I have found there are at least two dispositions towards the possibility of creating a definition of abuse. One group wants a clear, concise, concrete definition that can be used to definitively determine whether a given event or relationship is or is not abusive. The other group believes the breadth of destructive activities that can be abusive make it impossible to craft a definition that can be used in this way.

My goal in this post is not choose a side in this debate, but to create two visual aids that garner some (not all) of the benefits from both approaches and advances the conversation between these groups.

Three caveats are important:

  1. I will be focusing on only two factors in these visual aids: severity and predictability.
  2. I will be discussing these variables in light of the confusion that emerges within a Christian ministry context.
  3. These visual aids are most helpful when considering verbal and emotional abuse.

Let’s start with the basic image that will set up the two visual aids: an X-Y axis graph. The image below is meant to represent the reality that the Bible has a proportional view on what it means to respond to injustice with holiness; meaning it honors and accurately represents God to give small offenses small responses and larger offenses larger responses.

For instance, in Deuteronomy 19, God differentiates the type of response for involuntary manslaughter and murder with intention. The larger offense gets the more severe consequence. So, in this first graph, there is a green line representing the proportionality between offenses and responses.

In this base image, we are negating the idea that forgiveness means that God’s ideal is a non-response to offenses. God can forgive AND there still be a justice response to an immoral action. God can forgive us for speeding and it is still right for us to have to pay the fine.

Based on this line we would conclude a parent should respond differently to a child leaving socks on the floor, failing a science test, and running away from home. Hopefully, there is nothing groundbreaking at this point in the discussion.

The second image depicts how the first group described above would like to define abuse. Distortions above and below the green-holiness line are color-coded yellow (mild), orange (moderate), and red (severe). It would be ideal if we could plot offenses on this chart and declare them as inconsiderate (yellow), sinful (orange), and abusive or neglectful (red).

Some things would be clearly yellow (e.g., being late), orange (e.g., lying), and red (e.g., rape). Other things would be less clear. For instance, what volume of yelling and types of insults cause the colors to change?

Also, this chart uses severity as the only measure of abusiveness. Severity is not always the best measure for abusive behavior. Manipulation, gaslighting, and insults aren’t gauged by force and volume. This chart does not consider important factors such as frequency or closeness of relationship (words from a spouse hurt more than the same words from a stranger).

But, when a chart like this can be used, it does make conversations more concrete and tangible. For instance, the words expressed after learning of infidelity are evaluated less stringently than the words expressed when a couple is late for church.

I find that this well-defined approach is desired by pastors. Why? Pastors want something they can declare to everyone in their congregation and know that it will not be misapplied (i.e., it is okay to yell when you learn of an affair, but not when you’re late for church). Pastors preach and teach to a group of people. Often, even when pastors are counseling, they are thinking of the group (congregation) as much as the individual (congregant).

This is a different mindset than that of counselors, who have series of individual counselees; not a congregation of counselees. That is why, in my opinion, counselors are more prone to think in the manner of the third diagram.

The purple line is what its like to live in an abusive context. It debunks what I will call the “myth of consistency.” It is often thought that an abusive person is always abusive, and a neglectful person is always neglectful. In reality, this is rarely the case.

Reality looks more like the purple line. The abuser can point to multiple occasions when their responses hit the green line and may even be willing to acknowledge when some of their responses were yellow or orange. That makes it feel like they are being humble and teachable.

More than this, the abused individual is never quite sure what kind of response they are going to get. Unpredictability is often a key factor that helps maintain control for the abusive individual. If you follow the purple line there are severe under-responses, mild under-responses, proportional responses, mild over-reactions, and severe over-reactions all over the chart. While the abusive individual isn’t consistent, they are confident. The purple line makes perfect sense to them and they believe you are punishably stupid if it doesn’t make sense to you.

Unpredictability is often a key factor that helps maintain control for the abusive individual. Click To Tweet

This accounts for the unquantifiable “crazy making” effect of living in an abusive relationship. This is what the second image cannot capture. The abused individual is trying to predict what will set their abuser off next, which is like trying to guess where an inflated balloon will land when its untied opening is released.


What can we learn from these two diagrams? I will name a few.

  • Abuse has quantifiable and non-quantifiable components. We need to understand and be able to articulate both dimensions of abuse.
  • This means that severity (i.e., physical force and volume) is not always the best measure of abusive behavior.
  • Unpredictability multiplies the effect of abuse because it enhances the control of the abuser.
  • Unpredictability also decreases the confidence in the abused that he/she will be able to make choices that improves his/her life. This loss of sense of agency (ability to positively affect one’s life) is a major impact of abuse.

My hope is that the greatest benefit that comes from this is the ability to talk more effectively about abuse. If you are in counselor-with-counselor, counselor-with-pastor, or friend-with-friend conversation and there a disagreement about whether a given behavior or relationship is abusive, these two charts may capture the differences in mentality that the two of you are bringing to the conversation.

If you want to learn more about how to care well for those who have experienced various forms of abuse consider going through the Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused curriculum at www.churchcares.com.