What’s a Hurting Wife To Do?

Following Rebecca VanDoodewaard’s article A High View of Marriage Includes Divorcehere on Gentle Reformation, and with the internet abuzz with Australian reporter Julia Baird’s hit piece on the church regarding abuse that has produced such responses as “An Open Letter to Husbands Who Abuse Their Wives” at TGC, a question has been raised. What is the proper response of a Christian wife who finds herself facing a sexually immoral or abusive husband?

Though the types of situations a wife may encounter can vary greatly, meaning there is no simple blanket answer to this question, certain Biblical principles and options can be pursued. My wife, Miriam, helped me to write this post as we reflected on our experiences in pastoral ministry that, sadly, included too many wives dealing with this issue.

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What is a Christian wife to do when she discovers explicit texts from another woman on her husband’s phone? When she is shocked by an explosion of anger that creates a bleeding heart or even a bruised body? When she walks in the room unexpectedly and finds her husband watching pornographic videos?

Each of these scenarios can have quite a range of involvement and intensity, and thus influence how a wife should respond. Yet in the face of marital sin, the following Biblical guidelines can be given to a wife.

Pray for wisdom, grace, and strength. You do not have any of these resources naturally. They are especially needed when awful events like these strike your marriage. Additionally, a wrong response by a wife can exacerbate a situation and make it even more volatile. Your flesh will want to lash out with anger or vindictiveness. Yet responding sinfully will not solve your husband’s sin problem. You need Christ’s wisdom and strength at this moment perhaps more than ever. Ask him to give you what you do not possess. Pray for the Spirit’s help at this time of need (Luke 11:13).

Measure offenses by God’s standards. In the “lawless grace” gospel so often presented in our modern age, many believers have heard “Judge not, that you be not judged” from Matthew 7:1 out of context so often that they believe it is unchristian to point out another’s wrongdoing. In addition, many wives have been told that submission means they must never question their husband’s judgment. After all, godly wives are told to win their husbands “without a word” according to 1 Peter 3:1. So they suffer alone in silence. Simply stated, the idea that a Christian wife must tolerate gross conduct by her husband without speaking a word is absurd and a twisting of Scripture. Not hounding and nagging an unbelieving husband with the gospel is one thing; being told to be quiet in the name of Christ while a husband pounds her is quite another.

If you are a hurting wife, look at your husband’s sin and measure it biblically. When hurt, it is so difficult to evaluate things properly but you must. You must first and foremost measure yourself by the standard you hold him up against as Matthew 7 goes on to teach. If he is yelling angry words at you or flirting with a co-worker, but you are doing the same, then you should first repent of your own transgressions.

If you do have the log out of your own eye, then measure carefully his culpability and his actions’ severity. Were those cell phone texts responded to or were they the unwanted advances of an adulterous woman that he rebuffed but was afraid to show you? Did he yell in a moment of frustration caused by a difficult work situation or is he threatening regularly to harm you? Are the requests for sex reasonable though perhaps more frequent than you wish or – and this can and has happened – have you been forcibly raped by your own husband? Wives can overreact in jealousy to small offenses just as they can respond too passively when a husband is abusing them. Neither is a godly response. Measure carefully what is taking place.

Confront your sinning husband privately and gently as soon as possible. If your husband is indeed sinning against you, you should before, during, or after if necessary ask him to stop. For instance, if he asks you to view pornography with him, you should lovingly and firmly refuse, calling him to repent of this wrong. If during sexual relations he begins to ask or push you to do things that violate your conscience or Scripture, such as sodomy, you should plead with him to cease and even withdraw if he will not listen if possible to do so. If he has angrily yelled at you because you will not cooperate in these sins, when things have calmed down you should quietly explain to him the wrongness of his action, call him to repent and seek forgiveness, and perhaps ask him to seek the counsel of others.

For in Christian marriage, before you two were husband and wife you were first brother and sister in the Lord. Thus, the Christian wife, being the one person who knows best of all her husband, has a first-line responsibility to help her husband see his sin. Yes, of course, she is not to be the proverbial dripping roof on a rainy day, daily trying to nag and argue righteousness into her husband. But she is to be her husband’s counselor, for “a prudent wife is from the Lord” (Prov. 19:14). My wife, who is my covenant companion and best friend, is both submitted in love to me and speaks more corrective words into my soul than anyone else. Your sinning husband may not accept your correction, but it is a lie and corruption of Christian teaching that would tell you that you are not to offer it when he is in danger of God’s judgment for violating his law.

Grant forgiveness willingly and often. If your husband genuinely repents, in Christ you should grant forgiveness. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:12-13). If you see your husband seeking to change, encourage him and pray for him. However, as the next guideline suggests, if the sins are especially heinous and your husband seems increasingly hardened, you will need the help of others.  But through it all, you should work at forgiving him from the heart even though you may not get to a point of true reconciliation if your husband refuses to change.

When abusive or immoral behaviors persist, involve one or two that can truly help. Often a suffering wife will tell others about the problems, but it is done to gossip and elicit sympathy rather than to seek help. I’ve even seen some women form what amounts to “Husbands Anonymous” clubs, where they gather to tell all the shortcomings and even awful sins of their husbands but do little beyond that to bring healing to their relationships.

Rather, in wisdom you should go to those in the church you know you can trust to help you take the next steps (Matt. 18:16). As a pastor, I have had women come and, in their suffering and shame, explain to me what their husband was doing. I always told them I would need to take two steps. First, I would want them to name another woman that we could involve so that she would have the proper emotional support and empathy, and would guide her if needed toward a mature woman in the congregation. Second, unless it was a dangerous situation (see below), I would tell her that together we would contact her husband as soon as possible. I wanted him to know I knew and that I wanted to hear his side of the story in order to build some trust and hope of reconciliation if possible.

If in imminent danger, you should flee. Years ago, a woman with a black eye told me that her husband who gave it to her had said he was sorry and asked me if she should go back. I warned her that, given that he refused to receive counsel, come to church, or hear the gospel with her, to return would likely result in similar treatment. She did not listen, and returned to him only to show up a few weeks later with the other eye blackened.

Once a man begins to threaten or strike a woman, he rarely stops unless drastic means are taken. Thus, she should flee the situation. And, yes, I believe if a man “only” threatens with words to hurt or kill a woman she should leave until she is reassured of her safety. A husband’s main duty is to protect his family. If he is threatening those he’s pledged to guard, we should take him at his word, for out of the mouth comes what is in the heart (see Matt. 15:18-19).

However, getting away is often more difficult than it sounds. Where do you go? How long do you stay? What about the children? Do you let your husband know where you are? I recall counseling a wife over the phone whose home had become a prison, as she was trying to escape a husband who was abusing her and terrorizing her and the children. We had to walk through a fairly detailed plan that involved a support network of friends and a shelter so that she could be encouraged to flee this awful situation. Those counseling an abused wife should put a plan in place. If physical abuse has occurred, the civil authorities should be involved in this plan as reporting it is required by law.

In questions of divorce, you should seek the involvement of the elders of the church. For Christians, divorce is not just a matter for lawyers and civil courts. If a woman believes her situation warrants a divorce, she should seek the counsel of the elders of her church for guidance regarding it. If her husband is a member of the church and her concerns are legitimate, the elders should also bring ecclesiastical discipline to bear.

I wish I could assure hurting wives that the elders always have their best interests as heart and do what is right. However, as Rebecca’s article reminded us and the Westminster Confession of Faith plainly states, the courts of the church “may err; and many have erred” (WCF 31.4). Elders can render bad judgments on familial issues and turn the victim into the culprit. Wives and those helping them should be sure to seek further recourse if they feel the church also has wronged them. Though painful, they can appeal to the higher courts of the church or ask for broader help from other godly men who might advocate for them.

For this returns us to the first principle. We must pray, remembering the truth, “The righteous cry, and the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles” (Ps. 34:17).

8 Comments

  1. Chris Myers July 24, 2017 at 7:26 pm #

    Thank you brother and sister! Wonderful article.

  2. Marie July 25, 2017 at 8:20 pm #

    Does my supposedly Christian husband really need me to tell him that his porn use is a sin? Is it my job to privately confront him?

    I’d really like to know. I think he is fully aware. I don’t see what my private admonition is going to do except possibly make him hide it better

    • Barry York July 26, 2017 at 1:03 pm #

      Marie,

      Sinners like to hide in their darkness. Light should be shone on it. Telling your husband you are aware is a responsibility you have to him. I have seen men repent when confronted.

      But please realize this is a spiritual battle. Ask God for strength in this battle, as I sense in the spirit of your question you are (understandably) disheartened by his sin. Pray the Lord will convict and bring him to repentance. Explain to your husband how hurtful his actions are to you. Be determined to shine further light on it by involving someone else if needed as the article encourages.

      I’m praying these things for you even as I write these words.

      • Marie July 26, 2017 at 2:38 pm #

        thank you

      • Barbara Roberts August 6, 2017 at 12:40 am #

        Dear Marie,
        Barry said he has seen men repent when confronted.

        I have heard COUNTLESS stories from women whose husbands were using porn… and in the vast majority of stories I’ve heard, the husband faked repentance when confronted, and the church leaders believed the guy had repented… And the wife sooner or later saw that her husband has NOT repented.

        I encourage you to check out A Cry For Justice which is the blog I co-lead with Ps Jeff Crippen. Here is a link to the posts on our blog which address pornography: https://cryingoutforjustice.com/tag/pornography/

        And here is a link to our FAQ page about Repentance: https://cryingoutforjustice.com/what-if-the-abuser-is-repentant/

        • Marie August 7, 2017 at 11:39 am #

          I think there are two types of advice.

          One is for when you have a loving, decent man who perhaps has a stumble or a misjudgement. It’s a sin. But to have it confronted and dealt with would presumably help him. He needs help. He wants help. He already feels bad.

          The other is for a terrible man who loves to sin. He does not want help. He does not need to be told that what he is doing is terrible. He already knows. He enjoys being terrible. Why does he even bother to hide it? Expedience. Confronting him would only cause him to hide it better. It might make the kids find out. He will also probably start a whole new round of abuse. Guess whose fault this is? Mine. I don’t this, I don’t that, I’m not enthusiastic enough. . . well it is hard to get enthusiastic about sex with an abusive man. Impossible, really.

          Godly pastors who advocate gentle confrontation and accountability are probably not porn abusers themselves. They hope for the best. They project, maybe, that the man in question wants to reprent. Because they would want to repent. They want to see men restored and marriages made whole. I appreciate that. But reality is often – perhaps usually? otherwise.

          In my case I truly believe it would just go underground and I’d get abused more over it. But. I am wondering if it is my Christian duty to report it. That is what I am struggling with.

  3. Valerie Jacobsen July 26, 2017 at 2:29 pm #

    While I agree with some of your points, I’ve also experienced the devastation caused by others and have written a response. I dearly wish that the open discussion of these issues would lead to far more intensive investigation of these issues–listening to victims, listening to those with professional expertise–and not simply be taken as an opportunity to reiterate the responses that have already produced so much suffering for so many.

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/valerie-jacobsen/re-whats-a-hurting-wife-to-do-by-barry-york/10155448347812088/

  4. Barbara Roberts August 6, 2017 at 12:27 am #

    Barry York, your post is a case study in how pastors mis-advise women whose husbands are abusive and/or indulging in porn. Your advice to these women is downright dangerous.

    The first thing you told the wife was too look at her own behaviour: “Additionally, a wrong response by a wife can exacerbate a situation and make it even more volatile.”

    When a wife resists or complains about her husband’s sinful conduct, a good husband ought to heed his wife’s feedback and good husband ought to do this no matter how the wife has expressed her resistance or her complaint. In contrast, a bad husband, a selfish husband, will NOT heed his wife’s complaint no matter how it is voiced. When a husband is committed to a pattern of selfishness, self-serving and self-indulgence in sin, and wife expresses complaint or concern about her husband’s sin, the husband will escalate and expand his sin by reviling and intimidating his wife.

    Barrry, you have laid the burden of ‘good conduct’ on the wife, rather than the husband — you’ve told her not to make a wrong response — you’ve told her to look at herself first. You need to know that your advice dovetails and parallels an abusive husband’s coercive and blame-shifting attitude to his abused wife.

    Furthermore, you’ve shown no awareness of how dangerous it can be for the wife and the pastor to meet together with the husband. Couple counseling is NOT safe in domestic abuse situations.

    I could spend an hour explaining all the other faults in your advice, but I don’t have time. If you want to learn how better to respond to these issues, please look at this: https://cryingoutforjustice.com/as-a-pastor-what-are-the-most-important-things-for-me-to-know-about-domestic-abuse/

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