Therapy and Theology

Show Notes

Welcome to a new series of Therapy & Theology: "Let's Stop Avoiding This Conversation: 6 Topics Women Have Big Questions About."
 
Join Lysa TerKeurst; her licensed professional counselor, Jim Cress; and Proverbs 31 Ministries' Director of Theological Research, Dr. Joel Muddamalle, for a conversation about therapy and theology.
 
In Episode 5, we'll tackle how the word "submission" has been abused and what it looks like to identify if a relationship has gone from dysfunctional to destructive.
 
Related Resources: 
  • Want more wisdom as you navigate hard relationship dynamics? Find practical next steps, powerful scriptures and timely guidance on how to set realistic, healthy boundaries in Lysa TerKeurst's new book, Good Boundaries and Goodbyes. In the pages of this book, Lysa's personal counselor, Jim Cress, also provides therapeutic insight surrounding the topic of boundaries, helping you confidently apply what you read. Order here.
  • Ready to take a personal next step in finding a Christian counselor? The American Association of Christian Counselors is a great place to find the right fit for you and your circumstances.
  • Has the Therapy & Theology podcast helped you personally gain a fresh, biblical perspective for what you’re facing? Tell us about it by leaving a review.
  • Click here to view the transcript for this episode.

What is Therapy and Theology?

Have you ever looked at a situation you’re facing in utter disbelief and thought, "How will I ever get over this?" Lysa TerKeurst understands. After years of heartbreak and emotional trauma, she realized it’s not about just getting over hard circumstances but learning how to work through what she has walked through. Now, she wants to help you do the same. That’s why Lysa teamed up with her personal, licensed professional counselor, Jim Cress, alongside the Director of Theological Research at Proverbs 31 Ministries, Dr. Joel Muddamalle, to bring you "Therapy & Theology." While Lysa, Jim and Joel do tackle some really hard topics, you’ll soon find they're just three friends having a great conversation and learning from each other along the way.

Lysa:
We're not going to tell you what to think; we're going to give you a lot to think about. Welcome to this episode of Therapy & Theology. Let's get started.

I want to talk about a topic that is complicated and yet is affecting women a lot. And it doesn't just affect women, obviously. I want to say it also affects young people, who are not grown up. It affects men. But for the purpose of our conversation, tucked within this series specifically focusing on women, I want to talk about emotional abuse. The reason that this is so complicated is … I'm sure there are lots of reasons it's so complicated, but when I hear women talking about emotional abuse, I either hear one extreme — that they call almost everything “emotional abuse,” anything hard, challenging, difficult, even a corrective criticism or whatever, [because] it’s swung so far over that they're calling everything “emotional abuse” — or more commonly, what I'm hearing is they call very little “emotional abuse” because they're nervous to even use that word “abuse.” It sounds so big and so definitive.

Jim:
Makes it real, too, in their mind. If I say that … Oh, my word.

Lysa:
And yet it's affecting a lot of people. So instead of trying to break apart, “Is this emotional abuse? Is this not emotional abuse?” … I want to just talk about today a spectrum from a difficult relationship all the way to a destructive relationship. I want to recognize where a difficult relationship turns into a destructive relationship, which has so many nuances we can't possibly pinpoint it and yet we can identify that there sometimes is a place where a difficult relationship slips into a destructive relationship. And we can't name that place. Just like we said on our pornography episode that we did, we are going to be descriptive today, not prescriptive. In other words, we're going to talk about this issue, but we're not trying to prescribe that you or someone you love have this issue.

So another spectrum that I want us to think about is not just “difficult to destructive” in the context of emotional abuse — that is, where does it slip from being just a hard conversation that you have over to emotional abuse? Another spectrum I want to talk about is the spectrum of severity. How severe is this? You've got a criticism maybe on this end [of the spectrum] that just hurts your feelings … all the way to verbal abuse on this end [of the spectrum]. And so there's a spectrum of severity.

There's also a spectrum of occurrence. Did it happen once? Or is it a pattern of behavior that happens all the time? So we've got three different spectrums, if you will, that I want us to kind of keep in the back of our minds as we're having this conversation, but here's where I want us to start: I'm going to read a list of some red flags. And again, this is descriptive, not prescriptive. But I just want to see as I read this list if you would consider this list and see if there's some red flags that exist in some of the relationships that you have that are difficult, possibly even destructive. And I want to start the list by saying if you feel that you have to trade the best of who you are to protect the worst of who someone else is, that's not just a red flag — that's evidence of possibly a full fire.

So let me read this list of red flags:
[You’re in a relationship with someone who] resists needed conversations or turns them against you.

For example, when you bring up a topic that needs to be addressed, their denial of the issues at hand and surrounding facts leaves you feeling like the crazy one. And if you are left feeling like the crazy one after a conversation, a needed conversation, then pay attention to that. Definite red flag.

Another one that I want you to consider: They go back to unhealthy coping mechanisms when they have a bad day or a hard conversation. They lack self-awareness or are emotionally tone deaf. They're unable to understand how people perceive them. They have an out-of-proportion reaction to a conversation or a situation at hand that you want to address or that happens.
They don't recognize the inappropriateness of their facial expressions, tone of voice or timing in bringing up certain things. They tend not to own any of their parts of a conflict, always saying, "But you …" in response, and they're pinning it back on you as if you're the real source of the issues that they're displaying. More times than not, you can ask yourself: Does this person lack empathy in situations, and do they refuse to consider how their choices will affect the other person? They're unwilling to honor or respect any communicated boundaries.

They do not take responsibility for themselves or their actions and expect you to pick up the pieces. They refuse to acknowledge how unhealed trauma from their past, possibly even their childhood, needs to be worked out so it's not acted out. They rewrite history to prove a point that serves only them or their version of the truth.

And I want you to pay attention to this: “their version of the truth.” Because we have to remember that sometimes opinions do not equal facts. So their version of the truth may not exactly line up with the absolute truth. Their version of reality is not consistent with the facts. Their version of the truth is what protects them, and they really can't discern what is and is not deception.

They let their emotions get the best of them and sabotage what would otherwise have been a beautiful moment. Instead of acknowledging or confessing wrongdoing, they sweep it under the rug and hope they're not caught.

Now, I want to acknowledge as I read that list that you may be thinking, Oh no, some of those describe me. I'm doing some of those things. And of course you're going to find yourself in this if you're a self-aware person — because none of us is perfect. But again, I want you to remember those spectrums that we talked about. What's the spectrum of occurrence? How often is it happening? And what's the spectrum of severity? And I want to say I understand.

Jim:
Yeah, sure. Me too.

Lysa:
So I can find myself in some of these things, but at least we're self-aware enough to know, Hey, that's a call to action. I need to work on that. So if we're progressing toward working on the issues that we recognize, then that's a sign of help and that's a sign of progress. But what if you are listening to this list and you're recognizing a lot of those are present in a relationship that you have? That's where I want to consider: Are you in a difficult relationship, or are you in a destructive relationship? So, Jim … certainly this is not an exhaustive list.

Jim:
No, [you’re] right.

Lysa:
There are many other descriptions that we could [add], but I just wanted to get us thinking in the right direction. I know we can't pinpoint the place where we shift from a difficult relationship — normal difficulties in a relationship — to the place where a destructive relationship is happening, where a difficult relationship crosses over into a destructive relationship. But can you help us discern what are some of those evidences that we are in a possibly destructive relationship?

Jim:
Well, thank you. Yes. Let's take those items that Lysa has just mentioned, which will also be contained and found in Good Boundaries and Goodbyes.

Lysa:
That's right.

Jim:
And so you can literally see that in print. And I would put a Likert scale on that of one to five. That is, looking at the progression on each one of those statements, [you could rate your own relationships:] That's a one … That's a two … Oh man, that's a five, another five, a four … whatever else. And tally those up in the end and I'd look — and the word I'm using here is just “progression.” Does there seem to be a progression?

Look at frequency of occurrence. Again, how often does that happen? (If you want to say, "Well, I do some of that too," that's honest.) You might look at it and say, “It feels like it's progressed.” I always look at: Well, has it progressed in the last two years? Are the kids out of the nest? And once the nest was empty, did it really progress? Whatever. And just take note with a holy contemplation of, Yeah, it's probably this number [one through five] on all of those.
Again, you know me. I'm going to say, "How about that list? Don't weaponize it, but take it in by yourself — not to your spouse or whoever — with a counselor and say, ‘I've noticed this and I'd really like to sit down and talk about it.’"
By the way, you want to find a counselor like [Joel, Lysa and my] dear mutual friend Leslie Vernick, who I have spent so much time with. Because Leslie just doesn't freak out. She doesn't jump on and bash men. And [you want] a grounded therapist — because sometimes they're not; therapists can be triggered into their own stuff. You say, "OK, let's contemplate. Let's take a look at this and have someone ..." And then once you get the data out, facing the reality, what do you want to do with it's a whole ’nother story. That's where that invitation could be. I've done a lot of this, quite frankly, with couples. Can they both come in? Sometimes the woman herself would meet criteria for verbal/emotional abuse of the husband, and I’d say, “Hey, let's talk about this." Hurt people hurt people. They're not just necessarily trying to be mean, but some outside help [will give you] some kind of confirmation if, yeah, this is what's going on.

Lysa:
And I love that you mentioned Leslie Vernick — she's a friend of both of ours, and she has some amazing books around this topic. And she really tackles the emotionally destructive relationships. You can get so much more information from her. And she has support groups. I know she has a conquer group. I'm speaking at one of her meetings or conferences that she has. So I definitely encourage that.

And then you mentioned my book Good Boundaries and Goodbyes, which really does help give ideas of how to draw healthy boundaries, which is often what you're going to need as you get the awareness that maybe [your relationship is] not even emotionally abusive, but maybe it’s dysfunctional … or perhaps it is all the way to being emotionally abusive. So how do we draw boundaries that keep us safe?

In my book Good Boundaries and Goodbyes, I'm very clear that we don't put boundaries on another person to try to control them, to try to make them stop, to try to manipulate them into new patterns of behavior, or even to beg them into better actions or better words that they use.
But instead, we put a boundary on ourselves, and we say, “It's my responsibility to keep myself safe.” And so if I recognize this [relationship] is becoming more than just difficult, becoming something that is leading me to the place where I say, "I can't take this anymore" or, "This is ridiculous — this should not be happening in this relationship" … instead of feeling paralyzed and swirling in those statements, boundaries give you some logical, practical actions to take that will help you determine that you deserve to be kept safe. And here's what you’re going to do about it so that you're not left feeling powerless in a difficult situation.

Jim:
Yeah, and let me just go to the title [Good Boundaries and Goodbyes]. OK, I want to be vulnerable. You know how we do that sometimes,
Joel, here off camera, sometimes on camera?

I've never asked you, [Lysa], or if I did, I forget. The steps are logical, practical … Notice the very title of the book. People go too quickly, which I get. They hit the gas. Well, do I need a divorce? And what do I do? And I need to say goodbye? No, no, no, no. Notice the title. So I've never asked you, but I'm assuming it was planned that way, that we start with the steps of progression of good boundaries first and don't even worry about the goodbye. Good boundaries … then [goodbye] flows in. If the boundaries are being violated time and time again, and you're clear — remember a boundary without a consequence is a mere suggestion — but this person, just no matter what (I call it Tai Chi), moves their hands away and violates every boundary ... then I can be on the cusp of the next part of the book. What about a goodbye? I mean, did you plan it that way in the title? I don't think I ever asked you that.

Lysa:
Yeah. The subtitle is also really important for my book. It is: Loving Others Well Without Losing the Best of Who You Are. So this isn't about pushing others away — this is about learning to love others well without making yourself so depleted and so beaten down by the circumstances that the worst version of you is front and center, either because you're being defensive to protect yourself or because you're trying to control to make things better or whatever. So yeah, there's definitely a progression. I want us to fight for love because love is the cornerstone of who God is and who God calls us to be. And we have to recognize we also live in a sinful world where love has been distorted and relationships have become more complicated. But where there is a presence of chaos in a relationship, there is a need for a boundary.

And then where boundaries are repeatedly violated over and over, then you have to pay attention to asking yourself the question, Is this relationship safe, and is this relationship sustainable? And if not, then that's where you have to get educated about a goodbye. But it was important to me to go straight to Scripture —

Jim:
Love that.

Lysa:
— and ask ourselves some questions. Is it biblical to draw boundaries? And what I discovered is it absolutely is biblical. And not only is it biblical — not only are boundaries a good idea, but they're God's idea.

Jim:
Yeah, I agree.

Lysa:
And right from the very beginning, God establishes boundaries. Even in Creation, God established a boundary in the first recorded conversation with man when He talked with Adam in the garden about how he could eat from all of these trees in the garden, but just not this tree. That was a boundary.

Jim:
[Feigning confusion:] Wait, I thought boundaries were a modern idea. The books that are written, that John Townsend, Henry Cloud and others wrote …
[Correcting himself:] But it's like — I know you've said this many times, and it just tickles me — this is as far back as we can go. God's boundary. This is not a new, modern idea in pop psychology, is it? No.

Lysa:
Yeah. And God didn't do it to overly control the human. There was freedom there. You remember when He said to Adam, "You are free …" (Genesis 2:16, CSB). So it's in the context of freedom. But true freedom can never happen if we don't know where the boundary lines are. If we know where the boundary lines are, then we run free within the safety of those boundary lines. And God didn't do it to restrict the man and just for a killjoy act of God. He did it to protect the man. And the reason God said "do not eat from this tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" was because God wanted to protect humans from carrying the weight that the human heart was never supposed to carry. And that is the devastating weight of the knowledge of evil.

So, Joel, what do you have to say in all of this from a theological standpoint about difficult relationships, destructive relationships and just all that we're talking about today, even emotional abuse? I would just love your thoughts.

Joel:
Yeah, I mean, I'm just taking a lot of this in, listening, and I've been taking some notes. And I think one of the interesting things is that as we talk about dysfunctional relationships, dysfunction is evidence of disorder in the relationship, and when we think about disorder, I think the list that you gave us, Lysa, was so helpful. But I've tried to list down some categories. And so if you're in this situation, you're trying to categorize, How is this all working out?

The categories are: Power. Is there a pursuit of power? Is there an influence of authority? Is there a presence of addiction? Is there disordered affection? Is there self-obsession? Are those the fuels that are underneath the individual who’s trying to actually control you? That's actually trying to step in ...

And the interesting thing is, theologically, there's this idea of God's sovereignty. My old professor Dr. John Frame talks about God’s sovereignty in these three ways: God's power, God's authority and God's control. And so the presence of emotional abuse, and I would even say spiritual abuse, is actually a hijacking of what is rightfully held in the hands of God, which is safe and secure and can be handed out with justice and mercy and compassion. It's taking that out of God's hands and putting into our own hands and trying to exercise our own power, our own authority, our own control, because we've become self-absorbed in the process.
And so if you're listening and you're experiencing this and you're wondering, like, Gosh, is this just dysfunctional? — start to look for those patterns. Not just in that one area, but then say, OK, is the presence of this also in other areas?

Jim:
That's good.

Joel:
[Is it present] in finances? Is it present in relationships, in our circle of friends? Is there this self-serving? Like I talked about the other day with a friend, if the theme in our minds is What's in it for me? that's a problem because What's in it for me? plays out in our marriages and our relationships, in our vocations, in all these different areas. And if that's the leading impulse of the human heart — What's in it for me? — it's going to result in dysfunction and patterns of relationship that are unsustainable.

Lysa:
That's so good.

Jim:
It is.

Lysa:
So, Jim, is there a way for us to define “emotional abuse”? Are there any markers of it or some kind of definition where we can make sure we're all on the same page of what is this?

Jim:
Yeah, thank you. I would pay attention to go to oneself. This is a little tricky here, but … To anyone watching or listening to this podcast right now, when someone simply does or says something to you [or] doesn't do something they should do or they've committed to do, and they don't follow through, so they're not keeping their word … pay attention literally in what [you feel in your own body.] Your body's the temple of the Holy Spirit. Your body. And if you thought, Yeah, this doesn't feel right or I don't like this, and I feel kind of some anxiety — always pay attention to your body and say, “Something doesn't feel right.” If you've said it many times, including today, again — “I don't feel safe” or “something feels distorted” or “I feel kind of messed with right now” — I mean, what's really going on here? That's a sign, like a check-engine light on the dashboard of your life.

And then, again, I'm just real big on having a safe friend — not an unsafe friend — or a therapist, pastor, whoever, to go and say, "This has been going on. My spouse is doing this or not doing that, saying this or not saying that, and I have a check in my spirit. I wonder about this, and I'm coming in curious, not furious, and saying, ‘I wonder what's going on for me?’"
And what we want there is someone who — good therapists do it — mirrors back [what you’re saying and feeling.] "Whoa, what I'm hearing you say is …" Or my little phrase is: “I hear you, I understand you, and I believe you.” So the [safe person] mirrors back and says, "Here's what I'm hearing …" and we continue to have dialogue around it.

[If I’m the person who’s questioning their relationship,] I want to get those stories out of my head. I don't want be in judgment, but I want to get them out of my head and put them on the whiteboard of somebody else sitting across from me over a cup of coffee and say, "What do you hear me saying or struggling with?" That doesn't mean the other person's right, but I want to get it external versus all these internal conversations.

Lysa:
And if going to a therapist feels a little bit like, "Oh no, am I tattletale-ing on the person? I don't want to betray my mom, but I've got some issues with my mom that I need to check out with a therapist …" Or, "I don't want to betray my husband by going to a therapist because that almost feels like I'm going to go and tell things about him that he wouldn't want me to tell …" If there's any of that —

Jim:
You notice how, right there, the person's trapped? We're all talking about emotionally abusive or destructive or difficult [relationships] — watching the Likert scale, like I said earlier, and from one to five ranking these things
Lysa has in her book and she's talked about — and so you just said it: “I wonder what he will think.” But all I'm going to do is biblically let someone bear my burdens, share this and say, "What do you think?" The multitude of counselors … It doesn't have to be a professional, but in the multitude of counselors, there's wisdom and safety. I'm saying, "Hey, I want to check this out about me, keeping me safe. It’s not about him." An emotionally destructive or abusive person — not a spouse in some cases — doesn't want you to. It's like a cult. Keep it inside the city. I mean, don't go tell. So that piece —

Lysa:
That in and of itself is a red flag.

Jim:
— is a red flag. What would he think? is like I'm not going to tell. [But in reality] the goal is to express and discern in wisdom, not to go and betray him. And to most women I've worked with, I say, "Come on. What's your thought or your goal? Is it to betray him?"
"Well, no, not at all. I want to process me,” [she says.] There's your answer.

Lysa:
And to get educated.

Jim:
Well, of course.

Lysa:
It's no secret,
Jim: You are my counselor, and you've done such a fabulous job —

Jim:
Oh, thank you.

Lysa:
— of absolutely doing exactly what you said, helping me feel understood, helping me feel seen, giving me a place to process my questions of “what is this?” And one of the things that's been so helpful is the education you've given me so that I can — instead of letting things kind of float around that don't feel right — ask, “Why does this make me feel a certain way?” Or the No. 1 question I asked you for so long was, "Jim, do you think I'm crazy? I see this, but then it's being called this …" And it's just so hard when you don't have the education or the language around it. But what you said was, "No, Lysa, actually this is this.”
And so let me give you a couple of those —

Jim:
By the way, 100% of the time when you asked me that, as you said early on … It was on a podcast, too, that one of the most helpful things I said — to God be the glory, not me — was, "Lysa, I believe you." Everything you were saying, I was sitting there going, "Yep, that makes sense. I believe." I didn't even wrestle, not one time, in my history with you. You were like, "Does this make sense? Do you believe?" I'm like, “Totally.” And more than you even know. I never once thought, Eh … I went, Yeah. So I wasn't just like, Kind of, well, that kind of makes sense. I'm like, That totally makes sense. That was my response with you. Inside, I'm going, Yeah.

Lysa:
OK, so let me give [our listeners] a couple of those terms [you gave me,
Jim] that really helped me a lot. One is “gaslighting.” And we don't want to park here too long, but I do want to give some insight. What is gaslighting?

Jim:
So if you go back … I have it on my iPhone, the Alfred Hitchcock movie — there are actually two movies — called Gaslight. And the idea is let's make [lighting] more modern with a dimmer switch. Every night I turn on the lights outside and lock the doors. Right? So the woman [in the movie] would set the gaslights, the gas lamps, and say, "I've turned them on." The guy would come along and he would monkey (or whatever you want to call it) with the lights. She knew her reality was I turned those gas lamps, those gaslights, on. But he came back and messed with the lights and said, "You didn't turn that on. You had the dimmer switch set here, but they were on low." She goes, “I know I didn't.” So he knew the truth. Gaslighting has the intent to deceive; the gaslighter knows the truth, and in many cases he is going to do what he can to make you feel crazy up in there. He knows the truth.

We’ve talked before [on this podcast] about porn or other things where the woman will say, "I found the evidence; it's right here. I know this happened." John ... I'm just going to say it. John Edwards was a Senator in the state we sit in, in North Carolina. You can see it on YouTube where ABC News went in and did an expose: He was accused of having an affair and there might be a baby. They had [footage] through the hotel room [window], through the slat in the blinds. This is on ABC. And they said, "We're going to bring up a video we shot, and it's you holding that baby with the woman accused."

Here is a U.S. Senator — not being pejorative against him; I've never met him — but I'll never forget how they said, "And sir, Senator, what is your response?" He says, "It looks like me. It could be me. But it's not me." Now he knew very well the truth. That's an example, really, of gaslighting, but [he did] that in front of America. So it has to have the intent to make you feel crazy when you do know the truth, and you know exactly what you've done. He knew he monkeyed with those lights, the guy in Gaslight. But he's trying to make you feel crazy, and sadly it often works.

Lysa:
And so really it's trying to alter reality.

Jim:
Not real reality. Because he knows the reality. But he's trying to alter your reality and make you think, Maybe, I don't know, I'm crazy.

Lysa:
Yeah, and if mental health is a commitment to reality at all costs, that's why gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse.

Jim:
With zero question. We can just sign and seal that one right now. It definitely is emotionally abusive. That could be another thing on your list or the scale, which we've talked about before. "He has gaslighted me. I have proof," some women will say, "that this was reality. He denied it. And then later, yeah, sorry, he proved he did it." Right? Yeah.

Lysa:
So another one is the verbal onslaught of maybe someone's angry and they just come out exploding with words that are just incredibly hurtful or they have this passive-aggressive nature where —

Jim:
That's the one that scares me.

Lysa:
OK, so comment on that because that's also a form of emotional abuse.

Jim:
Here's what I say, y'all. I've gotten … As I've turned 60 and I'm older now, an older therapist, I make up stuff, and this is what I made up: “You know what, bro? I'm not worried about your motive because I don't know if you are trying to do all this, but your modus operandi, your method of operating, is, ‘Well, I got angry.’" The Bible says — it's a command, an imperative — “Be angry and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26, ESV). I'm not going to fight him on it ... I get it. Maybe what you don't work out, you'll act out. We know the anger of man doesn't bring about the righteousness of God. So instead of wrestling with him around whether it’s his motive to be angry, I say, "Will you read the room and know your audience? Your wife feels scared and unsafe when you do this, and now I no longer care about your motive."

So with that, if a woman … Again, in many cases [I ask her], "Do you feel safe? Do you feel threatened?"

"No, I don't feel safe. I do feel threatened when he just raises his voice," [she says.]
And I'm going to say one more other little caveat. I work with people with some great compassion on my part, meaning this: I love it when I see people raise their voice, yell, maybe cuss, in a session or something else, and they're “getting big,” as I call it. And I look and I go, "I don't think you're aware of how big you are." That's why I love having a therapist in the room to go, "May I give you feedback? Let me tell you how I — and I'm a dude — am experiencing you." And sometimes the woman has gotten really loud and big, and I'll say, "Would you let me tell you how I experience you?" And that's data [from a third party] versus two people by themselves.

But he may not think — some people would, but he may not think — he's getting all big and angry. He may not see it. Plus, anger tends to blind the mind so much that he’ll be more in that limbic brain that he cognitively doesn't even think he’s raging right now, and he is.

Lysa:
And what about the passive-aggressive stuff?

Jim:
Well, I think passive-aggression is — as matter of fact,
Joel, I'm going to say I'm confident it is, purely by design — something you want to watch out for. It's the carbon monoxide in a relationship. It's colorless, odorless, tasteless gas. The Bible says that the man whose words are smooth as oil — ooh, listen to that — but in those words are daggers. (Psalm 55:21) And so that is — I think, and I believe — more intentional. I'm aware I'm doing it. My job is to spray WD-40 [oil] in front of you on a tile floor and watch you slip. I'm going to dysregulate you. I think he or she is largely, if not fully, aware that they’re going to do this to get you dysregulated.

Lysa:
And again, it’s a possible sign of emotional abuse.

Jim:
Absolutely. Check your body. Go, Why do I feel like something's going on here? I don't even know what's going on. You know what I call that? I call that “relational vertigo.” You think of what vertigo does, but there's a relational vertigo. Things are spinning. I don't know. Pay attention to the spinning and then go talk to someone.

Joel:
Anybody know where the first example of emotional abuse takes place in the Bible?

Lysa:
No, but I have a feeling you do.

Jim:
I would roll the dice on Genesis 3, when Satan says, “God said this, not [that].” He mind molested. It was like, what?

Joel:
Yeah.

Jim:
Did I get it right?

Joel:
I mean, isn't that so interesting?

Jim:
I want to get it right with the doctor here. Seriously.

Joel:
No, isn't that right, though? And I think what's interesting is that, this whole time, I've been thinking [of the phrase] “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What a flat-out lie. What a flat-out lie. And so the first instance of emotional abuse, what I would categorize as an emotional manipulation, is actually in Eden in the place that Adam and Eve should have felt the safest.

Jim:
Wow.

Joel:
There's a lot that's happening in the Old Testament about who Satan is, what is happening, the type of spiritual being, but —

Jim:
And he was passive-aggressive, wasn't he?

Joel:
He was gaslighting and he was passive-aggressive.

Jim:
Totally.

Joel:
Absolutely. And that is the methodology that was used to disorient and to distract Adam.

Jim:
And it worked.

Joel:
And it worked. Here's the thing that I've always wondered: Why didn't Eve just leave? Why didn't Adam just step in?

Jim:
Why didn't Adam man up, and he was told to do in the garden? Sorry, I'll calm down here.

Joel:
So here's what's interesting. I think it's because the battle was presented in a field that they weren't expecting.

Jim:
Oh wow. Boy, that'll preach.

Joel:
They expected the battle to be out there because God had told them, by the way —

Jim:
Powerful.

Joel:
— to be a king, prophet, priest type of imagery and go out and multiply. The place that they least expected [Satan to attack] was in the safety and security of their own home. And so I think this is something important for us as we think about emotional abuse, as we think about the danger and why we are so disoriented when this happens. It’s often happening in the places that we least expected, in the safety and security of the relationships that are supposed to be the most intimate and self-protective, not self-destructive.

Jim:
That's your next book, buddy. I'm just stunned. I'm going, wow. To put it that eloquently, theologically … I'm going to steal that from you. I'm not. But I’ll borrow it.

Joel:
It's yours.

Lysa:
And as a woman, I relate to that so much. It reminds me, Joel, of what a woman's heart longs for. And I'm not going to speak for all women, but I'll say what my heart longs for is I want to be known, I want to be seen and thought beautiful, and I want to feel safe. I want to have that Genesis 2 — is it Genesis 2:24, Genesis 2:25? — to be able to stand there completely vulnerable and yet completely safe. That's what I want. And so I think in my mind, marriage automatically means that, but sometimes it doesn't. [To Joel:] And I remember you and I having a conversation around the verse in Malachi that a lot of people toss out about how God hates divorce.

Joel:
Malachi 2, is it?

Lysa:
Yes. It's Chapter 2.

Joel:
It is.

Lysa:
Yeah. So let's find that verse.

Jim:
That's been weaponized and many other things, hasn't it?

Lysa:
Yeah, but what you're saying is making so much sense to me because —

Joel:
Yeah, Malachi 2:16.

Lysa:
Yeah. It feels very much like … When you say Adam and Eve experienced a battle in a place that they didn't expect to be attacked, I think that sometimes happens to women or even to men in the context of a relationship that's supposed to be so very safe. We want to believe the best, and so we keep trying to say, “It's safe, it's safe, it's safe, it's safe.” All the while, we're having an experience that is speaking to the opposite of that. And it can get so complicated. But the reason I bring up this verse from Malachi is — and, Joel, you'll do a better job at this than me — not all versions of the Bible say “God hates divorce.” Right?

Joel:
That’s not how it's [always] translated.

Lysa:
Exactly. And what is translated in some versions of the Bible, and possibly all the way back to the [Septuagint,] right? Am I saying this correctly?

Joel:
Yeah.

Lysa:
Is when a man hates and divorces his wife, he does violence against the one he should protect.

Joel:
Yeah. The one who he's supposed to be in covenant love with.

Lysa:
Yeah. And then there's a little footnote [that says] “God hates divorce,” but the context of God hating the divorce, if that's even part of the translation, is that when a man hates and divorces the very woman he was supposed to love and protect, when a man hates and divorces his wife, he does violence against the one he should protect. And I feel like that is so speaking to everything that we're talking about right now.

Joel:
Yeah, and I mean, there's a lot in translation history and Hebrew kind of construction that's taking place here. We don't find the language “God hates divorce” until the King James Version comes out, and it's absolutely connected to a social phenomenon of fear that's taking place. And so I won't go too deep into that, but I will say if you audit any Hebrew scholar and you say, "Look at this verse," they'll say first of all, it's one of the most difficult verses to translate, but secondarily, they’ll say absolutely it is implausible, or it is not possible, to come to a conclusion that God hates divorce based off of the construction ... There are two possible options. The CSB Bible has it this way: If he is talking about the man, if he hates and divorces his wife (so the object of that hatred is his wife), it says, “‘If he hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lᴏʀᴅ God of Israel …” and then talks about “injustice” (Malachi 2:16). And the other option, which I kind of hold to, is actually this ideology that God is on the outside looking at the one who hates his wife and has covenant, and it's actually that God hates that person, that God's anger, his righteous anger, is against the covenant breaker, not against the institution but against the one who breaks the institution.

Lysa:
That's really powerful. So, Joel, I know that we were talking earlier, off camera, about Ephesians Chapter 5, and I really liked what you had to say. And I also want to say, I want to recognize, that emotional abuse is not the only kind of abuse that happens in a relationship. There can be sexual abuse. There can be physical abuse.

Joel:
Physical abuse.

Lysa:
But for the purpose of our conversation today, the emotional abuse is what we've chosen to focus on. And a lot of the reason that I want to focus on this is because there's this hesitation to call it what it is. And so I want to help people have some handles that if you're experiencing emotional abuse, it is OK to call it what it is. So, Joel, what do you want to make sure, from a theological standpoint, that we get into our conversation?

Joel:
I would say one of the big ones, one of the big questions that I get personally either through Instagram or through tickets here at Proverbs 31 Ministries, when this conversation comes up is: "Well, Joel, what about Ephesians 5:22?" And it says this: "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord …" (CSB). And verse 23 says, “because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body” (CSB). So the question is: Well, if I'm in this abusive relationship — mental, emotional abuse, whatever it might be — then am I actually disobeying God [if I leave]? Because I'm supposed to submit to my husband.

So this is a basic hermeneutical, how-we-study-the-Bible principle that I want us to point out: We can never read one verse by itself. We have to look at its context. Interestingly, in Ephesians 5:20, it says this: “giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ …” (CSB). Then verse 21, “submitting to one another” is talking about the Christian community, the faithful, the love of Jesus, “submitting to one another in the fear of Christ” (CSB). So before we can even get to a household hierarchy or a household ordering, we have to deal with the fact that the first way that we're ordered in our relationships is ultimately first and foremost to Christ. Because we fear Christ, it sets everything else in order. And then interestingly, in verse 22, the Greek word for “submit” isn't even there, but it's being supplied by verse 21. So it should be there. "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord …"

What this is talking about, Lysa and Jim, is in the Greco-Roman world, like in any society, there's structure and order. There are bosses and there are employees, employers and employees. There are people that have authority that we submit to. If a police officer pulls us over, it's wise for us to pull over when the lights go on. That's a form of submission. It's recognizing a type of authority. So what Paul is saying is, “By the way, in the social structure of the world, there is a type of right order.” And then this is what he does. He says, "But we have to order ourselves based off of how Christ has given us a vision of this order." So he says, "Wives submit rightly; order yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church. He's the Savior of the body." Now catch this in verse 24: As the Church submits to Christ, so also wives submit to their husbands and everything … And then in verse 25, which, interestingly, is always missed, right?

Jim:
Yeah. Conveniently.

Joel:
Notice this: It says, "Husbands, love your wives" (Ephesians 5:25, CSB). Now, if I'm Paul, I'm thinking, Wait a minute, this is unfair. Why in the world do wives have to submit to their husbands, but then husbands, all they got to do is love your wives just as Christ loved the Church?

Notice the descriptor: “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25, CSB). One thing is really important that Paul says: “submit” and not “obey.” “Submit” and not “obey.” “Obey” would've been a word that was used to command children in households, that required a blind type of obedience. That is not present. It's a type of right ordering. And then secondarily, why does Paul use “love” and not “submit” for men? Because he actually takes a situation in a cultural context where men would never do this. They were the authority, they were the power, and they had the control. They would never show this type of Christlike love.
And Paul says, "Actually, your call, men, is even greater and grander. It's more important than even the submission, this Christlike type of love." And if you want to know what this love looks like, it's the same love that obediently, faithfully and joyfully took Jesus the Messiah to walk a road to a cross, endure 39 lashes, and submit Himself in obedience even unto death.
That is the type of love that a man should have for his wife, that should be ordered and structured. And I just have this impulse and this belief that I think this whole “submission” thing all of a sudden becomes so easy and so mutually beneficial if it's rightly ordered the way that Paul gives it to us. When Paul says “one another,” he uses a reciprocal pronoun, and reciprocity is required. It means that the same way that I showed love and affection to the other person, the expectation is that person will show love and affection back to me.

Here's the problem with reciprocal pronouns. They break instantly when the reciprocity isn't shown back.

Jim:
Wow.

Joel:
It is faithful, mutual, self-loving, self-giving affection that was modeled by Christ, and that's expected of us in our relationships. And so if you're wondering right now, Whoa, whoa,
Joel, I think I'm supposed to submit, notice this in Acts 5:29: Peter says to all these people, “We must obey God rather than people” (CSB). That affirms what I just talked about earlier in Ephesians 5:20 and verse 21. And so the minute — the instant — that the person that you love acts in abusive, manipulative, self-harming, image-of-God-breaking ways toward you, your higher, superior allegiance is a submission to Christ out of fear, and it's a type of love that you express to that person that you now go into your boundaries and establish peace, as Romans 12:18 says, as far as it is possible for you.

Lysa:
And I'll say the minute a lot of women hear that word “submission,” they bristle and they kind of push back and just say, "OK, come on. I mean, haven't we progressed in our modern day past that?" And I get why there's some pushback with that because I do think submission has been so greatly misunderstood, and it's hard to talk about submission in the same conversation that we are talking about emotional abuse. But I think ultimately what I hear you saying is that we honor what is honorable, and when there are dishonorable actions taking place, to be obedient to God we must pursue a peace that maybe that relationship has not been fostering and maybe will not foster. And, Joel, I know you have a really good verse about how we are called by God to pursue peace.

Joel:
Yeah. It's Romans 12:18, and I think it's really important, and Paul's talking to a church in Rome that is really having all kinds of issues. And this is what he says: "If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (CSB). Now, the construction of this is really important. “If possible,” Paul says, so he assumes and he presumes that it might not be possible, right? So that's the first clause.

Second, and this feels unfair, but he says this: "as far as it depends on you." And everybody's like, Why has it always got to be me? I'm tired of this. But this is actually a safety net that Paul's giving you. It's actually a relief. It means you're only responsible for what you can be responsible for. And anything outside of your scope of responsibility is no longer your effort or your responsibility. So it's actually a sense of peace that you can have for it.

And it says this: What's the aim? "… live at peace with everyone." Peace is both the presence of calm and also the absence of chaos. And so sometimes peace means that you can set boundaries in place and you can be physically present and you can navigate through that. But sometimes, I think what Paul's getting at here is that, if possible, so far as it depends on you, sometimes the only way to experience this type of peace, this type of shalom, is actually the removal of your presence [from that relationship] for a time or for a season so that healthy relationships can abound.

Lysa:
Thank you for that. OK. So I do clearly want to say that we are not having an egalitarian versus complementarian discussion today, right?

Joel:
Yeah. Maybe someday, but not today.

Lysa:
Maybe someday, but not today. We just want to be faithful with the text that's in front of us, and in the context of emotional abuse, we want to help people who are experiencing this.

Joel:
And I would say, Lysa, I know many, many scholars and dear friends who are on both sides, egalitarian and complementarian, and they would all go to this place and say, "Yes, God requires and He needs the people of God to live in mutually self-giving, self-loving and healthy relationships. And he would never, ever require of us to stay in relationships that are abusive, that are harmful or that discredit our [God-given dignity].”

Lysa:
Thank you for that. OK, last thoughts,
Jim, on all that we've talked about today? And we have talked about a lot.

Jim:
I'm just excited. This is my last thought. I get this with Joel a lot … just how practical the Word of God is. And when I hear, for me, a landing place of, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” … (Romans 12:18, CSB). We know the Word of God. He's called us to peace. That I am thankful for, right? I'm thankful that my wife, when I was verbally and emotionally abusive for too many years and quoted scriptures at her — because I've got a lot, frankly, a lot, of Bible verses memorized — and I weaponized those, she loved me enough to begin to have her appropriate, Jesus-filled voice and say, "I don't feel safe. I'm not doing that anymore." And because of that, it helped me realize I might lose her and the family breakup and whatever else. I hated her at first for it. That's honest. We've talked about that. She and I have. And then I realized she loved me so much to say, "I want to call forth the best Jim that I can help call forth. It's up to Jim to walk out."

She had a vision for me. And so, yeah, she had a time where she, in essence, separated from me, just in her mind and her soul, to go, "I'm not going along with this anymore." And we live today in a redeemed story because she did not co-sign my toxic behavior, and that's my takeaway. And my ending is: I'm thankful for a wife who was the true [gospel] to me.

Lysa:
Here's where I want to land today. [To the listener:] You need to decide for yourself, This is what I am willing to accept, and this is what I'm unwilling to accept. And I need to factor biblical Truth into that, and I need to factor therapeutic truth into that, but this is what I'm willing to accept and this is what I'm not willing to accept. And maybe in some cases, This is what I'm no longer willing to accept. This is what I will do, and this is what I will not do. This is what I will tolerate, and this is what I will not tolerate. Or in some people's cases, I will no longer tolerate this.

Jim:
That sounds like the Bible, doesn't it? Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. (Matthew 5:37) As you say that, I go, There it is again in the Bible.

Lysa:

Joel, any closing thoughts? And we'll end with you today.

Joel:
I would just say my closing thought is that God loves you, He desires the best for you, and He made you in His likeness and in His image. And in saying that, it is vitally, vitally important that we do everything in our power to honor that image. And some of these things might be difficult, but in the end it is so worth it because, no matter what man says, if we honor God at the end of the day, and He is loved and He is cherished and He is honored and worshiped by us in these very practical ways, I think it's a winsome witness to a world that is wondering, Is this even possible?

Jim:
Wow.

Joel:
And it is. And we get to be the light that shows that.