The Australian church and media have hotly debated domestic and family violence (DFV) in Christian homes since journalists Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson published this controversial report: "'Submit to your husbands': Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God."
Responses from Christians and church groups have been varied. Some have welcomed the report and subsequent coverage as a catalyst for developing awareness of abuse and creating change, and others have denied the truth of the report or tried to distract from the central issue by arguing over finer details.
On August 9, 2017, an Australian Christian women’s online community, Fixing Her Eyes, published several true stories of DFV experienced by Christian women (and one man)—one of whom is my friend. As I read her story, I took a moment to reflect on how her life has changed since leaving her abuser. My reflections inspired this letter.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve both watched countless articles on domestic and family violence in the church erupt across the Australian media and blogosphere. I’ve followed this unfolding story for two reasons. First, because the report shed light on an issue that the Australian church desperately needs to grapple with. But I’ve also followed it because I know that this story is your story (and the story of many other Christian women too).
This story and the subsequent debate have triggered painful memories of your abuse, and responses of disbelief, denial, and shifting the focus from fellow Christians have added insult to injury. But I know that this report has also helped you to be courageous and tell others about your journey. I weep with you over the first, share your anger in observing the second, and rejoice with you at the third. You are healing from the past even as you build your future.
Countless different opinions on the issue have flown back and forth across cyberspace. But right now, I want to turn the focus back to you, and on your journey toward healing and restoration. I think we often forget the human stakes when we talk about abuse in the church. But you know those stakes. You’ve lived them.
Healing is a funny thing. It can't start until we recognize our woundedness. And so often, before we arrive at a place where healing can begin, there is new pain, new sorrow, and new hardships to be endured.
I remember how you felt back then. The decision to stop enduring the abuse and make a change seemed unbearable on top of all your other pain. Today, I marvel at the contrast between that time and the strength and wholeness you discover more of day by day.
It was incredibly difficult for you to end your marriage. You asked questions like:
“Is it the right thing to do?”
"Does God really want me to leave my husband?”
“How will it affect my children?”
“How will I survive, financially and otherwise?”
So many questions crowded your mind. Confusion, doubt, and fear often elbowed faith out of the way. When your pastor told you to stay and persevere in your marriage despite the many years of abuse and fearing for your very life, it felt like a death sentence.
But somewhere, deep in your soul, a small voice called out.
“Have courage, my daughter,” God’s Spirit whispered to you. “You think you are weak. You think your resources are inadequate. But ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9). Put your hand in mine, and let me lead the way for you.”
In time, God’s whisper grew louder than your fear. And you discovered that God is so faithful.
I once saw an amazing time-lapse video of the Australian desert after heavy rains. Red dirt turned rapidly to pink, yellow, white, and green. A rainbow of colors miraculously emerged after seeds that were dormant sprang to life, painting the desert.
It reminds me of your life since you gathered your courage and left your abuser. In past years, your husband’s anger and manipulation was your landscape—a treacherous, barren wasteland where danger lurked at every turn; a desert without sustenance, shade, or life-giving water. Leaving was still so hard, I know. But I’ve been blessed to watch you bloom.
I am reminded of Isaiah’s message to the women of Jerusalem in chapter 32. The prophet depicts a desert that:
“becomes a fertile field,
and the fertile field seems like a forest.
The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert,
His righteousness will live in the fertile field,
The fruit of that righteousness will be peace;
Its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.”
With God’s help, you’re restoring the desert that was your life before your abuser. Where there was once no hope and even less joy, God’s shalom is blossoming. Peace and confidence—your abuser shattered them. But God is mending them, and making all things new.
It wasn’t too long ago that your home was anything but a haven. From your finances to your bedroom, his abuse tore at your security, your safety, and even your sense of your value and identity in God’s sight. As you rebuild your life, you and your children are finding that what God promised the women of Jerusalem—rest and safety—belongs to you too:
“My people will live in peaceful dwelling-places,
in secure homes,
in undisturbed places of rest” (Isa. 32:18).
Your husband’s abusive words and actions were like foul graffiti marring the walls of your home. But as you build a new life and safe home, you’re painting over that ugly graffiti with the beautiful promises of God. Words of anger and hurt have been taken down, and God’s words of unconditional love go up in their place.
The belief that you are somehow less than a man has been replaced with a new understanding that God has created men and women (yes, even you!) as equals. Your former view of yourself as a slave to your husband has been exchanged for the truth that you were created to be a strong ezer warrior.
You are hanging up a new canvas that depicts God’s original design for you—wholeness, peace, abundance, hope, and joy. And in that, I rejoice.
If you are in an abusive relationship, please seek help through a qualified counselor or specialized domestic violence service in your country. Change may feel difficult—even impossible. But please be encouraged that, like my friend, you can build a safe life again.