Verbal abuse is a bit difficult to define and even harder to prove as it lacks physical evidence. Because of this, verbal abuse is often not taken as seriously as other forms of abuse. However, as with any form of abuse, it is characterized by the desire to manipulate or control. Verbal abuse has the potential to cause its victims great harm, particularly psychologically and spiritually. It is often seen as a subset of emotional abuse or even used as an interchangeable term, and it can be linked with or lead into other forms of abuse.
What is a biblical perspective on verbal abuse?
Verbal abuse is seen in actions like constant belittling, consistent berating, discounting, minimizing, threatening, starting rumors, screaming matches, and failing to recognize another in verbal exchanges (silence meant to create a sense of non-existence in the other). These are not one-time or occasional events, but a consistent pattern of behavior. Victims may begin to believe the criticisms and doubt their own value. They may live in fear due to threats or begin to behave in ways they do not want in order to garner approval or avoid negative commentary. Words become weapons or tools of control.
The Bible has much to say about the power of words. James 3 talks at length about taming the tongue. James compares the tongue to a bit in a horse's mouth and a rudder of a ship—small yet very powerful. He also writes, "And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life […] but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so" (James 3:6-10). Proverbs 18:21 says, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." Similarly, Proverbs 15:4 says, "A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit." Clearly, our words have potential to make great impact.
Rather than use our words to curse others, we are called to use words to give life to others. Ephesians 4:29 says, "Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear." Colossians 4:6 says, "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." Parents are instructed not to exasperate their children but to raise them up with the instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Colossians 3:21 says, "Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged." Words are a large source of encouragement or discouragement for children. Paul includes the importance of exemplary speech in his instructions to Timothy: "Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity" (1 Timothy 4:12). Verbal abuse is clearly anti-biblical.
If you are in a verbally abusive situation, please let someone know. Law enforcement may not be able to help, but friends, church staff, or a women's shelter may be able to provide the assistance you need. If verbal abuse has escalated into physical or sexual abuse, inform the appropriate authorities. In the United States, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can help with information and resources. Their number is 1-800-799-7233. They can also be found online at http://www.thehotline.org/. (NOTE: Be aware that computer use can be monitored, so if it is not safe for you to visit the website, please do not). When domestic violence is ongoing, safety is the first step. Be aware that children who witness any type of abuse, even if they are not the target, still experience the trauma of the situation. They will require support as well.
How can a person recover from verbal abuse? Often the key is replacing the verbally abusive messages with the truth of God's Word. Depending on the severity of the abuse, this might require the assistance of a professional counselor or be done largely between the person and God. Being in community with others who affirm the truth of God's Word will be helpful. Likely, the process of healing will be emotionally charged, including many uncomfortable emotions, particularly at the outset. The abused may even question the goodness of God. Engaging with anger or a sense of betrayal is okay, even necessary. Bringing these emotions to God, placing the pain at His feet, and asking Him to reveal truth will ultimately bring healing. Eventually, the abused will need to come to a place of forgiveness for the abuser, but this will be a gradual process enabled by the Holy Spirit. Resting in the truth of God—His love, His redemption, who He says we are in Him, His sovereignty, etc.—will be vitally important.
Is there hope for those who have verbally abused another? Yes. God is able and willing to forgive. He is able to change hearts. His truth is just as valid for those who have verbally abused as it is for those who have been abused. Some may abuse others because they have not recognized their own need for God. Others may become abusers because they have been abused. No matter the impetus for the abuse, God can reveal truth, extend forgiveness, bring about necessary healing, and cause change.
Verbal abuse is serious, and it is an affront to God. Any form of abuse denies the dignity of those made in God's image. God is not unconcerned for its victims. Psalm 34:18 assures, "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit."
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