A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Caught In The Crossfire

I know a lot of people who frequent this blog have fled the church; a recent sermon illustrated for me one of the reasons it is difficult for abuse survivors to feel comfortable in the church. Before I continue, I want to emphasize that I talked with the pastor who gave the sermon after the service and he both acknowledged that he might want to clarify some things in future sermons, but also that in his view, women in abusive relationships should absolutely leave and protect themselves; he saw leaving an abusive marriage as depending on God. I say this so we do not judge him too harshly– this is a preacher who has the right view on fleeing abuse, but his sermon could have used more sensitivity to abuse victims.

His sermon was quite good up until a point. He talked about God’s desire for us to have joy. He emphasized that a bunch of stodgy Presbyterians got together and reasoned from scripture that man’s chief end is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever” (this is from the Westminster Catechism – in fact it is the very first statement). So good so far, and a breath of fresh air since us Reformed folk seem to always dwell on how miserable we are. He illustrated from Scripture how God desires for us to have joy.

The problem came when he got to why we sometimes don’t have joy. His answer: because we are guilty of idolatry. He then spent the rest of the sermon illustrating that we place our own wants before God and that’s why we become joyless. Finding our fulfillment in Christ leads to joy and no circumstances can take away this joy. And then he concluded and was done.

Emotionally, this is a hard message to take, namely because he didn’t discuss the effects of external events or people on our well being. Are you really going to tell a woman who is being thrust against the wall by her husband and is miserable that she has an idolatry problem? Because I guarantee you if there was any such woman in the congregation, that’s what she heard.

Now, as I said, I approached the preacher after the sermon and told him my concerns and how an abuse victim would have heard what he said (and how I would have heard it when I was at my lowest point). His response: “if you heard me saying that life always feels great and there is no sorrow, then I need to re-think my presentation. It is RIGHT and GOOD to feel hurt and sorrow when evil is done to us. There is a difference between happiness and joy, and joy is not always sunshine and roses. While the Apostles suffered greatly, they praised God through it, even though it was surely painful”.

When I told him that many victims do not have the Apostle’s confidence that God is on their side because the church tells them they must remain and submit to suffering, his answer was “that’s spiritual abuse”, clearly believing that kind of thing goes on very rarely. I am glad that he understands that calling women to stay in abusive marriages is spiritual abuse, but I do hope in the future he will factor this into his sermons (and he said he would).

I wonder how much differently an abused person would react to a sermon that said “if you do not have joy then you are placing something above God; however, joy is not always an absence of pain. Tragedy and people in this world will hurt you, and it is right that you feel pain from those things. Joyful people will suffer for a time, but they can have confidence that God is on their side and does not enjoy seeing them in pain.”

I bring all of this up because it takes a pretty strong heart to walk into a church after being abused and hear sermons aimed at a culture that needs to be rebuked for its idolatry and self-centeredness; it is easy to get caught in the crossfire. In this case you have a pastor who is sympathetic to the abused, and still his sermon would injure someone vulnerable who is returning to church after experiencing abuse. For me, I am glad that God has shown me enough truth and given me enough strength to not only endure such a sermon, but to go up and address the speaker after the fact and seek clarity. Not all are at that place yet; I certainly wasn’t even six months ago, and whose to say I won’t have a bad week?

So here is a question – how do we survive the crossfire? Sitting in a church there is going to be material preached that will injure vulnerable hearts. Even the most compassionate of pastors, if he does not have experience with abuse, is not going to always be able to preach the most sensitive of messages. Reforming sermons to be sensitive to abuse victims is not going to happen any time soon.

It’s a hard question because I think this kind of thing could easily keep those out of churches who want and need it the most, and I don’t really have any answers. I think most just end up waiting until they feel strong enough, but are not those who are most weak and vulnerable the ones who need the church the most? How are we to get “strong enough” when the very place we should go to grow seems like a war-zone? Consider the words of our Savior:

[28] Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. [29] Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. [30] For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV)

How can we be the church and not be REST for the weariest among us? Isn’t it exactly the wrong thing that people have to work at being strong enough to walk into a church?

And yet, when we look at the examples of sermons in Acts, we see Peter, the very man who spent three years walking with and learning from the Savior quoted above, giving sermons that are “bold” and do not hesitate to call people to repentance. How do we resolve this tension? How can we be both “bold” in a culture that is idolatrous and still be a place of rest for the weary? All I know is that when the weary are getting caught in the crossfire, we’re doing it wrong. We must find ways to be bold and present a message of repentance without compromising the Good News that Jesus gives us weary folks rest.

19 Comments

  1. I am fighting crying right now. There are moments of validation that strike so deeply. I feel like, “How did you know?” You said–Emotionally, this is a hard message to take, namely because he didn’t discuss the effects of external events or people on our well being. Are you really going to tell a woman who is being thrust against the wall by her husband and is miserable that she has an idolatry problem? Because I guarantee you if there was any such woman in the congregation, that’s what she heard.

    When I went to my pastor in 1998 and told him about the horrible physical abuse my husband was inflicting on me and the kids, he told me to fix dinner for Jesus but serve it to R. He also told me, and I quote exactly because I will NEVER forget these words, “You didn’t create the monster, but you have certainly fed the beast. You have allowed R to set himself up as an idol in your home.”

    • That was like pouring caustic soda into your already gaping wounds!

    • Jeff Crippen

      ANFL – I wish I could talk to that pastor! “Well then, Mr. Pastor, why don’t you come right on over to my house and tear that idol down then?” I suspect the good pastor had quite the low view of women. And how, pray tell, does fixing a nice dinner for the idol topple the idol? Pious-sounding words coming from a hollow man.

      • LOL Jeff, that’s brilliant.

      • joepote01

        “And how, pray tell, does fixing a nice dinner for the idol topple the idol?”

        My thoughts, exactly, Jeff! If the pastor believed that to be the case, then he sure wasn’t giving advice on how to change the situation.

  2. Lynette D

    Sadly the church thinks there is a cut and dry solution for everything and they base their sermons around it. There are a lot of gray areas.

  3. It takes a pretty strong heart to walk into a church after being abused and hear sermons aimed at a culture that needs to be rebuked for its idolatry and self-centeredness; it is easy to get caught in the crossfire. … How do we survive the crossfire? Sitting in a church there is going to be material preached that will injure vulnerable hearts…

    oooh yes! (you’re s’posed to hear lots of pain packed into that oooh)

    Many times I’ve lacked the strength to go up to the preacher afterwards and try to tell him about it. When I HAVE tried, he usually hurts me more by conveying that he thinks this kind of thing goes on very rarely. I take this to mean that he thinks victims are so rare that he does’nt have to consider them when writing his sermons. therefore we victims don’t count, we are invisible, our complaints are insignificant and don’t need to be taken seriously.

    Never once have I seen a preacher’s jaw drop or consternation sweep across his face when I’ve tried to point out what was lacking or unbalanced in his sermon and the crossfire that peppered my heart with shrapnel as a result. Never once have I heard a preacher reply “Oh heaven help me! I’ve ignored victims and their pain! Please, please forgive me! Please help me get this right in the future!”

    How can the church be both “bold” in a culture that is idolatrous and still be a place of rest for the weary? I believe it starts with challenging and correcting the wrong doctrines on things like suffering and divorce, e.g. what you said Jeff S about how church tells victims they must remain and submit to suffering. We need to keep pointing out the incongruity of their traditional doctrines and how these doctrines lead to absurdities that endorse and enable cruelty.

    I am going to think more about this, but I believe that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:27-32 is a good example of a sermon that covers ALL the bases. Jesus rebuked lustful adulterous fantasies, but he then said something about divorce that the women in the audience who were victims of treacherous divorce would have heard as an amazingly compassionate validation of their innocence and a recognition of their suffering.

    We need preaching like that. It doesn’t have to be either/or; it can be both/and. Preachers can both rebuke the hard-hearted sinful idolaters AND show compassion towards the wounded victims of sinners. Both are in the congregation. Both need to be addressed.

    If preachers don’t address the victims, they risk marginalising and silencing them.

    • joepote01

      Well stated, Barbara!

  4. Thank you Heather. We love doing this blog, and we love to know it is helping people.

  5. Jeff — This is so well-written and spot-on. I love this part:

    “All I know is that when the weary are getting caught in the crossfire, we’re doing it wrong. We must find ways to be bold and present a message of repentance without compromising the Good News that Jesus gives us weary folks rest.”

    I have been a church-goer my entire life but there have been two times in my life where I couldn’t bring myself to church. The first was when my parents died and the second was when I left my ex husband. Both times I was in shock, intense grief and confusion. I was emotionally spent and exhausted every day. Ironically, I could not bring myself to church. I could not bear to hear a sermon or even worship. My heart was so raw that even singing would bring about an unmatched pain that would send me into fits of tears and then embarrassment. I longed for rest for my soul . .. and I could not find it there in that building. God DID provide me with rest . . . but it was not found where one would expect it. It was found in the solace of my bedroom at night, alone with my Bible . .. or in my pain and in my tears, crying out to Him. It was found in kindness of random people and in helping others. It was found in my children and in hope.

    • joepote01

      Megan, I understand completely! I’ve been there several times, myself.

      Where church was just too much to bear…required too much pretending I wasn’t hurting when I was….too much pretending I was full of joy when I was full of sorrow and pain…too much grace required for thoughtless words at a time when my emotional resources were too depleted…

      Thankfully, God has always been faithful through all of those dark days.

      Thank you, for expressing it so well!

      • Thanks so much, Joe. I REALLY appreciate your understanding.

      • joepote01

        :-) cyber-hugs…

      • :)

  6. Isn’t it exactly the wrong thing that people have to work at being strong enough to walk into a church?

    ^That.

  7. joepote01

    A very good post, Jeff S! You have presented the issues very fairly, and very sympathetically to all parties.

    I admire your willingness to approach the pastor with your concerns. I seldom speak out in regard to messages presented to large groups, though I have become much more vocal with expressing my views and concerns in smaller groups.

  8. Dory

    It IS hard to take. I am not a woman thrust up against a wall. I am a woman who gave my life to a man who devotes his thought life to fantasy everything. The pain I feel inside of being so unloved by the man who promised to love honor and cherish is unbearable. He has admitted to things and promised to change. But after seven years, no real heart change and still unloved. What about neglect? What about physical abandonment? What about a hardened heart that is unwilling to restore trust in the relationship? Or am I too “selfish” for wanting to be loved by a husband (the ‘head’ of the wife)? Yes we ARE to turn to Christ, but when married, we wives are also “subject” to his caretaking, be it good or bad.

    • Hi Dory, welcome to the blog. :) I think you will find lots of our material helpful. Abuse does not have to be physical to be classed as abuse. Chronic coldness and neglect and sinful/life-sapping addictions are abusive to the other spouse just as much and often more than physical violence. Please read our definition of abuse in the sidebar, and check out our various categories and tags. I think you might also find the books we recommend helpful as well – check them out at our Resources tab.

    • Dory,
      I understand your pain :(

      Believe me, as the author of this article I completely understand that being thrust up against a wall is not the only form of abuse. I used that example here because it is the most understandable form for those who don’t “get it” (like the pastor I talked to). In my own situation it was neglect, not physical abuse, so we are definitely on the same page.

      In fact, one thing I say often when I talk about this subject is that all abuse is emotional abuse. This is because if it was just about healing the wounds, whether they are physical, financial, sexual, or whatever, most of that stuff heals eventually. But it’s the emotional destruction that each of those forms leads to that persists and tears us apart. You can’t just deal with a broken arm and think you’ve healed the broken trust. And that trust can be broken many different ways: physical is but one of them.

      Let me encourage you that you are not “selfish” for wanting to be loved. Having a sense of “self” and understanding your needs is not the same as being “selfish”. I know that the church often confuses the two (see the article I wrote yesterday about this), and I experienced this acutely. I found the only way to live in peace was to diminish completely: to lose a desire for goodness in my life. And this diminishing was not so that Christ could increase, but so that my ex could increase. This is not the way the God of the Bible wants us to live.

      I hope you find some encouragement on this site. I don’t know the answers about how to not get caught in the crossfire at church, but here on this blog are bloggers and commenters who “get it”, can be an encouragement, and are safe for you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,048 other followers

%d bloggers like this: