Suffering Love:  A Redemptive Force or an Enabling One?  

“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.”   heart pendant

Romans 12:9

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 conscience 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

Cindy Burrell

Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved

17 thoughts on “Suffering Love:  A Redemptive Force or an Enabling One?  ”

  1. Cindy,

    This is superb. Every point is like a glass of cool water to a parched throat. The truth of it (as well as the logic) sings out loud and clear.

    I know I will be reading it again and again.

    I would like to reblog it on my site, credit given of course! and tie it in with a couple of posts I have on the issue of abuse.

    May God richly bless your ministry today and always.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Phyllis. As you can imagine, this one took some prayer and time in study, and Doug and I discussed this issue in depth, with the goal of reflecting the heart of God.

      Of course, you are welcome to re-post it – and I thank you for your support and your desire to share with others.

      In His grace,

      Cindy

  2. Cindy,
    I totally agree with all of this. When I first got married. It was suppose to mean forever, especially in God’s eyes. That’s what I believed, until I was getting so much abuse. And I still tried to make it work. I finally realized that I was truly not happy, and I was sure this was not what God wanted for me. Or anyone.
    Joy

  3. Cindy & Doug,
    Thank you for prayerfully working ‘together’ on this. I have been pondering the Lord’s sovereignty in how He has allowed some of us to endure different ‘battles’ before leading us to ministries like yours. For me, personally, although it has be exhausting and confusing as to why ‘the church’ has not been there for me; I now see that He has allowed me to see for myself the white-washed tombs of our present age.
    I have attempted several times over the past few years to become part of a local church … just don’t feel safe. Before, I made excuses; I am now using every opportunity to explain why I stay away as many keep asking. I have had several uncomfortable responses. One precious woman after spending several minutes trying to coax me to come to her church finally admitted, “Oh, you know. Yeah, our pastor is not the type to ever confront.”

    1. Hello, “healing.” You are by no means alone when it comes to dealing with “the church” on the issue of abuse and/or divorce. It is strange how the air changes when people in churches discover you’re a divorcee. Those knee-jerk responses are grounded in a combination of ignorance and a deep current of legalism that runs through many, if not most, of the churches with which we have come into contact.

      Hang in there. God will meet you where you are even if you don’t go to church, or you can keep looking until you find one that “gets it.”

      Either way, you know the truth – and so does He.

      Cindy

  4. Wonderfully said, Cindy!

    I felt trapped in a 20 year abusive marriage because of this very thing. I was told so many times by believers that my lot in life was to suffer in that marriage and one day God would reward me with a huge crown. How I wanted to scream! I could not believe a loving God would just want His children to suffer through such wrongfulness and then reward them for it. Never made sense.

    The first time I read something similar to what you wrote was on Leslie Vernick’s blog where she tackled the subject of what it means to suffer as a Christian. And in short it was the same message as you present here — true suffering occurs when we stand against what is evil and not righteous and sometimes that means leaving. And as any abuse survivor knows, when you take a stand against the abuse, perhaps leaving or having the abuser leave, that is often when the real suffering takes place!

    I love reading your thoughts and pray your words reach those who need to read them.

    Amy

  5. Wow and wow, Cindy! Your words give voice to so many of us that are just now starting to “get it!” Your words give us a smooth flow of truth that we have thought and felt but, until now, were unable to communicate succinctly and with conviction and confidence. Giving of your time and hard-learned wisdom helps me navigate these sometimes overwhelming waves of doubt and confusion, sorrow and pain. You are a lighthouse in a stormy sea.

    1. Thank you, Debby, for your note of appreciation and, more importantly, how the larger image of the God we serve validated your own experience and your understanding with regard to the character and nature of God.

      I appreciate your taking the time to share here.

      Cindy

  6. Cindy, I’m know I’m “late” in coming to this post, but I just want you to know how much you’ve ministered to me today. Like others, I’ve lost almost all the support of my Christian friends as I travel this lonely road of divorce after twenty-four years of marriage. I have been ex-communicated from my church for being in (so-called) disobedience to the elders; yet, my abusive husband remains a member in good-standing.

    I wish everyone I know could read this – maybe then they’d understand, since you’ve expressed these truths better than all my clumsy attempts. But then, maybe not. … There’s a good chance not. I find that the “suffering for Jesus” message has been deeply ingrained in the minds of today’s church-goers and, when presented a different way of looking at the issues of abuse, most flat-out refuse it.

    I hated my fakey, plastic life before beginning this process, but I’m sometimes afraid of the one before me when I consider the isolation and loneliness. Honestly, I’ve been closer with non-believing people these days – people at work, people in my martial arts class, etc. It’s an unsettling feeling that I may never end up in church again. I’ve been a Christian for twenty-seven years and have always been highly involved in my church. I was actually on staff at the church from which I was recently ex-communicated.

    In all this, however, I still feel I’m doing the right thing for my kids and me. Please pray for us; the custody battle has just begun and my heart is breaking as I worry about their futures.

    1. Hello, For Too Long.

      I’m so very sorry to read about what where you have been and where you find yourself, but I am glad you found the website and a measure of affirmation that you desperately need.

      I will gladly pray for you and your children as you walk this journey. If you are willing, a first name would allow me to better personalize my prayers. My prayer at the moment is that you would embrace what you know: many churches have it wrong. Too many pastors, leaders and believing friends have bought into a cruel misinterpretation of Scripture and misunderstand the heart of God. Even so, God has not abandoned you. His heart is toward you, and I pray that you lean on Him, seek Him and watch and see what He will do. I pray that your husband’s true motives are revealed, that the truth is made known in God’s time.

      As things move along, know that you are not alone. Keep reading and learning and you will grow stronger. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free…” (John 8:32)

      Let me know if I may direct you to other articles that might be helpful.

      In Him,

      Cindy

    2. Hello, For Too Long.

      I am so very sorry that somehow your post escaped my notice until today. I wish I had seen it when you first posted it…

      Nevertheless, I want to reach out to you and tell me how grieved I am to read about what you and your children have been through. It is painful to read, and I know what you shared here can’t begin to scratch the surface of all you have endured to get to the place where you find yourself now. I hope you know that you are not alone, that countless women have also been through the kind of church rejection you have suffered. That doesn’t diminish the pain, but points to the terrible truth that too many churches do not understand abuse or the role of biblical divorce in protecting those who have been left unprotected.

      Although I am late in responding, I will be praying for you and your children. I hope that you receive this follow-up response to your post and also hope that you will provide me with an update so that I can know how to pray and perhaps how to direct you to resources that might help.

      You are also welcome to e-mail me directly from the Contact Cindy link under the “About Me” tab on the website.

      I sincerely hope to hear from you.

      Cindy

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