Hi Jennifer. I’m in a marriage where there’s emotional and spiritual abuse. My husband is a pastor and very legalistic. He constantly criticizes me, accuses me of not doing God’s will, and claims he knows what God’s will is even on non-eternal issues. He can’t agree to disagree, and it’s damaging my faith to the point that I sometimes doubt my own salvation. He is extremely controlling of our money, what we can or cannot eat, how we live, and how we parent and school our kids. How do I reconcile my identity and worth in Jesus and not believe the lies my husband tells me about myself? ~ ShaunaThis email was edited for brevity and to protect the sender’s identity.
I’m so sorry to hear this. There’s a lot to unpack here so I’m going to take things point by point. Of course, it’s difficult to understand your situation exactly based on an email, so my response will be general. Some may apply to you, some may not, so use your judgement. Above all, place your relationship with God in importance over all things, even your marriage.
My primary concern is for your faith and your children’s faith. We know from Jesus’ own words in Matthew 18:6 that causing one of God’s children to stumble (AKA spiritual abuse) is something God takes very seriously. We aren’t just dealing with earthly danger here, but eternal consequences.
1. Involve Many Counselors
My first advice is to involve other pastors and friends you trust. You need good people in your life who can evaluate your situation and help you decide how severe the abuse is, the level of danger you and your children are in, and whether your husband is crossing the line into criminal abuse. I’d also recommend seeing a marriage counselor or therapist, whether or not your husband is willing to go with you. Select a variety of different advisors. Don’t just rely on one person, because everyone has blind spots. Weigh their advice against each other and thereby gain perspective.
If you’re part of a denomination, there should also be leaders whose responsibility it is to hold your husband doctrinally and spiritually accountable. Alert them to this situation. If he’s doing this much spiritual damage in his own home, it’s almost certainly spilling over into his ministry.
“Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Proverbs 11:14
2. Guard Your Children
Based on your email, it sounds like most of your husband’s abuse is aimed toward you. However, when kids witness their parent being abused, that’s a kind of child abuse. It hurts them. If you notice your children acting afraid of their father, worried for your wellbeing, worried about your marriage, or if they start experiencing chronic nightmares, their grades start suffering, or they seem depressed or anxious, these are possible signs your husband’s abuse is harming your children. Children pick up on a lot more than we realize, sometimes subconsciously. It’s vital to take their wellbeing into account as you decide how to address your situation.
3. Words Can Destroy
While on the surface emotional and spiritual abuse may not seem as dangerous as sexual abuse or domestic violence, it can have devastating consequences. If your children grow up with baggage against God, pastors, or the church, it has cost them dearly. Now, I firmly believe that if God wants to save a person, Hell itself cannot stand in His way. However, I also believe God works through means, and as parents we are a major means through which God works in the lives of our kids. A dysfunctional childhood can add years to the “prodigal son” phase of a person’s life.
Emotional and spiritual abuse are huge contributors to teen suicides, drug abuse, and promiscuity. When I was about 15, I seriously considered committing suicide because of my dad’s abuse. I cannot tell you how many other survivors I’ve talked to who were driven to dire straits because of emotional and spiritual abuse in their past. So, don’t underestimate the physical danger of cruel words and unloving behavior.
But of course, your husband’s primary victim is you. If his abuse begins to affect your ability to be an emotionally healthy mother, raise your kids in a spiritually edifying environment, sleep through the night, take care of yourself, focus, or maintain your own faith in God, you’re in a very serious situation. I’d strongly recommend getting outside help, and possibly consider separating from him. A marital relationship is precious, but your relationship with God is absolutely priceless. If your spouse is coming between you and God, or causing you to become suicidal, that’s a serious problem. If they’re damaging your children’s faith in God, it’s perilous.
“They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim cruel words like deadly arrows.” Psalm 64:3
4. Financial Abuse
You mention that your husband is very controlling of money. It’s important to ask yourself, “Is he controlling our finances, or is he controlling me?” For example, if he denies you access to your bank accounts, withholds money so you can’t get basic necessities, forbids you from getting a job, won’t let you keep money you earn, or sabotages employment opportunities, those are red flags. This is where you could be crossing into the realm of physical abuse. If he controls your finances to the extent that you can’t go to the doctor, buy medication, or take care of yourself, things are getting physically harmful.
5. Dietary Abuse
Dictating what you can and cannot eat, and claiming he’s getting these dietary guidelines from God or the Bible, is very concerning. Without knowing what country or state you live in, it’s hard to know what your local laws might be, but I’d guess this could cross into the category of physical abuse. I recently spoke to a teen girl just whose parents forced her to “fast” every few days. There have been cases where people have developed nutritional deficiencies because of supposed religious dietary restrictions. People have died of common ailments because their religious dietary rules forbade certain medications. To me it sounds like your husband is extremely controlling, and that’s a sin problem I’ve never seen improve without pastoral counseling and/or therapy.
The dietary rules are something you should consider talking to your children’s pediatrician about. Ask if the diet your husband is imposing is healthy for your kids. Based on that information, you may be able to guage how serious of a situation you’re in.
6. His & Your Priorities
The most important thing in your life, and in your children’s lives, is Jesus Christ. No one – not even a spouse – should ever be allowed to come between you and Jesus. If your husband is a Godly man, damaging your faith should be the last thing he wants to do. In fact, as a Christian husband and a pastor, building you up in faith should be his aspiration, hope, and joy. If that’s not the case then something is terribly wrong. It calls into question the authenticity of his salvation as well as his competence as a pastor.
This past Sunday, I heard a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 2. The entire chapter is beautiful and I’d encourage you to read it. Among other things, it’s helpful in understanding how Godly pastors, spouses, and parents should treat those under their spiritual care.
“We were gentle among you,” Paul says, “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us (vs 7-8) … For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy (vs 19).”
When a spiritual leader (whether a pastor, spouse, parent, or other influence) is using worldly means such as finances, dietary restrictions, and legalism to crush our faith, we are right to question whether their leadership is of God. In this chapter, Paul compares himself to an affectionate mother, loving father, and devoted sibling. His ultimate goal and joy is to build others up in faith. So, when we see someone tearing down our faith and damaging us spiritually, that’s a huge red flag.
7. Pray, Pray, Pray!
In all these things, pray. Pray for God’s wisdom, pray he enables you to perceive your children’s suffering, pray he works in your husband’s heart, and pray he bolsters your faith and brings about reconciliation and peace in your marriage. Live in prayer. Pray when you wake up, pray while you do the dishes, pray while you drive to the store, pray with your children. Put your relationship with Jesus above all else, and anchor yourself in prayer.
“How do I reconcile my identity and worth in Jesus and not believe the lies my husband tells me about myself?”
I mentioned before, establish many wise counselors in your life. This will not only bring accountability into your situation and confront your husband’s ongoing sin, but hopefully also reinforce God’s grace and love in your life. Any time your husband starts being controlling, or claiming you’re not good enough, call one of these people and ask them to remind you of the grace of Jesus Christ. Tell them what’s going on. Let them build you up. Let them weep with you.
Do not isolate yourself. God refers to his church as a family for a reason. Everyone needs people in their life who point them to Jesus and remind them that God loves them. You need this especially in order to counter the damaging effects of your husband’s spiritual abuse.
As wives, we are called to be “helpers” for our husbands (Genesis 2:18). Sadly, sometimes the best way to help a husband who’s living in unrepentant sin, is by calling in pastors and Godly men who can hold him accountable and guide him toward repentance and change. This is of particular importance as he is a pastor. Not only is he shepherding his own family, but he’s influencing many others in the family of God. If he is hurting his own wife spiritually, and possibly his own kids, what impact is he having on his congregation, his community, and those he ministers to?
I know I’ve given you a lot to think about. Some of it may apply to your situation and some may not. One thing is certain though, if your husband is causing you to doubt your faith, decisions must be made both for your wellbeing and that of your children. If you are doubting your salvation, it is reasonable to wonder whether they are doubting theirs. If you are being emotionally and spiritually abused, it is almost certain they are as well. Financial and dietary restrictions also extend to them, and seeing you being abused is harmful to your kids.
I will continue to pray for your wisdom as you navigate this extremely difficult situation, and for the wellbeing of you, your children, your husband, and your marriage.
Thank you for the honor of weeping with you.
In this blog series, #AskJenn, Jennifer responds to emails from her readers. All emails have been edited for clarity and to protect the sender’s identity. If you’d like to submit a question, please click here.