“If your future husband ever lays a finger on you, you better tell me so I can kill him.”
This is the extent to which many dads address abuse with their daughters. It feels effective because it’s simple, protective, and tough. And it also feels kind of awesome to say.
But it’s lazy. It’s the kind of bravado that boasts much but does little good. It assumes abuse is easily identifiable and force should be met with simple counterforce. Still worse, it’s built on fantasy. It’s romanticizing the no-greater-love command to be some heroic act—like diving into a flooded causeway or taking a bullet in a live shooter scenario to save someone you love—while ignoring the countless real ways we’re called to lay down our lives for the real people we love (John 15:12–13). Preparing our daughters to spot the warning signs of a potential abuser doesn’t come with the luxury of heroics.
So when we discuss abuse with our daughters—and really, with all the women we’re called to care for in our churches—we must do so not with bravado, but with insight. Why insight? Because what our daughters need is not men blustering over their heads against other men, but rather men giving insights that help them actively discern a good man from a bad man.
Preparing our daughters to spot the warning signs of a potential abuser doesn’t come with the luxury of heroics.
I know, technically all men are bad. I know my doctrine of sin. But here, I’m using “bad” not to describe universal sinfulness, but rather the propensity for a particular kind of sin that is relationally dangerous. The kind of man you don’t want your daughter to date. A man characterized by a manipulative or abusive mindset.
Abuse is easy to discern when it looks like something everyone knows is bad—a close-fisted punch, a shove down a stairwell, a locked closet. Abuse is much harder to discern when it looks similar to something good—like assertive leadership, exclusive affection, or clear direction.
You cannot predict future abuse, but being informed about abuse dynamics can help you discern if a man is characterized by concerning tendencies. An abuser’s heart inclines him to see his life through a lens of entitlement, and thus to see others as either assets or obstacles to the desire he’s supposedly entitled to. Where it gets dangerous is when he uses his influence and strength to diminish the influence and strength of those under him to get what he wants.
Teaching Tough Discernment About Men
Discernment means distinguishing between what’s pleasing and displeasing to the Lord in your present situation, based on what you know of him from Scripture. It’s not automatic or readily apparent, but requires effort—“try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10). And artificial rights are tougher to discern than obvious wrongs. It’s much easier to distinguish poison ivy from marigolds than it is from Virginia creeper.
Our daughters must know the values of Scripture. They best learn these by seeing them lived out in the lives of their dads and the other men at church. Paul made this point frequently in his emphasis on imitation of those who are like God (1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:9). Ultimately, our daughters will make their own decision about who they marry. Rightly so. What we want as dads is for them to be equipped to make the best decision they can. This is what I mean by discernment.
Here are five distinctions we can point out to our daughters to help them discern which men are worthy of their attention, particularly for a relationship leading to marriage. And, with God’s help, we can model these qualities in our own leadership.
1. ‘A good man is humble, not insecure.’
Insecurity can look an awful lot like humility. A man who needs constant reassurance about where he fits in the world or what other people think of him can seem kind of sweet to a young lady. His vulnerability is relatable. And as he seeks this reassurance from her more and more, it makes a girl feel needed. It can feel like a privileged intimacy: This poor guy has such low self-esteem he needs someone to constantly build him up, and he looks to me to be that person.
But this isn’t the idea of humility in Scripture. The need for constant reassurance is instead a failure to recognize where our personal confidence ought to be grounded. Paul modeled a confidence that didn’t come from his own value being affirmed by other people’s reassurance, but rather from the humble recognition that he’s only a servant and a steward. And only God’s commendation matters (1 Cor. 4:1–5).
Everyone struggles with insecurity to some degree. But a deep pattern of insecurity is a warning light. If a man doesn’t get the affirmation he expects, he may seek to extract it from others, particularly those he can be most forceful with. Abusive men are almost always deeply insecure. Humility, by contrast, means not demanding one’s personal desires from others (James 4:1–10).
2. ‘A good man is strong, not defensive.’
Defensiveness can seem like strength because it’s assertive in the face of opposition. A defensive man will seem decisive and focused when he senses resistance. In a world full of genuinely weak-willed and passive men, this characteristic can seem attractive to our daughters. They may easily confuse it for true strength.
But this isn’t how Paul speaks of strength:
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Rom. 15:1–3).
Real strength is exerting personal effort—we could say power—to accomplish good for others, not for oneself. In this sense, Jesus at his seemingly weakest point was exerting the most power a man has ever displayed.
Real strength in a man is best seen in his willingly shouldering burdens on behalf of others. Defensiveness in a man shows how small he is, exerting all his might for his own little circle of concern.
3. ‘A good man will repent, not apologize.’
Apologies are easy—at least compared to repentance. Apologizing is recognizing wrong and offering an explanation why: “I shouldn’t have been so harsh; I’ve had a long day.” There’s an element of recognizing wrong done, but it’s more explanatory than contrite. Apologies have a thousand different snap-on accessories a person can add: blame shifting, guilt tripping, downplaying. The point is, apologies seem like repentance, but abusers apologize plenty as a way of keeping ladies from walking away or storming off.
Repentance is something different. It’s recognizing wrong and owning the cause of it: “I shouldn’t have been so harsh. I sinned against you and hurt you.” It’s not identified by words alone; he must turn away from the sin and toward real accountability. The kind of accountability a man doesn’t control for himself, but instead has to submit to—the kind of accountability that hurts (Heb. 12:11). A good man knows the discomfort of being held accountable is the grace of God to keep him from being given over to his own selfishness and pride.
4. ‘A good man will lead, not demand.’
Men can fail to lead either by having no ambitions or by demanding them. In a culture that often coddles ambitionless men, our daughters may be drawn toward the opposite. They may see a man who is demanding of himself and of others; they think they’ve found a rare man with enough spine to truly lead.
But leading is not demanding. Paul, who held the unique authority of an apostle and eyewitness of Jesus, was criticized for not being tougher in his personal leadership. Instead, he demonstrated “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” by being “humble when face to face” with the Corinthians (2 Cor. 10:1). He refused to commend himself as others did by demanding loyalty to himself over his rivals (10:12) and instead wanted his own influence to be limited to that which builds the believers’ faith in the gospel so that they can carry that gospel to others (10:15).
This is true leadership—not forcing people to conform to personal preferences, but rather exerting influence for God’s will to be accomplished in their lives.
Did you catch that? Paul wanted his influence on his people to be limited. He only wanted them to follow insofar as he compelled them to do what pleases the Lord. This is true leadership—not forcing people to conform to personal preferences, but rather exerting influence for God’s will to be accomplished in their lives. This kind of leadership requires deep security in God and gritty resolve to work for the good of others with little applause.
A husband’s leadership in marriage is like this—never forceful. A wife should follow not from compulsion, but from freedom. Paul’s instruction for wives to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22–24) is just like all commands to all Christians in Ephesians. The obedience of a believer always flows from trust in the gospel of God’s love, resulting in the free expression of love in return.
5. ‘A good man may disagree with you, but he will not belittle you.’
This is perhaps the most important distinction to make: A guy can disagree with you—even strongly—without ever belittling you. An insistent man isn’t necessarily an abusive one. A man may be strongly opinionated, locked into his plans, or utterly convinced his take on an issue is correct. This may even be characterized by sins like pride and hubris at times. But disagreement is not itself abusive.
That dark line is crossed when a man’s insistence turns to belittling folks under his influence in order to get them to conform. When an argument turns from the issue to the person, a dangerous pivot has occurred. Insults and threats are not merely personal offenses; they’re an attempt to eliminate opposition (James 3:1–4:10). If a guy dating my daughter gets upset about an issue they disagree about, I may be fine helping them work it out. If he begins to insult and belittle her as a person, I’d use different calculus. If he’s already using words to constrain her into his preferences, he’s not a man she should trust with greater influence in her life.
Good men don’t control women. They equip them to spot the kind of man who will. That’s true manliness—God-given power for the good of those under his care. The kind that will stand up to the cowardly, controlling version of manliness by equipping his daughters to be strong and discerning.