Like many of the ills that persist in our fallen world, abuse is one that reaches far and wide. Even if you have not experienced abuse directly, it is likely that someone close to you has. When we witness or experience abuse, we long for God to step in and correct the abuser’s behavior.
Can God change an abuser? And if so, what can others—particularly abuse victims—do to make him or her change?
God can change an abuser. Like all sins, the sin of abuse can be overcome when an abuser surrenders to God and seeks His transforming power. As victims and witnesses, we should pray for such change and refrain from retaliation against abusers.
Abuse is especially painful because it happens within the confines of our deepest and most personal relationships. God designed us to be relational as a reflection of His image and His love. Whether abuse takes place between spouses or between parents and children, it damages a relationship that God designed to be loving and whole.
In His desire for us to be reconciled to Himself and each other, God offers hope for both the abuser and the abused. Let us examine each separately.
A Call to Self-Examination
The heart is deceitful above all things.Jeremiah 17:9a
As humans, we are adept at justifying, trivializing, and downplaying our sins. Ever since Adam and Eve first ate the forbidden fruit, we have mastered this art of self-deception. Such rationalization is all too common among abusers and is the first thing that must be overcome. The abuser will only change if he or she realizes the need to change.
We begin our self-examination with a snapshot of how a loving, God-honoring relationship operates:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Love is defined by qualities such as kindness, honor, and protection. There is no room for violence, malice, or selfishness. All forms of abuse fail on one or more of the qualities of love shown here. So let us examine more passages that address the different forms of abuse (for our purposes we will focus on spousal abuse).
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church.Ephesians 5:25-29
It is always God’s desire that we treat other people with kindness. But God has established a particularly high call for husbands. We are called to do more than just be nice to our wives. We must love them as we love our own bodies.
God’s design for marriage is that two shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). So when a husband abuses his wife, he sins against her, against God, and against himself. As a rule of thumb, we ought not to do anything to our wives that we would not do to ourselves.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.Colossians 3:19
The Bible has a lot to say about the power of words. James warns that the tongue is a destructive force that is difficult to tame (James 3:3-6). Proverbs 22:10 teaches that mockery and insults lead to quarrels and strife.
Are insults and mockery found in your words to your spouse? If so, your words are piercing your spouse like a sword (Proverbs 12:18) and you are eroding the foundation of your marriage by introducing strife and quarrels.
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.1 Peter 3:7
Some readers might find Peter’s description of women as ‘weaker’ to be archaic and demeaning. But it is fair to recognize that women, on average, do not possess the physical size and strength of men.
Also in fairness to Peter, we must commend him for describing women as partners while writing to a culture that treated women as property. Peter is instructing us that a proper view of marriage requires us to treat our wives as equals.
He instructs us to show them respect and consideration by recognizing the value and validity of their thoughts and feelings. Using emotional manipulation tactics or demeaning treatment is an affront to respect and consideration.
Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.1 Timothy 5:8
In New Testament times, men were the sole providers for their families. Even as modern women participate in the workforce and contribute to household earnings, marriage is still a partnership in which both spouses have a responsibility to support each other.
How those responsibilities are allocated will vary from couple to couple. But the timeless truth is that none of us may neglect our duties to our families, because neglect is a failure to live up to our calling and role as God’s image-bearers.
A Call to Action
If you see any of these traits in your treatment of your spouse, I encourage you to seek help. If you need help dealing with anger or depression that drives abusive actions, get the help that you need for the sake of your marriage, your spouse, and yourself.
For Those Who Experience Abuse
Most of the people who ask “Can God change an abuser?” ask because they have been (or presently are) on the receiving end of abuse. We do not have the power to change other people’s hearts and behavior but our situations are not hopeless, either.
Do I Have to Endure?
This is perhaps the toughest question that abuse victims wrestle with. As Christians, we understand that God has given us marriage as a permanent covenant. So it is right that we do not take the idea of separation and divorce lightly.
But we have no clear answers on when it is okay to part ways because each situation is different. We offer a few broad guidelines. How each applies will depend on your circumstance.
Do Not Retaliate
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone…
On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”Romans 12:17, 20
Abuse is an insidious evil that we are right to reject. Still, as Christians, whenever we are confronted with the evils of the world, we are called to refrain from repaying evil for evil.
The Lord instructs us to “heap burning coals” of kindness on an enemy’s head. The purpose of doing so is not to anger the person, but to provide warmth and light to transform their home from the inside out.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere, mercy is a powerful force for change that God uses to soften human hearts. He showed us mercy on the cross while we were still sinners, and He calls us to be agents of His mercy in the present darkness.
Recognize When It is Time to Separate
The Bible doesn’t enumerate valid reasons for divorce apart from marital infidelity. But the Bible also does not mandate subjecting yourself to further abuse.
In a conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus reminded them that Moses wrote divorce laws because of men’s hardened hearts (Mark 10:2-5). Those laws were designed to protect women and ensure their ongoing security by providing a path to remarriage (remember, women were fully dependent on their husbands in those times).
A woman who suffers abuse today is entitled to similar protection and safety. As Christians, we encourage anyone who is presently in harm’s way to seek help, separate from the abuser if necessary, and get to safety.
God can transform even the most callous and hardened hearts. If that heart is yours, turn it over to God and ask Him to lead you on a path to renewal. And if you are a victim, it is okay to protect yourself while still praying for the transforming power of God’s love and mercy to work in the heart of your abuser.