A Cry For Justice

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

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.

15 Comments

  1. MeganC

    Barb . . . This is written with excellence and careful thought. I am so grateful for this article! There is not one point with which I disagree. I have thought about many of these things time and time again. I, too, am happy with calling the enablement I gave my ex husband and my family sin. In fact, I have confessed it and repented of it. I do not feel particularly condemned because I did not grow up with a sense of what a boundary was (for example). In fact, I never even heard the word uttered until I was in my mid-20’s. However . . . now I know. I think, also, that because my boundaries were trampled on, I surely did the same thing to others. Now, I know about that, as well. And, so . . . I best not engage in any sort of boundary-breaking behaviors nor must I allow my own boundaries to fail. And I, too, struggled with depression in my first marriage. Many people told me (and I believed them) that the depression must be from my own sin. But, now I recognize that I was miserable. I would concede to the marriage over and over and felt defeated. When I chose to stay (thereby, “obeying” God), I did not feel the fullness of joy that comes with love Him and loving others . . . I felt as though I were giving into darkness. And the confusion surrounding that decision made the depression worse.

    I know that I have much to work on and, the more I face it and the more I grow, the more joy that comes from developing health in relationships. I fear that those in abusive marriages are stunted, relationally. I was. I have grown leaps and bounds since leaving but there is still a long way to go. We cannot bloom nor develop correctly when we are enduring abuse daily.

    • Thanks Meg. I worked on this post pretty intensely for two days.

      • I agree with Meg. And I think we have these knee-jerk reactions to the word “sin” – the way it has been used against us in the past. You are right – sin is anything that falls short of the glory of God.
        Note also in the Old Testament, in the description of the sacrifices that were to be made for the Hebrews’ sins in the tabernacle.. there was a distinct sacrifice that was to be made for “sins of ignorance”. Ignorance of the best way to handle situations falls short – and is then sin. There IS a difference in degrees of sin, though. A sin of not setting boundaries in ignorance is not the same as what the Abuser does to their victim, I believe.
        But that does not mean we get a free pass to discontinue our own growth.

  2. Diane Mulder

    For me, my life of fear was a sin. And my “trying to be nice” or “trying to show Gods love” were usually my excuse for not standing up for what was right and holding them accountable for their actions. Im growing into the knowledge that justice and grace go hand in hand, and that to engage in dialogue with a Sanballat under the umbrella of trying to show them Christ’s love is more likely to be a move on my part to feed my own ego.
    Im grateful to ACFJ for helping me identify these behaviors so I dont continue to invite abuse into my life.

  3. Good thoughts, Barbara. Well balanced and biblical. I think that we struggle with two erroneous notions sometimes in considering these things: (1) “Victim” = total innocence and lack, therefore, of responsibility, and (2) All “sin” is equal. These are both flawed concepts made popular in our day. A person can be a legitimate “victim” and still fall short of God’s commands, “pray for those who persecute you,” and “rejoice when men revile you and persecute you” (paraphrase). But one sin is not equal to the other. It is vile and ungodly to mistreat others and the failure of the victim to be absolutely mature spiritually does not vindicate the persecutor nor in any way diminish the evil of his/her behavior.

  4. Anonymous

    This is excellent and immensely helpful.

    I will say this about my own situation. There is no way, that I could have stayed in the marriage and plowed my own way through to healing. Just would not have ever happened. Too much abuse and too much damage done. I have heard others say this as well.

    At one point I was counseled not to make something “sin” that was not sin – I’ll just clear my throat here. I am someone who is very sin conscious in and about myself. I have no problem confessing or admitting my sin and in fact am probably guilty for asking forgiveness for the same thing, let’s just say – more than twice. : ) I have always desired for God to have His way in my life. Being taught false doctrines about marriage and truly “idolatry” of marriage, it was hard for me to see that God wanted anything else for me, but to endure the abuse. So, when I relinquished myself to what I was being taught as being God’s will for me, I obviously was not in rebellion against God, but rather doing what I thought He wanted me to do. So, here is a vital point:

    “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.”

    If the people the victim turns to, are blind themselves, and the victim is seeking to find God’s way, but it is hidden and not being brought to the light for him/her, then to burden him/her with the thought that they were “sinning”, could be overwhelming. I don’t think that is what you are saying here. I think you are saying if the person doesn’t examine truths they have been brought or seek to change the old thought patterns, then they may be sinning. I just want to address this other form that I have experienced. I think a better way to say it, applying to these cases, is that those blind guides were sinning and keeping the victim held in a false gospel, that in fact the victim was seeking to be free from. So, once out, to remain in the false conditions to which the victim was held, would be sin, but as long as the victim is looking for the way out of the darkness, I do not think they can be charged with sin. It is so often the sin of the others that holds the victims from getting out. I absolutely do not wish to condone sin in anyway here, nor deny its existence in the areas of wrong thought processes, etc., and the need to be free and changed; but I will say that those changes come easier to some than others. I’m not certain that has to do with the amount of abuse, but perhaps the length of it, I don’t know. It may have to do with the level of Christian maturity, or the intense degree of emotional abuse the victim has suffered, even if they are a mature Christian. I will say, that the further I get out of my abusive situation, the more I see how deadly and dangerous it has been to me – most importantly, even in my relationship with Christ, which is very intimate. Had I been able to see just how much destruction was happening to me, I would have left sooner – but I could not see it. My point is that the longer one stays in abuse and is emotionally tortured and lives in crazy-making, the harder it is to see anything clearly. I think sin can be attributed, when a victim is out and then stays in the same place, and does not attempt to throw off all that has hindered and run to the healing God has for them. They must get up and get on toward healing once they are free of the abuser – but they also must be free to do it at their own pace. I don’t think anyone here on this blog, wants to stay “stuck”. I don’t see what some would call perpetual victims, here on this blog. But I also believe that due to the intense nature of abuse, some may have a harder time recovering or grasping those truths and healing and I don’t think there are any that will fit into the bad counseling of “get over it and get on with it” mentality which comes from counselors and people who have absolutely no knowledge of abuse and how it works and the damage it leaves in its quake.

    • I completely agree with all you said here, Anonymous.

  5. Brenda R

    The past week I have had several sleepless nights. I don’t feel worried, anxious or depressed. Can those things be so deep that I don’t realize they are there? I read the Bible, meditate, and pray through these times and feel at peace. A coupled of years ago I went through a similar sleepless experience. Each night that I would wake up a hymn or song would be on my heart and mind. I would sing that song through and read my Bible until I got too sleepy to stay awake. Sometimes I think God just wants my full attention and what better time than in the middle of the night.

    Today I went to court and finalized the Legal Seperation. I feel guilty because I don’t feel guilty. I have seen church members outside of church lately and they seem down or sympathetic to my “circumstances” when they see me. I don’t feel down. I feel renewed and rescued most of the time. I created boudaries at long last and sticking to them. I am not enabling my X to use me, abuse me etc. I don’t feel like this is sin at all.

    • Annie

      Congrats, Brenda, on this significant step! Maybe you don’t feel down while others do because you see a reality they don’t!

      Barbara, you’re right, it’s such a complex and misunderstood subject. Thanks for such a comprehensive and sensitive treatment of the subject. As we all know, labelling those victim’s behaviors as sins not only heaps unnecessary guilt and blame on victims, but worse, it gives more weapons to abusers and allies of abusers.

      If I look at the way Jesus treated people, He didn’t address the sins of the oppressed in the same way as the sins of the oppressors. He saw the dysfunction of the oppressed as caused by their oppressive environment, and made it a point to extend His wholeness/salvation to them by healing their brokenness. God’s treatment of Adam and Eve in the Garden also shows His distinction between committing sin when deceived and deliberately sinning.

      Isn’t that what Catherine DeLoach Lewis was taking great pains to say, that “co-dependency” (if that word must be used) is a *learned* behavior as a response to unsafe conditions. It is something that victims are forced to resort to, as a result of the situation they find themselves in. They shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for using maladaptive behaviors when those behaviors help them survive. Once they get out of the fog, they can learn to change those maladaptive behaviors because they are precisely that – maladaptive, or “falling short of the glory of God”.

      I am also quite happy to call culturally conditioned and sub-biblical beliefs and behaviors “sin,”, but also acknowledge that that sin is propagated by the Christian church. How can a victim help but think the things that she is culturally conditioned to think? She (or he) does adopts those thinking patterns sincerely, and shouldn’t be blamed for trying her/his best. God doesn’t condemn such sin but graciously opens our eyes and gently shows us where we have gone wrong. That’s very different from the approach of the legalists who “level the field” by insisting that the victim is equally guilty of sin.

  6. healingInHim

    Barbara – Thank you for linking back to this post from https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2015/03/18/victim-blaming-what-should-we-do-about-it/#comment-60756
    I couldn’t comment earlier for various reasons.

  7. NG

    Excellent and applicable for many situations.

  8. Mindy

    Barbara, this is excellent and so helpful…I will be reading and praying through this many times…

  9. Finding Answers

    For the original post and comments generated:

    [……..insert net-speak for wordless ears that hear…….]

    • leaningonhope

      I am so grateful to have found this article. This is such a sensitive subject, and when it comes up I tread carefully. When a friend questions me as to how I am doing or what am I deciding to do about my situation, I find it very difficult to put into words what I am learning; I am not yet sure how to speak on this subject. I am afraid to sound like I either don’t know what I’m talking about, or that I’m “twisting scripture to suit my fancy”.

      I have a friend who recently told me that her view of divorced people (mainly women) changed after she herself was faced with abuse, desertion, and ultimately divorce.

      So, yes, I would also agree that there are things which I have done either in ignorance, or done in my attempts to be the Godly wife, or be the role model, or in submission, or in trying to be respectful, that have enabled my H to continue in his abusive patterns. Yes, some of my behavior had fallen short of God’s glory. I have made a ton of mistakes.

      It is so freeing to no longer be controlled by, or enable, my H’s sin. I say what I see. I put words to my observations. I tell him how it affects me, what he is doing. (In this though I have also had to tread lightly, because he did show me that he could control me by using violence.) But, I am no longer passive, just letting everything go, not saying anything. In the past, I would try so hard to be the submissive wife, or turn the other cheek, win him without a word, forgiven the offenses, etc. But, to the extent that I was kind, or forgiving, or silent, or would submit, or not call out his sin, he would take further advantage of my goodwill or kindnesses. I think the personality has something to do with that, whether or not the offending spouse has a personality that is so selfish or self seeking that they don’t feel remorse or guilt when there is so much mercy or grace granted to them. They act as if they are entitled to it.

      I have conceded to the marriage over and over, have fallen into depression (and a myriad of other illnesses and disorders), I feel defeat, darkness, confusion, and chaos. It’s like we are living under the same roof trying to figure out what to do with this marriage. I say we, but it’s really just me trying to figure it out. He is off doing whatever it is he wants to do, investing in his interests and his pursuits and his family. I continually set boundaries and they are ignored or dismissed. Oh how much I long for a healthy relationship!!

      I am struggling with knowing how to exit. When. There are children involved that I love but aren’t mine. I am more concerned about the effect a separation will have on them than it will their father (my H).

      I don’t know what else to say…again, I am so grateful for all the content on this site. For the writers, the contributors, Barbara, the commenters.

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