Foolishness, Bullying and Abuse

The Bible was written over 1500 years by over forty authors and consists of sixty-six separate books.  The Old Testament clearly delineates the paradigm of foolishness, describing not only its form but also its effects on others.  Biblical revelation is progressive.  The New Testament is built on the foundation of those things revealed in the Old.  The concepts of the New Testament, as we have seen, are clearly consistent with those revealed previously.  The New Testament, just as the former, reveals behaviors and character traits that together comprise the life of the person who refuses to live under the authority of God, the fool.  The books that comprise the canon of Holy Scripture have been complete for almost two-thousand years.

Throughout the history of mankind, people have been mistreated by others.[1]  In modern terms, this is most often referred to as the problem of abuse or bullying.  We used to think that bullying was a playground problem.  We are now beginning to understand that it extends far beyond the playground and into the boardroom, the office, the church, and other adult locations.  Looking at the paradigm for abusive relationships we can see some noteworthy similarities with the pattern of the fool.

What is Bullying?

Bullying can be defined as “the act of repeatedly and deliberately putting a weaker person under stress.”[2]  Bullying is “persistent unwelcome behavior, mostly using unwarranted or invalid criticism, nit-picking, fault-finding, also exclusion, isolation, being singled out and treated differently, being shouted at, humiliated, excessive monitoring, having written and verbal warnings imposed, and much more.”[3]  Bullying is a form of ongoing abuse that involves the systematic undoing of the victim over time.  The bully, sometimes acting alone, but often acting in concert with others referred to as “mobbing,” uses power and control to bring about the destruction of the victim.

Other countries are ahead of the United States in identifying and addressing this growing international problem.  In America, mainly through the recognition of the problem in the school system, we are just now beginning to understand the severity of this issue.  Bullying is not just a child’s problem.  It occurs in the workplace, in the church, in the family, and yes, in the schools.  There is a striking similarity between the phenomenon we now identify as bullying and the biblical description of foolishness.  As we will see, the methods of fools and their effect on their victims are fairly consistent throughout history.  Only the labels are changing.

What is Abuse?

The concept of abuse and the concept of bullying overlap.  In many cases, the terms can be used interchangeably.  Abuse can be defined as the mistreatment of others in various ways that fails to regard their inherent dignity and rights as persons in the image of God.  It has many expressions.  The essence is, however, the same.  It is about controlling the other person.  It is always about power.  A brief survey of the most common forms of abuse will help to delineate the concept.  Abuse occurs in many different forms.  The first form of abuse is the easiest to detect and is therefore given the most attention in the criminal justice system and society in general.

Physical Abuse

This is the easiest form of abuse to detect and therefore to substantiate and prosecute.  Cigarette burns leave scars.  Striking, hitting, slapping, choking, leave evidence behind.  Broken bones can be seen on x-rays.  Physical abuse is a broad category including any and all forms of physically mistreating others.  It includes, but is not limited to, hitting, slapping, beating, kicking, throwing objects at, burning, restraining, stabbing, shooting, etc.

Sexual Abuse

This is one of the most heinous forms of abuse in society.  Particularly, sexual abuse perpetrated against children is rightly considered to be the epitome of human depravity.  Sexual abuse includes, but is not limited to, the inappropriate misuse of others for personal sexual gratification.  It may or may not include intercourse specifically.  It includes inappropriate fondling of others, voyeurism of others, exposure of sexual organs to others, any and all forms of unwanted sexual contact including rape, incest, pedophilia, etc.

Emotional or Psychological Abuse

Physical abuse can leave visible scars on the body of the victim.  Sexual abuse can sometimes be proven scientifically to have occurred.  Emotional abuse leaves no scars on the outside.  The damage is done internally, in the heart of the victim.  Emotional abuse can be defined as “any behavior or attitude that emotionally damages another person, regardless of whether there is conscious intent to do so.”[4]

Psychological abuse is a sinister practice of destroying the mental health of the victim through the use of various methodologies.  Practices such as “gaslighting,” a term derived from the Alfred Hitchcock movie, can be used to keep the victim constantly off-balance emotionally and psychologically.  Another famous form of emotional or psychological abuse is called the “mental health trap.”  In this scheme, the abuser continues to work the victim into an increasing state of depression and despair, and simultaneously points out to others the lack of mental stability in the victim.  “He’s losing it.”  This is often done with a hypocritical pretense of concern.  “I’m really concerned about her.”  This is like the person who lights the fire and after discarding the match has the gall to ask, “who started this fire?”

Verbal Abuse

The tongue is the most used organ in the ongoing perpetration of abuse.  Words can give life, and they can also kill.  Verbal abuse can be defined as the use of “words that attack or injure, that cause one to believe the false, or the speak falsely of one.  Verbal abuse constitutes psychological violence.”[5]

Spiritual Abuse

When other forms of abuse and mistreatment are occurring within a religious context, a church or family system, it is common for the abuse itself to include the additional weight of God.  It can become then, “not only do we think you are unlovable, but God agrees with us.”  Abusers need and crave power.  What greater power to add than the Almighty Himself.  Some of the greatest damage to an individual comes in the form of this destruction of God as a source of refuge, strength and comfort for the victim.  Spiritual abuse can be defined as, “the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.”[6]

All other forms of abuse are damaging enough.  The addition of God to the equation by the spiritual abuser can create even weightier problems.  It’s one thing for an abuser to reject and persecute another human being, but to claim God’s alignment with the abuser is to do serious damage to the victim’s relationship with God Himself.

Spiritual abuse, however, puts people at odds with their best Friend.  It causes some people to question, doubt, and even run the other direction from their Source.  They see their strongest Advocate as their biggest accuser, their Ally as their enemy.  For some people, spiritual abuse can have eternal consequences.[7]

Spiritual abuse brings the victim’s relationship with God into the mix.  The classic example of this is Job’s friends and their implications about not only Job’s character but his lack of a real relationship with God.  Their ongoing spiritual abuse of him was instrumental in bringing him to the brink of despair.

Other Forms of Abuse

The catalog of various forms of abusing others continues to expand.  With the advent of new technologies we now have the ability to cyberbully and cyberstalk others.  Reputations can be destroyed almost instantly through the use of cell phones and Facebook.  The list goes on.  There seems to be no limit to the development of new means of using and mistreating others.

The Cycle of Abuse

Abuse and abusive or bullying relationships are cyclical.  There is an observable and predictable pattern of behavior that characterizes the abusive interaction over time.  Each time the cycle repeats the damage increases.  The victim is truly caught in a downward spiral.  The cycle of abuse can be delineated in four cyclical stages.  Because the pattern is cyclical, we can enter the discussion at any point:

cycle of abuse


In this phase of the abusive relationship, the victim begins to feel a growing sense of dread.  Communication is beginning to break down.  The abuser may begin to show signs of growing irritation and unrest.  This in turn will begin to increase the sense in the victim of a growing need to placate and appease.  Both parties, but particularly the victim, will become increasingly aware that another incident is coming.  The rising tension becomes palpable.


When the tension reaches a sufficient level in the abuser, it takes very little to trigger another outbreak of abuse.  The abuse can include verbal, sexual, physical, emotional, spiritual or other forms of aggression.  Often, rage, threats and intimidation will be a key part of the incident itself.  Abuse, at a fundamental level, is about power.  During the “storm,” the abuser no longer restrains himself or herself, but freely uses any and all forms of power to bring the victim into subjection.


When the abusive incident ends, the abuser will frequently but not always “apologize.”  These are typically not real apologies, but rather excuses for the behavior that has just occurred, justifications for the need to behave as such, or projections onto the victim of blame for the incident.  Often, the “reconciliation” is really a denial that the event even occurred.  If there is acknowledgement that something bad happened, often the victim is encouraged to see how they are “overreacting” to the situation.  The abuse is almost always minimized in this way.  This sets the victim up for another cycle to come.


This is truly the “calm before the storm.”  At this point in the cycle, sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon phase,” the abuser maintains an apparently positive stance toward the victim.  The abuser attempts to rebuild trust.  The victim is tempted to trust again, which will set them up for the next cycle.  The incident itself, at this stage, is “forgotten.”  At some point, the apparent calm begins to move again toward an increasing sense of tension.  Though the victim pretends everything is fine at this stage, all is not well.

Foolishness also tends to come in waves as it brings harm to others.  Similar cycles of foolish acting out, excuse-making, minimizing, forgetfulness, leading to an increasing sense of a need to placate and appease the fool, in an attempt to prevent future outbreaks, can be witnessed in the Scripture.  There is a striking similarity between the modern paradigm of bullying and abuse and the ancient description of foolishness.

The Effects of Abuse

The effects of ongoing abuse are felt long-term.  Each time this cycle of abuse circles back around, a larger piece of the victim dies.  All of the various ways in which abuse is perpetrated work together to have the following effects on the victim:[8]

  • Self-image.  The abuse damages the victim’s self-esteem.  Victims often feel increasingly worthless, unlovable, guilty and ashamed.
  • Reactive depression, despair.  The feelings of guilt turn inward and become a reactive depression.  This depression is caused externally, exogenously, to the victim as a result of the ongoing abuse.  The victim will often move toward hopelessness and despair and can sometimes manifest suicidal ideation.
  • Hypervigilance.  This is a jumpiness, an overreaction of the adrenal system to various apparently innocuous stimuli.  Provoked by various triggers, the body goes into high alert, fight or flight responses.
  • Emotional numbness.  The victim loses the ability to feel altogether.  The feeling system is simply fatigued to the point of no longer functioning.  This can at times be dissociative with feelings of detachment from reality.
  • Physical illness.  Stress and physical health do not go together.  The stresses involved in ongoing abusive or bullying situations often take a toll on the victims body.  The immune system is highly compromised leaving the victim open to all kinds of illness from the chronic diseases to cancer.
  • Flashbacks, nightmares, sleep disturbance.  The trauma can be replayed during waking or sleeping hours.  Sleep patterns will often be highly disrupted with either insomnia or hypersomnia.
  • Addictive behaviors.  The victim is highly vulnerable to the development of addictive behaviors (alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc.) as a result of using various means of coping with the ongoing pain of the abuse.

This cluster of symptoms has most aptly been referred to as CPTSD, complex post-traumatic stress disorder.[9]  It is similar to the more commonly know PTSD, that is triggered by the experience of acute stress (battle, terrorism, genocide).  CPTSD is about smaller stresses accumulating over time to create a similar set of symptoms in the victim.

These symptoms can be seen, by those who have eyes to see, throughout the Psalter.  These modern-day effects arising from contemporary psychological diagnoses are the same effects of dealing with fools described in the Bible under a new scientific name.  Foolishness is highly detrimental to its target.

The Answer to Abuse

The Christian community has notoriously failed in responding to the problem of abuse.  It has far too often been the case that the church has sided, not with the oppressed but with their oppressors.  This is so contrary to the mission of Jesus that He has called the church to (c.f. Isa. 61:1-2).  Sadly, the secular literature better understands the reality of abuse and the responsibility of those who can help to intervene.

Exposing Abuse

For abuse to be stopped, it must be exposed.  The greatest power the abuser has is the power of secrecy.  Families and organization are replete with secrets, things done in the dark that need to be kept in locked closets.  The only way out of an abusive situation is to call the abuse what it is.  As long as minimizing and denial persist, the abuse will likely continue.  This is consistent with the call in Ephesians 5.  There we are called to “have no fellowship with the works of darkness [i.e. abuse in this case], but rather expose them.”  As children of the light, we are to walk in the light and to shine the light of truth into areas where the darkness keeps people enslaved.

Stopping Abuse

In many cases, the abuser refuses to acknowledge the existence of past or present abuse.  As we have seen, this is common to the problem of foolishness as well.  For abusers who will not admit their problems, seek professional help consistent with real repentance and remorse, there is little or no hope.  Consciences can become hardened and impenetrable to a sense of healthy guilt or responsibility.  When the abuser refuses to accept responsibility for what they have done or continue to do, we are left with fewer options.  We cannot and ought not to simply forbear or overlook ongoing or past serious incidents of abuse (see chapter 6).

In such situations, the only option that may remain for the victim is to discontinue the relationship.  For marriages and other extended family relationships this can be quite painful and difficult for the victim to do.  The alternative is to allow the abuse to continue to destroy us little by little.  God has called each of us to do all we can to protect and preserve life.  This is the essence of the sixth commandment.  That commandment tells us not only to protect the lives of others around us but also that we have a sacred duty to protect our own life as well.

Help for the Victim

This book is about dealing with conflict.  As we have seen, often these conflicts are unresolvable due to the presence of a pervasive pattern of foolishness in the person of the aggressor.  These fools leave victims in their wake.  If you have been a target of ongoing aggression and feel some of the effects of abuse that we have listed above, it is highly suggested that you seek professional help from not only your pastor but also a licensed Christian counselor in your area.  It is very difficult to heal from what has happened to you on your own.[10]

There is a stigma that is connected to going for counseling.  Others often try to use the fact that we would consult a counselor as further proof that there is something wrong with us.  The key thing here is our willingness to admit that there is something wrong with us.  What is wrong with us has likely been caused by those with such attitudes toward honesty and weakness.  It takes a measure of courage to come forward with the honesty to admit that we have been victimized by others and that we are suffering as a result.

[1] The vulnerable have often been the victims of the mistreatment.  In the Old Testament it was often the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the foereigner.  Often, children have been sinful targets of aggression on the part of their parents and other adults.  In many nations, slavery has been and continues to be practiced.

[2] Beyond Bullying Association,

[4] Beverly Engel, The Emotionally Abusive Relationship: How To Stop Being Abused and How To Stop Abusing (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2002), 41.

[5] Patricia Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond, 2nd ed. (Holbrook, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 1996), 81.

[6] David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1991), 20.

[7] Johnson and Van Vonderen, 29.

[8] Compare this list of symptoms with the descriptions in the Psalms.  If you are experiencing a significant number of these symptoms and are in an ongoing relationship of bullying or mistreatment, seek professional help as soon as you are able.  These symptoms grow worse over time.  The sooner you take action to end the abuse, the better off you will be.

[9] See Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1992).  See also C. A. Courtois, “Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions: Assessment and Treatment,” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 2004, 41(4).

[10] For further information regarding bullying, abuse and the stress created in victims, see

Tim Field, Bully in Sight: How to Predict, Resist, Challenge and Combat Workplace Bullying, Overcoming the Silence and Denial by which Abuse Thrives (Oxfordshire, UK: Success Unlimited, 1996).  See also  For those bullied in ministry, see Bullied and Abused Lives in Ministry’s Blog at John Mark Ministries’ website,


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