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Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. – Hebrews 13:3
Some types of marriages and family situations are like prisons to the people involved. In these relationships, it is frequently the case that the husband or father is exercising a domineering control over his family, rather than exhibiting the servant-leadership modeled by Christ (Mark 10:42-45).
Note: I’m aware that the husband isn’t always the primary fault in a marriage. Men, though, are inherently bigger, faster, and stronger than women are, and these strengths are sometimes used to dominate others, particularly their families. This article is meant to address that specific problem.
These families desperately need the help of the body of Christ, but caring for them well is challenging for a variety of reasons.
The most significant obstacle to overcome is the unwillingness of Christians to enter into the messiness of others’ lives. As we count the cost of getting involved, we may determine that the emotional investment at stake is far too high. Or we can be tempted to think we aren’t qualified to help them, so we offer to pray and nothing more.
Another difficulty that arises is that the man who is overbearing toward his family can be quite charming toward the people outside of his house. If a wife is seeking help, sometimes the would-be helper has a hard time reconciling the wife’s claims with the character of the man he thinks he knows.
Other times, the husband is belligerent in different settings and confronting him seems like a daunting task.
Further, the wife may become emotional easily which can make her seem like she is unstable, contentious, and the primary problem in the marriage. Helping people like this is not an easy task. May I plead with you to help them anyway? We would love to serve you as you do.
Assume she’s telling the truth. She is taking a considerable risk by talking to you, and if she gets the feeling you don’t believe her, she will retreat to her prison and likely not risk seeking help again for a long time. She will feel very alone, hopeless and confused.
Listen well. Try to understand the abused person’s world the way she does. Ask good questions. Keep in mind that she likely is not interpreting her world entirely correctly, but also be willing to hold your presuppositions about what is going on in her life loosely (Proverbs 18:13, James 1:19).
Note: A PDI form will not give you as reliable information as a conversation will.
Understand she is terrified and confused. She likely has been conditioned to think that any mention of her husband’s faults is tantamount to gossip. Also, she may have been told and may believe that every problem in her marriage is primarily her fault. Every time she disagrees with her husband, he accuses her of being rebellious or unsubmissive. This lady may have a weak conscience (Romans 14:23) in many ways, and she will need gentle, loving care to help her recalibrate it.
Avoid over-correcting her. This suggestion is not to say she doesn’t need correction or doesn’t need to change, but she lives in an environment where no amount of change is enough to satisfy her husband, even though she has run herself ragged to try to please him.
You don’t want to give the impression to either spouse that the problem only lies with one person, but it’s imperative that you understand that the burden of change has likely always been solely on her.
It will be easy to crush her by placing further expectations on her. Further, her husband may use your critiques of his wife as weapons to control her when they are back home, so it will be best for you to counsel her separately from her husband when you must bring correction to her. Be sure you clearly understand the situation as best you can before you give her advice.
Be willing to serve her for the long haul. These folks have likely been in this pattern for a long time (Galatians 6:1-2), and they need long-term care if there is any hope for change in their lives (1 Thessalonians 5:14). They probably don’t even understand the extent of their caughtness, and even if they know they need to change, they have no idea how to do so effectively.
It’s not uncommon for women in this position to react in self-righteous anger when someone finally listens to and validates them; please don’t be surprised by this, and please don’t be afraid to compassionately help her focus her heart on Christ. You can contact me on the forum if you need help navigating the situation that faces you.
Love him. Being for the wife (Romans 8:31) does not mean you should be against the husband. Sin has captured him (Galatians 6:1-2), and he needs your help. You will need to guard your heart against sinning against him in anger (James 1:20, James 3:9). He likely thinks you don’t understand his situation and will need you to bring the truth to him in love, over and over again.
Understand that he may not think he needs to change. He has a biblical hermeneutic that interprets all of the marriage through the “wives, submit to your husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:24) lens. He sees her failure to give him everything he wants (James 4:1-6) as the only thing that needs to change for them to have a great marriage. Unless God grants him repentance (2 Timothy 2:25) and he is willing to humble himself (James 4:10), he will dig his heels in and stay put.
This problem is why it is a mistake to employ standard marriage counseling for a couple like this. Oppression is happening in the context of marriage in these cases, but this is not a marriage problem, per se (Psalm 9:7-10).
Don’t let him fool you. He may be willing to say and do all the right things to get his kingdom back under control. Definitely, praise any shreds of evidence of grace you see in his life (Romans 2:4), but be aware he could be using self-reliant, manipulative tactics to convince you he has changed when he hasn’t.
He may seem very emotional and repentant at times (2 Corinthians 7:10) and could even believe what he’s saying. The test is whether he follows through with practical, long term, and measurable change.
There’s a good chance he will be like Adam on steroids: justifying, blaming shifting, and playing the victim card (Genesis 3:10-12) can be excellent tools to deflect the heat of correction. He may demand full reconciliation without any consequences whatsoever for himself in exchange for his professed repentance, but be entirely unwilling to extend grace to anyone else.
Be willing to protect his family when he is not. Please do this in a spirit of gentleness and humility, but please do it. Your actions will be a kindness toward him, even if he doesn’t see them that way. And his family needs you (James 1:27).
One more thing: if you see improvement for an extended period, don’t assume everything has changed. You might consider setting a reminder on your phone to prompt you to ask, monthly, how the couple is doing. Don’t accept “fine” as an answer. Be willing to ask probing questions of each of them separately.
You won’t be able to bring this level of care alone; a vibrant local church body best fulfills this kind of responsibility.
If these folks are believers, the same power that raised Christ from the dead indwells them (Romans 8:11). If they can learn to trust the Lord and walk in the strength He provides (Ephesians 6:10), both of them can change.
If either of them is not a Christian, there is still hope through the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4:17).
It is somewhat rare for a man like I have described to change. It may be that the ongoing involvement of the church can at least provide some sanctified pressure for him to treat his family better.
It may also be that that pressure causes his behavior to worsen, in which case it may be wise to contact your local domestic violence organization.
Your job, dear Christian, is to serve them as best you can as an act of worship to your Lord. The people in your care may never change; you’re not in control of that (1 Corinthians 3:6). This realization, properly understood, should free you to serve them lovingly and faithfully, relying on the Lord for the results.
This article is a collaboration between Brandi Huerta and Julie Hansen, both students in our Mastermind Program. Brandi graduated in 2015 and Julie is currently enrolled.