Have you ever walked down your street and looked at each house and wondered about the way the people living in that house get along with each other? Or have you looked at a woman sitting ahead of you in church and thought, “Wow! No question about it, she’s got it all! Her handsome Christian husband is a leader in the church. And he treats her like a queen. Their obedient kids never seem to give them any trouble. They have enough money to do whatever they want to do and go where they want to go. I wonder what it would be like to be in such a perfect Christian family.”
Sometimes we look at others around us and allow ourselves to have a pity party, thinking how much better other people’s lives are than our own. That’s the problem of judging from the outside. What goes on behind the closed doors of a Christian home may be quite different from what should go on in a family. The “too perfect” family in the next pew may be anything but perfect.
A few years ago I spoke at a women’s retreat. The women were from a strict church where everyone knew exactly how to cross each “t” and dot each “i.” They filled their notebooks, appearing to write down virtually everything I said. But I wondered if any of them were real.
On Saturday evening, after my third talk, the answer came. Three women approached me after the service. Each one had essentially the same story to tell. Let me tell you about just one of them.
As she walked toward me, it was clear that she was terribly frightened. I could see the fear in her eyes and the nervousness in her twisting fingers. She appeared to be held together with little more than rubber bands. As I tried to put her at ease and probe for the cause of her distress, little by little she told me her story.
She had been married for 13 years to a man who was a seminary graduate and who had pastored three churches during their marriage. He had recently left the ministry and was trying his hand at selling real estate. The couple had three school-age children. She worked fulltime as a psychiatric nurse and was bringing in the only regular paycheck at that time. I’ll call this couple Jack and Jane.
Jack is an abuser. Yes, he has been a pastor. He is a Christian. He is a seminary graduate. But he is also an abuser. He beats his wife. Jane is a battered woman. She is intelligent and works in psychiatric nursing. But she is still a battered wife.
Jack has been beating Jane since the first year of their marriage. The beatings take many forms. They start when his rages burst out and he throws everything he can lay hands on at her. Then he pounces on her, pummeling her and pulling out her hair.
After this kind of beating, she knows he will return in the night and start in again. So she lies awake all night, “feeling the lion prowling around the house,” not knowing how or when he will attack her again. The second attack may be another beating, or it may be a bucket of cold water dumped on her in the dark.
If Jack goes into a rage while they are driving in the car, she fears for the lives of the entire family. Once when she was pregnant, he reached across her, opened her car door and pushed her out into the street from the moving vehicle.
After these attacks Jack becomes very contrite. In public, especially in the church where he is looked up to as a strong leader, he hugs Jane and tells people to look at his beautiful wife. Outside the home he carefully cultivates the impression of being a loving, doting husband.
Jack’s rages seem to be precipitated by a number of things. If he catches Jane reading a book, he snatches it away, telling her that if she wants to learn anything, she must ask him and he will teach her. He rigidly holds his family to a daily schedule of memorizing Scripture. In fact, he devised a system that many families in their church use. In it he has a key verse for every chapter in the Bible and a complex memory system for learning these verses. Members of his family also must spend a certain amount of time each day listening to Christian tapes. Anytime a member of the family has not learned the verse perfectly or cannot answer all his questions about the tape, Jack gets very upset.
Several years ago Jane persuaded Jack to see a counselor with her. But the Christian counselor merely lectured her on her duty to be submissive.
As Jane talked to me, it was clear that she had been the brunt of Jack’s rages for years. But she found the courage to speak to me only because she now feared for the safety of their three children. She had been taught so well by the church to be submissive that she thought she had no alternative but to stay in the home, take the abuse, and risk being killed as Jack’s rages escalated. In fact, as is often true of battered women, Jane actually took the blame for Jack’s abuse. He insisted that if she were different, he would not beat her. He did not see himself as an abuser.
Battered women are a fact of life in American society today—and a fact of life within our evangelical churches. One out of every eight women in our country is physically abused. One out of every four is sexually abused. In the United States a woman is beaten every 18 seconds. One-fourth of these are pregnant. In fact, the battering pattern often begins with a woman’s first pregnancy.
Furthermore, nine out of every ten battering incidents are not reported to the police. Legal experts call wife-abuse the “silent crime,” one of the most unreported or under-reported crimes in our country.
Many women are not physically battered but are still abused. A major source of depression, for instance, is low self-esteem that comes from being constantly put down by the people closest to us—those who should build us up.
I have a close friend whose husband hardly ever sits down at the dinner table without telling her what food she should have cooked and how the food she did cook should have been cooked. For more than 25 years my friend has endured this torrent of criticism at virtually every meal. No wonder her self-confidence is zero. There’s nothing she can do to please him. He picks away at her day and night. He is an abuser and she is abused.
Abuse can be physical, verbal, or nonverbal. In whatever form it comes, many Christian women accept this abuse in the name of submission. They are convinced that as Christian women they have no alternative but to take the abuse as God’s will for their lives.
A case study in handling an abusive man is found in 1 Samuel 25. There we meet a man named Nabal and his wife Abigail. Verse 3 describes Abigail as “an intelligent and beautiful woman” but Nabal as “surly and mean in his dealings.”
Nabal was a hard man to live with. The force of the Hebrew words translated “surly and mean” is that he was harsh and overbearing, a heavy-handed evildoer.
The servants in Nabal’s household would certainly agree with God’s description of this man. In verse 17 we overhear a servant talking to Abigail about his master and her husband: “He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him.”
Again, the Hebrew text is very strong. Nabal is “an evil man, a son of Belial,” the worst possible statement of contempt that the servant could use. Nabal was a hard man, a difficult man, a severe man. He was impossible to reason with.
The servant was not alone in that opinion. Abigail describes her husband to David in verse 25: “May my lord pay no attention to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name—his name is Fool, and folly goes with him.”
So Nabal was a wicked, difficult man. God said so. The servant said so. Abigail agreed.
Abigail probably got into that unpleasant marriage through no choice of her own. In Abigail’s day marriages were arranged by the parents. Nabal was one of the wealthiest men in the region. Verse 2 tells us that he had 1,000 goats and 3,000 sheep. He was a man of importance and influence. To arrange a marriage with such a man was considered a good cat ch. The fact that Abigail might not be happy in such a marriage was irrelevant.
Unfortunately, many women today get into marriages every bit as miserable as Abigail’s. The handsome prince turns out to be a toad. The fine Christian leader turns out to be an abuser.
How did Abigail handle her situation, locked in a marriage to a wicked and evil man, one whom no one could talk to or reason with? Can we learn anything from her that can help us or help women we know who are trapped in such a situation?
At the very least we need to make the best of a bad situation. Better, we need to find a way to turn a bad situation into something good. When we first meet Abigail, we see a woman doing everything possible to limit the damage her husband has done. And Nabal had done real damage, so much so that the entire household was in danger of extermination. Let’s review the story.
It opens during the time of year when Nabal’s 3,000 sheep were being shorn. That’s a lot of sheep, a lot of shearers, and a lot of work for everyone concerned.
Sheepshearing season in Nabal’s day was also a festive time. It was customary for the sheep owner to provide a feast when the job was done. At that feast he would give gifts to everyone who had helped in any way during the year. This was a token of thanks to God and a gesture of goodwill to his neighbors. When David sent his young men to collect what was due to them for the protection they had provided Nabal’s shepherds during the year, they had every reason to expect Nabal to be generous.
But instead, in verses 10 and 11, we see Nabal insulting David’s men in two ways. First, he should have responded generously to them for the help they had given his shepherds. Second, oriental custom required him to be polite to them even if David had been a deadly enemy. Not only did wicked, surly, mean Nabal refuse to give anything when he should have given freely, but he also scorned David’s character in front of his men.
David understood the insult well. His answer was essentially, “Okay, men, put on your swords. We’re going to clean up on this guy and on every man and boy in his household.” With 400 armed men, David set out to destroy Nabal’s household. At the same time a wise servant ran to Abigail to report what had happened. Here’s his summary:
David sent messengers from the desert to give our master his greetings, but he hurled insults at them. Yet these men were very good to us. They did not mistreat us, and the whole time we were out in the fields near them nothing was missing. Night and day they were a wall around us all the time we were herding our sheep near them. Now think it over and see what you can do, because disaster is hanging over our master and his whole household. He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him (1 Sam. 25:14-17).
Abigail had a bad situation on her hands. Four hundred men were on their way to kill not only Nabal but most of the household. She had to act quickly to limit the damage her husband had done.
Knowing yourself, what would you have done in Abigail’s place? Would you have run off to save yourself? Would you have organized the servants to fight David’s men? Would you have tried to reason with Nabal? Would you have resigned yourself to being killed? Would you have panicked? Abigail took decisive, independent action:
Abigail lost no time. She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of raisins, and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys. Then she told her servants, “Go on ahead; I’ll follow you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal. As she came riding her donkey into a mountain ravine, there were David and his men descending toward her, and she met them. David had just said, “It’s been useless—all my watching over this fellow’s property in the desert so that nothing of his was missing. He has paid me back evil for good. May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!” When Abigail saw David, she quickly got off her donkey and bowed down before David with her face to the ground (vv.18-23).
Quick-thinking Abigail hurried to head off trouble at the pass. But what do you think of what Abigail did? Do you think she was correct in her actions? What was really happening as she scurried around to get all the bread baked, the raisins and figs packed, and the wineskins loaded on the donkeys?
First, she did exactly the opposite of what Nabal wanted done. He had turned David’s men away, but she prepared large quantities of food for them. Second, she did this behind his back. The text points out that she did not tell her husband what she was doing.
Do her actions seem right to you? Look at David’s evaluation of what Abigail did:
David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands” (vv.32-33).
David saw Abigail’s independent action, contrary to Nabal’s wishes, as being from God. Abigail stands before us as a model of a wise woman in a difficult situation. She acted in the best interests of her household and of her husband. The first person to feel the edge of David’s sword would have been Nabal. In going against Nabal’s wishes, Abigail was saving his life. She had his best interests in mind.
Not every situation women face in bad marriages is a matter of life and death. In Abigail’s case it was. In Jane’s case it was getting there. A Christian woman’s obligation to be a submissive wife ends where lives are at risk. A woman is wise who does what she can to limit the damage caused by a difficult man in the home.
Such a woman may have to take immediate steps to ensure safety for herself and her children. If the situation is physically dangerous, she must first get herself and her children out while she can. She must act in the best interests of everyone concerned. This includes her husband’s best interest, but it also includes her own and that of any children involved.
It is important to know that a woman is not a failure as a wife and she is not disobedient to God if she takes active steps to preserve life in an abusive situation.
The second step that women must take is to work to turn bad situations into good ones. A person with cancer may undergo radiation treatment or chemotherapy to keep the cancer from spreading. That’s a way of limiting the damage. But if the cancer is operable, the surgeon will also elect to remove it so that the patient can return to full health. The goal is to do more than just limit the damage. We want to turn a bad situation into a good one.
Abigail successfully headed off David’s army from slaughtering Nabal’s household. But to keep from having to repeat the rescue operation in another situation, she had to do more than that.
When Abigail went to Nabal, he was in the house holding a banquet like that of a king. He was in high spirits and very drunk. So she told him nothing until daybreak. Then in the morning, when Nabal was sober, his wife told him all these things, and his heart failed him and he became like a stone (vv.36-37).
It wasn’t enough to avert one danger. Nabal had to be confronted with his way of handling life. He had to understand the consequences of his churlish behavior. One of the things we see in verse 36 is that Abigail chose the right time to talk to Nabal. Often when we confront a difficult person, we choose the wrong time and the wrong place. Abigail wisely waited until the banquet was over, the drunken stupor had passed, and Nabal was sober.
Even though Abigail chose her moment wisely, she took great risks in confronting Nabal. Recall that h e was described as surly and mean (v.3). And the servant had said he was so wicked that no one could reason with him (v.17). Abigail had no assurance that Nabal would listen to her. She had no way of knowing whether he would become furious and harm her. But she knew that she had to confront Nabal even though it might not turn out well.
For Nabal, at least, it did not turn out well. The shock of his close brush with David’s wrath put him into cardiac arrest. We don’t know from the passage whether Nabal’s attack was brought on by anger over Abigail’s meddling in his affairs or if he was enraged that David had gotten the better of him. Perhaps it was sheer terror that struck him when he realized how close he had come to death. Whatever caused the stroke or heart attack, in 10 days’ time it proved to be fatal (v.38). Nabal died.
We also do not know from the biblical text how Abigail talked to Nabal on that fateful morning. We know only that she “told him all” that had happened. She took the next necessary step to turn a bad situation into a better one. She confronted him with the consequences of his actions.
In a difficult relationship, don’t simply try to limit the damage. Work to make a bad situation good by helping the difficult person see what he is doing to himself and to the important people in his life. Love sometimes has to be tough because it seeks what is best for everyone involved. A man who abuses his wife or is difficult to live with has his own set of problems. They keep him from being the joyful, fully-functioning person God designed him to be. We must care enough to confront—confront to redeem, not to destroy.
Many women locked in abusive marriages find confronting almost impossible to do. The reasons are many. Often such women have come to believe the husband’s reiterated statement that if they were different women, they would be treated differently. Or they have an unbiblical understanding of submission. Or their selfesteem has been destroyed and they have no inner strength to resist the abuse.
To take that next necessary step of confronting for change, an abused woman must be sure of her own value before God so that the difficult person does not beat her self-esteem down to nothing. Life with Nabal could not have been happy. Yet Abigail did not allow Nabal’s nastiness to make her bitter. This beautiful, intelligent woman was strong enough inside to withstand Nabal’s unreasonableness.
How does our story of Abigail end? David wasted no time once he heard the news of Nabal’s death. He proposed marriage to Abigail, and she became his wife. She was a fitting companion for Israel’s great and future king.
Abigail’s story ended “happily ever after.” But that is not the way Jane’s story has ended. Nor is it the way the story ends for many other Christian women locked in a difficult marriage. Often we are not released from misery but must learn new ways to cope with misery and turn it into something good.
One day I received another letter from Jane. Up to that time we had exchanged letters through her work address at the hospital. But this was the first letter giving me her home address. I had sent Jane some literature about abusers and battering, including a “violence index.” Here’s what she wrote:
“In reviewing all the materials, I believe the most frightening part was taking the violence test and realizing our violence index was into the dangerous level. I had never seen it in black and white before, or had thought about the specific questions that were asked. It sobered me further . . .
“In June and July, Jack’s behavior or attitude became more hateful and oppressive. More frequently he involved the children, sometimes blaming them for his outburst. He threw a glass at the kitchen sink with such force that the glass shattered all over the kitchen, the counters, the floor. Then Jack wanted Mickey, our 12-year-old, to pick it up. I refused to let Mickey clean up Jack’s mess, so it stayed that way for 2 days. Sherry (age 11) had been away. She walked in and asked, ‘Was this an accident, or did Dad get mad?’ She was told the truth. Stanley (age 9) began getting hysterical every time Jack raised his voice, and that would make Jack more mad.
“In the middle of July, I involved another party, Chuck and Margaret. Without Jack knowing about it, I took an afternoon off and talked with them. Margaret and I had already been talking some. Chuck is an attorney in town and he is well respected by Jack in every way. They have been friends in our church for years. As you would expect, Jack hit the roof when I told him, the same day, that I had gone. He started with the same accusations of betrayal all over again. I thank God for the courage to have spoken again.
“Chuck, Margaret, Jack, and I meet about once a week for 2 to 3 hours. The first session was the worst, but Alice, the last 6 weeks have been wonderful. Chuck confronts issues and Jack has not resisted the accountability. Through tears and pain and sorrow he has committed himself to me different from ever before. He has faced the issue as sin and as totally unacceptable. He is genuinely striving for a holy walk. The sessions are difficult because of the painful things we go over, but so productive. Once more I have hope.
“The children know we are going and are glad too. Even Sherry’s defensive spirit has improved in the last month. There is so much work to be done. Daily I still see reflections of the ‘down with women’ attitude, but I have a freedom to discuss it with him later or save it for our time with Chuck and Margaret. Jack has admitted to not giving me any freedom, being jealous of even phone conversations with other women. He doesn’t understand why, but he now sees it as abnormal.
“Alice, I think there is hope. Please continue to pray with me. I know the road ahead will not be without bumps, perhaps major ones. But my support has widened. Therefore, my base is stronger and so is Jack’s.
“Please continue to share with other women the need for openness and for friends, that life does not have to be endured but can be lived and even enjoyed. I look forward to see what God has tomorrow for me. Please feel free to share my life with others if it would help. And keep in touch. Love, Jane.”
Each time I read Jane’s letter, I remember the terrified woman who for 13 years had not said a word to anyone about all she endured with a difficult man. I thank God that she found the courage to talk to me. I’m glad she found even greater courage to seek out a support system in her hometown. She now has hope. She had none a year ago. I thank God that Jane did what Abigail did. She first took steps to lessen the damage to herself and to her children. She opened up to a trusted friend, who became the beginning of a local support group for her. She gained the courage to refute Jack’s unreasonable accusations and to counter his selfish demands. Little by little, she has forced him to take responsibility for his actions. Now in these weekly sessions with Jack, Chuck, and Margaret, she continues the confrontation that is healing her marriage.
Do you live with a difficult man? Do you have a friend caught in a punishing marriage? Take Abigail as a good role model. Work to make the best of a bad situation. Better, work to turn the bad into good. Let God work in you and through you by His power to redeem a bad relationship.