Enabling? Sins of the victim? Tetchy topics indeed!
In my interview with Catherine DeLoach Lewis Part 2, Cathy talked about the term codependency and how the victim may have enabled abuse although the victim is in no way responsible or guilty for the abuse. She also talked about patterns of sin she has observed in clients who are victim-survivors of domestic abuse.
I’ve received a couple of emails about this, showing that some readers were concerned about the idea of the victim enabling the abuse, and were troubled by the use of the word “sin” for some of the responses of survivors.
I know this is a very tricky subject. I’m going to attempt in this post to amplify and hopefully clarify what I was getting at in my questions to Cathy and my comment in the thread of that post. This post is entirely my own thoughts, not Cathy’s.
In regards to my experiences of abuse, I think that most of my enabling behaviours and beliefs were due to (a) cultural conditioning about what women ought to be like, and (b) poor Christian doctrine about what Christian virtue looks like. I won’t go into the secular cultural conditioning that most affected me and how in the initial part of my first marriage that conditioning led me to respond to the abuse in ways that were not wise and were enabling the abuser. But I will set out the poor doctrine about Christian virtue that definitely influenced me to behave in ways that enabled the abuse to become more entrenched. This poor doctrine could be summed up as:
- over-emphasis on submission, peace-keeping and long-suffering
- ‘meekness’ misunderstood as timidity, self-effacement and un-assertiveness
- the inextricable coupling of psychological forgiveness and relational reconciliation
- insufficient emphasis on the practical skills and Christian virtues of
- standing against evil
- exposing sin in the camp
- spirit-led disputation: demolishing arguments and every high thing that sets itself up against the knowledge of God
- fleeing from persecution where possible, and
- refusing to comply with wickedness and falsehood.
Now, it could be a moot point whether or not we call such culturally conditioned and sub-biblical beliefs and behaviors “sin,” or whether we just call them “erroneous beliefs and behaviours that do not align with God’s truth”. But it’s worth asking, is there much difference between “sins” and “beliefs and behaviors that do not align with God’s truth”? And if there is a difference, what is it?
Personally, I am happy to think of my culturally conditioned, sub-biblical beliefs and behaviors as “sins” (falling short of the glory of God). And I’m more than glad to do the self examination and careful assessment needed to cast those lopsided beliefs away and ask God to renew my mind and my behavior by consolidating in me His full and life-giving truth.
In the field of abuse, I think the word “sin” has been for too long commandeered by the Pharisees to falsely guilt victims of abuse. Maybe we need to take the word back: maybe we need to use the word “sin” to label sub-biblical beliefs and cultural conditioning that keeps people trapped in abuse and constrained in flat lives when they could have life and life abundantly.
One email correspondent asked, “Is having depression a sin?” I’m happy to be challenged on this, but here’s my tentative formulation: Depression is a sin only to the extent that the beliefs and thinking one has when one is ‘depressed’ (whatever that means) are beliefs and thoughts that fall short of the glory and truth of God. God does not just want us to live in just propositional truth, He desires us to have truth in the inward parts (yikes, that means our emotions too!). And His Spirit and Word are able to divide bone from marrow, soul from spirit, and discern the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. If we are willing and have good guidance and encouragement, we can sift through and shed our sub-biblical patterns of thinking and conduct which will often bring our mood back up in the process.
When the Jewish exiles mourned in Babylon, to what extent were they simply expressing despondency and grief as natural emotions that accompany loss? To what extent were they crying in anguish because of oppression from the Babylonians? To what extent were they feeling low due to deserved pangs of conscience for their idolatry and wrong beliefs which had preceded their exile? And to what extent were they feeling down but burying their faces in their pain so they didn’t face their guilt for idolatry and could avoid the hard work of changing their patterns of thinking and conduct so they wouldn’t be idolatrous any more?
This is complicated stuff.
When a person is in a toxic relationship and consequently feels low, sad and lacking in energy, I would argue she or he is not content with being abused, and that is a sign of chronic mental health, not chronic mental illness! By the way, I did not invent this notion, I’ve borrowed it from Allen Wade. So “depression” can be an unhelpful word because it can all too easily pathologize the victim while rendering the abuser’s actions invisible.
But sometimes a victim’s depressed mood may be related to her belief (an erroneous belief) that she can prevent the abuse by being the conventional ‘good wife’ — whether by the world’s conventions, or Christian conventions. And to the degree that she may be resistant to examining these conventional notions — and shedding them when they are not consonant with God’s truth — then to that extent she perhaps could be said to be sinning. And since she has been taught and conditioned into these notions by the culture and the church, then the guilt of her sin is less because she did what she did in ignorance. But she still needs to repent; she needs to do the work of changing her thinking and behavior so that it lines up more with Biblical principles.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
And now, brothers and sisters, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. . . . Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you. . . ( Acts 3:17-20)
. . . I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (1 Tim. 1:13-14)
And if a victim of abuse is anxious or finds it hard to sleep because her mind is racing, I am inclined to say that she has a lot of important things to think and be worried about — which acknowledges that the victim has genuine reasons to be apprehensive and a lot of trauma to work through. I don’t believe in labeling such anxiety as sin; I believe in acknowledging the reality and danger of abusers’ conduct, the polylemmas that victims face, and the severity of psychological wounds that abuse inflicts on their souls. But anxiety can be sinful when it eclipses and blacks out our prayer lives, or when we worry about trivial things and forget important things of eternal consequence.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6)
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . . Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:25, 34)
I was also asked “Is having a lack of boundaries a sin?” When someone has weak boundaries due to cultural conditioning or a lousy upbringing, it would be unfair to condemn her for lacking boundaries. But when someone has come to understand that her lack of boundaries and lack of assertiveness has been enabling a character-disturbed person walk all over her, she surely has some responsibility to develop wise and firm boundaries, so that her body and mind is a temple of the Holy Spirit, not a playground of the devil (cf 1 Cor. 6:19)
So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (James 4:17)
Likewise, it may not always be sinful to suppress one’s pain with over-activity. Sometimes, it can be a very helpful way of dealing with pain, so long as it is not done indefinitely. And suppressing pain with over-activity may be a trained behavior — one especially encouraged by legalistic Christians who suppress emotions and whose idea of a good Christian life involves a relentless earning of brownie points.
However, when a survivor of abuse is in a sufficiently safe situation and has adequate social and therapeutic support, suppressing emotional pain can be a way of quenching the Holy Spirit — for does not the Spirit want us to bring all this stuff to the light for Him to heal it?
Let’s ponder Romans 12:2 again:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This is not a matter of learning a new bullet point list of sins to avoid — “I must never suppress my pain with over-activity; I must never have the slightest thought of worry about being able to feed and clothe my kids; any time I slip up on maintaining firm boundaries it will be a sin!” . . . whack whack whack goes the whip on my back. . .
No; it’s about developing Christian maturity so we can test and discern, using the whole counsel of God with all its checks and balances to weigh up what is the good and acceptable and perfect thing to do in any given situation.
As always, please tweak or correct me if you thing I’ve got any of this wrong.