By Dr. Evan Parks – How do you know when an abuser, predator, manipulator, or con artist has really changed his ways? Do you just take him at his word when he says, “I am really sorry. I am trying to put the past behind me and move forward.” No, you don’t take him at his word; you need to look for evidence of a changed heart.
The restoration of a fallen leader or church member is an important ministry of any Christian organization. The question we often struggle with is how to determine if a known manipulator has truly repented so that some degree of trust can be restored. I believe that in the majority of these cases Christian organizations do not know how to answer this question. Unsafe people are accepted, restored, and continue in ministry despite having gaping character flaws.
Let’s first consider what repentance does not look like. Maybe you recognize the telltale signs of manipulation in the first paragraph, “I am really sorry. I am trying to put the past behind me and move forward.” A manipulator will say things in such a way that makes him appear noble and at the same time causes others to feel sorry for him. He is also indirectly saying, “Don’t make me talk about the past,” an area he works hard to avoid. What is missing in his apology is truth, details and facts, responsibility, empathy for the victim, awareness of the pain that was inflicted on others, and most important of all, insight.
When a manipulative person (abuser, predator, con artist, thief) is caught and faces consequences for his actions, he feels bad. He looks sad and sounds upset. What does this mean in terms of repentance? Absolutely nothing. Feeling bad is not a key sign of repentance or a changed heart. If a person does not demonstrate real insight into what he has done, why he has done it, and what the history of his problem has been, then he can easily continue his manipulative pattern of behavior by displaying the right kind of emotion to sway the opinion of others. This often works! Tears and sadness often deceive helpers and ministry leaders who play the role of rescuer.
A key phrase to be suspicious of is, “I am sorry.” What does this mean in reality if a person is not repentant? It means, “I am sorry I was caught,” or “I am sorry you are upset.” What it really indicates is that this person feels sorry for himself. He comes across with the attitude, “I am such a loser.” Absent is genuine brokenness and understanding for the pain that his has caused others.
There are several other signs of manipulation. Most manipulators will at some point make a promise to change. He claims, “I am going to stop drinking, this time for good!” Making a promise to change is an attempt to create an impression of his deep sincerity and good heartedness. A truly repentant person does not try to make an impression; they simply change. A repentant person lets his behavior and actions demonstrate his inner transformation.
Another typical sign of false repentance is when a manipulative person imposes personal hardship on himself. He avoids socializing, does not eat enough food, stops taking good care of himself, accepts low wage employment, or starts sleeping on the garage floor. A manipulative person appears to be punishing himself for what he has done wrong, but there is a more basic motive involved. Self-punishment is done for show and often gains sympathy from others.
The truly dangerous abuser is one that demands others forgive him. This type of person continues his abuse of victims by extending his control and emotional manipulation over the victim’s healing process. The abuser will continue to invade the personal space and emotional life of the victim, not allowing the victim the time or distance needed to heal. They call, watch, spy on, follow, and send notes that further upset and traumatize. The abuser’s need for absolute control over others is rarely surrendered. This is why the registries for sex offenders last for the entire life of the offender—sexual abusers rarely stop abusing and manipulating.
Another type of manipulation occurs when the abuser blames the victim. The abuser confesses, “I am so sorry I hit you. I just wish you would stop making me so upset. It is not enough for me to change. You need to change too.” Blaming the victim is logical to a manipulator because he does not see himself responsible for his actions.
When an abuser is making demands on the victim, it is critical for public and church authorities to recognize this as a continuation of abuse and provide protection to the victim. The abuser will claim he cannot heal unless he receives forgiveness and must be able to talk anytime he wants with the victim. There are scores of cases in which churches and mission agencies actively participate in the continued victimization and abuse of both children and adult victims by insisting these people forgive, accept, and reconcile with the abuser when is it clear the abuser is continuing his pattern of emotional manipulation and abuse.
There is a great need within the Christian community to take the sinfulness of the human heart and the reality of evil seriously. Of all people, we should be the most discerning, wise, and insightful into the reality of brokenness. We must not be naïve, intentionally unwilling to look at the reality of evil that exists in others and in ourselves. The unwillingness to confront difficult situations allows manipulators to continue unchecked. Recognizing the signs of manipulation can help us to be wise, discerning, and fulfill our responsibility to protect, shepherd, and restore broken people.
This topic will be continued in the next blog titled, “What does repentance look like?”