John 15: 12, This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you…
I saw something the other day on a reformed site on Facebook that broke my heart. I saw it on a page for women, most of whom are reformed, that I have had the joy of being a part of. I haven’t actually ever posted on there but I regularly read the posts and I pray when needed; occasionally I will respond or offer advice if I have something useful to say (it’s so very easy to think that our advice is useful and wise when, in fact, it’s anything but). The other day, I came across a post where the answers were, to put it bluntly, anything but.
I don’t remember what the original question or comment was but the conversation turned to what would be appropriate to say to a woman who comes to you wanting to talk about the abuse she is facing. What should your response be? As a woman who has been abused and who has faced less than loving responses from many in the church, I was hopeful that among this group I would find women who would have understood had I gone to them asking for prayers, guidance, or encouragement. I was wrong. Overwhelmingly, their responses ranged from labeling such a woman a complainer to saying she should be shut down for gossip. Only one response was fully compassionate. The ways these Christian ladies thought was appropriate to handle an already hurting woman, a woman who is being abused by her husband, a Christian sister who is aching for all that her children are having to endure, who is facing the fight of her life and is longing for help…. It was…heartbreaking.
It got me thinking about what our response ought to be if a Christian sister comes to us and hesitatingly shares with us that she is being abused by her husband. In order to glorify our Lord, in order to rightly respond to her in a way that helps her and pleases God, what should our response be?
Since, as Christians, we should always start with the Word and with prayer in everything, we should start there in determining a proper response to a sister telling us she is being abused. We should prepare our heart for responding to her by knowing what God’s Word says about the oppressed. We should pray and ask the Lord for wisdom, and for a heart to serve. Remember Jesus said that the second greatest commandment (which incorporates the final six commandments) is to love thy neighbor as thyself. As a Christian, our neighbor is any of our brothers and sisters. If one of our sisters is being abused and she comes to us asking for help, our job as Christians is to love her as we would love ourselves. So we should keep this in mind: If I was being abused, how would I hope someone would respond to me?
Next, we should listen to her. If a woman who is being abused is reaching out for help, she is not doing so lightly. Reaching out for help could get her in trouble with her abuser, should he find out. Reaching out for help is dangerous. Confessing she is being abused–any kind of abuse–could cause her abuser to punish her, beat her, or even kill her. For her to confess what she is enduring and ask for help is a huge step and we should view it as such. We should be humbled that she would trust us enough to reach out to us. We should ask her to meet somewhere where she feels safe in talking (at a public place, at our home, at the church, etc.); if she wants to meet but has no way to get there, we should offer to pick her up. If she can’t meet and wants to talk via email, letters, or over the phone, we should accommodate her. We should give her our full attention. No matter what she says, we should never act shocked or let repulsion for what she shares show on our faces. Don’t say, “I never would have let a man treat me like that.” If we have not been in her shoes, we don’t know what we would have done. We should never tell her “just leave”; domestic abuse is far more complicated than that. The most dangerous time for an abused woman is when she is pregnant and when she is leaving or has left an abuser. Don’t shame her. Ask her what she wants to share with you, gently ask leading questions if she is comfortable with that. Simply let her be open and honest.
We should respond with wisdom, with gentleness, and let her know that we care. A woman being abused who reaches out for help is not being an unfaithful wife. She’s not being disobedient to her husband. She’s not being neglectful of her wedding vows. She’s not being a nag, defiant, she’s not failing to be submissive, or anything else along this line. Likely, she’s been very submissive, far more obedient than most women, and is still living in terror. If she’s reaching out for help, she’s doing so with fear of being disbelieved, ignored, castigated, turned away, or punished should her husband find out. We should let her know that she is safe in talking to us. We should let her know we care by responding in gentleness, with kindness, and by praying before we make accusations or misjudgments and add to her pain.
If we are worried about her safety, we should tell her. It’s alright to tell her, “I’m concerned for you” or “Have you considered leaving him?” Domestic abuse of any kind is horrible and needs to be seen as such. If she is in physical danger, we need to encourage her to get away from her abuser (and help her figure out how). Everything else can be dealt with later.
Make a specific offer of help. We should never say “If you need me, call me” and leave it at that. Ask her what her needs are and make the request genuine. By finding out what her needs are, we are then in a position to tell her what we can and can’t do. We can say “I can watch your children for you”; “I can go to a lawyer with you, if you would like”; “I can give you money for a hotel so you can get away for one night”; or “I have some food that I would like to share with you” are clear offers; “Let me know how I can help” isn’t. If she is comfortable with us doing so, we can offer to share her needs with others who might be able to help.
Ask her what her prayer needs are. Be faithful to pray.
We should help her to understand the truth about domestic abuse. Point her to a sound counselor, book, blog, or to Christiawoman who has lived through abuse. She may not understand that her husband’s “anger issues” are actually abuse issues. She may not have been told that her husband will probably never change. She may not have ever been validated by anyone. She may not realize that there can be life outside of abuse.
Be her friend. We should be there for her. Offer her our friendship. Support her. Listen to her. Call her. Text her. Email her. Go by her house and check up on her (if it is safe). Let her know you care.
Do something nice for her children. If an abused woman is a mother, her children’s pain will be her greatest concern. Mom is probably much more likely to share her children’s needs than her own. Maybe they need clothes, books, or games. Perhaps we can help with gifts. We can offer the gift of time, listening, and encouragement. We can include them in our own family activities when we can. We shouldn’t forget to include Mom in outings, also.
We should not try to tell her what to do. As the wife of an abusive man, she hasn’t had the chance to make important decisions. She doesn’t need us to tell her what to do. She might need help with researching her options. She needs our prayers. She might need our input or guidance or suggestions. But she also needs us to let her make her own decisions. Make sure she knows she’s supported.
If she decides not to leave her abuser, know that she has the right to make that decision. She may leave and go back to her abuser repeatedly. She may feel that she cannot survive apart from him–something abusers work hard on instilling in their victims. We may not understand her decision but she needs to know that we will still be there for her.
If she wants to leave her abuser, we should do whatever we can to help her. Leaving an abuser is terrifying and dangerous. There are many things we can do to help her. We can offer to put her up in our home, a hotel, or find another safe place to stay. We can offer to house her pet or find someone who will. We can be in constant prayer for her. If she needs financial help, even if we can’t afford much just a few dollars can make a big difference. We can go through our closets and drawers and share things she might have need of. We just need to be there for her. She’s more terrified than we can even begin to imagine. She needs us to care.
After she has left her abuser, her struggles will be far from over. We mustn’t forget her. She will lay awake at night crying. She will feel horribly alone at times. She will feel overwhelmed. She will be afraid. She will fear that she’s making poor decisions. She will wonder how she can make it on her own. She will be afraid of her abuser getting revenge. She will still hurt over all that her children have lived through and all they still have to face. She needs an encouraging word and a helping hand.
Remember–We don’t have to do all of this or even most of it in order to be a good friend. We should prayerfully do what you can and we’ll have done more than most people ever think of doing.
Soli Deo Gloria!