People like to categorize things in black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, and biblical and unbiblical, but some things aren’t always so clear. James 3:2 tells us that we all stumble in many ways. There is no perfect marriage or perfect spouse. All marriages will experience hurt and heartache, but there are marriages that are more than disappointing or difficult; they are damaging and destructive.
Among conservative Christians there seems to be some allowance for separation if a husband is beating his wife with his fists or she fears for her safety, but consistently little support if her husband is crushing her spirit or twisting her thinking with his words. One woman recently wrote me and said, “My pastor said emotional abuse is too fuzzy to allow for separation. Physical abuse would be clear, but emotional abuse isn’t.”
Yet, God’s word clearly has much to say in support of victims of verbal and emotional cruelty.
Research on those who have suffered with chronic emotional abuse show that it can be far more harmful to their long term health than physical abuse can be. In a 2011 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, researchers found that our brain processes physical pain and intense social rejection in exactly the same way. The primary difference is that physical injuries usually heal. Wounds to one’s soul and spirit are longer lasting and often more damaging.
Therefore, why would we advise a woman or man who is being emotionally abused that he or she must stay in their marriage because being pummeled by words is not serious enough to justify a biblical separation? If this same person were being regularly pummeled by fists or stabbed by their spouse, most pastors and church leaders would not only allow for biblical separation, they’d advise it.
God’s word says it best, “Reckless words pierce like a sword” (Proverbs 12:18) and “Who can bear a crushed spirit?” (Proverbs 18:14). When someone is stabbed with a sword or knife, it leads to grave and often fatal injuries. The Bible says the impact of reckless words is like being stabbed and is just as injurious as physical abuse. Proverbs warns, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).
But when is the line crossed? We all do hurtful things at times. When are emotionally abusive behaviors biblical grounds for separation or even divorce? Most people would support chronic infidelity as biblical grounds for divorce, yet not all marriages that suffer infidelity should end in divorce.
When there has been repentance sought and forgiveness granted, I have seen marriages healed and restored. That brings great joy and glory to God. Just because one has biblical grounds does not mean one should pursue separation or divorce.
Every person’s story is unique. Each person who has been grievously sinned against will need to wrestle with whether their spouse is repentant as well as the impact the abuse is having on his or her body, soul and spirit as well as on their children.
Therefore as Christians, let’s not be too quick to judge those who have had enough. Instead, let’s pray for them and encourage them to ask God two crucial questions:
1. Is it best for me and my children to leave or to stay? God calls us to be good stewards of our physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, sexual and financial health. Therefore, evaluating what toll staying in this marriage is taking on you and your children is a legitimate concern. Sometimes staying at all costs is too high a price to pay.
2. Is it best for my unrepentant and/or foolish spouse for me to leave or to stay? What is his or her greatest need right now and how can I meet it? Is it best for him to remain blind to his sin, unrepentant and unwilling to repair the damage he’s done? Or is it more loving to leave (or enact church discipline or tell someone) letting him or her know that you will no longer keep secrets or enable his sin against you to continue without consequence.
Oswald Chambers writes:
“To choose to suffer means there is something wrong; to choose God’s will even if it means suffering is a very different thing. No healthy saint ever chooses suffering; he chooses God’s will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.”
Know this: Whether you stay, whether you separate, or whether you divorce, there will be more suffering and grief ahead for you. Your decision will bring challenges and criticism from those who think you are making the wrong choice. Your choice will also bring opportunities for growth as well as temptations to sin. Knowing that these stumbling blocks and stepping stones are ahead of you will keep your eyes open so that you can be more vigilant over your heart and mind.
Friend, choose God, not suffering, and you can be confident that he will instruct you and counsel you in the way you should go (Psalm 32:8).