriage. With God and my Christian counselor, I have recognized the feeling in my body of abusive was first felt on my wedding day.

      Yet, I can say GOD IS RESTORING ME PIECE BY PIECE! It’s been very draining to explain emotional abuse to my parents who are in ministry and is still talking to my charming husband.

      Many Blessings to all of you who are going through such a battle as I.

      Shannon

      • Adrienne on July 1, 2020 at 1:58 pm

        Praying for you dear sister! 💕you’re not alone!

    • JoAnn on July 1, 2020 at 7:32 pm

      Annie, I pray for your heart to be healed. How terrible, what you have lived through. Be safe, Dear One, and draw close into the Lord where the life and healing are.

  2. Adrienne on July 1, 2020 at 9:46 am

    Wow! Thank you Leslie and Gary! After a well meaning, fearful Christian friend sent me a sermon on biblical divorce last Sunday…this is a welcome refreshing biblical response! I was struck by the fact that the pastor in the video made light of emotional abuse and considered it a grey area, seemingly because he was afraid of counseling someone to get a divorce and overlooked the victim of abuse and her children! Why isn’t he afraid of the harm and death he might be supporting? Why did he use only scripture that directly uses the terms divorce and marriage? It’s a tragedy that men in his position are not handling the whole of God’s word accurately 😥Thank you Gary for reminding us of Jesus’ words and thank you Leslie for showing us other scripture that applies to us, like reckless words that cut like a sword, and a crushed spirit, who can bear? ( sorry I’m not quoting scripture word for word here, I will get the references in just a minute 😊)

    • Adrienne on July 1, 2020 at 9:59 am

      Proverbs 12:18 The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise bring healing.
      Proverbs 18:14 The human spirit can endure in sickness but a crushed spirit who can bear?
      There are many more throughout that speak to protecting ourselves from evil, guarding our hearts and not keeping company with angry violent men ☺️

  3. Susan Roberts on July 1, 2020 at 10:45 am

    Wow!!! I, too, relish hearing from a pastor’s perspective. This is so encouraging and uplifting. We will not just survive ladies, we will thrive. “ Abuse destroys joy, and the Bible says the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10).”
    Our strength to thrive returns as the joy of the Lord is restored!!!
    Powerful message.

  4. Marian on July 1, 2020 at 12:27 pm

    So appreciate this blog. The church does not realize how much trauma they add to victims. My service in my church was paused because I was told I needed to use the time to work on my marriage even though my husband was the one being verbally and emotionally abusive. I was also told because we were married his problem was my problem. The one place I look to for support and should give it doesn’t. Quite sad actually. Thankfully I had a wonderful counsellor from Focus on the Family who directed me to Leslie’s book and a psychologist who my husband had chosen for us to see who gave me good counsel to leave after 45 years of marriage.

  5. Becky on July 1, 2020 at 12:52 pm

    Thank you for posting this blog. So much truth here. The Church needs an awakening on this issue.

  6. Sharon on July 1, 2020 at 12:57 pm

    Thank you for this. This is the first time I have ever heard anyone talk about the impact of abuse on ministry—the woman’s ministry! I really appreciate your validation of women as people who have gifts to share with the body of Christ. And yes, sometimes filing for divorce is part of a woman’s journey in following Jesus.

  7. Barbara Ann on July 1, 2020 at 4:57 pm

    EXCELLENT!!!

  8. Matt on July 1, 2020 at 5:38 pm

    I have always been adamantly against divorce. I am seeing things different through these blogs and comments. I wouldn’t want my wife to remain married to someone like that…wait maybe I AM like that! Glad for examples where it can change; reading “Confessions of an Angry Man”. My wife is reading and working through “Boundaries”. It’s amazing how liberating it is for me to have her set boundaries and communicate to me what I’m doing, what I’ve done. Be been so blind. I thought I was taking care of her and loving her but I was in fact controlling her. I’m reading “Control Freak” too.

    • JoAnn on July 1, 2020 at 7:27 pm

      Matt, I think that I can speak for all when I say we are encouraged by the growth and honesty we see in you. Christ IN YOU is your hope of glory. He is in you to transform you and your living. Keep opening to Him, confessing and repenting. The Lord loves to change us, when we are willing.

    • Suzanne on July 2, 2020 at 2:11 pm

      Good for you, Matt. A strong person (man or woman) does not need to control. A strong man lives for God and takes care of his own business. No need to control others. Jesus controlled no one yet He was the strongest man to walk the earth. May you and your wife continue to be blessed by your mutual desire to grow and mature.

  9. Janice D on July 1, 2020 at 5:56 pm

    “ It’s time for us to more than just survive,we were made to thrive” The song by Casting Crowns kept playing in my head as I read this excellent post. For so many years I believed that I was ok as long as I was surviving in my marriage.I no longer believe God is calling me to martyr myself for a husband who shows no interest in growth,both for himself personally and in our relationship.I am legally separated almost 2 years now and Gods kind companionship continues to be a healing balm as I recover from my husbands neglect and misplaced loyalty.My husband professes repentance and change but I see no real evidence other than a lot of religious sounding chatter from him.

    • JoAnn on July 1, 2020 at 7:24 pm

      Janis D. I am glad that you are looking for “evidence” of repentance. Many people claim to have changed, but the real fruit of repentance must be there before it is to be believed. I am encouraged by your posts. Thank you for sharing.

    • Moonbeam on July 8, 2020 at 6:29 am

      I found myself thinking about two words you wrote, martyr and neglect. I too was a martyr and suffered neglect. Thanks for finding the correct words to attach to my experience. As time goes on, I am getting revelation after revelation of categories of the neglect I experienced. It is very hard to recognize that neglect while in an abusive marriage. As a martyr, we accept the destruction of our self worth as part of our “cross to bear.” Now, that I am free, the light shines on the dark recesses of my spouse’s cruelty and slowly, I am detoxing from the venom of his personality.

      • Kathy Wilkinson on July 22, 2020 at 1:55 pm

        Yes, I totally resignate with “as a martyr, we accept the destruction of our self worth as part of our ‘cross to bear’ I’m growing more and more free as my eyes are opened to the dark recesses of my spouse’s selfishness and cruelty. By the grace of God, I am receiving wisdom from women whose eyes have been opened so I can continue to detox from the toxicity he put in my brain. I thank God for everyone he has put in my life to help renew my mind with healthly thinking about who God has made me and live more consistently from this truth!

  10. JoAnn on July 1, 2020 at 7:35 pm

    Gary, thank you for the verses in Luke 18. I had never seen it the way you applied it….to leave for the sake of the kingdom. Wow! Christine’s experience is replicated all over among many of the women here who had the courage to leave and were restored by the Lord to be useful members of His Body. This was an encouraging word. Thank you.

  11. Shannon D’Alessio on July 2, 2020 at 5:43 am

    Wow! What a great article. Sooo well said. I especially love the analogy of chemotherapy to divorce – a necessary evil to save a life. It is very sad to me that many pastors insist on holding to the letter of the law Rather than the spirit of the law, thus crushing the spirit of the abused. This book should be handed out in seminary! My STBX is the love of my life – 20 years/ 5 kids later and my heart truly breaks for his self imposed pain. But In separating I have regained my life and my joy, gentleness, patience and strong and steady resolve shows it:) thank you, Leslie for leading the way!

  12. Suzanne on July 2, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    My blood boiled as I read this blog post. Towards the end, helpful truths were stated and productive action was encouraged. But Christine continued to be a victim even after she left her abusive husband. That her church passed judgement on her, “punished her & took “years” to see her as a single mother rather than a divorcee (as if one has more value than the other; we are all fallible human beings) speaks volumes about the cruelty and hypocrisy of her church members. Who are they to declare her unworthy of service to the church? Who are they to create a hierarchy in their church that accepts one (single mom) over the other(divorcee). Do they ignore James 2? That she even chose to stay in that church demonstrated her godliness & faith in God to rebuild her shattered life rather than wait on the church members to demonstrate unconditional love and acceptance as Christ teaches us to do. She NEVER needed her church’s approval to be worthy of the acceptance that it took them years to deign to bestow on her. Perhaps the referenced “mature church member” might have said to Christine, ” “Christine, God has fully restored you to ministry; I see the light in your face and it’s such a blessing. I am so very sorry we judged you wrongly and made things worse for you by punishing you rather than comfortiing you when you first left your toxic marriage. Truly we did not “serve the least of these” when you were down and out. Please forgive us.” As Leslie and Henry Cloud and many others often say, ‘No repentence, no trust.’ IMO a gift card isn’t repentence.

    • Autumn on July 8, 2020 at 6:14 am

      I agree with you. What a horrible group of people at her church! I would have left and joined another congregation. Where was the congregational shaming and exposure of the abuser’s selfishness, negligence and deviant sexual practices? No, let’s just condemn a victim, but wait, we need to use her for our musical team again. She was pretty good at that. We better think up an angle to keep her hooked into this place. No on else wants to do what she puts up with and she works for free. Somebody, act nice to her so she doesn’t leave. At least not until we find a replacement.

  13. Suzanne on July 2, 2020 at 2:14 pm

    Beautiful Girls, beautiful artwork going on there!! You’re all making precious memories.

  14. Marian on July 2, 2020 at 2:25 pm

    So true Suzanne. Unfortunately it’s those who don’t claim to be Christian are more loving and compassionate. It makes me think of John 13:35 Your love to one another will prove you are my disciples.

  15. Barbara B on July 3, 2020 at 3:54 pm

    Wow, what a great way to reframe the conversation about thriving and surviving in marriage. In what other area of life would we be content to merely “survive?” For example, we would never say about our physical health, I just want to survive and I’ll be happy. No, we want to thrive, be strong, be healthy! The same is true in business, school, parenting, friendships, etc. I think Gary is right to point out that we have set the bar way to low for Christian marriage.

    Can anyone suggest a book that gives practical steps for setting up a marital separation? I’ve read lots of books on the reasons for separation but I have questions about how to go about it in a wise and biblical way. For example, practical advice about different options, legal parameters, communicating with pastors, when to continue or end the separation, etc.

    • Aly on July 4, 2020 at 9:52 am

      Barbara B,
      I think you have a great question. I don’t know if a recommendation but hoping JoAnn might see you post as she might have a good resource.
      When I was considering a structured separation -our counselor was completely involved. This was a huge help for me to have as I knew I was pretty depleted overall and needed wise help where I could feel safe.
      Our counselor began setting up some early options and was consulting with another colleague. It came down to my husband deciding that he would do ‘his work’ and stop check boxing items. I believe he was asked to have a list of why he should stay in the house and not have us move to structure (time-line separation).
      Praise God for another intervention that continued to awaken my h!

      • JoAnn on July 4, 2020 at 11:26 am

        Aly, thanks for the referral. My resources are not necessarily exhaustive, but in addition to the one I mentioned above, “Healing Well and Living Free from an Abusive Relationship” by Dr. Ramona Probasco, is an excellent reference. Both authors take a Biblical view as well as being very practical.
        We are meant to thrive as children of the King, and developing a deeply intimate relationship with our Lord is vital for working through the destructive relationship. He cares for our heart and does want us to be happy and to thrive.

    • JoAnn on July 4, 2020 at 11:31 am

      Barbara, For some reason, my earlier attempt to reply did not post. So yes, a very good resource is “Redemptive Divorce” by Mark Gaither. It has the answers to your questions, and he outlines a way to present options to your spouse that I find very helpful. A biblical perspective.

    • Marie Warner on July 7, 2020 at 9:55 am

      I’m interested also.

    • Carol on July 22, 2020 at 10:45 pm

      There’s a book by Mark W. Gaither (I think he’s now Chuck Swindoll’s son-in-law) called Redemptive Divorce. Could give you some better ideas even if you just separate for now.

  16. Frer on July 5, 2020 at 9:18 am

    There are times in life to suffer. Hardships are part of life. Things like war, famine, disease and natural disasters are beyond our control and we need to suffer and survive through those things. Soldiering through such hardships does not demean and dismiss our humanity and value as a person.

    Willingly subjecting yourself to a harmful individual, regardless of your relationship or societal status with such a person is self harm. That person has a problem with their self worth. Their value could have been distorted through incorporating misconstrued religious doctrine into their mind, or as the result of a primary care giver’s harm or neglectful. Whatever the source, the bottom line with differentiating surviving vs. thriving is ones capability to honor and respect themselves.

    A wise person leaves the company of a fool. They trust God and respect the precious gift Christ gave them, freedom in him. Evil does not get a footing to attack a wise person because it is resisted, identified and to protect the previous gift of self that God designed
    Survivors endure hardship with a purpose and ab end in sight. Those who thrive release themselves from the yoke of external harm, escape injustice and foolishness in their relationships and see themselves as worthy. They adopt zero tolerance to all forms of abuse. Anything less than that, reflects a person’s flawed and distorted valuation of their identity and purpose as a child of God.

    • Kirsten Conn on July 22, 2020 at 10:18 pm

      Well put!

    • Adrienne King-Hicks on October 29, 2020 at 11:09 am

      Amen!

  17. Marina Dubovyy on July 5, 2020 at 10:59 pm

    Wow!!! I couldn’t read Christine’s story without tears streaming down my face. It’s very painful to be shunned and judged by your own brothers and sisters in Christ when you’re being “killed from the inside” by a wolf in sheep’s clothes spouse. Praise God for restoring Christine’s ministry and personal life! Much needed inspiration for myself and other Conquer sisters going through a similar situation. I’ve been thinking as to why the church is quick to believe the abuser and punish the victim rather than purge the evil from its midst and help those spiritually weakened by the abuse. Looking at my life and the lives of the godly women I know, who became victims of the abusive marriage, I think the following… If Satan cannot tempt a person into sin with common sinful desires like money, power, love for the world and all sorts of addictions, he unleashes his one of the most powerful weapons… punishment and judgement of the abused by the church. May God help all Conquer sisters to thrive, not survive under these difficult circumstances.

    • Aly on July 7, 2020 at 10:00 am

      Marina,
      Are you saying that Satan is responsible for the Church choosing their posture towards Christine?
      I do believe there are spiritual battles going on That we cannot see, but we still all have a choice with how we choose to respond to a fellow sister in Christ.
      In Christine’s story, the church
      NEVER took responsibility for placing misjudgment on Christine. They tried to tell her they didn’t judge her-but they actually did!
      Many people in the church are Far to ignorant to see that they punish the person telling the truth and doing the difficult but right thing. People still should be held accountable for ignorance and get educated on how twisted and toxic these relationships can be.

      • Nancy on July 8, 2020 at 10:29 pm

        She is saying that Satan used the church’s response. Not caused it, necessarily.

  18. Nancy on July 8, 2020 at 10:40 pm

    The church values marriage more than people. They’ve left their God-given role up to the civil authorities, leaving a stain on the reputation of Christ.

  19. Kirsten Conn on July 22, 2020 at 10:14 pm

    Wow. I needed Pastor Thomas’ message. I agree! The INDIVIDUALS in the marriage are God’s priority, not the keeping of a broken contract. My pastor husband has not been physically unfaithful, but he has betrayed his vows to honor and cherish, and has not obeyed the Word as it relates to him as a husband who lives in an understanding and loving way with his wife.

    So why am I expected to stay in a lifelong contract that my spouse has not honored simply because he has not committed physical adultery? I don’t understand that.

    My husband’s controlling tactics stole my freedom and quenched my joy in reaching out to others with God’s love and compassion. He wanted to keep me contained to our tiny church, but I also met people in need daily whom I would respond to as God led. He was never pleased to hear about these God Moments, even suspicious (jealous?) of my activities and who I was with, so I quit sharing how God occasionally used me in the lives of strangers. It’s been a nightmare, but since I moved out 7 months ago God has helped me find a new church, new ministry opportunities and godly friends, and regain my health, energy and confidence. I know He has good things in store for me and my daughter. (Jer 29:13, Rom 8:28)

    • Annie on July 23, 2020 at 3:36 pm

      Kirsten, I’m sorry for all you’ve been through. How did you go about finding a new church? I’ve been severely hurt by pastors who don’t get it. My h is very charming.

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