I am back in the USA but in the next few weeks, I will be visiting family in Chicago. As lovely as other countries are to visit, there is no place like home.
Thank you, Aly, for sharing with us last week.
Today I’ve asked another woman from our community to share her story as a wife of a ministry leader. TL’s marriage has a different ending but I believe it will be helpful for you to hear her process of gaining clarity. It’s a little long, but I didn’t want to split it into two parts and make you wait for the rest of the story. Next week I will go back to answering one of your questions.
One more thing. Next Tuesday I am doing a free webinar on Four Lies That Can Make you Crazy And How To Stop Them. I am doing the webinar twice, once during the day and once in the evening but you have to sign up in order to have access. Click here to answer a quick question and claim your set for this free webinar.
For 35 years I was married to a man who was an evangelical pastor and missionary. He appeared to be a godly man and we appeared to be an almost perfect family. But about 2 years ago, I separated from him, due to his habitually abusive behavior. I want to share some of what I have gone through; the lessons I have learned, and how I learned them.
I was 20 when I met my future husband, having known the Lord for only about a year and a half. I was attracted to this young man who seemed to have a deep passion for God and great knowledge of the Bible. He was a strong leader—something I felt I needed in my immature, fledgling life of faith.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t alarmed as he worked to isolate me from my family members and friends during our dating and courtship. No one was “good enough” for me in his eyes: they were either “unbelievers” or a “bad influence” or both. Believing in his greater knowledge and understanding of God and God’s ways and also in his love for and desire to protect me, I followed his lead.
Our romance and early marriage went from him putting me high up on a pedestal of admiration, to him slamming me down hard with disrespect, disregard, disdain, and even disgust.
Our first year of marriage was tumultuous and shattering, as my dreams of being cherished, loved, and respected plummeted. No matter what I did, or how hard I tried, there was no pleasing him. He was a perfectionist and was constantly perturbed that neither I nor the children were perfect.
We sometimes forgot things, spilled things, or broke things. Therefore we were irresponsible because, in his world, there was no allowance for accidents; there was simply carelessness. No matter how he treated me or our children, he acted as if he was entitled to be treated with the utmost respect and consideration. He spoke harshly whenever it suited his mood, but I was expected to “be sweet” at all times, no matter the provocation.
He had an unreasonable double standard and justified it with scripture. I realized that I was expected to be subordinate to a superior being who was entitled to respect by virtue of his gender and position, and not by virtue of his character and actions. I learned to defer; as I was taught by my husband and the respected evangelical leaders (James Dobson, John Piper) we most listened to. My Christian “book mentor” was Elisabeth Elliot. I wanted to be a godly wife, and that meant I needed to submit to my husband’s God-ordained leadership and trust God to correct him if he needed correction.
I learned from these teachers that even if you are in a miserable marriage, you “suffer well” for God. So I tried my best. For 35 years I cried and prayed and believed that God would effect change in him, and in my marriage. I know now that what I then called faith was foolishness: it was denial and wishful thinking, not faith.
Eventually, we had six children, whom we homeschooled. They were wonderful children, and we looked like the ideal family, as I supported my husband’s ministry as best I could. But privately at home, my children and I were suffering. In our years of homeschooling, there was a heavy slant in some circles toward patriarchy. That gave further support to my husband’s domineering, controlling ways, which he learned in his own patriarchal family of origin. He had grown up in an abusive home and unfortunately, the cycle was to continue for many years in our family, as I was paralyzed by bad teaching and spiritual abuse.
My husband’s behavior was confusing; he was often warm and affectionate. He knew how to say the right things at times, and would often proclaim his love for me and for our children. But he did not care for our hearts. Everything revolved around him as The Important Person in the family. He was the head, the leader, and he was basically a dictator. Our thoughts and feelings had almost no effect on him. He knew what was right for the family, and no one else’s opinion mattered, as he was “the God-ordained leader.” He seemed to be perpetually unhappy and angry. He expected perfection of me and the children, and when we did not measure up, there was an emotional hell to pay.
We walked on eggshells, as the saying goes, always hoping not to set him off. If he became angry at me (often for trivial things) he would insult and berate me. This was done hundreds of times in front of our children; he thought nothing of it. In disgust, he would sometimes not speak to me for days, sometimes weeks. If he had to talk to me, for some practical reason, it was either coldly, or with outright disdain. Meanwhile, I was expected to be gracious, kind, and forgiving. I was expected to perform wifely duties, no matter how I was treated.
Outside of the home, my husband performed in his role of pastor/teacher/missionary well. He was hard-working and productive. He knew God’s word and could teach and preach it with skill. Being a pastor gave him the status he needed to be admired and esteemed. He treated me well in front of people, as this reflected well on him. But at home, his behavior was often ungodly. He was selfish, domineering, dictatorial, and he had frequent outbursts of anger. When these were directed at my kids, my heart would break, and I would grow angry, like a protective mama-bear. I would enter the room and plead with him to stop. He would then yell at me that it was “none of my business” and that I was just “making things worse.” He would never, ever apologize for his actions.
Afterward, I would speak to my child, comforting him or her, wiping the tears away, and validating the feelings I knew they had: your father is wrong to treat you this way, this is not Christian behavior. I would assure them that they were not at fault; he was, and we would often pray for him. Many times, I could feel the anger and resentment they struggled with, and I struggled with it too.
I was not silent. But my voice was unwelcome, and it was dismissed, disrespected, and ignored. I confronted him frequently on his harshness with me or the children. My words would almost always be twisted and thrown back at me, “Well, you’re not perfect either! Do you know how hard it is to live with someone who is ______ (irresponsible, undependable, etc.)
He would tell me that my job was to take care of myself before the Lord and to just pray for him; that I was not the Holy Spirit; or that I was the problem (I know now that this is what is called “gaslighting”). Often, we would have big, loud fights, as I stood up for my children or myself, and he turned it back on me.
Over the years I asked, cried, and pleaded with my husband to go to counseling. He refused, telling me that we could solve our problems ourselves with the Lord and that we just needed to pray and “work on things together.” Sometimes I would threaten to go myself or go to the leadership of the church. But over the years my husband had often spoken of how much he valued loyalty—implying that if I reached out to others, I was being disloyal.
But the real thing that kept me from reaching out for help was my mistaken notion of what was pleasing to my Lord; what I believed the Bible to be saying: that I must submit, even if he was not obeying the Lord…that he would be won, without a word, by my holy behavior, as I understood Eph.5:22-24 and 1Peter 3:1-6 to be saying.
I endured a lot of mistreatment, and so did my children. I was in denial, and it took me a long time to name what was happening in our home: abuse. It was verbal, emotional, mental, financial, and spiritual abuse. I believe the spiritual abuse was the worst because it is what kept me trapped for so long. Had I not been convinced by poor teaching in the evangelical church about what it meant to be a godly wife, I would have gotten help much sooner, and separated myself and my children from this angry man’s ways. I was trapped by twisted Scripture. I was misled by an abuse of power and authority in the church and in the home.
I reached a breaking point five years ago while we were living overseas. The cognitive dissonance I was feeling about my marriage could no longer be ignored. I understood the Bible to be telling me I must endure, but my heart was screaming, “Something is terribly wrong!” In desperation to get alone with God, I went to a remote place on a silent retreat for a week. I took long hikes in God’s beautiful creation and I cried and I mourned the loss of a dream that I had longed for and invested in for more than 30 years: a healthy marriage. I cried out to God, asking Him my Big Questions, such as, “Why don’t you help me? Why don’t you hear me? Why do you empower him?” In response, I “heard” a holy, blessed word of correction:
“Beloved! I stand with the oppressed! NOT the oppressor!”
I broke, as His Spirit ministered to me…
“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are inclined to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” 1 Peter 3:12
His face was against evil. He had been with me through every moment of pain, suffering, abuse. He had endured with me; He was a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief,” and He never leaves His Beloveds alone. As he ministered His truth to me, through his word and through the Spirit, I began to feel encouraged. I was beloved by God. And He was angry at this unjust, abusive treatment of His daughter.
I had begun my retreat with a “Fearless Moral Inventory,” having finally realized the truth that I had often heard, but never before accepted: that the only person I could change was me. I asked God for the courage to look objectively at myself; to understand what it was in me that contributed to my situation. What in my past “set me up” for this destructive relationship, and what was I contributing to it? This self-examination led me to face and process some things about my family of origin and to identify some deep flaws in myself, primarily passivity. I reflected deeply on this weakness and all of the sins it had allowed in my life and in my family.
I repented and asked God for the grace and strength to be courageous, intentional, and assertive instead of passive. By the time I left, I had written many pages in my journal and a long letter to my husband. None of the letters was about him and his faults. It was about me and my faults, and decisions I had made before the Lord and how those decisions might impact him. I did something that was very scary for me, but I had been strengthened by my time alone with my Father: I told my husband in that letter that I would no longer submit to him, because he was not safe to submit to; that in spite of his words, he did not care for my heart, and he did not care for God’s heart. I would submit only to God. I told him he could expect consideration from me; but I would not submit to his fear, power, and control any longer, for these were sins, and I would no longer feed into them. I told him, ”One day, I will stand before God and give an account of my sins, and there will be no hiding behind yours. And I want to make my choices fully alive; fully aware, fully as me.”
My life changed dramatically after that retreat. I stepped down from my position as Women’s Ministry Director in the church, as I did not want to support my husband’s ministry any longer, or give the illusion that we were united. I stopped pretending. I decided to walk in the light, to expose the habituated sin in my home, and invite my husband to step into the light too. I stopped enabling sin, and I took responsibility for my life, health and welfare before the God who made me and to whom I was accountable.
We, humans, are first of all accountable for how we steward the generous gift of our own lives. And I had done poorly thus far. I had shown compassion for my husband to a fault and had woefully ignored my own need for protection from evil and destruction.
I put increasingly stronger boundaries in place, as he showed no signs of repenting. I explained that the boundaries would not come down unless he got help and fully repented of the strongholds of entitlement, pride, and superiority that controlled him.
My husband mainly ignored me and continued on at the “important work of ministry,” in spite of the fact that his marriage was falling apart. When I told him that he could not count on me staying in this marriage if he did not get help and become a healthy partner, he was shocked. He challenged my commitment to the Lord and my marriage and reminded me of the vows that we took.
I believe the Holy Spirit gave me inspiration at that moment to speak words I had never thought of: “No. You are the vow-breaker. The vow is “to love and cherish”… “till death do us part” is the time frame. You have broken our marriage, and I will no longer pretend.” I suddenly realized that in effect, my spouse was using the marriage “contract” to hold me hostage: in his mind, he could treat me however he pleased, and there was nothing I could do about it. The “vows” were his trap, and I was his prisoner.
I hasten to add that not one of us loves and cherishes perfectly. We all fail. But what is our response when we fail? Do we go to the offended partner and say that we are sorry for failing to love them well, and ask for forgiveness? Or do we treat them with habitual disregard, as if they are not worthy of respect? Do we work to repair the damage we have done to the relationship? Or do we take for granted that our spouse will just absorb our mistreatment…over and over and over again?
While on my retreat, I had cried out and asked the Lord to help me to understand the scriptures properly. I sensed the Lord impress upon me that I needed to back up, stop microscopically taking the scriptures out of their larger context, and remember who He was: “Who am I? Am I a cruel taskmaster who approves of or empowers oppression? What is my heart for the poor and the orphan and the widows; and for all who are oppressed?” I read scriptures on the topic of oppression and gained a deeper understanding of Him. And then I turned to the “God Hates Divorce” passage (which had been used to keep me in a powerless stance) with an open heart; with The Blessed Defender of the Oppressed opening my eyes. And I saw something new—for the first time, I saw His heart in this passage: (My commentary in italics.)
“It is because the LORD is a witness (He sees what’s happening!) between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been unfaithful. (Unfaithfulness does not exclusively mean adultery. To refuse to cherish is to be unfaithful.) Yet, she is your companion, the wife of your marriage vows. (God expects faithfulness to the wedding vows; to love and to cherish; which makes for loving companionship.) Didn't God make you one? (That means unity, togetherness, mutuality. Not one who overpowers and absorbs the other; not domination.) Your flesh and spirit belong to him. (We are His; our lives are subject to Him; we are accountable.) And what does the same God look for but godly descendants? So be careful not to be unfaithful to the wife of your youth. (Breaking the covenant vows, whether by cruelty or adultery threatens the hope of godliness in the next generation.) I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel. (God hates the breaking of the marital covenant; unfaithfulness to one’s promise to cherish the other, whether through adultery or abuse.) ” I hate the person who covers himself with violence,” says the LORD of Armies. “Be careful not to be unfaithful.” (God hates those who use violent means in a marital relationship; those who bully others. Marriage is not to be characterized by one person fighting for domination, but by two people walking together in unity and peace. Notice here; the reminder, the warning, that he is the Lord of Armies—it is as if He is saying to the one who abuses power: “Watch out! You don’t know Who you are opposing!” He has all the forces on His side, and so woe to the one who deals violently with his covenant partner! )
The study of this passage in multiple translations helped me to understand how twisted this passage had been by those who pretended to value the marriage covenant, but really just valued the shell, the facade.
Many of us have had guilt heaped on us by Christian leaders who admonish us that marriage is meant to be an example to the world of Christ and the church; so we must not shame Christianity by getting a divorce. But I say that if marriage is meant to be an example of Christ and the church, then it had better set about becoming one! God hates hypocrisy! If one partner is making a mockery of that picture, then that one should be dealt with strongly!
If a man is treating his wife violently, whether that is physical or emotional, then for shame! Christ is dishonored by the implication that He is abusive to His bride! There ought to be swift church censure, discipline, and shunning of one who calls himself a Christian husband but abuses his wife in any way. For too long abusive Christian men have been tolerated and even enabled in the body of Christ, while their wives have been burdened with the task of “trying harder” to please them. This is worse than nonsense. It is a great wickedness in the church, and I believe God is purifying His bride. I suspect that the divorce rate in the church will rise higher than out of it as He does so.
Just a couple of months after my retreat, God led me to Leslie’s blog, where I was deeply relieved to find sound, biblical encouragement, confirmation, and support. I am beyond thankful for Leslie’s clear, corrective voice in the Christian community, as so many women and children have been hurt by the church’s empowering of destructive, abusive men, in the name of male headship and leadership. Leslie’s blog, books, videos, and some personal interactions with her greatly helped to strengthen and empower me.
When my husband did not respond to my letter or boundary setting, I reached out to his closest friend, who had been his supervising elder in a previous church. I told him my story; and thankfully, I was believed. (Sadly, I know many women in my situation are not so fortunate). This friend confronted my husband, who had an arsenal of defenses, justifications, and excuses ready. I spoke with this friend a second time, appealing to him with these words: “I know he is your brother, but I am your sister, and I need your help.” This dear friend moved into action, and together with another friend, my husband was encouraged to take a sabbatical and get into intensive counseling.
He ignored the advice. Next, I called our mission agency and the head of our group of churches. I told them what our home life was like and that I considered my marriage terminal if my husband did not get help. The mission agency intervened and tried to work with us. Eventually, while still overseas, I separated from my husband, and he was forced to step down as missionary-pastor. It was hard because I didn’t want to hurt the innocent people in our church or disappoint our kind supporters, but I knew that it was what I must do in these circumstances to stay true to my commitment to stop pretending and stop enabling sin. I watched in amazement as my husband continued to pretend; and to minimize, justify, spiritualize, and deny.
After returning to the States, I watched as the Lord surrounded me with support and became my strong tower. He has given me strength and courage. He has secured a peaceful home for me and my daughter, with a firm boundary of protection. He has given me the emotional, physical, social, and financial resources that I need to take care of myself and my daughter well. He has rescued me from captivity and secured His bride for Himself.
Friend, how do you respond to the idea that God sees the oppressed and hates the oppressor in light of what you have been taught about being sacrificially submissive to mistreatment to “honor God in your marriage?” Do you struggle with passivity as TL did?
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