As a kid, my mother always encouraged me to try to "step into someone else's shoes." In other words, she wanted me to try to see things from someone else's perspective, even if—or rather, especially when—I didn't agree with them.
Since I've become a Christian, that impulse to try and understand where other people are coming from has been reinforced by my belief in the image of God, the sensus divinitatus, and the radical depravity of humanity. The Bible teaches that we are all created in the image of God, yet we are all radically and pervasively sinful. Consequently, every one of us has the capacity to commit the most heinous acts of evil. Yet God's restraining power, our innate "sense of the divine," our conscience, and various external constraints help to keep our sinfulness in check, so that none of us is as completely wicked as we have the capacity to become.
The resulting combination of Biblical theology and motherly wisdom has led me to look at the victories and failures of other people and to do my best to understand and learn from them. I do this because of Paul's injunction in 1 Corinthians 10:12: "If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!"
In the recent discussion of abuse, I've naturally had in mind the people in my family who have suffered and endured abuse of various kinds. By God's grace, I have never personally had to suffer the kind of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse which some readers of this blog have endured. Yet each of those forms of abuse has been suffered by various members of my family, and so I am well acquainted with the devastating and ongoing effects of such abuse.
One of those family members endured continual emotional abuse and occasional physical abuse from her husband for more than fifty years. Trying to understand the internal workings of that fractured relationship has taught me much about the ambiguities of abusive relationships.
First, I've tried to put myself into this woman's shoes. In spite of being encouraged to divorce her husband by pastors, friends, fellow church-goers, and even her own children, she chose to stick it out until death finally took him earlier this year. Some of her motivations for doing so were unmistakably Christ-like and incredibly noble. Yet as far as I can see, she also chose to stay because of her own insecurities (most of which are the direct result of being told how worthless she was for so long). Then there are the motivations which could even be described as selfish or sinful. There's an element in which her identity became tied up in the martyrdom of her marriage. She may have been afraid that if she left him, she would shatter her sense of identity, lose the sympathy and admiration of others, and render meaningless the years of abuse she had already endured.
Similarly, her coping mechanisms were a mixed bag of godly and fleshly reactions. On the one hand, this woman showed Christ-like devotion to her husband, even when his declining health would have given her the perfect opportunity to neglect or to punish him for a lifetime of mistreatment. On the other hand, she developed a pattern of passive aggression which helped contribute to the ongoing strife. She also had a habit of telling people outside their marriage about his latest stream of invective and insult. Given what she endured, who can blame her for such things? Yet if everything that does not come from faith is truly sin (Romans 14:23), it is not unreasonable to conclude that these fleshly coping mechanisms, while understandable, are nevertheless sinful.
Lest I be misunderstood at this point, let me reiterate that my relationship with this family member is an extremely close one. Words cannot express my admiration and affection for her. Yet as I have tried to understand her reasons for staying and her methods of coping, I have come to the conclusion that some of them were godly and some of them were sinful. Some of them were noble and others were pathetic. We can learn much from her victoriousness in suffering, but we can also learn much about what not to do.
As for her husband, I also try to put myself in his shoes. I try to understand how a man could be so ugly to his wife and yet remain faithful to her for fifty years. This man was intelligent, personable, at times charming, at times selfless and sacrificial, a good father to his children, and a doting grandfather to his grandchildren. He could be tender to his wife moments after he told her she was stupid, and he appeared to be completely oblivious to the contradiction in it all. I have seen abusive relationships where the man would be intentionally sweet and tender in order to keep his wife confused, hopeful, and loyal. I can honestly say that this man seemed to show no such cunning. He simply seemed blind to the fact that there was anything wrong with the way he treated his wife!
How does one begin to understand such a man? One can gain insight from his childhood and upbringing. One can see how his failures in business and his feeling that he was never given the respect he deserved fed his need to tear down his wife. One can look at his wife's various sins and shortcomings and see how they could certainly be a source of frustration to him. Yet ultimately, none of these things can be used to justify his cruelty. Whatever the contributing factors, this man repeatedly chose to surrender to his sinful nature and to abuse the woman he had vowed to love and cherish.
When I try to stand in this man's shoes, I can only go so far. As much as I may be able to sympathize with his various frustrations in life, his abusive actions are an absolute mystery to me. I come away from the exercise of standing in this man's shoes with the following conclusion: our capacity for sin is profound, and "there but for the grace of God go I."
Sadly, this is just one of the abusive relationships in my family, and so I have other sets of shoes I've had to try on. In every case, considering these relationships fills me with rage toward the abuser, hurt for the abused, and a poignant sense of how tangled and destructive these relationships really are. There is no easy way to "fix" or undo the hurt which has been done. It seems the best I can do is to learn what I can so as to avoid inflicting such hurt and confusion on those I love.
I've written all this not because I enjoy talking about it, but because I think the way comps and egals discuss the subject of abuse is generally unhelpful. We make such sweeping, dogmatic assertions about it that we continually misrepresent the awful, confusing reality of it. When someone speaks of abuse as a sinful response, we assume they mean that the abused is therefore to blame for their abuse. To correct that, someone else will speak as if the victim in an abusive relationship is practically without sin, which of course is an oversimplification as well. Then of course there are those helpful barbs which go something like, "if you teach this then you are complicit in the abuse." The end result is that we talk past each other about an incredibly difficult and painful subject, engendering animosity and suspicion on both sides.
Frankly, we can do better, and we can start by trying to stand in each other's shoes. If we stand in the shoes of the people with whom we disagree, we find it harder to assume that they are intentionally twisting Scripture and teaching falsehood. If we try to understand their motivations for teaching as they do, we may just conclude that they are merely misguided and confused rather than deliberately malicious and cruel. And if we reach that point, we may just be able to reason together from Scripture without becoming abusive ourselves.