By Karen Swank
I started my “dream job” this week at a Christian shelter for abused women and their children. Part of my training is a big stack of reading on the psychology, sociology, patterns, and problems of abuse, including deep exploration of biblical perspectives on it. I’ve been consuming and processing the information fast and hard all week, and I can feel it changing me as it works its way through me.
I read about a couple of interesting studies done on animals, and these in particular gave me much to ponder about people.
In one, dogs were placed in cages which were intermittently shocked. At first they scrambled to escape, trying with all their might. Finding escape impossible, over time they resigned themselves to it, so much that when only one side of the cage was shocked, they did not retreat to the other side. And when the door to the cage was opened, they didn’t come out, didn’t even try. They had to be dragged out repeatedly before they were able to understand and see a way of escape.
In another, mice were held in someone’s hand until they stopped struggling or moving at all. This was done to them repeatedly, until even in an open hand, they did not attempt to move. The mice were then dropped into water; most of them sunk to the bottom and drowned without a single attempt to save themselves, despite the fact that similar mice who had not been held were able to swim for up to 60 hours straight, fighting for their lives.
(I know the experiments are horrifying, but I am not here to debate animal rights today. The experiments are over and I can’t undo them by any amount of indignation and neither can you. So I’m asking nicely if we could stay on the lesson, even though it’s given in such a harsh way).
The point made in what I read is that abused people often tend to respond in the same way that these abused animals did; the term for it is “learned helplessness.” They may struggle at first and fight against what is done to them, but over time they all too often “learn” that abuse is inevitable and inescapable. This is the answer to the indignant question many of us have asked at one point or another: “Why don’t they just leave?”
They don’t leave because in reality as they perceive it, they can’t. Far too many of them die without a fight or live lives of pain and can’t see or understand the door of escape standing open for them.
Everything, everyone, all the time, everywhere inside this reality is offered to us as a lesson in our walk with Christ. We can see the lesson and receive it, or we can look past it with closed hearts and minds; none of this changes the fact that God instructs us minute-by-minute through all things great and small. The lesson of the shocked dogs, the drowned mice and the abused people who don’t leave their abusers is no exception to this principle.
Think you’re better than all that? Let’s examine that notion. We who are in Christ have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. It’s something most don’t spend much time really pondering, probably because of how utterly mind-blowing it really is.
Within me in all my brokenness and smallness dwells the power, beauty, and holiness that is a part of God Himself. Part of the One who spoke creation into existence, who knows all things, sees all things, and is part of all reality across all time, simultaneously. He’s in there. In me.
If that’s really true (and if you’ve read your Bible, you can’t deny it is)… why am I still so subject to sin?
Why do I struggle with selfishness so much of the time? Why do I say words I don’t want to say? Why do I dwell on thoughts I don’t want to think? Why do bad habits hold me so firmly in their grasp? Why do I hold onto grudges and obsess over old hurts? Why do I so often know what is the right thing to do and then choose something else? Why?
And then we come to at least part of the answer, the lesson of the dogs and the mice and the battered people who don’t use the exit door: learned helplessness. I am so subject to sin only because I believe I am, only because I’ve been under its thumb so long that I tend not to see the way out. I have the power of the living God right here within me. It’s more than enough power to stand against selfishness, habits, woundedness and the whole lot.
He has given me a way of escape and has paid the full price for the open door. He has put within me every tool to stand, to do what’s right, and to be healed. It’s all within my grasp. I don’t use it simply because I don’t pick it up. I leave it there at arm’s length. And because I don’t see my way out, I don’t take my way out. I’m not better. My captor just looks a little different.
Now, this is not the part where we beat ourselves up for our dreadful failings as Christians. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. No point in hanging my head in shame or wasting time and energy dwelling on what’s behind and can’t be changed.
This is the part where we look up and realize He will drag us out of the cage as many times as it takes; His love is our promise. Sin is a cage, sometimes of our own creation, sometimes built by others around us, sometimes delivered directly by the enemy of us all. Christ didn’t build the cage and He didn’t stuff us inside it, but He did make a way out, even though it cost Him everything.
Today, I will be merciful with myself. I will examine my life and my heart to see where learned helplessness is stealing, killing, and destroying in my life. I will look for the open door, I will open my eyes and swim, I will fight for life today, and not surrender to death.
I can do it because He is in me. What will you do?
If you liked this article, check out: Little Dragons: What consumes us
Karen is from Aledo, IL. She went to Monmouth College and studied Latin and English. She is a biological mom of two children and surrogate mom/friend/advocate for a whole host of children. She would like to meet every wounded soul that I’ve she’s ever known… as a child, before the “damage was done” so she could tell them how much they are loved.