November 18, 2010 by Stacy McDonald
According to Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, the word abuse is defined as “ill use; maltreatment; misuse with bad motives or to wrong purposes.” It goes on to describe an abuser as “a ravisher or a sodomite.” Basically, to abuse is to use to the extreme something or someone (including ourselves) improperly, and to a bad end. To abuse is to “use wrongly.”
However, sometimes, when people use the word abuse, they mean other things. Today, the word abuse is used to describe everything from violence, rape, molestation, and verbal cruelty to any form of corporal punishment, hurting someone’s feelings, offending the religious views of another, or even “grounding” a child from something he wants to do. In society’s effort to extend the definition of abuse, the word has nearly lost its meaning.
In our upside down culture, parental authority is consistently questioned and undermined. Last year, a 12-year-old girl in Quebec who had been caught posting inappropriate pictures of herself online was grounded by her father from a three day school trip. Her response was to sue her father because “the trip was very important to her.”
Was her father being heavy handed? Was his decision abusive, cruel, or tyrannical? Apparently, someone thought so. The girl sued her father and won!
This young lady may have turned to her friends at school and described in colorful detail the moment she was told she couldn’t go on this much anticipated trip. She could have dramatically shared her pain and disappointment, describing the confrontation in colorful detail…right down to her father’s angry or (perhaps) poorly chosen words.
Or she could have gotten down on her knees and thanked God she had a father, as imperfect as he may be, who cared enough to set and enforce boundaries for her – a father who loved her enough not to allow her to exploit herself.
Unfortunately, there were too many people involved in that case who were more interested in helping this young woman focus on her own desires than on honoring her father, and respecting his decision.
Beaudoin, the father’s attorney, said, “He doesn’t have authority over this child anymore. She sued him because she doesn’t respect his rules…it’s very hard to raise a child who is the boss.” You can read the story HERE.
Are You an Abuser?
Rather than stretch the meaning of the word abuse (which has been redefined into oblivion) to include anything that offends our sensibilities, and instead of labeling anyone an “abuser” who gets in the way of what we want to do, let’s examine legitimate ways people harm one another, and discuss when and if the church or civil authorities must get involved.
First, we have a bit of a dilemma. Webster’s “maltreatment” definition may simply describe the way we all regularly sin against one another. Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:37-40 that all the commandments are summed up in the two commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
So, maltreatment (or abuse) could be described as failing to properly love one another. Of course, that means, to varying degrees, we all abuse one another, since we all fail to perfectly love. Defined this way, each of us has been abused, and each of us are abusers. “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10)
But, we must be careful not to shamefully detract from the seriousness of true abuse—the scary kind—the kind you read about in the news. We also need not to minimize other forms of real abuse…the kind that may not leave visible marks on the body, but instead leave lasting scars on the mind and emotions.
Obviously, there are varying degrees of harm people inflict upon one another, and sometimes the extremes create crisis. Insulting your spouse or criticizing him/her in a hurtful manner is a failure to love, therefore in a way it is abuse; however, it is certainly not the same as beating them with a chair or regularly shouting in their face.
It seems we need to find a way to separately define common abuse (a general failure to love as we ought) and damaging abuse (serious, habitual harm to another person).
Common Abuse vs. Habitual Abuse
For instance, if a man neglects or speaks unkindly to his wife (and this goes both ways) he has in fact abused her. She was given to him to love and cherish; yet, he has failed to love her as he loves himself. And in a husband’s case, he has also failed to love her as Christ loved the church. He has sinned. He should repent and work to win back his wife’s trust.
If a woman belittles, ignores, or rejects her husband (and this goes both ways) she has in fact abused him. She has failed to love and respect him, which she is called to do. She should repent and work to win back her husband’s trust.
Still, most of us would not view either of these people as “abusers.” We can’t go around labeling every person who sins against others an “abuser,” unless we’re willing to claim that label for ourselves as well (Romans 2:1-3; Matthew 7:1-2).
However, when even verbal abuse becomes oppressive, habitual, or damaging to the health of the relationship or family, it is time (and maybe past time) to get help (Matthew 18:15-17). Enabling a brother or sister’s sin is not acting in love. See Domestic Tyrants. But remember, the goal is repentance and reconciliation. Be hopeful!
There are other ways man harms man—actions that are rightly called abusive: physical or sexual assault, spiritual exploitation (cults), harmful neglect of the helpless under our care, and cruelty to the elderly or infirm. More extreme situations call for more drastic measures, and some situations necessitate the involvement of civil authorities.
So perhaps it would be helpful to distinguish the different forms of abuse. I’ve attempted this here by breaking down abusive behaviors into four categories:
Type A: A general failure to love as we ought, which is not habitual and which occurs within the context of an overall healthy relationship. This, at the very least, includes every one of us.
Type B: A habitual and ongoing failure to love as we ought that escalates to the point of damaging the physical or emotional health of those around us. Here is where relationships slowly erode and children are sometimes scarred because of a consistent pattern of unrepentant emotional assault or neglect, including: irrational, sometimes manic behavior; verbal attacks; unreasonable, controlling demands; and angry outbursts of wrath. It is imperative that those in this situation seek godly counsel.
Type C: This type of abuse includes physical or sexual assault, or serious wrongful neglect. This type of abuse is what generally comes to mind when the word “abuse” is used and usually requires intervention from the civil realm, as well as the church.
Type D: This type of abuse is sometimes (ironically) abused. It describes the behavior of groups which are marked by false teachings or a false teacher—a cult. Unfortunately, there are those who use the loaded term spiritual abuse to label true brothers and sisters in the faith with whom they doctrinally disagree.
True spiritual abuse occurs when individuals are deceived into believing they are following God, when, in fact, they are following a false prophet (2 Peter 2:1).
Of course, the most vile and reprehensible cases of abuse happen when one who is stronger (either in size, influence, or power) takes advantage of his/her position to harm those who are weak or vulnerable. We are called to defend those who are helpless. And Scripture speaks directly to those in positions of strength, authority, or influence, charging them with the care and protection of the weak:
“Rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble…” (James 1:27)
“Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel… (1 Peter 3:7)
“Warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14)
“I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak…” (Acts 20:35)
“Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them.” (Ezekiel 34:1-4)
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)
Vicious words and violent behavior may leave loved ones wounded and broken for years. When someone lives under a consistent spirit of anger and humiliation at the hands of someone who is called (and claims) to love them, deep hurts result.
So, yes, sin exists; there is no doubt. Husbands and wives fail one another. Pastor’s fail their flocks. We fail the widow and orphan. We are impatient, unsupportive, inconsiderate, thoughtless, selfish, negligent, and forgetful. We are sinners. Praise God we have a Savior.
The question is not whether or not abuse exists; we know that it does. It seems the real dilemma is how to differentiate between the extremes of random unkindness or common offenses and habitual cruelty, lasting harm, or assault. While both extremes are a result of sin, the levels of outside involvement necessitate highly varied responses. And evaluating all the levels in between may take the involvement of godly counsel.
In addition, since the word “abuse” is such an emotionally charged word, bringing to mind horrific assaults on the weak, perhaps one should simply name the sin (if it must be named), rather than categorize all offenses under the ambiguous word “abuse.”
There may be a question as to when and to whom sharing such details is appropriate, but to keep implications to a minimum, if one feels led to share, one should be more specific. Instead of saying, “My father or mother (or husband or wife) abused me,” be specific:
“My father resorts to name calling when he is unhappy with something I’ve done.”
“My mother refused to listen to my side of the story and disciplined me for something I didn’t do.”
“When he is moody, my husband often punishes those around him with silence, brooding, or harsh words.”
“My wife tries to manipulate the whole family with long tirades of screaming and name-calling.”
Depending upon the pattern, intensity, and frequency of the above examples, these abusive tendencies may be categorized under Type A or Type B, but should not be lumped together with the more dangerous and oft-thought-of Type C. Therefore, rather than inadvertently suggest that the wide range of serious sins covered under the single word “abuse” applies to every claim of abuse, it may be better to specify what you mean.
In addition, we should keep in mind our own sin against God…and each other. We all regularly violate the royal law by failing to love one another as we ought. Therefore, we should never exaggerate the sins of others and we should be very cautious about publicizing them. In a culture where people are often encouraged to view themselves as victims, it is important to be careful of using the emotionally charged word “abuse” to describe everyday domestic conflicts.
The Invincible Pseudo Victim
Every wise woman buildeth her house, but the foolish plucketh it down with her hands. (Prov. 14:1)
Another type of abuser worth mentioning, one that usually falls into the category of Type B, is the Pseudo Victim. In some cases, this type of victim (abuser) may have been accidentally created by well-meaning, but misguided pastors or marriage/family counselors. Other times, false teachers do more harm than good by tickling the ears of those who are wounded or blinded from conflict and sin. With their philosophies on abuse, these teachers offer an already inflamed heart an excuses for unforgiveness; and feed bitterness, rather than promote peace and healing.
Unfortunately, this philosophy, leaves room for a seemingly invincible abuser. An abusive or controlling (usually) woman who wants to manipulate or punish her husband for his real or perceived sins against her is given an enormous amount of power – all she has to do is claim abuse and she calls the shots (and yes, this does happen!). The alleged victim (and possibly her counselor) puts herself in the position of judge, jury, and executioner. She sets the boundaries, makes the rules, judges the motives, and executes punishment. She, on the other hand, becomes accountable to no one.
The wife may claim abuse and there is nothing the husband can do about it, except bow his knee to the commands and restrictions of her and her counselor. If he repents for any episodes of real sin, he will be told he is attempting to deceive the counselor by not admitting to more. If he refuses to repent for false accusations, this is seen as proof that he is a liar. If he becomes angry at the injustice of the impossible situation, this is viewed as confirmation of his abusive behavior. He is stuck.
In these cases, one party can easily get the upper hand in a marital conflict by claiming abuse. The accuser can deflect her own sin in the relationship by calling the other party’s sin “abuse,” and being allowed and even encouraged to focus only on that. Some false teachers even encourage those who claim abuse to view their alleged abuser as some sort of sub-human who is basically beyond the reach of the Gospel. They won’t say this directly, but the message is the same: “Abusers” can’t repent. And, if they try, they’re lying.
We need to learn to recognize this as an additional form of real abuse, and work to also protect the victims of this more subtle form of tyranny. It’s very important that, in our effort to help those in one type of situation, we don’t empower a different type of real abuser. We also need to be very careful not to place man’s philosophies above the Word of God, which is exactly what happens with some “abuse experts.” This is why the intervention of wise and discerning church elders is crucial.
Repentance and restoration should always be the goal. If repentance never happens, then that is a different story. But, counselors or pastors who treat alleged or repentant abusers as if they are perpetual liars, beyond the hope of the Gospel, are teaching a false doctrine and are dangerous to families.
Abuse is real because sin is real. Jesus died for all of us – even as we have abused the very breath of life He gave us. Regardless of the type of abuse we’re dealing with, we must remember that God’s Grace is greater than our sin.
We should also keep in mind that many times those who have harmed or offended us may also be the very ones who have cared for us, nurtured us, and loved us deeply. And there may be ways in which we too have hurt or offended them.
We must always be willing to see our own sin and repent; that is why godly counsel and a teachable spirit is crucial. God can heal deep hurts, change hearts, and transform families! God’s Word is the light by which we must pursue peace. May we all be willing to see our own sin, extend grace, and pursue peace.
“For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” (Matthew 7:2
Resources for victims of abuse:
- A genuine hope for repentance should always be present. However, in cases of physical abuse, great caution should indeed be taken until trust is rebuilt. This is not to say that emotional abuse is not harmful, or even more painful than physical abuse (sticks and stones may break bones, but words hurt the most); however, the risk of immediate physical harm must be regarded as priority.
- True victims who are living in fear under a real tyrant, may be afraid to tell their story for fear of retaliation; so, some private counseling would be necessary. However, once the safety of such a person is ensured, the accused should eventually have a chance to face his accuser in a safe setting, hear the charges against him, and give his side of the story. Even in a court of law, one is innocent until proven guilty.
- It is never your fault if someone sins against you. A Domestic Tyrant owns his/her own sin, and cannot blame his/her tyranny on anyone in the family. However, in marriage or family counseling, there is always plenty of sin to deal with on all sides. It should be a red flag if someone will not ever admit to any specific personal sin in a conflict.