As a survivor of abusive marriage who now works with women in the same shoes, I hear more than your average number of horror stories. Before you start casting stones and assuming that I think every person who has difficulty loving their spouse ought to cut and run — let me make some pre-emptive statements:
That being said, when a spouse makes abusive choices the victimized spouse often feels it is somehow their responsibility to save the one betraying the marriage vows. Does that mean every difficult marriage ought to be abandoned? Absolutely not. But victims cannot rescue abusers unless the abuser is ready and willing to take drastic steps toward repentant change. Saying “sorry” does not equal repentance. Repentance is shown only through turning away from toxic behaviors.
Now and then I talk to abuse victims who decided to stay despite active and unrepentant abuse, instead of leaving or setting healthy boundaries. Maybe the abusive party said “sorry” and cried. Maybe they tried really hard to “be nice” for an extended period of time. Sometimes, usually if their abuser’s cycle is currently in an upswing and things seem to be “on the mend”, I hear them talk about how their staying has “saved” the other person, believing that this absence of consequential boundaries will ultimately save another person from sin.
It sounds tragically romantic in a film script…
“Self-sacrificing spouse submitted quietly amid patterns of abuse/adultery/appalling behaviors for X number of decades, and then magically everything changes.”
Except that’s not biblical, it’s self-aggrandizing. And in real life, it just means the victim lives with a lifetime of being beaten, torn down, assaulted by words or fists or both.
That’s not allowing God to transform a rebellious and abusive heart, it’s standing as a buffer between the spouse and their consequences.
That’s not encouraging gospel transformation, it’s preventing the abuser’s ultimate dependence on God.
That’s not living in wholeness, it’s modeling an apathetic acceptance of dysfunction and raising children to expect abuse as “normal”.
That’s not how God defines loving others well.
And it isn’t the scriptural formula for inspiring abusers to embrace humble change.
Rather, Scripture calls us to show love by speaking the truth about sin. What sorrow for those who say that evil is good and good is evil, that dark is light and light is dark, that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter. (Isaiah 5:20) Minimizing sin, making it appear to be less dangerous than it is in God’s eyes… this is the opposite of God’s way of handling those who reject His law of love.
Jesus took it a step further, talking about those who hurt innocent victims, when he said: But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matthew 18:6 – see also Luke 17 and Mark 9) In God’s eyes, causing a little one (an innocent) who trusts Him to fall into sin is misrepresenting the character of God to them.
Misrepresenting God’s love can happen through abuse, assault, molestation, violence, or verbal destruction. God takes this so seriously, knowing how difficult abusive patterns are to break, that Jesus says it might just be better to be dead.
Does this mean abusers can’t change? No.
Does it mean victims shouldn’t pray for healing and transformation? Of course not.
Does it mean there are certain types of behavior beyond God’s ability to heal? Only if the person exhibiting those behaviors refuses to be healed.
But genuine healing of abusive patterns does not happen in response to continued acceptance of the abuse by one’s victims. Instead, it happens when the abuser decides to stop worshipping himself and transfer that adoration toward God.
A wise counselor in my life once told me:
We are worshipers and we can’t help it. Our choice isn’t whether or not to worship, it’s merely whom we will worship. We either worship God, another human, or ourselves. And honestly, anytime we aren’t worshiping God, it’s really ourselves we worship.
Whenever a person feels they cannot trust God with their lives, they always take one of two paths: either they attempt to get someone else to fill God’s role for them, or they attempt to act in God’s power for someone else. It is one of the most fundamental principles of biblical counseling. People must understand that if they do not worship God as supreme, they substitute themselves.
– Nicole Parker
When we rescue the people we love from God-ordained consequences meant to lead them to repentance, we ultimately are calling God unloving and writing our own law. We are saying that our perception of the situation is superior to His. If we cushion and shelter someone from the natural consequences of their choices, and God later transforms them anyway, He did it in spite of us — not because of us.
Those who work in the areas of counseling and abuse recovery — especially in religious circles — see this played out in the toxic cycles of shame and silence that keep victims hidden away while the focus stays on saving the abuser. Should abusers be offered saving? Yes, of course — and God extends forgiveness and salvation, the moment they choose repentance and turn away from their abusive actions in response to the gospel. The process for that, however, does not include shame and silence.
The second half of Matthew 18 directs the person who has been sinned against, to confront the sinner once in private. If the pattern is not changed with repentant turning away, the second confrontation includes the presence of trusted advisors. A third return to the sinful behavior should be taken before the church and, in the absence of repentance (turning away from the sin), the person should be severed from church privileges and participation.
Silence is never part of the biblical process of resolving sin.
Silence does not bring transformation.
Silence does not facilitate healing.
Silence does not save the lambs.
Of course, this is only the biblical internal process between members of a faith body. The allegation of any criminal activity must be immediately reported in full to law enforcement, or risk being held complicit. But I digress…
Let’s set the record straight here, especially when it comes to abusive relationships…
Spouses don’t save people.
Parents don’t save people.
Pastors don’t save people.
Jesus saves people.
The savior complex in the abuse victim context is most often a projected facade which serves to cloak a deep insecurity and neediness on the part of the victim. In some cases, it can even be a form of secondary narcissism – the need to save the unrepentant narcissist in your life by sacrificing yourself. In other words, you’re placing yourself in the position of Christ on the cross, shouldering the fallout of their toxic choices, and preventing them from experiencing the full weight of their own consequences.
Scripture is clear – no human comes to God except through Jesus Christ (see John 14:6).
No human saves another human. EVER.
That philosophy places us on the level of God in our own minds.
In case you’re not familiar with the definition of blasphemy, this is how the dictionary defines it:
– the crime of assuming to oneself therights or qualities of God.
– irreverent behavior toward anything held sacred, priceless, etc.
Scripture is consistent with this, implying that blasphemy is anyone who acts in the place of God, impersonates God’s identity, or takes God’s qualities onto themselves. (See John 10:33, Luke 5:21, Revelation 2:9.)
Saving humans from their sins?
Removing the natural consequences of sin and deciding who receives mercy versus justice?
Taking the burden of sin on oneself instead of allowing it to fall on the sinner?
Bringing stone cold hearts around to the point where they want to change?
Seeking out godly mentors and counselors who help you make sense of a painful and unhealthy situation?
Setting healthy boundaries that keep you from being drawn into co-dependency or self-reliance?
Choosing to keep your children safe from a dangerous or toxic home environment?
But rescuing your abuser? Not your job.
You are not God.
You cannot do God’s job.
And whenever we try to take credit for a transformation God has made in the heart of someone around us? Yea, well, that’s playing with fire.
Reprinted with permission from Sarah’s blog. You can purchase Sarah’s book here: ONE FACE: Shed the Mask, Own Your Values, and Lead Wisely.
Sarah McDugal is a branding strategist, leadership speaker and author. She's also a homeschooling single mom who never has enough time to do #allthethings, and sometimes leaves dirty dishes in the sink longer than she probably should.
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