I used to think that we all agreed on certain things.
- If you hit your wife, that's bad.
- If you sexually molest or verbally abuse or physically neglect your child, that's horrible.
- If you have a pornography habit, or if you sleep around, then surely surely surely, something is wrong and you have difficult emotional work to do.
But then it turned out that people with patterns of incredibly harmful behaviors toward other people would come in to therapy and say things like this:
Everybody makes mistakes.
In fact, the more egregious the behavior, the more likely the offender would be to say something like this. With great conviction.
And I would sit and listen, just struck dumb by the whole thing, because:
- It's true. We all do make mistakes, and not one of us is perfect.
- I'm going to be judgmental if I call bad, bad. Because I'm not perfect. I've made mistakes
- The offender appears to sincerely believe that "nobody's perfect" is an adequate explanation for anything and everything.
For a while now, I've been trying to untangle this whole mess in my head, and here is what I've come up with so far.
1. There is a difference between mistakes and abuse.
All of us make mistakes, no doubt about it. We get mad, we get pushy, we want what we want, and it's not pretty. We have to apologize and forgive and move forward.
However, in an abusive situation there is a power differential. The offender is bigger, stronger, the adult, the parent, "the spiritual leader." And the offender uses that power to hurt another person, in order to meet their own needs, physically, sexually, emotionally.
In the process, the offender creates a mental system that allows the abuse to be acceptable to himself or herself. (Nobody's perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. I was drunk. She asked for it. I'm the husband, and she has to submit.) This set of excuses has been repeated, probably for years. The offender can deliver the excuses with ease and even sincerity.
Scripture talks about this: "God gave them over to a reprobate mind" (Romans 1:28). They've said it so long that they believe the crazy.
But other people's crazy doesn't have to be our crazy.
We own our own stuff, we acknowledge our mistakes. And we know abuse when we see it.
2. Knowing where the line is? That's not judgmental.
Abusive, addicted people hate it when draw the line, because that stops the gravy train. Their world depends on having victims to victimize. And they need for people to be deceived by the crazy, or at least be confused enough not to confront it. That helps keep their reprobate-mind-mental-system intact.
When you say to an abusive, addicted person, "That is a lie, and here is the truth," you may get a big backlash about how mean and judgmental you are. That's no fun.
Or, you may say to an abusive, addicted person, "That is a lie, and here is the truth," and the person may be able to hear it and get out of their mess. This one we like a lot better.
Either way, being able to tell lies from truth is not judgmental.
Being able to tell truth from lies is a necessary life skill called good judgment.
3. Excuses appear to be kind, but they are not.
When we make excuses for the offender, then excuses are all she's got.
Under that reprobate mind, desperately chanting "No big deal, no big deal," is a person who needs to lay down the burden of guilt and shame, repent, and receive the relief of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is available for all of us, but only when we stop the excuses and face the truth.
"But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says 'Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology...' But excusing says 'I see that you couldn't help it or didn't mean it; you weren't really to blame.' ...And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses. They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves." C. S. Lewis, "On Forgiveness," The Weight of Glory
I think abusive, addicted people DO know that they're over the line. They DO know what they've done. And they have so much guilt and shame that the excuses are about the only thing holding them together.
When we hear those excuses, it can be confusing.
But there is so much more available to us than excuses.
We have repentance.
We have forgiveness.
And, by the gift of God, we have redemption.