Can you change an abusive marriage just by praying hard and having enough faith?
A while ago a woman sent me in a letter criticizing me for saying that it’s okay for women to divorce in cases of abuse, because I should be telling women to have faith for a miracle and to pray hard.
I answered that question in my podcast a few weeks ago, and I had several people mention that it was an important segment, and asking me to take that segment and turn it into something they can share.
So I’ve made a video with the question and my answer, and then I’ll post it below as well!
Here’s a shortened version of the question she wrote–“we should have faith that God will do a miracle and fix an abusive marriage”:
Sheila, I like your blog, but you are wrong in telling women in abusive marriages that they should divorce. Divorce is not permitted for abuse.
But, also, you forget that God can work miracles. You should tell the women to have faith instead! I was in an abusive marriage, and I prayed hard and sought godly, biblical counseling. We separated for a few weeks, and then God changed my husband’s heart, and he repented. God worked a miracle, and we are now reconciled. You are causing women to miss miracles. Tell them to have faith and to pray.
Thanks for reaching out! I’m so glad that God has done a miracle in your marriage! That’s wonderful. It’s so exciting when God truly changes hearts, and when people are humble enough to let Him.
At the same time, your story is very rare. It is not that God cannot change hearts; it is that he does not force hearts to change. And many, many abusers (in fact, the vast majority) do not change. So very many women have prayed and prayed for decades, and no change has come. It is not that your prayers were greater than theirs; it is that your husband was humble enough to listen to God. So many husbands are not.
I do not think divorce should be automatic in cases of abuse, and I’ve never said that it should be. But it definitely is allowed, as it is for infidelity and abandonment. Abuse is a form of abandonment, and God does not make us stay there.
It is also true that part of the abuse cycle is “love bombing”. Abusers say what they need to say in order to get their spouse to let them back into the house or get them to forgive, and then, once the marriage seems secure again, the abuse starts once more. That’s very, very typical. That may not have happened in your case–everybody is different. But that is the general cycle of things.
That’s why telling women that if a man repents they must forgive him is so dangerous. Trust must be built over time. That’s really what David meant in Psalm 51 when he says “against you, and you only, have I sinned.” He didn’t mean that he had only sinned against God (he obviously sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba, too). But what he was saying was that even if his relationships weren’t restored; even if his reputation wasn’t restored; even if others didn’t forgive him; he would still repent and get real with God. He wasn’t just getting real in order to get his relationships/status back; he was repenting because he truly meant it.
That’s what an abuser must do. He must repent regardless of what happens in his marriage, and he must show this over time. He must show that he is not just repenting to get his marriage back, but that he is truly a changed person. That cannot be done quickly. It must be shown over a long period of time with the help of a wise counselor or mentor. This must be done in order to protect the safety of any children especially. And only then should reconciliation take place.
And if that repentance never happens, then God does free people to divorce, because it is not the woman ending the marriage; it is the abuser who already ended it by his actions.
Again, none of this is saying that God cannot work miracles. It is only saying that your marriage is a miracle simply because it is so rare. God can heal people physically, too, but He does not choose to very often, as most with relatives with cancer will tell you. It does not mean that God can’t; it just means that God rarely does. And in the case of abuse, He does not force people to open their hearts to Him. They have to choose to have their hearts softened, and few abusers really do that.
I am so glad that your marriage was restored, and that it is being blessed. I hope that you have some wise people walking alongside you who can see if the abuse cycle ever begins again, and to ensure that you are not in an extended period of love bombing. These things are so dangerous, especially when children are involved. But the safe thing to do here is to warn women about the simple facts of abuse, and tell them that in Christ there is freedom. For most people, the miracle will not be the abuser changing. But that doesn’t mean a miracle isn’t happening. I have known so many women who have broken free of abuse and found great freedom on the other side, as their children finally begin to flourish without the fear and the shame, and who finally are about to flourish themselves in their own callings, now that the abuse does not take all of their emotional energy.
Let me say one more thing.
I had a son who died, despite the fact that we prayed so hard for him, and that others prayed so hard for him. I am at peace with that, and I understand God’s plans in all of that, and I’m okay. But what was really hurtful was when, at the time he was hurt, other moms came to me and said, “God cured my child! He will cure yours, too, if you have enough faith.”
I did have faith. I did pray. But God chose not to heal.
Other women are praying, and crying out to God, and doing everything right, and their husbands are still abusers. Please treat these women very gently. God worked a miracle with you, but the reason it’s a miracle is that it is so rare. Do not generalize your situation to other women. Please don’t say, “If you just humble yourself or have enough faith, God can change your husband.” Instead, say something like,
“Don’t make marriage your idol. Run after Jesus. Let the marriage go. And then, if God wills and if your husband repents, you may just find that you can pick it up again.”
But don’t make it about them having enough faith. They do have faith. But God does not always change hearts. So show them how to run after Jesus and put Him first. Show them how to protect their kids. Show them how to get their eyes off of their marriage and onto God. Show them how to give their husband over to God so He can do the work. And show them how to let go. And then, if God chooses to do a miracle, they’ll be able to rejoice. But if God doesn’t, they’ll still be able to rejoice, because they have grown closer to Him and have stopped making an idol of marriage.
As we talk about how change can come about in marriage, and how iron can sharpen iron, let’s remember that the responsibility to change someone is not really in our hands. God doesn’t even hold it in His hands. He gives us free will, and some will choose not to change. That’s not on us.
Do You Have a Difficult Time Standing up to your Husband?
So we should try to point others to Him and to be iron that sharpens iron; but ultimately, our highest calling is not to keep a marriage together or to change another person; it’s to run after Jesus and seek Him, no matter what else happens.
I really do get tired of these messages of “just pray hard enough and just have enough faith.” God is not a cosmic vending machine, and God does not force His will on people. The best act of faith is not having faith that God will do what you want; it’s having faith even if God doesn’t.
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What do you think? Have you heard this message? Let’s talk in the comments!
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