The recent reviews into abuse have identified a lot that is deeply wrong in the UK Conservative Evangelical (CE) culture. Not only the abusive behaviours themselves, but leadership failings in response, governance failings, and at a wider level a ‘culture of fear’.
There can only be meaningful change, healing and restoration, particularly for the survivors but also for the wider culture, if the wrongdoing is owned and repented of. However, to do this we need to understand what real repentance looks like and the defensiveness of the sinful human heart that often hinders it.
Here are four common defensive tactics our hearts employ to avoid owning our sin and that are roadblocks to real repentance and restoration: Complain, attack, catastrophize, generalize.
1. Complain about the complaint
In any situation where there is wrongdoing the perpetrator can deflect blame by taking issue with how the offended party is complaining to them.
To illustrate the problem in a recent livecast with Speak Life I gave the following scenario. Imagine in a moment of gross sin I slapped someone on the face. How would you expect them to respond? Would you expect them to calmly and gently say “Pete, that was really unkind of you, please apologise”? No, you would probably expect a lot of emotion, a fair bit of anger and probably, mingled in, some sin as they complain. Now if I then complained about their tone of voice and started criticising them for it, even if they were being ungodly in the moment, then I hope you can see that this isn’t the main problem. My offence and how I’ve hurt the other person is the problem. This is not to say that there is free-reign on people complaining in ungodly ways, but it is to highlight that it is so easy for complaining about the complaint to be a defensive tactic to avoid responsibility, rather than an authentic concern for godliness.
In the current responses to abuse, it is painfully obvious that survivors have been terribly hurt. Others have been hurt by bullying and the wider culture of fear. In some cases people have been trying to be heard for decades but their voices have been minimised, marginalised, and silenced. So unsurprisingly there is a lot of anger. Does anyone really expect it all to come out in a constructive and gracious way? That might be the ideal but it’s unrealistic. As with the illustration above, it’s also not the main issue. The main issue is the harm people have been subjected to. This is not to legitimise aggressive posts on social media or excessive criticism but a godly and repentant response will look beyond the ‘noise’ of emotion and sin that often comes with complaints, and instead listen carefully to the grievances raised.
2. Attack the motives or the person
Responding to sin by attacking or blaming others is as old as Adam and Eve. Eve blames the devil and Adam blames Eve when both are in the wrong and should be owning their wrongdoing and seeking forgiveness. Similarly when someone is raising a grievance, a common tactic to defend is to question their motives,
“She has never liked me and has always been looking for an opportunity to bring me down”.
Another method is to attack the person,
“He is an awkward character with a chip on his shoulder”.
Again, even if true, neither of these is the main issue. The issue is the substance of the grievance and whether it is valid or not. A humble and contrite person will engage with the content of what is being said and seek out the truth in it so that they can apologise.
When we’ve wronged someone we should adopt a lowly heart disposition. For good reason does Scripture equate repentance with a physical posture of lowering oneself. But attacking a person or claiming insight into their motives is a way to elevate yourself and put yourself above them and so it hinders repentance.
3. Catastrophize and become hypersensitive
Particularly in a culture where there is ‘victim chic’ it is attractive for the offender to take on victim status by catastrophizing the effect of the complaint. In extreme forms this is employed by abusers as DARVO (deny, accuse and reverse victim and offender). But it is common in a more minor form: “I’m feeling so got at by their complaints”, “All the criticism is making me feel bullied”.
Such defensiveness judo flips the focus from the complainant to the offender. It does it subtly by appealing to the pain and the hurt that the complaint is causing. After all, what kind of person wouldn’t be sympathetic to that? But pause for a moment and think of how this hurts the real victim in the piece. They have been trying to be heard, longing for a restorative apology, patiently bearing with their pain, and then when they articulate their hurt the person who has wronged them makes it about them and their hurt! They might not intend to do this. Their hurt may even be real, but again it’s not the main issue. The issue really is the hurt they have caused and their need for repentance
Consider the following four apologies for the same offence:
We all instinctively know that our fragile and fallen human egos prefer the ‘apologies’ further down the list. The more general the easier it is to say because the less responsibility we are actually taking. In the last two apologies really no responsibility is being taken at all.
However, we also know that the apologies further down the list are less and less restorative and less and less repentant. Therefore, if repentance and restoration are what we are seeking:
In Psalm 32 David talks about the blessedness of confession and forgiveness. He contrasts true repentance ‘Then I acknowledged my sin to you… and you forgave the guilt of my sin’ (v5 NIV) with counterfeit repentance being ‘like the horse or the mule which have no understanding’ (v9). Wherever you are coming from in the current situation, as we seek to avoid defensive patterns that will only lead to counterfeit repentance (if any at all), let’s pray for humility and the blessedness of proper confession, forgiveness, and restoration that will change our culture.