The Bible does not use the term “verbal abuse,” but it has much to say about the power of our words. Succinctly stated, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21).
Verbal abuse is one weapon in the arsenal of emotional abuse. While the tactics of abuse are many, the ultimate goal is to gain control over someone in order to establish dominance in a relationship. Verbal abuse is not the occasional flare after a bad day or temporary lack of verbal self-control in the midst of a tense moment. It constitutes psychological violence. Verbal abuse is a habitual sin that seldom goes away on its own and can potentially escalate into physical abuse.
Overt verbal abuse could include angry outbursts, screaming, swearing, ridicule, name calling, blaming, accusation, criticism, threats, orders, mockery, manipulation, coercion, put-downs, shaming, word twisting, rewriting history, and attacking personal character. Covert verbal abuse is more subtle and cloaks hidden aggression. It feigns concern and has the effect of brainwashing, leaving the victim confused, off balance, and questioning his or her value and abilities.
Over the long term, any kind of abuse can leave the victim feeling uncertain, unable to make decisions, and drained of any sense of personhood or value. The victim begins to accept the blame and believe the crushing words that are convincingly and repeatedly thrown at him.
The old adage “Sticks and stones can break a bone, but words can never hurt me” is not true. Abusive language has a deep, long lasting effect that can “pierce like swords” (Proverbs 12:18).
The Bible contrasts healthy and unhealthy verbal communication. God knows our weaknesses, and has given us His Word to teach us how to use ours in a life giving way.
The words we speak reflect what is going on inside of us. Luke 6:45 says, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
Words affect the speaker as well as the receiver. “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. . . . With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:6, 9).
Matthew 5:21–22 categorizes verbal abuse as a serious offense with eternal consequences: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ [an Aramaic term of contempt meaning “worthless, empty”] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
God’s heart on the subject of how we use our words is evident in Scripture. There is no question about the seriousness of the effects on the hearer or the speaker of violent, abusive words. When the words of others have hurt us, we can find healing in the true words of God. When we have hurt others with our words, we can find forgiveness in God and should also seek it from those we have harmed. Those who have been victims of serious verbal abuse may need the help of a counselor or pastor in the healing process.
God’s desire is that we “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) and that we “do not let any unwholesome talk come out of [our] mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” (Ephesians 4:29). God intends that our words and our relationships be healthy and life giving. Keep in mind, God created the universe with His Word (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24) and Jesus Himself is called the Word of God (John 1:1, 14). His desire is that we recognize the power our words carry and use them as He would.