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New Horizons

Helping the Perpetrators of Domestic Violence

Paul Tripp and David Powlison

The grace of God ... has appeared.... It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives. —Titus 2:11-12

People who publicly sit together in church pews on Sunday morning are not thereby prevented from doing violence to each other once they are in private. Ministry to the violent—like ministry to anyone with immediately destructive sins—demands wide-awake, bold, knowledgeable intervention, full of grace and truth. The perpetrators of battery (like sexual predators) are criminal, as well as wicked and highly deceptive.

The perpetrators of domestic violence need grace—effectual grace, life-changing grace, real grace. As they become willing to stop and look at themselves in the mirror of truth, as they embrace the Messiah as he is in fact, they can and will genuinely change. Scripture says a great deal about the sins of anger and violence, and the ways of the Redeemer of sinners. What considerations ought to control your efforts to help such men (and, sometimes, women)?

Violent people have much in common with other people—both with those who would help them and with those they hurt

We are all basically alike: see 1 Corinthians 10:12-13. Interpersonal hostility comes in many forms—attitudinal, verbal, financial, physical, sexual. It comes with many degrees of intensity, from grumpiness and bickering to assault and murder. Every argument is, in principle, on a continuum with outbreaks of actual violence. So domestic violence is not different in kind from other typical sins.

This fact produces both confidence and humility in those who seek to help others. If you know how to deal with your own anger, you will have good things to offer others who struggle with it. I (DP) once counseled a couple who had had a gunfight in their home! My own repentance from irritability and a critical attitude helped me both to understand them and to proceed surefootedly. Those who counsel the violent should not suppose that they are the sinless coming to the sinful. We are finders of grace coming to those who need grace.

Similarly, you should expect to find two sinners embroiled with each other, not an irredeemable monster oppressing an innocent victim who needs no redemption. God will be at work in the lives of both people. So explore incidents of violence in detail. You will usually find places where both parties need Christ's grace to change.

Perhaps one party draws most of the attention because he acts with his fists. But, on closer inspection, the other party may skillfully and perversely wield her tongue in ways that goad him to violence. Outbursts of violence are usually extreme instances in more widespread, low-grade patterns of conflict. Look for the common sins that both parties share, not just the unique outbreaks of sin in one party. You want to help both people become more loving, wise, and peaceable.

These truths must be handled with great care by those who would minister. Remember that batterers distort them regularly. We are all tempted to anger, aren't we? Batterers will turn that into an excuse: they are "just one of the boys," and violence is not that serious. Aren't the victims of violence also sinners, whose sins are often intertwined with the batterer's sins? Batterers will turn that into an excuse and an accusation: fault really lies with their victims. You who would help must know the truth about anger and sin, but don't let the batterer twist that truth into lies.

You need to know what violent people are like, because they easily create a fog of confusion and evasion

Sin is deceitful: see Jeremiah 17:9. Violent people neither know themselves nor let others know them. They are habitual liars and hiders, who often create elaborate patterns of deceit. They tend to conceal what they do; when that fails, they tend to downplay its seriousness; when that fails, they tend to shift the blame, portraying themselves as somehow aggrieved, innocent, and victimized; when that fails, they tend to wallow in despair and "repentance" to make people feel sorry for them. Bear in mind the following characteristic sins of violent people:

1. Undergirding the violent act is a pervasive selfishness: the violent person's pleasure, his agenda, his desires, his demands, and his cravings dominate much of his life. Counseling must not let the visible "marquee" sins divert attention from the foundational perversity of a lifestyle characterized by "ungodliness and worldly passions." Often the violent person's awareness of his sin is superficial; he may grieve over his sporadic violence, but rarely will he recognize his selfish lifestyle or the specific passions that drive him.

2. Expect to encounter intricate, subtle patterns of self-deceit. Violent people often feel sorry for themselves: "I'm really the victim, and my anger is just a reaction." They often express the self-righteous opinion that "I'm not really like that" or "I know I shouldn't do that, but ..." Often they exhibit a marked ability to adopt different patterns of behavior, living two lives in two worlds. For example, a man might hit his wife, and then, one hour later, shift gears and smoothly lead a Bible study.

3. Expect to encounter intricate patterns of winsome deceit towards others. Violent people (like sexual predators) are often gifted seducers. They win people, creating trust again in the very people they have mistreated and betrayed. They skillfully manipulate other people—the victim, the would-be helpers—into feeling guilty and responsible for what happened and for now making it better.

4. Expect to encounter self-deceived versions of confession and repentance. It is almost as if they could deceive God—though of course they really deceive only themselves and others. They may say the right words or seem to have the right feelings, but their "repentance" is often godless. It expresses remorse for smirching their self-image or their reputation in the eyes of neighbors. Such "repentance" actually serves the very same pride and fear of man that lead to the sins of secret violence. Violent people typically misuse grace or misunderstand it. Grace becomes "cheap," and repentance becomes "jumping through hoops" to assuage the conscience and get back into the good graces of other people. It can even become a tool of sin, a quick fix—sometimes calculating—that sweeps problems under the rug. Violent people may weep, pray, and pledge that it will never happen again, without any of the fundamental changes involved in genuine repentance and faith in Christ: that "change of mind" and "turning" that lead to a change of life.

5. They often intimidate and manipulate their victims. Violence is frightening. Violence is a tool of control. You will sometimes find it hard to get the facts even from the violated. The victim may seek to preserve the present moment's interlude of peace, or may fear that openness will lead to revenge (perhaps having been threatened that "if you tell, then ..."). The victim may find it highly embarrassing that the family has these problems, and may be reluctant to make the degree of evil known. All this adds up to the fact that you may have to overcome a "conspiracy" of silence in the family that serves to protect the evildoer.

In all these ways and more, domestic violence is a "secret" sin. You must be prepared to drag it into the light.

The violent need the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ

Violent people need Christ: see Hebrews 3:12-14. The drift of sin is always away from the living Christ. That is a problem of the heart that needs daily attention. Jesus, who died for sinners, is gracious, and grace is effectual.

1. Aim for a fundamental restructuring of heart and lifestyle. Cosmetic adjustments that make the person's behavior more socially acceptable are not enough. You must expose the heart issues that motivate violence: cravings for power, love, control, comfort, money, respect, pleasure. About what things is this person willful? The batterer's violence is not about his wife; it is about himself and the flagrant idolatries he brought into the marriage. Violent people play God and so act like the devil, rather than serving God. They must repent of the "vertical" sins that fuel the "horizontal" sins. Both the motives and the expressions of hostility must be laid bare: see James 3:5-12, 14-16; 4:1-4, 6, 11-12.

2. Aim to solve the minor versions of the major sins, as well as the major outbreaks. Judgmentalism, grumbling, irritability, bickering, and arguing usually precede violence and express identical themes of the heart. People who learn to repent of grumbling—and thus learn both gratitude and contentment in Christ—will rarely need to repent of assault and battery.

3. Give people the living Christ himself. Jesus is abundant in loving-kindness and terrible in wrath. Violent people need to know the love of Christ. They deserve the violence of God, but he has provided the Lamb of God. Jesus loved sinners, the ungodly, the wicked, the weak, the enemies of God. He died, that those who live might live no longer for themselves. God freely gives grace and wisdom from above: see James 1:5, 17; 3:17; 4:6, 10. Effectual, life-rearranging grace is available for all who need it. Violent people need to learn to fear the Lord of wrath. He is jealous and holy: see James 4:5, 12. A person committing an act of violence lives without the fear of the Lord. He acts and reacts as if there were no God. But in fact, "everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (Heb. 4:13). To begin to live radically "in public" is to live without the secrecy that violence depends on.

4. Bring violent people to a God-centered repentance: see James 4:6-10. Internal changes come first. Compare their "repentance" to real repentance: see Psalms 50 and 51, which contrast godly and worldly sorrow. To know the Christ of the gospel is to rearrange heart and soul so that sin can no longer thrive. Settle for nothing less. Those who seek, find. Those who believe, receive the Holy Spirit. How do you know someone has truly repented? You will know. Time always tells genuineness from falsity. You will see fundamental changes in relationships, first with God and then with others.

5. Help repentant believers learn the practical, peaceable, loving alternatives to manipulation, shifting of blame, intimidation, and violence: see James 3:13, 17-18. People can learn to listen, to ask questions, to ask for forgiveness, to take a time-out, to ask for help, to postpone decision-making, to give in tangible ways. Such actions flow from the wisdom that comes from above. Love can and will replace not only the moments of violence, but the pervasive lifestyle of selfishness and willfulness. You will see progress, not perfection. A person who has more and more "give" is a person with less and less room for hating and hitting.

6. Bring to bear the resources of the community of Christ: see James 5:19-20 and Hebrews 3:12-14. People repenting of violence need more than once-a-week, "formal" counseling. They need radical honesty, accountability, reminders, encouragement, models, daily exposure to the light of day, and prayers of intercession. I have never known an incident of domestic violence to occur in a public church service or while someone was talking on the phone to his pastor or small group leader! Help the perpetrators of such sins to come out of hiding and live in the open. Sin thrives in dark corners; righteousness thrives in the daylight. A person who has changed internally towards Christ will desire the humbling structures of accountability to Christ's people, in order to save him from himself.

How will you help those who are violent in private? Their souls must be rearranged to seek and know the Christ of the gospel. Without that fundamental, living relationship with Christ, you can't teach enough truth, you can't shine the light of insight brightly enough, you can't put up enough fences, you can't make enough plans, you can't invite enough commitment, you can't bring in enough people, you can't be enough like Christ. But when violent sinners embrace the love of Jesus Christ, these things—doctrine, insight of the heart, structure, plans, commitment, community, counsel—become channels and expressions of effectual grace.

Messrs. Tripp and Powlison are counselors at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation in Glenside, Pa. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 1997.

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