An email lies in wait in the inbox. A quiet request is made for help in the middle of the sanctuary. A text bubble pops up. The small point of contact that begins a counseling case can quickly ripen into knowing far more about particular situations in a person’s life than any other human ever has.
Saying “yes” to counseling someone plants the seeds of a relationship that is ultimately outside of our control. Counseling means engaging hurting, suffering, and sinning people. And people will typically act consistently with their sufferings, hurts, and sins.
Whoever a counselee is outside of the counseling, they will eventually be inside of the counseling.
The name of the man or woman who first uttered this aphorism has long been forgotten, but the sentiment’s clear truth endures. When we import an angry counselee into our lives, we can expect them to turn their anger on us at some point. A despairing counselee most likely will spawn inconveniently-timed, yet entirely essential phone calls.
This aphorism holds no less true when we step towards situations of domestic abuse. We can fully expect to encounter a world where an abusive counselee will attempt to do to us what they have been doing to their spouse. We ought not be surprised when abusive counselees:
Take our faithful words and twist them, using slight modifications to change their meaning into something we have not said
Example: Our comment acknowledging that yes, all people are sinners becomes, “See, you just said that fault for our marital trouble is equally shared between us.”
Seek to establish an alliance with us against their spouse
Example: “How would you feel if your spouse never expressed any affection with you? Everything I’ve done is to try and love her and I get nothing in return.”
Try to warp our understanding of the situation so they become the victim and us as collaborators in abusing them
Example: “She’s the one who is separating, I’m the one who is actually the victim here. You’re endorsing abuse!”
Accuse us of heresy, liberalism, unfaithfulness, or malpractice
Example: “You aren’t loving me well. The Bible commands you to love me and all you’re doing is offering accusation.”
Example: “You just believe this because your theology isn’t right. If you really treasured God’s word, you’d agree with me.”
Send harassing emails or text messages, make harassing phone calls, or make implicit or explicit threats
Example: “If you don’t do what I ask, you can expect me to pursue it through other means.”
Example: “You had better hope for your sake that you’ve taken good notes of our sessions.”
Example: “It’s a good thing for your or your family’s sake that you have an unlisted address.”
This list is certainly partial, and every abuser manifests different groupings of the particular attitudes and actions tantamount to abuse. Even in situations that ultimately result in repentance and restoration, we can expect early sessions to be dominated by examples like these above as the condition of the abuser’s heart necessitates such behavior (Matthew 12:34).
Jesus warns those who would follow after him to count the cost of discipleship. Luke 14:28-30 cautions those who would quickly leave everything to follow him:
For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn’t first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, after he has laid the foundation and cannot finish it, all the onlookers will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man started to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
We do well to consider Jesus’ words in the context of helping couples mired in domestic abuse and violence. Jesus doesn’t offer these words to convince people not to follow him; he is God incarnate and all human beings ought and must follow him. However, in a world that crucified the Messiah, there will be a cost for those who do what they ought to do.
In the same way, we ought to and must step towards both the oppressed and the oppressors. As we do so, we need to remember that seeking to minister to an abusive individual enmired in their own sin will likely produce a cost to us as well. Whatever our taste of trouble, it sadly is but a sliver of what the oppressed spouse has suffered for years or decades. Bearing others’ burdens is a recipe for a weary back with little immediate payoff for yourself. However, it cultivates in us the attitude of our Savior, who came not to be served, but to serve, and to pour out his life for many.