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.

Three Free Ways to Connect with Calm

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Calmness has been linked to improved decision making, heart benefits, and more enjoyable relationships. But how to tap into it?

Here are three free ways to connect with a calming moment.

Slow Down

We don’t yet know all the effects of being in motion so much of the time, but the fast rate of the motion is being studied. Psychology Today reported on numerous mental and health benefits of slowing down. Processing fast moving images has been shown to alter brain behavior in children. Dimitri A Christakis reported on 30 studies in an October 2011 issue of Pediatrics showing executive functioning and other impairments or alerations.

So how to access this benefit? Moving fast can become automatic. We rush when it is not necessary but is simply a carryover from having rushed in the previous activity. Being aware of unnecessary rushing is the first step. Pausing to consciously shift between activities allows us to decide whether we still need to rush.

We can also modify our self-talk about the pressure or need to rush. Before answering machines, many felt panic if they did not get to the phone ring on time. Some people still let out an expletive if they pick up the phone too late. Rarely is this a crisis but our autonomous nervous system may still react as if it is an emergency. Instead, take steps to arrange other ways to handling incoming pressures to carve out a space to shift pace.

Imagine rushing to catch a bus. Once you are on board, you can sit down and relax. It would not make sense to still rush up and down the bus aisle after boarding. Just as senseless is our maintaining a breakneck pace for every task in front of us. Make conscious decisions about your pace.

Sharing

The pressure of keeping disturbances bottled up inside works against a state of calm. Sharing can be as simple as keeping a journal or attending a support group. Sarah Townsend, assistant professor at University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, reported in Social Psychology and Personality Science (December 2013) that taking with someone we perceive to  have the same feelings reduces stress.

We all need to release self-imposed impossible expectations. Self-talk plays a role in accessing calm here as well. Reject the assumption that you are so unique that no one has been challenged like you are or has never met this problem. That gives permission to share it with someone else who is trustworthy and understanding.

 Even making a voice memo gets your frustration out of your body and allows your brain to restore serotonin and dopamine levels. Your brain does not know whether you are talking to a real person or not.

Silence

Perhaps the least favorite or most overlooked way to calm down, silence is the easiest to achieve. Pricey noise-cancelling headphones are not required. Simply walk away from time to time from an intensively noisy environment to a quiet one.  

What happens most often is that we are unaware of the stress buildup from noise. Omnipresent music and broadcasts in the background have become a wallpaper of sound around us. The impact is still entering our mind and bodies.

Hypertension, high stress levels, tinnitus, hearing loss, sleep disturbances, and other harmful effects have been linked to noise pollution, enough to make it part of the Clean Air Act.

Besides the washroom, sometimes simply shutting the door if we have an office or walking to another quieter room can do the trick. Pause, breathe and return when you feel a greater sense of calm within.

Christian Science Reading Rooms join libraries in a testimony to the need for quiet. Take lunches in a quiet place. Decide to delay turning on news or music when you get home to enjoy quiet. If you are not the first to get home, avoid having news or music automatically on in your car.

It will be surprising how many places we can remove noise from around us once we become aware of its intrusiveness. The growing popularity of meditation aides attests to an increasing appreciation of stilling the chattering mind that results from an environment overloaded with sensory pressures.

Slowing down, sharing, and silence can give us immediate access to calm. Share a comment on your favorite free way to increase calm in your day.

What’s Your Lump of Coal?

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Holiday seasons are prime times for exalted expectations. Amid all the hype, images of impossibly happy families, outlandish claims for owning hundreds of products, or a desire to live up to other myths, we can easily become discouraged if we don’t see our own lives living up to the big screen.

A children’s story threatens that if we are not “good”, we will only receive a lump of coal. Early on we learn the power of pleasing others, especially those who can give us gifts, fulfill promises, and help us feel especially loved.

After we grow up, we do not believe these stories affect us. Still, the holiday season Continue reading

A Short Guide to Developing Denials and Affirmations

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Using the power of your words to create your experiences can be very satisfying and stress relieving.  More than just positive thinking, denials and affirmations are a dynamic duo in managing our perceptions and feelings toward achieving satisfaction in relationships, work and other areas. They are based on the truth that the universe is supporting us and that love prevails in assuring us our good because this is the Divine Will for our lives. They create what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God within you”. If we think about what would the evidence be that Good prevailed, that is what Jesus meant. Harmonious relationships, happiness, fulfillment, peace, love, wisdom, kindness. We can create these through the power of our heart-mind-words.

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Basically as I have practiced this technique, Continue reading

Turning Resentments into Gratitude

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Last week we looked at some common sources of resentments: expectations, pride and loss. Recently I saw an entry on HuffPost the related to the topic. They looked at how negatives could be turned into positives. Although they did mention gratitude, they didn’t list resentment specifically. Here is their list: Continue reading

The Sources of Resentments

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“Why did she do that to me? I’ve never done anything to her!”

“No one crosses me and doesn’t pay for it.”pout

 

 

 

 

 

 

“He may think he can do that to me, but just let him try it again.”

Resentments are often called frozen rage or “drinking poison and hoping the other person will die”. Continue reading