Why Churches Brush Off Verbal Abuse

Pastors and churches are often ill-equipped to deal with cases of verbal abuse among their members. Thankfully there has been a growing awareness of the scourge of sexual abuse and even domestic abuse in evangelical churches, so pastors have become sensitized to the symptoms of abuse. This is wonderful; our churches are better equipped to prevent sexual abuse and minister to abuse victims with compassion and care.

But in our zeal to address abuse, some churches have overlooked a subtle but devastating danger—verbal abuse. Physical violence and sexual sins are recognized as abuse, but churches in the main don’t regard verbal abuse as “real” abuse. This is especially unfortunate because so many wives[1]Most perpetrators are men although not exclusively so in our congregations suffer terribly. When she brings it to the church leadership, they have a history of mishandling it, adding to her distress.

I think there are four reasons for this.

#1 Because Verbal Abuse Has Had an Elastic Definition

Abuse is a very powerful word that can get used too freely, and I’m against an expansive definition of abuse—not every sin is abusive. However, the word does describe certain behaviors and language accurately. I’ve talked about this in another blog, so I won’t define verbal abuse again here, but Christians that don’t know better can imagine that verbal abuse is just a term used by a vindictive spouse to exaggerate how sinful her husband is. And they can believe it’s an extreme word used to generate sympathy for her cause. But that’s not the case.

Verbal abuse is not the normal communication sins that occur in all marriages. Every Christian husband has sinned against his wife with his tongue, and fixing those involves confessing sin and seeking forgiveness. Healthy Christian marriages involve mutual admission of sin and seeking and granting a lot of forgiveness.

Verbal abuse is different. It’s more severe, it’s consistent (it’s not a one-off event of severe verbal sin), and the oppressor is blind, defensive, and refuses to repent. When confronted, he excuses and points the finger at his wife. He really believes that his sin is justified and caused by her. When confronted about his words, he might claim, “I’ve never hit her.” That’s because he knows violence is “real” abuse. His destructive speech is just words. How damaging can they really be?

But victims say that verbal abuse is more damaging than physical abuse. Does that sound unbelievable? Both secular and Christian experts claim it’s so. Steven Tracy relates the story of a woman he calls Betty who was physically and sexually abused by her dad. He says, “I was shocked when she said that twenty years of physical abuse and ten years of rape by her father weren’t as painful as the verbal abuse she endured from her mother.”[2]Steven R. Tracy, Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 35. The scars of verbal abuse last a long time.

#2 Because It Seems Less Urgent than Other Problems

Pastors always have more demands on their time—more than they can do. Dealing with a problem that doesn’t seem as easily defined just isn’t as urgent as preparing for Sunday, or reconciling those two families that won’t speak to each other, or meeting with the finance committee. Why stir up a potential hornet’s nest when other more pressing problems exist? Pastors don’t need to make more work for themselves, and dealing with a wife that complains about her husband’s harsh language seems like a problem with all downside and no upside for church leadership. And honestly, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” right?

It’s just not as urgent as other issues, and it seems a little exaggerated anyway. If he’s violent, well that has to be addressed right away. But words?! Can’t we just wait and see if it blows over?

You need to know that every physically abusive relationship began with verbal abuse. This doesn’t mean that verbal abuse inevitably leads to physical abuse, but that’s where all domestic abuse starts. Because this is so, addressing verbal abuse isn’t just good for the oppressor and victim, it might actually prevent the escalation to physical violence.[3]“The survey found that women whose partners were jealous, controlling, or verbally abusive [emphasis added] were significantly more likely to report being raped, physically assaulted, and/or … Continue reading Verbal abuse is an urgent problem.

#3 Because They Are Unfamiliar with Abuse Dynamics

What types of dynamics are characteristic of abuse? Coercion, humiliation, embarrassment, isolation, and control are all normal elements in an abusive relationship. Christian husbands that abuse will also weaponize religion—he will claim his spouse needs to ask his forgiveness, that she is not submissive, and that she’s the one sinning in the relationship. The cumulative effect of all this leads to confusion for the wife. Pierre and Wilson say, “Can we give a reminder we think is important here? A victim of abuse can often appear either crazier or more critical than the spouse she’s accusing of abuse. She may seem scattered, unreasonable, and even defensive. … If someone has been living under constant abuse, confusion should not be surprising.[4]Jeremy Pierre & Greg Wilson, When Home Hurts: A Guide to Responding Wisely to Domestic Abuse in Your Church (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2021), 85.

The victim’s confusion is frustrating to those around her, including you as a friend, pastor, or biblical counselor. You point her to God’s Word, but she seems to be in a fog. Even the most sensible suggestions is difficult for her to process. She cannot seem to make the most basic decision for her safety. It’s surprising how long-term abuse can disorient a woman. The perpetrator will use that to prove that he’s not doing what he’s been accused of. He will suggest that her story can’t be trusted because she’s so confused.

His story and excuses on the other hand are convincing, especially to pastors. They know this guy; he’s probably faithful in attendance and ministry, and he’s well-liked in the congregation. When they talk to him, they are prone to take his perspective at face value. They don’t know that most verbal abusers are smooth talkers telling believable stories.

Not knowing these dynamics makes churches unprepared to hold the perpetrator accountable and to offer care to the family.

#4 Because They Don’t Realize the Harm Words Can Cause

While words aren’t violence—violence is violence—words can be hurtful, sometimes extremely so. Words can cause severe damage. James in his epistle claims the uncontrolled tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity, a defiler of us, sourced in hell, a restless evil, and full of deadly poison. Those are not tame pictures of the tongue.  

A verbal abuser characteristically minimizes how hurtful his words are. He unloads on his wife and imagines that the name calling, swearing, and demeaning speech doesn’t hurt much. After he gets what he wants, he doesn’t feel much remorse. James 3 alerts us that words are powerful. They have a great capacity to cause severe hurt and destruction. Verbal abusers often yell, swear, manipulate through guilt, and attack their wives abilities, looks, character—their entire personhood. Sinful words damage wives.

Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of verbal abuse and a desire to pursue women in your congregation that are being verbally assaulted. May God grant you wisdom, compassion, and a willingness to seek the oppressor and hold him accountable.

References[+]

References
1 Most perpetrators are men although not exclusively so
2 Steven R. Tracy, Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 35.
3 “The survey found that women whose partners were jealous, controlling, or verbally abusive [emphasis added] were significantly more likely to report being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked by their partners, even when other sociodemographic and relationship characteristics were controlled. Indeed, having a verbally abusive partner was the variable most likely to predict [emphasis added] that a woman would be victimized by an intimate partner. “What Is Domestic Violence?,” National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, accessed June 2, 2015, http://www.ncadv.org/need-support/what-is-domestic-violence.
4 Jeremy Pierre & Greg Wilson, When Home Hurts: A Guide to Responding Wisely to Domestic Abuse in Your Church (Fearn, Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2021), 85.

A Better Illustration of Spiritual Blindness

Every pastor, every biblical counselor has talked to a counselee that really couldn’t see his sin very accurately. You’ve patiently showed him how he’s hurting his marriage, how he’s not fulfilling his biblical role, how he’s not loving his wife as Christ loves the church, and he’s not seen it. He refuses your counsel. He doesn’t own his sin. He rejects blame. It’s difficult to communicate the biblical concept of spiritual blindness—that we don’t see our sin very clearly. Sin deceives us to its existence (Heb 3:12-13), and we want to be deceived about it.

In this life we will never have 20/20 vision about our own sin. The Laodicean church shows us that.

Revelation 3:17 (ESV) For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

Did the Laodicean church think that everything was okay while in fact, everything was radically wrong? Did they really believe that things were A-Ok when they were really wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked? Yes they did. So do you. And so do I (Cf. Mt 7:3-5).

So what illustration can a biblical counselor use to communicate our tendency to be spiritually blind? Most use physical blindness which works, but has limitations. One, a physically blind person knows they are physically blind; a spiritually blind person often does not know they are spiritually blind. Two, physical blindness as an illustration is all or nothing, but there can be degrees of spiritual blindness.

Protanopia or deuteranopia are types of color blindness. With protanopia you cannot see the color red (1% of men) and with deuteranopia you cannot see the color green (5% of men). Most commonly a colorblind person struggles to differentiate between reds and greens. What is life like for the colorblind? They go through life without seeing all the colors we see. Most times it doesn’t affect them—at least in ways they are aware. They look at their child’s crayon drawing, and they don’t know what they’re missing. They notice the cut and shape of a new dress on their teen daughter, but they don’t know that the colors are fantastic.

We had a student in our church who didn’t know he was colorblind until he took his vision test for his driver’s license. You need to be able to distinguish between reds and greens if you’re going to have a license—stoplights demand it! His family enjoyed camping and in looking back, it made sense that he wasn’t ever impressed with the sunsets while sitting around a campfire. His life worked fine—as far as he could tell—while being colorblind.

YouTube videos of colorblind people seeing colors for the first time are somewhat common now.[1] http://enchroma.com/ A company called EnChroma worked with Valspar Paints to develop glasses that allow colorblind people to see colors. It’s amazing. In one I saw a guy look at a sunset and say, “So is that what you guys see every day?” He’d never understood the glory of a sunset.

Colorblindness is a better analogy to our spiritual lives than total blindness. Think about what it means to be colorblind. You can function fine. You might know that you’re colorblind, but you really don’t know what that means. You don’t know what you’re missing because you’ve never seen it. You look at a flower garden and you can see the different shapes and some differences in hues, but you have no idea that you’re missing the eye-popping colors in the garden. You’re missing something that is obvious to everyone around you. That’s spiritual blindness. You and I can function in life, and because we can, we don’t notice our blindness to our true condition. We go through life ignorant of the depths and extent of our sin. We cannot see it.

Sin is blinding. By nature it fools us, and when we’ve sinned for a long time in the same way, we become less and less able to see it in all its ugliness. I’ve rarely, maybe never, talked to a person whose tongue was destroying his family who thought his problem was as severe as it really was. That’s the human condition. Sin is blinding.

Colorblindness is a better illustration of spiritual blindness than actual blindness. It illustrates the blindness-to-our-blindness characteristic of spiritual blindness. It illustrates that we can function with our spiritual blindness. We’re not incapable of making our way through life. And that fact keeps us from seeing our sin very well.[2]The picture at the top is a test for colorblindness.

References[+]

References
1 http://enchroma.com/
2 The picture at the top is a test for colorblindness.

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?

References[+]

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