Thanks so much for your prayers. It was a grueling week and I spoke a lot and now I’m sick with a head cold. I have another week of travel to go. As I gave my keynote address at AACC there was a collective gasp when I said, “Abuse, adultery, and addictions are not marital problems. They cause problems in a marriage for sure. But they are first and foremost character issues, personal issues, sin issues and are best treated working individually with the person who has damaged the marriage. It is only when that part is done can you attempt to do the work to repair the relationship.”
So many therapists and pastors treat these issues as marital issues and the victim starts to feel as if she or he is the bad guy for “causing” someone to act out in such a destructive way. That is not true.
Each person is responsible for his or her own reactions and behaviors. If you’re living with a guilt trip or are taking responsibility for someone else’s ways of managing their frustrations or problems, stop it. You are not at fault. Yes, there may be mutual marital problems for you to work on once the destructive behaviors have stopped but until safety is maintained, there can be no close marital or any other kind of relationship.
Today's Question: My Father-in-law is emotionally and verbally abusive and my Mother-in-law is pressuring me to talk to him. How am I supposed to deal with them Biblically? Is it okay to love them from a distance?
Answer: I’ve chosen to answer this question because it begs the question of whether God requires me to befriend or hang out with people I don’t like or whose behavior or character I find offensive or harmful to me. In your particular example, it’s an extended family member, which can create even more of a guilt trip if you choose to keep the relationship at arm’s length.
You mention that your mother-in-law is pressuring you to talk to him. Is she emotionally abusive as well? What is she pressuring you to talk with him about? Restoring the relationship? Coming over for the holidays? Why you have boundaries around contact with her husband? You haven’t made that clear in your question so I’m going to answer this more generally than I might if you were specific, but I think the principles will still apply.
First, Jesus shows us what God’s character is like. The Bible tells us that Jesus is the exact representation of the nature of God (Hebrews 1:3). Did Jesus hang out with or befriend people he didn’t like or enjoy? Sometimes he did for specific reasons, but not always.
For example, at the last supper, we see Jesus interacting with Judas, and I’m going to assume that there were things about Judas character that Jesus found hurtful or offensive. But Judas was still “invited” to the last supper and Jesus had a personal conversation with him about what he was about to do.
We also see Jesus interacting with the Pharisees where they questioned him and sometimes not very nicely (John 10:20). Yet we see no personal friendship with these people. Jesus treated them with care and concern for their well-being, but there is not a mutual or reciprocal relationship like we see with Mary and Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10).
John 2:23,24 also reminds us: “Many began to trust in him. But Jesus didn’t trust them, because he knew all about people. No one needed to tell him about human nature, for he knew what was in each person’s heart.” We see Jesus exercising caution and stewardship over his personhood including leaving people who were destructive.
So to answer your question. Can you love your mother -in-law from a distance? The answer is yes. But it’s a certain kind of love.
I’ve been pondering this distinction and maybe it will be helpful here.
I’ve talked some in this blog about developing one’s big circle which is the part of you that contains your highest values and virtues. Its the part of you that you aspire to be as a person. So many of us react and make decisions from a lesser part of us – our emotions or negative thoughts, and that can get us in trouble.
For example, “I spend way too much money on vacation because it feels good. But when I get home I regret it because my values say “you want to get out of debt.” Or, “I yell at my kids in a fit of rage, but I feel bad later because that’s not the kind of parent I want to be.”
When we understand that our identity does not rest in our feelings but rather in our values and virtues, we can make much clearer decisions. It’s unlikely that you “feel” loving towards your in-laws. However, God says that we are to “put on the virtue of love” as our “all purpose garment” (Colossians 3:14).
We are to be imitators of God and live a life of love (Ephesians 5:1). Love is a high value of God and therefore of his people. He wants people to know us by our love for one another (John 13:35). But I don’t think it’s a “feeling” kind of love, but rather a virtuous kind of love. I love because I am a loving person rather than I love because I feel loving at the moment. – Click To Tweet
Jesus himself didn’t “feel” like going to the cross yet his virtues and values were aligned with wanting to do the Father’s will and therefore he made his decision from that place rather than his emotions (Matthew 26:39).
Right now your mother-in-law doesn’t sound like a friend, a confidant, or a mentor. You don’t trust her or her husband. I’m not sure she’s in the enemy category but you aren’t feeling a lot of warm fuzzy feelings towards her. I’m not sure how your own husband feels about his parents and their relationship dynamics but his feelings are important too and it can make things more difficult for you to have boundaries for yourself if he is opposed to those boundaries or will not support you in them.
So your question is how are you supposed to deal with them Biblically? I think by graciously speaking the truth in love. By guarding your own heart and having appropriate boundaries if they spew their verbal abuse your way. If your mother-in-law is a victim of her husband’s verbal abuse too, I think you can show loving compassion towards her and perhaps show her a different way of handling someone who mistreats her rather than the silent martyr approach that she’s taken.
If she participates in verbally abusing you and your husband then perhaps a meet up with her is not smart if it’s only going to lead to more verbal abuse. Paul warned young Timothy to stay away from Alexander the Coppersmith because he did Paul great harm (2 Timothy 4:14). Did that mean Paul was unforgiving? No, or he could not have written half the New Testament, including the entire love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. But it does mean that it is not unloving (Biblically speaking) to be prudent and cautious around destructive and harmful individuals.
We are to honor our parents (Biblically speaking) but that doesn't mean we have to be close personal friends with them. A close friendship requires that relationship to be safe, mutual, and reciprocal.
Friends, when you have a relative or friend who has a pattern of verbal abuse towards you, what have you done? Have you felt guilty or wrong for having boundaries?