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I present this with great trepidation. The issues involved are complex and sensitive. My thoughts here are tentative, and will without question involve further development. Yet, I present them for two reasons. One, writing helps me clarify my thoughts. Two, perhaps someone will be able to offer critique and nuance which I have missed.

The repentant abuser presents a very difficult problem for the counselor. [We will stipulate that the fact of the sinful conduct is unquestioned and concerns a significant mistreatment. This is not a questionable case.] Like the trolley problem, one is faced with seemingly irreconcilable choices.

On one side there are the commands respecting love, forgiveness, and the continuation of marriage. We are to love even our enemies (Matt. 5:43), that we forgive lavishly (Matt. 8:21-22), and that we forgive others as Christ forgave us. (Eph. 4:32)

In some situations, the cost of forgiveness will be some-thing which is of spiritual benefit. Learning to forgive and love is critical to our spiritual maturity. Sometimes the cost of forgiveness will be a loss of pride, or giving up my “right” to revenge. Sometimes the cost will be trusting God to make the necessary judgments and mete out the proper response.

Loss of material goods may be more difficult but may be necessary. We must have a willingness to perhaps be defrauded to protect the reputation and unity of the church. (1 Cor. 6:7)

But in matters of “abuse” the troubles involved become more complex. First is the nature of the injury: there is a loss to the body and the mind. It can be far easier to recover from a financial loss than a loss of trust between spouses, or between parent and child. Second, there is the question of restoration which is more urgent the closer the relationship between the two. A financial transaction may entail a relationship with two people only slightly related. But the betrayal of a friend, or a harm within a family forces the question of reconciliation and restoration.

Third, the decision of one person can affect the good of another. A parent who “forgives” a spouse may endanger the children.

At this point, we must consider the significant biblical demands of persistence of the marriage and the abhorrence of divorce. We cannot take lightly the importance of maintaining the relationships between parents and children. In fact, we cannot ever completely eviscerate the fact of parent child relationship because parent and child are defined by the fact of the other and the fact of the relationship. I cannot not be the son of my father.

So, when we consider the potential of abuse within the scope of the family, the complications are at their height. Familial relationship are both more intimate and more persistent than other relationships. Forgiveness among relative strangers is easier to negotiate, because the restoration requires little. Forgiveness and restoration within a family, cannot be collapsed into the model of a personal slight among relative strangers within a congregation.

However, there are countervailing demands. First, there are commands to protect the weak. The counselor is in a position where such requirements are required. Second, we must recognize that for the abuser, the day-to-day life in the relationship as parent or child actually constitutes a temptation to sin. The duty to avoid occasions for sin applies here. To put the abuser into the relationship is thus a danger to the abuser and those who have been abused.

When confronted with the apparent repentance of an abusive spouse/parent, how do we weigh the seemingly contradictory considerations.

Too often, counselors resolve the conflict by simply favoring one command over another. The marriage must be maintained. The weak must be protected.  When the counselor takes one set of considerations over the other, the counselor has become a participant in sin.

The resolution of this seeming quandary is not to ignore some biblical injunction in favor of another but rather to understand more fully the importance and nature of repentance.

While repentance entails at the very least a show of remorse and a request for forgiveness, it is also true that talk can be cheap. False repentance, cheap grace, and easy believism are condemned from the pulpit, but too often accepted in the counseling room. This is especially to be weighed when we know from experience that abusive parents and spouses often present elegant apologies replete with biblical injunctions.  Abusers are often charismatic and charming. Those injured are often frantic, fearful, angry, distrustful.

A better understanding of true repentance in practice, a knowledge of those fruits of repentance, would help greatly here. A truly repentant spouse/parent would be deeply considerate of the fear and distrust of those who were hurt. Rather than rushing to be back in the house, the truly repentant spouse would be cautious and wanting to make the spouse or child felt safe and loved.

The thief in Mosaic law was required to include tangible restoration as part of his repentance. But when it comes to the injury wrought by one who has misused the trust and dependence of a family to cause injury, it has been too common to settle merely for words without tangible repentance.

I do not presume to have a sure-fire litmus test for judging repentance in such situations. But what I have seen as a too common carelessness in judging repentance.

I conclude with the hesitation I raised at the first. This is not a final or definitive statement, but rather a preliminary and cautious ask for comment.