I’ve been reading through the book of Proverbs this month. I read the chapter that corresponds to each day of the month. I’ve been doing this for years and I’d encourage you to do so as well. God tells us in Proverbs that there is nothing more important for you to get than wisdom. Wisdom will save you from foolish and wicked people as well as teach you how to recognize them.
Question: My husband was abusive in all ways (physical, emotional, financial, etc.). I learned in counseling & support groups that abusers use the same tactics (e.g. injuring themselves before the police arrive, grooming, physical abuse without leaving marks, character assassination, isolation, gaslighting). Other than generational, how do abusers learn these tactics?
Answer: I don’t think I’ve ever answered this question before. Let me begin by telling a true story. When my granddaughter was about 2 ½ years old, I was taking care of her and her baby sister. She was very drawn to her daddy’s computer which sat open on his desk. I knew he did not want her playing on it and she knew she was not to climb on his desk chair to pound on the keyboard. Yet when my back was turned, she climbed up on his chair, stood over the keyboard, pounding away.
When I “caught” her in the act, and said, “Maya, what are you doing?” She looked at me, big tears rolling down her eyes, threw her hands up in the air, and cried, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”
That wasn’t true. She did know she was not supposed to be up on that chair or playing with the keyboard. But how did she know to lie and manipulate her Nana with her tears? Who taught her that? No one. Sin comes naturally to all of us. It’s our parents, teachers, friends, religion, culture, and consequences that teach us what is acceptable and what is not. What is good and what is bad. What is right and what is wrong.
Ideally, when that happens, as a child matures those external standards become internalized into that person’s own personal conscience. Later, when that child or adult is tempted to lie or steal or hurt someone else, those internal controls are operational and help restrict certain kinds of sinful behavior. Why?
- People don’t want to feel bad about themselves if they violate their own conscience.
- People don’t want others to think badly of them if they behave in those ways.
- People don’t want to get in trouble or face the consequences if they give into temptation.
Now that doesn’t mean we don’t sin anymore, but we have some internal breaks on what we would allow ourselves to do and what we would not allow ourselves to do under most circumstances.
Proverbs teaches us to value wisdom so that we can be our best selves. It also warns us to stay away from temptations that will harm us, ruin our lives, and hurt others. However, Proverbs is realistic about some people. And it clearly says that wise people listen to instruction, but fools and wicked people refuse. (Proverbs 12:15)
Fools refuse to learn from their mistakes. They blame others instead of taking responsibility or disciplining themselves (Proverbs 12:1). The wicked are described as actually enjoying plotting evil and harming others. Yet they are good at pretense and image management (Proverbs 2:12-15).
But your question is how do the wicked become wicked? Or foolish become foolish? Or abusers become abusers? Is it generational? Genetic? Learned?
Science is now showing us that the brains, for example, of narcissists and psychopaths are different than the brains of those who don’t have this problem. But we still don’t know why. Are these differences because of biology, or by someone repeatedly making poor choices?
There is evidence from neuroscience that shows us that the brain does change. For example, when you make repeated good choices, your brain forms new positive pathways, but when you make repeated negative choices, like with addiction, or repeated deception, or angry outbursts, those choices change the brain in negative ways.
Therefore, when we look at the brain structure of a narcissist or sociopath, which is different than someone who does not have these problems, we have to ask ourselves a question. Are these differences because they were born that way, or has their brain changed in response to their chronic life choices and “thinking habits?”
In Romans 1, the apostle Paul describes this process although he didn’t know anything about neurobiology. He writes, “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie” and as we read through the rest of that chapter, we see the consequences of God giving them over to a depraved mind.
Their very character becomes deformed, growing further and further away from the image and character God intended them to have.
We don't have a clear answer from science yet. But what we do know from science is that in addition to our own personal choices for good or bad, when someone experiences trauma, neglect, and/or abuse in childhood, there are consequences in the brain. In other words, we know that trauma impacts the brain not only for the one traumatized but for that person’s children even if they didn’t experience that trauma or are yet unborn.
However, it’s important to also note that not everyone who experiences abuse, neglect, or trauma develops a personality disorder or becomes a sociopath or an abuser as a result of that trauma. What else is at work?
Our heart. Even after something traumatic happens to us, we have choices to make about what we will do with what happens to us. Will we hate or forgive? Will we curl up in fear? Retaliate or trust God? These particular decisions repeatedly made over our lifespan, create not only the particular neuropathways in our brain but our character traits of good and evil.
The Bible speaks of pride, selfishness, envy, rebelliousness, haters of good, dishonesty, and laziness as part of a person’s character and not their biology. And, we also know that God is all about restoring someone’s character as they submit to him in the repentant and renewing process. (1 Corinthians 6:10,11; Ephesians 4:17-31). The bad news is that God never changes someone against his or her own will.
The Bible is realistic. It tells us that darkness hates the light (John 3:20) and the foolish and evil heart rejects feedback and correction which are essential to change (Proverbs 9:7,8). Daniel tells us “the wicked will continue to be wicked” (Daniel 12:10).
Your question is how did he learn these ways? In summary, the ways we learn and choose to manipulate, control, express our anger, avoid conflict, or engage in conflict, are part personality, part family of origin, and part personal choice.
For example, a quiet timid personality might engage in much more covert tactics to get his way than a more aggressive personality. Someone who grew up in a home with little teaching about morality or honesty might learn to lie or sneak or cheat much more than someone who grew up differently.
However, each of us has an internal God-given moral compass, that knows right from wrong, love from hate, evil from good, even those who repeatedly choose to ignore it. Click To Tweet
Friend, how do you learn that it was not okay to engage in some of these hurtful, abusive, and sinful behaviors?
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