Smartly-dressed Mike and his wife Debbie walked into my office for their first session. One look at Debbie revealed that she had been crying, but was trying to hold it together. Mike exuded smug self-confidence. Debbie’s head hung low, Mike’s was held high. As they told their story, details began to emerge.

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Mike and Debbie were in their early thirties with two young boys, ages 2 and 4. Mike was an investment banker, Debbie a stay-at-home mom. When Debbie would share something in the session that made him look bad, one look from Mike would silence her, occasionally mid-sentence. During the session, Mike was calm and collected. As they told their story, it became clear that Mike would leave the family’s home early for work, often not returning until late into the evening. It was Debbie’s job to have dinner ready every evening at six, for at least herself and the children, but Mike felt himself under no obligation to attend dinner, and seldom did. Nor was he under any obligation to let Debbie know where he was or when he would be home. This was not her concern, he said.

In his words, Mike worked hard to provide a nice living and a nice home for them. If she was ungrateful for all he provided them, she could leave. If she did, he said, he would get the best lawyer money could buy and he would make sure that she and the kids didn’t get one penny more than he was obligated to give. He seemed completely, almost pathologically, at ease saying these words.

By all accounts Mike had never laid a hand on his wife or his children, at least so far. (He was seldom in close enough proximity to do so, frankly.) His abuse was entirely emotional and economic. The wife and children regularly attend a church in the area. The husband did not often attend. He didn’t see the need. Towards the end of the icy session, the husband declared, “Go ahead and tell the pastor how bad things are in our marriage. What can he do to help you?”

Over the years, I’ve heard many women say things like:

“I really wish that he would just go ahead and hit me. Then I would know what to do and I’d be able to get the church to help me get out.”

What I have described above is a case of verbal, emotional, psychological and economic abuse. And, though Mike hasn’t laid a hand on Debbie, she is being crushed by him. Brothers and sisters, this is a tragedy. And, sadly it is epidemic in the church.

Domestic abuse can be defined as the desecration of the image of God in one’s spouse or intimate partner through patterns of intentional misuse of power, overtly or covertly, in words or in actions, to gratify self. In the beginning, the Creator formed humankind in his own image (Gen 1:26-27). God breathed a soul having intrinsic worth and dignity into the man of dust (Gen 2:7), formed the woman from his side (Gen 2:21-23), blessed the man and the woman, and gave to them both dominion over the rest of the created order (Gen 1:28). As a desecration of the imago Dei, abuse is a violation of the inherent worth and dignity of the God-breathed human soul.

To “desecrate” is “to treat (a sacred place or thing) with violent disrespect.” Because the image of God is sacred, an assault upon one of his image-bearers is an attack upon God himself. Physical violence is tied to the imago Dei in Gen 9:6, “Whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

But, the Scriptures also describe forms of violence that aren’t merely physical. Verbal assault is also tied to the image of God in James 3:7-9. Speaking of the tongue and its power, James asserts:

“For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”

Note the use of Genesis 1-2 language in James 3: “beast and bird”, “reptile and sea creature.” James references our creation mandate as image bearers who fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the rest of God’s creatures. Indeed, we have tamed and subdued the creatures of the earth successfully. Yet we use the most powerful of weapons, the tongues our Creator has graciously given to us to bless others, to verbally assault and curse those whom God has specially created in his likeness, all while blessing God simultaneously! What hypocrisy! How can we praise God and denigrate those who bear his image?

God has expressly told us how we are to use our words:

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Eph 4:29)

Mike’s words tore down his wife, they were inappropriate, and they certainly did not give grace her – or to anyone. Mike had even mastered the use of non-verbal communication to incite fear and to control his wife.

Economic mistreatment of a husband and father to his family is just as abusive. Remember what Paul said to Timothy? “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Tim 5:8) Mike’s threats to withhold financial provision from his family placed him in a class that Paul called, “worse than an unbeliever.”

Abuse, in any form, overt or covert, in words or in actions, is an act of oppression against one’s spouse. It’s oppressive because it is a desecration of the image of God in the other person.

“The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble…he does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (Ps 9:9, 12)

“O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.” (Ps 10:17-18)

God responds to the oppressed by hearing their cry and offering them safety. God responds to oppressors with justice. Shouldn’t God’s people respond in the same way?

1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience physical abuse at some point in their lifetime. Those who have experienced severe verbal, emotional, psychological and economic abuse at the hands of an oppressor are even more common. Statistically, there are several Mikes and several Debbies in your church. How will you care for them?

(This blog was originally published on the Association of Biblical Counselors blog: https://christiancounseling.com/blog/counseling/recognizing-and-respond-to-domestic-abuse/

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