Despite the childhood saying, words do hurt. Hateful words are every bit as destructive to the heart as sticks and stones are to the body. Counseling offices are filled with people processing the cutting words that have been hurled at them in anger. Hurting people hurt other people, and like a disease, spiteful words are often passed between people closest to us. It can be hard to know how to process the painful episode, let alone discern if there is a way to move forward your relationship with the one who hurt you.
As a first principle, you don't deserve abuse, nor are you called to submit to or tolerate abusive language or behavior from anyone. It is not okay for anyone, including a parent or a spouse, to use derogatory or hateful language. The image of God in you deserves better. Hateful words are abusive behavior, which is not behavior to be normalized and tolerated in relationships. Reach out the domestic abuse hotline at 1-800-799-7233 if you need help to keep you and your loved ones safe. Don’t let your home become a place where abuse is tolerated.
It is normal to feel defensive when someone is hurling hurtful words. We may be tempted to respond in kind, but that is not how God calls us to live. Returning the hate that was shown to us will not make anything better and it will likely only make things worse. Scripture is full of texts that tell us not to react in anger, but to choose a more compassionate response. Receive the words being said as information, but don’t take the bait of engaging in kind. God calls us to behave better.
To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20-21).
The Apostle Paul tells us not to seek revenge but to show compassion. This is not easy to do, but mercy is the drum beat that echoes throughout scripture. Following in the footsteps of Jesus requires that we live sacrificially, extending grace to one another.
Disagreements happen, and sometimes confrontation can be healthy. Jesus gave us a healthy process in Matthew 18:15-20 of holding one another accountable. He calls us to name the bad behavior and hold our brother or sister responsible for their actions. We don’t pretend that there wasn’t any harm done; we speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) in hopes that there might be healing and reconciliation.
Healthy relationships need healthy boundaries. Especially if repentance is not forthcoming, you need well-established boundaries to care for the welfare of yourself and others if any relationship is to continue. Choose what the boundaries are and name them.
Name the boundaries you need to keep yourself safe and be willing to enforce them. If your concerns are not addressed, follow the guidelines in Matthew 18 and love from a distance. In this season, you can recognize that the offending party is engaging in sin and step away from engaging with them. You pray for them to come to repentance, but you don’t remain in fellowship to allow them to keep hurting you.
People are often mean when they are in pain; that's a context, but not an excuse. Trauma and emotional instability often underlie dysfunctional outbursts. Like a wounded dog that growls and bites any who draw near, people lash out when they are anxious, afraid, insulted, or shamed. Being a safe place for those who are hurting can sometimes lead to being injured in the crossfire. If we can recognize the hurt that someone is experiencing, we can have empathy for their situation. We can see that their behavior wasn’t personal but an immature expression of the pain they are feeling. When we see others through God’s eyes, we can let go of anger. We can forgive those who are operating out of their pain, even if we must forgive from a distance, putting boundaries in place.
Spend some time exploring the interaction from a different point of view. Can you see how you contributed to the situation? How may have your words been misconstrued? Consider your intentions carefully. Were they misread, or did you mean to push some buttons and provoke a response? Choose to apologize for your ownership in the conflict, regardless of how small your contribution may have been.
Witnessing someone you care about deal with a painful experience can be traumatic; third parties can become collateral damage. Tune into the needs of those affected by the abuse. Perhaps children need to express what they saw and felt. Have a conversation with those who witnessed the incident to process what they experienced. Professional counseling may be valuable safe space to help you or your children process events and explore the emotions they are feeling in the aftermath. Professional Christian counseling can also help to break destructive family patterns and teach healthier ways to deal with anger and difficult emotions.
Don’t let a painful experience dominate your heart and mind. God desires that you have peace. When all of our focus is on the angry words spoken to us, we miss out on the blessings and joys of the current moment. Focusing on the person causing us pain allows them to take up a lot of real estate in our heads, rent-free. They take up more space than they deserve, pushing out others who are more life-giving. Don't let their drama dominate your life. Keep their tempest inside inside the teapot where it belongs. Choose to focus on the moment and care for yourself.
It is important to care for ourselves when we have borne the brunt of hateful words. It is valuable to repeat God’s words of love to ourselves when the hateful words keep coming to our minds. Claim a scripture to recite when angry words come to mind. Keep reminding yourself that God knows you and loves you; other people don’t get to define you. You are God’s beloved child made in his image and loved with an everlasting love.
Bask in God’s unfailing love and choose to care for yourself; sleep, pray, cry, exercise, journal, or connect with a Christian counselor. Enjoy a good meal, a hot bath, or a chat with a good friend. These medicinal strategies can help you move past the pain and rediscover God’s unfailing love. God walks with us even through these painful valleys in life. Choose to treat yourself compassionately.
Rev. Deb Koster
Dr. Robert Ritzema
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra