“The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 12:18
We all know that words are powerful and when used by an individual set on coercive control they can have devastating results. Many men over the years have shared with me that physical violence was a last resort and that they prefer to use non-violent means of manipulation and control. I believe that the same heart that produces physical abuse is the same heart that produces emotional abuse. A heart bent on control will use whatever “works” to get what it wants, and will excuse that behavior based on its own entitlement.
The Fruit of an Abusive Heart
The root of an abusive heart produces the fruit of abusive behavior. One of the difficulties in speaking with pastors regarding this topic is the insistence on separating abuse into a variety of categories. While understanding distinct categories of abuse such as emotional and verbal is beneficial such as in determining the pattern, many times they are incorrectly arranged according to perceived severity. When we prioritize abusive behavior, labeling some as severe and others as modest, we may miss the important reality that while the behavior may seem to run on a broad spectrum they all originate from the same heart motivation. Tactics of power and control, whatever form they take, all serve the same heart of pride. Overlooking the heart while minimizing the severity of certain behavior may lead us to excuse the more “respectable sins” of verbal and emotional abuse because at least no one is getting hurt. This is not a new consideration in Christian thought and practice. Jesus, revealing the centrality of the heart said this of anger, “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,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”(Matthew 5:21-22) Not only does Jesus condemn this malicious, murderous anger he also forbids verbal abuse with the same punishment as murder. This reality of the heart is not limited to Jesus and we read this same principle in the writings of the early church. For instance the Apostle John writes, “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.” (1 John 3:15) If Jesus and His early followers were concerned with motives of the heart evidenced in a wide variety of behaviors then when addressing abusive people I feel it is necessary to not only promote a change of behavior but a reorienting of motivation.
If the heart of pride promotes the use of power as a means of controlling one’s spouse then we have a problem regardless of the “fruit” of our behavior. Rather than reducing the severity of emotional, economic, verbal, or mental abuse should we not instead call to account the sinfulness of a self-serving heart