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.

You at Christmas

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portrait of girl wearing christmas hat

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There’s a lot of talk about the value and need to be giving at this time of year. We have slogans like “It’s better (or ‘more blessed’ some say) to give than receive” that in our materialistic society seems a challenge. One charity boasts they are “Doing the most good.” Or we worry about the price of gifts that are out of our range.

Is giving supposed to be a competition? If so, what’s the prize? Or the measure?

  1. The Calculated Giver.

My sisters and I were always amused that our mother kept a Christmas Card list from Continue reading

A Father Is In This House

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A Father is in this house,

man person cute young

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A Father standing tall,

And even more surprising,

He admits he doesn’t know it all.

 

It’s good to have a Father

Who can constantly stay,

Who doesn’t hide or disappear

When things don‘t go his way.

A Father who follows through

On promises he made

And guides his children lovingly

And helps them find their way.

 

A Father who, beyond biology,

Gives his strength and love.

In spite of his faults, his children say

“You’re a Dad we’re proud of.”

A Valentine for Your Inner Child

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“Every human person is inevitably involved with two worlds: the world they carry within them and the world that is out there. All thinking, all writing, all action, all creation and all destruction is about that bridge between the two worlds.” – John O’Donahue

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of connection. Sending heartfelt thoughts is a way to reach out, perhaps say what can’t be said, with a greeting already packaged.

Sometimes the day is not welcomed. There may be complex feelings, confusion or Continue reading

What’s Your Lump of Coal?

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sack coal

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

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

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