The Christian Response to Verbal Abuse
The Bible has some things to say about verbal and emotional abuse that may surprise you.
My coffee cup dropped with a bang at the sight of my poor girlfriend Janey (not her real name) crying her eyes out. We were both 20 somethings who should be enjoying our new marriages, but she was not. She told me that her second marriage was on the brink of breaking up because of her husband’s constant putdowns.
Her husband was also picking on her adolescent son from a previous marriage for everything from the way the child ate to how he looked.
“Have you talked to a counsellor about this?” I asked. My friend’s face turned from hurt to frustration.
“I have talked to several pastors,” she said angrily. “They all tell me I should honor my marriage and submit to my husband. I have decided to put up with it.”
As someone who had endured verbal abuse and bullying myself, I was appalled, but did not know what to say. She was determined to continue in her marriage.
Over time, Janey became so beaten down by her husband’s constant criticism and verbal mistreatment of her son that she couldn’t take it anymore. She took her son and left her husband. She left our church too, and was totally turned off Christianity. I never heard from her again.
This incident happened over twenty years ago, but many people, particularly women, are still getting similar advice from some well-meaning church leaders and members.
These leaders are so focused on getting people to respect their parents and stay in their marriages that they miss the signs of damaging emotional abuse. They may minimize the abuse by saying, "at least he does not hit you." In reality, the Bible strongly teaches that verbal abuse is wrong.
Signs of emotional abuse
The power of words
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines psychological and emotional abuse as: “the systematic perpetration of malicious and explicit nonphysical acts against an intimate partner, child, or dependent adult.” Emotional abuse is speech that attacks the victims’ self-esteem and self image. Verbal abuse can be subtle and hard to identify.
We can miss the signs or misinterpret them as something else. An abuser may use a “joke” or the disguise of “helping” us. Abusers are also manipulators who can convince us that we deserve their abuse.
Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous
who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbor,
and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person but honors those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent;
Whoever does these things will never be shaken.
The tongue has the power of life and death. Our words can help people or destroy them (James 3:5-7). The Christian faith are based on what Jesus said was the greatest commandment: that we love God with all of our might and our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:35-39). The scriptures also tell us to honor and respect others. If people say they love God and hate their neighbor, the love of God is not in them (1 John 2:9-11).
Jesus himself said that anyone who calls his brother an imbecile or a numbskull is in danger of hell fire (Matthew 5:21-22). Our words are supposed to bring healing, not pain and destruction (Proverbs 12:18). Our speech should build up and encourage others in their faith (Ephesians 4:29), not tear them down.
The perpetrator’s viewpoint
People who verbally abuse others may not recognize the damage they are doing and have all kinds of excuses for their behavior. They justify their hurtful words in numerous ways such as:
“My son needs to toughen up and be a man.”
“My daughter needs to start to lose weight.”
“My wife needs to stop being so lazy and do more around the house.”
“The employee under my supervision needs to shape up and stop making so many mistakes.”
They are often blind to the damage that their words can do. We need to keep these possibilities in mind when dealing with verbally abusive people.
Some perpetrators know exactly what they are doing and use emotional abuse to manipulate, punish or control their victims.
The Christian response to verbal abuse
Understand why the perpetrator is verbally abusing us: Sometimes, the reasons are obvious. A person may have Alzheimer’s or mental health issues, for example. A husband may be under a lot of pressure at work, or a mother may be fed up with her rebellious teen.
For others, we may have to dig deeper to understand where they are coming from. If we understand why the person is saying hurtful things, we can sort out the difference between constructive criticism and emotional abuse. Some people verbally abuse others in order to control them. They use hurtful words to destroy their victims’ self-esteem, make them be submissive, and force them to tow their line.
Unfortunately, some so-called Christians disguise their verbal abuse with misinterpreted scriptures. Some husbands feel that they can say whatever they want and their wives should “submit.” These men miss the verse telling them to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25) and that husbands should not be harsh (Colossians 3:10).
Some parents may use Biblical admonitions requiring children to honor them as an excuse to emotionally abuse them, forgetting about the verses that says we should not provoke our children to anger or frustrate them (Ephesians 6:4, Colossians 3:21). Understanding what motivates the abuser helps us to respond to verbal abuse in an appropriate way.
Maintain our identity as children of Christ: God loves us as we are, faults and all. We are beloved children of God bought with a great price – the blood of Jesus Christ. God wants us to build a strong sense of self-esteem that will resist any attempts to tear it down. We should not fear because God will protect us from the destructive effects of tongue-lashing (Job 5:21).
Don’t internalize the abuse: Verbally abuse can damage our self-esteem and self-image if we allow it. God is close to the brokenhearted and heals those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). We can put the abuse behind us by forgiving the person (Ephesians 4:32). Forgiveness helps us to stop brooding and internalizing when the abuser has said.
Create no-tolerance policy for abuse: We have the right to demand that people treat us with respect and dignity and stop being verbally abusive. We can create boundaries and set up consequences for crossing the lines. Before we confront them, however, we need to consider how an abuser may respond to a confrontation. Here are some possibilities:
- The person is unaware their words are hurtful and will correct their behavior
- The person dislikes or despises us for some reason, does not care what we think, and will keep on being verbally abusive
- The person will retaliate verbally or with physical violence, or plot revenge against us for daring to stand up to them
In some cases confrontation is difficult because the abuser has some power over us, such as a parent or a boss. We may need to seek the counsel of trusted friends or professional advice on the best approach to our abusers. In some cases, confrontation is not advisable and could be dangerous. Some verbally abusive husbands, for example, may escalate to physical abuse if they fear they are losing control over their wives.
An alternate approach is needed in some special circumstances to stop the abuser such as appealing to an abusive co-worker’s supervisor, cutting off a relationship with an abuser, or fleeing to a women’s shelter.
Avoid abusers, if possible: We should avoid people who are verbally abusive such as those who are in a continuous state of anger (Matthew 22:24). They are constantly getting into trouble and could drag us down with them into all kinds of sin (Proverbs 29:22, 1 Corinthians 15:33).
One woman's story of verbal abuse
Don’t retaliate: The Bible tells us not to repay even for evil (Romans 12:17). Their evil will come back to bite them in the end (Psalm 7:16, Proverbs 21:7). God is our avenger. Instead, we need to be proactive to ensure that the verbal abuse does not continue.
The last word
In this day and age, we in the Christian community and our leaders have become more aware of verbal abuse, and are better able to deal with it. I have gotten great advice from ministers over the years on dealing with emotional abuse.
More education is needed, however, in the Christian community on how to recognize verbal abuse and deal with it.
© 2013 Carola Finch