Martin Luther On Depression

I have made a habit of running this article annually as it attracts so much attention from those who drop by. It’s long but worth your time.  Allan

This 16th-century reformer Martin Luther emphasized a spiritual approach.

The hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God gloriously celebrates God’s power. It was penned by the great 16th-century reformer Martin Luther, who believed God’s power could help believers overcome great difficulties — even depression. Given his pastoral heart, he sought to bring spiritual counsel to struggling souls. His compassion for those souls shines in numerous places, including his sermons, lectures, Bible commentaries and table talks.1 In addition, he devoted many letters to counseling troubled folk.2

Luther’s writings reveal his knowledge of various emotional difficulties. For example, in August 1536 he interceded for a woman named Mrs. Kreuzbinder, whom he deemed insane. He described her as being “accustomed to rage” and sometimes angrily chasing her neighbor with a spear.3 In addition, Luther’s wife, Kate, struggled with pervasive and persistent worry indicative of generalized anxiety disorder. Prince Joachim of Anhalt, to whom Luther often wrote, exhibited signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and he believed he had betrayed and crucified Christ. Conrad Cordatus, a pastor and frequent guest at Luther’s table, exhibited signs of hypochondriasis, a disorder involving preoccupation with fears of having a serious disease.

Besides observing mental difficulties in others, Luther had a compelling reason to affirm their reality. Luther himself endured many instances of depression. He described the experience in varied terms: melancholy, heaviness, depression, dejection of spirit; downcast, sad, downhearted. He suffered in this area for much of his life and often revealed these struggles in his works. Evidently he did not think it a shameful problem to be hidden.

Depression: A Complex Problem

Spiritual Factors

For Luther, depression involved a complex interplay of spiritual, social and cognitive factors. In the spiritual realm Luther recognized Satan’s role. Being the “accuser of the brethren,” Satan causes Christians to dwell on past sins. Such thoughts induce melancholy and despair. Concerning Matthias Weller’s depressive thoughts, Luther wrote, “Know that the devil is tormenting you with them, and that they are not your thoughts but the cursed devil’s, who cannot bear to see us have joyful thoughts.”4Luther recognized a spiritual truth about depression. One can expect Satan’s persistence until faith is destroyed, but in the midst of depression God is with us. He never leaves us alone. In the midst of trouble He draws near to us. Sometimes the invisible God draws near through visible people, and they become the bearers of God’s comforting and strengthening words to troubled souls. What’s more, God seeks to assure us of His love and esteem. And through His Word, He counters Satan’s lies with His truth.

A Cognitive Emphasis

Luther also saw thoughts as playing a prominent role in depression. This emphasis continually punctuated his letters on the subject. In his view, sometimes Satan instills depressive thoughts. At other times, people prove their own worst enemies because of biased thinking. Luther described several tendencies that specialists today recognize as cognitive errors. Sometimes depressed persons attend only to those things that support their negative assumptions (selective abstraction).5 They also make small problems seem larger than they really are (magnification). Sometimes they draw false conclusions from insufficient data (arbitrary inferences). Luther also knew that depressed persons frequently anticipate the worst possible outcomes (catastrophic thinking). For Luther, solitude magnified these errors.

Family Links to Depression

Luther also recognized that depression runs in families. He saw this trend in the brothers Jerome and Matthias Weller, whom he counseled. Likewise Luther saw similar family links in some royalty. In his letter to Prince Joachim, Luther noted that other members of his family had been “… of a retiring, quiet, and sober nature.” He then used those family traits to conclude that Prince Joachim’s illness derived from “melancholy and dejection of spirit.” He implied that other members of the family had struggled in this area.

The Potential for Suicide
Luther knew depression could sometimes prove deadly, since depressed persons may become weary of life and preoccupied with death. Such was the case with Jonas Von Stockhausen. To help ensure his safety Luther gave the following instructions to his wife: (1) Ensure that his surroundings are not so quiet that he sinks into his own thoughts. (2) Do not leave him alone for a single moment. (Luther believed that solitude is poison for such a person.) (3) Leave nothing around with which he might harm himself.6 Sound advice by any clinical standard!

Brief Conclusions on Luther’s Understanding of Depression

In many regards the views Luther expressed in his writings appear consistent with current knowledge. I marvel at his insights into the role of cognition. He possessed an excellent grasp of the variety of cognitive distortions that maintain depressive states. And why not! Given his own struggles in this area, he knew well its internal mechanisms. Luther also looked within the environment to discover the presence or absence of behaviors linked to depression. For this reason he placed great emphasis on helpful behaviors such as playing games, having fun and getting involved with others.

Luther’s spiritual emphases separate his ideas from modern secular approaches. Luther gave prominent place to both God’s and Satan’s activity. Luther reminds us that we cannot ignore Satan’s role in human difficulties. Ample biblical evidence points to a tempter who desires to destroy believers. But Luther emphasized God’s power to bring change. Most therapists likely dismiss such views as archaic and out of touch with modern notions. Yet the serious Christian cannot readily dismiss spiritual activity.
Having said that, we should exert care regarding the degree to which we emphasize Satan’s activity. Some believers too readily see a demon behind every case of depression. That’s not Luther’s intention. Can the Christian be oppressed by depressive thoughts? Luther answers with a resounding “yes.” Can the Christian be possessed by some demon that stimulates depression? His answer would be a resounding “no.” Christians must steer this delicate middle ground. We must affirm spiritual activity (both God’s and Satan’s) in the many events touching human lives. However, we also must avoid taking positions that heap heavier burdens on sincere Christians caught in the grips of depression.

Combating Depression

The caregiver’s attitude can make a great deal of difference in treating depression. Judgmental and guilt-provoking attitudes never help. Fortunately, Luther displayed no such attitudes. He accepted people and helped them understand they were not alone in their suffering. For him, depression was in some regards a universal occurrence afflicting even the people of God.7 This type of attitude often saves sufferers from unnecessary guilt and shame.

Given Luther’s complex understanding of depression, his multifaceted approach to its treatment should not surprise us. First and foremost, Luther emphasized spiritual factors. Luther assured his “clients” of Christ’s nearness, His love and esteem. He told them that Christ cared and would help believers carry their burden. They needed to trust His atonement as a buttress against Satan’s accusations. In addition, Luther counseled depressed persons to use prayer and suggested that they read or have read to them comforting words from Scripture. Luther also knew the soothing qualities of music. Therefore, he advised believers to sing and play spiritual songs unto the Lord until their sad thoughts vanished.

Second, Luther emphasized God’s work through other believers. He understood that God uses believers’ words to strengthen and comfort struggling persons.8 Depressed persons should receive these words. Luther advised one severely depressed person, “cease relying on and pursuing your own thoughts. Listen to other people who are not subject to this temptation. Give the closest attention to what we say, and let our words penetrate to your heart. Thus God will strengthen and comfort you by means of our words.”9 In this emphasis, Luther espoused a concept similar to Larry Crabb’s “eldering.” Like Crabb, Luther believed godly believers can successfully help one another. The church needs to take this more seriously.

Believers also serve a second function. Their company pulls depressed persons away from dangerous solitude. In Luther’s view, solitude fosters depression. Therefore, he counseled sufferers to seek the company of believers not caught in the web of depression. He knew that godly company serves several purposes: it affords an opportunity to receive a different and brighter perspective on life; it serves as a precaution against suicide; and it provides an opportunity for good, clean, wholesome fun. Luther repeatedly recommended playing games, joking, jesting and enjoying other forms of merriment.

The emphasis on merriment might surprise us. It should not. Luther knew that depressed persons give up pleasurable activities. They restrict life to narrow, confining limits. In this sense they sap the vigor and fun out of their lives. What else but depression can result when joy is sucked from life? But Luther emphasized merriment for a second reason: some Christians avoided pleasurable activities, thinking them sinful. This rigid scrupulosity threatened the hope of defeating depression. To counteract this tendency Luther reminded Christians that “proper and honorable pleasure with good and God-fearing people is pleasing to God.”10

Third, Luther suggested strategies to combat cognitive distortions. He understood that depressed believers sometimes should not trust their own thoughts because depression distorts reality. Instead they should seek the company of non-depressed believers. Such persons can pull them away from distorted thinking and bring them back to reality. Scripture serves a similar function. It presents the ultimate reality, an antidote to distorted views of one’s circumstances. Scripture also reminds us of God’s love, esteem and presence in our struggles. These truths represent the opposite of what Satan would have us believe; namely, that we are unloved, worthless and abandoned.

Luther also gave insight into handling the depressive thoughts Satan instills. The believer must resist the devil. Sometimes this means avoiding any disputation with the devil. At other times, Luther endorsed disputation. He did not seem to hold to a fixed rule. Much depends on one’s condition. For example, Luther advised against disputation when a person is fasting. In general, one might conclude that disputation is unwise whenever one is vulnerable in body or mind. At those times, believers should draw strength from spiritual persons and from Scripture.

Ultimately, Luther was a realist. He recognized that depressed persons sometimes plunge deep in despair and need protection. Caring persons should take every possible precaution against the threat of suicide. Providing a safe environment is fundamental, which in modern times sometimes means hospitalization until the threat passes. When necessary, such actions do not represent callousness. They represent genuine Christian love in action.

Finally, Luther impresses me with his “commonsense” approach. I cite three examples that illustrate this approach.

Eat, don’t fast!
Luther suggested that spiritual disciplines used at inappropriate times contribute to greater difficulties. For example, Luther believed disputing with the devil requires one to be well fed, not fasting. This sounds unspiritual but makes good sense. Depressed people need sustenance to combat the loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss characterizing depression. In addition, unlike Luther, I see solitude as a legitimate Christian discipline. However, for the deeply depressed individual, retreating alone does not make sense, but going out with a friend does. There is a time and place for everything, even legitimate spiritual disciplines.

Be realistic — improvement may be slow!
While remaining optimistic and encouraging dogged determination, Luther kept a realistic perspective. He knew improvement could be slow.11 This sounds discouraging but needn’t be. Sometimes persons focus too much on what is not right and what has not changed. Instead they should focus on what is right and even take note of small incremental changes. Such improvements represent hope for a better day.

Time is a great healer.
Though he did not advocate inactivity and passive waiting, Luther viewed time as a great healer. He once noted that “old age and other circumstances will in time render present depression and melancholy superfluous.”12 There is some truth to this statement. Age and maturity can bring new perspectives that help foster healing. Matilda Nordtveldt reflects this perspective. She wrote, “At age 71 I still struggle with my desire to bolster my self-image as well as my reputation by overworking. … Even if I have not learned my lesson perfectly yet, I am on my way. I know that my value in His sight is not determined by what I accomplish but [by] my relationship to Him, and I have learned that giving thanks in every circumstance brings joy and peace.”13 Time still does its work! Luther’s insights into depression are still instructive as people seek treatment in this modern-day world.

Tony Headley is a professor of counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary, a licensed psychologist and author of Achieving Balance in Ministry (Beacon Hill Press, 1999).

1 See Preserved Smith, Luther’s Table Talk, New York: Ams Press, 1907, for a critical study of the table talks.
2 Martin Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Translated by Theodore G. Tappert. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955.
3 This story is told in Luther’s letter to Francis Burkhard, Letters, 182.
4 Letter to Matthias Weller, Letters, 96-97.
5 The terms in italics represent the current labels for these cognitive errors. These labels are used by cognitive theorists such as Aaron Beck.
6 Letter to Mrs. Jonas Von Stockhausen, Letters, 90-91.
7 Table talk recorded by Anthony Lauterbach, Letters, 100. The letter concerns the depression of Jerome Weller.
8 For example, Letters, pp. 96ff — especially third paragraph on p. 97.
9 Letter to Jonas Von Stockhausen, Letters, 89.
10 Letter to Prince Joachim of Anhalt, Letters, 93.
11 Letters, 94.
12 Letters, 93, paragraph 1. Paragraph 2 may be a reference to Luther’s own experience.
13 “My Life-Changing Discovery,” Light and Life, July/August 1999, 27.

Bipolar Disorder: Finding The Right Balance

Taken from the Las Cruces Sun-News  which is found   HERE.

“When Day Was Night” is the title of the book that Las Crucen Kathleen Sampson wants to write.

“I hope I can find the courage to write it,” she said as she talked candidly about her bipolar illness — which has encompassed much of her adult life.

As she described her journey, I have no doubt that she will do just that.

Sampson, who first sought treatment at the age of 36, said she had suffered from depression since she was a teenager, “but it would leave on its own,” she said.

While living in Jordan with her husband in 1987 she saw a psychiatrist and spent several years seeking out-patient care. Back in Las Cruces, in 1992 Sampson was hospitalized. She said she felt the stigma that comes with being hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital.

In 1978, she had married a college professor and had a promising career teaching at NMSU herself, but by the mid-90s all that changed.

“I lost my career, my marriage and had devastating losses,” she explained.

As a result, she willingly let her husband assume the parenting responsibilities.

Most people associate bipolar illness correctly with extreme mood swings.  Sampson has what is termed as rapid cycling, which means she passes through the mood swings quicker, therefore making it very difficult to manage. For Sampson, that meant trying 25 different drugs.

Bipolar disorder is diagnosed as Bipolar I or II, and includes symptoms such as mania and hypomania, accompanied by depression.

Mania and hypomania are characterized by elevated moods, with mania causing more disruption in the person’s life.

During both episodes the person may be irritable, practice risky behavior and need little sleep. Although there depression occurs, when those with bipolar disorder are going through a manic phase is when they are at greater risk for suicide. It has been estimated that the risk of suicide with people with bipolar illness is greater than 6 percent over 20 years, and self-harm occurs in 30-40 percent of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Sampson said she spent years in the hypomanic phase, and it was during this period that she “traveled the back roads of New Mexico and started doing photography.”

Eventually, over 20 years, she had amassed a collection of photos, describing that like as living as a vagabond.

“I could not stay put,” she said.

It was during this 20 year period of trying to get the meds right that she said she lost more people in her life

“I ran them off,” she said.

She pursued her creative talents while sleeping in her car and renting cheap motel rooms.

Then she went into full blown mania, which led to hospitalization and sleeping for four days.

Going on nine years, now, she has described this time as stable. This has involved medications, therapy and pursuing wellness.

Sampson is a prolific writer and has written and published a book of poetry. She is an avid nature lover and considers solitude as an important part of her recovery.

It is nearly impossible not to be affected by the tremendous gratitude Sampson has felt for the life she has now. For someone who once said “I am Humpty Dumpty and they can’t put me together again,” she now has a life filled with hope. For her this includes her four grandchildren, and three daughters — two with PhDs and one who graduated from a naval academy.

What an accomplished life! And she is just getting started.


The Power Of Music For A Hurting Spirit

There are times in our lives when out hearts ache. Other times our hearts are anxious. Or maybe we’re having a crummy day.

Since I was a teen music has always been a tonic for me. When I was searching for meaning in a life marked with chaos I retreated into reading and later on into music. For those times I was whisked away to a place where I was free from the harsh realities of life.

After I listened to an album while absorbing the lyrics I would re-enter the world. Thus began my love affair with music.

In 1 Samuel 16 we read of the anointing of David by Samuel to lead Israel. God had rejected Saul and His spirit departed from him. After being anointed king David was summoned by Saul to play his harp to calm Saul as he was tormented by an evil spirit sent by God. Thus began a long and tortured relationship between David and Saul.

1Samuel 16:23  And it happened when the spirit from God was on Saul, that David took a harp and played with his hand. And there was relief for Saul, and it was well with him, and the evil spirit departed from him. 

Gill, in his commentary on 1 Samuel 16:16 states   “music being a means of cheering the spirits, and removing melancholy and gloomy apprehensions of things, and so of restoring to better health of body and disposition of mind; and that music has such an effect on the bodies and minds of men is certain from observation and experience in all ages.”

In my journey living with panic disorder for over twenty years I can’t count the number of times God has used music to calm my soul when I was overcome with anxiety. Don’t think for a second that you as a Christian are a Saul whom God has removed His spirit from.

When you are overcome with depression or anxiety God loves you as much in those times just as much as when you think you’re at your best. God’s love is unconditional fellow Christian!

Christmas season can be difficult for many. You may find yourself overcome with sadness or grief. I’ve been there. I’ve been in that place I felt God had left me. So I will and have often turned to music to calm my soul. At times read through the promises of God. Know He has not excluded you from His promises. It’s been a long journey that is still ongoing for that to sink into me to the point I believe it 100%.

John 3:16,17 is a reminder of the love God has for us. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

The reason that for years I have shared music once a week is it can be a balm for the soul. I’ll leave you with one of my favorites. God bless and keep you. Allan

Streams In The Desert: December 3rd, 2016

Is it well with thy husband? Is it well with the child? And she answered, It is well (2 Kings 4:26).

Be strong, my soul!
Thy loved ones go
Within the veil.
God’s thine, e’en so;
Be strong.
Be strong, my soul!
Death looms in view.
Lo, here thy God!
He’ll bear thee through;
Be strong.

For sixty-two years and five months I had a beloved wife, and now, in my ninety-second year I am left alone. But I turn to the ever present Jesus, as I walk up and down in my room, and say, “Lord Jesus, I am alone, and yet not alone–Thou art with me, Thou art my Friend. Now, Lord, comfort me, strengthen me, give to Thy poor servant everything Thou seest he needs.”

And we should not be satisfied till we are brought to this, that we know the Lord Jesus Christ experimentally, habitually to be our Friend: at all times, and under all circumstances, ready to prove Himself to be our Friend.
–George Mueller

Afflictions cannot injure when blended with submission.

Ice breaks many a branch, and so I see a great many persons bowed down and crushed by their afflictions. But now and then I meet one that sings in affliction, and then I thank God for my own sake as well as his. There is no such sweet singing as a song in the night. You recollect the story of the woman who, when her only child died, in rapture looking up, as with the face of an angel, said, “I give you joy, my darling.” That single sentence has gone with me years and years down through my life, quickening and comforting me.
–Henry Ward Beecher

E’en for the dead I will not bind my soul to grief;
Death cannot long divide.
For is it not as though the rose that climbed my garden wall
Has blossomed on the other, side?
Death doth hide,
But not divide;
Thou art but on Christ’s other side!
Thou art with Christ, and Christ with me;
In Christ united still are we.

Praise & Worship: December 2nd, 2016

1. Street Called Mercy-  Hillsong United

2.  In The River-  Jesus Culture (Kim Walker-Smith)

3.  You’re Here-  Francesca Battistelli  (Christmas Song)

4.  Do You Hear What I Hear-  Bing Crosby

5.  O Come, O come, Emmanuel-  Enya

6.  Sarajevo (Carol of the Bells)-  Trans Siberian Orchestra

7.  Beautiful-  Vineyard U.K.

8.  Oh Happy Day-  The Edwin Hawkins Singers

9.  The Silence Of God-  Andrew Peterson

10.  This World-  Caedmon’s Call

11.  My Peace-  Maranatha Singers

Dave Burchett: No One Escapes Suffering

Taken from  Confessions Of A Bad Christian   which is found   HERE.

Being in community with others means you share in their joys and their sorrows. Sometimes the sorrows come in tsunami waves and all you can do is care, pray and be present. Good and decent people deal with financial, emotional and physical suffering all around us and it is easy to lose heart. The news seems to be only tragedy and heartbreaking sadness. What can be redeemed of all of this suffering?

A song called “The Hurt and the Healer” by MercyMe resonated when I first heard it but now that same song ministers much deeper in my soul recently.

The question that is never far away
The healing doesn’t come from the explained
Jesus please don’t let this go in vain

I can’t explain why things happen. Sometimes it is sin. Sometimes it is simply life. I have learned in my years of following Jesus that He does not let suffering go in vain. I have seen over and over how God redeems sadness and tragedy. He does bring beauty out of ashes. When I cannot see how any good can come out of a trial I trust my Abba Father in faith. Believe me I don’t “feel” that but I can move forward in faith. God has never let me down. And I believe He never will.

Sometimes I feel it’s all that I can do
Pain so deep that I can hardly move
Just keep my eyes completely fixed on You
Lord take hold and pull me through

Most of us have been there at some point. If not, you will be someday. Peter talked about the inevitability of suffering in this life in a passage that we usually leave out of the brochure when we tell others about our faith. All of us who follow Jesus are going to suffer.

Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world. (1 Peter 4, NLT)

Count me among the brethren who tried to dance around this truth for as long as I could. Be very glad? Seriously? But when you have nowhere else to turn but to Christ you find out that you should have turned to Him first all along.

So here I am
What’s left of me
Where glory meets my suffering

I’m alive
Even though a part of me has died
You take my heart and breathe it back to life
I’ve fallen into your arms open wide
When the hurt and the healer collide

Jesus meets you there and not in theory. He suffered. He agonized with God the Father. He knows the human condition. He has already been where you are. When the hurt and the Healer collide something amazing happens. The pain may not immediately go away but peace and hope begin to slowly heal the pain. Peter did not end his writing on suffering with the buzz kill of Chapter 4. He wrapped it in a bow of incredible hope in the next chapter.

In his kindness God called you to share in his eternal glory by means of Christ Jesus. So after you have suffered a little while, He will restore, support, and strengthen you, and He will place you on a firm foundation. (1 Peter 5, NLT)

That is a promise that we can hold on to in times of sorrow and suffering. I am trusting that promise this week for myself and my friends who are hurting.

Sexual Abusers: Abusers And True Repentance

Originally posted in September, 2011.

Many who suffer with a mental illness arrived at that place in their lives due to some type of  past sexual abuse.  This article, written by Philip Monroe, who has a blog listed here, tackles a very delicate topic.  I chose to print this article with two things in mind.  1)  For the well being of the victim by not rushing in and offering forgiveness where the fruits of true repentance don’t exist.  2)  To remind us that the worst of sinners can be forgiven.

In no way is this article intended to be a means to cause any condemnation to victims of abuse.  Nor is it intended to create any pressure to make a huge decision you aren’t comfortable with.

I pray that God would use this article to work out His perfect will for those who have been victimized and also for the victimizer.  Allan


As a psychologist and seminary professor, I frequently entertain questions about the timeline for forgiveness and reconciliation in situations of domestic or familial sexual abuse. Most frequently, church leaders want to know when it is appropriate to encourage a victim of abuse to allow an offender back into the home or life.

These questions sometimes originate for quite different reasons. Some ask due to fear that once abuser and victim are separated, reconciliation is made much more unlikely. Others ask because it seems that the abuser is not being forgiven in a timely manner. Still others want to know how to discern whether the abusive person is genuinely repentant. It is this last question that I think merits the most attention. How do you know when an abusive person is adequately repentant, and therefore, capable of providing a safe environment for others to live in? The answer, of course, is found in the fruit they produce.

Honest admission.

When God’s people encounter his holiness, they often fall on their faces and admit the state of their soul (e.g., Moses, Isaiah, Paul). They make no pretense of being clean and they do not look to excuse their behavior or blame others (“I might be 60% responsible, but she’s responsible too.”). They do not attempt to manage their image as Saul did when confronted by Samuel (1 Samuel 15:14f). In appropriate settings they willingly reveal secret sins that had not been known. This honesty should be permanent rather than temporary. If another should bring up their sins decades later, they should be capable of admitting what is true without defensiveness or undue shame.

Does the abuser:

openly acknowledge abusive behavior and its impact on the victim?

accept full responsibility for actions without excuse?

accept the consequences of the abuse without demand for trust or forgiveness?

Sacrificial efforts to repair.

The story of  Zacchaeus provides a wonderful illustration of the fruit of repentance in the life of a man who profited by abusing others with his power. He does not shy away from the sniggering comments of others, but publicly promises to pay back all he has cheated plus four times more (probably twice as much as the Law required!). Not only that, but he willingly gives half of his wealth to feed the poor.

Jesus describes the kingdom of God as having so much worth that a true disciple joyfully gives all to acquire it (Matthew 13:44-46). The repentant abuser sees the value of restoration and joyfully gives all to obtain it. He no longer sees his rights as something to hold on to, but immediately thinks of how he can sacrificially put the interests of others before his own. Further, he does not demand acknowledgment of this sacrificial effort to undo the wrong done. Sadly, the opposite fruit seems more prevalent. The abuser strives to protect personal interests (e.g., an unwillingness to pay for counseling costs of the victim), attempts to compromise (I’ll pay for counseling if you won’t report the abuse to the authorities), or uses children to gain leverage (the children will be hurt if I am out of the home)

Does the abuser:

spontaneously seek to make restitution (not penance!) or to offer economic support without demand for things in return?

give physical and emotional space for the victim to receive help from others?

Accepts and flourishes under discipline.

When caught in abusive or addictive behavior, individuals commonly make immediate changes in their behavior. They stop certain problematic behaviors and start healthier ones (e.g., returns to church, reads the Bible, goes to counseling). We commend these behaviors. However, Jesus warns the disciples (Matthew 12-13; the story of the house swept clean and the parable of the soils) about the problem of reading initial reactions to the Gospel. Time and cultivation are required. The repentant abuser willingly submits to the loving discipline of the Church. When adequate ministry to him is not available, he pursues it until he finds it. He does not demand time limits or the entitlement to be forgiven. He accepts the intrusion of accountability partners and sees their work not as police work, but as discipleship.

Does the abuser:

accept the ministry of discipline, accountability, counseling, etc. with joy?

acknowledge that the fruit of change takes time to develop and so sees discipleship as a lifetime project?

show evidence of a growing life of prayer, reading of the Word and increasing measure of the fruits of the Spirit?

Be careful.

A word of caution to those whose job it is to assess the level of change in an abuser. There are two errors we must avoid. It is easy to classify abusers as subhuman and unable to ever change. If we fall into this error, we may be tempted to prejudge their ability to change, thereby encouraging greater defensiveness on their part. The power of the cross changes the worst of sinners (including ourselves). These men and women deserve God’s grace as much as any. The second error is that of being thrown off by external issues that may not have much to do with repentance. Those who are charming and well-spoken (especially those who use spiritual language) may tempt you to ignore fruit that is inconsistent with repentance. Also, when victims are less likable due to their own interpersonal demeanor, it is tempting to excuse abusive behavior.

It is wise to seek supervision during this process and to remember that you participate in the Lord’s work and that He will accomplish refinement in his children, including you!
Philip Monroe, PsyD., is Associate Professor of Counseling and Psychology and the Director of the MA in Counseling Program at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. He is also a licensed psychologist and practicing counselor.