May 1, 2019

Is This Really Love?

Don’t be deceived into remaining in an abusive relationship.

Karen Holford

At first Mark was charming and romantic. He was a lawyer, church elder, and lay preacher. After a few amazing dates he proposed, and soon we were married. A month after the wedding I spent an evening with my friends. When I unlocked the door, he was waiting. He beat me for going out without him.” Amy (not her real name) looked down and bit her lip. “I’m a doctor. Yet I missed all the signs.”

For several years Amy experienced increasing levels of emotional, spiritual, physical, and intimate abuse. Mark blamed Amy. If only she had been more submissive, more perfect, more respectful, he wouldn’t have treated her this way. One day her boss called her into his office and asked her what was happening at home. He helped Amy identify the abuse and find a safe way out of the escalating violence.

Amy sighed as painful memories flickered through her body as well as her mind. “I wish I’d noticed how angry he was when he didn’t get his own way. I wish I’d challenged him when he insisted on listening to my phone calls and reading all my e-mails and messages. Everyone at church thought he was the perfect Christian. No one suspected how abusive he was until I secretly filmed his behavior.”

Danger Ahead!

As Amy discovered, it’s not always easy to spot someone who is abusive. But there are warning signs. Avoid people who insist on having their own way, and those who become angry and irritable if they don’t. When someone suggests a plan for the evening, see if they are open to your ideas. Say: “That sounds great, but I’d really like to do this instead.” Watch how they respond. If he angrily insists on his own way, if she strives to win every argument, or if he belittles your opinions, they may have a tendency to be coercive and controlling.

Watch how someone responds when you, or somebody else, needs help. Are they spontaneously kind and generous, or do they get annoyed at the interruption of their plans? Do they move toward people who need help with a positive, good Samaritan attitude, or do they turn away and walk by on the other side?

Katya wants a Christian husband who is kind, humble, honest about himself, and mature enough to take responsibility for his life. Whenever she’s introduced to a potential partner, she asks: “Why is someone like you still single?” If he openly admits some past mistakes, describes his struggle to commit, or has a positive reason for being single, then she keeps on talking. If he blames his problems on others, criticizes previous girlfriends, or makes excuses for his behavior, she crosses him off her list.

Vulnerable Believers

We Christians are taught to forgive others, and this can make us vulnerable. Abused spouses taught to “turn the other cheek” and “forgive seventy times seven,” stay at home and hide their bruised faces, isolate themselves from friends and family, and tell themselves that if they were only more obedient, or more submissive, it wouldn’t happen again. Sadly, some of them have been beaten to death.

We strive to believe the best in others, not the worst; to be kind, self-controlled, patient, peaceable, long-suffering, and humble—excellent virtues that can blind us to significant, sometimes dangerous, defects in other people’s characters, and prevent us from challenging those who treat us badly.

Some abusers look for kind partners: they are more likely to be compliant, and forgiving. Some Christians take on “challenging” partners as “projects,” hoping to transform them. But idealistic hopes are no substitute for the specialist’s help these “projects” need.

Is This Really Love?

Jesus came to show us what love looks like in human form. He also asked tough questions about love. Do you love God above everything else? Do you love other people the same way you love yourself? Are you comfortable putting your needs last, making sacrifices for others, humbly sitting at the foot of the table? Do you lift others up? Are you as compassionate toward others as Jesus would be?

Jesus came to show us what love looks like when it has a human body, a smiling face, and a compassionate heart.

Paul traveled from city to city planting churches. Sometimes he stayed only a few days. He knew that by the time he left new groups they needed to understand Jesus’ ministry and mission, believe in Him as the Messiah, and understand the process of forgiveness and salvation. In order to grow, they also needed relational skills to create a kind, loving, and forgiving community.

Paul scattered relational wisdom, like salt, throughout his letters. His yellow highlighter pen was the phrase “one another.” It emphasized healthy relational principles: accepting and comforting each other; rejoicing with and honoring each other; helping, forgiving each other; living peacefully with and being thankful for each other; encouraging and protecting each other; valuing each other; being kind to and making sacrifices for each other. This is what real love looks like.

Paul challenged new Christians to love each other whole-heartedly. “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Phil. 1:9). Care and attention flow both ways. No one is entitled to receive everything while another person is left lonely, aching, or neglected.

Love Versus Loneliness

In the beginning Adam lived in a perfect garden. He had no stress, pain, sadness, or death. He spoke to God face to face. Surely that would provide perfect companionship? But it didn’t. This flawless paradise still lacked a major blessing: human companionship.

Adam needed another human being so that he could share God’s love with her, and experience God’s love through her. It is God’s design for humans that we care for each other. No one should ever feel lonely and abandoned. Everyone should know, without a shadow of a doubt, how much God loves them, and that His love has many dimensions.

And loneliness is multifaceted. Each of Paul’s relational ideals has a flipside: criticism, discouragement, abuse, controlling behaviors, abandonment, neglect, judging each other, ignoring each other’s needs, violent anger, ingratitude, and contempt. These actions and attitudes damage our relationships, create aloneness, misrepresent God, and bring His character into disrepute.

If you want to know whether someone truly loves you, try measuring their love against the teachings of Jesus, His caring ministry, and Paul’s letters. Search the New Testament for the “one another” statements, study the relational wisdom in Romans 12, and read Paul’s poetic description of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Ask yourself whether the other person generously and joyfully does these loving things for you. And if you want to know whether you are truly in love, ask yourself if you would freely and joyfully do these things for the other person for the rest of your life.

This kind of reflection isn’t the perfect test of a healthy, loving relationship, but it’s a good place to start.

Healthy Relationships Start at Birth

Research into the effects of early childhood experiences on our brains and behavior has helped scientists understand that babies need plenty of warm and positive interactions with loving parents. These experiences help them to develop secure attachments. They also strengthen the empathic and compassionate area of their brains that help them mature into kind and caring individuals. Watch the short YouTube video of The Still Face Experiment to see the reaction of a baby when a loving mother stops responding to her for just a few minutes.

When babies and toddlers regularly experience neglect, abuse, a lack of soothing comfort, and one-to-one attention, their brains become rewired in a way that limits their ability to empathize, and this can lead to a propensity toward violence (

Help children and teens to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Discover what makes them feel loved, and do it as often as you can. Be there for them; listen to them; forgive them warmly; be flexible; support them when they face challenges. When children experience secure, loving, soothing, and accepting relationships from birth, they are more likely to recognize healthy relationships, and less likely to try to fill those needs in unhealthy relationships.

Encourage young people to socialize in groups so they can watch how people interact, and look for friends who know how to build healthy relationships. Let your teens know that if they are ever in a potentially abusive situation, you will pick them up anywhere and be there for them without judgment.


If you’re in an unhealthy relationship, recognize that what you are experiencing is not the self-sacrificial, kind, forgiving, and generous love that God wants you to experience. You may have been told that you are ugly, useless, inadequate, unlovable, that everything that’s wrong in the relationship is your fault, and that you deserve to be punished. This is not how God expresses His love. As a start, try reading a love letter from God, compiled from Bible verses, at

Take care of yourself and your children. Discover how to leave an abusive relationship safely. Find a trustworthy person who believes your story, someone who knows how to help people trapped in abusive relationships. It may be necessary to separate for a while and seek skilled professional help.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual makes provision for those who need to separate from an abusive partner, because it is intolerable and uncompassionate for spouses and children to stay in an abusive and dangerous relationship. Children who grow up witnessing abuse in the home are more likely to abuse others.

Some useful resources are available at This website has helpful information for those who are being abused, their pastors, and anyone who wants to support and protect people experiencing domestic abuse. Explore, created by a Christian organization dedicated to informing churches about domestic abuse and helping those who are experiencing abuse. Their site contains an excellent Bible study pack for men’s groups on what it means to be a Christian man, thought-provoking videos, and sound advice.

Sarah McDugal provides a range of support to women who have experienced abuse (

Be a Proactive Preventer

Know how to recognize the signs of abuse and be the person who believes the victim, even if their spouse is a pillar of your community. Most victims of severe abuse live with the situation for two or three years before seeking help, and often speak to several professionals before receiving the help they need.

We need to stand up for those who are trapped in unhealthy relationships, protect them, and challenge their abusers safely and wisely. We need to be proactive about preventing abuse through regular relationship seminars, rigorous premarital counseling, providing newly married couples with trained marriage mentors, and setting up safe systems and protection for victims.

Men’s ministries can mentor men who will lovingly protect and support the women in their lives. Women’s ministries can empower women to recognize abuse and know how to respond safely and wisely. Help parents understand the importance of developing comforting, loving, nurturing, and playful attachments with their babies, toddlers, and children. It’s often impossible to identify abusers and their victims in your congregation. Wives can abuse husbands and parents can abuse children. Make sure that good teaching, help, and support are available to everyone.

Funnels, Not Umbrellas

God continually pours His love on us. We are not called to be umbrellas, people who, through their words and actions prevent others from experiencing God’s love. We are called to be funnels, filling ourselves up with as much of God’s love as we can, and pouring it generously into the hurting and love-thirsty hearts of those around us.

How will we funnel God’s love into the lives of those around us?

Karen Holford is a certified family therapist and director of family ministries for the Trans-European Division of Seventh-day Adventists.