Looking for “evidences of grace” in the life of an abuser

A friend described to me how her church did marriage counseling: the married couple had been told to come up with a list of “evidences of grace” that they saw in each other’s lives.

We were to say them out loud in front of each other and the elders meeting with us. They were, after all, constantly reminding us that Scripture called us to “believe the best” of each other, and this exercise was meant to help us do that.

I went first. Wanting them to see that I wasn’t bitter and really did love my husband, I came up with a long list of everything I could think of:

  • he works full time to provide for us
  • he takes us to church each Sunday
  • he attends Bible studies, prayer meetings, and service days every week
  • he meets with an accountability group
  • he prays with the kids and leads in family devotions
  • he supports me staying at home with our children
  • he encourages me to go to women’s Bible studies

This satisfied them: they smiled, praising me for coming up with such a list. I was clearly following God’s call to believe the best and clearly inviting God’s grace to work in our marriage.

Next, it was my husband’s turn. He said he couldn’t think of any evidences of grace in my life. He had never seen any evidence, throughout our whole marriage, that I loved Christ. My Christianity was an act, he told them, a sham.

The leaders sighed and shook their heads; and in that moment, to my shaking relief across the table, they defended me. No, they said. She goes to church and Bible study regularly. She has accountability partners. She teaches the children about the Lord. We are not questioning her salvation.

I was so thankful they stood up for me in that moment. They knew I was sincere. They knew I loved him–and the Lord.

Surely that meant they would take my other list seriously, the one I had shared with them on that first trembling phone call in the middle of a dark parking lot at night?

That list was different. It included the ways my husband was mistreating us at home. Things like:

  • denying me access to our bank accounts
  • refusing to fix safety hazards in the home
  • not allowing us to eat until he gave permission
  • denying us heat and air conditioning
  • physically injuring our young children

Did he lead devotions still? Yes. Did he pray with us? Yes. But something was seriously wrong, despite the “evidences of grace.”

In future meetings, the elders continued to defend my salvation, but they also defended his — and they continued to bring up the fruit they saw in his life — which for them mostly boiled down to attendance. Attendance at prayer nights. Attendance at accountability group. Attendance at his job. . . . .

As I continued to email them the “other lists,” they told me I was speaking evil of my husband (James 4:11), biting and devouring (Galatians 5:15), exaggerating, and telling falsehoods.

They had me study the concept of telling the truth throughout Scripture. They asked me classic “Biblical counseling” questions, like “What are you wanting and not getting that would cause you to sin and lie about your husband?” 

Meanwhile, my husband was given books on God’s love, as they felt he was a believer who was deeply discouraged and needing to be reminded of how loved he was by the Lord.

I think he wept there at the church that first day in front of them, after we shared our evidences of grace. Brother, they said with relieved smiles and a firm shake of the hand, thank you for your humility.

Unfortunately, after we prayed and left, I was provided with more items to add to my “other list.”

I’m guessing many readers here could add their own stories of abusers who showed what this church called “evidences of grace.” One man I know of who was selling his children for sex at the same time was an impressive example in his church. If his wife had gone for marriage counseling (which she didn’t, because she was too controlled), the list of “evidences of grace” she could have given would have bowled you over. She would have rightly said her husband . . .

  • Is a deacon/elder
  • Teaches adult Sunday school
  • Leads singing and sings in the choir and sings special music
  • Preaches sometimes
  • Helps with VBS
  • Helps with bus ministry
  • Helps in youth group
  • Leads in kids’ programs
  • Works in the nursery
  • Helps clean the church building
  • Participates in church work days
  • Plays basketball, volleyball, and other sports with the young people after services
  • Reads the Bible to his family

But what was really going on with the person who did so many impressive-looking activities? Second Corinthians 11:13-15 describes it well.

For these false apostles are deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ.  And it is no marvel, for Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light.  Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers transform themselves as ministers of righteousness, whose end shall be according to their works. 

My friend’s church used the term “evidences of grace” to describe a list they wanted to see kept, a series of hoops they wanted their church members to jump through. (I’ve talked about the fruitlessness of that life here.)

But the “evidences of grace” the Scriptures talk about are called the “fruit of the Spirit,” and are described in Galatians 5. There you’ll find nothing about keeping a list or jumping through any church-declared hoops.

Instead, it’s about character qualities, with a person’s integrity showing in his character rather than simply in his activities. (As I’ve described before, a person deserves to have a reputation that matches his character.) The primary character quality described here is love.

Yes, it’s true that Jesus said “By their fruits you shall know them,” referencing false prophets in Matthew 7.

Keep yourselves also from the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit, but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that does not bring forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. So that by their fruits ye shall know them.

So a person’s character does show in his actions, right?

But we can’t look only at the public actions or the actions that some might cite as evidence of “godliness.” There also has to be a willingness to acknowledge private actions and actions that indicate gross hypocrisy.

After all, those false prophets Jesus talked about had those “evidences of grace” in their lives too. They tithed. They prayed in public. They knew the law and could probably recite it backwards in their sleep.

But Jesus called them wolves, because of that “other list.”

If Christians want to protect the most vulnerable of God’s people, they must be willing to give serious prayerful consideration to accusations of gross hypocrisy in the lives of church attenders—even the lives of their most “exemplary” church members and leaders.  The God of grace wants the wolves exposed.

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Janet
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Janet

The God of grace wants the wolves exposed!! Amen. I was told to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things, because love never fails, don’t you know? So, in spite of seeing no actual evidence of fruit in my husband’s life, I continued to forgive him when he neglected us or abused us or lied to us or treated us as his own personal slaves. I could come up with a list of good things any day of the week, because I was purposely looking for evidence of grace in his life. The man who carried his Bible to church every Sunday left that Bible on the dashboard of the van from Sunday to Sunday. The man who worked hard to provide for his family sat and smoked cigarettes while his kids slugged and hauled and slaved away. He was self-centered always, providing for his own needs above those of his family. He “repented” of abuse, then continued to abuse. In Psalm 15 God says that those who despise persistent, flagrant sinners are those who will stand before the Lord. When I am sad, missing my “husband” of 45 years, I just have to think about his ACTIONS that expose him as a wolf. That gives me strength to go on.

Rebecca G
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Rebecca G

The category of this post encourages me very much. The title of “For The Protectors” moves my heart, as I have had to draw firm boundaries with the person I am married to, because of his abusive treatment of our child and his continued, angry denial of it. I feel sad sometimes over this separation, but at the same time I cannot deny the ‘fruit’ i continue to see in his life. I cannot ignore it for the sake of my own sentiments and I will continue to fight false guilt and with God’s grace I will continue to protect my child.

TS00
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TS00

It astounds me how the ‘evidences of grace’ for these elders all revolve around church activity. One of the huge red flags that point to a misunderstanding of the gospel is the belief that ‘doing church’ is what the christian is called to. That’s a pretty low bar, one that many abusers can handle quite easily.

The real fruits of a child of God, as you suggest, revolve around a spirit and expression of selfless love. Ticking off a list of church activities does not even begin to suggest the Spirit of Christ within a person. As you point out, no one ‘did church’, or apparent righteousness, better than those who Jesus called ‘vipers’ and ‘whited sepulchres’.

When the spouses and families of the leading, most beloved, friendliest, most helpful elder and servants of the church assert ‘what big teeth they have’ at home, we need to start looking for zippers in their sheep costume. Certainly false accusations can be made, but history suggests that it is far more common for the truth of abuse to remain undisclosed. We need to give serious attention when calls for help arise, often reluctantly, by those who have suffered long. Even those who are bamboozled tend to recognize, when pointed out, cracks in the facade of great pretenders, often overlooked as ‘normal failings’.

Sam Powell
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Good post. The apostles had to deal with this sort of thinking too. I am preaching through 1st John right now, and there is so much there about testing the spirits –
You shall know them by their love. “Let us not love in word only, but in deed and truth.”
Almost every book in the New Testament tells us to discern between the true and the false, and they also say that a reviler will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

healinginhim
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Thank you for posting this. Difficult to read as there are so many victims. I am without a place of worship because I am expected to just ‘get over’ the fact that “the church” does not want to help victims of abuse … Years ago, I was told to leave the turmoil at home and come to “the church” to worship the Lord … initially worshiping alongside my abuser and several other sexual predators!
I pray for new couples to this community who are being drawn to a particular church. I know the history of this place and stay away. These young couples keep inviting me to the Bible studies because I shouldn’t be alone as a believer …. they claim I need the community of believers to remain strong. What I truly need is the full authority of God’s Word being lived out within “the church”. I do not feel safe and even though I have explained this to these well-meaning couples; they are blinded that ‘true Christians’ are always in a church facility. 🙁

Shelley
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Shelley

Excellent article, Rebecca.

anonymous
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anonymous

“Believe the best” and ‘look for the good and you’ll find it’ are such dangerous directives, so oft repeated.

Much of the Bible is spent pointing out evil, talking about what the wicked did, how you’ll know who is who….. yet most Christians are taught to see the world as this friendly, trustworthy, wonderful place, and it’s little wonder why Christians are such tasty morsels for wolves to devour.

What is drilled into Christian’s heads is mostly not Biblical whatsoever. And it’s dangerous, with such harmful results. Most people in the world are wicked. May not be a pleasant truth, but it’s a reality, nonetheless.

I wonder if the blind spot isn’t two-fold (or more) where Christians are genuinely decent people themselves and therefore assume the same is true for others, thinking others are like them. And that Christian counselors and pastors have, too, been brought up in conservative, relatively sheltered, Christian homes and are therefore ignorant of so much.

Do people really believe that abused Christian wives sit around coming up with all the reasons their abusers are terrible and need to be reminded of supposed ‘good things’ about the abuser? By the time abused women are approaching outsiders, it’s usually a horrendous state of affairs.

I struggle with not falling into that ‘believe the best in others’ Pollyanna mode because I was exposed to so much preaching, writings, etc. on the very ‘believe the best in others’ nonsense. It’s such dangerous and harmful teaching.

Barbara Roberts
Guest

Splendid post, Rebecca. And many thanks to all the victims whose testimonies are in the post and comments thread. 🙂

M&M
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M&M

Why did they think you were lying? Maybe we’ll never know, but since they didn’t live with the guy and you did they had no evidence of lying……I’ve heard of churches enabling abusers, but usually I think of the church telling her to submit or saying she provoked it rather than telling her it didn’t happen……can’t say which response is worse……

anonymous
Guest

More and more I grow so angry about these nonsense ‘Biblical’ (I say ‘Biblical’ because this is man-made, man-interpretations, man-cherry picking that’s really going on under the ‘Biblical counseling’ label) counselors are giving. Victims are being abused, their lives are being ruined, their health, sanity, psyches, well-being is under attack. People really are so misguided. If you witnessed children playing with a loaded gun, with the safety off, and little fingers being put on the trigger, nobody would be casual about it. Abuse is a loaded gun. Abuse is deadly and it’s intentional.

This whole “evidences of grace” almost reminds me of the hippie horsepoo of ‘peace, love, and flowers for all’ approach where people seem to be heavily invested in the fake notion that we all can get along, there are no real bad people, and everyone just needs more hugs and the world will be a better place.

It denies evil. It denies wicked men. It denies Satan, really. How about the numerous Bible passages where it warns Christians of the wicked, that this world is run by the devil, that darkness is there, to be on guard?

I guess it just plays into abusers’ hands to do things like “evidences of grace” exercises and whatnot else. And church attendance? Bible study attendance? Have people not read or heard of the Catholic church and their ongoing problem with having covered for pedophile priests who were preying on the flock? And I bet those priests made it to church every week, led the Bible study sessions, and were all about church activities.

If the husband came up with no “evidences of grace” for the wife, I’d take that as a sign there was an abuser sitting before me. I think it said the wife had privately disclosed of abuse prior to this “evidences of grace” counseling session, which makes it all extra bad. No couples counseling for abusers and their victims.

I guess I wonder if those who are counselors shouldn’t just limit themselves to what they know from experience. I see that those in the DV field, be it DV advocates or counselors who work with DV victims, are usually the best when they themselves escaped an abuser, having been abused for a number of years themselves, having gone through the harrowing struggle to escape, having been hunted and abused even after leaving……those are the people who seem to be qualified enough to counsel others. But so many seem to be given false notions of competence. Perhaps it’s because they are ignorant and don’t realize the potentially deadly situation they have on their hands. And even if it doesn’t turn murder lethal, abuse is an inflicted death of its own. It’s a slow death. An agonizing death.

It makes me think of Chris Moles, whom I had never heard of prior, but in reading transcripts and watching YouTube clips, and learning from ACFJ’s series, I am appalled. This is dangerous. And who pays the price? Not Chris Moles. Not the bad advice givers, but rather the abused, the already victimized. They suffer even more.

It’s almost like there are two dominant ‘church approaches’ where either it’s a free-for-all, cheap grace, all are welcome, applaud Andy Savage with a standing ovation kind of thing……the non-traditional, modern, come to church in your best Harley gear, leather chaps and all, “we don’t judge” OR there’s the clucking hens kind of traditional, conservative churches where a divorced woman is ‘scandalous’ and DV doesn’t happen here, and woman submit, obey your husband better, kind of Pharisee-like, wooden/stiff churches.

Maybe it’s just me ranting. I don’t know. But I’m thankful for the internet, sermonaudio.com, and bloggers like yourself where we can be fellow Christians together — a fellowship of sorts and learn more of the Word of God and attend online church via sermonaudio.com and do that kind of thing. In short, love your blog, and I learn a lot. 🙂