Prepare to Be Safe
About the Guest
If your marriage is abusive, what should you do? Author and pastor Justin Holcomb gives us a glimpse into the heart and mind of an abuse victim, and tells why a victim often chooses to stay in an abusive relationship rather than seeking safety. Hear some steps to take to devise your own safety plan.
Justin HolcombJustin is an Episcopal priest (serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida) and teaches theology, philosophy, and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He previously taught at the University of Virginia and Emory University. Justin serves on the boards of REST (Real Escape from the Sex Trade) and GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments). He holds two masters degrees from Reformed Theological Seminary...more
If your marriage is abusive, what should you do? Author and pastor Justin Holcomb gives some steps to take to devise your own safety plan.
Prepare to Be Safe
Bob: Does abuse in a marriage relationship provide a husband or a wife with biblical grounds for a divorce? That is the elephant in the room that we’re going to talk about today with author, Justin Holcomb.
Justin: The first thing I want to say is that I’m thankful we’re talking about the elephant because too many women, when they’ve talked to their pastor—the first thing that they have heard is, “Well, you know, God hates divorce,”—the very first—not, “I’m sorry,” or “I believe you”; but “God hates divorce.” What they do is—they’re shutting them down. I’m thinking: “She’s not coming to ask for divorce. She’s asking her pastor to shepherd her soul.” Yes the Bible does say God hates divorce. You know what else He hates?—abuse.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, September 23rd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. So how do we honor our marriage covenant if we find ourselves in an abusive marriage?
Or are we off the hook, at that point? We’ll explore that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition. We are talking this week about the issue of domestic abuse.
Before we dive into that though, this is Day 23 of our 30-Day Oneness Prayer Challenge that we’ve had going on during the month of September, encouraging husbands and wives to be praying together in marriage. Today’s prayer topic is the importance of local church involvement. Today, we’re encouraging husbands to pray that God would show you where and how you can be involved, as a couple, in a local church home. We’re encouraging wives to pray for God to provide agreement in your marriage as to where and how you ought to worship together in a local church setting.
We know, for some couples, they are just not on the same page in this area. We think it’s important for you to be worshipping together, regularly, with a larger community of faith.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper left-hand corner of our screen that says, “GO DEEPER,” and look for the Oneness Prayer Challenge logo. When you click on that, you can sign up to receive a prayer prompt each day. Even though we are near the end of September, you can go ahead and dive in, and start praying together, and then just continue into October. We’ll continue to send you prayer prompts in the month to come. Again, sign up now—go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link that says, “GO DEEPER,” and take the 30-Day Oneness Prayer Challenge, as a couple.
Now, we are talking this week about the issue of domestic abuse and domestic violence. I just feel like we’ve got to get right to the elephant in the room that we’ve not talked about yet this week—
—and that is: “Does the Bible allow for divorce when you’re in an abusive marriage?” Folks who listen to FamilyLife Today know that we believe in the permanence of marriage and the marriage covenant—that you need to take the “D” word off the table. So, if you’re in an abusive marriage, is divorce acceptable? That’s the elephant in the room.
Dennis: You know what? Let’s deal with that—but let’s take a second, before we do get to that—can we do that?
Dennis: Alright. I want to introduce Justin Holcomb. He’s written a book called Is It My Fault? And it’s subtitled Hope and Healing for Those Suffering from Domestic Violence. Justin, as I welcome you back, what I want our listeners to know is—Justin wrote this book with his wife. Both of them have really unique backgrounds in this area—
—Justin more in the biblical realm, and also as a pastor, and his wife from a counseling and therapy background. I want to take a step back and just ask you to describe: “What does a victim of abuse feel? What are they absorbing, not only from a physical pain standpoint, but what’s taking place in their lives?”
Justin: What they’re feeling is fear—fear of what kind of abuse and pain they’re going to experience again.
Shame—shame because, for many—who are religious, especially—they are failures at marriage / they must have done something. The Bible talks a lot about marriage, and wives, and how they relate—and here they are. It’s so celebrated in many churches—and here they are—the very thing that’s celebrated is falling apart, and they can’t hold it together.
Guilt because they are assuming that it is their fault. A woman, who’s getting abused, is thinking: “Was it my abortion?” “Was it because we had sex before we got married?” “What is God punishing me for?”—some kind of divine karma type of thing.
Anger because they’re being trapped. They are worried about: “Do I sit here and suffer this abuse? If I leave, where would I go? Who’s going to believe me? And how do I take care of myself and the kids?” There’s anger at being sinned against and hurt like that.
In addition to fear, shame, guilt, and anger—feeling like they’re going crazy because they are thinking: “Wait a second, this is so confusing. He can say the most evil and humiliating things that cut to the heart and then another hour later he can tell me: ‘I’m so sorry. I love you so much.’” That is so disorienting—to thinking: “Well, maybe I do something that makes him angry because he’s so nice out there at work, at church, with our friends; and then we get home. Maybe he’s right—maybe I set him off.”
And that’s exactly it—she begins to question reality—maybe she has / maybe she’s the one that’s messed up and doesn’t know how to interpret reality.
Bob: I read a report, years ago, from the Nashville Police Department, where they talked about what they called the “Oh Baby Syndrome.” They said— with domestic violence—here’s a common pattern: The abuser, after he has abused his wife, will come back—in an hour, later that day, the next day, whenever it is—but he will come back and it’s: “Oh Baby, I’m so sorry. Oh Baby I don’t know what happened to me. Oh—I don’t want—I’m going to start going to church with you. I’m going to play more with the kids. I’m going to be a better man. I just need…” and he’s weeping.
There’s this appearance of this guy, genuinely being broken, over what took place the hour before or the day before. The wife, so much wants to believe that this is real this time, that she says, “Of course, come back in.”
Justin: She wants / she’s hoping—she chose this man, and she loves this man. This is the person that she decided to commit to and covenant with—that she actually loves.
Bob: She’ll say to her friends: “He’s a good man. You don’t know him. He’s a good man.” And she’ll start to describe the virtues of this individual. Why is she doing that? Why is she not saying, “I need help—this guy is attacking me”?
Justin: Abuse / sustained abuse re-wires the synapses and how you actually understand reality. What happens is—she actually does start believing while she’s saying it: “I guess he is the good guy, and he has these moments where he’s not that bad.” Then she starts downplaying and minimizing. She sees the good side because she starts giving voice to the things that he says to her. She starts parroting back to her friends partly to convince herself because she is feeling this weight of shame / of failure. She doesn’t want to be the failed divorced woman in the church.
Dennis: One in four families experience domestic abuse/domestic violence. That’s not some other city / that’s not some other part of the country—that’s in your church /
/ that is in your community. If you’re not the one, you probably are fellowshipping and know someone that you go to church with who’s experiencing this.
Justin: Seventy-five percent of Americans have said that they know someone who is now or has gone though domestic abuse.
Dennis: Okay. I may know someone or I may be the person. You have an appendix in the back of your book that is entitled “Making a Safety Plan.” This is going to be helpful for the woman, who can see it coming or finds herself in the middle of a violent or an abusive situation. It also could be helpful to a person who’s providing counsel to somebody who’s in this situation.
Bob: By the way, we have this safety plan available on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. As you explain it, if listeners want more information, they can go to the web. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link that says, “GO DEEPER”; and you’ll see the safety plan we’re talking about here.
What is it Justin?
Justin: One of the most important things someone can do—who is experiencing abuse—is to make a safety plan. This isn’t going back to the elephant in the room—this is not a divorce plan / this isn’t an anything plan—this is getting safe. This is getting out of an abusive scenario, where you or the children are not safe. It doesn’t have to be, “I need this right now,” / “…the next five hours.” People can use it like that; but it goes through and asks very important questions like: “What are the escape routes in the home?” The purpose is to ask questions to get you thinking about: “What does being safe look like?”
Bob: “How do I get out of the house?”—you’re saying?
Justin: Yes. “How do I get out of the house?”
Bob: “If the house was on fire, how do I…”
Bob: Same kind of thing.
Justin: Yes; same type of thing because, if it escalates to the point where, suddenly, the threat becomes a reality, and you actually need to get out, where are you going to go? Actually think through that: “Who can you call? Can you have a bag, ready somewhere, that you can grab stuff? What important documents will you need to have?
“Do you need Social Security numbers? Do you need birth certificates? What kind of documents should you be preparing for? Do you have access to a cell phone? What numbers—who are you going to call if you get out with a bag and the documents—well, who are you going to call? Where are you going to stay? Who can you call—who can you imagine…” It’s mostly to help them think through specific incidences of things they haven’t thought about.
Making sure you actually can call the police / that you know where the police station is—other questions. I can keep copies of important documents, such as immigration papers or birth certificates, at someone’s house: “Can you make a copy of them and then send them somewhere else?” It’s just helping them think through a strategic plan of safety for them and their children.
Dennis: You’re talking about a major move that is going to draw a line in the sand with that person.
Justin: Yes. Some people haven’t decided to leave. The average woman leaves and goes back to an abuser seven to twelve times. Even if you haven’t even thought about leaving, you can prepare for it.
Preparing doesn’t mean you’re going to. We want people to be as prepared as possible to be safe in a violent, abusive relationship.
Dennis: Why do wives go back? What’s taking place here?
Justin: There are so many reasons. Now, the first question that we need to answer is: “Why does he choose to abuse?” And we’ve answered that one; but I want to make sure the first question that most people ask is not, “Why is she going back?” because, underlying that question, to some people, is: “Why is she so stupid to go back? If it’s that bad, why is she going back?” I’m not saying you’re asking that, I’m saying—
Dennis: No, no, no.
Justin: —but many people—they’re thinking: “Well, if it’s that bad? Is it really that bad because she’s going back?” But there are a number of reasons a woman would go back. The big one is she usually has to choose between staying in a violent relationship/ abusive relationship in the home or being homeless. There are not a lot of places for an abused woman to go, with the children.
Other reasons a woman would stay—fear—and that’s the number one reason—
—fear of what he’s going to do: “Will he go for the children? Will he come after me?” The most volatile and dangerous time—where the most deaths occur in domestic abuse situations—is after the woman’s decided to leave the home and get safe / not file divorce papers—I’m just saying “Get out of his power and control—out of the house.” So the fear of: “If I leave and stay away, is he going to come after me or the children?”
Dennis: I know a woman, who filed for separation from her husband. She was so terrified and horrified by the abuse that occurred to her she couldn’t sleep in her own bed. So, she slept in the living room. She told me—she said: “Dennis, at two a.m., I woke up. He had broken in the house and was standing over me.” She said, “At that moment, I didn’t know what he was going to do.”
Justin: Well Lindsay worked at the domestic violence shelter. A few times, they found a man on the roof, with a pair of wire cutters, trying to cut the electricity to the domestic violence shelter.
They had men running around the house with weapons, threatening, “Let me in or else I’m going to go crazy and start firing.” So the men—something happens when the person they’re trying to control is no longer under their control. It frequently can escalate to life-threatening.
Bob: Justin, I saw a statistic once that said 95 percent of people who have been abusers are going to be abusers for life—basically said: “If you’re married to this guy, you just need to own up to the fact that there’s a 1 in 20 chance that this guy can ever change.” Is that accurate?
Justin: It’s very discouraging to see the trajectory. I’m not sure about the numbers. I have plenty of stats, but I don’t have stats I would trust on that. I’m not surprised by that. What I’ve seen is—usually, the men who get confronted about this, and you can see a difference.
The ones that—and I‘m not looking for worldly sorrow / who know how to say the right words—what I look for is the man who says: “You’re right. It’s actually worse than that. Let me tell you some more. Let me go turn myself in and let my wife press charges if she wants to. And if she chooses to be with me, we need to have the eyes of the church and the leadership of our church on our marriage.”
Dennis: There you go.
Justin: He gives away all power and control. I’ve seen that happen a few times. I’ve seen the wife say—and she doesn’t have a fantasy of change.
That’s one of the other reasons—going back to question—the fantasy that he might change. I’ve seen very few times, but I have seen God work in someone’s life. What happens is—many women go, “Oh—maybe that will happen”; and they hold on for four or five more bouts of abuse. It is very discouraging to see.
The men usually—if they get confronted by authorities, the police and the church—so the civil authority and the church authority—when they get confronted by either or both, usually, they bail / they run—and especially, in the church.
They’ll just run to another church. They’ll find some church where they can spin the story. People are happy to have more people in the church so: “Oh yes. I’m sorry. You are a victim of your controlling wife.” They’ll just find another church. You can’t do anything with church discipline or whatever the church structures have in place to protect and call what he’s doing sin and call him to repentance, which is not just the fancy words—the “Oh Baby…” to God.
Justin: So they can do the “Oh Baby…” to the church too, but repentance is the turning from your sin.
Bob: So, if you’re sitting down with a guy—and you’ve talked to his wife and you go, “It is clear—this is one of those classic narcissistic abuser kind of guys,”—you’re hoping/praying for a breakthrough in his life. Is there anything you can say to him? Is there anything that you can do to try to bring brokenness into his life?
Justin: One of the things I do, if I know there’s domestic abuse happening, is—I don’t do marriage counseling because it’s not a marriage counseling issue. I will actually counsel, pastorally, them separately. I will meet with her because that’s one thing, and I will talk to him about other things.
I will say: “Here’s the thing—it doesn’t look good. You’ve been doing this in other dimensions of your life and this does not look good. Since we actually have the Christian’s worldview to talk about, let’s just be honest—this leads to death and destruction. This leads to your life looking miserable. You’re on a trajectory to die alone and die with amazing amounts of guilt because of the failure and the devastation you’ve brought to your wife, her family, and your children. You’re on a pathway for destruction. Do you really want change?”
Many of them say “No.” Just like many people who say: “No, I haven’t hit rock bottom. I don’t want to let go of my addiction. I don’t want to let go of this thing.” Some of them will do the worldly-sorrow thing. Some of them—God gets a hold of them, and they submit.
God can change a man’s heart to actually do the very thing God wants him to do—will and do His good pleasure—Philippians 2:13.
Dennis: Well, let’s call the elephant—
Bob: I was going to say, “He’s right here, about to—
Dennis: Restate it, Bob, because some of our listeners maybe joined us a little later in the conversation.
Bob: The issue is—with domestic violence / with the realities we’re talking about—and with all of us, here at the table, having a high view of the marriage covenant: “How do we reconcile those two things? What do we say to a wife who, herself, honors the marriage covenant / wants desperately to honor her marriage covenant—what do the Scriptures say to her as to how she is to live?”
Justin: The first thing I want to say is that I’m thankful we’re talking about the elephant because too many women, when they’ve talked to their pastor—the first thing that they have heard is, “Well, you know, God hates divorce,”—the very first—not, “I’m sorry,” not “I believe you”; but “God hates divorce.”
What they do is—they’re shutting them down. I’m thinking: “She’s not coming to ask for divorce. She’s asking her pastor to shepherd her soul.” Yes the Bible does say God hates divorce—I don’t know, one, two, three times. You know what else He hates?—abuse and violence. He says so, all throughout Scripture. I’m not—that’s not how we interpret Scripture—we don’t take it and go, “This one says more over here than is over here,”—but He also hates abuse. You can say to her: “This is horrible, and I ‘m sorry; but that’s sin, and God hates that type of sin and violence that you’re experiencing. That’s got to be really painful.”
So, thank you for asking the question. Here’s marriage, domestic abuse, and divorce. Marriage is a covenant, and divorce is the breaking of that covenant. When a man chooses to abuse, he breaks that covenant—an abusive man is, I believe, forfeiting the right to remain married, unless the woman wants to stay married to him.
The problem that the woman experiences is that—if the wife chooses to divorce him—I’ve told them: “You’re making public his covenant breaking. You’re the one—it’s the hardest thing to do—you’re actually being public about it. You’re not sinning by making public the fact that he violated your covenant.” If the wife chooses to divorce him, she is making a public statement that he has broken the covenant. This does not go against what the Bible says about divorce. I believe that he has forfeited his right to remain married unless she wants to remain married.
Bob: And if somebody says, “Where’s your text on that one?” where do you take them?
Justin: Exodus 20, where it talks about adultery, abuse, and abandonment.
Bob: Yes, but that’s the Old Covenant.
Justin: Yes, and it’s the authoritative Word of God that was not revoked because of the New Covenant.
Dennis: I might differ with you just a little bit here. I’m glad you started where you started with a compassionate approach to the woman, who’s being subjected to that kind of abuse—and the children as well.
I think where I would go is—I would talk about doing everything possible to be able to save that marriage and have it operate according to the covenant. As I think about divorce, I ask the question, “Did Jesus allow for divorce?” As I read what His teachings are, yes, one was in the case of adultery. The other was in the case of abandonment by either spouse.
I’m just thinking of a woman, whose husband was abusing her—she got the ability to separate from him, legally—which I think is part of using the law of the land to protect you / she got the church to help protect her, as well, both spiritually and physically—got them involved—started attempting to call the husband to repentance and to deal with his issue. Let’s rush in to bring healing and wholeness to the abused wife; and let’s see if there’s a way to appeal to the husband, who is abusive. In this case, he is a fool; and he has to be corrected.
He has to be called out of his lifestyle—way of thinking and way of treating his wife. Let’s think about how the church needs to be—it needs to be a redemptive force of love.
Justin, I appreciate you being on the broadcast. Thanks for your book—it’s an excellent book. I’d encourage people to get it. I think it’s going to bring a lot of hope to a lot of people. Thanks for being on the broadcast.
Justin: Well, thank you for the honor and privilege to be here, and talk about this dark subject, and for you to shine the light of the gospel on it.
Bob: Well, as you said today, it may be that 75 percent of our listeners know somebody who is currently experiencing domestic abuse. What you ought to do is get your friend a copy of Justin’s book, Is It My Fault? and give it to them, as a gift. Go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link that says, “GO DEEPER,” in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. You’ll find a copy of Justin’s book available there. You can order it from us, online.
There are also articles / chapters from the book available for free download. You can do that and send that on to your friend as well. Send them a link to this series of programs and encourage them to listen in to the conversation we’ve had here, this week, with Justin Holcomb. Again, our website is FamilyLifeTdoay.com. Click the link that says, “GO DEEPER.” Or you can order the book by calling 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, I think we need to say a word of thanks today to the listeners who made the programs this week possible, as we’ve been talking about domestic abuse. You have no idea how many couples are experiencing something like this and how many people have been helped by what they’ve heard in our dialogue.
Those of you who support this program—you are the ones who make all of this possible. FamilyLife Today is a listener-supported program. We’re here to provide practical biblical help and hope for marriages and families, day in and day out. When you support this ministry, you help make that a reality in your community and in communities all around the world. We’re grateful for that support.
Right now, if you are able to make a donation in support of the ministry, we’d like to express our gratitude tangibly by sending you a copy of our 2016 FamilyLife Prayer Calendar. It’s our thank-you gift when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen that says, “I Care,”—make an online donation. Or when you call 1-800-FL-TODAY—make a donation over the phone. Or you can mail your donation to us at FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; our zip code is 72223.
We hope you can join us back tomorrow. We’re going to introduce you to a couple that lived through some of what we’ve been talking about this week. You’ll meet Hans and Star Molegraaf and hear about how quickly, into their marriage relationship, patterns of anger and abuse began to emerge and how God dealt with that in their marriage. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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