When victims don’t look like victims: women burdened with sins and led astray by various passions
I work as a biblical counselor and have met many women who are in abusive relationships, physical and/or emotional. Usually women that finally seek counseling are ready to make a decision about whether to stay with the abuser or break away from a long-term domestic violence situation. Sometimes the woman’s guilt and self-condemnation has deterred her from making a decision about leaving the abusive husband. These are women that are not what the world would call “innocent victims,” because in some way they have fallen short of what people think a good wife should be like, so they believe they are unable to seek a divorce. But just as abusers are not stereotypical, victims do not always look like victims.
Most of us have read books or watched movies about what an abuser looks like, generally portrayed as the beer-drinking, lower socioeconomic bully who gets drunk, comes home and terrorizes his family by beating his wife and children. We have also seen (thanks to Hollywood) the other extreme, a well-dressed, professional, wealthy, and powerful abuser who uses intimidation and fear to control his wife and family. But what has been neatly presented to us by popular media is too stereotyped: abusers come from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and a variety of professions.
In the popular stereotypes, the victims are portrayed as either timid, submissive housewives who married a high school sweetheart, or as attractive, outgoing women who got bamboozled by a charming rich guy. Both of these types of victims exist, and I am in no way dismissing that their struggle isn’t real and valid. But here I am going to talk about what Hollywood does not present because it would be harder for people to sympathize with these victims. Women who may not be the sweet, demure, wife that did nothing wrong, and live with a brutal abuser who consistently uses her face as a punching bag. I am going to tell you my story.
I was married at age 20, two years before I was born-again, to a (self-proclaimed) Christian man who did not drink, smoke, take drugs, or chase women. He is well educated, a little geeky, funny, and loves to be the center of attention. And he is an abuser. He is a computer guy that attends church regularly and appears to be a good family man. When I met my husband-to-be, I was 18 years old and had not graduated high school. I had a low self-esteem and no prospects for a future. Because I came from an educated family, my academic failure was a source of extreme embarrassment and shame.
Into my life walks a man who pays attention to me, makes me laugh, and takes me to nice restaurants on dates. He doesn’t try to take advantage of me, and my parents love him because he is educated and has a good job. Since they, too, were concerned about my future, this man seemed like the answer to their concerns. So, not because I was in love with him but because there didn’t seem to be any other option, I married him. I wish I could say that I didn’t know he was abusive until after the wedding, but that isn’t true. While we were engaged, he threw me down a full flight of stairs. I learned later that victims return to their abusers an average of ten times.
After we were married, I lived with constant contention and fear of retaliation if I said something he didn’t like. As too many women know, the abuse consisted of so much more. But I was dealing with a lot of hurt and sin in my own heart. I felt a lot of disgrace because I did not graduate from high school. I was employable because I had some secretarial and bookkeeping skills, but the stigma of being a high school drop out was huge, and I carried the weight of that shame into my forties.
Socially, I am out going and can talk easily to people. I am adventurous and fun-loving. My ex-husband referred to me as feisty, and it is true – not a meek and quiet woman. I had a temper and a very sarcastic tongue. (I use the past tense because since I became a Christian, the Lord has done a mighty work in my heart and mind, but it took years to find victory.) I was sexually abused as a small child, and as a result, I had a warped view of sex. I was promiscuous during my teen years.
2 Timothy 3:2-8 tells us —
“For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith.” (Italics mine)
I developed a habit of using pornography soon after I was born-again, which piled shame on top of shame. The older neighbor man who abused me as a child exposed me to pornography at the age of five. Much of my anger stemmed from the embarrassment and self-hatred that I was a woman struggling with a man’s sin. (I’ve since learned that women are the fastest growing demographic who are getting into habitual use of pornography.) In the early 1980’s, pornography was not discussed almost at all in the church, and as the years went by and the internet made porn much more available, pastors would address their admonishment towards men. I felt more alone in my sin and shame, and the enemy had me convinced I was the only woman who struggled with pornography.
When the anger at myself was directed at others, I finally got help and admitted my struggle to my pastor’s wife. We met for counseling a few times before she and her husband went back to California, leaving me alone again in my sin. And during all of this time, I was experiencing the physical, mental, and emotional torment of an abusive marriage. My husband was not aware of my misuse of pornography. Seven years into the marriage, I committed adultery. He was not aware of my affair until I told him. Surprisingly to me, he did not hit me when he found out. He just called me an adulteress and would remind me of my transgression every time he was angry. The name calling and accusations continued for years, even after we were divorced.
“…weak women burdened with sins and led astray by various passions…” Not all victims fit this scripture. But I did. I want to clarify that during these years, I was regularly attending church, seeking God with all of my heart and mind, repenting and confessing my sin to my best friend who was my pastor’s wife, seeking counsel, and praying. I walked away from the man I was having an affair with and stayed with my abusive husband. One of the reasons I stayed was because I had a promise from God of a child. I dealt with ten years of infertility and ended up adopting a child, but that is another story. My husband accused me constantly because I could not have children and I did not have a job. And yet I was holding fast to my God and believing that He could do a miracle in my husband’s heart and heal our marriage.
As is the rule with domestic violence abusers, my husband did not change and the abuse continued. When our daughter was a baby, he pushed her into a crosswalk with a car coming to prove he had the right of way, and if the car had hit the stroller, he would have sued the driver. This is just one of the ways he used our child to torment me and keep the control. It wasn’t until my daughter was four years old and she walked in on him pinning me down on the sofa with his 6’3” body, threatening me with his finger in my face, that I heard the Lord say our daughter was not to grow up thinking any man can treat a woman that way, no matter what his title. It was then that I had the courage to finally leave him and seek a divorce.
I did not give all the examples of his mental, emotional, and physical violence because I want to acknowledge how not all of us that are in abusive situations are innocent in our relationships. I was mouthy and knew how to push his buttons. Please understand that this does NOT justify any type of abuse. I say this to free women like me who may be “burdened with sins” and feeling there is no hope for them to get free of the abuser because of their own sin. When we confess and repent, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). The difference with the abuser is there is no repentance or recognition of wrong doing. We do not “deserve” to be hit, kicked, slapped, punched, or emotionally tormented. Jesus does not treat His bride this way — EVER.
Well-intentioned Christians told me what many women hear in the Church, “God hates divorce!” It was not a decision I came to lightly because I did believe that divorce is not God’s heart for us. But the problem is the Church has wielded this scripture as a weapon and has destroyed any hope for us to ever be free of physical and emotional abuse. We are stuck, even though it is the abuser who has broken the covenant, and condemned to a life of misery and bondage because he (or she) does not repent. Even if the Church supports the victim getting to safety and separating from the abuser, divorce and remarriage are not an option.
I had begged my husband for years to divorce me since he had a “biblical” reason because of my adultery. He refused. Abusers do not want to give up the control they have over their victims. When I filed for divorce and had him served with a restraining order, he called our pastor and told him I was the only woman he would ever love. He was remarried six months after our divorce was final.
At the time of my divorce, I had only had a high school education and some administrative skills with which I could obtain a job. I had no financial recourse. But the Lord showed me He wanted to do so much more IN me, FOR me, and THROUGH me. He gave me the scripture from Matthew 6:33, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will give to you as well.” He changed my heart from hating the idea of going back to school to loving it. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration and a Masters of Science in Marriage, Family, and Child Therapy. I obtained extensive training in domestic violence victim counseling. I accomplished all of this as a single mom, working full time, and attending school full time. I remained single for 13 years as I focused on raising my daughter (but still having to deal with the abuser regarding parenting time).
I did not get remarried until my daughter was 18 and going off to college. I am now married to a wonderful man who respects and cherishes me, something I had never experienced. We are going to celebrate our sixth anniversary in August. I entered a Christ-centered recovery program for my irresponsible behavior regarding pornography (my struggle with sexual sin is another story that I share to encourage women who deal with that shame), and have experienced sobriety for four years. My encouragement to victims who are “burdened with sins” is to seek (good) counseling, work through the sin and shame, and find the freedom for which Christ set you free (Galatians 5:1) — in all areas of your life.
There is a hope that burns within my heart – Stuart Townend.
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Many thanks from the ACFJ team to the woman who wrote this guest post.
With Confidence, Draw Near is a sermon by Dr Liam Goligher which may be helpful for anyone who is trying to break an addiction or mortify a besetting sin. The sermon is part of Liam Goligher’s Hebrews series.