Biblical Answers for Abuse

Codependency and a lack of boundaries provide fertile ground for abuse and victimization. This is because all of us are selfish at least to some extent and may even inadvertently take advantage of others who do not express how they feel and do not stand up for themselves. Of course, abusers will do whatever it takes to get their needs met at the expense of others. Even after developing a basic understanding of the methods for establishing healthy boundaries and for recovering from codependency (as discussed in previous Chapters), we still need a comprehensive model for recovering from abuse and for the reconciliation of relationships.

            Possibly, one of the most dramatic accounts of recovering from abuse is found in the story of Joseph, beginning in Genesis Chapter 30.


1. Even if the abused person is guilty of provocation, there is never an excuse for abusing someone. Jacob blatantly favored Joseph over his brothers by making him a coat of many colors. Joseph unwisely shared his dreams with his brothers further agitating their envy, but this did not justify their desire to kill him or to kidnap and sell him as a slave! The abused person must realize that he did not “deserve” the abuse. Abusers many times try to convince the abused person that he “caused” the abuse. Sometimes, the victim believes that the abuser is right. The victim needs to understand that this is never true. Abuse, whether it is physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual, is a major boundary violation and is never justified by anything another person does. The Bible makes it very clear that we are not to take revenge on those that wrong us. Assertive options always exist.


2. The abused person should not automatically leave the relationship but do everything possible to remain in the relationship while setting boundaries to provide protection from the abuse. Joseph did not run away from his brothers although they were verbally abusive to him. In spite of their comments, he obeyed his father and went to see if they were doing well. The Bible directs that a wife should not leave her husband. (1Cor 7:10b) A high percentage of women who leave their husbands eventually divorce. If they separate, the victim will, in most cases, experience relief from the continuing struggles in the marriage. Consequently, there is a great temptation to just divorce rather than renew the efforts to improve the marriage. In cases of physical or sexual abuse, calling the police or obtaining a restraining order may be required to reinforce boundaries, but God’s plan is that they work out their differences, if possible. In cases of long-term severe abuse, separation, testing of repentance and a slow reconciliation is almost always required. If the victim maintains good boundaries, the abuser will eventually leave or divorce her if he is not willing to work to improve the relationship. My experience is that most women who choose to leave rather than work out a relationship with a mate who is willing to change, end up losing in the long run, both financially and in their relationships with their children.


3. The abused person must resist seeing himself as worthless. Because of the way he is being treated, an abused person many times accepts the fact that there must be something wrong with him. This is especially true of young children because they see themselves as the cause of all that happens around them (due to childhood egocentrism). I sometimes ask my clients what the victims of the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing did to make themselves so worthless? Of course, the answer is that just because they were victims of a bombing did not mean that they were, in some way, less worthwhile than other people. Low self-image perpetuates abuse because a person usually feels unworthy of fair treatment or lashes out because of the deep emotional pain caused by feeling worthless. Although his brothers had valued Joseph only as a child slave (They sold him for 20 pieces of silver), Joseph did not allow himself to have a pity-party or devalue himself. I suggest that clients evaluate similar situations by saying to themselves, "They have a problem. I will pray for them." This helps the abused person avoid the trap of taking things personally or feeling devalued.


4. The abused person must forgive the past, never forget who he is in Christ, and keep a good attitude in spite of the abuse. Abuse can make a person feel as if his life is not worth living and can result in bitterness. This kind of contempt is responsible for most of the long-term effects of the abuse. It is the self-contempt and other-contempt that is used as a defense against shame that sets up additional abusive situations and limits the quality of life of the abused person. (Allender, 1990) Joseph was sold to the captain of the guard, who in those days was the chief executioner; but Joseph kept a good attitude and even excelled under these circumstances. In every situation, he chose to do his very best in spite of how he had been treated. Joseph's name means “increaser.” Those who are careful to keep a good attitude increase in life rather than get run over by it. Joseph resisted choosing a lifestyle designed to solely protect himself from further abuse. He chose to take full responsibility for his part of every relationship and trusted God for his protection.


5. The abused person must learn to do what is right and not enable the abuser. The temptation for the abused is to go along with things in order to escape the anger of the abuser or to try to please the abuser hoping that this will lessen the abuse. Unfortunately, when this is done, the abuser's violation of boundaries is rewarded and the abusive behavior usually increases. There is no limit to the control that is desired by an abuser. Joseph refused to violate another’s boundaries. He would not sleep with his master's wife even though this may have been the easiest way out. He may have even been able to justify it as an opportunity to gain favor with his master’s wife, or because it had been requested by her.


6. Maintaining appropriate boundaries sometimes initially results in increased abuse or unfair accusations. When the abused person finally sets and maintains appropriate boundaries, the initial reaction is many times anger and further attempts to control and abuse. Because Joseph refused to sleep with his master's wife, she accused him of attempted rape, and he was imprisoned. (Genesis 39:12-20)


7. The abuser needs to hold on to the fact that God will show him mercy and eventually bring deliverance. It is easy for an abused person to lose heart and just give in to the abuse or leave. Joseph again found favor in prison and became the head trustee of the prison, in spite of the unfairness of the situation.


8. The abused person needs to continue to do what is loving, right and good without regard for the circumstances or reaction of the abuser. When he can no longer blame the other person, the abuser is many times forced to deal with his own problems. This is the basis of non-violent resistance. Even though Joseph’s dreams seemed far from fulfillment, he continued to minister to others by interpreting their dreams. This is what Dr. Allender (1990) calls bold love—when the abused refuses to become defensive, contemptuous, or bitter, and instead cares enough to boldly do what is best for others, including the abuser.


9. Recovery from abuse usually takes a significant period of time. Expecting that the abuser is going to make a miraculous change usually brings disappointment. One major pitfall is expecting that when an abuser shows evidence of repentance, that it will last. In actuality, change, especially in the domestic violent perpetrator, usually progresses slowly through a series of repentances and regressions. As tension and anger rebuilds, so do defensiveness and control. A remorseful period usually follows an angry incident but is only part of the tension and anger cycle. As the problem gets worse, even these periods of remorse eventually fade. Joseph hoped that the end of his abuse was in sight when he correctly interpreted the dream of the butler. However, it was not until two years later that he was finally delivered.


10. The victim must understand his position in Christ. The low self-image of the abused person must be replaced with his position as "a child of the king." Joseph was elevated to second in the kingdom and given almost unlimited authority. In the same way, the abused person must understand his position as a joint-heir with Jesus and reassert this authority over his own life. He must accept the ring (authority), fine linen (imputed righteousness), and gold chain (self-worth) from the king. All the citizens of Egypt were required to bow, showing their respect for Joseph. The victim must realize that all God's resources are available to him and God will meet all his needs He must also understand that he is worth as much as, but no more than the abuser, and he will always be unconditionally loved by God. These revelations do not usually occur until the end of the recovery process. If the victim is suddenly elevated too early in the process of recovery while he is still bitter, he may use his new position as an opportunity to leave the relationship.


11. The victim must understand that he is called to "save" his own world. Only by the victim changing himself can his world be saved. Joseph was given the name Zaphnathpaaneah (Savior of the world—revealer of secrets). Abusive and codependent relationships continue because they are allowed to continue. I am not suggesting that the abused person is somehow responsible for the abuse, which is never justifiable, but that he has allowed it to continue due to fear, neediness, and, sometimes, a misunderstanding of biblical submission. Spiritual authority and submission are only valid to the extent that the authority follows the directions of his higher authority. The ultimate higher authority is God. Wives are to follow their husband’s leadership as long as he is not in violation of the Bible. Abuse is always a violation of the Scriptures. Submission means cooperation, which definitely does not include putting up with abuse.


12. The abused person must learn not to focus on the abuse (or bitterness will result) but focus on doing what is best for the relationship. One of my favorite phrases in counseling angry people is "attack the problem, not the person." The abused must give up his right to take vengeance and deal with the pain of the past, so that he can even-handedly accomplish the task set before him. Joseph had two sons born during the years of plenty. Manasseh means "causing forgetfulness" and Ephraim means "double ash-heap or shame." He put the past behind him, and he saw his past struggles as unimportant ashes and residue of the previous abuse. He attributed both accomplishments to God in Genesis 41:51-52, " For God, [said he], hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father's house...For God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction."


13. The abused person needs to be strengthened before beginning the reconciliation process. Most abuse victims have been emotionally beaten down for years and have developed codependent, enabling ways of functioning. The victim is usually afraid of abandonment and the abuser's anger and is incapable of confronting or testing the abuser effectively. He must be strengthened through counseling or support group participation. Joseph had to gather in supplies for the time of famine to come. This building time is like a time of plenty. Its purpose is to strengthen the victim so that the abuse can be confronted and repentance tested.


14. Effective boundary setting is essential and almost never pleasant. Usually, only emotional famine will drive the abuser to meet the appropriate boundaries of the victim. The balance of power shifts as the victim feels strong enough to suffer the loss of the abuser, if necessary. As the victim becomes less codependent the abuser is forced to change and do his part in the relationship or he will starve emotionally. Joseph required the people of Egypt, who had also abused him as a slave and prisoner, to do what they could in exchange for food and did not give the food away free of charge. In the same way, the abuser is required to do his part in the relationship. Joseph, with his stored resources, eventually acquired all the land and resources of the people of Egypt for the king, but never violated the rights of the people in any way. The object of boundary setting is not a reversing of power in favor of the abused, but doing what is right and fair and what is in the best interest of each person involved.

15. The abuser must repent and submit himself to God before reconciliation should be attempted. Healthy boundaries will force the abuser to either leave or change. Abuse cannot continue in a healthy relationship. Effective, balanced boundaries, accompanied by true unconditional love and acceptance, become a powerful combination. It is the same combination God used in saving us. He sent his Son to demonstrate His love, but in order to receive Him we must repent. Note that it was God, not Joseph that brought about the change in Joseph’s brothers. The abused must be fully convinced that repentance has occurred before reconciliation should be attempted. If true repentance has not occurred, the abuse will reoccur. As I have stated above, Joseph did not freely give the grain to the Egyptians, but over a period of time acquired all their goods and each of them became slaves to Pharaoh. In the same way, the abuser and all he has must come into submission to God. The abuser must learn to trust God to meet his needs and give up control of his life to God. Without this, he will continue to try to meet his own needs at the expense of others and an ongoing power struggle will continue in the relationship.


God's Plan for Reconciliation


1. God does not require the abused person to make themselves emotionally vulnerable to an unrepentant abuser to be abused again. Joseph had the opportunity to be reconciled with his brethren as early as Genesis Chapter 42, but he did not attempt reconciliation until he could verify that his brothers had really changed. If he had immediately reconciled with his brothers and they had not changed, they could have done him significant political harm. The abusive husband, if he has not repented, is also in a position to do his wife significant damage. It is critical not to begin this process of testing repentance too early in the recovery process. If this happens, the wife will quickly perceive that the abusive husband has not changed as much as she would like, lose hope, and exit the relationship.


2. The abused person is not under any obligation to maintain a special relationship with the abuser, if he has not repented. Some times the abuser draws the abused back into the relationship through guilt or pity. Matthew 18 suggests that if another Christian refuses to repent they are to be treated as a publican and a sinner. Therefore, we should pray for them but not put ourselves in vulnerable situations. Joseph chose to keep his emotional distance and formal boundaries until he was convinced that his brothers had repented. This is a wise strategy for the abused, since the abuser usually attempts to manipulate the victim into returning prematurely in order to meet his own needs.


3. The abused has a right to test the sincerity of the abuser until he is reasonably satisfied that the abuser has changed. Joseph suggested that his brothers might be spies and put them in prison for three days to see how they would react. I believe this symbolizes the first test to see if they would respect Joseph's boundaries. Many times, the abuser continues to pursue the abused person even after the victim requests more distance in the relationship. Sometimes this even involves stalking the victim.


4. When the abused acts assertive and not aggressive, the abuser must deal with his own guilt. Because Joseph did not attempt to take revenge on them, his brothers were forced to deal with their own guilt. They said in Genesis 42:21, "We [are] verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us."


5. Another effective test is to do something beyond what is expected to see if the abuser will take advantage of it. This is the proverbial "hot coals on the head,” or exchanging good for evil. (Proverbs 25:21-22, Romans 12:21) Joseph returned the money to them that they had paid for the corn. They responded, "What is this that God hath done unto us?" It is important that the abuser does not see this as a sign of premature reconciliation or weakness. This is a clear example of Joseph exercising bold love.


6. The abuser hates confrontation and will avoid facing his abuse. Often, this is accomplished through avoiding the person whom he has abused or by denying or minimizing what he did. Most of the time, the abuser will deal only with his past abuse if it is absolutely necessary in order to get his current needs met. Joseph's family returned only when they ran out of corn again, in spite of the fact that Simeon was in prison. Israel was afraid of losing Benjamin, and his brothers did not wish to face Joseph again (although they did not realize at this time that he was their brother).


7. The abuser must be given no choice but to repent or starve emotionally. Distance must be maintained until it is clear that true repentance has occurred. In most cases, only a lack of emotional need satisfaction will provide enough motivation to begin real change. The abuser usually "wants to have his cake and eat it too."


8. The first signs of repentance are attempts to do things in a non-abusive manner. Joseph’s brothers took with them a present of the best they had and brought again the money that had been returned to them in case it was an oversight. In addition, they were prepared to accept whatever was about to happen. This is the mindset the abuser must have.


9. The testing must continue until repentance has clearly been demonstrated. Joseph continued testing them as he slowly allowed them to become a little closer emotionally. This time he invited them to his home. In the first test, at dinner, he gave Benjamin five times as much food as the other brothers to see if they would react jealously. In the second test, he accused them of stealing his silver cup. Silver stands for redemption. He questioned whether they were trying to manipulate their way back into the relationship instead of authentically repenting and accepting redemption. The final test came when Benjamin, his real brother, was "caught" with the silver cup. Would his brothers abandon Benjamin or prove themselves to be loyal and trustworthy?


10. Only after the abuser has proven that he has repented and that he is now trustworthy, should emotional closeness be restored. When Judah offered to take Benjamin's place and all the brothers returned with Benjamin, Joseph was convinced that they had changed, and he revealed himself to them. However, caution still needed to be maintained because relapse is common once the relationship has been restored. Adequate boundaries for protection must be left in place and slowly reduced over time. Joseph settled his brothers in the land of Goshen, some distance from the capital. He also warned his brothers not to fight on the way when they left to bring their father back to Egypt.


11. After true repentance, the next step is forgiveness. Joseph said in Genesis 45:5, "Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life." Repentance and forgiveness are the foundation of true reconciliation.


12. The ultimate question is whether the abuser remains primarily selfish in his dealings or does he have has the best interest of the abused in mind. This is the basis of a healthy relationship. Only time can tell this. We have no indication that Joseph's brothers ever abused him again. They remained afraid that after Israel's death, Joseph would still seek revenge, but he never did.


In summarizing what we have learned concerning codependent and abusive relationships, we should now realize that both the abuser and the victim play their respective roles in the abuse by attempting to selfishly meet their needs. This, of course, does not in any way justify the abuse or the abuser. All abuse and offense are violations of personal boundaries. Jesus warned that "offenses will come, but woe unto them that bring them." (Luke 17:1) We all face abusive relationships, at least to some extent. The question is, how will we handle them? The abuser crosses another's boundaries in order to get the victim to meet his needs. Many times, the victim allows the abuser to cross her own personal boundaries out of fear that the abuser will either leave or increase the abuse. This is especially true of the codependent dependent.


In some cases the abuser will seek therapy after his wife begins setting and carrying out healthy boundaries. However, most abusers enter therapy at court direction after an arrest for domestic violence. I try to stop the control and balance the power in the relationship through teaching him to respect his mate’s opinions and feelings. Once the abuser has shown definite signs of repentance and there is no longer a danger of escalating the violence through what is revealed during therapy, I begin marital counseling. I attempt to have them set mutually agreed-upon boundaries with established consequences, especially in the area of anger management and abusive behavior. I then deal with the emotions from the past and attempt to defuse current conflict with “anger breaks” and reducing the tension building, abusive cycle.


Reconciliation is worked out one step at a time. The next step is taken only when the current level of re-approachment is successful (without any abusive behavior). Usually, this type of reconciliation requires a written boundary contract that applies to the whole family. I try to teach them to solve problems as a team. As more and more success is achieved over a significant period of time, trust is rebuilt and fear is slowly overcome. The overall plan is to fix the future, then the present, then the past. I find that true forgiveness is more easily accomplished once the chance of repeated abuse is almost nonexistent. However, the testing of repentance and restoring emotional vulnerability should not be attempted until the past has been forgiven. One of the most difficult obstacles to be overcome is the buried anger and bitterness the victim feels toward the abuser. Once fear of abuse is removed, many times this anger is unleashed on the abuser. If this is not processed and overcome, the relationship may end in divorce rather than reconciliation even if the abuser makes considerable improvement. The critical line of believing that the other person has their best interests in mind must be surpassed. Finally, when the intimate relationship is rebuilt and the couple can function reasonably well as a team, work can begin on the emotional long-term healing of the family as a whole. Boundaries can eventually be softened as healing occurs.


The root problems underlying abusive behavior are the fear that personal needs will go unmet; and the belief that these needs will be met by controlling other people. Since only God can completely satisfy these basic inner needs, it is only when the abuser and the victim truly turn to God in faith that problems resulting from abuse can permanently and completely be resolved. Consequently, if the counselor deals primarily with healing the damage from the abuse, he does a disservice to his clients. Faith must be built that God can be trusted to meet all of their needs. God has provided the total answer to this issue. Clients need to trust Him to meet all of their needs through faith, defend their boundaries and respect the boundaries of others.


Steps for the Recovery of Victims of Abuse


1. Abuse victims are many times codependent dependents without adequate boundaries.


2. The client must understand that her treatment by others does not make her less worthwhile or somehow responsible for the abuse.


3. The victim must deal with her underlying feelings of inadequacy and codependency in order to gain enough strength to confront the abuser.


4. The abused person must learn to do what is right in spite of fear, set appropriate boundaries, and not enable the abuser.



5. The client must repent of her selfish efforts to protect herself at all costs and learn to meet her needs through God.


6. The client must confront the abuser with bold love and refuse reconciliation until true repentance has clearly occurred.


7. If the abuser repents, the victim should forgive him and reconcile the relationship, but maintain good boundaries to prevent a repetition of the abuse.


In dealing with domestic violence, emotional, or verbal abuse, I begin counseling each individual separately. In most cases, initially only the victim comes for therapy. After explaining God's plan for marriage and healthy relationships and the principles of abuse recovery as outlined above, I usually begin therapy with the victim by simultaneously teaching her (usually it is the wife who is abused) healthy boundaries and dealing with her codependency through either our Codependency or Women’s Abuse Recovery support groups. The goal is to strengthen the victim enough so that she will be willing to take biblical action to stop the abuse. I use the books Boundaries (1992) by Cloud and Townsend and Love is a Choice (1989) by Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meyer with the victim. I sometimes also incorporate the chapters from The Wounded Heart (1990) by Allender, that deal with contempt, defenses against abuse, and bold love. If the abuser refuses to cooperate in ending the abuse, then separation may be required until the abuser can be helped. In dealing with sexual abuse, the first responsibility of the counselor is to prevent further abuse as well as report any current childhood sexual abuse to authorities. I use The Wounded Heart (1990) by Allender for heavier levels of abuse like rape and incest. Both books present clear biblical steps for recovery from this type of abuse. 



Watch the Video Understanding Boundaries (from the course Anger Management, Domestic Violence, and Abuse) Below:


Watch the Video on Abuse Recovery (from the course Anger Management, Domestic Violence, and Abuse) Below:

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