November 29, 2016

Enough is Enough

Gary Thomas — 

Abusive Men

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26

What does it mean to “hate” someone we are elsewhere called to sacrificially love? We are told to love even our enemies, yet Jesus here tells us to hate some of our closest family members. What could that mean?

Hatred here is Semitic hyperbole. In essence, it means “love less than.” There are times when our love and allegiance to God may be at odds with human loyalties; in those cases, love for God, His light and the way of truth, must always prevail.

It’s okay (actually, commendable) for me to love the Seattle Seahawks. But if my wife needs me to take her to the hospital in the middle of a game or needs me to pay her some attention, I have to act like I hate the Seahawks and not even consider my love for them in service to my wife.

Let’s apply this principle in regards to how the church views marriage and divorce.

I recently spoke at a long-standing North American woman’s conference and was overwhelmed by the quantity and horrific nature of things wives are having to put up with in their marriages. Between sessions, I was bombarded by heartfelt inquiries: “What does a wife do when her husband does this? Or that? Or keeps doing this?” It broke my heart. I felt like I needed to take a dozen showers that weekend.

This may sound like a rant, but please hang with me, as I think this conference was a divine appointment. I can’t get this out of my mind.

One wife began our conversation with, “God hates divorce, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “I believe He does.”

“So I’ve just got to accept what’s happening in my marriage, right?”

When she told me what was happening, I quickly corrected her. “If the cost of saving a marriage is destroying a woman, the cost is too high. God loves people more than he loves institutions.”

Her husband is a persistent porn addict. He has neglected her sexually except to fulfill his own increasingly bent desires. He keeps dangling divorce over her head, which makes her feel like a failure as a Christian. He presented her with a list of five things he wanted to do that he saw done in porn, and if she wasn’t willing, he was through with the marriage. She agreed to four of them, but just couldn’t do the fifth. And she feels guilty.

God hates divorce, right?

This is monstrous and vile. This woman needs to be protected from such grotesque abuse, and if divorce is the only weapon to protect her, then the church should thank God such a weapon exists.

A young wife, barely in her twenties, held a baby in a blanket and looked at me with tears. Her husband has a huge temper problem. He’s made her get out of the car on a highway with her baby, twice. “But both times he came back for us,” she said in his defense when I looked absolutely appalled. They were separated and she was living with her parents. She wanted to know if she should take him back because his psychiatrist supposedly said there wasn’t anything really wrong with him. Her husband doesn’t think he has a problem that, in fact, the problem is with her “lack of forgiveness.”

They had been married only three years and she had already lived through more torment (I’m not telling the full story) than a woman should face in a lifetime. My thoughts weren’t at all about how to “save” the marriage, but to ease her conscience and help her prepare for a new life—without him.

Church, God hates it when a woman is sexually degraded and forced to do things that disgust her. It should also make us want to vomit.

When a young man is so immature he puts his wife’s and baby’s life in danger on a highway (amongst other things), the thought that we’re worried about the “appropriateness” of divorce shows that our loyalties are with human institutions, not the divine will.

As Kevin DeYoung so ably puts it, “Every divorce is the result of sin, but not every divorce is sinful.”

Another woman told me about putting up with her husband’s appalling behavior for over forty years. I was invited to look in her face, see the struggle, see the heroic perseverance, but also be reminded that counsel has consequences. So when I talk to a young woman in her third year of marriage and it’s clear she’s married to a monster, and someone wants to “save” the marriage, I want them to realize they are likely sentencing her to four decades of abuse, perhaps because of a choice she made as a teenager. When these men aren’t confronted, and aren’t repentant, they don’t change.

Jesus said what he said about divorce to protect women, not to imprison them. Divorce was a weapon foisted against women in the first century, not one they could use, and it almost always left them destitute if their family of origin couldn’t or wouldn’t step up.

How does it honor the concept of “Christian marriage” to enforce the continuance of an abusive, destructive relationship that is slowly squeezing all life and joy out of a woman’s soul? Our focus has to be on urging men to love their wives like Christ loves the church, not on telling women to put up with husbands mistreating their wives like Satan mistreats us. We should confront and stop the work of Satan, not enable it.

Look, I hate divorce as much as anyone. I have been married for 31 years and cannot fathom leaving my wife. I have prayed with couples, counselled with couples, written blog posts and articles and books, and have travelled to 49 of the 50 states and nine different countries to strengthen marriages in the church. By all accounts, I believe I’ve been an ambassador for improving and growing marriages.

The danger of what I’m saying is clear and even a little scary to me, because no marriage is easy. Every marriage must overcome hurt, pain, and sin. No husband is a saint, in the sense that every husband will need to be forgiven and will be troublesome and even hurtful at times to live with. I’m not talking about the common struggles of living with a common sinner, or every man and woman could pursue divorce. (There are many men who live with abuse and could “biblically” pursue a divorce as well.) Charging someone with “abuse” when it doesn’t truly apply is almost as evil as committing abuse, so we need to be careful we don’t bear “false witness” against a spouse to convince ourselves and others that we can legitimately pursue divorce to get out of a difficult marriage.

That’s why I love how some churches will meet with a couple and hear them out to give them some objective feedback, helping them to distinguish between normal marital friction and abusive behavior. Some women need to hear, “No, this isn’t normal. It’s abuse. You don’t have to put up with that.” Others need to hear, “We think what you’re facing are the normal difficulties of marriage and with counseling they can be overcome.” There’s no way a blog post (or even a book) can adequately anticipate all such questions.

I love marriage—even the struggles of marriage, which God can truly use to grow us and shape us—but I hate it when God’s daughters are abused. And I will never defend a marriage over a woman’s emotional, spiritual, and physical health.

I went back to my hotel room after that woman’s conference and almost felt like I had to vomit. I don’t know how God stands it, having to witness such horrific behavior leveled at his daughters.

Enough is enough!

Jesus says there are “levels” of love, and times when one loyalty must rise over another. Our loyalty to marriage is good and noble and true. But when loyalty to a relational structure allows evil to continue it is a false loyalty, even an evil loyalty.

Christian leaders and friends, we have to see that some evil men are using their wives’ Christian guilt and our teaching about the sanctity of marriage as a weapon to keep harming them. I can’t help feeling that if more women started saying, “This is over” and were backed up by a church that enabled them to escape instead of enabling the abuse to continue, other men in the church, tempted toward the same behavior, might finally wake up and change their ways.

Christians are more likely to have one-income families, making some Christian wives feel even more vulnerable. We have got to clean up our own house. We have got to say “Enough is enough.” We have got to put the fear of God in some terrible husbands’ hearts, because they sure don’t fear their wives and their lack of respect is leading to ongoing deplorable behavior.

I want a man who was abusive to have to explain to a potential second wife why his saintly first wife left him. Let men realize that behavior has consequences, and that wives are supposed to be cherished, not used, not abused, and never treated as sexual playthings. If a man wants the benefit and companionship of a good woman, let him earn it, and re-earn it, and let him know it can be lost.

Enough is enough.

I know I’m ranting. But I don’t think it was an accident that I was constantly stopped at that woman’s conference and forced to hear despicable story after despicable story (“forced” isn’t the right word. I could, of course, have walked away). I think God wanted me to see the breadth and depth of what is going on, and in this case, perhaps to be His voice.

Message received! We are called to love marriage, but when marriage enables evil, we should hate it (love it less) in comparison to a woman’s welfare.


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365 responses to Enough is Enough

  1. Thank you, Pastor Gary, for sharing this. I work in the mental health/education sector. I have heard many stories. In situations of true abuse, I have not heard one story yet that did not meet the definition of Biblical divorce when the facts were uncovered….literal, not merely figurative definition….or merely trying to make it fit, but really meeting the definition.

    In addition, if you comprise all the commands and definitions of a Biblical covenant marriage, I think many could make a case for abuse meeting the definition of adultery: it’s adulterous to life; it’s adulterous to love and respect; it’s adulterous to “submit to one another in brotherly love;” it’s adulterous to God above all….I could go on, but I think deep, deep conviction, remorse, and repentance needs to come to many over this thought. Even the sin of porneia (spelling?) has been known to be an interwoven component of many abusive situations. There is even more to it than I could say, but the Holy Spirit is powerful for the destruction of strongholds, and this issue needs to be addressed.

  2. thank you.

  3. So very, very thankful for your article, here! This is an epidemic in the churches, which needs the sunlight of truth to sanitize and reveal it. Porn is so widely available; seems like a huge part of this problem, as it gives people a totally unBiblical view of sexuality.
    Please, please keep speaking about this! You will be shocked over and over by what women are going through. (And, some men.)

  4. Standing O, Gary. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Incredibly timely, because that is how the Holy Spirit workl I met with a woman this morning to discuss this very issue (regarding our own significant others) and what appears to be an epidemic in Christian homes because of what is taught about marriage and not taught about obedience and repentance and love. I believe God may have revealed this to you so that you can courageously call pastors and Christian leaders (men) to pay attention to this very destructive and unchecked sin within the church, Christ’s precious bride. Praying.

  5. Thank you for writing this post! I am a woman walking through her second divorce right now. Both of my husbands were worship leaders in our churches and both husbands began having affairs behind my back. I hate the stigma I now carry with my testimony. The pain that has wounded my heart is hard to put into words. I know God has a plan and I know that He is faithful and trustworthy, but it still hurts.
    Your post is a message that needs to be heard in the church.

  6. Thank you for posting, Barney Swihart. I was in a marriage for 23 years, the last 13 with the knowledge that my husband struggled with homosexuality. Because my husband repeatedly “repented” after every “fall,” the elders at my church compelled me to stay, saying I had no biblical basis for divorce because of his repentance.
    After 13 years of this, I had hit my limit. I was finally told I had a biblical basis for divorce only after a Christian counselor contacted my pastor and he agreed “it was time.”
    I was left a devastated shell, my children had been repeatedly exposed to vile pornography, and I was financially devastated by my husbands shenanigans.
    Was I embraced by my church? No-he was, as “he needed help.’ I carry this hurt after being divorced now for 8 years. I have not been to church since. Yes, I believe, and fervently! I pray and have devotions daily, but I’ll never put my trust in elders again after what my children and I endured.

  7. Gary,

    I just have to write a personal THANK YOU for this post. I’m so happy that SOMEONE had the strength and vision to point out what is happening to so many women in the church, and what causes so many of them to leave the church. I was given bad direction by a pastor 3 years into my marriage. Because I was a new believer and clung to every word, I then went on to stay in a marriage that I needed to leave for 14 more years. Every part of the church seemed to insist that you should stay in your marriage no matter what, except of course, for adultery. Eventually, God led me out of my marriage, but it’s been a struggle to remain in the church as the divorced and single moms are often ostracized (unintentionally or not), while the abusers that caused them to end their marriages are led through life groups that help them deal with the very things that hurt these women. And while I’m grateful for these programs and the help they offer those who need it, it’s difficult to watch knowing that no one is offering help to those who suffered (or even acknowledge what happened) because of the abuse/addiction/porn/anger/etc.

    I write too, for Christian Single Moms, and minister to them in the only way I know how–as another walking the same path. Trying to encourage them that the church still wants them even though they often get it wrong. That the church doesn’t always do what God has asked of them, because human nature taints that. That they can rebuild and thrive, and still keep their faith intact.

    I can’t begin to tell you what a message like this means to so many of us who feel like no one is listening to what we are saying, that no one sees us. Thank you, thank you, for actively seeking what God was clearly trying to show you, and then sharing it with the world.

  8. So many of us who have been in ungodly situations. In my 38 year marriage, occasionally he would say something that made no sense in the light of his continual professions of love. He divorced me after he cheated, angry that I ” didn’t support him,” which was NPD to cover what he did tell one counselor: No woman is going to control me like my mother did my father. His father was schizophrenic and paranoid and his mother an emotional iceberg! Talk about being programmed to fail in relationships! He was hooked into porn by his best friend’s father in high school, and despite going forward at an altar call 4 months before we married, 38 years later he basically told me he’d never truly been Christian! He completely snookered a psychologist and a psychiatrist who heard my anecdotal evidence but told me “If he could be happy with the woman he had the affair with, then he doesn’t have any disorder.” Whaaat? Sadly two years too late people began telling me things he’d said decades earlier and I first heard about Reactive Attachment Disorder and NPD. He’s tried twice to “annul” our marriage through the Catholic Church so “God can bless” his marriage to a Catholuc woman he married civilly. She knows he was adulterous and abusive! All I can think is Jezebel and Ahab, and I pray God puts a righteous end to this abuse soon. My anger is toward the devil who received this man and perverted God’s creation in him. I know who my real enemy is and pray God gets His victory yet!

  9. God hates malicious, treacherous covenant-breaking, not its judicial solemnization _per se_. We have twisted the word of God to make evil tolerable but consequences for evil and escape from evil intolerable. This is backward and should not be.

  10. Thank you so much for this. I have so many friends have have struggled in churches that–it seems to me–refuse to understand, maybe because men feel like they need to stick together, maybe because they acknowledge to each other (as I’ve heard one of them say) that they all have such issues with porn.

    We live in an evil day, and with porn absolutely rampant. This aspect of it, that of forcing Christian wives to perform pornographic activities, is only going to increase. The church of Jesus Christ had jolly well better get educated and become truly compassionate for these sheep that are being devoured by wolves.

  11. Thank you so much for having the courage to address this issue!!

  12. This is excellent and a much needed message. I find it curious, though, that only church teaching on divorce is addressed. What i hear from women in my sdvocacy work is that the root of the problem is church teaching of unilateral submission of wives to husbands. Our Wesleyan Holiness interpretation is that mutual submission better describes a New Testament theology of marriage. So yes, better teaching on divorce, but we also have to deal with the sense of male entitlement inherent in complementarian theology.

    • Gail,

      I have great respect and fondness for the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, but let me push back just a little bit here. I think it’s a perversion of complementarianism, not complementarianism itself, that leads to such abuse. The views of complementarianism that have most resonated with me BEGIN with husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the church, who gave himself up for her. If that’s the starting point (and it should be, or it’s not biblical), there’s absolutely no room–none–for abusive behavior. Add to that Colossians 3:19: “Husbands love your wives and never treat them harshly” and no man could ever cite the Bible for being harsh with his wife.

      I agree with you, however, that Ephesians 5:21–mutual submission–should apply to both husbands and wives in some fashion. Ephesians 5:25-31 is just submission by another name. A husband is being called to put his wife’s needs above his own, and acknowledge her spiritual welfare as his primary concern, rooted in his passion for God and the Gospel. if that’s not submission (i.e., submitting our selfishness, control, etc.), I don’t know what submission is.

  13. Thank you for writing this! I was married 21 years to an extremely abusive man. I became a Christian 4 years into the marriage and spent an hour a day praying for this man. We had 5 kids and I was able to shelter them in many cases, but when they became tweens, they began begging me to divorce.

    I was told by pastor after pastor that my husband’s behaviour would change if I would just submit more. He was fired from job after job and by the 5th year of marriage, refused to go to work again (17 years of not working). In mariage counseling I was told me I was expecting too much from my ex, when we could live on my income, while I homeschooled the kids and kept the house (housework wasn’t a man’s job afterall)

    We attended Baptist, Presbyterian and Non-Denom churches and each time, my husband would get very close to leadership and lay the groundwork / storyline that he was this amazing spiritual person and because I was an adopted child, I had the issues.

    I wanted to scream for help, but if I ever mentioned the abuse, the other person already had a false presupposition and I would walk away being told that I was the problem. Mind boggling. But looking back, my ex had perfected the art of triangulation.

    At year 19 in the marriage, I discovered years of a porn addiction coupled with multiple affairs, I went back to God and begged for a divorce. I again heard no. Little did I know then, that God had been laying the groundwork for me and the kids to escape, it just wasn’t time.

    When the time came and I asked God again about 18 months later for a divorce, I heard a loud YES! I filed for divorce and was excommunicated from the church. Why? Because the pastor said that although I had Biblical grounds because of adultry, abuse, and abandoment, they sighted that I had not received permission from the church to divorce.

    Instead of helping this woman with 5 kids to support, the church went out of their way to aid my ex, this greatly troubled my kids.

    Time has passed, the Lord has healed so many wounds and all five kids are doing AMAZING! The Lord provided and continues to provide. He also provided the most loving and kind man to be my new husband, a man my children consider their father.

    I can look back and see how the Lord was working every detail of my life for His glory and my good. It was a brutal 21 years, but I learned to trust God, I have 5 amazing kids (son-in-law and grandson now) and I wake up next to a man who cherishes me and has shown me the love that God in His word speaks of. I wouldn’t change a thing.

    It’s frustrating to see the church not understand mental illness and evil (in men and women) — and not have enough wisdom to look at facts (adultry, refusing to hold a job, physical/emotional/financial abuse).

    Interestingly enough, I sought justice in church, but I found justice in a courthouse. I know there is a stigmatism about being divorced, but we need to recognize that God uses divorce as a rescue plan.

    I’m thankful for the option. I am not free and full of joy.

  14. From a therapist who deals with domestic violence/sexual addictions/religious abuse as a specialty, THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART!! Thank you for being evangelical, white, male and a respected voice and STILL saying the uncomfortable message that must be heard. And thank you for listening to those dear women. Really listening.

  15. THANK YOU so much for this post. You can’t imagine how deeply healing it is to see this. For 16 years I stayed in an emotionally abusive marriage. It wasn’t until a couple from our church began to question some of the things that seemed “off” that the situation escalated and became a real threat to the life/safety of the children and myself. This was the first time anyone dared to question his actions. Our church leadership counseled to save the marriage, accepted when he chose divorce, and still loves me as part of the church family. Still, it felt as if it was a failure on my part that they allowed to happen. My Ex is now a “member in good standing” at another church even though they know of the details surrounding our divorce, and he remains unrepentant and unchanged. It angers and scares me that he can continue to hide in the shelter of the church, unconfronted, just because he does not seem to pose an immediate physical threat, while he is living an unrepentant sinful life. I don’t live in anger, by any means, but am so very aware of way too much sin that is quietly allowed in the churches. I pray that this post will be an eye opener for many church leadership.

  16. This article was shared in a support group for women who have been abused.

    Reading this has brought tears to my eyes. To be completely honest, I have turned my back on my faith as a result of the 18 years of abuse I received from my pious husband and his family. For so many years my tears were ignored and I was told to be a better wife. My relationship with Christ was constantly under his review and I found myself play-acting to avoid his anger while my love for the Lord eroded away. My self-esteem was reduced to nothing, as I always was the one at fault at any given time, for anything including traffic or the weather. Any request I ever made for my husband to help me or to change his behavior was called selfish, and my mother-in-law actually lectured me that it was the biblical right of a man to strike his wife to teach her respect.

    When I read your words I feel a small glimmer of hope that someday I might feel safe within a church community again, but now, even though I am free from my ex-husband, I still feel afraid of Christians and the behavior they might condone. I just don’t think my heart can take having to explain or justify what I’ve been through to those who might judge, and everyone wants to judge. I suspect even those reading this post wish they had more details about my experience so they could properly decide whether what I experienced was “that bad”.

    • Dear Lost,

      I’m so sorry for all of the pain and emotional, mental, and spiritual abuse you’ve gone through. I also felt that pull to share more details in my comment to sound justified in claiming abuse and filing for divorce. Just wanted to let you know that I understand and think that you are strong for breaking away. You’re a survivor!

    • Lost, I don’t need more details. I can tell from what you wrote here that it was “that bad” and worse. My heart goes out to you, and I wish I could give you a hug.

    • Dear Lost,
      I have not been through abuse myself, but I nanny for a mom with seven kids who was abused for 17yrs. Two years ago, it got so bad she finally filed an OFP and her husband divorced her. The church, which she and I were both part of, supported her x-husband. I was horrified by the churches response (a church I had been part of for 12 years). We both left that church, and it has taken me up until a couple of months ago to be able to even really attend another church, but a lot of healing had to take place first. Much of that healing came about through a book recommended to me. It’s called “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” maybe you might find it helpful as well.

  17. Thank you for this post! God definitely had you listen to those women for a purpose. It is very encouraging to my heart to read your understanding words as I go through a divorce from an abusive, church-going husband. I won’t spill personal details for the sake of venting or processing. For the benefit of someone reading who hasn’t experienced marital emotional abuse, however, I’d like to share a bit of my story. Sometimes abuse is difficult to understand without seeing physical bruises.

    I’m in my twenties and married the man of my dreams 14 months ago. We both profess Christ and attend a solid Bible, believing church. On our honeymoon, a disagreement came up and he started yelling at me until I bawled. I was in shock. Then, over the following weeks, he started throwing or breaking things out of anger. Then he wouldn’t be satisfied with my sexual performance. Then he would chase me through the house, unlocking doors with butter knives when I would request (beg for) 15 minutes to get time to pause/think during an argument. After my emotional breaking point (hours into him yelling at me), when there were no tears left, he would want to comfort me from my pain. If I resisted his comfort, he would get angry and yell again. I learned to comply for my own safety, but my mental and emotional identity were being severely broken down. I took sick leave from work many Mondays due to exhaustion from Sunday night fights and being deprived sleep since my husband said we shouldn’t let the sun go down on our anger and couldn’t go to sleep until all of our issues were settled. My phone would receive 20 text messages from him during my work day, and he would be upset when I got home if I hadn’t answered each one in detail. He would say that he doesn’t understand why his wife doesn’t communicate with him at all. At the 2-month mark, my journal was filled with prayers for God to help me “forgive and forget,” and to stop being so irritable towards my husband for his faults. I figured no one forced me down the aisle to marry him, so this was the marriage I signed up for until I die. He wasn’t like this before our wedding! How could I have been so deceived? I felt trapped, suffocated, but sadly determined to trust God and somehow love my husband.

    The abuse worsened, and I separated. Praise God, my church community were very supportive/not condemning and wanted to see safety restored to our home. Some progress was made through biblical counseling. I learned the value of personal boundaries, how to set them, and that I can reinforce them by having consequences in place. For example, if he started yelling at me or throwing things, I could tell him that I won’t stay in a hostile environment. So if the yelling and throwing continued, I could tell him that if the hostility doesn’t come down, I will stay at my parents’ house for the night and see him the next day. This worked for a while, and I became much stronger and healthier. However, his abusive patterns continued and worsened to the nth degree, so I recently filed for divorce.

    I’ve read so many stories like mine of women who didn’t receive the help from their church like I did. That breaks my heart. Thank you for looking beyond the surface of abusive marriage and exposing some of the horrible things that should not be tolerated.

    • Please don’t take the examples I shared in my story to be the extent of what led me to divorce. There was much more deceit and abuse. I simply wanted to share some examples of emotional abuse and thank you, Gary, for your incredible post.

  18. Thank you for speaking Truth on behalf of the hearts that cannot speak out.

  19. Gary,
    I read this and wept.
    I just went thru these circumstances. Single income, no support at my church….stepping off the cliff, in the dark, terrified, but knowing to stay after 33 years would destroy me. Living with a young couple young enough to be my kids until I could survive. And now, very alone.
    Yes, God has kept me and protected me, but no one wanted to “take sides” in the struggle not to divorce, when he was eaten away by porn and worse. He even now sits content in church, but every one of my boys had to struggle with porn because it was in t he house and on the computer. No one has ever confronted him about the abuse, even though he was in a sex addiction recovery group for a time.
    My relationship with God floundered for several years, because I hate divorce and knew He did too, but there was no way. The struggle, pain, and shame have been incredible. Finding no help was terrifying. And NO ONE has said the words you shared, that validated me so suddenly that I burst into tears. Bless you. I hope it’s just the beginning of change.

  20. Thank you for taking the ‘guilt’ off of the shoulders of many Christian wives who have ‘hung in there’ out of faithfulness to God… mistankingly missing the fact that thier heavenly Father loves THEM more than the ‘institution’ of marriage…. That comment was profound. Thank you.