There is much to say and do when it comes to domestic abuse. Unfortunately, we've seen a lot about it in the news recently. The nation was rightly shocked and outraged last year after witnessing the violence of football player, Ray Rice, against his wife. It was a jarring reminder that women, regardless of socioeconomic status, are frequently victims of violence at the hands of loved ones. As the Church, we must remember that those living in fear of abuse are in our congregations, often hiding in plain sight.
Domestic violence is not like a broken bone that simply needs mending, but rather a tentacle-like tumor which requires careful and precise extraction.The cancer of domestic abuse is not, as in the case of any cancer, easily remedied but demands a thoughtful, careful, involved and compassionate response.There is need for the involvement of the authorities, social services, lawyers and counsellors. Women entangled in abuse need help navigating their love for their abuser and their urgent need for safety. Sadly, there are many children caught in this web who must be considered and cared for.
Justin Holcomb has written extensively and well on this issue for the Church, and we would be wise to heed his counsel and take steps to see that we are equipped to help victims. As in the case of meeting with anyone who is grieving, when we encounter those left in the wake of domestic violence—a victim, family member or friend—we tend to unintentionally say something unhelpful or say nothing out of the fear of being unhelpful. So what can we do and say when we desire to help? As one deeply and personally acquainted with such sorrow, I want to offer some suggestions.
1. Be a safe place for all emotions.
Processing the trauma of domestic violence is not cut and dry. Recovery will bring about a cavalcade of emotions like anger, sadness, relief and regret. The complexities of these emotions are numerous: "Why didn't he love us like he was supposed to?"; "Why didn't she leave sooner?"; "I hate that my children have had to live through this."; "I know he's done horrible things but I still miss him."
There is nothing easy about coping with these emotions and their implications. They are complicated, messy, frustrating and exhausting, but it is important to simply be a safe place for these emotions to be felt and expressed.
Bear with me when I say that I think Job's friends got something right. Job 2:11-13 exemplifies what is much needed when it comes to being a friend to the hurt:
"Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, they came each one from his own place . . . and they made an appointment together to come to sympathize with him and comfort him. When they lifted up their eyes at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky. Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great."
2. Admit you don't have all the answers.
Grieving of any sort always begs the question, "Why?" Our hearts want so badly to be able to give an answer. But what satisfying answer is there in the face of this horror? This is the same conundrum we encounter when we witness terrorism and natural disasters and any of the evils that exist in our world since Genesis 3. There are theological, scientific or philosophical answers that could be offered, but none of them gets to the true heart of the question being asked.
It's okay to say, “I don't know.” Grief doesn't often need your informed answer. The grieving need your support. Job asks "why" repeatedly, and we witness his friends’ feeble attempts to answer his question. Much of what they say is true, but they aren’t words fitly spoken, and they leave in their wake a friend who is increasingly devastated.
3. Point to Jesus
I want to be clear that when I say “point to Jesus,” it does not mean that we are to dish out Bible verses haphazardly. The Word of God is a sword, and as with any weapon, we want to handle it carefully and with wisdom. Please do not heavy-handedly offer something like Romans 8:28 as a tool for understanding suffering. Is the promise of Romans 8:28 true? You better believe it! Yet, getting to a place of understanding that in light of all of the complexities of domestic violence is something that takes time and the profound work of the Holy Spirit.
Rather, what I mean is that, in all conversations and with the utmost compassion, you should remind the grieving that they are not outside the love and care of the sovereign God of the universe. Remind them their suffering is not in vain, and that they have not been forsaken. Verses like Psalm 147:3, Isaiah 53:3, John 10:27-28, and Romans 8:31-39 and many others bring about healing when shared tenderly as we bear one another's burdens.
Domestic violence is a vile thing, and it is a darkness that leaves its victims in the shadows of grief. However, it is a darkness into which we go forth with gospel light. Friends, please don't shy away from those in the shadows for fear of saying the wrong thing. You don't have to know it all, do it all or be it all. Oftentimes, as the grieving recover by the grace of God, it’s enough that we are simply there with them—holding the light.