It was wonderful to have the chance to sit down with Tracy Malone of Narcissist Abuse Support.
As a therapist and advocate who specializes in recovery from abuse, I have been witness to many stories of how survivors of abuse were treated by their church elders and pastors. I can tell you that some church leadership understands the complexities of domestic abuse, but sadly, many more leaders are doing incredible harm to female and male survivors. I do not believe the damage is always intentional, but rather stems from commonly held ideals that are ultimately creating environments where abusers are given “grace-passes” and the victims are left carrying the full responsibility for saving their marriages.
There appears to be significant blind spots within the western evangelical church when it comes to abuse and how leaders are to effectively counsel within the context of toxic marriages and abusive people. I hope to highlight a few of the areas that seem to stumble most church leaders. I am doing this not to bring shame or condemnation to pastors and church staff, but I hope open discussions will continue to occur. Survivors of abuse deserve to receive safe and informed care from their religious leadership. Unfortunately, this is not currently happening in many of our houses of worship in the United States.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? Magical thinking.
The main issue I have observed is that far too many congregation leaders are teaching a lot about what God can do to change the abuser’s heart and far less instruction on what the abuser must do to be a reflection of Christ’s character to his or her family. The focus is placed on everyone but the abuser. The responsibility of changed behaviors is not where it needs to be, but rather deflected outward and away from the source of pain; the abuser.
Leaders are telling survivors that they must pray more if they want to see their abuser changed, that it is their duty as a wife or husband to remain steadfastly committed like Hosea did to Gomer in the Bible, and that God can change anyone if enough people are praying. Where are the teachings about the abuser repenting and permanently turning away from their harmful lifestyle? Where are the teachings about natural consequences when we mistreat other people? Where are teachings about personal accountability for a changed life? Instead the survivor, and even God, are held out as the only tools of how the abuser will be redeemed and made more Christ-like, even as the abuser does absolutely nothing concrete to be different. It leaves domestic abusers (both male and female) ultimately off the hook and everyone around them left to adjust to their poisonous behaviors.
The idea of wanting change for an abuser, when they themselves put no action towards healing, almost borders on magical thinking.
I recently was in a church lobby and a few people were standing around excitedly talking about a well-known public figure who exhibits abusive behaviors. One person said, “God is going to get a hold of him!” and another said, “He doesn’t know it yet, but God has a great plan for his life.” Of course I had to interject and ask what the abuser might think about God getting a hold of him. I asked what evidence can we see of a changed and repented heart from this particular toxic individual. I shared with them that it concerned me greatly that this small group of people in the lobby wanted salvation and healing for the abuser more than the abuser himself may even want it. At what point have Christians crossed over into dangerous wishful thinking that inhibits their ability to have eyes to see and ears to hear?
There is something very naive and unhealthy about projecting positive character traits on abusers that they do not possess and may have no interest in obtaining. If they did the hard work to become a new creation, then sure, we could join them in celebrating. But to hold out hope for an abuser who shows no lasting signs of change is like hoping we walk out our front door to a brand new sports car but we refuse to show up to work every day. It’s honestly embarrassing that the collective church will not see people for exactly who they are in their current state, hope and pray for more, but not be blinded to what is right in front of them. We will not change an abuser simply by wishing for it to be true. Sanctification is a process and one that the abuser absolutely must be a part of on a daily basis.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? Power.
Power is a strong driver for people to remain in denial about abuse going on around them. When toxic people have the ability to get us what we want, we are sadly more willing sometimes to look the other way of character traits that might be unsavory. Many times the worst abusers at home are the same individuals who are showing up to church every time the doors are open. They are seen as pillars in the community, or at least useful to the church in some form or fashion. These powerful abusers are given a quiet pass when concerns are raised about their treatment of their families. People say things such as, “I know him, he would never do the things his wife told the pastor.” You can change the gender and the message is still the same when the abuser is a female. Power or the acquisition of something church leadership wants will, and has, caused many to justify abusive behaviors. They often utilize the magical thinking I mentioned above and decide that the abuser will get better with God’s help, even as the abuser shows no signs of authentically seeking God at all.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? The covenant of marriage is being held in higher regard than the safety of a spouse and children within an abusive marriage.
I know churches where someone can repent of horrendous crimes against people and these individuals will be received within a congregation family but another church member discusses dissolving their marriage because of abuse, and that person will be literally shunned by church leadership and other members. The concept of marriage is held to such a high standard that in some places of worship, it does not matter that evil is being perpetrated within the walls of the family home. Why do some church leaders cling so tightly to the idea of all marriages remaining intact? I think there are two reasons and the first is that sometimes radical things do happen and terrible marriages are restored. Harmful behaviors are addressed and forever changed. Church leaders love those stories of how one of their ministries or their own counsel redeemed a family that looked hopeless. However, not all toxic marriages will go through a 180 shift. Just like not all prayers for a sick person will result in a miraculous and spontaneous healing. Sometimes the body dies and some marriages die as well. Just like the fact that we are not seeing resurrections of bodies at hospitals all over the country, we may not see resurrections of marriages that are abusive when the abuser does not do the hard work to bring lastly healing to his or her family.
The second reason that churches are holding tight to saving marriages, even when one spouse is literally dying within the poisonous environment, is because some church leaders believe that without strong marriages as a foundation, our country is on a collision course with doom. These leaders want to hold onto the concept of the traditional marriage so much that they are literally willing to pretend a marriage is reflecting God’s will even when they know good and well the marriage is a fragile house of cards. As long as it looks good from the outside, right? This sort of thinking perpetuates the fake billboard living that many complain about in regards to modern Christianity.
What can we do when we are worried about the church and its response, or lack of, to abuse in marriages? We first educate ourselves and then we set out to educate our local church leaders. We find books that have been helpful in our journey to understand what abuse looks like in all its forms and we share those books with church leaders. We walk along side a survivor of abuse and tell him or her that we will not spiritually abuse them as well. We will not use Scripture to justify the harm that is being done to them and we will not place the burden of change on the survivor either.
The church should be a sanctuary of hope and healing. Until abuse within Christian marriages is properly handled by all churches in America, we are failing in our calling to carry each other’s burdens and be the hands and feet of a God of justice.
Keep dreaming big!
Bestselling Author of Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through The Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse
To place a pre-sale Kindle or paperback order, click HERE
There are no words to describe my joy of having finished my new book, Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse.
I wanted to write the book, and the personal reflections journal in the back of the book, because I felt that outlining the actual stages of recovery from this form of abuse had not yet been done in the genre. There are other books that do a wonderful job of telling a survivor’s personal story and sharing their experience in finding healing. A few other therapists have also written on the topic, but Healing from Hidden Abuse is unique as it outlines the process that people navigate through regardless of whether the abuse took place in a relationship, family, friendship, work, or church/ministry.
Within the pages of Healing from Hidden Abuse, the reader walks through the six stages of recovery.
The stages are:
The book is currently on pre-sale in Kindle and paperback format. The book will be released August 30th!
I was recently contacted and asked to share my thoughts on how a Christian is supposed to deal with narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths. To some it may seem like an odd request but actually it isn’t at all. One area of my counseling practice is specializing in recovery from toxic relationships and believe me when I say that trying to have a normal relationship with a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath is anything BUT normal. The Hollywood version of how a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath behaves often confuses people and it is after much psychological abuse that someone comes to realize that they were in fact in a very toxic relationship. I think it’s important to know what these relationships look like and there is a great book called “Psychopath Free” by Peace. Here is a link to my book review – “Psychopath Free”.
The topic of how a Christian is supposed to deal with being in a relationship with a very emotionally unhealthy and unsafe person is important because it highlights many significant pitfalls. The reason this becomes an issue is due to the fact that biblical teaching is often taken out of context and used to justify and enable bad behaviors in people. For decades, women who were being physically, emotionally, sexually and psychologically abused by men in their lives were told by pastors that it was their duty to make it work at home and to cook better meals or do other tasks in order to please abusive men. This thinking has permeated church culture. Although nowadays no church in the country would allow a pastor to preach from the pulpit that domestic violence is acceptable, I assure you that individual pastors are still counseling female parishioners that they as women need to bring peace to the home. How do I know this is still happening? I often end up seeing these ladies for counseling. They walked into a pastor’s office with the problem of domestic abuse and came out with the same problem and another one added: it’s their responsibility to fix the abuse by being a better girlfriend, wife or daughter.
This history of placing the blame on the woman when abuse is present has contributed to some Christian women feeling as if they can not set healthy boundaries with men who end up being narcissistic, sociopathic or psychopathic. Now, I should pause here and say that I know men meet, date and sometimes marry narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths and the damage done is just as intensely painful for these men. The question asked of me was about Christians in particular and I do strongly believe that women have been taught to overlook and put up with abuse in ways that Christian men collectively have not. I could be wrong but it’s just my experience of being a Christian for over twenty years and having been actively involved in churches and previously on ministry staff.
What are Christians supposed to do when interacting with toxic people? I think remembering a few key points is very helpful.
A Tree and Its Fruit
Matthew 7:17 says that we will know a good tree by its fruit and a diseased tree by the fruit it bears. If you find yourself in a toxic relationship but are having trouble with setting what you know to be healthy boundaries, think about the fruit of your interactions with the abusive person. Do you feel anxious, not like your normal self, depressed or like you are living in a chaotic emotional tornado? Is that good or bad fruit? We both know the answer to that question and it’s bad fruit. Bad fruit produced by a bad tree.
God Will Change Him/Her
No, He won’t. Sorry to be so short and blunt about it but God will not change a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath. How do I know this to be true? Because I have never, not once, ever, never seen someone changed by God who didn’t want to be changed. Think about it for a minute. Has anyone ever gone to bed a complete high-grade jerk and woke up radically transformed into the loving image of Jesus? Nope. Now I have seen a whole lot of people do a whole lot of praying and soul searching and surrendering and the such and then became completely new people. It’s actually one of my favorite things about the blessings of God. Narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths don’t think there is anything wrong with them. It’s part of their disordered thinking that convinces them everyone else is wrong. They are incapable of change. Speaking of change, go ahead and take a look at my blog about the Four Levels Of Change. Don’t believe me? Think about a clinically narcissistic person and the truly positive lasting change that occurred within them. Can’t think of any? Neither can I and I am a therapist.
As Christians, we have to remember that scripture says that God is a gentleman and will go where He is welcomed. He doesn’t kick down doors to get to people who feel they have no need for Him. So if you’re staying stuck in a toxic situation with a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath and waiting for God to instantly change him or her, you are seriously wasting months if not years of your life. This thinking is a trap and can become a prison cell in which people stay self-imposed.
I Need To Lead Him /Her To Christ
When the topic of setting boundaries with toxic people comes up, I often hear Christians say that they are concerned about turning their backs on someone because they see it as their duty to lead that person to God. If someone is an evangelical Christian and believes that introducing a non-believer to God is their calling, then I can completely understand the pressure these people feel in cutting ties with unsaved toxic people. If you’re a predestination person, that pressure is different but still a difficult situation.
Whether a person is evangelical or not, staying safe and not becoming a door mat is vitally critical to our own well being. Once we lose our joy and our hope and our peace, we certainly can’t share those beautiful attributes with other people. If the narcissist, sociopath or psychopath in your life is causing or has caused you to be less sparkly than you once were, how can you expect to live the life you were given as a gift?
When Christians say that they don’t want to set needed boundaries because they are giving up on someone, I gently remind them that they are being a titch egocentric to think that they and they alone are only who God can use to bring change into the toxic person’s life. We have to be very careful when lies start whispering that we must be the one who brings truth to a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath. When we start thinking this way, we have enslaved ourselves to more abuse in all its various forms.
If you are a Christian and in a toxic relationship, ask yourself what fruit is this relationship bringing to your life. Good fruit or poisoned fruit? Remind yourself that people only change when they see a need and are willing to change. Lastly, you are not the only person on the planet who God can use to reach toxic people.
Does a particular toxic person come to mind and what boundaries do you need to set in order to fully enjoy your life again?