The Heart’s Sweet Lie


everything will be alright_multiples“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”  Jeremiah 17:9

I tromped downstairs in my usual stupor one weekday morning to brew a fresh pot of coffee before heading to work and found our black Labrador, Belle, at the foot of the stairs, wagging her tail enthusiastically and prancing about in anticipation of her breakfast.  On most days, one of the kids beats me to the task, yet Belle has learned that if she puts on a good show, she might succeed in convincing me or any other unsuspecting family member who ventures downstairs later in the morning that she is famished.  Our clever dog has often enjoyed a second meal before one of us realizes that we have been duped by her well-rehearsed antics.

So I was not going to be fooled this day.  Convinced that she had already been attended to, I scolded her for trying to put one over on me and insisted that she go lay down.  Her tail ceased its wagging and I noticed her sad kind of sideways glance before she obediently moved toward her bed.  After putting the coffee on and marching back upstairs to don my work clothes, I realized that both kids were still asleep in her rooms.   Poor Belle had been refused her morning meal and accepted my rebuff with what must have been some measure of confusion – but without the slightest protest.  Discovering the truth, I rushed back downstairs, apologized as best I knew how to our sweet dog and escorted her outside to get her dish and make things right.  Sadly, poor Belle had readily accepted what I had dished out – or failed to – on the basis of my authority over her.

I can’t help but see an amazing similarity between Belle’s response to me and an abuse victim’s trained response to her abuser.  Abuse victims are trained over time to accept the wisdom of their abuser under the guise that some trustworthy form of love is guiding the abuser’s thoughts, motives and actions.  Even when the abuse becomes so overtly evident, the victim’s inclination is to believe that the heartache he or she is enduring is somehow normal.  We choose to believe the heart’s sweet lie, the soft whisper that says, “Everything will be alright.”  We accept the deception, preferring it to the frightening alternative:  This person is intentionally hurting me.

What we might be tempted to categorize as optimism is, in reality, a form of self-deception, a psychological response known as the “normalcy bias.”  It is a mental state we may adopt when facing potential harm.  In the case of abuse, the heart refuses to accept the likelihood of maltreatment that is right before our eyes, yet our minds construct a defensive stance against the possibility of a significant threat to our physical or emotional safety.

“Normalcy bias” is the primary reason many people remained in their homes in spite of stern warnings before hurricane Katrina struck, it is why so many Jews remained in Nazi Germany before and during the Holocaust – and it is one reason abuse victims remain in abusive relationships. We concoct ways to manage our unpredictable lives fairly well and trust that our situation can only improve.  To bolster the sweet lie, we seize on minor aberrations that might explain away the hurt.

Haven’t we all chosen to slough off our abuser’s attacks and told ourselves that he doesn’t mean what he says? We prefer to accept that our abuser is lashing out in ignorance.  Surely his actions are uncharacteristic of his true nature, a reflection of a bad childhood, uncommon stress, perhaps a job loss or simple misunderstandings.  In response, we give ourselves a pep talk and tell ourselves that his behaviors are unintentional and temporary.  We believe in a future with the man we fell in love with and trust that, with our help and support, we will see him again.  Our heart’s less-than-honest assessment assures us that the hard times will surely blow over, and very soon we will live in a home that is happy, healthy and safe.

We can see this “normalcy bias” played out in Scripture, too.  Just before the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed, two messengers from God warned Lot of the impending disaster and urged him to get himself and his family out.  You may be surprised at what happens next.

Then the two men said to Lot, “Whom else have you here? A son-in-law, and your sons, and your daughters, and whomever you have in the city, bring them out of the place; for we are about to destroy this place, because their outcry has become so great before the Lord that the Lord has sent us to destroy it.”  Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, and said, “Up, get out of this place, for the Lord will destroy the city.” But he appeared to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city.”  But he hesitated. So the men seized his hand and the hand of his wife and the hands of his two daughters, for the compassion of the Lord was upon him; and they brought him out, and put him outside the city. When they had brought them outside, one said, “Escape for your life! Do not look behind you, and do not stay anywhere in the valley; escape to the mountains, or you will be swept away.”  Genesis 19:12-17

On that day, the sun rose and the days’ events unfolded just like on any other, so it is easy to sympathize with Lot’s sons-in-law who scoffed at the urgency.  Lot himself knew that the messengers were sent by God.  Still he struggled to acknowledge the risk, and had it not been for the men forcefully removing Lot and his wife and daughters, he and his entire family would have died.

Perhaps more bizarre is the reality that we who have tolerated our abuser’s cruelty for years are all too familiar with the signs of impending disaster.  Although we have been warned by friends and family members and even at times by our abuser that we are directly in harm’s way, we prefer the illusory comfort of the heart’s sweet lie.

Like the families who believed the threat of hurricane Katrina was exaggerated or the countless Jews who lost their lives under the Nazi regime, every single day all over the world abuse victims suddenly awaken to find themselves on the wrong side of a faulty belief system.  The day comes when what we perceived to be a remote possibility becomes a horrifying reality.  The heart’s sweet lie must eventually give way to the solemn realization that our abuser’s behavior isn’t normal, accidental or temporary.

Unfortunately, all too often it is not until a victim finds herself up to her eyebrows in brokenness and heartache that she can finally confess that abuse isn’t something that only happens to other people.  Yet once the sweet lie is dispelled, the truth flows in, and healing can finally begin.

Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.  Psalm 51:6

Copyright 2013 Cindy Burrell

All Rights Reserved

8 thoughts on “The Heart’s Sweet Lie”

  1. GREAT post, Cindy! I can relate to the “normalcy bias” so much. I just wanted things to be okay and I feared change so much, that I refused to accept reality or even entertain the thought that things could be any other way than they could be. Praise God, He sent two “angels” in the form of loving family members to “forcibly remove” me from my situation. I don’t know that I ever would have left without them. God is good.

    1. Hello, Julie.

      Thank you for your note. How courageous your family members were to intervene on your behalf. God bless ’em!

      Yep, I did all the same stuff and kept praying, hoping, believing. On the bright side, now we can help others escape the insanity – one by one.

      All the best,


  2. “Yet once the sweet lie is dispelled, the truth flows in, and healing can finally begin.”
    My healing began 4 1/2 years ago after a 20 abusive marriage. My ex walked out as a way to show me how I could never live without him and I see clearly now he had this warped idea that we were “separating” for a time so we could then reconcile. Craziness.
    He.walked.out. Period.
    And when he walked out that door on February 13, 2009 God began a healing in my life.

    “Our heart’s less-than-honest assessment assures us that the hard times will surely blow over, and very soon we will live in a home that is happy, healthy and safe.”
    Yep, that is exactly how I lived in an abusive marriage for two decades. I lived for the moments in between his abusive outburst and hate-filled words, those moments which gave me a reprieve even if for a short time. Those were the moments that were actually okay, life felt good and I felt like i could breathe freely.

    Great post that completely describes what abused spouses experience.

    1. Hello, Amy.

      We have a lot in common… I stuck it out for 20 years, too. Looking back, I wonder how I did it – and why.

      People often ask me why abuse victims don’t just leave. I usually tell them that it’s because we truly believe that it is a fluke, that tomorrow will be different, that something like that could never happen to us. And, I guess there it is again – the heart’s sweet lie…

      It’s crazy, isn’t it?

      Thank you for your kind comments and for taking the time to share.


  3. To condense my story, I just keep hearing “stay in there”, “stay committed” by very high profile preachers, but after 38+ yrs, or give my husband grace…35 yrs of me being a Christian I feel I just don’t have the faith to stay with a drinking, smoking (cigs & marijuana), narcissist! I just don’t and I feel like a failure and maybe not even a Christian, but I know I do have the ‘Joy of the Lord’ in me and so I do believe I am a born again believer saved by grace and honestly feel I submitted to my husband even though he never put me first in his live and I was never a priority…….I stayed for the children and now they’re adults and think I should have left 37 yrs. ago when expecting our first child as I saw through him by then, but sucked it up and the rest is history bearing him four children and now he’s holding that over me to stay with him because of the children we had together and now grandchildren, but there’s nothing between him and I; no bonding ever happened. Maybe I will stand before God ashamed, but unless a miracle takes place I just cannot live with him any more…..”enough is enough” I’ve told him and years ago I forewarned him that a time would come that “enough is enough” and that time is now I believe.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to share some of your story. Dear friend, our Lord has not left you, and those people telling you to just “stay committed” are wrong. That is wholly unbiblical and inconsistent with the heart of God. Please take some time and peruse the articles on my website. I have a three-part series on Redemptive Divorce and Three of the Most Misappropriated Scriptures on that subject. If you believe the time is now for you to leave your abuse, with the Lord’s blessing, then by all means – leave!

      I will be happy to help you to begin your work through this process – to understand abuse, God’s heart for marriage, and to help you begin your journey toward recovery.

      Please visit my website and check out the many articles and resources available there.

      I wish you well and hope you will let me know what you decide to do.

      In Him,


  4. Each article I read gives me a little more clarity as to why I stayed so long. Normalcy Bias–it all makes more sense, if there can be sense made from enduring 37 years of abuse. I wanted to believe that he didn’t mean it. That he couldn’t help it. When confronted, he would say that he only said those awful things because I made him mad, or that he said the worst things he could think of to get my attention. Anyway, thank you so much for your excellently written articles that have helped me process my abusive marriage and both our parts in it. If I had found your website sooner, I’d like to think I would have left and stayed away many years ago. But I am a true believer in things happening for a reason and I guess when they happen, as well. The timing was right. I am at peace living alone. Keep the articles coming, Cindy! They are much needed.

    1. Hello, Linda.

      I am so glad you found the website and are coming to understand the abuse dynamic better through your reading. I know it hurts to see it all but, on the other hand, I know it also helps to know that you are not alone, you’re not crazy, and it wasn’t your fault.

      I am working on a substantial writing project at the moment that may limit the posting of new pieces, however, if there is something you are looking for in particular, let me know, and I will try to direct you. You can always e-mail be privately through the “Contact Cindy” tab.

      Although you have endured 37 years of abuse, Linda, you know that you don’t have to endure one more day of it, you have a positive attitude, and I agree that there are some things we may never understand in this lifetime, but it still makes perfect sense to start afresh when the truth finally becomes apparent.

      Again, thank you for writing and for taking the time to convey your appreciation. It means a lot to me, as well.

      Please let me know if I can help. I’ll do what I can.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *