Carola is a Christian writer and author of several books. She writes about Christian living, relationships, and other related topics.
My poor girlfriend Janey (not her real name) was crying her eyes out on the other side of her kitchen table. We were both 20 somethings at the time and married. 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 counselor 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 decided to put up with it.” As someone who had endured verbal abuse and bullying myself in childhood, 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 could not take it anymore. She took her son and left her husband. She totally turned off Christianity and left our church. I never heard from her again.
This incident happened over thirty 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 stay in their marriages that they miss the signs of damaging emotional abuse. They may minimize the mistreatment by saying, "at least he does not hit you."
In the book A Journey Through Emotional Abuse, Caroline Abbot describes how she came out of denial that she was abused by her husband and got a divorce. She says that her church's leadership did not support her.
Signs of emotional abuse
Defining Emotional Abuse
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines psychological abuse as: “the systematic perpetration of malicious and explicit nonphysical acts against an intimate partner, child, or dependent adult.” Emotional abuse attacks the victims’ self-esteem and self-image. It can be subtle and hard to identify.
Signs can be missed or misinterpreted as something else. Abusers may use the excuse they are making a “joke” or claim they are “helping” their victims. Abusers are also manipulators who can convince victims that they deserve their mistreatment. They may use emotional blackmail, such as threatening to withdraw financial support.
What the Bible Teaches About the Tongue
The tongue has the power of life and death. Words can help or destroy people (James 3:5-7). The Christian faith is based on the commandments that Christians love God with all of their might and their neighbors as themselves (Matthew 22:35-39). The scriptures also demand that they honor and respect others. If people say they love God and hate their neighbors, the love of God is not in them (1 John 2:9-11).
Jesus said that anyone who calls his brother an imbecile or a numbskull is in danger of hell fire (Matthew 5:21-22). Words should bring healing, not pain, and destruction (Proverbs 12:18). People’s speech should build up and encourage others in their faith (Ephesians 4:29), not tear them down.
Some Reasons Why People Abuse Others
People may not recognize the damage they are doing and have excuses for their behavior. They are often blind to the damage that they do. They blame others for the negative consequences of their behavior and refuse to be held accountable.
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.”
Some perpetrators know exactly what they are doing and use emotional abuse to manipulate, punish, or control their victims. Victims need to keep these possibilities in mind when dealing with verbally abusive people.
The Christian Response To Verbal Abuse
Understand Why Perpetrators Are Verbally Abusive
Sometimes, the reasons are obvious. A person may have 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 distinguish between constructive criticism and emotional abuse. Some people verbally batter others to control them. They use hurtful words to destroy their victims’ self-esteem, force them to be submissive, and pressure them to tow their line.
Recognize When Scriptures Are Being Misinterpreted
Unfortunately, some so-called Christians disguise their verbal abuse with misinterpreted scriptures. Some husbands feel that they can say or do whatever they want, and their wives should “submit.” The Bible says that men should love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25), and they should not be harsh (Colossians 3:10).
Some parents may use biblical admonitions requiring children to honor them as excuses to emotionally abuse them. The Scriptures say that parents should not provoke their children to anger or frustrate them (Ephesians 6:4, Colossians 3:21). Understanding what motivates the abuser helps us to respond to verbal abuse appropriately.
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 us down. We should not fear because God will protect us from the destructive effects of tongue-lashings (Job 5:21).
Don’t Internalize the Abuse
Verbal abuse can damage our self-esteem if we allow it. God is close to the broken-hearted 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 let go of our anger. In the book Unmute Your Heart, author Sharon Wynn says that our battle to overcome domestic abuse ultimately belongs to God.
Create No-Tolerance Policy
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 our lines in the sand.
Watch for Signs of Danger
Before we confront perpetrators, we need to be sure it is safe to do so. People who emotionally batter others can escalate into physical violence.
Do Not Retaliate
The Bible tells us not to repay evil for evil (Romans 12:17). Their sins 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 emotional abuse does not continue.
Consider Whether Confrontation is Beneficial
In some cases, confrontation is difficult because the abuser has some power over us, such as parents or bosses. We should seek the counsel of trusted friends or professionals on the best approach. Alternate methods are needed in some special circumstances to stop perpetrators such as appealing to an abusive co-worker’s supervisor, cutting off the relationship, or fleeing to a shelter.
Here are some possible outcomes when we confront abusers:
- They are unaware their words are hurtful and will correct their behavior
- They will be remorseful and apologize
- Abusers despise us for some reason, do not care what we think, and will continue their behavior
- They will deny they were abusive and blame us for the problems to evade responsibility
- They will try to manipulate, guilt, or emotionally blackmail us to avoid facing issues
- They will retaliate verbally or with physical violence, or plot revenge against us for daring to stand up to them
Avoid Abusers, if Possible
We should avoid people who are verbally abusive such as those who are always angry (Matthew 22:24). They are continually getting into trouble and could drag us down with them into all kinds of sin (Proverbs 29:22, 1 Corinthians 15:33).
In this day and age, we in the Christian community and our leaders have become more aware of verbal abuse and are 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.
What is Domestic Violence? National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
The Truth about Emotional Abuse, Crosswalk, Dena Johnson Martin
14 Signs of Emotional Abuse, Redding Christian Counseling
Is Emotional Abuse Grounds for Biblical Separation? Association of Biblical Counselors, Leslie Vernick
God Hates Abuse, Christianity Today, Chad Ashby
How to Identify And Heal From Emotional Abuse, HealingfromGod.com
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Carola Finch
Jackie from Detroit on March 20, 2018:
Whenever I think about how Jesus Christ relied heavily on his heavenly Father for courage and strength when he was confronted with verbal insults, and verbal abuse, it's encouraging to know he did not retaliate in kind. Jesus' fine example at 1st Peter 2:21-23 always comes to my mind and heart for me to follow:
First Peter 2:21-23 says: "In fact, to this course you were called, because even Christ suffered for you, leaving a MODEL for you to FOLLOW his steps CLOSELY." (vs 22) "He, Jesus committed no sin, nor was deception found in his mouth." (vs 23) "When he was being INSULTED, he did not insult or [revile] in return. When he was suffering, he did not threaten, but he entrusted himself to the One who judges righteously."
Meditating on his fine example and praying for strength to follow his example is what helps me to conquer ill feelings of hatred and retaliation.
Thank you for this wonderful post.
GalaxyRat on May 11, 2017:
Thank you for this Hub. Have had questions like that myself, and this helps!
Ezria Copper on August 21, 2016:
A lot of people don't see verbal abuse as being "abuse". What they don't understand is it does severe damage. It is especially a hard topic in the Christian community because I think that often people misinterpret the scriptures. This was an excellent blog.
Brandy from TX on April 12, 2015:
Well, I'm not really religious, so I don't quite understand why a minister would tell someone to stick it through with an abusive partner. Mental abuse is the worst kind and it's very damaging to a person's personality. It's really terrible what happened and I'm truly sorry that it turned your friend away from her religion. But, I believe that people with faith usually end up coming back into their faith, even if they think they've lost it. At least, that's what I've heard from several different Christians. At some point in your life you lose it, and then you find it again. Nonetheless, hopefully she and her son will find happiness in their lives.
Sujin Mikee from Philippines on March 21, 2015:
Excellent points! Deny self and put on Christ =0)
Hannah David Cini from Nottingham on February 25, 2015:
This is a really interesting and well written piece. I think it's so true that the 'turn the other cheek' mentality can lead some Christians stay in harmful situations without questioning it.
mothersofnations on October 08, 2014:
Great article! Voted up and definitely a must-share! God bless you*
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 28, 2014:
Thanks for your comments everyone. I am very concerned about some Christian leaders' lack of awareness and understanding about verbal abuse.
Suzie from Carson City on August 27, 2014:
Carola.....This is beautifully written for all Christians to understand. I can only believe your hub will help many Christians who are abused and erroneously think they must tolerate this.
I was a major staff member of a crisis center for many years. We had basic policies and programs for all victims. There was nothing specific for particular religions, of course, just a firm and constant ZERO tolerance of abuse and abusers.
The very saddest part of being involved with those who lived with abuse was definitely the sweet, innocent children. I simply never got used to that.
Thanks for sharing your Bible knowledge. Very nice work, Carola...Up+++
Rod Martin Jr from Cebu, Philippines on August 02, 2014:
But in any discussion of victims, we need to introduce the driver of all victimizations -- ego. Once you get rid of ego (your own), you can never again be a victim. What does this entail?
Christ said that we need to love others as ourselves -- even our enemies. In other words, we need to consider the needs of the enemy and give it to them as if they were ourselves. Thus, Christ said to resist not evil, but to turn the other cheek and to walk the extra mile.
This dumping of ego is a big change. It requires we shift our viewpoint from one of a physical being to that of a spiritual being. Spirit is invulnerable.
Now, this does not mean that we need to stick around to be abused forever.
Love is the answer. Love allows us to take responsibility for everything that is done to us. When we take 100% responsibility, we have no room left for being a victim. It becomes impossible for us to be victim. But then, miracles happen.
Find that spot of miracles. Be Christ-like and there will no longer be a problem.
Robert E Smith from Rochester, New York on March 02, 2014:
Men who use the "I am the head of the family and she must submit" are very mistaken to abuse. The way the Scripture says it, the wife submits to the husband that is led of the Lord. She is not to submit to someone who is not led of the Lord because that is obeying man rather than God. Another great article Carola. God bless you sister.
savvydating on February 27, 2014:
Very useful article. I loved that you gave specific Bible verses for specific situations! The other thing to keep in mind is that people who are abusive almost never change, especially if they have a pathology like narcissism. Consequently, it is important the the person who is being abused know beyond a doubt that trying to "be nice" to the abuser will not make the abuser become nicer to them. It just doesn't work that way, primarily because abusers have little if any empathy.
Voting up & useful.
ann on December 19, 2013:
abuse happens outside of marriage too. inside the church goers.
not all pastors address this. verbal abuse is violent
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 05, 2013:
Verbal abuse can be awful I know of some woman who go through such a hard time with their husbands the thing is these kind of men can be controlling and dominant.
Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on September 04, 2013:
Thanks for taking the time to share and your comments. I should say that have met some caring ministers in my time who identified verbal abuse and advised a course of action to deal with it. I have opted out of showing comments on a hub, but the comments have been approved and will appear on the discussion thread.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 04, 2013:
Zero tolerance both for giving and accepting abuse. No-one deserves it. Thanks for reminding us of the Christian perspective.
Brenda Durham on September 04, 2013:
Did my first comment show up?...
I want to add something.....
Even though I got some horrible counselling from Christian pastors/counsellors, it didn't turn me away from God nor the Scriptures. I hope others will realize that just because some Christians don't use the Scriptures correctly, doesn't mean that the Scriptures are wrong. People are fallible. I learned one thing very well--------to read and interpret the Scriptures myself instead of letting someone else twist them to hurt me with them; I learned to not blindly trust anyone else's words nor experience nor training, because mine's just as good as theirs! (and better when it comes to my personal life). And when we search the Scriptures, we should search them in overall context and personal knowledge of good and evil that we all should have. I prayed for wisdom lots of times. The Lord promises us wisdom if we're lacking in that, if we ask Him for it.
Brenda Durham on September 04, 2013:
Carola, yes this is a great hub! About a subject that's often so hard for women to talk about; they're stuck in the pattern and can't seem to find the way out, or even through.........because of the narcissism and/or control-freakiness of the abuser, the voice of the abused is often ignored or deliberately shoved aside. I know, 'cause I've been there a couple of different times, put up with that, and took me what seemed like forever to change the pattern and/or get out.
Yup, even Christian pastors and counsellors often play into the abuser's game as you pointed out, which only enables the abuser while the victim feels more and more isolated and accused. My abuser once said a woman's supposed to endure disrespect because her reward is in heaven! By that point (after years of the stuff), I finally had the nerve to tell him that was hogwash and realize that all the responsibility was his, not mine, and I made up my mind I wasn't gonna let him blame me anymore for his problem. I came out swinging (figuratively), and even had to then nip my own anger in the bud before I developed a pattern of returning evil for evil. We went through 2 Christian counsellors who also wanted to ignore the man's first responsibility to love his wife and treat her with respect; I was supposed to "win him back with love" according to them, which is in itself a misquote of Scripture that's often twisted in order to place the responsibility on the woman (or the abused spouse no matter man or woman)..........Treating the abuser right while expecting him to take responsibility WAS love anyway, so the abuser has no excuse for their behavior; they need to own up to it and repent (and mean it, not just mouth the words for a short time) and change their behavior. Insults and cut-downs kill love.
This is a very important subject; thank you for taking the time and interest to write about it, I believe it will help someone who reads it!
The pattern can be broken. The victim may have to leave, or she may have to stand her ground and finally the abuser will straighten up. Depending on how narcissistic the abuser is.
Sorry so long; just a very important subject and it has personal implications for me as well.
Rayne123 on September 04, 2013: