Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.” Proverbs 4:23
In working with men who are abusive one difficulty I have encountered is the willingness of pastors and ministry leaders to accept any immediate change in behavior as a sign of repentance without recognizing the manipulative nature of the abuser and certainly without adequately addressing the heart. The assumption may be that once the “violence” has stopped then our role as shepherd shifts from confronting abuse to looking for ways to restore the marriage, it always seems to come back to the marriage. Among the many problems with this approach is that it draws our attention away from the source of abuse, which is the abuser and his beliefs.
The Centrality of the Heart.
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:43-45)
Jesus words in Luke 6 remind us that as we deal with problems it is imperative that we address the issues of the heart. In working with men who use violence it is easy to focus upon the actions surrounding the instances of abuse. The abuser’s behavior will require diligent and focused attention but, they remain only a portion of the problem. Sometimes men are willing to embrace the “respectable” sins of poor judgment and bad behavior in exchange for the continued concealment of an abusive heart. Like the “bad tree” in Jesus’ story the abuser may have experienced some consequences resulting from his sin but remains unwilling to address the real problem. Lying beneath the soil are a system of roots that have developed over time in the heart of an abusive man that contribute to so much more than just the abusive behavior and if left un-confronted may produce, though possibly different, more damaging fruit. Yes, the behavior must be addressed but in conjunction with the uprooting of the heart of abuse. Behavior is rarely, if ever, an isolated event. As James chapter four illustrates people do what they do, because they want what they want. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” If we only confront violent behavior we may very well see a family susceptible to new tactics of control. He will more than than likely still be entitled, empowered, and bent on control. This is why we spend a great deal of time connecting behavior to beliefs when confronting men in our groups because we believe that a change of heart is the only real means of changing behavior.
My grandparents have an apple tree in their backyard and unless we uproot and remove it there will always be an apple tree in the backyard. Behavior modification without heart transformation is a kin to ripping all the apples off the apple tree, stapling bananas in their place and then trying convince others of how amazing this new banana tree is. That is exactly what abuser’s are willing to do if they think we’ll buy it.