From Words That Hurt to Words That Heal
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”—PROVERBS 18:21.
REVILING—a deliberate practice of using insulting, abusive speech—is clearly condemned in the Bible. Under the Mosaic Law, one who reviled his parents could incur the death penalty. (Exodus 21:17) Thus, Jehovah God does not view the matter lightly. His Word, the Bible, does not support the notion that whatever happens ‘behind closed doors’ is of little consequence as long as one claims to serve God. The Bible states: “If any man seems to himself to be a formal worshiper and yet does not bridle his tongue, but goes on deceiving his own heart, this man’s form of worship is futile.” (James 1:26; Psalm 15:1, 3) So if a man verbally abuses his wife, all of his other Christian works could be rendered useless in God’s eyes.*—1 Corinthians 13:1-3.
Furthermore, a Christian who is a reviler could face expulsion from the congregation. He could even lose out on the blessings of God’s Kingdom. (1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:9, 10) Clearly, a person who is hurtful with his words needs to make a drastic change. But how can this be accomplished?
Bringing the Problem to Light
Obviously, an offender will not change unless he clearly understands that he has a serious problem. Unfortunately, as one counselor observed, many men who use abusive speech “do not view their behavior as abuse at all. To these men, such actions are entirely normal and are the ‘natural’ way husbands and wives relate.” Thus, many will not see the need to change until the situation is straightforwardly brought to their attention.
Oftentimes, after prayerfully weighing her situation, the wife will feel compelled to speak up—for her own welfare and that of her children and out of concern for her husband’s standing with God. True, there is always the chance that speaking up may make matters worse and that her words may be met with a volley of denials. Perhaps a wife can circumvent this by giving careful forethought to how she will broach the subject. “As apples of gold in silver carvings is a word spoken at the right time for it,” says the Bible. (Proverbs 25:11) A mild yet frank approach at a calm moment may reach his heart.—Proverbs 15:1.
Instead of making accusations, a wife should try to express herself from the standpoint of how the hurtful speech affects her. “I” statements often work best. For example, ‘I feel hurt because . . .’ or ‘I feel crushed when you say to me . . .’ Such statements are more likely to reach the heart, for they attack the problem rather than the person.—Compare Genesis 27:46–28:1.
A wife’s firm but tactful intervention can have good results. (Compare Psalm 141:5.) A man we will call Steven found this to be so. “My wife recognized the abuser in me that I could not see, and had the fortitude to bring it out into the open,” he says.
But what can a wife do if her husband refuses to acknowledge the problem? At this point some wives seek outside assistance. In times of such distress, Jehovah’s Witnesses can approach their congregation elders. The Bible urges these men to be loving and kind when shepherding the spiritual flock of God and, at the same time, to “reprove those who contradict” the healthful teaching of God’s Word. (Titus 1:9; 1 Peter 5:1-3) While it is not their place to meddle in the personal affairs of married couples, the elders are rightly concerned when one mate is afflicted by the harsh speech of the other. (Proverbs 21:13) Closely adhering to Bible standards, these men do not excuse or minimize abusive speech.*
The elders may be able to facilitate communication between the husband and the wife. For example, one elder was approached by a woman who told of years of verbal battering by her husband, a fellow worshiper. The elder arranged to meet with the two of them. As each one spoke, he asked the other to listen without interrupting. When it was the wife’s turn, she said that she could no longer tolerate her husband’s explosive anger. For years, she explained, she had a knot in her stomach at the end of each day, never knowing whether he would be in an angry mood when he walked through the door. When he exploded, he would say demeaning things about her family, her friends, and her very person.
The elder asked the wife to explain how her husband’s words made her feel. “I felt like I was this bad person whom no one could love,” she replied. “I would sometimes ask my mother, ‘Mom, am I a difficult person to live with? Am I unlovable?’” As she described how his words made her feel, her husband began to cry. For the first time, he could see how deeply he had been hurting his wife with his words.
You Can Change
Some Christians in the first century had a problem with abusive speech. The Christian apostle Paul admonished them to put away “wrath, anger, badness, abusive speech, and obscene talk.” (Colossians 3:8) However, harsh speech is more a problem of the heart than of the tongue. (Luke 6:45) That is why Paul added: “Strip off the old personality with its practices, and clothe yourselves with the new personality.” (Colossians 3:9, 10) So change involves not only talking differently but also feeling differently.
A husband who uses injurious speech may need help to determine just what motivates his behavior.* He would want to have the attitude of the psalmist: “Search through me, O God, and know my heart. Examine me, and know my disquieting thoughts, and see whether there is in me any painful way.” (Psalm 139:23, 24) For example: Why does he feel the need to dominate, or control, his mate? What triggers a verbal assault? Are his attacks a symptom of deeper resentment? (Proverbs 15:18) Does he suffer from feelings of worthlessness, perhaps resulting from an upbringing that was marked by critical speech? Such questions can help a man uncover the roots of his behavior.
Abusive speech is difficult to uproot, though, especially if it has been inculcated by parents who themselves were verbally caustic or by a culture that promotes domineering behavior. But anything that is learned can—with time and effort—be unlearned. The Bible is the greatest help in this regard. It can assist one to overturn even strongly entrenched behavior. (Compare 2 Corinthians 10:4, 5.) How?
Proper View of God-Assigned Roles
Often, men who are verbally injurious have a distorted view of the God-assigned roles for husband and wife. For example, the Bible writer Paul states that wives are to be “in subjection to their husbands” and that “a husband is head of his wife.” (Ephesians 5:22, 23) A husband may feel that headship entitles him to absolute control. But this is not so. His wife, though in subjection, is not his slave. She is his “helper” and “complement.” (Genesis 2:18) Thus, Paul adds: “Husbands ought to be loving their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself, for no man ever hated his own flesh; but he feeds and cherishes it, as the Christ also does the congregation.”—Ephesians 5:28, 29.
As head of the Christian congregation, Jesus never berated his disciples, causing them to wonder nervously when the next outburst of criticism would occur. Instead, he was tender, thereby preserving their dignity. “I will refresh you,” he promised them. “I am mild-tempered and lowly in heart.” (Matthew 11:28, 29) Prayerful meditation on how Jesus exercised his headship can help a husband to view his headship in a more balanced light.
When Tensions Arise
Knowing Bible principles is one thing; applying them while under pressure is quite another. When tensions arise, how can a husband avoid slipping back into a pattern of harsh speech?
It is not a sign of manliness for a husband to be verbally aggressive when he is upset. The Bible states: “He that is slow to anger is better than a mighty man, and he that is controlling his spirit than the one capturing a city.” (Proverbs 16:32) A real man controls his spirit. He shows empathy by considering: ‘How do my words affect my wife? How would I feel if I were in her position?’—Compare Matthew 7:12.
The Bible acknowledges, though, that some situations can provoke anger. About such circumstances the psalmist wrote: “Be agitated, but do not sin. Have your say in your heart, upon your bed, and keep silent.” (Psalm 4:4) It has also been stated this way: “There is nothing wrong with being angry, but it is wrong to verbally attack by being sarcastic, humiliating or demeaning.”
If a husband feels that he is losing control of his speech, he can learn to call a time-out. Perhaps it would be wise to leave the room, go for a walk, or find a private place to cool down. Proverbs 17:14 says: “Before the quarrel has burst forth, take your leave.” Resume the discussion when tempers have settled.
Of course, no one is perfect. A husband who has had a problem with harsh speech may relapse. When this happens, he should apologize. Putting on “the new personality” is a continuing process, but one that reaps large rewards.—Colossians 3:10.
Words That Heal
Yes, “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21) Hurtful speech must be replaced with words that upbuild and strengthen a marriage. A Bible proverb states: “Pleasant sayings are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and a healing to the bones.”—Proverbs 16:24.
Some years ago, a study was conducted to determine what factors caused strong families to function effectively. “The study found that the members of these families liked each other, and kept on telling each other that they liked each other,” reports marital specialist David R. Mace. “They affirmed each other, gave each other a sense of personal worth, and took every reasonable opportunity to speak and act affectionately. The result, very naturally, was that they enjoyed being together and reinforced each other in ways that made their relationships very satisfying.”
No God-fearing husband can truthfully say he loves his wife if he willfully injures her with his words. (Colossians 3:19) Of course, the same would be true of a wife who verbally batters her husband. Really, it is the obligation of both mates to follow Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians: “Let a rotten saying not proceed out of your mouth, but whatever saying is good for building up as the need may be, that it may impart what is favorable to the hearers.”—Ephesians 4:29.
Though we refer to the offender as a male, the principles herein apply equally to females.
To qualify to serve or to continue serving as an elder, a man is not to be a smiter. He cannot be one who strikes people physically or browbeats them with cutting remarks. Elders and ministerial servants are to preside over their own households in a fine manner. No matter how kindly he may act elsewhere, a man does not qualify if he is a tyrant at home.—1 Timothy 3:2-4, 12.
Whether a Christian pursues treatment is a personal decision. He should be sure, however, that any treatment he receives does not conflict with Bible principles.
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A Christian elder may be able to help a couple communicate
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Husbands and wives should make a real effort to understand each other