Let me tell you about the Smith family. You probably have met a family like the Smiths before, or if not, you will certainly meet them at some point in your counseling ministry. They come to your church, a husband and wife that are wonderful people. They’ve got a boy and a girl in their family, and they have been a part of your church for many years. Dad is optimistic, he’s a bit of a people pleaser and kind of avoids conflict, but he’s a never-met-a-stranger kind of guy. Mom is personable, friendly, talented, but superficial in her relationships with others. Their kids are great. They’re involved in your church. And as far as you know, this is the American family.
Truth be told, as God providentially works so often in these cases, you as a biblical counselor or as a pastor or as just a brother or sister in Christ in your church, get to know more about a family like this. As you get to know more about a family like this, you are utterly shocked in what you find out.
As the story unfolds in this particular family, there is turmoil in the home. What is presented on Sunday morning when everybody looks nice and sounds nice is not the normal atmosphere at home. In fact, it is horribly worse than even you could possibly imagine. What this mother says to her children and to her husband is horrible.
Let me give you some examples:
“I hate you.”
“Why can’t you be more like your sister?”
“I despise you.”
“I wish you were never my daughter.”
“You will never be good at anything.”
And that’s not an occasional occurrence—this is the normal script in the Smith home. As you get to know the family, as others in your church get to know the family, you recognize that this is not a good situation. This is a crisis situation. As more information is gathered, as you get to know them more, as your pastors intervene, as you as a biblical counselor may be getting involved, you uncover years of a pattern of hateful, angry, hurtful, calculated, controlling, perverse speech toward a spouse and toward children. And you didn’t know about it because everything looked good on Sunday. If you haven’t met a family like that yet, you will. The reality is in a broken world of sinful people, even many of whom attend our churches, this tragically goes on far more than we would want to admit.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me,” is a satanic lie from the depths of hell. How do we know that? We know because the Scriptures tell us.
Listen to the Proverbs. Proverbs 12:18, “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Proverbs 11:9, “With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor, but through knowledge the righteous will be delivered.”
Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
Proverbs 15:4, “A soothing tongue is a tree of life, but perversion in it crushes the spirit.”
Proverbs 16:27, “A worthless man digs up evil, while his words are like scorching fire.”
That’s why I titled this workshop Sword Words—because there’s one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of sword words, you know that they do hurt, and in some cases they hurt more than even being hurt physically. The Bible has a category for this. It is words that hurt, words that do damage, words that feel like the thrusts of a metal object into your body.We might define it, thinking about a biblical way of understanding this, as chronic sinful speech that hurts, demeans, and tears down others. Click To Tweet
What is Verbal Abuse?
What is verbal abuse? That’s not a biblical term, although the Bible does use the word “abuse” in some translations. We’re really thinking about a pattern of sinful speech. We might define it, thinking about a biblical way of understanding this, as chronic sinful speech that hurts, demeans, and tears down others. Now there’s a sense in which all forms of sinful speech are hurtful, demeaning, and destructive to others.
Sinful speech may take the form of tearing down as Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.” A foul word, a rotting word, one that would do damage. Earlier in the chapter, Ephesians 4 tells us about lying and deceit, where the Bible would tell us to lay aside falsehood. Being lied to and being deceived are certainly a hurtful form of speech. Angry, bitter words are mentioned in Scripture. Ephesians 4:31 says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Paul pulls out his Greek thesaurus. He looks up anger and he writes down all the synonyms to make the point clear that we ought to reject all forms of angry speech.
The Proverbs warn us in Proverbs 11:13 about the talebearer who reveals secrets. Gossip and slander would be also forms of sinful speech.
Manipulation is another form of sinful speech. You remember the story of Mary and Martha. Martha is preparing things for the Lord, Mary is at the Lord’s feet listening to His word. Martha comes in and what did she say? “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the preparations?” Well, what’s that? It’s manipulation. She’s making an emotional appeal to manipulate the second person of the Trinity.
There are many ways that broken people, sinful people in a fallen world can fall into sinful speech. That’s something that we all need to be working on in progressive sanctification. When we think about verbal abuse, at least as how I’m defining it here from a biblical standpoint, we’re thinking about sinful speech that is especially manipulative—chronically manipulative, driven by a desire to control others. What we might call in a biblical lens self sovereignty that says, “My kingdom come, my will be done.” Whereas we ought to be saying that about the Lord and His kingdom and His authority over our lives.
We think of verbal abuse as bullying, where threatening language is used, angry speech and particularly a hateful form of anger. It’s often characterized by blame-shifting—never taking responsibility. Repentance is rare. It may include name-calling and mockery, as in the case that I told you with the Smith family.
I wish I could tell you that the Smith family example is a composite of counseling cases—that it’s not really the Smith family. But like you, I’ve sat in the counseling room, I’ve sat with families where I have seen—inches away—a hateful, spiteful, bitter speech on the part of a person to the people he or she is supposed to love and be committed to.
Slander and criticism is a part of this. It’s often dismissed as a joke or sarcasm. They may say, “I was just kidding. I was just joking,” but it has it has a dagger in it. It’s reflective often of deep bitterness and resentment. As biblical counselors, we understand that doesn’t just happen. That chronic, sinful speech is the result of sin that has not been handled in a biblical way. It’s a result of doing the same sinful thing over and over and over, so that bitterness and resentment and hate begins to build up in the heart. Apart from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ that becomes the norm. It’s chronic and ongoing.
People who are subject to this sort of speech over time tend to fall into some patterns. If you’ve worked with people who have been in environments like this or in relationships like this, you know these. The victim of sinful speech, of verbal abuse, they begin to question their own judgment. They begin to blame themselves for the problem. They begin to minimize the situation. They don’t understand or realize the severity of the problem because for many of them it’s normal life.
One of the most shocking things about a case I was involved in is as you’re trying to hold up for a family, “This is biblical normality. This is God’s view of the family. This is how a husband and a wife ought to relate. This is how parents ought to relate to their children. This is what speech should look like in a godly home.” They look at you in disbelief because their experience is so contrary.Yet, we don't lose hope because we know the gospel has answers. Click To Tweet
Victims of verbal abuse may often develop unhelpful and sinful responses. As they try to deal with this, often they become discouraged, depressed, despairing. We see victims of abuse involved in all sorts of ungodly behavior as they try to find some way to wrestle with, to deal with the severity of being sinned against.
Yet, we don’t lose hope because we know the gospel has answers.
What Does the Bible Say About Verbal Abuse?
How does the Bible approach verbal abuse? One of things that biblical counselors always want to do, especially when we see a phenomenon in the counseling world is ask, “How do we understand this biblically?” How do we go to the text? What terms are used? What concepts are used? How does the Bible approach this?
People who are the victims of abuse of all sorts need to hear these truths that may be obvious to you and me, but may not be so obvious to them. First of all, we need to be very clear that sinful speech is wicked, evil, and wrong.
Proverbs 6:16-19 says,
“There are six things which the Lord hates,
Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him:
Haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
And hands that shed innocent blood,
A heart that devises wicked plans,
Feet that run rapidly to evil,
A false witness who utters lies,
And one who spreads strife among brothers.”
Notice with me that three of the seven are verbal sins, and you could attribute almost all of them to all forms of abuse, and particularly to verbal abuse. What does the Bible say? It says God hates those things. Victims need to hear that God hates what has been done to them.
Proverbs 26:28 says, “A lying tongue hates those it crushes.” It is an illustration, an example of hatred when we see this form of speech being communicated. What does God think about such speech? What does He think about such verbal abuse? Proverbs 10:31 says, “The mouth of the righteous flows with wisdom, but the perverted tongue will be cut out.” That’s what God thinks about it. It is horrid. It is wicked. It is an evil. It hurts and God hates it, as He hates all sin.
In Matthew 5, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus equates sinful speech to verbal murder and renders one guilty before God. Starting in verse 21, He says, “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”
It makes one guilty before God. Like all sin, sinful speech is never justified. In fact, James tells us you can keep the whole law, but break one aspect of it and you become guilty of all. It is never, ever justified.
What is the future of those who would engage in a sinful form of speech? Well, Jesus tells us in Matthew 12:36, “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.” Now, let’s remember, brothers and sisters, this is not just abusers. This is all of us. And let us remind ourselves that were it not for the grace of God in our own life, were it not for God’s rescue, we all stand guilty. We all need grace. We all need the gospel.
Sometimes biblical counselors, and Christians in general, come to something like verbal abuse—or emotional abuse or some other form of abuse—and we’re comfortable with addressing physical abuse. We think, “You’re hurting the person—okay, I know how to deal with that.” Sometimes biblical counselors and Christians, we ask, “What do we do with all these other forms of abuse?” I have to confess that even in preparation for this talk, I was eager to dig into the Scriptures more to understand, “How do we how do we understand this? How do we approach this from a biblical standpoint?”
The Bible really gives us two categories of hurt—and that’s a good biblical word. Hurt is not an unbiblical word, that’s a good word. There’s physical hurt, where we could go to texts that would demonstrate physical pain, physical violence. We understand that is wrong and sinful. I was amazed in preparation for this at how often the Bible actually points us to what we might call a “spiritual hurt.” Sometimes we might call it emotional pain. I think spiritual hurt is a more biblical way of thinking about it, but that’s just me.
Here’s what the Bible teaches—this is an internal, inner man, sort of anguish, distress, or pain. It’s immaterial. It’s not done to your physical body as in the case of physical abuse. It’s done to the spiritual part of you—your inner man, your soul, your spirit, your heart. Those are all biblical terms to describe the immaterial part of us.
I wanted to give you several verses and several terms because biblical counselors use biblical terminology, right? We want to put them in a biblical framework. We want to come to biblical counseling using the terms and concepts that we find in our Bibles. Here’s some biblical descriptions of what we’re thinking about in terms of spiritual hurt:
A broken spirit. In fact, Job says in Job 17, after he’s lost his family, he’s lost his livelihood, and now he has this physical affliction. He says, “I have a broken spirit. And I’m ready for the grave.” He’s saying, “I’m done. I’m done physically. I’m done spiritually. Lord, I’m ready to die.” We also see in Proverbs 15:13, “when the heart is sad, the spirit is broken.”
Or Isaiah 65:14 talks about wailing with a broken spirit. That’s an expression of spiritual pain. Or a crushed spirit as we see in Psalm 34:18. A sad heart in those passages. Pain of heart is also described in Isaiah 65. A broken heart or being brokenhearted is described in Psalm 34, Psalm 69, and Psalm 147. These are good biblical terms that give direction for describing this thing called verbal abuse or other forms of abuse that are not physical.The Bible has real, legitimate categories and as biblical counselors we need to recognize those categories and point our people to see what God says about such things. Click To Tweet
The Bible has real, legitimate categories and as biblical counselors we need to recognize those categories and point our people to see what God says about such things.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul has been verbally abused. Let’s just say it. He was involved in the church at Corinth. He loved this church and between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians there was something called the “sorrowful letter” that Paul wrote to them because false teachers had come into the church. They were trying to dislodge the biblical foundations and the theological pillars of that church. The way that those false teachers did that was by attacking the Apostle Paul.
And Paul writes to describe what that feels like. In 2 Corinthians 2:4 Paul writes, “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears.” Paul’s describing that inner man hurt, that spiritual hurt.
I wanted to give some of the Hebrew and Greek words as well so that you could see those definitions.
Shabar – “break, smash, shatter” used both literally and figuratively (“broken heart”)
‘atsebet – “pain” used of both physical pain and emotional sorrow (“sad heart”)
Lupe – “grieve, sorrow, affliction” used of “pain of mind or spirit”
Lupeo – “to cause severe emotional or mental distress” or to “experience sadness, grief, distress, or sorrow”
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 2:5 that “Lupeo” pain can be inflicted on another person. At the same time persons can be injured by that as well, to experience sadness, sorrow, or distress. Paul writes in Romans 14:15 that your brother is hurt by carelessness and recklessness in our words and our actions.
The Bible is very clear that some of the most painful human experiences come from spiritual hurt. Sinful speech that is characteristic of verbal abuse is one of the main ways that this kind of pain can be caused.
So, how do we think about this? We think of those who are impacted by verbal abuse—by chronic, sinful speech—as true sufferers, don’t we? You can take any biblical counseling issue—anything you see in ministering to somebody—and put it into buckets. You can put in the bucket of sin or the bucket of suffering. You need to know that because both of those buckets allow you to get to the gospel. Why did Jesus come? To solve the problem of sin so that we could be reconciled to God, and to address the problem of suffering as the man who would bring reconciliation and who is very much the Man of Sorrows, who we come to in our day of grief, who gives us mercy and grace to help. There is authentic suffering in this situation.
Let me just talk briefly about terms and language. I’m not trying to get technical here. When we hear language that comes from a psychotherapeutic culture or from a secular counseling system, biblical counselors always want to stop and say, “Okay, how should we think about these? Should we use these terms? Should we not use these terms? Are they helpful or they not helpful?” I’m not advocating that you should use abuse language or you should not use abuse language. I think there are there are strengths and weaknesses to each of those. But let me just give you some principles to remind you.
Biblical counselors strive to use biblical terminology as often as possible. Why do we do that? We do that because biblical vocabulary is usually less influenced by a secular, worldly counseling system and thus it is less prone to unbiblical viewpoints, interpretations, theories, and assumptions. Remember terminology is never neutral. With terminology, there are always presuppositions and concepts. There’s always the “what you do about it.” You use a term and if you’re not careful, that term is loaded with significance. Be careful with the terms you use. If you’re going to use abuse language, define those things biblically. Define them conceptually.
Also, biblical vocabulary connects life problems with actual biblical solutions. For example, if you’re dealing with an adultery situation in counseling and you use the word affair, there’s nothing really wrong with that in the sense that everybody knows what you mean. But here’s the problem: You’re telling them the answers are in the Scriptures. They look in their concordance and they go, “I can’t find that term.” One way that we can help people to make connections to the resources that are in the Word of God for help is to use biblical terminology as often as possible. Sometimes it’s not possible, but if we can, we try to do that.
The second thing is that biblical counselors try to use biblical phrases in this situation (like a broken spirit, pain of heart, spiritual hurt) that reflect biblical anthropology. Have you noticed that our friends in the secular counseling world do not buy into biblical anthropology? They do not believe in a biblical doctrine of people. That means their terms, their concepts, their methods, their theories, and their interventions are shaped by an unbiblical anthropology. They often make unbiblical conclusions because they have an unbiblical anthropology. Be careful. We want to be real particular about the terms we use in counseling.
I think terms like emotional pain and hurt feelings aren’t bad because people kind of know what you mean, but if you can avoid those and try to use better terms, I think that’s the wiser course. With words like abuse (which is in some translations of the Scriptures) if we’re going to use that term, let’s clearly define it, explain it using biblical concepts, and try to avoid assumptions and implications from a secular counseling view. I really think it’s a wisdom call, but let’s be careful with terminology.
God is Near to the Brokenhearted
With that in mind, how does the Bible help people who have been impacted by the horror of verbal abuse? Let me share with you the main way that the Bible offers help in such situations.
Look at Psalm 34. This is the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, sufficient Word of the living God—and this is what so many abuse victims need to hear. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.” If you’ve done ministry with brokenhearted people, you know that’s not something you tell them in Session 1. That’s something you tell them in Session 1 and Session 2 and Session 3. You saturate your ministry to them with who God is and what He thinks about you in your affliction.
We know God is omnipresent, right? He’s everywhere all the time. We know He especially indwells believers through the Holy Spirit and through our union with Christ, but then the Bible says stuff like this. God has a proximity to the brokenhearted. He’s near. He relates to them. He is focused on them.
Verse 18 says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” We need to tell abuse victims that God is near to them, that He loves them, that He desires to save them and help them, that He is close.
Abuse makes you feel isolated, doesn’t it? “If I can’t trust my spouse, who can I trust?”They need to hear God is near to the brokenhearted. They also need to hear that God is able to spiritually heal the brokenhearted. Click To Tweet
They need to hear God is near to the brokenhearted. They also need to hear that God is able to spiritually heal the brokenhearted. Psalm 147 speaks to this as well. Now, be careful because when the Bible talks about healing and brokenheartedness, a culture that is highly psychologized hears all sorts of psychological wellness and healing. That’s not what the Scripture is saying.
God is saying that He will heal you spiritually. First in salvation, drawing you to Christ, making you His own, adopting you into His family, forgiving you, encouraging you. Then He will heal you progressively through what we call progressive sanctification, where you grow day-by-day into the image of Christ. God is able to do that.
Psalm 147:3 says, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” We ask, “How can He do that?” Look at the next verse, “He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them.” The same God who created the heavens and the earth, the same God who put all the stars in their place and names them—that same God is near to you in your affliction. He is especially close and He desires to save you and heal you. What encouragement for hopeless people that think,” there’s no hope for me.”
God’s healing comes through the person and work of the Lord Jesus. Isaiah 61, which foreshadows the coming of the Messiah, the coming of Jesus himself, records these words,
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To grant those who mourn in Zion,
Giving them a garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.”
What we love to do in counseling, what we love to do in ministry to people that are hurting, is to point them to the One who comes to bring good news, to heal the brokenhearted, to bring gladness and joy where these dear people have known in many cases nothing but pain, affliction, and sorrow. That is our role. That is the church’s role. That is the duty and privilege of every Christian. It doesn’t have to be ACBC biblical counselors. We love that, but that is the duty of all who would call upon the name of the Lord. If anyone has a charge, a duty, a role to play in going out into this world of brokenness and people of sorrow and pain, it is us. Brothers and sisters, God has entrusted the gospel of this Jesus to us. It’s our role and our privilege to minister to hurting people.
Jesus and Verbal Abuse
Not only that—God did something even more shocking to address the problem of sin and the problem of suffering. The second person of the Trinity, Jesus Himself, fully God, came to earth and took on humanity. He’s all God and all man. Like I tell my kids, He’s 100 percent God and 100 percent man at the same time in the same person. That’s the incarnation.
Why did Jesus come? He came to experience the suffering, the pain, the affliction that is the normal course of a broken humanity. Isaiah 53 describes Jesus as the man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief. First Peter 2:23 says that, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Jesus comes to experience these afflictions, to be that sympathetic high priest.
When a victim of abuse comes to Him saying, “Lord Jesus, I need your help. I need you to intervene. I need you to understand. I need you to listen to me.” You know what Jesus says? “I know what that’s like. I know what it’s like to be verbally abused. I know what it’s like to be physically abused. I know what it’s like to be falsely accused.” Because He was the man of sorrows. Jesus was reviled and He suffered greatly. Jesus also sympathizes with us in our weaknesses. I alluded to that a moment ago with Hebrews 4:15. We’ll come back to that in a few minutes, but you know that text: He’s our sympathetic high priest. He’s been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
Here’s what all abuse victims need to hear: “You can go to the Man of Sorrows and He will relate to you. He will sympathize with you. He understands your situation, both in His omniscience as the Son of God and experientially as the God-man who was afflicted and suffered and abused.”
The Bible tells us in Hebrews 4:16 that we can come to Him—to His throne of grace—to receive mercy and grace to help in time of need. Jesus has sufficient mercy and grace to offer people that are hurting.He's the man of sorrows. He knows what it's like and He is able to give mercy and grace to help in time of need. Click To Tweet
And if that wasn’t enough, if we look at Matthew 27, Mark 15, and Luke 23 (all three of the synoptic gospels), we see that Jesus, while He was on the cross bystanders came by and hurled abuse at Him. That’s verbal abuse of the Son of God. Even the criminal next to Him, the text tells us, hurled abuse as well. He’s the man of sorrows. He knows what it’s like and He is able to give mercy and grace to help in time of need.
Resources for Protection
Anytime we talk about an abuse situation, we have to talk about resources for protection. God has ordained two institutions that are His means of grace to help people in abuse situations. We can only wave our hands at them a bit in the time that we have, but let me just remind you of them. First of all, we have the institution of civil authorities.
This is Romans 13, that the government is ordained by God to protect those who do good and to punish those who do bad. The Bible tells us that the civil authorities have a God-ordained authority to punish evildoers. We should be thankful that we live in a country where civil authorities are largely in place to help people that are being abused and sinned against in these sort of ways. As biblical counselors, and just as biblical Christians, we honor those civil authorities insofar as they stand for righteousness. If your state requires certain abuse situation to be reported, we do that as Christians because we honor the government. That’s what we’re called to do in Romans 13. Frankly, the state has authority to protect and intervene in ways that the church and Christians do not. We praise God for that. We use those institutions wisely and we’re thankful that we have them.
The second institution that God has ordained for the protection of people in situations like this is the local church. These are godly pastors and elders, godly friends. The Bible would tell us that in a text like 1 Peter 5 that the elders are to “shepherd the flock of God among you.” They have a care for the flock, which certainly means that they protect those who are in dangerous situations. That text tells us that they are to be like the great Shepherd. We think of Matthew 18:15-17, the passage that we typically think of in church discipline. Church discipline is ordained by Jesus to Christians in the context of local churches to help protect the weak and those who are being sinned against. That is a resource for protection that churches ought to use in biblical wisdom.
Psalm 82:4 tells us that those who are being afflicted ought to be rescued. That is the heart of God, to rescue those who are afflicted. Any person who would name the name of Jesus ought to see somebody in danger, see somebody afflicted, and say, “How can I help to get that person out of that situation?” We use the civil authorities and we use the local church as God’s means of grace and those situations.
Counsel for the One Sinned Against
Now the one sinned against must be very careful. This is where, as biblical Christians, we need to be very careful. The one who is being sinned against, the one receiving the verbal abuse, is never responsible for the abuse itself. The rightful shame is on the person doing the abuse, not the one being abused. We need to tell people that, we need to remind them of that. With the abuse victims I’ve had the privilege of working with, that’s not one thing you say one time. That is an atmosphere of encouragement you build. They need to hear that over and over again. We understand the mind is renewed over and over again progressively (Romans 12:1-2). We need to remind them of the truth of God’s Word.
We also understand that God holds people responsible. God holds all people responsible for how they respond when sinned against. This is where as biblical Christians, we have to be very careful. When we are working with an abuse victim and we see what has been done to them, we want to say over and over again, “My dear brother, my dear sister, you are not responsible for that abuse.”
But at the same time in wisdom, encouragement, care, and compassion we want to come alongside and help that dear brother or help that dear sister to see that God does hold them responsible for how they respond to that abuse. That is where the gospel has such a powerful role to play in helping them to see that God helps them both in the ways that they have been sinned against, but God in the gospel also helps them to know how they can respond in godly and helpful ways.
As biblical counselors, we need to say both of those truths in compassion, care, and wisdom. The person who has been abused needs to be very careful. There are so many off-ramps that a person can take into unhelpful, ungodly, and hurtful things when they’ve been abused.
She must be careful to not deny what is actually happening. You’ve heard this before: “It’s not really that bad. It’s not abuse.” They need to be careful to recognize to not engage in unhelpful responses—things like trying to be good enough to avoid abuse. Thoughts like this: “If I was a better wife, he wouldn’t treat me like that.” Or defending the offender: “He was just having a bad day. He’s stressed because of work.” Or minimizing the situation: “Well, all couples fight, right?”
Or falling into what we might call the “victimization trap.” It involves demonizing the abuser, thinking, “My husband is an abuser. He will always be an abuser.” That is a gospel-less statement, isn’t it? And it’s not true.
Another victimization trap that we see is when people only going to focus on the sins of the abuser and ignore the legitimate ways that she may be sinning or doing unhelpful things. Not at all saying that she is responsible for what is done to her, but saying that she does before God need to acknowledge anything that she might be doing that would fall short of the glory of God, where she needs God’s grace and God’s help.
Here’s another facet of this victimization trap: Assertiveness doctrine. The world’s answer is, “You need to assert yourself. You need to respond to attempts to control with stronger control.” Again, brothers and sisters, that is gospel-less, that is Jesus-less. Ultimately that’s hopeless because that’s not going to ultimately help her to better the situation.
Turning to self instead of turning to Jesus. Abuse is going on and they pull in, and they try to be strong on their own and strong inside. They turn to self and self-trust instead of turning to trust in Jesus. The path to healing is not to trust self more, but to trust Jesus more. So much of the secular message to people of abuse is, “You have to do it. You have to protect yourself.”
Or justifying foolish decisions and ungodly behavior because, “I’m an abuse victim.” In our culture, brothers and sisters, that abuse is seen as a blank check or a trump card to justify many foolish decisions and ungodly choices. In compassion, wisdom, care, and encouragement, we need to put our arm around those dear people who have been hurt horribly and say, “My dear friend, I love you, but that is not a course that honors God. That is not going to help you. That is not going to help your situation.” We need to be able to help them to see that.
They may be influenced by worldly and ungodly counsel. Sometimes the thing that is the worst for helping in a counseling situation like this is a well-meaning family member or friend. They’re offering competing counsel to the Word of God, so we need to be careful about that.We need to help victims of abuse see that turning away from God will make your situation worse. Only turning to God and trusting Him and His Son will help. Click To Tweet
They may respond in self-pity, anger, bitterness, responding in anger toward God. These are all biblical examples of ways that people who have been sinned against horribly turn away from God. Don’t you love how the Psalms do that? They say, “The Lord is my refuge and strength.” I run to Him as the strong tower. There’s all these other things that are false refuges, they are false towers. We turn to those other things instead of to the Lord for help. We need to help victims of abuse see that turning away from God will make your situation worse. Only turning to God and trusting Him and His Son will help.
Contemporary victimization theology and teaching can be one of those false refuges. We need to be very careful when we see things like this promoting an unbiblical identity (“You’re only an abuse victim”), promoting an unbiblical view of appropriate action, promoting an unbiblical view of the offender (“He’s hopeless; he’ll never change”), promoting an unbiblical view of help, and promoting an unbiblical view of responsibility. That’s the idea that I can justify any decision that I want to do—foolish or otherwise—because of my situation. We need to be careful of that.
Now with that in mind, I want to turn and talk to you about counseling procedure. How do we help care for people that have been impacted by abuse? In the remaining time I want to speak with you about the procedure.
There are three main ways that I would encourage you that we need to offer care in an abuse situation, and here we’re thinking about verbal abuse. There are three main realms of care. We want to help her deal with her own heart and hurt. We want to help her to deal with the offender. And we also want to help her to deal with the broader situation. As I think about this as a biblical counselor, those are the three main areas of care that we want to think through.
Of course as biblical counselors, we’re going to start first of all with thorough data gathering. In an abuse situation, what do we want to think about? The nature of abuse (examples, frequencies, current situation, who’s involved). I would encourage you greatly, because victims of abuse so often do not see the situation clearly, if you are able with appropriate consent from your counselee—we’re not going behind people’s backs—try to talk to other family members, other friends, who may have more insight into the situation than you do as the biblical counselor. Try to do that if possible.
Try to find out how is she responding? Where are the particular areas of struggle?
With that in mind, let’s talk about what some of the initial needs are. The first thing we want to think about in virtually every situation of abuse is safety.
Proverbs 22:3 says, “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.” It is not ungodly to flee danger. It’s a mark of prudence according to Proverbs. It’s a mark of wisdom. When we see a dear brother and sister in danger, our heart ought to be to help get that person out of that dangerous situation.
Just in the last month, I had a phone call with a person I’ve known for years and years. The marriage hasn’t been great, but she called me and she said, “My husband was so angry. I don’t know what it was—something in his eyes or something I’ve never seen, and for the first time in my marriage I didn’t feel safe.”
You know what I told her to do? I said, “Pack a bag and go stay with your son until we can size up the situation.” I don’t know the whole story. The first to plead his case seems right, the Proverb says. I don’t know, but if she’s saying “I don’t feel safe,” I want to help get her out of that situation until I can figure out what’s going on. Maybe it’s legitimate, maybe it’s illegitimate, but at that point you err on the side of caution. I think that’s biblical wisdom. I think that is what the Proverbs are saying.
I want to read to you from ACBC’s Standards of Conduct.
“Biblical counselors must care for counselees in protecting the weak from harm. Counselees can be harmed by others and can inflict harm on themselves. Biblical counselors avoid sinful language and behavior that brings harm into the lives of their counselees. Biblical counselors understand that it is impossible to protect the weak from every danger in a fallen world and yet they endeavor to protect counselees from exposure to the harmful treatment of others through false teaching, unbiblical counseling, harsh speech, abusive treatment, and any other manifestation of sinful relationships. And they actively seek to protect counselees from harm through their own persistent sin.”
That’s what ACBC believes, and I believe that reflects what the Bible teaches. We have to think about safety.
We want to think about hope. We talked about this in Hebrews 4:12. We have a sympathetic high priest in the Lord Jesus who sympathizes with us—not just in His omniscience, not just because he knows everything, but as the God-man who was afflicted, who was tempted in all things as we are, who was clearly abused—verbally, physically—and yet without sin, the Bible tells us. That text tells us we can come to Jesus who sympathizes with us. What a message! The Son of God cares about you, cares about your abuse, and can relate to your abuse. Not only can He relate, He can help. He can help in a way that no one else in the universe can help because He’s King Jesus. He’s the Son of God. He has grace and mercy to help and we need to help our counselees to see that.
We have to think about reporting laws. You need to know the reporting laws in your state. Biblical counselors and biblical Christians honor the state, which means we follow reporting laws. If you don’t know the reporting laws, talk to your pastor, talk to your elders, and you need to report abuse when it is required by law or when it is otherwise wise and helpful.
Intervention. It’s so important to intervene as well to the offender and others involved. We want to minister to the victim, certainly, but we want to think about children too. We want to think about the the abuser and other family members.
This is the ministry plan that I would suggest: Someone takes the lead in biblical counseling (this could be in someone from a small group, kind of a Titus 2 mentor). If the biblical counselor is not an elder and pastor, there needs to be a pastor or elder overseeing that process. The civil authorities need to be involved in certain situations. The rest of the church can also serve in practical needs. These are all ways that we might be able to help.
We also need a major on building a relationship of trust. Proverbs 27:9 says that a man’s counsel is sweet to his friend. Remember, an abuse victim has been hurt in many cases by a close family member, which means that building trust in the counseling relationship may take more time. We need to be very sensitive to that.
How are we going to help her? We’re going to help her by dealing with her own heart and hurt, and actively pursuing God in the Scriptures. I love to use the Psalms to connect hurting people with the things of God, with the person of God. The Psalms meet you in your experience and they take you to God.
Secondly, we want to help anchor her identity in Christ. Abuse can become a person’s identity. We want to help that person to find identity in Christ, thinking about a text like Romans 6, so that they don’t see their identity through the lens of abuse, but through the lens of Jesus.
We want to help her to learn to take her thoughts captive. Help her to begin to renew her mind in practical ways, because there are lies that she’s believing. There is deceit and there can be unhelpful things going on there.
Dwelling on what is true, returning good for evil. These are principles that you’re going to want to apply. Returning good for evil; don’t be overcome by evil, but learn to overcome evil with good.
Learning to live by faith, not fear. Hebrews 11 says fix your eyes on Jesus.
Leaning on the body of Christ. This is a whole church endeavor in situations like this. Help her to deal with her own sins. Help her to recognize that there are ways that God wants her to grow and change as well, and we need to help her to see those also.
So many heart issues can be present—fear, anxiety, worry, hopelessness, addictions—whatever she’s struggling with, we want to begin to help her to address her heart.
The second main area we want to help her to think about is help her dealing with the offender. There are very practical ways here. Help her think through, “How does Scripture call me to respond with my words, my actions to protect my children, to flee danger?”
Listen to Psalm 82:4. This is the heart of God in a situation like this: “Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” That should resonate in the heart of every Christian. Help them to flee danger, to protect children. Think about getting civil authorities involved. Church leadership also needs to be a part of this, as those shepherds have been given charge over their people. How to be a peacemaker, how to answer foolishness with wisdom—so much more than we have time to talk about here.
All of those are ways we want to help her to think wisely about dealing with her offender.
Finally, help her to deal with the situation. There’s so many things we have to think about. One is her living situation. As I mentioned if there’s a dangerous situation, if she does not feel safe, we find a family in the church to let her go stay for a time until we can size up the issue. She can stay there safely until we can meet with the offender, so we can get some biblical counseling going, some pastoral involvement. We don’t want to leave a person in a dangerous situation.
We also want to help them to think about practical biblical issues like roles in the home. The husband’s role, the wife’s role, biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage. We don’t abandon biblical teaching about roles and about marriage and divorce just because we have an abuse situation. We have to think wisely. We have to think pastorally about how we can both help the afflicted, keep them safe, rescue them from danger, and honor the Bible in those other teachings. That requires pastoral wisdom, so we need to get our pastors and elders involved.
Help them deal with unbiblical counseling from others. Figure out who those other sources of counsel are and help them to wisely think about whether that is honoring to the Lord or not.
One very practical issue might be, how do you help a child know how to respond when dad is angry and hurtful? Or when mom is angry and hurtful?Jesus is able to intervene and transform even the most difficult of circumstances. Let's look to Him as we seek to minister to both abuse victims and to those who are abusive. Click To Tweet
We need to remember that there is hope as well and ministry needed for the abuser. I would offer as exhibit A for this the Apostle Paul. If you have time later, read Acts 7—that’s the stoning of Stephen, where we see Paul sitting holding the coats of those that are throwing rocks, killing the first martyr. Then in Acts 9, the Lord Jesus meets him dramatically, saves him, transforms him. It was so radical, the text tells us he couldn’t stop preaching about this King Jesus. Even the apostles were freaked out by this guy. “Isn’t that the Christian killer? Isn’t that the Christian abuser?” And God saved him and transformed him by His wonderful grace so that he wrote most of the New Testament. That tells us that there is hope for every abuser, every seemingly hopeless situation.
Jesus is able to intervene and transform even the most difficult of circumstances. Let’s look to Him as we seek to minister to both abuse victims and to those who are abusive.
To read ACBC’s Statement on Abuse and Biblical Counseling visit our Committed to Care website.