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Not as They Seem: Anticipating Deception in Domestic Abuse Cases

by Chelsey Gordon

 

In a world hard fallen under the curse of sin (Gen. 3, Rom. 8:20-22), occupied by “cosmic powers over this present darkness” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12), Christians are called to “keep alert” (Eph. 6:18). Rather than be entrapped by the schemes of the devil (Eph. 6:11), we are called to arm ourselves that we might “withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:13). One of the greatest tools of the devil, whose character is deception, for he is the father of lies (John 8:44), is to deceive. If we are to keep alert against these schemes, we must actively fight for truth and against lies, protecting ourselves and others from the very real threat of being deceived. No human being is immune to this vulnerability, not even biblical counselors. We are susceptible and we must be on guard.  

Being aware of this ever-present threat of deception, be cautioned: domestic abuse cases can be particularly disorienting for counselors because of the role deception plays in enabling, sustaining, and hiding abuse. Realize that much of what you initially see and hear in broader church body life or in the counseling room may very well be a façade obscuring your vision from the truth. The husband who appears charming and compliant when speaking with you or your pastor may be hateful and obstinate in his home. The wife who appears endeared to and enamored with her husband in public may only be acting this way out of fear, knowing intimately the terrors he is capable of in private.

 

Don’t be surprised by deception.

While this dynamic of things not being as they seem in domestic abuse cases can frustrate both the counselor and the counseling process, it should not be surprising. Due to the unique dynamics of abuse[1], these cases will always involve multi-layered deception including (but not limited to) lying, manipulation, minimization, denial, blame-shifting[2], deflection, gas-lighting, and any other number of covert tactics used to uphold the power and position of the abuser and create a foggy atmosphere of hiddenness that distorts the vision of everyone involved, including those trying to help.

Biblical counselors, familiar with the doctrine of sin, the reality of spiritual warfare, and the general tendencies of the human heart, should always (regardless of presenting problem) expect there to be some level of deception inhibiting the counseling process. We know that ever since the Fall (Gen. 3:1-13), Satan, the Deceiver (Rev. 12:9), has been lying, distorting the words of God, and drawing people into sin. Not only that, but as a result of the first sin, all human hearts are now prone to deceive (Jer. 17:9) self and others. Many of us have witnessed especially hardened hearts which, enflamed with pride, seek to conceal their transgressions rather than humbly confess and forsake them (Prov. 28:13-14). Knowing what we know and having seen what we’ve seen, we should be not be naïve to the potential presence of deception in our counselees but should instead anticipate that those caught-up in deep-seated sin will typically respond to confrontation not with transparency, but with some form of deception. Those who perpetrate acts of abuse are no different. In order to act shrewdly in domestic abuse intervention, we must learn to anticipate deception. We cannot afford to be surprised.

 

All lies are serious but not all lies are rooted in the same motivation.

One troubling inconsistency I have witnessed in church-based domestic abuse interventions is that even though many of the pastors or counselors intervening struggle to understand or accept the potential presence of deception in the life and responses of the accused perpetrator, they are often very willing to assume or acknowledge deception in the alleged victim. Tragic consequences come when those ministering to an abused wife are quicker to assume she is lying than they are to explore the very real possibility that the one actually engaged in deliberate deception is the one with the most to hide: her abusive husband. As people of the Word, it should never surprise us when those being accused of grievous sin do everything in their power to keep it hidden in the dark.

Even if both parties appear to be engaging in deception of some kind, it’s critical that we carefully examine the unique motivations informing each party’s actions. Victims are typically tempted to omit truths or outright deceive for vastly different reasons than a perpetrator may be tempted to do the same. For example, a victim’s story may seem to change over time.

  • She may be deceived. Because she has long been living in a world defined by her abuser’s demands and deception, she has likely come to believe and internalize these lies as truth.
  • She may be unsure. She may not yet be ready to disclose the personal and often shameful details of the abuse she has endured and purposely kept hidden. As she comes to trust you and your care, she may choose to uncover more.
  • She may be fearful. In an effort to avoid retaliation, victims often limit the amount of their husband’s sin they reveal in an attempt to protect themselves and/or their children from his escalating abuse.
  • She may be uneducated. She may not recognize the sinfulness and pervasiveness of her husband’s control and, therefore, may not understand or be able to articulate the full extent of the abuse she has experienced.

In contrast, perpetrators tend to employ deceptive behaviors for entirely different reasons.

  • He may be self-deceived. Abusive men often believe their actions are justified and that they are entitled to the control they exercise over others.
  • He may be self-protecting. Abusive men often work hard to mitigate and/or avoid consequences for their actions and to protect their reputations and way of life in their homes, churches, and communities.
  • He may be resisting self-examination. Because of the deeply rooted pride and arrogance present in the hearts of abusive men[3], when confronted with their sin and its effects on others, they generally respond with defensiveness or attempts to conceal and excuse rather than with humility and an earnest desire for their sin to be revealed and dealt with righteously.

 

There is hope for those ministering to the abused and the abusive.

As long as there is sin, there will be deception. Biblical counselors can and must grow in their discernment, learning to recognize and courageously confront deception in whatever form it may take. If you are wading through the murky waters of an abuse case, feeling blurry-eyed and confused, please consider the deep confusion of the wife whose husband employs these deceptive tactics on a daily basis. Victims of abuse live inside a topsy-turvy world where the realities of their marriage relationship are ever-shifting and where truth is slippery and hard to hold onto. May witnessing the chaotic effects of deception embolden you to fight against those perpetrating lies all the more.

Paul urges the church in Ephesus, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’” (Eph. 5:6-14).

When ministering to those blinded and ensnared by sin, we are called to remain alert, maintaining clear vision, actively fighting against the possibility of deception, and doing everything we can to never partner with the deception and darkness of others. May we be able to walk consistently as children of light, moving toward what is good, right, and true. May we be able to discern what is pleasing to the Lord and what is not. May our intervention efforts reflect the light of Christ. May we, like our Savior, shine into the darkness, exposing sin for the rotting corpse it is and, by calling for repentance, offer the hope of resurrection.

 

 

 

[1] For a brief introduction to the dynamics of domestic abuse, please listen to What is Domestic Violence?, one of four trainings given by pastor and biblical counselor Chris Moles during the 2017 IBCD Summer Institute Pre-Conference.

[2] To learn more about the common perpetrator responses of minimization, denial, and blame, please listen to Episode #85 of The PeaceWorks Podcast by Chris Moles.

[3] To better understand the innerworkings of an abusive man’s heart, please read, The Heart of Domestic Abuse: Gospel Solutions for Men Who Use Control and Violence in the Home by Chris Moles.