It’s awkward when a couple is no longer a couple. How can church and family members respond, especially when they’re in the same place at the same time? We want it to feel and look normal, natural. We don’t want to withhold good or hurt people’s feelings, especially when we don’t know (or want to know) all the details. What’s a friend to do? What’s a church to do?
There’s more than what fits a single post, but here’s a place to start. Until you see the patterns of controlling behavior, discover which choices and consequences affect a victim’s daily life, see obstacles and identify timebombs, you will not understand the gravity of her situation or why she does what she does. In other words, it takes time, effort, observation, and trust. In the same way, you will also not understand how it’s possible for the abuser, who is charismatic, shoulders responsibility well, or appears to be a victim of circumstance, to treat his wife and family the way he does.
So what do you do? Practice Christlike love and wisdom–with humility. Loving a woman and her children, especially in the middle of or after separation, means being sensitive to her idiosyncrasies. It often means picking sides–her side. And that is not wrong. It is not unbiblical. It is not unkind. But, to our ears, it doesn’t sound very nice (see below).
*If you are close* to her and you don’t understand or know how to help, how to respond, or what to do, ask. If you don’t understand, ask a follow-up question. It’s okay to be naturally curious. When it comes as concern and she is at the center of your responses, she will be grateful. She may or may not have an answer. That’s okay, too.
Don’t be afraid of disagreeing with her or addressing sin. That is most loving. Be like Jesus (see below). She will greatly benefit from people who know and love her that remind her of truth and help reframe her thoughts, words, attitudes, and actions.
*If you are not close,* but concerned (or simply nosy), back up. That doesn’t mean you don’t pray, but recognize that this is very painful and stressful. She is navigating a new path, trying to keep soul, body, mind, and children together. She does not need more confusion, advice, loss of time, and unnecessary intervention. She certainly does not need someone telling her what to do. That’s why she left. She needs space. That doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunities to help, but if you weren’t in her inner circle before–if her husband was successful at isolating her there are few, if any–you aren’t now. That’s okay. You have done nothing wrong. This simply isn’t the time or place to step in and be her savior. Pray and wait. Don’t gossip. Don’t share prayer requests on her behalf. Pray. Wait. Educate yourself on domestic abuse. Keep your eyes open and your mouth closed.
Help by not helping. Let her ask. Let her tell you what needs to be done. It may be easier, quicker, or more convenient to do it your way, but resist unless it’s urgent. Open the door by being available, offering what you’re able, backing up, and waiting for her call.
And what about the husband? How do you lovingly help him after they’ve separated? Allow for natural consequences. Hold him accountable for his choices, words, and actions. When he’s a jerk, call him out. When he says something inappropriate, address it. Guard against his desire to make it all about “her.” Resist the desire to listen to gossip or slander. If you don’t enjoy his company, don’t pretend that you do.
The moral of the story: stop being nice. Nice is not biblical. Nice is my way of making you like me and wanting you to think I’m a great person. Nice, in many ways, is a manipulation of others’ perception. In the world of coercive control, nice is a timebomb. Nice doesn’t please God, nor is it loving. But love never fails.
So if being nice isn’t biblical, what is? Look at Jesus. Jesus is kind. Patient. Honest. Matter-of-fact. Truthful. Gentle. Humble. Unchanging. His interactions with others was dependent on their words and behavior, not His. Jesus is not nice because Jesus is not about appearances. He is not concerned with whether or not we like Him. Jesus is real. Authentic. Sincere. When we live like Jesus, we live in the reality of today instead of the fantasyland of our own creation. We humbly accept limitations and reality we cannot change. It’s not something we do well or naturally. Loving, responding, and acting like Jesus is a supernatural work of His Spirit and Word. We must lean hard into Him instead of ourselves.
Is it hard? Yes. Challenging? Yes. Will we make mistakes and have regrets? Probably. Aren’t you glad Jesus is with us, in us, working through us? YES!
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. For this reason it says,
And arise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.”
Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (Ephesians 5:6-21)