“Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” Genesis 3:1a
The word “crafty” used in Genesis 3 describes the serpent that came to the garden. The word has also been interpreted to read “subtle,” “clever,” “cunning” or “shrewd.” The description clearly implies that this particular being’s intellect alone posed some kind of a threat.
Of course, it was no accident that the creature was there. Having observed Eve over the course of many days or months, the serpent came to her with a full understanding of her nature and her vulnerabilities. He approached with only a keen mind, an agenda and a strategy for accomplishing it. He bore no weapons, nor was his attack direct or fearsome. The enemy drew near armed with nothing more than a silver, forked tongue. And what a powerful weapon it was.
Failing to comprehend that the character of the serpent could not be trusted, the message was quietly planted. Doubt was sown with a whisper. Humanity’s moral downfall began with the subtlety of a well-crafted lie.
Centuries later, following Jesus’ days of fasting in the wilderness, the prince of demons sought to take advantage of His extreme physical weakness. In a move of pure, poisoned irony, Satan quoted Scripture, distorting the truth ever-so-slightly, just as he had done in the garden. The enemy’s strategy was to entice Jesus to prove Himself and perhaps question – and even usurp – the will of the Father. Jesus defeated the deceiver’s attack with words of His own – the fullness of truth and a sharp rebuke to go away. (Matthew 4:1-11)
In the realm of abuse, our enemies also know how to use subtle and not-so-subtle messages to mislead us, to sow doubt about who we are and what is true. Should we grant the deceiver the smallest measure of credibility, those seeds of doubt begin to take root, urging us to distrust our senses, our nature, and our reality. By failing to identify the lie for what it is, we may find ourselves buying in to the notion that our situation is a result of our own inadequacies and failings, or worse, that our suffering is deserved. And the enemy smiles, for we have been deceived, dismissed and disarmed by nothing more than words. It is his hope that we will embrace the lie, knowing that we will sacrifice a part of ourselves in the process.
Words are incredibly powerful. The phrasing may be a blending of truth with untruth mixed in, and it is not always easy to see or strain out the impurities in the message that reaches our ears and our hearts. Our instincts remind us that the message must be scrutinized for it either reflects the fullness of truth or it doesn’t. If we are attentive, we will sense when something is amiss, when truth has been corrupted. Yet we might feel an obligation to override our instincts and instead choose to give the messenger more credibility than he deserves.
James, the half-brother of Jesus, describes the immense power of the tongue, writing:
“Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!” James 3:4-5
In the simplest of terms, James reveals how much destruction can be wrought by words. And James goes on to identify the evil speaker’s self-serving agenda and its outcomes contrasted with the life-giving power of godly wisdom (truth).
“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This [false] wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.” James 3:15-17 (emphasis added)
Words borne of selfish ambition yield disorder, confusion and, yes, evil, as opposed to the gracious, life-giving restoration that arises with the dispensation of godly wisdom. So we must measure what we hear based on the motives of the speaker as well as the immediate and cumulative effects of the words spoken. Are the words positive, motivating, and life-giving? Or do they leave us feeling discouraged, inadequate and ashamed?
The reality is that most abusers are clever, serpent-like wordsmiths capable of fashioning words into weapons. Every phrase can be molded and nuanced so as to invoke confusion, anxiety, doubt or fear in the heart and mind of the hearer. Manipulation, sarcasm, diversions, distortions, crazy-making and even apologies are tools the abuser uses to keep his victim doubting herself.
She may be crippled by what she hears:
“You are to blame.”
“You are inadequate.”
“You are a failure.”
Are they just words? Of course not. If we allow them, words have the power to tear us down and hold us captive, to emotionally drive us underground, to project an identity upon us that is not our own.
Many years ago, I read the tragic account of a woman who had committed suicide. Beside the woman lay the only evidence of her motivation – a piece of paper upon which she had scrawled the words, “They said…” Whatever words had been spoken were cruelly sufficient to compel her to end her own life. She allowed others’ words to define her. And sadly there are times when we do the same. Words that destroy must be identified and replaced with life-sustaining truth.
Are you to blame? No. The truth is that you did not force him to abuse you.
Are you inadequate? No. The truth is that you will never be good enough to please an abuser.
Are you a failure? No. The truth is that it takes two people to have a healthy relationship but only one person to destroy it.
As survivors of abuse, we must re-learn to trust our instincts and identify our abuser’s ungodly, deceptive, earthly kind of “wisdom” and reject it for what it is: a manifestation of the ancient serpent’s clever game, a design to create doubt and diminish the truth about who we are. We must decide to accept nothing less than truth, and to identify the liar, rebuke him and, like Jesus did, tell him to go away.
Understand that your enemy’s covert strategy can be just as destructive as overt violence – and perhaps more so, for the messages you internalize define what you believe. And it is your belief system that determines whether your life will be characterized by peace or turmoil, freedom or bondage, hope or despair.
Refuse to be deceived. Learn to discern, and stand firmly on the bedrock of life-giving truth, where hope and peace and strength are found.
“O send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me…” Psalm 43:3a
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