Domestic violence is extremely prevalent and damaging, but frequently hidden.
One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Nearly three out of four of Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence.
These statistics don't begin to reveal the darkness and grief experienced by the women themselves. Those suffering domestic violence are in the midst of a whirlwind of emotions and have serious and important questions. My wife, Lindsey, and I have ministered to many abuse victims. Here are some of the most frequent questions we've been asked:
Does the grace of God apply to me?
What does the Bible say about women?
What does the Bible say about violence against women?
What does the Bible say about God delivering victims?
Does the Bible say I should suffer abuse and violence?
Those suffering abuse need to know that God sees their suffering and that God cares about them and hears their cries and prayers. He cares for them so much that He wants them safe and delivered from threat and violence. But even beyond physical safety, God wants them to heal from the many ways they've been hurt and wounded.
Many people want to help those in their family or circle of friends who are being hurt by domestic violence, but they don't always know how. They are often overwhelmed by the seriousness of the situation and feel helpless to lend adequate support. But here, they couldn't be more wrong. Friends, family, and ministry members can offer immense help and support to victims of abuse.
The alternate effect of this, of course, is that some "help"—if misapplied—can actually hurt. Unfortunately, many ministry leaders are woefully under-equipped to deal with domestic violence. Platitudes, prying questions, and shallow "biblical" answers, for example, do more harm than good for a victim who feels stuck in a desperate situation. In fact, many victims believe clergy have the most potential to help them, when in reality they are too often the least helpful and sometimes even harmful.
If you are a leader in ministry, statistics tell us there are people under your care that have suffered—or are currently suffering—from domestic violence. This is particularly tragic because part of God's mission for the church is to proclaim God's healing and to seek justice for everyone it encounters.
We believe that the deepest message of the ministry of Jesus and the Bible is the grace of God to all of us because we are all broken people in a broken world. Grace is most needed and best understood in the midst of sin, suffering, and brokenness.
Those suffering domestic violence need the good news of the grace of God applied to the effects of the abuse. As ministry leaders we need to clearly communicate to victims that Jesus responds to their pain. Their stories do not end with abuse and violence. Their lives were intended for more than shame, guilt, fear, anger, and confusion. The abuse does not define them or have the last word on their identity. Yes, it is part of their stories, but not the end of their stories.
In Jesus, the God who delivers us from evil also offers us a path to healing. And it's time to let this truth transform the shape of our own stories and how we minister to others.
If you are a loved one, friend, or minister serving a woman suffering domestic abuse, here are some suggestions on how to best care for her.
1. Let her know the abuse was not her fault. Communicate clearly: "You do not deserve abuse. And it is never your fault."
2. Listen. Don't judge or blame them for the abuse. Research has proven that victims tend to have an easier adjustment when they are believed and listened to by others.
3. Don't minimize or deny what happened. The fact that the abuse was not physical doesn't make it any less painful, and it doesn't make it any less wrong. The scars of emotional abuse are very real, they can run very deep, and they are not to be minimized. In fact, emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse—sometimes even more so.
4. Reassure her that she is cared for and loved.
5. Encourage her to talk about the abuse with an advocate, pastor, mental health professional, law enforcement officer, another victim, or a trusted friend.
6. Encourage her to seek medical attention if needed.
7. Fight on her behalf against the lies that the abuse was her fault, that she is to blame, that she is a failure, or that she deserved abuse because she is a bad wife, mother, girlfriend, woman, or Christian.
8. Take care of yourself. As a support person, you need to be healthy in your caregiving role.
9. Avoid placating statements as an attempt to make her feel better.
10. Take time to notice where she is in the healing process and do not rush her through it. Help her keep moving through it at a pace comfortable to her rather than trying to force progression to a different stage immediately.
11. Say to her, "I am concerned about your safety. How can I support you in creating a safety plan? I'll also support you if you want to call the police or get to a safe place." (Download a Safety Plan here.)
Justin S. Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and a professor of theology and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his wife Lindsey are co-authors of Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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