“War Room” Is Unsuitable for Victims of Abuse

[Spoiler Alert]

I stopped by the Christian bookstore the other day to look for some new reading material when I overheard a patron at the counter ask the store cashiers if they had seen the movie “War Room.”  They both happily responded in the affirmative.  Another gentleman browsing nearby immediately interjected that he liked it as well, jokingly commenting, “Submission is when a woman puts her head down so that God can hit her husband.”  And everyone within earshot laughed along with him.

Except me.  Because that trite little comment does not begin to resemble the truth.

My heart began pounding, and I so wanted to speak up and explain why “War Room” is potentially harmful to abuse victims.  But on they chattered, and rather than saying anything, I quickly bolted for the door.  I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

“Just what abuse victims need,” I screamed internally as I marched back to my car, “a Christian movie that imposes upon them one more burden of obligation to remain with their abuser.”

I had seen the movie and was very disappointed in it.  The film’s basic premise is that prayer grounded in truth is a powerful force for positive change.  Agreed.  Unfortunately, however, that premise is only a half-truth, for the other side of that truth is that God has given men free will.  All of the prayer in the world may not change the wicked – some who even call themselves believers – and we have a right and responsibility to protect the innocent and allow evildoers to reap what they have sown.

When Doug and I decided to go see the movie, I understood its emphasis to be on the power of prayer.  I personally delight in spending time with God in prayer, have seen Him work mightily through it, and at times having been privileged to hear His unmistakable, inaudible voice.  In that vein, I was hoping to be propelled to a higher plane of understanding and inspiration.  Although the film endeavored to make the case, as an abuse survivor, the primary plot of the film killed it for me.

The focus of the conflict in the film is a borderline abusive, potentially adulterous husband (Tony) whose Realtor wife (Elizabeth) is wrapped up in her own life, neglects her daughter and has no idea what to do to make their lives better until she “coincidentally” meets a godly, elderly woman named Clara who has hired Elizabeth to sell her home.  Elizabeth’s new client takes Elizabeth under her wing, mentors her spiritually, and encourages Elizabeth to make prayer a priority with the goal of reclaiming her home and her marriage.

Elizabeth takes the task seriously, emptying her closet of her clothes and worldly possessions to create a War Room where she can spend her private time immersed in Scripture without distraction and commence battle with an unseen enemy through prayer.  Elizabeth soon sees how she has neglected her young daughter and makes amends and necessary change.  Then a girlfriend sends Elizabeth a text message about seeing Elizabeth’s husband in an inappropriate situation with another woman.  So Elizabeth begins to pray.  Suddenly, a mysterious illness overtakes her out-of-town, adultery-minded husband, thwarting his obvious intentions.

When Tony returns home, Elizabeth doesn’t confront him or even seem shaken, when most of us would be overwhelmed with feelings of betrayal, brokenness and humiliation.  Even knowing that her husband may have been unfaithful in the past 24 hours, Elizabeth seemingly rises above it, acting like nothing has happened, as though she doesn’t know what she knows.

When Tony pointedly asks Elizabeth what she wants from him, obviously referencing their relationship, she thinks for a moment and then calmly tells him that what she really wants is a hot fudge sundae, going into ridiculous detail about mounds of vanilla ice cream coated in chocolate, smothered in whipped cream and topped by a cherry.  In spite of the audacity of it all, the audience joined in collective laughter.  Then Elizabeth adds that she would also love a foot massage, even as a look of sheer bewilderment crosses Tony’s face.

I was horrified.  So that’s how a believing woman in that situation is supposed to respond?  Don’t let him see you weeping from the pit of your soul when faced with heart-wrenching betrayal.  Just internalize all your pain.  Pretend everything is just fine.  Really?  Apparently, those who wrote the screenplay are wholly unacquainted with the immeasurable grief of infidelity.

Anyway, Tony is dumbfounded by Elizabeth’s strange response.  Yet Elizabeth keeps silent and maintains her commitment to pray.  What a woman!  Then, as some measure of perfectly timed divine justice, Tony is fired after it is discovered that he has been stealing pharmaceuticals from his employer.

Suddenly jobless and ashamed, Tony discovers Elizabeth’s prayer room, is suddenly awakened to the devotion of his wife, realizes how much he loves her and his daughter and tearfully repents.  Tony arrives home one day soon after and presents Elizabeth with a ginormous hot fudge sundae which brings her to tears.  Then she relishes her sundae on the sofa while her husband gives her a foot massage.  In spite of the rough days they face as a result of Tony’s job loss, their marriage is miraculously restored.

Right about then, as if he knew that I was beginning to feel sick, my husband leaned over to me and whispered, “We know it doesn’t always work out that way.”  I received his words and nodded in agreement but desperately wanted to cry, not just because of the years of torment my children and I had endured as a result of my acceptance of this same unbalanced belief system.  No, my heart was filled with a whole new measure of grief for all of the Christian women who had seen or would see the movie and find themselves bound to its debilitating half-truth.

When the movie was over, I quickly stood to leave, my heart heavy and hurting, while it seemed that those who remained until the very last credit had bought in. Like so many times before, when I have been in the presence of legalists and guilt-mongers, I felt alone and wounded and frustrated for others like me, those seemingly without a voice or a defender in the body of Christ.

I am certain that the writers and producers who worked on this film were convinced that their product would encourage people in struggling marriages to pursue prayer as powerful recourse and must assume they did not for one minute consider the film’s potentially damning outcome for victims of abuse.  I wonder if they would even acknowledge this tragic oversight, or would they, as the film insinuates, assert that a praying wife will without fail bring about heartfelt repentance and change in her abuser?  Such an assertion is grievously common but in clear defiance of the whole truth of the word of God.

Truly, as I left the theater that day, I wish I could have found the words and the courage to stand up and speak the truth in the presence of the entire audience.  But it seemed the majority was comfortable soaking up heavy doses of Saccharine-laden spirituality, and speaking up in that moment would not likely have helped my cause.

For all of the film’s good intentions, I so wish the writers had chosen some other powerful prayer opportunities to make their case.  As it is, I know from my own experience and spiritual vulnerability that abuse victims who don’t know better will watch that film and feel pressured to remain with their abusive spouses, to keep their secrets and pray harder and pretend, believing that, if they do it right, their abusers are destined to change.  And all the while their abusers smirk and take comfort in the reality that the church will almost always impose an ongoing expectation on their poor wives to accommodate the habitual sin, set aside their buckets of tears and wait for God to fix it.

Too many church people forget that this kind of spiritual denial and ignorance empowers the wicked among us.  The victims and their children suffer in the shadow of a silent church while it closes its eyes and ears to the injustice, condoning the abuse and the destruction of families from within.

When, I wonder, will a Christian film producer release a film that shines a light on the terrifying reality of abuse in “Christian” homes?  I’ve actually written a full-length screenplay based on the premise.  Do you think that maybe one of these days my phone will ring?   I would be pleasantly surprised, but in today’s “spiritually correct” culture I won’t be holding my breath.

Should you decide to see “War Room,” go armed with a full understanding of the movie’s glaring shortcomings and my husband’s timely words of wisdom:  “We know it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Cindy Burrell

Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved

17 thoughts on ““War Room” Is Unsuitable for Victims of Abuse”

  1. You are braver than I. I was encouraged to view that movie, too, with a group of friends, and I am very glad I did not. I had already heard about the premise. I’m sure I would have had to leave in the middle of it, my head exploding.

    It reminded me of a tragic local story of some years ago. A woman who went to the same church I did at the time although I didn’t know her was the target of a very violent husband. She left him a few times for safety’s sake, as I recall. But then she went back, believing she, too, just had to pray harder and submit more, and so on (I know what “counsel” she would have heard from the “counseling staff,” which is one of the reasons I no longer attend that church).

    Unfortunately, the story of her demise made front page news. He murdered her while she was taking a bath. A few of her friends said they tried to get her to leave him but she was sure she was supposed to stay and “win him” to the Lord with prayer and submission…

    Good luck with that screen play, by the way. Keep us posted. I think the truth of God’s will for our safety and peace needs to be reiterated as often as possible particularly just now with the cult of a certain brand of patriarchy gaining ground in this country since the late sixties, early seventies I refer to the movement that regards women as little more than breeders, men as demi-gods, in the home. The stories of abuse and sexual sin in that cult are just now surfacing.

    1. The story you shared about the woman who attended your church is tragic. The poor woman… I wonder if the church would say that at least she did it right. God forbid. It is so sad to see how the truth about marriage has been twisted to serve such self-effacing ends. Then add the capstone of legalism, and it can make it very difficult to find a church that elevates the beauty of relationship and the sanctity of marriage above the law. This is why, at this time, I cannot bring myself to go.

      As you also shared, sexual abuse in marriage is becoming more apparent within the church, as well. To our shame, it is yet another terrible secret kept to uphold the crumbling facade of “Christian” marriage. “Just keep your secrets. Pretend everything is okay.”

      Image is more important than the truth, the defense of the innocent, redemption and freedom in Christ…

  2. “As you also shared, sexual abuse in marriage is becoming more apparent within the church, as well. To our shame, it is yet another terrible secret kept to uphold the crumbling facade of “Christian” marriage. “Just keep your secrets. Pretend everything is okay.” ”
    — Ugh, so sinfully true —
    Thank you for your warning of the War Room … I would only want to view it in order to discuss with others how damaging this can be? So many choose to be blind to abuse.

  3. All my girlfriends have seen the movie & loved it! The minute I heard the trailer on the radio, I knew it was not for me. I’m finally in the middle of divorcing my abuser & was like “no way!” I’m finally to a place where I don’t care what others in the church think about my decision. They haven’t walked my road & there is no way they will ever understand.

    Bravo Cindy for continuing to be a voice for those of us that are or have been in “hiding”.

    Blessings!

    1. I am happy for you, Serena and blessed to read your message. I am so glad to know that you know the truth and refuse to waver in the face of public (Christian) opinion.

      I could use some of your strength. I was pretty strong early on but have been bruised by the continuing scrutiny of the pious and the ignorant when I dare to share about this ministry. I have grown weary of the legalism and have a hard time setting foot on a church campus these days. It is as I am privileged to see women set from from abuse against such significant odds that God inspires and strengthens me.

      I guess I am still in hiding in some ways, part of the “Standing-on-the-Truth-of-God-Underground.” 🙂

      Thank you for taking the time to share!

      All the best,

      Cindy

  4. I truly appreciate your blog on this movie! I went to see it, not knowing what it contained except that it was it had at least a segment about a wife praying for her straying husband. Little did I know that the entire movie was about that very thing.
    I left feeling hopeful, in one way, because there is great assurance that God cares about us. On the other hand, I was very frustrated that the burden for the repair of the relationship seemed to be based solely on the wife’s prayers, that only if she prayed was her husband going to change direction. Which, of course, leads to the converse assumption that if she did not pray, her husband would not change, so therefore, it is her “fault” if nothing changes.
    This message of the the burden and responsibility for change, repentance and restoration, resting squarely on the shoulders of the wife is pretty common in the Christian community. The War Room perpetuates this. I like your idea of it being an unbalanced belief system. That is new thinking for me, but it certainly explains how I feel.
    It is strange, but I did not even catch that her reaction to his possible infidelity was such a non-reaction as to be absurd. Any of us normal wives who even thought our husband was being unfaithful would be very, very upset about it, even if we did not confront our husband. The stuffing of emotions and acting like it’s all good really did reinforce an example that I believe many of us woman, as Christians, have tried very hard to emulate – believing that it is how Jesus would want us to be. It took me over 20 years to realize that God does not wink at sin, and He wants us to take action to protect our family and ourselves. This movie did not show anything except syrupy forgiveness.
    With that said, I was pleased that The War Room pursued the path of repentance with more than just a weepy encounter, and then “business as usual”. The fact that God was working in the husband’s heart to reveal all of his sin, even though he didn’t have to, and even at risk of great consequences, was very affirming for me. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen that concept of what true repentance might look like carried through in a movie before.
    Thank you for your courage to speak about a movie that lots of people are raving about, and where it almost seems heretical to criticize. The movie can be a wonderful impetus to pray for our families, but, as you said, it not a great movie for those who are in abusive situations and trying to do what God wants them to do.

    1. Hello, Elaine.

      I sincerely appreciate what you shared. As you noted, a lot of the Christian responses in the film might be deemed normal acceptable under the circumstances, but when we look a little closer, they are actually quite plastic and unrealistic. Yet often the church would intimate that those are somehow viewed as the “correct” responses.

      I particularly love your comment – “God does not wink at sin…” You are right. But sometimes the church does, particularly if it keeps a marriage (even a toxic one) together for the sake of appearances.

      Perhaps I have grown cynical, but I personally struggled with the “War Room” husband’s repentance. Not that it’s not possible to make that kind of a humble confession, but in this ministry I have found that abusers are not necessarily prone to such an immediate, heartfelt transformation. Generally, when forced into a corner, abusers (and Tony’s character did not legitimately seem to be one) will say all the right things and initially display impressive evidences of repentant behavior. Unfortunately, creating the necessary image is part of their game. All too often, abuse victims buy in and reconcile only to watch that image of repentance slowly slip away and see the old man return with a vengeance. Personally, I don’t think we should be so quick to assume that it’s real without some kind of a track record, particularly where abuse is involved. I have written a piece on how to identify genuine repentance called, “Understanding the Difference Between Compliance and Change,” that can be found on the website if you are interested.

      I very much appreciate your insights and that you took the time to write.

      Cindy

  5. I know that I just posted a comment, but I reread your blog, and just want to say a huge THANK YOU for stating things so well. You truly have a way with words, and you have been gifted to be able to explain things in a very clear manner. Your voice in bringing truth and hope to those who need it is such a blessing, and I pray that you will find strength and courage to continue. Many times, the internet is the only “safe” place women in bad situations can find truth and encouragement, especially those who are believers stuggling hard with how to deal with the concept that image matters more than truth, and yet the truth of the situation at home needs to be dealt with.
    Thank you for being a Light Bearer to many!

  6. I avoided seeing this movie because I could tell from the commercial it would just feed the guilt of thinking I could have done more. I think these kind of movies actually make people in my situation feel like faith doesn’t work. I prayed a lot. I didn’t see the fairy tale ending. Thank God I finally left and got divorced.

    1. Hello, Katherine.

      I can completely empathize with what you shared. I too believed that my prayers and submission would reap the fairy tale ending. Instead, the abuse only intensified until I left with my kids, broken, emotionally destitute and betrayed by my husband – and the church. But not by God. He was there, and He made a way for us.

      You are not alone. Many like you and me who have survived now “get it.”

      It’s nice to hear from you. If I can direct you to other articles or help in any way, you are welcome to write me.

      Cindy

  7. I very much appreciate what you have written about this movie. I, too, left the theater in despair. My war room was my bathroom. I prayed , fasted,tried harder to overlook the provocations as “counseled” by church leadership. I prayed for 21 yrs of my 26 yr marriage. My spouse’s destructive behavior escalated over the years. I’m finally free of him. I have also thought about a movie of abuse in Christian homes and of poor church counsel insisting the abused wife remain even in the presence of addiction and adultery. The movie must also include a pastor reading 1 Peter 3 to the distraught wife and yelling at her to be submissive to her husband.

    1. Hello, Michelle.

      I appreciate your comments and can completely empathize with your marriage and counseling experience. I’m sorry you have also endured what so many others like us also have.

      With regard to I Peter, you might want to take a look at another piece I wrote called, “Suffering Love: A Redemptive Force or an Enabling One?” It is sad to me that the Word has been so twisted to accommodate abuse in marriage. Please let me know if I can direct you to other resources that might be helpful, as well.

      I appreciate your taking the time to write and share some of your story.

      In Him,

      Cindy

  8. I am very sorry that you were not encouraged by the movie War Room. I was, and have used the steps Elizabeth used to help my marriage and my life. It is not for every one because we all have different trials. Perhaps it’s time someone made a movie from your point of view. There would be nothing wrong with that .

  9. Cheryl,

    I agree. There should be a movie from Cindy’s point of view…and mine…and countless others’ who had very different outcomes than the protagonist in the movie.

    I am glad that your story ended well, too. I hope it continues. At three junctures in my story I, too, believed it would end well. But it ultimately did not. At least for the marriage. God did rescue me, however, and I still pray (from afar) for my ex.

    My story lasted over forty years until, one night, in the middle of my ex’s last drunken, screaming, insulting rage against me (I did not see it coming at all except that he had been getting meaner and meaner), the familiar “voice” I know to be the voice of the ever faithful Holy Spirit “prompted me” to leave. As I was preparing to go back for round three of a verbal onslaught from my ex that I was obviously losing no matter how I responded, I “heard,” “You need to leave now.” I did.

    That was over three years ago.

    Since then, I have done a lot of hard work in recovery, and have grown increasingly grateful that God rescued me when He did. I was truly at some kind of breaking point, I think. There were other family crises going on at the same time.

    Cindy’s writing and wisdom has helped me immensely along with daily Scripture readings and affirmations and an excellent support group and counsel…

    I know about the movie only through reviews. I would NEVER actually sit through it as it would still be triggering, I am sure.

    Blessings.

    1. Hello, Linda.

      I’m glad to hear from you and respond to your questions; however, the answers are not that black and white.

      After separating from my abuser, I began semi-weekly counseling which continued for probably two years. It allowed me the opportunity to work through my history and the role I played in it, to be a wiser woman, a better mother and a healthier potential wife. Between the time I left and when I cautiously re-entered the world of dating, three years passed. I know now that I was not completely healthy. My standards were still too low. Fortunately (or unfortunately), there came a day when I said “enough.” My kids and I were happy together, and it was easier to be single than to try to morph myself to fit into the world of some guy.

      Waiting for my online dating subscription to expire, this new guy “winked” at me. “Oh, no,” I thought. “Whatever.” That last guy turned out to be Doug, the man I ended up marrying eight months to the day after we “met” online. If you want to know more, I would suggest a couple of articles: “Life on the Other Side,” found here: http://www.hurtbylove.com/life-on-the-other-side-2/ and “Avoiding Dating Disasters” here: http://www.hurtbylove.com/avoiding-dating-disasters/

      You are always welcome to e-mail me privately (See the About Cindy tab) or respond here, and a phone consultation might also be worth considering if you’re interested in talking personally. You can find more information on that option on the home page. Other clients have found it to be very productive…

      I wish you well and thank you for taking the time to write.

      Cindy

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