Today we will address counseling wives who are fearful in abusive situations. However, parts of this lecture can certainly be applied to a wife in any kind of fearful situation because the principles are the same. One of the primary responses to any kind of abuse is fear. And I would hasten to add that not all fear is wrong. In this talk, I’m going to highlight three ways to address fear in counseling someone dealing with abuse by walking us through a case study.
Jane and Joe both profess to be believers. Jane comes in for counseling to be a better wife. She appeared timid and fearful. In data-gathering, Jane describes a marriage that involves verbal and physical abuse. Jane was completely confused and afraid. She felt crazy. It seemed like she couldn’t do anything right. She walked on eggshells around her husband.
He would berate her for being boring and then become angry when they would go out that she was talking too much and embarrassing him. He told her she was stupid and weak, that her friends and family were worthless, and that he didn’t want them around. If she attempted to solve any conflict between them, he would deride her as unrepentant and unsubmissive, a terrible wife, and a terrible mother. Anything that went wrong in life became her fault. Whether it was the kids getting sick, the car breaking down, her husband being late for work.
She would resolve to try harder, to be more careful, to be quieter, to not talk on the phone, to not talk to all these other people, but her attempts to improve did not solve anything. Within the last year, Joe’s anger had erupted in physically pushing her, slapping her in the face, and even an episode of choking.
She could predict the pattern. There would be some kind of blow up that was her fault. And then there would be false apologies, trying to make up for it for about a week. He’d give her flowers and candy—things like that. Then for about two weeks, there was an escalation of the verbal abuse. After that there was another physical incident. So Jane anticipated that about every three weeks, she would have to be very careful because something was going to set him off in a rage. She never wanted to call the police or flee, because she was convinced it was her fault, and if she just tried a little harder to be a better wife, she could fix it. Then he would love her and quit being so angry and violent. After all, he claimed to be a Christian.
This case highlights the typical aspects of a situation for a fearful wife in an abusive marriage.
After extensive data-gathering, I discovered from Jane that many typical sinful abuse and oppression dynamics were present in her marriage. At that point, I initiated contact with the church leadership who called her husband to counsel him separately.
In those sessions, Jane’s perspective was corroborated. The elders discerned the dynamics were going on as well as they counseled him. Jane was so confused by Joe’s sin and really felt like she was crazy, which eroded any confidence that she might have had in her own ability to understand what was going on in her marriage. The manipulation kept her fearful and afraid—kind of off-balance. So one of the first things I addressed with Jane was to say: You’re not crazy.
Address Fear by Explaining Sinful Abuse Dynamics of the Perpetrator
One way you can help a fearful and abused person is to explain the elements of sinful abuse that you see in her story, so she can gain confidence in how to respond to them righteously. The point is not to bash the husband. The point is to explain it so that she can understand it and respond righteously. There are typical patterns of sin in an abusive situation. Discern from her story if these things are happening, point out any obvious patterns in both spouses’ behavior. Use Scripture to show what the Lord wants a marriage to be like—in Jane’s case all of these sinful dynamics that I’m going to list were present in her marriage and she responded with fear, which drove her to sinful escape methods.
There was an idolatry of control—Joe sought to control every detail of her life: where she went, for how long, who she talks to, what she wears, if and how much she worked. Where God desires an attitude of servant leadership, not oppression. There was pervasive selfishness, anger, and violence. Joe showed extreme jealousy whenever she talked to someone else in person or on the phone, as if she should never pay attention to anyone else but him.
Joe was blind to his own sin. He would deny or minimize any abuse, saying, “It’s not that big a deal.” His mantra was “I am never wrong.” He really lived with that belief. When anything happened, of course, it was not his fault. It was somebody else’s fault because, “I am never wrong.” When he was cornered by Scripture showing his obvious sin, rather than confess and repent he would twist the event to claim victimhood. “You don’t know how bad I have it. She is crazy.”
Or he would wallow in false repentance to gain sympathy, saying things like, “I just can’t do anything right for her.” He made every problem her fault, and therefore her responsibility to fix. Joe played the victim. He felt sorry for himself, and in his mind his anger was justified as a reaction to being hurt by his terrible wife. He was full of self-pity.
Joe was deceitful. He was a gifted manipulator. Manipulation is basically deceit that is used to control. He was very good at lying and hiding. Abusers can be persuasive and winsome. He looked good to everybody outside the family—in fact, he was in politics. Joe put on a good front, which made it hard for any any of her friends to believe that she was actually telling the truth about what was going on in her marriage. Joe’s confession and repentance was not godly sorrow, but worldly sorrow. He would apologize, but was not truly broken over his sin. He would just hope for a quick fix and he would swear to never hurt her again—but every three weeks there it was.
Joe used intimidation and threat. Violence is a tool of control. Remember the idolatry is control, and abusers may use violence to get it. Threats may involve taking or hurting children or pets, such as, “If you tell, you’ll never see the kids again.” In a different situation that I was counseling a woman in, the dad would take one of the kids into a room with a gun and lock the door until his wife did what he wanted her to do.
Joe lived in James 3:9, “but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
He was full of clamor and slander toward his wife. He showed demonic wisdom. James 3:14-16 says, “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”
Therefore, considering all these dynamics it is always best to counsel a husband and wife separately. You can see why, right? Anything you counsel the wife can be used a tool that he uses to get her. It’s going to be used for further abuse. Also, he will distort the truth. He will give a completely different rendition of what happened and most likely the poor wife will talk about what’s really happening in her marriage in front of her husband who’s just going to use it against her. She’s not going to be able to be honest with you.
Address fear first of all by asking good questions to discern whether any of those sinful things are going on in her marriage that are feeding her heart of fear, and explain them for the purpose of helping her learn how to respond righteously. She is not crazy.
Address Fear by Teaching Godly Ways to Seek Protection
Escaping real danger is wise for a wife like Jane, who wanted to be a good wife and wanted to please God and her husband. She needs to understand it is not unsubmissive to flee danger. It is actually submitting to God’s provision for protection of the weak and oppressed. It is godly to make wise choices and avoid obvious danger when possible. We have Proverbs 22:3, “The prudent sees evil and hides himself.” That means you need to discern evil actions by others and avoid purposefully being involved in that situation.
You can make this point by actually using examples in the story of Jesus. I’ll just give you a sampling of Scriptures that talk about this.
Matthew 2:13 says, “Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.'”
Matthew 2:21-23 is when Joseph returned to Israel from Egypt. “And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth.”
In Matthew 10, Jesus is instructing His disciples on their first mission and He says, ““Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues … When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.”
John 7:1 says, “After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him.”
John 10:39 says, “Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands. He went away again across the Jordan.”
From those Scriptures and many more, you can help her understand that it is clear that physical escape can be a godly way to seek protection. It is not unsubmissive. To escape danger when you are able is actually wise. One godly way a wife can seek protection is to flee.
Secondly, she can involve the church authority. Matthew 18 outlines how to confront a sinning brother which we ended up doing right away when I discovered there was an abusive situation going on. We pulled in the church leadership. She should use the church authorities that God has established. When this happens, the man is going to be confronted, and when there’s confrontation in an abusive situation, there are some things that you need to know in order to do that wisely.
First of all, don’t confront until the wife has a plan and she is spiritually ready to respond to the reaction of the abuser and the added distress this is going to cause. Imagine a person who has an idolatry of control, and you are challenging it—maybe for the first time. You’ve got to have a plan and prepare the wife for possible reactions. Also, do not confront alone. She is never to confront him alone—do so in the presence of another. In volatile situations maybe only the elders go over, or they call the police and maybe the elders and the police go over.
Romans 13 tells us we are free to use the government authorities God has established to help us. Abuse is not only sinful, it’s also illegal. God says in Romans 13, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.”
Helping the wife might mean helping her call the police. Certainly it means getting her to a safe place—separation. Know the laws in your state. Because legal issues might be involved, take really good notes. Quote things exactly because this could be a court situation.
Please note too that the wife is granted the the decision, the choice, about whether to press legal charges. It’s a difficult decision because pressing charges makes their experience public and it requires them to go through a legal process where there’s going to be cross-examination, trial, and all of that. Allow the wife to make that decision with prayer, counsel, and with the leadership of your church.
In the event that the wife does choose to stay in the home, plan for escape in times of crisis. Jane actually did stay in her home in this case study, except for two situations while I was counseling her that she chose wisely to flee. It’s important to know that a wife leaving an abusive spouse can be a very dangerous time for them as the abuser feels like he’s losing that control that he so desires. They need to have a safety plan, which will help them act wisely in times of crisis. Tell them not to feel guilty about developing a safety plan. Think about a wife who just wants to be submissive—she doesn’t want to be doing something like this on the side. She doesn’t want to do that, so you need to tell her that this is actually wise.
It will help her act in a biblical, clear way when she has a plan. It will help her to be organized in her mind.
You can see an example of some things to do when developing a Safety Plan on our local domestic violence shelter home’s website. For a secular community, it’s an incredible program. We really need to get biblical programs like this, but theirs is excellent and you’ll find a lot of help on that webpage. You probably also can find local shelters that will give lots of good advice for an escape plan, for example to have a bag packed with necessities, have a plan to escape the house from every room of the house, plan to have an extra car key hidden, have a place to go like a Domestic Violence Shelter or a family in the church. And by the way, if you have a family in the church that is willing to serve in this way, you need to have a way to keep where she is private.
The couple should separate until a crisis has passed, and you and the wife are both confident that it is safe to return. That might be hours—maybe it’s a volatile blow up and he’s coming back and kind of repenting soon after—or it could be days. If a situation remains volatile, longer separation may be necessary until the husband receives counsel for his anger and abuse, and evidences repentance and change.
When you talk to your counselee about separation, one thing you may have to address is that because Christians rightly place a high value on marriage, forgiveness, and unity the wife may feel guilty for leaving—even in a domestically dangerous situation. We certainly want to affirm those values, but let’s help them to consider it this way. The best way to honor someone you love who acts with violence is to remove the opportunity for them to continue in sin without challenge and do greater damage with their anger.
Protecting yourself is not selfish in this case, it is actually a loving thing to do. It is not loving to allow someone to continue in sin unchallenged. It is loving the abuser to clearly expose his sin and its consequences, because sin is destructive to the sinner as well as to the sinned against. Minimizing or ignoring sin is not biblical submission. We can address fear in these practical ways by explaining the abuse dynamics and teaching godly ways to seek protection, but we also need to address her heart of fear.
Address the Heart of FearFirst of all, listen with compassion, clarify the issues, and hear their cries. Click To Tweet
First of all, listen with compassion, clarify the issues, and hear their cries. They are oppressed, confused, and afraid. They have been reviled, maligned, treated with guile and malice, and slandered. Victims may fear to tell the truth. They may have been threatened or don’t want trouble. They don’t want the authorities to get involved. It sounds like a mess. Your first job is just to simply listen with lots of compassion and then counsel right fear, just to reiterate—being afraid is not wrong in itself. There is an appropriate and discerning fear that sees unsafe or evil actions by others and purposefully avoids it.
We’ve seen already that Jesus withdrew in times of danger. There’s a right fear, but there is also a fear that forgets God. When fear forgets God, speak comfort. This situation in first Thessalonians 5:14 is the “encourage the faint-hearted and help the weak” situation.
In her fear of further betrayal or abuse, Jane thought of God as distant and uninvolved. In her eyes, her husband was big and God was small. She needed reassurance than the middle of her darkness, God speaks to her—not harsh and condemning words like her husband’s, as if His arms were crossed in rejection and disappointment. That’s not what God is like. God’s arms are open wide, and He speaks to her in love, comfort, help, hope, truth, and beauty. God’s Word gently whispers to frightened souls, “Peace, be still. Cease striving and know that I am God.”
When I met with Jane, her fear had forgotten God. She was living for and worshipping protection and safety. Her heart was controlled by this idol and not by Christ—who seemed small, unloving, uncaring, and powerless. Her heart believes things like this, “I must control my circumstances so I don’t have to experience fear or get hurt. I deserve a loving husband. I do not deserve a mean man. I deserve to be safe. I must have what I deserve or I cannot be happy. I must have what I deserve or God is not good. I must have what I deserve or I won’t obey God.”
Her idol of safety was driving her to fearfully respond to her circumstances by seeking comfort and relief in ungodly ways. Now, it’s a good thing to desire to be safe and to have a husband who expresses love rather than anger. Yet, like any desire when we want it too much, it becomes an idol and we sin in order to get it and sin when we can’t get it. That’s what was happening here.
We want to get her back to the point where Christ’s love actually controls her instead of her idol controlling her. As 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 says, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
When fear forgets God, we want to help her reconnect with the Lord. As a beloved hymn notes, “When we turn our eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of the earth [the things that we fear] will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”
Reconnect a Fearful Person to the Lord
There are many ways to reconnect a fearful person to the Lord. These are some suggested methods that I used with Jane. You may have other ones or better ones.
First of all, I had her turn to God with the Psalms. I used Psalm 56. I told her, “Consider how David brought his fear to God. As he writes in Psalm 56, David is honestly opening his heart up to God and telling him all about the fearful circumstances he is enduring at the hands of those who seek his harm. He remembers God’s ways. He remembers God sees. He remembers God knows about his suffering. He remembers God’s favor is toward him. He says, ‘I know God is for me.’ And David makes a clear announcement to His God: ‘In God I trust and am not afraid.’ David understood that God can be trusted to do what He says He will do.” And Jane can trust Him too.
Tell your counselee, “You are not alone. God is with you. God is for you. You can tell your Father God all your fears, all your woes, and all your troubles just as David did because He cares for you. And when you do, you find yourself walking in the light of life.” She can confess to God and repent of any ways she has not been believing these truths.
“God I have not believed you’re with me. I have not believed that you’re for me. I’m sorry, Lord, please forgive me and help me. Help me to believe.”
If I read something in the Bible, And then I choose to think differently than what I just read. What is that? Doubt.You can have honest doubt that is not sin, so do make a distinction there. When you are doubting God, if you are talking to God about it, that's honest doubt. Click To Tweet
You can have honest doubt that is not sin, so do make a distinction there. When you are doubting God, if you are talking to God about it, that’s honest doubt. But a lot of times our doubt and unbelief ends up talking to other people about God—”God is not good to me. God is not kind to me. God does not love me. God does not care about my situation. God is not there.” That’s all talking about God. If your counselee is talking to God about their doubt, then they’re writing Psalms and that’s good.
Use books that will help her to grow in trusting God. Trusting God by Jerry Bridges and When People are Big and God is Small are great ones.
God actually controls every molecule in the universe at every moment of time. He rules from His goodness. No one can thwart God’s good purposes for her.
Highlight Jesus’ understanding of suffering at the hands of evil people. Often we are just comforted when somebody understands. When someone else has been through the same thing and they understand. Jesus understands. And He understands not with a clouded, sinful heart. He understands perfectly.
Hebrews 2:17-18 says, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
Hebrews 4:15-16 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Hebrews 12:3 says, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” That pertinent in a domestic abuse situation—Jesus really understands.
Highlight His constant presence. Not only does He understand, He is actually with you. Isaiah 41:10 says, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
In Psalm 16, the Psalmist writes, “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” Highlight His presence and highlight His power. Not only does He understand, not only is He with you—He’s actually all-powerful. You can go to Ephesians 1:18. That’s where Paul is praying that the people of Ephesus would understand what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.
Highlight His care. Not only is He understanding and powerful, he also cares. 1 Peter 5:6-7 says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” That passage also goes on to talk about Satan, “your adversary the devil prowls around.” That might be a helpful thing to bring them around to, because that’s how they feel—they’re being prowled on.
Highlight His justice. Not only does He care, but He is just. He is going to repay one day and all wrongs will be righted. Consider what God says in Luke 18:7-8, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.”
Second Thessalonians 1:6-9 is a fascinating passage, it says, “since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
That’s powerful. God is just, He’s not kidding. Do you realize that no one actually ever gets away with anything? Either Jesus died for it and took it on the cross and has already paid for it, or people will bring it with them to eternal judgment.
Train for Righteous Responses
While we’re helping her renew her relationship with Jesus, we also need to be doing some other things. We need to be training her to know her biblical responsibilities well, so that she can do what’s right even in crisis. When marriage is like this, there’s lots of crisis and sometimes they’re very disconcerting—and remember she was so confused. She didn’t really understand what was going on. She thought she was crazy. We need to train her in righteous responses.
I worked in the ICU for a number of years. As an ICU nurse, we are trained to watch heart monitors. There’s supposed to be a little blip that shows heart activity and we’re watching the monitors all the time. If we see something on the monitor that goes flat, we are trained to do something about it. We don’t sit there. There’s no time for fear. There’s no time to go, “Oh, no.” We’re trained—we go in and do a precordial thump, we call a code, we get help, we start CPR, etc.
I had to do that a number of times, and it’s a fearful situation, but we’ve been trained on how to respond.
You need to train her to do what’s right, because she’s in situations that are very fearful and she doesn’t know what to do. How are you going to do that? You’re going to do that by role play. You’re going to have her repeat it back. You’re going to have her teach it to you next week until it just becomes automatic. You’re going to have to have her write down typical scenarios that she’s dealing with and then train her how to respond. You can be the husband, or she can be the husband—just make it rote. Role play the situation until she’s got it.
In this graphic, the inner circle represents our responsibilities. The outer circle represents things that may concern me, but they’re not my responsibility because I can’t do anything about it. They’re beyond my ability. They’re God’s job.
We’re going to talk about that inner circle, and talk about training her in obedient habits of response. What are her responsibilities?
She can learn to act rightly even when she’s afraid. 1 Peter 3:16 says, “having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” We can train her to have good behavior even in the midst of being reviled.
The center of our circle, I think we could always say, is to show the glory of God in her situation. God’s purpose for all of us who know him is to become like Christ, to please God, to share the good news, to glorify God.
And what we suffer in our situations does not actually change that purpose. It’s not separate from what we were created to do. What God has Sovereignly allowed us to go through does not change our purpose to glorify God. God is right in the middle of it. He is working it for our good and we want to help her know specific ways she can glorify God in her situation. First of all, plan for wise responses to manipulation and oppression. Proverbs 26 4-5 says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” We don’t want to have her be like him.
First Peter 2:21 gives us Christ as the example.”He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” He left us an example while being reviled. This doesn’t just mean she did nothing, it means she followed God.
Teach her to ask in those tough situations, “Can I do something about this without sinning?” And if so, list it in her circle and help her follow through. It can be very difficult to know how to respond well to manipulative people. Manipulation is basically deceit at its core, and it’s hard to know how to respond to it sometimes. Since manipulation is deceit, the antidote is truth.
You’re gonna have to take the situation she’s encountering and put the truth of God in them so that she can respond wisely, humbly, graciously, and truthfully.
Come up with specific truth statements that she can use to respond to his manipulative efforts. I would recommend a booklet called Manipulation, by Lou Priolo, which is a helpful resource to work through some of those things. Also Peacemakers by Ken Sande has some wise ways to to respond.
You can also teach her how to respond to an angry man. Ephesians 4:15 instructs us to, “speak truth in love.” Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Teach communication and peacemaking concepts with role play. Go through typical scenarios in her situation and teach her how to answer wisely.
How does that sound? For example, if her husband asks an accusing question, she can say, “Well, I’m not ready to answer that accusation right now. Let me take some time and think about it.”
For episodes of anger, she can say something like, “I’m sorry. I have a hard time listening to you when you’re yelling at me. But what you have to say is important to me and I hope we can talk about it at some other time.”
Help her to respond with wise, gentle—confrontational in a sense—answers.
Second Timothy 1:7 says, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
Also in her circle of responsibility is to respond humbly. There’s no way you can go wrong when you’re being humble. When in doubt, follow Matthew 7:1-5, confess your own sins. Confession is not for sin that has been falsely accused by the perpetrator. You don’t want her to be confessing things she actually hasn’t done, because that would be lying. She can certainly confess things she has done, and she needs to be willing to consider if there’s any truth in what he’s saying. If there is, she can confess that. But she is not required by God to confess things she hasn’t done, which is oftentimes what her abuser wants her to do.
Next, she should seek to overcome evil with good. How does that look in her situation? It always looks like praying for him. Make out a specific prayer list based on Scripture that she can pray for her husband. I think of the beatitudes; pray that he becomes poor in spirit, pray that he becomes merciful, pray that he becomes a peacemaker, pray that he hungers and thirsts for righteousness, that he becomes meek.
Another way for her to overcome evil with good is to evangelize. Obviously if he’s not a believer, she’s evangelizing him by continuing to do what’s right, even when he’s doing what’s wrong. I had a situation once that was a very difficult one with a gal who was quite abusive to me. And I remember crying out to God for help with her, “God please just give me a spirit that does not get angry at her in return.” She would accuse me of things. She was so angry and so miserable and I was really struggling, but I tried to hold the line and she did eventually come back and say, “I cannot believe that you didn’t get angry at me back. I cannot believe that you were so kind to me when I was so mean to you.” We don’t always know the effects of our actions. We can be kind and they can go on and rant and rave, and you have no idea the power of returning good for evil—the power that can be by God’s grace.
If her husband does not know the Lord and he dies in his sins, he will spend eternity in hell. That fact can help her to have compassion on her husband who is so ensnared by sin. She can evangelize him with her chaste and respectful life.
Her circle of responsibility also includes following through in the Matthew 18 and the Romans 13 processes when appropriate.
And then you can bring her through James 1—the right response to trials. She’s to take joy in what God is accomplishing through it. Not that the trial is fun, not that it’s good behavior. What’s happening to her is evil and wicked. She can take joy in what God is doing. Pray for wisdom how to respond. Know that everybody goes through trials and that perseverance brings blessings. Don’t blame God, blame man for his sin. Praise God for His grace here in receiving the Word. Don’t be angry at what God tells you to do. It’s hard. In fact so many of the things God tells us to do our impossible without grace. Without his power working through you, we can’t do these things. Do what the Word says. These principles from James 1 are all things she’s called to do in her circle of responsibility. She can be trained in counseling by the Word of God and the Spirit of God to do these things.
The outer circle represents the fact that we have to learn to trust God for things that we don’t control—things that concern us, but we cannot control. Sometimes in difficult situations we are really tempted to expand our circle into God’s job. We want to control it. And so we seek to control those things in sinful ways sometimes. That’s what Jane was doing. Control was an idol for her and she was willing to disobey God in some ways to get control. When that inner circle is expanding in her heart, and she loves safety and must have it, she will be filled with fear. Because you get fearful when you’re trying really hard to control something, but you can’t. You get this tunnel vision—seeing people as bigger than God.
Again, it’s not wrong to want to be loved and secure and safe. These are godly desires, but she was not seeing in her circle and she was not trusting God for the outcome of her obedience.
In counseling, I taught Jane what the Bible says about her responsibilities. After you take care of your inner circle, protecting you is God’s job. He will protect you in whatever way he desires.
To give you some very practical help I have put in the notes some specific homework I used with Jane to help her deal with her fears in an ongoing way. The first thing is data-gathering—find out what she’s fearing. What does she think is going to happen? What are the bad things? What are the good things she feels she won’t get? What keeps her awake when she can’t sleep? What’s so important that she’s fearing to lose? What fears does she have regarding the other people? The safety of her kids are a really big fear usually in this kind of situation. And then what are your “what ifs”? Rate each of those fears on a continuum—from concerned to panic. That tells you how important those things are in her heart.
And then in each fear that she wrote down I had her discern, “Well Jane, what are you responsible for? And what is God’s job?” You can help her walk through that. For example, one of her really big fears was “I’m worried about the kids.” Which is a great fear actually, and was appropriate for that situation. Her responsibility in that fear was to protect them in the godly ways we just discussed— to get help from the church and the government and flee when necessary. To not leave them with the abuser. What is God’s job? Their ultimate safety is up to the Lord. “It’s not my job to make absolutely sure they are never hurt in any way.” The results of her obedient, responsible care are left up to God. But she does have a lot of responsibilities in that.
And then begin a journal. Journaling is always good homework to help her become aware of what types of things she was getting fearful about, how many times that was happening, and so forth. I had her lay her fears before God using Psalm 56 and then take thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. This is a big issue in fear, to replace wrong, inaccurate thinking with right thinking. That is so important.
I counseled Jane using the Old Testament example of Lamentations 3. It’s a great passage for teaching how to change your thoughts. We believe it’s Jeremiah that wrote Lamentations and he’s writing in agony of heart. He is pouring out his heart before God and he says, “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.'”
But then after he penned these words, something happens. Jeremiah begins to think carefully. And he begins to think on truth—he instructs himself with things he knows to be true about God. He says, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.”
Martyn Lloyd Jones writes this, “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” The problem is a lot of times we listen to ourselves. We need to stop listening to ourselves and start talking to ourselves. That’s what Jeremiah is doing here, as he says, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.'”
Two verses ago he didn’t have hope. But now he does because he’s counseling himself. His attitude completely shifts. I would recommend you use Lamentations 3 when you are helping your counselee put off wrong thinking and put on right thinking. 2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”
What sort of thoughts is that verse referring to as arguments and lofty opinions? Perhaps thoughts like, “This is too hard for me. God is not good to allow this to happen. I can’t take this anymore.”
The last thought, “I can’t take this anymore,” drove Jane to a suicide attempt, which was almost successful. She was in the ICU for several days. I worked with Jane to take very thought captive. She became aware of her wrong thoughts and chose to deny them and begin to dwell on truth. Moment by moment, she began replacing her fearful thoughts. She had good success with that.
I made it practical, with homework assignments like, “Give me three examples this week when you were able to put off wrong thoughts and put on right thinking.”
I helped Jane deal with her “what ifs.” What ifs are not true, so they violate Philippians 4:8. What else do the “what ifs” never include? God! “What if God uses this for good?” You don’t hear people saying that. You want to help them change their “what ifs” to “even ifs.”
Even if my worst case scenario happens, even if my kids get hurt, what is still true about God? She has to know what is true about God from Scripture to put that thought on. He’s still for me, He’s still not against me. I told her to pray for deliverance and relief from whatever circumstance was triggering her fear, but always do so with an attitude of yielding to God’s care in confidence that He knows what He’s doing.We're really talking about focusing on God instead of experiences or circumstances. Click To Tweet
And then grow in knowing God by studying His attributes. God’s attributes will be good “put on” thoughts for fear. I showed Jane that the grid through which she was looking at life was twisting the way she thought about God. Because her husband was big and God was small, she said things like, “My husband is mean, therefore God doesn’t care. My husband might hurt me, therefore God isn’t powerful. My husband isn’t godly, therefore God is not good.” She was looking at life through this grid. I encouraged her to flip the grid, and say, “Because God is good, therefore when my husband does that, God still loves me and He’s going to work it out for good. Because God is powerful, my husband can’t do anything to me that God doesn’t allow. And even if God allows it, His character is still true.” We’re really talking about focusing on God instead of experiences or circumstances.
Have your counselee study Scriptures that address fear, worry, and anxiety. Some you can study with your counselee are 2 Timothy 1:7, Philippians 4:6-9, 1 Peter 5:6-7, 1 John 4: 7-21, Matthew 10:28-31, Psalm 131, and Psalm 46.
Philippians 4:6-9 really sums up a lot of what we have said about counseling fear. It talks about praying—that’s a response of trusting God with His responsibilities. It talks about thinking rightly, which is ground zero for someone with fear. Then it tells us to take right action.
Lastly, I just want to highlight memorizing Psalm 55:22. That verse became Jane’s go-to verse. It says,
“Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.”
She had been shaken and she learned to become confident in the Lord. The end of the story is that Jane grew in understanding and trusting Christ. Joe eventually confessed that he was not a believer, and he left the marriage and filed for divorce rather than turning to the Lord. Jane was counseled to let the unbeliever leave according to 1 Corinthians 7. Jane eventually got remarried to a godly man, and they are serving together in their church.