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When dealing with family trauma, should Christians choose self-preservation or self-denial? This is a question I have struggled with my whole life. Both my Asian cultural norms and teachings at church had been pointing to self-denial as a noble and saintly goal. That was before I volunteered at Safe Haven Ministries and other initiatives that center around women’s voices in situations of domestic violence.
My mother is a survivor of over twenty years of domestic violence from her husband. Growing up, I was subjected to a lot of emotional trauma when watching her running away or attempting suicide. Between ages fifteen and twenty-five, I tried to make my mother divorce him. There was no other way that I was going to live happily, knowing that my mother’s life was at risk while living with this man. (They now live un-divorced but separated.)
After I became a Christian in the Chinese church, the teaching about self-denial, especially related to marital unity and women’s submission, became quite overwhelming. I started to question my earlier goal of getting my mother divorced. I was thankful to God that my mother survived many suicide attempts and eventually came to Christ as an enthusiastic believer. Unsure if my earlier obsession with her divorce was partially an influence of secular feminism, I became a strong defender of marital unity.
Marriage also happened in my life when I met a Chinese man who is as drastically different from my father as possible. We both loved serving in the church and raising our children to follow the Lord. Life has been good except for my Chinese in-laws, who demonstrated abusive tendencies toward me since the first time we met. Although we rarely shared the same space – they mostly live in China and us in the U.S. – I found myself walking on eggshells at every family reunion. Each time, things ended in an outburst of fierce cursing from them. Each time, I had to flee for safety. Once my father-in-law threatened physical violence while I was still breastfeeding, and I had to flee carrying my baby boy in his car seat.
At all these times, we prayed for the power of forgiveness and self-denial. It is, after all, a common challenge for first-generation Chinese Christians to witness to their atheistic (some more militant than others) parents. These interactions did not improve even after our children grew older. What happened this summer was the last straw for me.
After years of COVID, we finally saw international travel restrictions lifted. While packing for the trip, a lot of memories of past trauma with my in-laws resurfaced. I was anxious that something might happen again. My husband saw my anxiety and assured me that people, even his parents, can change for the better after COVID separation. So we granted their request to stay under the same roof with them. Unfortunately, history repeated itself. But this time my children (ages ten and eight) were old enough to witness all of it. They saw how their mother was shamed and humiliated. I had to flee the scene all by myself.
It was at that moment that I remembered my mother.
Why do women run away? Often because running is their last resort for self-preservation. The home has become so toxic that running away is the last instinct for survival. I believe that self-denial in situations of domestic violence is too cruel for a truthful, loving God to command. A woman must run away to defend her very dignity and selfhood. The God of mercy is a woman’s true refuge at this point, along with a safe place outside the violent home.
Not only does a woman need to run away, she also needs to tell her story. Self-preservation means that she needs a voice to process such trauma. Many times in Asian culture, that voice is taken away by cultural norms that prevent people from exposing “skeletons in the closet” at home. Silence in the face of abuse is also an indicator of cultural toxicity.
Domestic violence is such a widespread experience that the church cannot afford to misinterpret God’s commands for the family and the harm that misinterpretation can cause. It can be so isolating to be surrounded by Christians who do not understand or recognize abuse in the home, even as they teach or witness self-denial. That behavior is not only a trust-breaker, but cold-blooded pietism.
My wounds are healing, and writing this blog is part of the reflection I need. I believe and find comfort in God, whose mercy and passion chase after women who have to run away from home. This God does not preach cheap self-denial, because God knows that there is one thing that matters: you.