Covenant Abuse

I am reposting this from about a year ago (with minor edits). October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, intended to raise awareness.  Would that we could all remain constantly aware and determine to stand for justice and against abuse.

…to love, honor, and cherish, from this day forward, so long as we both shall live…

The solemnity and vision of those sacred marriage vows still raise my head a little higher and leave me in a reflective mood every time I hear them.  When spoken by a loved one entering into marriage, they bring tears to my eyes, as their voice and expressions convey a solemn awareness of the sacredness of the marriage covenant.

Most of us enter into marriage with an understanding and conviction that although the path will sometimes be difficult, we will strive to do all in our power to completely fulfill these sacred oaths.

Over time, we come to understand how often we fall short of the high ideals of the wedding vows.  Too often, we behave selfishly, rather than generously.  Too often, we fall short of the level of communication we strive to achieve.  Mutual decision-making turns out to be much more difficult than originally anticipated.

Yet, we continue to give it our best effort.  When we stumble, we apologize and try to learn from our mistakes.  If we hit a really rough spot, we may solicit input from a professional counselor to help us improve the relationship.

And, somehow, as we work together, by the grace of God, we learn to have more grace for one another.  We learn to better understand each other’s viewpoints and needs.  Over time, it gets easier, and we come closer to actually living out those high ideals we swore to uphold in our sacred vows.

And that is as it should be.

Sometimes, though, that’s not the case…

Sometimes, one marriage partner views the wedding vows, not as a sacred pledge to uphold, but rather as a law to enforce on their spouse.  Rather than using the marriage covenant as an opportunity to love, honor and cherish their spouse, they use it, instead, as an opportunity to enslave and abuse.

The Bible refers to these individuals as covenant breakers, violators of the covenant, and treacherous (Psalm 55:20, Psalm 89:34, Isaiah 24:5, Malachi 2:14-15).

Today, we call them abusers.  They abuse their spouse, and they abuse the sacred covenant.

These abusers behave as though the covenant vows do not apply to them, while continually reminding their spouse that they must honor the covenant.

They intentionally and repeatedly violate the sacred vows, inflicting deep wounds on the person they have sworn to love, honor and cherish.  Then they insist that their spouse must lovingly forgive, forget, and restore relationship because of the marriage covenant.

When confronted, they may express words of regret…they may even shed tears of remorse and apologize for their hateful behavior.  Yet, their actions do not change.  They may become more deceptive, better at concealing, better at manipulating…but their core values have not changed.

They still view the covenant as something that binds their spouse to them, rather than as a sacred oath they must fulfil.  They still see the marriage vows as applying to their spouse and not to them.

The only part of the oath they seem to hold sacred is “…so long as we both shall live.”

And, too often, when the faithful spouse turns to the church for help, “…so long as we both shall live,” seems to also be the only part of the vows that the church holds sacred.

I was fortunate.  Although I spent 17 years in an abusive marriage, I had the support of wise counselors and a supportive church family as that marriage wound to an end in divorce.

I’ve discovered, since, that many people are not so fortunate.

Too often, the church doesn’t seem interested in hearing of the years of abuse and torment.  The fears and emotional distress are treated as inconsequential.

All they see is one party (the abuser) saying they want to reconcile, while the other party (the faithful spouse…the one who has remained faithful to their sacred covenant vows all those years) says they can’t take it anymore and must leave for their own (or their children’s) protection.

So the church joins the abuser’s cause, aiding the abuser in berating the faithful spouse that they must forgive, forget, and reconcile, because of the marriage vows…the very vows that the abuser has repeatedly and intentionally violated over and over again, at every opportunity!

…the sacred vows that the faithful spouse has learned through years of torment, that the abuser has no intention of ever keeping…

So the faithful spouse must either step outside the protection of the church, in order to escape the abuse, or accept a condition of lifelong slavery in a covenant of abusive bondage…

…so long as we both shall live…

How have we reached this point?  Why does the church so often behave as though the only part of the marriage vows that counts is …so long as we both shall live?  Why can we not see that this position plays right into the hands of the abuser?

Our God is a covenant God. God invites those He loves to enter into covenant with Him, then faithfully acts on the basis of His covenant promises. God remembers His covenant promises to His children, and eternally lavishes His loving-kindness on those with whom He is in a covenant relationship. Through covenant relationship, God imparts His nature to us, and causes our hearts to be conformed to His image. All of God’s interaction with mankind is based on covenant.

God created man in His own image. We, as His creation, as His children, as His covenant partners, are to honor and live out our covenants in faithfulness, just as He honors and lives out His covenants.

However, God never uses covenant as a tool to enslave or abuse, nor does He desire for His children to be enslaved in a covenant that has become abusive bondage. For His children who have become enslaved in abusive relationships, God offers redemption from covenants of bondage.

Have you ever encountered an abuser?  Somebody who acted as though the rules of loving relationship apply only to you and not to them?

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Graceful, Wellspring ]



18 thoughts on “Covenant Abuse

  1. Yes, I’ve encountered an abuser. Two of them, plus their friends. It was hell.

    The relationships made the world incomprehensible, except that survival became paramount. I learned early not to trust – ever. And I learned that force could only be met with greater force. Innocence died young.

    Turning the other cheek was an invitation to more abuse, and forgiveness was an open door to more hell.

    Now, I am just learning to trust. It’s been a long road, and the road ahead is longer still.

    And I have not yet learned to forgive, nor forget.

    • The total violation of trust…and the resulting mistrust… I see that as one of the worst consequences of living with abuse. When someone we trusted completely violates that trust so violently, it’s so hard to trust again…to trust ourselves to be able to discern who is trustworthy.

      Forgiveness comes with time and by God’s grace. An important part of that, for me, was learning to understand the difference between forgiving and forgetting. I had to learn to forgive without trusting…to establish firm boundaries and to never forget the importance of defending those boundaries.

      You may enjoy this post on the topic of forgiveness:

      Thank you, Andrew, for sharing your perspective!

    • Andrew:
      “Turning the other cheek was an invitation to more abuse, and forgiveness was an open door to more hell.” I’ve been there. The first half of your statement was exactly that way for me. The second half, too, for a long time, because so much was unrepented and unresolved, and forgiveness seemed like it was leaving me unguarded and yet another way in which I would need to self-manipulate my battered emotions. Now that the abuse is in the past, forgiveness is the single most healing concept I experience. But not at all in a religious sense! I read Forgive for Good (4 times) by Dr.Fred Luskin, whose simple perspective and method are used to help families in Northern Ireland and parents of murdered children. I could understand and do it that way. My forgiving my abuser changes nothing for him (he still sees himself as having done nothing wrong) but is a huge relief for me. Forgiving myself, and God? Absolutely heavenly peaceful! Learning to trust myself to know who to trust…that is ongoing! Blessings and respect to you! Diane

  2. Joe, I wish every person in an abusive marriage had access to this. It is incredibly empowering and true.
    Your tireless efforts to educate those in the church is a blessing.
    Keep up the good work…

  3. I remember this post from last year. I don’t know if you used that video too, but it’s all so powerful and such an important message–worthy of repeating and emphasizing over and over, Joe. Thanks for caring for those who’ve been abused and having compassion on those who’ve divorced–not because they wanted to but because they had to. Praise the Lord that there is a Redeemer!

  4. I have seen abuse time and time again and it hardly ever ends well. In fact, I know of one that ended in death and I do not wish that for anyone.
    I pray God to give everyone in abusive relationship the wisdom and courage to say “no”!

    • Yes, wisdom and courage! Wisdom to see through the fog of deceipt and to understand the need to leave; courage to take the necessary steps and to see it through, despite the resistance from well-meaning ‘friends’ and/or family!

      Thank you, Ugochi, for sharing this!

  5. This is a very sad story, and one I find very hard to visualize. I have never lived with a real, consistent abuser, but I have met couples who confuse inconvenience with abuse. We have counseled them. I do know what marital difficulty is like, however. My husband and I have had some rough patches in our own marriage, including one we thought we could not survive, but we just celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. As Christians, ‘until death do us part’ is part of the covenant and, while we have to understand and recognize when someone is in real danger, in all the Christian couples we have known who have divorced, I have seen only one or two that fall into a category that might be called real abuse. Somehow, we have to figure this out. God hates divorce. We all know that. And I believe from my own experiences, that He wants us to persevere as long as we can. My husband and I were blessed by that perseverance, and blessed abundantly. Marriage is indeed a covenant relationship with God, but finding out when and how He wants that severed other than death–well, that’s the rub, isn’t it?

    • JoAnne, thank you for your candid comments.

      I have come to see “God hates divorce,” as a much over-used phrase, taken completely out of context, and almost always used in a manner inconsistent with Malachi’s writing. Three words, placed out of their correct order, and lifted from a 36 word verse (depending on translation), almost always quoted with no consideration of the context of the rest of the chapter.

      The context of Malachi 2 is clearly addressing the sin of treachery, and is very clear that only one party, the one who has dealt treacherously against their covenant partner, is at fault. You might try reading Malachi 2:16 in the NIV or JUB for a better interpretation of the meaning within the context of the chapter.

      If, in fact, God does hate divorce (something for which I have found no conclusive biblical evidence after thoroughly researching the topic) I know for absolute certainty that He hates seeing His children enslaved in a covenant of abusive bondage far more than He hates divorce. If this were not the case, He would not have brought about the divorce of Israel from Egypt, nor the divorce of His chosen from the kingdom of darkness.

      If you would like to read more of my perspective on these topics, you might start with these posts: and

      In regard to the term “real abuse,” I have learned that qualifiers such as “real,” “severe,” “extreme,” or “physical,” placed on the word “abuse” usually are a sign that the speaker/writer has neither experienced nor studied abuse. This post was one of my attempts to help explain the vast difference between “normal” marital difficulties and an abusive marriage. I have experienced both, and the difference is not one of scale, but of the nature of the relationship.

      God uses covenant to enrich and bless. Satan uses covenant to enslave and abuse. The two are vastly different.

      “…finding out when and how He wants that severed other than death…” Based on my experience and the testimony of others, when we approach life’s difficult decisions with prayer, asking God to lead us in the paths of righteousness, the Holy Spirit is faithful.

      Our Redeemer lives! And He is still in the business of redeeming His children from covenants of abusive bondage!

      Thank you for stopping by and for commenting.

      May God richly bless you and make your time here of value to you as well as those to whom you are called to minister.

  6. Hi, JoAnn:

    As a reader of Joe’s and also a divorced abuse survivor (Christian, 20 year marriage/abuse, counseled in 4 states with 6 pastors and 3 counselors, secular and Christian), I appreciate your open and candid comment. My response will be direct, but please take it as respectful, helpful information.

    If you are counseling couples in a Christian context, you are uniquely poised to do MUCH good, OR MUCH harm, depending on how well you are able to visualize how abuse plays out. Since you have not been there, you will NOT be able to visualize, except by trusting the counsel of those who have….just as they may be in a position to trust your counsel, with life altering consequences to them (not you).
    The degree to which you choose to be responsible for knowledge and discernment as you counsel, can save or take life and faith. I’m not being real, not dramatic.

    First, if you counsel both parties together, when there is abuse present, you will NOT be dealing with honest people, either of them – one due to control, the other due to fear.

    Second, if you are counseling, YOU need to know the strange patterns of psychological abuse that precede physical abuse (I don’t know what you mean by “real” abuse); your life experience with rough patches is qualitatively (apples/oranges, not words/fists) different and in NO way is experience that will enable you to ID abuse/abuser. There is a LOT of information out there that will greatly improve your discernment.

    Third, If you are counseling, YOUR responsibility for knowing the nature of abuse (what “real” abuse really IS) and how your responses affect those you counsel can heal or kill – in a most literal sense with no drama here – both physically and also spiritually – people lose faith (not because they don’t want to believe). Your counsel to another costs you nothing; it may cost THEM everything. You have HUGE influence to build courage, or build fear; support doctrines or support faith. To “cause one of these little ones to fall” or “strengthen them in the faith.” The categories you describe that your counselees have fallen into, are categories of your design, based on your life experience and your interpretation of the importance of scriptural interpretations (as for all of us); you may not know HOW to recognize “real” abuse – have you studied this?

    Fourth, “God hates divorce. We all know that.” That verse is Malachi 2:16, and you quoted HALF of the verse, out of context. In the context of abuse, this is one of the most damaging misquotes one can make, because it misrepresents God and covenant relationships, Who is we? PLEASE go look up Mal 2:16 and read the chapter!!!!

    Fifth, finding out when and how God wants the covenant relationship severed, other than death? If you are in a position to choose death for yourself or your children, you are free to do so if you believe it honors God. I doubt you are doing this, but Christian counselors, lay or clergy, who counsel LAW over LIFE (including safety and protection as approved by God, at least as much as permanent marriage), are bording on criminal.

    Finally, are we saved by Grace? Saved. Permanently. Not because we stay in an abusive marriage.

    • Diane, your words and your passion always make me smile. I expect God is smiling as well, seeing His daughter tapping into His own passion for defending the downtrodden and setting captives free!

      Thank you, so much!

  7. Deep words penned from someone who knows what marital abuse is…as do I. Thank you, Joseph, for posting this. I am your neighbor at The Wellspring and my post today is also on this subject. May God protect and free all who find themselves trapped in such a marriage…

    • “May God protect and free all who find themselves trapped in such a marriage…”


      Thank you, Sheila, for stopping by and adding to the discussion!

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