After 20+ years of being in an unhealthy marriage, I finally realized that I had been abused all that time. Not physically, but definitely both emotionally and verbally. But even as I started to wrap my head around the new vocabulary, I was using to describe my relationship with my spouse, I still struggled with how I was expected to respond toward him. Wasn’t I still supposed to be respectful and submissive since that was God’s clear mandate to wives from the beginning? How do I practice those qualities when I am on the receiving end of abuse? Is it assumed that I am supposed to just take it?
Years later, I continued to ask those questions, not for myself, but for those who are the recipients of a different kind of abuse…neglect. How is a wife supposed to respond when the husband fails to demonstrate love? When he withholds affection? Or just continually allows himself to be distracted with other people and other things? Or just checks out emotionally? Neglect comes in a variety of forms, and while it can be much more invisible than most types of abuse, it is equally damaging and hurtful to the neglected wife (or husband, depending on the situation.).
So is she supposed to just have a stiff upper lip and paste on a smile, showing continued respect and support for her husband, despite his failings? It’s Biblical, isn’t it?
Or is it?
God is always providing simple analogies to help us think more biblically and deeply. He takes what we know in order to teach us more about something we do not know as well. In Ephesians 5: 21-33, there are some specific guidelines about relationships, marriage, and the role of both spouses. Some of the key phrases encountered are:
- Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
- Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord
- Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
- Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.
- The two will become one flesh…a profound mystery…but he is talking about Christ and the church!
- The wife must respect her husband.
These commands are often our “go to” directives for instruction as to how we should respond to our spouses. There is a lot going on here, too much to address each detail, but I remember at one point in my journey, I was at my wit’s end, having failed to fix my marriage through submission, respect, trying to win my husband without a word, etc. What did God expect of me? It was at that time that the passage mentioning the “profound mystery” in scripture came to mind, reminding me what marriage is supposed to look like. God used the simple picture of Christ’s love for the church (sacrificial love) and the church’s devoted obedience to Christ as its head to give us a bigger picture of what marriage is like. When I think of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice of love in order to win back His bride, the humble steps of submitting to crucifixion for our sake, I realize how mind-boggling that is. But it was because of Christ’s obedience that He was eventually exalted by God and it is said that one day “every tongue (will) confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:11)
When the church has Christ as its head, God is glorified. When the church demonstrates its love and affection to God by showing love and affection to a lost and dying world, God is glorified. When God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply”, surely He wasn’t just talking about physical procreation. There is an assumption that the children that are born to them will be raised in the knowledge of God. It has always been about relationship with God. He created us to have relationship with Him. And our relationship with Him should be reflected in our relationships with others. When we live that way, more people are won into wanting a relationship with God, too!
So if the marriage relationship is supposed to reflect the love relationship between Christ and His church, what should that look like? If I’m going to draw out the previous description and apply it to marriage, then…
- Marriage should glorify God.
- Marriage requires a spirit of humility.
- Marriage’s foundation should be the love and affection of both partners toward God first, then each other.
- Marriage should show the world the meaning of true sacrificial love.
- Marriage should be an avenue of winning others to Christ; this would include our own children of course, but it extends beyond our immediate families. (“For God so loved the world…”)
- Marriage should be an avenue that draws each spouse closer to God.
- Marriage should reflect the fact that both husband and wife have Jesus as their head.
As I contemplated this, I realized that we were desperately missing the mark in our marriage. I hesitated to call what we had a “marriage” at all based on this description. Then I felt conviction. I knew all too well that our marriage did not reflect any of these qualities. We were falling way short. And yet I had been okay with pretending that all was well and thinking (hoping) that I was pleasing God all these years because we were not divorced, since everyone knows after all, that “God hates divorce.” Well, of course He does! Would you expect anything less of Him? But that’s not the point! Was I thinking that He loved what He saw in my marriage simply because at that point in time I was not divorced? Is that the only measure of my marriage? If that is what I believed about God, I truly did not understand what it means for God to be holy. A holy God is not pleased with a relationship that is full of deception, pretending, pride, apathy, and hypocrisy. I suddenly understood that looking the other way from my husband’s sins was as bad as publicly proclaiming that his actions (or inactions) were OK. Not addressing what was wrong was blessing what was not right. Not only was my marriage not a true godly marriage by God’s definition, but I had the audacity to pretend that it was and I let others believe the same thing!
I knew at that point that it was time to come clean. I had to stop worrying about what everyone else thought of me, my supposed marriage, and my life’s circumstances. I only needed to be concerned with God’s opinion. I had to admit that my marriage had completely failed and I had to commit to stopping the lies and trying to believe that we were fine. It was time to stop enabling the deception, and instead confront it.
How one confronts the abuse and/or neglect in a marriage is a whole other topic in and of itself, but I had learned that I needed to see the sin for what it was and to see how deeply it had penetrated into my own way of thinking and rationalizations. Moving forward, I was committed to truth, even if it meant I might be embarrassed at first. Clearly, Jesus was shamed when He took His steps of obedience toward the cross. My situation pales in comparison, but I realized the battle is for something much bigger than my own personal reputation.
I believe all scripture should be read in context, but sometimes we get tunnel vision. For example, a wife reveals that she has been struggling with abuse in her marriage. Too often, the responsibility to submit and respect is put back onto her in order to change her spouse. But what many people do not realize is that showing respect and honor to the person committing the abuse only empowers and enables the abuser to continue the same actions. We need to step back and look at the totality of scripture, not just confining our input to only the verses directed at marriage. We need to answer the bigger questions: Is there sin? (If sin is defined as “missing the mark”, then there is definitely sin happening!) So what are the scriptural mandates when sin needs to be confronted? Matthew instructs us that if individual confrontation does not work, we are to approach the person with one or two witnesses. If that does not work, then we bring the matter to the church. Hmm…how often have we missed the opportunity to follow that directive in matters of marital abuse or neglect?
Or considering another point of view, it is interesting to see that the Bible describes a fool as someone who thinks he is always right, uses anger to control, and only trusts in his own heart. Note that this definition sounds exactly like an abuser! So what does the Bible say about how we are supposed to relate to an abuser (aka “fool”)? Proverbs has a lot to say on the matter. We are encouraged to NOT be a companion of fools (Proverbs 13:20), not speak to a fool (Proverbs 23:9), and basically to stay away from fools (Proverbs 14:7).
This is not an argument for divorce necessarily; but it could definitely be a Biblical blessing for those needing to separate! Of course, we hope and pray for reconciliation, but my real point is that as Christians, we have a variety of options when we find ourselves in abusive or neglectful situations. There is no 3-step approach that is mapped out, telling us exactly what to do. Like any major decision, it must be bathed in prayer. But don’t limit your options to continuing the same ol’, same ol’. You know it doesn’t elicit change in the other person! If you expect a different outcome, you must act differently yourself as well.
God wants something better for our marriages. He is not pleased in a marriage that hides abuse or neglect behind closed doors; it does not glorify Him, and I believe He is insulted when we use the excuse that “God hates divorce” to justify keeping a person with an abusive spouse. There are options, and the church needs to learn how to be a part of those options to come alongside an unhealthy marriage. Let’s not taint God’s beautiful institution of marriage by pretending that all is well. God is never glorified by the lies that we let people believe.
Karolyn Dekker – Guest Post