“I love my husband and desire a godly marriage, but over the years I’ve been worn down under the weight of my husband’s constant criticism, anger, harsh words, and control. I live like a child in my own home, with almost no voice and little decision-making power. I am currently being counseled by a certified biblical counselor, and while I appreciate how much they appear to love the Lord and his word, they seem unsure of how to help me and unwilling to address the abuse head-on. They agree that my husband’s treatment of me is problematic, but when I ask for help understanding and confronting his abuse, they continue to focus our sessions primarily on my moments of sinful response. I’m willing to work on myself as I know I sometimes respond with bitterness, desires for revenge, hateful words, etc. but I also want help to be safe. I can’t live like this much longer. I am afraid I might not make it if I don’t get some help for me and my children who are also affected by my husband’s domineering ways. Without appearing unrepentant or unwilling to address my own issues, how can I help my biblical counselor to recognize my sin isn’t the only issue at play here?”
The note above is a fictitious example of the kinds of questions we frequently receive at PeaceWorks, a domestic abuse prevention and intervention ministry which provides a variety of educational and support resources to churches and families, where I work as Chris Moles’ assistant. Communications like this, which detail the sometimes disappointing, other times destructive, counsel victims have received from biblical counselors are among the most grievous. I am grieved because, as both an abuse survivor and a certified biblical counselor (ACBC), I believe we can do so much better. If God moves toward his sinful, suffering creation offering both redemption and restoration, should not biblical counselors, of all people, be especially equipped to offer redemptive and restorative care to the abused? But for many of the victims I’ve spoken with (who overwhelmingly love the church, the scriptures, and the principles of biblical counseling) this has not been their experience.
Most biblical counselors would agree that women experiencing intimate partner violence of any kind are both sinful (in the sense that all humans are sinful and in need of salvation) and suffering (in that they are being sinned against by their spouse). But the agreement often stops in the realm of the ideological. Practically, too many biblical counselors acknowledge and honor the suffering of victims in words alone, as if the abuse they have experienced is nothing more than a short footnote in their more significant story of sin and sanctification, with the bulk of counseling focusing not on the victim’s oppression and her need for safety and sanity, but rather on her imperfect resistance and need for repentance.
It can be extremely tempting for biblical counselors to focus time and resources on the more obviously unrighteous or uncomfortable ways in which a victim is choosing to respond to her abuser rather than wrestling alongside her with the less obvious, but equally important realities of the abuse she is resisting. There are a few reasons this is the case.
- Often the victim is the one who has chosen to submit herself to counsel. Because she’s sitting in front of you, and you (rightly) cannot counsel her husband by proxy, it’s much simpler to focus exclusively on what she can control: her own actions and attitudes.
- Because of the long-term, highly stressful nature of living under abuse, the victim’s responses may be desperate and messy, lacking control, articulation, grace, or truth. This appearance of being “crazy” or “out of control” can tempt a counselor to not take seriously her claims of abuse.
- If a believer, the victim (depending on her own understanding of abuse) may be more easily able to articulate her sins and shortcomings than she can her victimization thus drawing your counseling efforts in that direction.
- If we are defensive counselors, we may be afraid of losing sanctification ground by acknowledging the powerful attack of her suffering and the influence it has on her responses.
- If we are fearful counselors, afraid of making a mistake or misstep, we may feel more comfortable sticking to what we know (sin and repentance) rather than engaging dynamics we are less familiar with (resistance and oppression).
- If we are uneducated or under-equipped counselors, we may genuinely not understand the dynamics and impact of abuse and be operating out of ignorance.
Maybe you are counseling an abuse victim right now and you recognize in yourself a tendency to focus primarily on her sinful responses to the exclusion of her suffering. Even if she has been compliant with that counseling agenda, please don’t assume that her willingness to embrace the narrative of “I am primarily a sinner” as confirmation of your choice to do the same. Though she may be willing (for now) to focus primarily on her sin, realize her reasons for doing so may be indicative of the broader, underlying problem of abuse:
- She may believe, based on her husband’s history of minimization, denial, and blame shifting that she is the one truly responsible for his abusive behavior, that somehow her sinful actions cause his.
- She may be hyperaware of her own depravity, especially if her husband levels scripture as a weapon of condemnation and control.
- She may assume you possess an education, experience, or expertise in domestic abuse and, desperate for help, is willing to follow your lead, even if to her own detriment.
If you are not educated to recognize and respond to domestic abuse, I would plead with you to be honest with your counselee about this lack. Be humble and sober minded enough to either refer her to someone who has already done the necessary work or invite her to learn alongside you as you gather outside resources and expertise. Not only can you learn with her, but you are perfectly positioned to learn from her. Victims and survivors are well accustomed to walking what, to you, appear to be unexplored paths. They know the unique terrain and pitfalls. While a victim may have come to you for biblical wisdom, there is much for you to learn from her experience. Ask her to share any resources that have been meaningful or helpful and, with her, engage these resources thoughtfully, biblically, and compassionately.
In summary, I challenge you not to take the cognitively easy, well-worn road of either sinner or sufferer but to join your counselee on the uneven, shadowy path she has long been walking, the path of both/and. I believe biblical counselors, when most clearly reflecting the heart of God, walk this path quite well. But it seems, when it comes to domestic abuse cases, many choose to err on the side of sin rather than engaging in suffering. I pray we can do better. We must do better.