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Counseling an Abuser: 3 Steps

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This post was written by based on material from in "The Heart of Domestic Violence"

Domestic violence is something that no one counselor ever wants to encounter, but with a reported 1 in 3 women claiming to have experienced violence by an intimate partner[1] the unfortunate reality is that men in our churches do abuse their wives. The church should be lauded as an advocate for the oppressed as well as an entity calling abusers to true repentance, but too often she has fallen short of this ideal. Thanks be to God that even in a complex issue like domestic violence, both abusers and their victims can have hope in the gospel.

Here are three steps to take into consideration when counseling an abuser[2]:

1. Acknowledge the Sin

For a man who gives himself over to abusive tendencies, it can be easy to excuse, justify, or rationalize abuse, citing his wife’s supposed lack of submission or her provocation of his anger as the true problem. The biblical counselor must be devoted to exposing the wretchedness of the sin of abuse and disallowing excuses from the counselee.

Gathering data about specific sinful behaviors is the first piece of the puzzle to walking in true heart change. For the specific sin of abuse, this process of uncovering may become uncomfortable, especially when the counselor begins to piece together the specific words and actions used against his victim. But, this uncovering is not meant to be a practice in morbid introspection, heaping guilt and shame upon the abuser. Instead, it is meant to draw the abuser to repentance.

As the counselor, it will be your job to help prepare this counselee for confession, and to do this, he must rightly understand how he has specifically violated the law of God. The apostle John reminds us that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive” (1 Jn 1:9, emphasis mine). In this first step towards change, the counselee must confess specifically, with an understanding of the impact of his sin on his loved ones and the violation of God’s law that he has committed.

2. Address the Heart

When counseling a case involving such a heated and emotional topic as domestic violence, it can be easy to miss the true point of counseling. The counselor could be tempted to feel that the case was successfully concluded if the abuser has simply stopped physically abusing his wife. Biblically, we know that behavior stems from the heart. Christ himself paints a picture of this truth, saying “the good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his even treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45). If we are simply seeking behavior modification for our counselees, we have missed the mark by a long shot.

In order to discern underlying heart motivations, the counselor would be wise to gather much data. Typically, “why” questions are ineffective in counseling, as people are more likely to blame their sin on the behavior of another. This is especially true in the case of abusers. Asking an abuser why he hit his wife will open the door for him to blame her perceived lack of respect or submission, her chastisement of him, or some other aspect of her behavior that provoked him. This is not what we are after. Instead, asking “what” questions provides more specific, accurate, and valuable data.

For example, asking the counselee “What did you expect your wife to do after you began calling her those names?” can expose the true desires of the heart. Through “what” questions, the counselor can discover the lust for control, desire for power, and pride that is generally driving abusers. With this step, we should begin to look out for true repentance. Based on Paul’s description of godly repentance, begin to look for “repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor 7:10). This would include an acknowledgment of sin, as described in the first step, a commitment to change, and genuine walking in newness of life. As Chris Moles notes, “When is an abuser no longer an abuser? When he becomes an encourager”[3].

3. Develop a Plan of Action

After true confession and repentance have taken place, it is time for the counselor to guide the counselee in creating a plan of action. This should include concrete goals that paint a picture of the newness of life that the biblical counselor is looking for six months down the road. Paul describes this to the Ephesians writing, “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires…and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22, 24).

Some examples of these goals may be putting off pride and putting on humility, putting off abuse and putting on encouragement, and putting off selfishness and putting on love for God and others. Most importantly, the goal for the abuser should be the same goal for all believers; “that in everything, God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 4:11).

Footnotes

[1] National Center for Injury Prevention and Control: Division of Violence Prevention, “National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey,” 2010 Summary Report: 39.

[2] Moles, Chris, (2017), The Heart of Domestic Violence.

[3] Moles, Chris, (2017), The Heart of Domestic Violence.

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