Will an abuser stop if you ask them to?
That was the solution Jonathan tried, a little over 3000 years ago, when Saul ordered him to kill David.1 He only made things worse.
Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David. But Jonathan had taken a great liking to David and warned him,
“My father Saul is looking for a chance to kill you. Be on your guard tomorrow morning; go into hiding and stay there. I will go out and stand with my father in the field where you are. I’ll speak to him about you and will tell you what I find out.”2
Around 1014 BCE,3 King Saul ordered his servants and Jonathan to kill David. We know it wasn’t the first time he’d had murderous intent. Perhaps only a year before he had tried to kill David with a spear,4 and 25 years before that he’d tried to kill Jonathan.5
What did Jonathan do? His first step, warning David, was a good start, but then he told him to hide nearby while Jonathan spoke to Saul. That sounds quite risky.
It would have been much better for Jonathan to help David work out a safe escape plan, and I’m so thankful here in Australia we have a number of services available to help victims of abuse do just that.
A great guide to escape plans is this one from the New South Wales Government’s Family and Community Services. There’s also this one from 1800RESPECT. Both guides recommend talking to a professional who can help create a plan tailored to your situation. Every situation is different and those differences matter.
But, back to Jonathan. His next step was talking to Saul.
Will an abuser stop if you ask them to?
Let’s think for a moment about the context of this situation. We know Saul had a pattern of abusive behaviour that spanned decades, using a range of tactics. When Saul found out his daughter Michal was in love with David, he used that love to manipulate her and try to kill him. That’s a typical example of his shocking disregard for the well-being of others.
Yet Jonathan thought a simple conversation would make David safe:
Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father and said to him,
“Let not the king do wrong to his servant David; he has not wronged you, and what he has done has benefited you greatly. He took his life in his hands when he killed the Philistine. The Lord won a great victory for all Israel, and you saw it and were glad. Why then would you do wrong to an innocent man like David by killing him for no reason?”6
In response, Saul took an oath in Yahweh’s name that he wouldn’t kill David. Well, as readers we have a pretty good idea of the value of Saul’s word, (even when he used God’s name as he had done in his attempts to manipulate Samuel years before). But it was enough to convince Jonathan:
Saul listened to Jonathan and took this oath:
“As surely as Yahweh lives, David will not be put to death.”
So Jonathan called David and told him the whole conversation. He brought him to Saul, and David was with Saul as before.7
Will an abuser stop if you ask them to? It seems, tragically, Jonathan thought so. Based on these few words from Saul, Jonathan encouraged David to reconnect with him. That’s an incredibly dangerous outcome, achieved with the best of intentions.
David was in danger
With the benefit of hindsight, we know David was not at all safe. Typically, Saul just came up with new plans to kill him.
In modern times we can benefit from the huge body of research into abuse and domestic violence, and public health education about it. We could have predicted things would not go well for David.
We can have some mercy on Jonathan for not knowing any better. Perhaps he could have worked out a wiser course of action if he’d taken the time, or perhaps sought advice from someone like Samuel. But while we can have mercy for him and be aware of the lack of support he had, his actions still put David at great risk of losing his life. By not taking Saul’s threats seriously, Jonathan put David in danger.Will an abuser stop if you ask them to? Jonathan thought a simple conversation with Saul would make David safe from abuse. He only made things worse. Click To Tweet
We must take threats seriously
It is so tragic in our modern world to read the frequent stories of those in violent relationships who have reached out for support, not found a path to safety, and whose lives have subsequently ended at the hands of their abuser.8 We want to do more to support victims long before these situations reach tragic ends.
This was not an easy situation. David was closely tied to Saul from his teenage years. He was part of Saul’s household. As Saul’s manipulation progressed, David became part of his extended family, and the danger to him was real throughout.
Abusers can make life very confusing for those around them and we already know that Saul was practised in blameshifting, denial, gaslighting, and spiritualising. All these skills help abusers to hide their abuse – even to look good! The combination can make it difficult for even their victims to see the abuse for what it is.
Jonathan had grown up around Saul and his abuse, and, as we’ve noted in previous articles, he was remarkably resilient in some ways. The Bible shows us several situations where Jonathan defied Saul and knew his own mind and faith while others around him were caught up in Saul’s illusions.9 There is so much to admire in him. But he wasn’t immune, and it is likely that despite his integrity and his own experience of Saul’s abuses, he wasn’t seeing the danger clearly.
Based on what we see in the other snippets of his life the Bible shows us, it seems most likely that in this situation Jonathan acted with good intent. But his choices put David in danger all the same.
The warning signs were there
The tactics used by abusers to hide and deny the harm they are doing are incredibly effective. So even when a victim of abuse has so much experience of the abuser’s behaviour, they might be subject to constant confusing and reality-denying tactics. Lies told confidently and well by a trusted person can be incredibly potent, and Jonathan’s response was understandable but harmful.
In her book, The Gaslight Effect, Dr Robin Stern describes three different stages a victim may go through if subjected to ongoing gaslighting. In the first stage, the victim starts to become confused and doubts themselves. But that confusion can progress over time to complete acceptance of the abuser’s illusions, including that their victim-blaming is valid. If the victim is convinced the abuse is not happening, they won’t report it.
So as readers we probably expect Saul to break his oath. We know him by now. We know he freely used God’s name when it helped him reach his goals. But it seems reasonable to believe Jonathan had been manipulated by Saul for many years, and now, on the strength of Saul’s oath, Jonathan thought David would be safe.
Perhaps Jonathan simply struggled to believe that Saul would take such a serious oath and not keep it. It can be difficult for a good person to comprehend serious ill-intent in others. It’s so foreign! And as we’ve looked at previously, we can see Saul’s use of abusive tactics again and again throughout the story of his life. He was well practised, and there’s a good chance he got into Jonathan’s head.
But we have an advantage provided by history and the narrator. It’s not exactly a plot twist for us to read on and discover just two paragraphs later Saul tries to kill David again.
Characterological abusers resist change
Will an abuser stop if you ask them to?
Drs John and Julie Gottman, founders of The Gottman Institute, distinguish between what they call situational and characterological abuse. They explained characterological abuse to the New York Times:
One partner is a perpetrator; the other, a victim. The perpetrator takes no responsibility for the violence and instead blames the victim for causing it. There’s nothing the victim can do to stop the violence, which often causes her major injuries or even death.10
In the same letter, the Gottmans wrote,
No one has found a treatment that stops characterological DV.
That is a statement worth taking seriously. We know Saul’s behaviour was designed to control people, including David. Jonathan’s request for Saul not to kill David was never going to be effective.
Certified Gottman Therapist Zack Brittle states it is irresponsible and unethical to begin couples therapy when characterological abuse is present.11 If that’s the case – if characterological abusers are that resistant to ceasing their abuse – they aren’t going to stop abusing at the request of an untrained but well-intentioned individual.
It is a dangerous error to think a conversation with a committed abuser will stop their abuse and make the victim safe. I don’t think Jonathan was intentionally arrogant or proud here. But what might our actions communicate to a victim, who has perhaps tried everything they can to get the abuser to stop, if we think we can succeed where they have failed? If they haven’t already listened to the victim, that’s a big red flag.
What would you do if an abuser threatened someone?
We encourage you to take threats seriously. And while our job is to increase awareness of abuse and the way it works, we also hope to help people take the next step by talking to an expert about their specific situation. Most often, we point people in Australia to 1800 RESPECT.12 If you are wondering if a situation is abusive, or what to do if it is, we’d encourage you to give them a call or chat with them online.
There is more to explore with the story of Jonathan, David, and Saul. Jonathan’s mistake was to encourage David to return to the abusive relationship. His initial advice, to get to safety, was much better. But abuse, wherever the setting, can be very complex, and in many cases even developing an escape plan can take some care and wisdom. It is best to get expert advice from someone who can help assess the risk and develop a plan.
Every situation is different
There is an astonishing array of abusive tactics that might be in play in any particular case. Each situation of abuse might involve many of those and yet still have its own unique characteristics. Again, expert advice can help you work out what is happening in your situation, and that can inform your course of action.
One of Jonathan’s greatest mistakes was to think he could just talk to Saul and David would be safe. Not so. Despite his good intentions, he placed David at greater risk.
Steve WadeIt is a dangerous error to think a conversation with a committed abuser will stop their abuse and make the victim safe. Click To Tweet
Before you go…
Abuse can be paralyzing and confusing. But we can help people spot abusive behaviour and do something about it.
For that – we need your help!
Please will you help us in the fight against abuse by donating now?
- 1 Samuel 19:1-5
- 1 Samuel 19:1-3
- Dates taken from Bible Hub
- 1 Samuel 18:10-11
- 1 Samuel 14:38-45
- 1 Samuel 19:4-5
- 1 Samuel 19:6-7
- One example is the story of Kelly Wilkinson.
- 1 Samuel 14
- For those in the US, there is the National Domestic Violence Hotline