The Courage to Change: The Serenity Prayer and Religious Domestic Abuse

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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.

CLARITY: CONCEPTS AND ASSUMPTIONS

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How Journaling Helps You to Get Free

When I was in an abusive marriage to a minister, I was challenged to work my way through the reality of how my faith was used against me.

Studying communication as well as counseling helped me see the fallacies that my husband was using, both with and without Bible verses.

As women we want to be fair. We want to be responsible. And faith concepts, like all abstractions, are open to a wide variety of interpretations. Our right to challenge someone else’s idea of what they mean is often forbidden.

But both the meaning and the assumptions behind the meanings hold the keys to mental and emotional freedom.

Let’s begin with one often confused: humility.

When I was growing up, stories of the saints being glad to bleed or inflict themselves with pain were glorified. The ideal of not asking anything for yourself was held up as an ideal to strive for.

I had to learn the difference in humility and humiliation.

Our accusers often encourage us to accept humiliation with Bible exhortations to be humble. This wrongful use of these ideas is damaging to us on several levels.

A humble person is not arrogant. He or she accepts their place in the human race. They are equals, neither above nor below others.

One of my favorite sayings is, “The ego is easily offended.”

When around an arrogant person, you often see that they are easily offended. In fact they may look for excuses to feel offended where no slight was intended.

Your abuser may behave like this with you.

Humiliation on the other hand has its purpose in making you less than. It desires to take your strength from you and keep you in bondage to another’s wll.

God did not command us to be humiliated. We are made in the divine image. God desires our well-being.

Any treatment which says  you must accept insults or harm in order to be godly is wrongheaded. You will notice that the one telling you to accept this does not accept it for themselves.

The assumption means unequal power in the relationship. You are not worthy to be treated with the same respect as the one telling you to be humble when what they mean is humiliation. They will make you feel guilty or ashamed for resisting mistreatment. Reject this accusation for the false faith concept that it is.

Other misused concepts are faith, sacrifice, God’s will, and forgiveness.

Which one gives you the most trouble?  Let me know and I will examine it in the next post.

De-Stress Your Self-Talk

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screamOh my God, now I have to put up with this too. I can’t believe the nerve. What does he expect?! He never thinks of anyone else. It’s damned if you do or damned if you don’t.

Feeling better after reading this? Of course not. But each day many of us inflict barrages like this on our poor adrenal system voluntarily.

We can do ourselves and our nervous system a huge favor by recognizing the top three categories of stress talk and replacing or releasing them to the fiery pit from which they came.

Extremes:

In this sample, extremes are pushing you off a cliff fast. Phrases like “OMG”, can’t believe” and all-inclusive generalizations or abstractions box us in. There’s a reason for the phrase “two horns of a dilemma”- it’s a false choice.

We have probably been exposed to those tests where we have to make forced choices, Continue reading

Four Factors of Stress Management

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Americans’ levels of stress are among the highest in the world. Our national ethic of incessant striving with no measureable way to say, “I’m at the peak”, strains our bodies, hearts and minds. Our media reinforces constant dissatisfaction, a necessity in a consumer based economy. While there are worlds written about it, here are the four major ways that I have gleaned from most of the material out there over the years I have been reading about it. Feel free to let me know if any of this has worked for you or enlighten us on other ways you’ve come down from being stuck on a red alert button.

Kaieteur-Falls-Guyana Continue reading