Words that Stab: Defining Verbal Abuse

Proverbs 12:18 (ESV) There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Once as a teenager I was rooting through our basement, and I came across a picture from the ‘50s of a girl I didn’t recognize. I asked my parents about it and discovered it was my Dad’s former girlfriend. He threw the picture out then—he didn’t even remember that he had it. As a kid, it was a surprise to me that my Dad had ever dated anyone besides my Mom. I was teasing my parents about it, and I said something dumb and cruel in an attempt to be funny. That was 40 years ago and I still remember where I was when I said that. I still remember the look on my Mom’s face as I said it. Thankfully I also remember her forgiveness later.

That was not the last regrettable thing I’ve said, and it wasn’t the last hurtful thing I’ve said. God has grown me, but I certainly have my share of unkind speech littering my history.

The majority of my counseling has been marriage counseling. Other counselors have seen more teenagers, or depression, or anxiety, but most of mine has been helping married couples grow in Christlikeness. And my specific focus has been verbal abuse; it’s what I worked on for my D.Min. degree in pastoral counseling.

What prompted that interest was my own struggle with my tongue and a series of counseling situations where one spouse, normally the husband, was going beyond the normal sins of talk into what I would call verbal abuse. Of course that statement assumes that some sins of talk are greater than others such that they can rightly be called abusive. I’m against an expansive definition of the word, abuse. It seems if you want to gain sympathy, describe almost any situation as abusive and you will get just that. But I also know that some sins rise to the level where calling them abuse is accurate and appropriate.

We know this is true for physical abuse and sexual abuse. There might be a little more question about calling talk sins verbal abuse; however, it is a fact that many women have said that verbal abuse is more devastating to them than physical abuse. One wife told me, “I wish he would just hit me so others would know what I’m experiencing.” Jennifer Michelle Greenberg after describing a specific incident of physical abuse by her father says, “That’s abuse. And yet, looking back, even worse than his violence were his hurtful words and sexual ‘compliments.’ I came to learn that bruises heal quickly, but a crushed spirit does not.” [1]Jennifer Michelle Greenberg, Not Forsaken: A Story of Life After Abuse (The Good Book Company, 2019), 49-50.

And often verbal abuse is a precursor to other forms of abuse. Most verbal abusers never physically abuse their wives, but every physically abusive husband has started with verbal abuse.

As a counselor I needed a way to define sins of the tongue that went beyond the normal communication sins that every Christian couple commits, so I developed this definition. Now this definition is not found in Scripture, so hopefully you understand that it’s intended to be helpful, not doctrinaire. Oh, and normally, but not exclusively, it’s the husband that is the perpetrator, so my comments below will assume that.

So how do you know if a counselee is experiencing verbal abuse?

Verbal abuse is the habitual use of words to assault, demean, and belittle or to manipulate, pressure, and control a person. It’s different than other communication sins in its severity and repetition, and in that the offender is characteristically blind and lacks true repentance.

That definition is a lot, and every part of it is significant. Let’s break down this definition so we know why each phrase is important.

  •  “Verbal abuse….” Men tend to believe that only physical abuse is really abuse. “How can talking be abuse?” they think. “After all, I didn’t hit her.” But it’s the nature of sinners to minimize their sin (Mt 7:3-5). Wives feel the pain of their husbands’ words like they feel the pain of physical abuse. The perpetrator abuses using words, not fists, but the pain to the victim is similar.
  • “Is the habitual use of words….” This is the customary way that this husband responds to stress, disappointment, frustration, and anger. It’s second nature for him to hurt his wife with his words. It’s his regular approach to get her to do what he wants, to force her to submit to his authority, and to get her under his control.
  •  “To assault, demean, and belittle….” These are the overt characteristics of verbal abuse. These include yelling, swearing, mocking, cruel sarcasm, and severe criticism. It’s very intimidating to face a husband that is so angry. This part of the definition points out that abusers hurt others with their words. They cause pain. They will often downplay the severity of their words and the hurt they cause, but the victim will always talk about the pain she experiences.
  •  “Or to manipulate, pressure, and control a person.” An abuser normally wants to control his wife. He causes and uses pressure. An abuser’s desire for control will even lead him to tell his wife what she thinks and likes, and he will argue with her if she disagrees. Wives complain of feeling pressure and stress. Husbands want what they want, and they abuse to get it. Often the wife’s personality is one that tries to please her husband, which one would think would help ameliorate the abuse. However, giving in leads to greater demands. He likes being the king.

Sometimes this pressure is applied through yelling and screaming, but often it’s much more subtle. A husband may talk in an even, controlled tone, but he uses guilt to manipulate her. He doesn’t have to yell. He doesn’t have to explode. Because he doesn’t, he thinks his words are fine. However, he’s not ministering grace to his wife (Eph 4:29). He’s still trying to control her.

Combined these two phrases tell us that abusers use pain and pressure.

  • “It’s different than other communication sins in its severity and repetition….” Both secular counselors and Christian counselors point out this difference between “normal” communication sins and verbal abuse. Abusive language is much more severe and happens more frequently. Any couple can have a one-off incident of yelling or manipulation, and no one incident defines a husband as a verbal abuser. All couples sin in their communication, but not all husbands are verbally abusive. Verbal abusers are more severe in what they say, and they have an ongoing problem with it. Severity and repetition are key markers for a biblical counselor to look for when assessing whether verbal abuse is present in a relationship.
  • “And in that the offender is characteristically blind and lacks true repentance.” He may come to counseling for weeks, but he tends not to gain much insight into his own behavior. He will hint that his wife’s sin needs to be addressed if their marriage is going to be what God wants it to be. While that might be true, the problem is that he hasn’t taken responsibility for his own sin. In fact, he might be the spouse that suggests counseling, but he does so because he believes his wife needs to change. The manipulation, pressure, and control are the most difficult for him to see. It is as if the perpetrator has a blind spot that prevents him from agreeing that he has a problem. He might even deny that the yelling is abusive. He will downplay it by claiming that many husbands do the same or that his wife yells right back at him. He does not own his sin very well, and it’s impossible for him to grow when he won’t own it.

Does this definition help explain some dynamics in a couple you’re counseling? Is it possible that a husband you’re counseling is more than just angry, he’s verbally abusive?


1 Jennifer Michelle Greenberg, Not Forsaken: A Story of Life After Abuse (The Good Book Company, 2019), 49-50.

Personal Weaknesses & Patience

One of my sons was very forgetful as a young child; he was absentminded. He would forget his trombone on days he needed it for band. He would forget his lunch. He forgot his soccer cleats for games.

So we worked on it. We would have him place his trombone right in front of the front door along with his lunch. Problem solved, right? One would think so. Only he would step over his lunch and trombone on the way to the car and still forget them. How? I don’t know. I’m not wired that way.

When he was really young, he was reflecting on some consequences he had faced for being forgetful, maybe he didn’t have lunch that day, I don’t remember. But he was in bed and I was saying good night and he was practically crying. He said, “Dad, I don’t want to be this way.” Well, I didn’t want him to be that way either. We prayed.

And that didn’t change him either. He forgot more important things in high school. He would finish his assignments and bring them to class on the day they were due. However, our school had a rule that the assignment must be turned in at the start of class. He would forget and turn it in at the end of class. Points would be deducted for a late assignment. Other kids were turning in assignments, and it wouldn’t trigger his memory that he needed to turn in his.

One day they had an exam and he didn’t know there was an exam. And my wife said, “Didn’t the teacher go over a study sheet in the class before?” and my son said, “Well, now that’s making sense to me.”

So my wife would sit down with him every night and go through his calendar. It helped a lot. But he needed that because he was forgetful, distracted.

Is forgetfulness a moral issue? I wanted it to be at that time. I wanted to find some way that his forgetfulness was sin. But it’s not.

What Is Man? [1]The idea for this is based on a lecture by Edward Welch, Westminster D.Min, 8/14/2007

Every philosophy of life has an anthropology. It has a theology of what people are like. An anthropology includes why you do what you do –your motivation. It includes a belief in strengths and weaknesses or what can a person do and what can’t they do. What are they responsible for and why aren’t they responsible for other things.

Of course the only true anthropology is found in God’s Word. We’re described as sinners, worshippers, and seekers—but not after God.

Most of evangelicalism—those that believe the Gospel—believe that man is made up of two parts: body and soul. The body is material, but the spirit and soul are immaterial. You cannot see them with your eyes. You cannot see them under a microscope. You can’t cut them out of the body. They are immaterial. They exist together but can be split apart—that’s what happens at death.

We could say that you are made up of both inner and outer elements. The body is your outer person and the spirit, soul, heart, etc. are the inner person.

So you have two types of problems: body issues and soul issues. Maybe this seems too simplistic to you. After all, how can you tell where body issues end and soul issues begin? That is the dilemma sometimes. They are often interrelated.

You’re one person with two interrelated parts. Your body is an instrument for either glorifying God or sinning. It carries out the desires of your heart.

How do the body and the soul, the material and the immaterial interact? Have you ever thought about that? How do they influence each other? Maybe I should ask it this way, what happens to your sanctification when you get tired? Or hungry? Or sick? Do those body issues influence your heart?

You are body and soul… and each influences the other. Any particular problem can have its source in both your body and your heart. For example, your worry (spiritual issue) can cause real physical problems, and your lack of sleep (body issue) can influence how you respond to your life (spiritual issue), can’t it? So how do we make sense of that? Is the body able to make you sin?

2 Corinthians 5:10 (ESV) For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

The body mediates our moral (good or bad) deeds; it doesn’t initiate them.

Ezekiel 18:20 (ESV) The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

My environment may have been bad, but I’m still responsible for my sin.

1 Corinthians 10:13 (ESV) No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

For the believer, we are never tempted beyond our ability. Our body cannot make us sin; God says he won’t allow it.

All things spiritual are the inner person. Violations of God’s commands are always a heart issue.

2 Corinthians 4:16 (ESV) So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.

The Apostle Paul said that we have an outward man and an inward man. While our body is wasting away our spirit can be thriving.

How this Helps

So what? That might be what you’re thinking.

The outward person—the material part of you is not characterized by sin or obedience, but by strengths or weaknesses. What are you good at? What talents do you have? Those come from the outer man. The body is the mediator of moral action, not the initiator of it.

The body can never make us sin. It’s an outside influence on our heart like the world, friends, and the devil. We might add our past or experiences. They all influence, but cannot make us sin. This means that each of us will face greater or lesser temptations because of the peculiarities of our bodies and our history.

What are you good at? What talents do you have? Those come from the outer man.

  • Some can hear better
  • Some are stronger
  • Some are more athletic
  • Some can see better; don’t need corrective lenses.

One way we can identify body strengths and weaknesses is by asking ourselves whether what we’re considering is a moral issue or not. So are the following moral issues?

  • Figuring out directions?
  • Not seeing cultural cues? (Asperger’s Syndrome, nerdishness, close talkers). Some people are more skilled relationally. Others don’t get the nuances of interpersonal relationships.
  • Memory in general? “I told you to get milk on the way home. Why didn’t you?”
  • Being a detail person?
  • Punctuality? Ability to judge time and distance? Those of us that are punctual really struggle with the idea that this might not be a moral issue.
  • Ability to smell your own body odor? I’ve met some people lacking that ability. 😉
  • Or how about these?: “the physical experience of panic, hallucinations, disrupted sleep, physical agitation, a mind that races from one thing to another, or an inability to make useful and practical plans.” [2]Ed Welch, “Spiritual Growth in the Face of Psychiatric Disorders,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 29:3 (2015), 46. This is an excellent article that explains how understanding body weaknesses … Continue reading

Now is it possible for a non-moral weakness to become a moral issue? And if so, how? I think these weaknesses can be sin if I’m unwilling to work on them. Why? Because they are all ways that I can love my neighbor. Getting better at them means I love my neighbor better.

When you recognize that these issues are body weaknesses or strengths, not sin, you can be patient with them. This is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). So if your friend is forgetful, you can be patient. Their forgetfulness is not sin, and you are wrong if you try to make it a sin so you can justify your irritation.

My wife and I have different body strengths and weaknesses. Mostly we complement each other. It was easy early in our marriage for me to think that my wife needed to become more Kraig-like, not Christlike. But she doesn’t need to become more like me in areas that are not moral. Both of us need to become like Christ.

We need to be patient with our families. Understanding that some of our irritations with each other are body weaknesses can help us.


1 The idea for this is based on a lecture by Edward Welch, Westminster D.Min, 8/14/2007
2 Ed Welch, “Spiritual Growth in the Face of Psychiatric Disorders,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 29:3 (2015), 46. This is an excellent article that explains how understanding body weaknesses changes how we view people with certain psychiatric diagnoses like, ADD, Depression, and panic attacks, and it gives practical help for counseling them.

Overcoming Evil in Marriage

I was miserable in the rain. We owned a Ford Aerostar minivan, and one of the sliding glass windows was leaking. It was our first ministry job, and while we could afford a house (barely), we didn’t have a garage. I had just gotten back from a ministry trip, and Laura told me about it then. She had noticed it leaking during the week, but didn’t have a way of fixing it. Now during this unexpected thunderstorm rain was coming inside the van in bucketfuls. I was upset; I questioned her care of the family. I lashed out in anger at her—openly accusing her of not caring for our vehicle. I don’t remember all that I said to my wife at that time, but I know it was hurtful, accusatory, and condescending—a too common trinity of evil speech from me to her.

I grabbed some caulk and went outside trying to fix our minivan’s window frame. It was rainy, and I was steaming. I was angry at my wife, angry at my circumstances, and angry that one of my idols—our minivan—was being damaged on the inside by the rain.

My wife came out and gave me something I didn’t deserve—grace. She told me later that she wanted to come out and yell at me—I deserved it, but instead she was kind. As we stood there in the rain she asked, “Kraig, how can I help you with this?” with a sweet, loving tone, and she meant it! The Spirit used her kindness to lead me to repentance. I asked her forgiveness and she graciously gave it.

Not all sin in marriage ends with forgiveness, does it? God was gracious to me that day. I wish I could say that I haven’t sinned against my wife or kids since then with my speech, but that’s far, far from the truth.

My wife was applying truth found in Romans 12. And when I say she was applying it, I mean it wasn’t accidental. She thought about how she should respond to me and knew what Scripture said.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Rom 12:21 (ESV)

I had treated her sinfully–very wickedly, but she responded with good. You see, the good overcomes the evil. It destroys the evil. It’s not how any of us naturally respond. We want our revenge–something also condemned in Romans 12. But revenge extends the evil. It prolongs the evil. It feeds it.

Anybody can give back evil for evil. That’s easy. That’s natural. What my wife did that day was something that only those empowered by the Spirit can do. Giving good for evil kills the evil.

Husbands and wives must overcome evil with good. But you cannot do it in your own strength. The gospel changes us into people that can do what comes unnaturally. We give back good for evil.

Maybe your marriage is stuck right now, and it’s stuck because neither of you will give in. Neither will do good when sinned against. Trading verbal blow for verbal blow accelerates quickly. It harms your marriage. Evil for evil hasn’t worked very well, has it? Make the first move. Be gracious and kind to your spouse especially when they don’t deserve it.

“Judge Not”

This Sunday my pastor asked me to teach in our Community Service, and he–probably unwisely ;)–gave me total freedom as to subject. I’m going to look at Matthew 7:1-5 both this week and probably next. It’s a passage I often use in my counseling ministry; it reminds us of our bias towards self. We really think the other person in conflict is wronger than us, but we are hobbled in making that judgment because of our inability to see ourselves clearly.

Verse 1 tells us not to judge others, but it doesn’t mean what most unbelievers think it means. It’s not a blanket condemnation of making evaluations about others. We know this because in the same chapter we are told that we can make some evaluations of others (7:6, 19-20). It is a command not to sinfully judge or condemn others.

Years ago I developed this chart to help me understand the difference. Hopefully it helps you too.

By the way, I hesitated to call it discernment because of the misuse of that word by so-called discernment ministries online. However, it’s a biblical word that should be rescued, and maybe by emphasizing grace, I will contribute to a more accurate understanding of it.

Sinfully JudgingGraciously Discerning
To condemn someone (often based on personal opinion). To act in the place of God.
Rom 14:3–4 (ESV) Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
To see things as they really are, as God describes them in His Word.
Phil 1:9 (ESV) And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, Heb 5:14 (ESV) But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.    
Will be spiritually blind to my own lack in the same area (Mt 7:3-4).Will thoroughly examine myself first (Mt 7:3-4; Gal 6:1).
Will be eager to tell about another’s failure.
1 Cor 13:6a (ESV) [Love] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing….
Will deal with the matter as privately as possible (Mt 18).
Will feel superior because of their failure. “I’m better than that.”Will grieve because of their failure. “I’m very much like that.”
Will base opinions on hearsay.
John 7:24, 51 (ESV) Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” 51 “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?”
Jam 4:11 (ESV) Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.
Will be concerned with accuracy.
Prov 18:13 (ESV) If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.  
Will go to him to get the story straight (Mt 18).
Luke 17:3 (ESV) Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, [Has the idea of rebuking tentatively. You might not have the whole story.]
Rejects a sinning brother.
2 Cor 2:6–8 (ESV) For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, 7 so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.
Restores a sinning brother (Mt 18; Lk 17:3; Gal 6:1).

Here are the differences I see. Are there any contrasts that you would add?

Know Your Wife

According to some polls, there is a certain percentage of men who cannot remember the date of their marriage. You would think the percentage would be zero, but it’s a range that is much larger than that. I can remember not only our anniversary (will be 29 years on May 29th! Is there such a thing as a Golden Anniversary—besides the 50th—like your Golden Birthday?) but I can also remember the date when I asked Laura to marry me. I’d prove it to you, but I also use it in some passwords, so you’ll just have to trust me. I know I’m congratulating myself on something that is possibly the lowest bar for fulfilling 1 Peter 3:7, but apparently some husbands cannot meet even that low standard.

What’s in 1 Peter? A Christian husband probably knows in the Apostle Paul’s writings that he is commanded to love his wife in the Apostle Paul’s writings, but tucked in 1 Peter 3:7 is another command that is ignored to his marriage’s harm.

1 Peter 3:7 (ESV) Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way….

This phrase has a variety of translations.

(NKJV) Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding….
(NIV84), Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives….
(NASB95) You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way….
(NRSV), Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together….
(HCSB), Husbands, in the same way, live with your wives with an understanding of their weaker nature….

You can see that some translations think it means to be considerate of your wife, and others—most—think it means live with her with knowledge. Some Bible scholars take it to mean be considerate, or use your authority considerately.[1]Edmund Clowney and Peter Davids

However, I agree with most that it means live knowledgeably with your wife. It is translated as a command because of 1 Peter’s specific grammatical rules [2]It’s a participle, but in 1 Peter participles are often considered imperatives.

So what does it mean to live with your wife according to knowledge? Peter doesn’t say what kind of knowledge is needed. A bit surprising I think, but several commentators believe it has special reference to the marital sexual relationship. The word was certainly used that way in the LXX—the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The word is sunoikeo [συνοικέω], and it’s used in each of these passages.

Deuteronomy 22:13 (NKJV) “If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and detests her,
Deuteronomy 24:1a (NKJV) “When a man takes a wife and marries her….
Deuteronomy 25:5 (NKJV) “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.

So this word in 1 Peter 3:7 at least means don’t be a brute in your sexual relationship. Be considerate. It’s more than just maintaining an intimate relationship with your wife as the Apostle Paul commands in 1 Cor 7. It’s more than fulfilling your sexual duty to your wife. It means to do so with understanding. Husband, are you a selfish lover? Are you only interested in your pleasure, or do you make sure your wife enjoys this part of your relationship? Do you know what she likes? What gives her pleasure? Whatever dwelling with your wife according to knowledge means, it includes the sexual relationship.

But it’s also more general knowledge too. It means to have knowledge in all areas of your wife’s life.

You need to have a curious mind about your wife. What are you supposed to know? The cynic says, “Who can figure out women?” Well, there is one that you better figure out—your wife. You need to be a student of your wife. You can’t throw up your hands and say, “I’ll never figure her out.” You need to be proactive in trying to know her. What intrigues her? What discourages her? What are her dreams? What are her strengths, weaknesses? What are her goals? What does she enjoy? What does she dislike? How can you encourage her? What does she want to change in your marriage? What does she struggle with? What sins continually tempt her? How can you help her grow?

When we were engaged, I use to kid my wife about “Laura Logic.” These were humorous statements that made sense to Laura, but not necessarily to me. But rather than laughing, I should be working toward a doctorate in Laura Logic. I need to understand her.

The purpose of this knowledge isn’t to win some contest—like a Christian version of the old show, The Newlywed Game. It should be insight that leads to loving and considerate care. You cannot cherish someone that you don’t know. So to cherish your wife, as every Christian husband must, you need learn about her.

This command requires effort. This isn’t knowledge that just comes by living with a person. We wouldn’t need to be commanded to do it if that were the case. That would come over time, naturally.

And notice nowhere in Scripture are we told to dwell with our kids or parents according to knowledge. That might be wise, but it’s not commanded. No, it’s specifically your wife. It wouldn’t be unusual in counseling for me to find a husband that lived with his wife for years and didn’t really know her. He never put in the effort.

A couple of decades ago a friend of mine was getting married. He and his fiancé were getting discouraged because a few older couples in the church were telling him that marriage is great at the beginning, but eventually you develop different interests and you become roommates, not best friends. That’s sad, and not at all what God intended.

Husband, you should enjoy obeying this command to know your wife. Put some effort into knowing her, and you will also be cherishing her. A cherished wife is a blessed wife.


1 Edmund Clowney and Peter Davids
2 It’s a participle, but in 1 Peter participles are often considered imperatives.
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