Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer . found in his diary in 1932, became a mainstay of distressed people. It’s threefold formula brought peace for many:
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
Change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Advocate for those sexually abused by clergy, Dee Ann Miller, believes the wisdom should come first. Whatever the order, the interplay of the three factors have sorted out many a dilemma for those feeling hopeless and powerless.
I did not know the Serenity Prayer while struggling with the religious domestic abuse in my marriage to a Baptist minister. But I knew many prayers that I cried day and night to God seeking to understand and end the torment of the relationship.
Nothing in my long years of Christian practice prepared me to deal with the manipulation of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. None of the rules seemed to apply but I steadfastly continued to try to operate with what I had been taught was true.
What the Serenity Prayer helps a distressed person see is that we have it reversed. We are trying to change the things we can’t and accept the things we shouldn’t and could change.
We cry out to God to do what we could and try to do what only God can.
Here is where we need wisdom.
What are some examples from my own and others’ experience?
Trying to Change the Things I Can’t
The abuser is doing exactly as s/he pleases. S/he just doesn’t want to be held responsible for it. S/he would rather make the partner responsible. A Bible verse identifies who accuses us night and day before God.
It is not someone we are supposed to be married to. Undergoing mental, emotional, spiritual and even physical torment from our partner is not included in our vows.
“In sickness and in health” assumes these are conditions that come upon us unbidden from the outside, not deliberately created by our spouse.
Only the person and the Holy Spirit can effect meaningful and lasting change.
It is a toxic form of pride for someone to encourage a misused spouse to think s/he can be responsible for “saving” someone. In the Christian faith, believers are asked to present the possibility of salvation to others and then rely on God to do the work.
It is never up to another person. The faith presents Christ as the savior. And no where is a spouse asked to suffer abuse as an evangelistic practice.
Believers may pray for others but do not have to live with them. I had to face another spiritual danger: I could not live without resentment while being under constant attack.
Some in the church may take the side of the abuser and put the burden of forgiveness on the one abused. Quoting verses like “forgiving 70 x7” only serve to further the demoralization of the mistreated.
Forgiveness is part of the healing work done much later after the abused is no longer being victimized. It cannot occur while in the situation.
Those who lay this additional burden on the abused are primarily interested either in upholding the abuser’s power or avoiding taking responsibility for being loving as Jesus demonstrated.
There is no Biblical instruction to live with an abuser as a part of spiritual development.
I finally concluded that part of trying to accept what I should not was maintaining a loving heart while being continually degraded. The spiritual horror of this reality is that the victim in made to feel guilty for being victimized.
Trying to Accept The Things I Don’t Have To
My part of the dilemma in religious domestic abuse was a lack of courage to be honest about my thoughts and feelings.
The abuser gradually whittles away any self-esteem the victim may have had, gradually condemning the qualities s/he used to praise. When a partner expresses disagreement and contrary wishes, the abuser gradually escalates the cost.
At first it may be withdrawal of affection, then screaming, then slamming doors or leaving. The intimidation tactics are well-known and all have the same goal: remove any resistance to being controlled.
I hated conflict. But wanting to be a peacemaker is not the same as accepting unacceptable behavior. I didn’t know about boundaries in relationship.
My early religious training presented an ideal of absolute service. My needs were not important. This is a flawed approach to relationships and one reason abusers look for victims in churches.
Women especially are taught that total selflessness is the ideal. Exploited obedience is a child’s game.
The teaching that demands obedience from one adult to another, which is the man-made doctrine of submission, relegates the women or man to a child status in the relationship. Interestingly enough, husbands are rarely given this same advice. Rather, when they fault their wives for problems in the marriage, they often find a sympathetic ear.
There is no other description of this unequal and disrespectful pattern except bondage. And it is not God’s will.
When I changed my prayer from one of pleading for rescue to asking God for help and guidance to get out, my prayers began to be answered. No, it wasn’t easy.
But support began to show up and by moving forward in faith in God’s love and supply, I and my children were able to refuse the idolatrous lie that we should serve an abuser. I asked for the courage, the wisdom and the acceptance and it came.
2 thoughts on “The Courage to Change: The Serenity Prayer and Religious Domestic Abuse”
Great post! One of the most frequent things that survivors stew over is trying to get the church, agency, or denomination to change the way they are doing things. While this may eventually happen, I’ve never seen it happen quickly. Refusing to accept that things may take a lifetime, if not more, keeps survivors tied in knots.
I see this as a form of self-abuse that can keep a person stuck and in therapy for many years, no matter what the therapist attempts to do. If nothing changes, nothing changes.
Until it does, our task is acceptance. In so doing, we let our hearts swing free.
Thank you, DeeAnn. Always glad to hear the voice of experience.