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What is Abuse?

by Don Mondell, BCCLC

Board Certified Mental Health & Wellness Life Coach

What is abuse according to man; does God have a different definition, and do we need a new definition?

Before I say anything further I want to clarify that I don’t consider myself THE authority on the subject of abuse. I am not suggesting that the world or Christianity must adopt my definition of abuse. I write this to those who may care about how I personally define abuse.

The need for a more Biblically-informed definition of abuse became clear to me during my more than 30 years of Biblical Coaching and Truth Encounter with broken Christians.

I have no argument with how abuse is defined by most modern social, medical & psychological definitions.  Yet, for a Christian coach who must work from the Bible to bring hope and repair to the souls of broken Christians, I find a Biblical definition of abuse is necessary.

One of the most obvious signs to me as to why a Biblical definition of abuse is needed is because many broken Christians I have helped do not understand they have been abused and that they are still suffering the results of that abuse. This is because they do not see that what happened to them as a child was abuse and certainly do not see how that is connected to what they now suffer as an adult.

I’m not talking about obvious cases of abuse. Adults who suffered sexual or physical assault do understand that those events during their childhood were definitely abuse. I’m talking more so about adults who as children suffered verbal abuse, parent neglect, abandonment and/or divorce.

I’m convinced those adult individuals do not understand the lingering effects of childhood verbal abuse, parent neglect, abandonment and/or divorce because they do not first understand those tragedies, from a Biblical point of view, as being abuse.

First, I’d like to insert two well-said quotes from experts on the subject of abuse & trauma:

“The word for abuse comes from the Latin word “aburtor” which means, “to use wrongly.” Other definitions include “to consume, to violate, to define, and to tarnish.” Abuse occurs whenever one person uses another person for the wrong purposes. All human beings are created in the image of God. As such, to use a child or an adult to feed one’s ego or sexual appetite is an affront to a holy God.”

-Dr. Diane Langberg, Ph.D.

“Trauma is physiological, psychological, sociological, spiritual harm caused by external stimuli (words or actions by others) or the withholding of external stimuli (words or actions by others) which results in external and internal impairment.”

-Dr. Daniel Sweeney, Ph.D.

Next, consider some statistics in regard to abuse. This is to help us focus our minds on the fact that abuse is an epidemic in our society. Also, if we think abuse and the long-term effects of abuse somehow magically disappear at the doors of our churches, we are blind, deaf, and therefore mute.

All of the following facts are sourced from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1996, 1997) and a Gallup Poll Report (1995):

  • Investigations by child protective service (CPS) agencies in 49 states determined that just under 1 million children were victims of substantiated or indicated child abuse and neglect in 1997.

  • In 1997, CPS agencies investigated an estimated 2 million reports alleging the maltreatment of almost 3 million children. More than half of all reports alleging maltreatment came from professionals, including educators, law enforcement and justice officials, medical and mental health professionals, social service professionals, and child-care providers. About 25 percent of these reports came from relatives of the child or from the child himself. Reports from professionals are more likely to be substantiated than reports from non-professional sources.

  • More children suffer neglect than any other form of maltreatment. Investigations determined that about 56 percent of victims in 1997 suffered neglect, 25 percent physical abuse, 13 percent sexual abuse, 6 percent emotional maltreatment, 2 percent medical neglect, and 11 percent other forms of maltreatment. Some children suffer more than one type of maltreatment.

  • Child abuse and neglect affect children of all ages. Among children confirmed as victims by CPS agencies in 1997, more than half were 7 years of age or younger, with about 26 percent younger than 4. About 27 percent of victims were children ages 8–12; another 23 percent were youth ages 13–18.

  • Case-level data from 16 states suggest that the majority of victims of neglect and medical neglect were younger than 8, while the majority of victims of other types of maltreatment were age 8 or older.

  • Both boys and girls experience child maltreatment. In 1997, about 52 percent of victims were female, and 48 percent were male.

  • Many more children suffer abuse than are reflected in national statistics. Based on reports received and investigated by CPS agencies in 1997, about 13.9 children per 1,000 under 18 were found to be victims.

  • In 1993, according to various community professionals, 42 children per 1,000 were harmed or endangered by abuse or neglect.

  • A 1995 telephone survey of parents conducted by the Gallup Poll showed that as many as 49 children per 1,000 suffered physical abuse and 19 per 1,000 were victims of sexual abuse.

  • Other authorities speak openly about alarm. In 1990, the U.S. Advisory Board of Child Abuse and Neglect declared the maltreatment of children to be a national emergency (Durfee, 1994). The board’s chairperson, Deanne Durfee, proclaimed the tragic reality that each year hundreds of thousands of our nation’s children are “starved and abandoned, severely burned and beaten, raped and sodomized, berated and belittled.” They are also killed.

  • Most maltreatment is nonfatal. In 1992, fewer than 2,000 of the nearly 1 million abused children in the country were killed (Alexander, 1994).

  • The numbers are nonetheless staggering. A subculture of “non-persons”—individuals stripped of their personhood—is gaining in population. Add to this the huge number, whose parents habitually use put-down statements, or use conditional love as a disciplining tool.

My gratitude to Heyward Bruce Ewart, for these gathered statistics and his book, Soul Rape: Recovering Personhood after Abuse, New Horizons in Therapy Series (Ann Arbor, MI: Love Healing Press, 2012), 47–48.

I know there are Christians and Christian leaders who find it difficult to understand how an adult Christian who was abused as a child can still suffer the effects of that abuse. The prevailing thought is once a person becomes a Christian, then they are a “new creation” and the past is of no consequence. Having been a Christian for over 40 years myself, I do understand that thinking. Unfortunately, from more than 30 years of working with broken Christians, many of whom have been Christians for decades, I can report that many still suffer the after-effects from the trauma of childhood abuse.

My Trauma Tree may help to show the relationship of childhood abuse to adult suffering.

For my ministry to broken Christians, I have found that my definition of abuse answers many questions that perhaps a more classical definition of abuse may not. That said, I offer my view of abuse and my working definition.

I’ll present my thoughts in the order of the questions I asked in the subheading of this article:

  1. What is abuse according to man?

  2. Does God have a different definition of abuse?

  3. Do we need a new definition?

(1) What is Abuse According to Man?

First, there are many forms of abuse that carry definitions such as child abuse, elder abuse, drug abuse, physical abuse, etc. That said, to avoid becoming too academic and immediately mired with too many details, I’ll begin with what is perhaps the simplest overall definition from the Merriam Webster dictionary.

Here is Webster’s definition of abuse…

Abuse: 1: a corrupt practice or custom (the buying of votes and other election abuses) 2: improper or excessive use or treatment : (MISUSE, drug abuse) 3: language that condemns or vilifies usually unjustly, intemperately, and angrily (verbal abuse, a term of abuse) 4: physical maltreatment (child abuse, sexual abuse)

In the interest of space for this article, rather than pasting the other various definitions offered, I’ll give you the links to review for yourself.

Center for Disease Control – Definition of Child Abuse

Psychology Today – Various Definitions

Mayo Clinic – Defining Abuse

Wikipedia – Extensive Article

From those sources, I think we have a general understanding of abuse. I do agree with those definitions. Yet, as a Christian, I must consider if God has something to say about abuse. To consider whether God has something to say about abuse, I must refer to the Bible.

In case you are not familiar with my stance on the Bible, let me state the following:

I believe the Bible is God’s Word; it’s what he thinks, says, instructs, commands, etc. For more on my beliefs, please see my faith statement here.

I believe the Bible is not only the “handbook” for life and living but I also use the Bible as the central reference for my work with broken Christians. That said, I offer the following.

(2) Does God Have A Different Definition of Abuse?

From my own Bible study, I believe God’s concept of abuse most definitely contains Webster’s definition, but also expands or amplifies it more fully. Here’s what I mean.

To consider “abuse” from a Biblical point of view, I’d like to begin by citing a portion of my article on broken Christians that presents a perspective on verbal abuse.

The Bible has much to say about our speech, but for the sake of brevity & clarity, consider speech from this Biblical perspective:

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”  – Ephesians 4:29

“The tongue can bring death or life…”  – Proverbs 18:21

“Kind words bring life, but cruel words crush your spirit.” – Proverbs 15:4

“For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  – Matthew 12:37

Considering that Scriptural text in regard to our speech, we must decide whether God is presenting this information in a poetic manner to express a possibility —or— God is speaking factually to express instruction—a command.

For me, God is not speaking with poetic “greeting card-like” language. I believe God is stating a command on how we are to speak. He makes clear that the outcome of our speech is to build up and benefit others, not tear down or belittle.

From both man’s definition and God’s instruction regarding our speech, I believe that verbal abuse can be any harsh word toward a person that does not build up or benefit them. Verbal abuse “tears down,” diminishes, mocks, burdens; it causes suffering to a person.

I have no faith in the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” In my opinion, if we choose to corrupt our speech toward a person, we choose to abuse them.

Also, harsh words spoken about or to another person is also most likely contrary to how God sees that person. Here are a few passages that give us an idea of God’s view of us: Isaiah 43:4Luke 12:6-7Psalm 139:13-16Matthew 6:25Jeremiah 29:11.

It is my belief that, when we say something that diminishes another person from God’s view of them, we abuse that person.

I have worked with many broken Christians who didn’t realize how they were spoken to was verbal abuse. They didn’t correlate how verbal abuse incorrectly informed them as to how God sees them. They did not comprehend how incorrect information caused them to think, speak & act in damaging ways.

To present abuse in another way from a Biblical perspective, please allow me the liberty to “work” the word “abuse” a bit.


Does the Bible have anything to say in regard to my choice to “USE” a person? Please note I am not saying to receive love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control from another, nor a gift, service or work, etc. I am speaking more about my mental state and that of manipulation. That is to say, I knowingly use another person by psychologically manipulating them to my own benefit. Thus, the underlying motive or “fuel” for my speech and action toward another is my own self-service. Does the Bible have something to say about that?

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”

Philippians 2:3 NIV

If you’d like to read what else the Bible says on this subject look here.

In my mind, the Biblical opposite of abUSE—USING another person—is to SERVE them.

Jesus said it this way…

“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

John 15:13 NLT

Paul said…

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”

Ephesians 5:23

The Bible has yet much more to say about this.

Additionally, I would also like to look at abuse with a more detailed Biblical definition.

First, contemporary mental health knowledge with its various practitioners (psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, etc.) as well as law enforcement, and our modern dictionary, all have a working definition and understanding of abuse. I agree with our society’s definition as to what is abuse. That said, I find that the Biblical definition is even more precise and alarming.

As I present this, I will be referring to the New American Standard 1995 translation of the Bible. I choose that translation because it is one of the most accurate word-for-word translations of the original languages from which we get our modern Bible. Those languages are Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic.

Also, I must give credit to my dear friend, Pastor Tom Sterbens. It was during our discussion of this passage that Tom noted the original Greek words used; his thoughts are perhaps the finest summary of what abuse actually is and what it does.

Please read Matthew 27:31-44.

In the aforementioned passage, please note the following:

verse 39: “hurling abuse”
verse 41: “mocking”
verse 44: “insulting”

“Hurling abuse” – blasphemeo – is the Greek word for blasphemy. Functionally, blaspheming God is to speak in direct violation of God’s Self-declared power and majesty. That understanding, when applied to an individual, would be to intentionally violate or seek to destroy their self-perception. That is another way of saying to destroy their personhood.

“Mocking” – empaizo – is the Greek word that describes making a person the center piece of a game – thus, their personhood is removed. The mocked person becomes the object; they are matter-less entertainment, a novelty of amusement to the mocker.

“Insulting” – oneidzo – is the Greek word that describes the act of disgracing an individual or to make them an object of “shame.” Shame equals the statement, “I am not enough!”

Now, the preceding definitions can be synthesized into the following statement.

Abuse is to disrupt and violate a person’s self-perception, that is to say – who they believe themselves to be – and to marginalize them as inconsequential, and to leave them then with an altered sense of self-worth that says “I am not enough.

Please keep that statement in mind, and consider James 3:6

And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.”

Did you see that?

The course of the abused person’s life is “set on fire” and that entire process comes from Hell.

If that understanding does not alarm us as to the words we speak to others, we most likely are blinded by our own sin of doing such things.

(3) Do We Need A New Definition of Abuse?

The Bible – God’s Word(s) –  says I am to lay down my life for others. “Lay down.” “Lay down” is the opposite of “lift up” my life above another. I am to give myself – not take from another. This principle runs throughout Scripture and it is to run throughout my life. This concept then informs my view of abuse.

My working definition of abuse makes life harder for me. I believe my definition is Biblical, but it’s hard to do every moment of every day as I encounter people. The definition expands the idea of abuse further than our general definition(s). Yet, my definition of abuse results in a standard I strive to achieve.

My Definition of Abuse

ABUSE: Anytime I speak or act toward another person in a way that diminishes them from God’s view and value of them, I abuse that person.

In other words, how would Jesus speak to them?

How would Jesus treat them?

Anything less is abuse.

Anything less is anti-Christ.