“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.”
As we seek to understand God’s way for us in the midst of an abusive relationship, there are times when the Scriptures can provoke us to doubt or fear the heart of the One who loves us. The Scriptures indeed acknowledge that there are times when enduring harsh or inappropriate treatment serves as a powerful testimony and can bring glory to God. But too often we are inclined to believe that, if we are suffering in marriage, we are called to pray, perfect ourselves to attempt to earn our abuser’s love, and hope for change.
But what if a hostile husband’s behaviors have nothing to do with a lack of understanding, a difficult phase in his life, his struggles at work, or a traumatic childhood? What if the one with whom you share your bed is an utterly self-absorbed, abusive – even wicked – man? What if he knows exactly what he is doing, doesn’t care if you are hurting and uses your faith to keep you bound to him? Does your commitment to sacrifice yourself to his will minister to him or merely enable him? If it is the latter, you must ask yourself: Is that what God would have me do?
Some in the church insist that we should not contest suffering at the hands of our spouse, asserting that it must be within God’s divine will – to teach us obedience and endurance and to allow us to share in the fellowship of the Lord’s suffering.
Really? Is that consistent with the example our Lord set? Did He really lay Himself bare and allow Himself to be tortured so that wickedness might triumph? That is foolishness and needs to be clarified from a biblical perspective, specifically when it comes to abuse in marriage.
Looking at the totality of Scripture, is an abused wife called to remain in an abusive home for life? Some contemporary churches would say ‘yes.’ One of the oft-quoted verses that seem to support this sentiment was penned by the Apostle Peter, who wrote, “Likewise you women be submissive to your husbands, so that if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by your chaste and respectful behavior…” (I Peter 3:1-2)
This section of Peter’s letter immediately follows a section urging servants to bear up under suffering from unreasonable masters, and highlights our Lord’s own terrible suffering as a basis of comparison, so we are initially prone to accept that suffering to the point of death in marriage is an honorable calling. But, Jesus didn’t suffer to promote suffering, but for a profound, redemptive purpose.
So let’s take a step back and ask, “What does redemptive love look like?” Let us look not only at the Lord’s final days but also at His character, and some of his dealings during His ministry.
First of all, Jesus did not treat all people the same. To the seeking and downtrodden, He offered hope, grace and healing. Yet, the arrogant legalists, those who put on a good show but whose hearts were hardened to the things of God, He very harshly condemned. When they tested Him or crossed Him, He was neither gentle nor accommodating toward them. He called them out for their hypocrisy.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Matthew 23:27-28
In another encounter, Jesus condemned the religious elite for honoring those who sacrificed their material possessions to essentially purchase good standing in the eyes of the Pharisees while neglecting the primary needs of their families. The mere perception of righteousness was an offensive contradiction to the practical essence of faith. The Pharisees began the encounter by criticizing Jesus for not insisting that His disciples wash properly before eating, as we see here:
“Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God, he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.’[i]” Matthew 15:2-8
Rather than enabling these religious people, Jesus consistently skewered them for their arrogance and left them to their own ends, saying to them at one point, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” John 9:41
He didn’t go chasing after those unwilling to receive the gospel, but rather instructed the disciples to “shake the dust off their feet as a testimony”[ii] against entire towns unwilling to receive His message, and our Lord Himself adjures us not to attempt to spiritually invest in or make ourselves spiritually vulnerable to the hard-hearted:
“Do not cast your pearls before swine and do not give what is holy to dogs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn and tear you to pieces.” Matthew 7:6
Wise counsel, indeed, particularly when dealing with those who are treacherous.
Furthermore, from what we know, Jesus did not spend His entire life or even the majority of it subject to daily torment. If that were so, then perhaps we might conclude that all of us as His followers might be expected to do the same. While many innocent suffer unjustly in this life, certainly if God provides a way of escape, they would be free to accept it. In fact, on this matter it is important to note that the servants mentioned in I Peter were likely indentured, meaning that their term of service might be a matter of several years. Servant-hood was rarely a lifelong commitment (unless a servant chose to remain with his master). It was a temporary one, and freedom and the opportunity for another life was perceivably within reach.
Not so for the wife of an abuser if she remains. Of course, a detractor might say, “But marriage IS a lifelong commitment.” I would respond that the expectation of lifelong matrimony also carries with it understood, mutual obligations to love, honor and cherish. When those vows are not merely broken, but habitually and irretrievably shattered, so too is the covenant at the hands of the willful offender.
We must also acknowledge that Jesus never compromised Himself for the sake of anything less than God’s divine purpose. He was never called to be less than He was. When some rejected Him, He walked away. [It is important to remember this because too often as abuse victims we tend to compromise ourselves until we are emotionally bankrupt. And sacrificing ourselves willingly to the whims of a wicked man does not soften his heart, it only empowers him. The more you give him, the more he will gladly take and then contend for more.]
Jesus did not subject Himself to needless suffering. During His ministry, when those who despised Him sought to harm or kill Him, He fled. (Luke 4:30) Was He wrong to do so? Of course not. He had been given an appointed time to endure, not as a victim, but for our sake and His glory. Similarly, if remaining with an abuser only incurs multiplied suffering, is it right to leave for the truly redemptive purposes of restoration and healing for both a wife and any children, to break the cycle of cruelty in the home, and even to pronounce righteous judgment on the unrepentant sinner – for his ultimate good? Yes, it is. The Apostle Paul said just as much.
“I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” I Corinthians 5:5
Our Lord also shows us that we cannot be nice to evil – we must confront it and dismiss it. During His temptations in the desert, Jesus put Satan in his place. He refused to listen to twisted Scriptures and lies. He wasn’t gentle, and He didn’t pray for His enemy or try to make friends. Neither did He second-guess Himself or suffer any regret when He drove the money-changers out of the temple. He refused to tolerate anything that perverted God’s message or His intentions.
Above all, in Jesus’ sacrifice we see a uniquely divine purpose. We do not see a victim, we see a lamb led willingly to slaughter for the Father’s highest calling – redemption. Jesus laid down His life to restore His one-on-one relationship with His bride. His life was not taken from Him. He willingly surrendered it – and took it up again in His perfect timing.
And although it is difficult to comprehend, Jesus had a choice. His death was subject to His will. He made a conscious decision to submit to God’s plan – for a higher, redemptive purpose. He could have escaped if He had wanted to. He could have said ‘No’ to the crucifixion.
“Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” Matthew 26:53
“No one has taken it [My life] away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” John 10:18
And, if there had been any other means of accomplishing our salvation, He would have taken it.
“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” Matthew 26:39
We must also recognize that our Lord’s suffering was not perpetual, it was temporary, and He endured to secure a glorious outcome. Jesus endured the cross, “for the joy set before Him.”[iii] What He foresaw was the unsurpassable joy of eternal reconciliation with His beloved bride, His church, beyond the tomb. Yes, He suffered to redeem even wicked men, if they are willing, but not to empower or enable them. Neither does the Holy Spirit pour Himself into hearts hostile to Him.
He laid down His life for His friends, not His enemies.
“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13
Now we must acknowledge that there are wicked people who call themselves believers. Should we accommodate them? Absolutely not. The Apostle Paul identifies a “so-called brother” whose life betrays a heart full of rebellion and wickedness. He calls upon the church to remove him – and others like him – from the body.
“I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler [verbal abuser], or a drunkard, or a swindler [extortionist]—not even to eat with such a one. But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES.” I Corinthians 5:9-11, 13 (emphasis added)
Such a one must be understood by their conduct to be an unbeliever, in spite of what his mouth speaks. And it is right for the church to discipline such a person for his conduct – and, I might add, to protect his wife.
So what about that Scripture in I Peter directed urging wives to attempt to “win” their disobedient husbands? I would say that the Scripture references a man who is “disobedient to the word,” which likely references an unbeliever. He is not described here as wicked. There is a huge difference. It also says, he “may” be won; not “will.” There is no promise there, only a hope, and if a husband turns, praise God! But what if this man is not merely disobedient, but evil? And what if he is not “won over?” What if the man has no intention of changing and, in fact, appreciates the power he holds over his respectful, submissive wife?
The issue is whether her sacrificial love has a redemptive purpose or whether it simply empowers and enables an evil man. It also borders on the incredulous to say that, in practicality, our marriage vows are meaningless. The church should identify and put out of the church an unbeliever who makes such a mockery of the faith and of God’s sacred institution of marriage.
A wife is not obligated to become less than who she is. Her life of faith should not be based on shallow promises or appearances, but on very practical notions of what constitutes right living in the eyes of God. God may deliver her out of her suffering in His timing, and God has given her a choice based upon her convictions and her relationship with her Savior.
And what earthly example does our heavenly Bridegroom set for us? He pursues His bride with an everlasting love. His joy is to redeem her, to restore her and renew relationship with her. He longs for the day when He can bring her home to His high and holy place, where she is washed clean; where she is whole and safe and free. He does not deride or demean or denigrate her. No, He leads with a loving hand, seeks her ultimate protection, and pursues her highest good to His praise and glory, just as we see pronounced in Ephesians 5.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” Ephesians 5:25-27
This kind of love should serve as our example, our inspiration. I will never agree that God calls us to tolerate wickedness in marriage. “Wickedness” and “marriage” do not belong in the same sentence. We should not allow it.
[i] Isaiah 29:13
[ii] Mark 6:11
[iii] Hebrews 12:2
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