Image for Suffering & the Good Life


Sticks and Stones: The Healing and Destructive Force of Language

Teresa McCarthy

An exploration of the theology of language in the context of suffering.

Associate Professor of Philology, Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences Vilnius
January 15, 2018

“Language is how thoughts present themselves to us all dressed up…It can be used in the service of poetry or in the service of genocide” (Leser, 2015). Language, dressed as an angel of mercy or a mercenary, is the single most influential force in the universe. Christian scholar Kenneth Pike, linguist and fifteen-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, believed “Language is in the creative image of God … If language is reflecting deeply the image of God, do not expect it to be simple, now or ever—nor for any theory to exhaust it” (Brend, 1972, pp. 308-9). John Robbins, in his introduction to Language and Theology, boldly claims, “language’s origin is God himself” (Clark, 1993).

Is Language Divine?

The Bible illustrates the importance of language in its first written lines, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:1-3, NIV). The terms said and called are used eleven times in the first chapter of Genesis—all relating to God speaking the worlds into existence. And it is important to note, the first recorded interaction between God and man involved God speaking in language concerning man’s task, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it’” (Gen. 1:28). After all, wasn’t Adam’s first task a linguistic one? God told Adam to name the animals.

The Living Word

Jesus himself is called the Word—the Logos, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” (John 1:1). From the Creation Story of God speaking the worlds into existence to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Revelation—when people from every language will join in celebration—the Bible is language about language giving true meaning to language. Language matters. Language separates us from all other life forms on the planet. Language is powerful. And like all the gifts God has given to the human race, it can be used for good or for evil. “The power of life and death are in the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21, NIV). This is an apt description when looking at the role of language in suffering.

What is Language?

Language is paramount among the capacities that characterize humans, setting us off from even the most perfectly formed and functioning of the other beasts on earth; so, as a matter of species’ pride—if nothing else—we would hold up language as a marker of our humanity and thus a focus of our scientific interest (Gleitman, Osherson, & Liberman, 1995, p. xix).

Linguists believe that language is a uniquely human endeavor. Whale song, as beautiful and fascinating as it is, does not comprise a language; the fact that dogs know their names and respond to specific commands, does not demonstrate dogs have language. In this paper, language refers to the complex, innovative, fluid, flexible, dynamic, linguistically diverse, yet universal, and creative phenomena possessed only by the human race. This gives language a definition, but there is another important facet to language.

The Power of the Tongue

Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels are not ones I would recommend, but Dick does present an amazing statement about language and suffering in his novel VALIS,

I’ve always told people that for each person there is a sentence—a series of words—which has the power to destroy him…I realized (this came years after the first realization) that another sentence exists, another series of words, which will heal the person. If you’re lucky you will get the second; but you can be certain of getting the first: that is the way it works (1981/2011, p. 29).

There used to be an old ditty quoted often by parents and teachers consoling children who were struggling with their playground relationships. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” And, as in the case of many children’s fables and nursery rhymes, there is not an ounce of truth in it.

The fact is that words do hurt. They can damage us and leave scars much deeper than those physical wounds that mark the surface of our skin. Verbal abuse can be debilitating to its victims and, considering the source of that abuse, words can shape both who we are and how we see ourselves. “…Words hurt, and the pain doesn’t always come from overt threats. Verbal abuse is a lot more than name-calling,” says Patricia Evans, “Words can be as damaging to the mind as physical blows are to the body. The scars from verbal assaults can last for years” (2003, p. 165).

The Destructive Side of Language

Language inflicts suffering on humankind through two primary avenues of detrimental use: legislative (the language of unjust laws) and personal (the language of unhealthy relationships). Without a doubt, language can be a catalyst for suffering in the public arena of politics and government, specifically in legislation that perpetuates suffering of the innocent and legislation that marginalizes certain members of a society or a community.

Laws that ignore, or even violate, the most primal of human rights are expressed in language. In this way, language becomes a political tool to inflict suffering on society and more specifically on individuals. As Leser might say, “Thoughts dressed like terrorists.”

Language Inflicts Suffering


Kleinman (1995) describes the demoralizing way legal language can remove the human essence out of victims’ suffering and thereby minimize the wound inflicted on victims; here he refers to the fate of survivors from the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster when hundreds of people died in India,

[They] thus lose their voices as victims to legal, medical, and still other professionals, whose categories reduce their pain and suffering to the grievances of plaintiffs, the symptoms of patients, or the ritual pleas of supplicants. This process of appropriation silences the collective authenticity of their own voices and denies their agency, while redefining their needs away from demand for basic reforms or fundamental rights. The bureaucratization of suffering not only fails to address the existential anguish that accompanies suffering, but produces further demoralization by appropriating suffering for political means and thus silencing the first-person narratives of individual sufferers (p. 145).

Kleinman’s point is that this type of legal jargon (language) such as “plaintiffs,” “patients,” or “supplicants,” removes the face of human suffering and reduces it to sterile mathematical equations—how much is owed to each unit involved. It therefore becomes a subject to be voted on and not a wound to be healed; it becomes a political agenda rather than an acknowledgement of fault and wrong doing. This inflicts suffering upon suffering by refusing to use language that acknowledges a human being has grieved or that a life has been destroyed.

The Language of Those in Power is Powerful

Another aspect of damaging language occurs within the political or legal system when governments and legislative acts marginalize human beings within their jurisdiction. Marginalized here refers to the trends within societies whereby those perceived as lacking desirable traits or deviating from the ruling norms, tend to be excluded by wider society and ostracized as undesirables—this would include such groups as the Romas in eastern Europe, Hispanic migrant workers in the U.S., the Kurds in Iraq, women in many Muslim nations, Christians in China, Sudan, and North Korea, and of course European Jews in the first half of the 20th century. Sometimes groups are marginalized by society at large, but governments are often willing or enthusiastic participants. For example, the U.S. government marginalized some ethnic minorities, particularly blacks, prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Abolishing Jim Crow Laws

The Civil Rights Act was necessary to make it illegal to restrict access to public institutions and public places based on race. Because of the Jim Crow Laws adopted by most southern states, discrimination was actually protected by law.1 These Jim Crow Laws cast a shadow over the American South prohibiting African-Americans from eating in restaurants, marrying outside their race, entering libraries, using public toilets, and drinking from public fountains specified as “whites-only.” Even more shocking, they prohibited people of color from being treated at “whites-only” hospitals. These laws segregated the South for years after the Civil War ended slavery in the U.S. They were so extensive they prohibited African-Americans from using “whites-only” telephone booths even in the event of a life-threatening emergency. Jim Crow Laws were without a doubt an instrument of pain and suffering inflicted on blacks living in the southern United States by stating in language that because of the color of one’s skin, he or she was subhuman, and as a result, not worthy of the same rights as whites.

A Sad and Strange History

This type of legislative language permeates U.S. history as far back as the drafting of the Constitution in 1787. The Constitution included the slave-trade clause which permitted the continued importation of slaves until as late as 1808—a year after England had abolished slavery. Under the U.S. Constitution, each slave—who had no legal rights as a person—counted as only one-fifth of a person. The writers of the Constitution failed to see the contradiction in regarding human beings (slaves) as property and partial persons. And it is in this way that legislative language and legal documents reduce the value of a human life. This is an example of authoritative language put into writing and declaring to the world, “We the people…” while excluding those who the writers believed were not whole persons. This is language that brutalizes an entire people group. This is language that does harm. This is language that scars generation after generation.

Consequences of Legislative Language

What does it say to a man, a woman, or a child when they are told by those in authority they are not fully human? What did this law communicate to African-Americans when in census-taking a black man counted only 1/5 of that of a white man? This legislation inflicted suffering on an entire people group by stating (declaring via language) they were inferior to the ruling race—whites. But the U.S. is not alone in this type of abusive legal language.

Language in Religion

In many Islamic nations, the Qur’an (along with the Hadith) is the authority of law for both the Mosque and the State. Their epistemology comes from what they believe to be Qur’anic truth. The Qur’an teaches that women are deficient in intelligence (Hadith 1:181-82) and that two women are equal in value to one man. This is evidenced in Islamic state courts by the fact that a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man’s (Parshall, 1994, p. 179). Because women are not considered as intelligent as men, education for women is often viewed as an inappropriate use of time and resources (Romanowski, McCarthy, & Mitchell,

In 2013, the Pew Foundation’s extensive research on literacy within Muslim nations showed adult illiteracy among women was as high as 70 percent. Beneath every law and legislative act (language) is a worldview that is composed of what people believe to be true, to be valuable, what is important, what is right and wrong, and what is real (more language). For many Muslim nations, their belief system marginalizes the education of females. This is a tragic and contemporary example of how legislative language manifests itself in the everyday working of life, politics, policies, and society. I saw this firsthand in Afghanistan both in 2003 and 2006 when I worked with women in the academy who for more than 20 years under Taliban rule were not allowed to speak outside of their homes or even read a book. These academics had been highly trained and educated in a pre-Taliban Kabul. But the 20 years of Taliban rule had almost destroyed them both physically and intellectually. It was a hard-uphill battle for them to regain their voices. Many of them had to immigrate to the West in order to find full academic freedom.

When the detrimental language of religion is the same language adopted by government, there is a very difficult yoke placed on those who are deemed “lesser” by these two key institutions. Being labeled second class carries with it a stigma that impacts one’s view of self and worth.

Language Annihilating Language

In Australia, aboriginal tribes still struggle to find their identity as a result of laws once passed at the federal level that prohibited them from speaking their own mother tongues. It was an attempt by the Australian federal government to assimilate these native peoples with the new dominating/ruling culture. Decades of Australian government policies and practices banned and discouraged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from speaking their languages during the period called “The Assimilation.” Many indigenous people, who were forcibly taken to boarding schools and missions, were taught English only. As a result, they lost their native languages due to the prohibitionist policies and practices of government. These policies and practices lasted in Australia right up to the 1970s. Before colonization, Australia had over 250 distinct languages spoken; today there are only 18 indigenous languages that remain. But unfortunately, this is not the only example of language annihilating language.

Language that Conjures

My husband and I taught five years in Lithuania. We soon discovered my Russian language skills would not be useful in this former-Soviet nation. In Lithuania, many people cannot bear to hear the Russian language. One friend told me, “Just to hear Russian sends chills up my spine.” This is a result of the Russian-speaking Soviets attempting to obliterate the entire Lithuanian culture, language, and history during the Soviet occupation. Soviets passed laws that prohibited Lithuanian from being spoken and outlawed books written and published in the Lithuanian language—language used in an attempt to destroy language.

Laws that legalized slavery, legalized discrimination (apartheid, Jim Crow Laws), and assigned fractional values to human beings, said to their victims, “You are lesser; you are not valuable; you are insignificant.” Language in the form of laws instituted at the highest level of government are literally communicating to the marginalized individual: because of the color of your skin, the language you speak, or the type of reproductive organ you possess you are second-rate and an irrelevant part of society. This is language at its darkest, being used to inflict suffering and to demean select groups within the human race by simply saying, “You are not as human as we.”

Then It Gets Personal

As horrible and systemically damaging to a society as abusive legislative language is, there is also destruction and pain inflicted through language in our personal experiences—that of intimate language in human relationships—the infliction of suffering (intentional and unintentional) in intimate discourse.

Damaging language is abusive language used in personal and familial relationships. These types of pain-inflicting discourses can be particularly damaging when two persons share a bond and their lives are knit together either through genetic makeup or by conjugal choice. Any human being that has ever been in a relationship with another human being understands well the role of language in wreaking havoc on the human heart—from the abusive language of a hate-filled angry parent to the excruciating denigration of the simple words from a spouse, “I just don’t love you anymore.”

On my wedding day, a very wise woman pulled me to the side and said, “I want to give you a piece of advice. Words are a lot like toothpaste: once they’re out, you can’t put them back in. Remember that when you are quarreling with your husband—and yes, you will quarrel.”

Language as a Weapon

Abusive words from a spouse, or any loved one, can be devastating. Why is that? One reason is because we value their opinions. We want them to think highly of us, to admire us, to somehow see us as we want to be seen. Well-known Korean evangelist, Rev. Paul/David Yonggi Cho (1989/2008) is the pastor of the largest church in the world with over one million members. In his autobiography, he states that all of the congregation can give him words of affirmation and compliment his sermons, but one little suggestion made by his wife on how he could have done a little better, crushes him. “I appreciate their [the congregation’s] kind words of support, but it is always my wife’s words of praise and her compliments that mean the most to me. Her words can lift me high or lay me low. Her words have so much power over me” (p. 158). It’s back to Philip K. Dick’s quote, “…that for each person there is a sentence—a series of words—which has the power to destroy him…”

The Parent/Child Relationship

Parents wield this type of power over their children too. An abusive parent who batters a child daily with words of cruelty, degradation, and threats destroys something deep within the child’s very core—a clear sense of self. Most childhood victims of verbal abuse say they would rather their parents struck them, beat them, or break their bones because they believe that healing from those physical wounds would be easier than trying to heal from wounds that cannot be seen with the human eye. According to Patricia Evans (2003), “Verbal abuse creates emotional pain and mental anguish. It is a lie told to you about you. Generally, verbal abuse tries to define people telling them falsely what they are and who they are” (p. 19).

Words are prevalent, significant, and potent. Language can be authoritative. And the language spoken by those closest to us has the ability to cut the deepest. A close friend of mine tells of his own struggles with abusive language. He was raised in a very loving home by committed Christians. His father, however, frustrated by his son’s inability to grasp certain kinds of spatial tasks, like tying his shoes, or hammering a nail, would call out, “Are you retarded? What’s wrong with you son, are you an idiot?” My friend is a very good thinker, a philosopher, and an academic. He loves books, and ideas, and logic, but he’s never been very good with his hands—what Howard Gardner (1983/2011) would call spatial or kinetic intelligence. He’s just not wired that way and as a result of his father’s criticism and name-calling, my friend truly believed he was mentally deficient. It wasn’t until he was in the fifth grade that he discovered he is really very smart. It was his 5th grade teacher, with some surprise in her voice, who asked him, “Don’t you know you are the smartest kid I’ve ever taught? I really think you’re a genius.” He carried home the award that day for outstanding student of the year. He also carried home a brand-new perspective on life. Words—the power of life and death.

The Tongue That Defiles

There’s a passage in the Bible that seems to accurately describe the power of language, focusing here on the human tongue,

For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect…We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. It can set your whole life on fire… (James 1:1-6, TNL).

And nowhere is this type of fire seen doing more harm than in the parent/child relationship. Vissing, et al (1991) found in one study that, “Children who experienced frequent verbal aggression from parents (as measured by the Conflict Tactic Scales) exhibited higher rates of physical aggression, delinquency, and interpersonal problems than other children” (p. 223). Their study shows that children who experience verbal abuse at home cannot function outside the home whether in the classroom, the playground, or other social functions. Studies have shown that the abusive language of parents to a child not only scar that child for life, but can actually prohibit healthy mental development. A similar study explains, “We have studied the impact of various kinds of abuse and neglect on the child’s perception of himself and his future…verbal abuse and emotional neglect…affect[ed] such things as their enjoyment of living and hopes for the future” (Ney, et al, 1994, p. 705).

Verbal Abuse and Self-Worth

Language that bludgeons and denigrates within the domestic relationships of our lives seems to do the most harm and is the cause of silent suffering. Patricia Evans (2003) writes, “How does verbal abuse affect the target psychologically? It creates emotional pain and mental anguish. It creates self-doubt, impairing the targeted person’s ability to make clear choices” (p. 19). She goes on to say, “Verbally abused people ask, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why do I feel so bad?’ They become depressed. And, because it usually takes place behind closed doors, no one seems to understand what they are going through” (p. 21). So, like abusive language in legislation, abusive language in relationships tells the victims they are worthless and that they have no value. If we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,2 we can see that outside of physiological needs, all other layers of the pyramid depend and build upon security, family, and self-esteem—and I think this shows that language in this abusive form, in this intimate place, has the power to destroy an individual’s ability to know and comprehend what it is to be wholly human; what it means to be a healthy “self.”  

Through political language, legislation, or even from the mouth of a parent, language wields its power over us and impacts who we are, how we see ourselves, and leaves us oftentimes with wounds that never seem to heal. So how do we deal with that suffering, how do we learn to cope? Interestingly enough, the human language gives us an outlet for human suffering as well. It is called the lament.

What Do You Say to Pain—The Lament

Lamentation is a prayer for help arising from pain, suffering, and hopelessness. Lamenting is very common in the Bible. Over one third of the Psalms are laments. Lament frequently occurs in the Book of Job, “I am disgusted with life; I will give reign to my complaint, speak in the bitterness of my soul” (Job 10:1, NIV). The prophets likewise cry out to God. Jeremiah prays, “Why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable?” (15:18) and Habakkuk, “…my legs tremble beneath me. I await the day of distress that will come upon the people who attack us” (3:16). One whole book, Lamentations, expresses the confusion and suffering felt after the destruction of Jerusalem by pagan armies.

We find something similar in the New Testament as well. Jesus himself laments to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me…” (Mark 14:36). In his agony on the cross, Jesus makes his own the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…?”

Crying Out—Biblical Lament

The word “lament” calls to mind the text suffused with themes of exile, loneliness, abandonment, suffering, and pain. To lament means to express sorrow, mourning, regret, “Bitterly she weeps at night, tears upon her cheek. With not one to console her…” (Lamentations 1:2). “I call God to mind, I moan, I complain, my spirit fails” (Psalms 77:4). Inevitably, life’s traumas—physical, psychological, and spiritual—result in losses that bring us suffering. It is language that affords us a gift to express our pain and suffering through lamentation. We have a voice to cry out and express our grief. “Suffering may be borne stoically, but most often the sufferer laments, in the unconscious hope that his cry will be heard, his suffering validated, and his isolation relieved” (Bub, 2006, p. 2).

In the classic sense, the lament narrative contains elements of hopelessness, helplessness, disempowerment, absence of choice and weariness. The expression of suffering, grief, tragedy, and pain often eludes the language of reason or rationality. Rather, it calls for a more spontaneous discourse, enlivened by feeling and unrestraint. In the place of logic, control, and deliberation, the vocabulary of suffering emerges from the precipice between life and death. This sphere of human experience often finds expression in religious discourse, most notably prayers, laments, and songs (Richlin, 2010, p.19).

This is seen in Lamentations 1:12 “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see. Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me…?” And in verse 16 “This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit.” Biblical lament has an added value as in Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Yes, sometimes our lamenting and prayers can only be vocalized through sighs and groans. But even at those times, God promises to do the praying for us—divine language interceding on our behalf.

Religious Language

Joanna Richlin (2010) attempts to explain why lamentations in a religious context are so effective in expressing grief, sorrow, and suffering, “Religious language often enables the articulation of suffering in a way foreclosed by political discourse. As such, religious language remains integral to the moral and ethical integrity in the public sphere, that of a ‘language of suffering’” (p. 20).

In many cultures and languages lament arises from times of trouble and expresses the fullness of human suffering. Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann (1986) argues that lament is a complaint that insists:

  1. Things are not right in the present arrangement.
  2. They need not stay this way, but can be changed.
  3. The speaker will not accept them in this way, for it is intolerable.
  4. It is God’s obligation to change things. (p. 77).

In his book The Spirituals and the Blues, James Cone highlights the dual function of singing spirituals in slave communities. As a mode of expression that defied the overwhelming dehumanization of African peoples throughout the United States, spirituals enabled slaves to simultaneously lament their hardships and assert their humanity. In creating a language of their very own by conjoining song, dance, prayer, and poetry, slaves transcended their physical constraints and discovered strategies to both endure their conditions and imagine life beyond the plantation and its bondage. Thus, Cone asserts that the primary characteristic of the Negro spirituals, and of the larger institution of slave religion, was the “affirmation of freedom from bondage and freedom-in-bondage” (p. 28)—a kind of freedom that transcended life on earth. Through the honest and free articulation of their suffering, slaves preserved their sense of “somebodiness,” despite their less-than-human status in the eyes of the American Constitution (Richlin, 2010). In their songs, they addressed not only a community of empathetic listeners who shared in their misery, but also God, their Sovereign Ruler who undeniably heard their voices and comforted them in the midst of their sorrows. This was language that identified them and assured them of their humanity.

Richlin suggests that the spirituals and their religious content therefore emboldened the slaves against their hostile environment. “In the midst of bondage, slaves turned to religious language and understanding of community, righteousness, and morality to assert their humanity in a society that deemed them less than human. In doing so, slaves discovered meaningful ways to interpret their suffering and to preserve their hopes for future justice,” (p. 22). This is language easing suffering—temporarily, in minor ways, but alleviating nonetheless.

Mute Suffering

But what does a person or people group do when the suffering inflicted on them has left them, well, literally speechless? “Pain and oppression destroy a person’s ability to use language, and the rebalancing that is at the heart of revenge and retribution requires the recovery of that destroyed language” (Phelps, 2006, p. 5). In her book, Redemptive Suffering, Diana Ruzicka calls this “mute suffering.” She defines her term as an inability to communicate with verbal, affective expression about one’s suffering. “People experiencing this phase of mute suffering lose much or all of their autonomy, for they cease to act as fully human agents” (2016, p. 212). Ruzicka, who is an RN with an MA in theology, recommends that the Church help find a voice for the voiceless through the language of compassion,

The role is to make some limited attempt to broaden sufferers’ perceptions so that they become conscious of and connected with a wider spectrum of meaning and value. The compassionate word helps to bring meaning to another’s suffering (p. 215).

Ruzicka recommends that we encourage the sufferer to lament, complain, tell his/her story and to engage in narrative. The underlying idea is that language is the sufferer’s only pathway out of pain and ultimately, his/her only way to find meaning. Ruzicka goes on to say that the voice of lament can play a crucial role in growth beyond suffering. It is language that helps us bring meaning to our suffering, through our understanding of the Language of the Cross (Christ’s suffering) and the doctrine of soteriology—Christ’s suffering that brought us salvation.

Brinkmann (2016) devotes an entire chapter to “Languages of Suffering” in his book Diagnostic Cultures, “…there is no doubt of the capacity of religion and religious language to explain and render pain and suffering meaningful. This is a major sociocultural function of belief systems as articulated in and through those religious languages,” (p. 52). Lament, by its very definition, is a form of religious language.

The Limits of Lament

Phelps’ theory is that lamenting is limited, and in order for victims to regain their voices, the words must be directed to the one who inflicted the wounds in the first place—be it the assailant, the government, or those who stood idly by. Retribution, according to Phelps, and healing must start with being heard. Finding one’s voice and confronting those who inflicted the pain is a powerful and effective way to bring about healing. In its most rudimentary sense, it is a verbal lancing of a wound in which words carry away the hidden infection and pain, cleansing the wound and allowing for healing to take place. So just as language can be used as a weapon to inflict pain and suffering, it also can be a means of healing, restoring, and relief from our suffering. This brings us to the aspect of language we all need to hear—The Language of Healing.

The Language of Healing

The language of healing has two major parts: the confrontation and the apology.

Thirty years ago, the legal system in the U.S. never considered the rights or needs of the victim. Since then, there have been tremendous strides in the creation of legal rights and assistance programs for victims of crime. Today, every state, the District of Columbia, and several territories have an extensive body of basic rights and protections for victims of crime within their statutory code. Victims’ rights statutes have significantly influenced the manner in which victims are treated within the federal, state, and local criminal justice systems. Vast research illustrated to the courts that victims’ voices needed to be heard as part of their process in healing. Somehow, in the design of the human psyche, being able to confront wrong and to declare the harm done gives us a sense of justice and via that sense, a pathway to healing.

One of the most significant rights for crime victims is the right to be heard during critical criminal justice proceedings that affect their interests. Such participation is the primary means by which victims play a proactive role in the criminal justice process. When a crime victim is allowed to speak at the sentencing hearing, or to submit a victim impact statement regarding the impact of the offense on the victim and the victim’s family, there is an acknowledgment by the criminal justice system of the personal nature of the crime and of the harm suffered (

Forgiveness Without An Apology: Joseph and His Brothers

As Christians, we are in a unique position to see language as a vessel for healing demonstrated in specific biblical narratives like Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37–50).

Remember the story? After famine spread over the land, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain. They meet Joseph, the brother they sold into slavery, who is in charge of all the grain in Egypt. They didn’t recognize him. He had changed dramatically from the boy they tormented and sold. But he recognized them.

Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t tell us what was in Joseph’s mind at that moment in time when he came face-to-face with his abusers. Perhaps we could better understand how he dealt with his suffering and betrayal if we knew. How did Joseph feel about the evil done to him by those closest to him? Scripture doesn’t speak to that specifically.

Facing his brothers, those who had bitterly betrayed him, Joseph had to deal with a very complex problem. He had two choices: one of forgiveness and acceptance or one of vengeance and retribution.

In the story, Joseph chooses not to tell his brothers who he is, and he pretended not to speak their language so he could eavesdrop on their discussions. Then he placed them in jail. This action might be interpreted as an expression of his anger—an anger that is reflected in much of his behavior toward them. Is he struggling with forgiveness? Is he battling the desire to get even? Possibly. It seems that in Joseph’s mind he saw himself as an innocent victim. Who knows? But for whatever reasons, Joseph set up a series of tests for his brothers. He planted money in their sacks, hoping to show how their love of money will cause them take that which is not rightfully theirs; next, he planted his silver chalice in Benjamin’s sack, possibly in hope of demonstrating how their underlying hatred of his mother’s sons would cause them to abandon Benjamin in a time of need—just the way they had abandoned Joseph. Finally, by forcing them to leave Benjamin with him while they returned to Jacob, he wanted to prove how indifferent they were to their father’s pain and suffering.

However, not only does each test fail Joseph’s purpose of proving that his brothers are entirely evil, the tests actually begin to reveal to Joseph that his brothers have softened and perhaps even evolved into good men of integrity. With each test, the brothers behave in a most exemplary way. In the last test, rather than showing indifference to Jacob’s pain, Judah shamed Joseph with his obviously sincere compassion for their father. At this, Joseph’s harsh façade cracks, and he is forced to accept that his brothers are not totally wicked and inhuman and that they and he share a deep human bond—indeed a family bond that he thought was irretrievable.

Hearing Judah’s courageous argument to spare Jacob the pain of losing Benjamin, Joseph weeps aloud and cried out, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” His brothers were speechless. They were frightened and confused by this strange turn of events. Joseph said, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Don’t be grieved nor angry with yourselves that you sold me, for God sent me before you to preserve life, to give you food and save you for a great deliverance.” And he kissed each of his brothers and cried. And after that, the Bible says they all talked with each other.

In this touching scene, Joseph exhibited great grace and generosity. Sometimes, to demand an apology from a person who is not in a position to give it, (as a condition of forgiveness) serves only to perpetuate the grievance and guilt. It is an act of kindness to ease the guilt from the person’s shoulders in much the same way as Joseph did. Even if the person injured doesn’t fully believe the abuser is blind to his/her responsibility, it can contribute to reconciliation and to one’s own healing. Joseph recognized that God had turned it all for good and that because of God’s provision, Joseph gave up his right to hold a grudge and to hang on to unforgiveness. He chose to forgive even when no apology was given. He chose to speak forgiveness to his brothers and to release them from their guilt. These are words that heal! Sometimes a path through suffering is cut and forged by our own willingness to let go of the wrong and cling to God’s providence and His promises—all of which are language manifested in a divine way.

Perhaps when Joseph and his brothers talked with each other, the brothers expressed apology and contrition, and Joseph gave them forgiveness. But, with the interest in forgiveness that drew me to this passage, I was surprised to find that apology and forgiveness are never described, and there is reason to believe that they never occurred” (Swartz, 1997, .

The story of Joseph reminds us that there are times when the intention to hurt is so clear and the damage done is so great that forgiveness seems almost impossible. But like Joseph, through divine grace, if we choose to accept that God allowed the suffering, and that He has promised to turn all things for our good (Romans 8:28), we are accepting God’s language above our circumstances and we are choosing to hear His voice above our own. in these circumstances, there may be great value and healing in reconciliation without a much-deserved and much-needed apology. Joseph forgave his brothers and thus verbally released them from guilt. When we forgive freely and release those who have harmed us, we can experience our own freedom as well.

Apology and Healing

“As physicians, we tend to think of healing in purely corporeal terms—broken bones, knitting together sutures, closing a gaping wound, antibiotics staving off an invasion of rogue microbes. But apology is also about healing. Specifically, it is about healing relationships that have been damaged by any number of means,” (Woods, 2005, p. 26).

Beverly Engels (2001) provides a compelling example in her book, The Power of Apology. Engels describes how her own healing experience began with her mother uttering two words, I’m sorry.

Waves of relief washed over me. Resentment, pain, fear, and anger drained out of me. Much to my surprise, those two simple words seemed to wipe away years of pain and anger. They were the words I had been waiting to hear most of my life. I knew that it had taken all the courage my extremely proud mother could muster to say those two words, and so I didn’t belabor the point at the time. The important thing was that she was saying she was sorry—something she’d never done before. I could tell by the tone of her voice that she truly regretted the way she had treated me and that she was deeply sorry (p. 30).

In December of 2010 my own father died. It had been a difficult and somewhat tumultuous relationship. My Dad was quick-tempered and verbally abusive. My Dad didn’t apologize—ever. As an adult I found a great deal of strength and confidence through my personal faith in God. Because of this, I learned how to stand up to my Dad whenever he started on a verbal rampage. I was well into my 30s before he finally stopped these tirades. It was tough, but I moved on with my life and did my best to accomplish important goals and significant tasks. Did I want my Dad’s approval? Yes. Would it have been meaningful to have his affirmation of my accomplishments? More than I can say. But they didn’t come. Either he simply didn’t know how to express them, or he didn’t feel they were necessary. I do not know.

After my Dad died I stayed with my Mom to help her filter through the things that remained: a filing cabinet filled with old résumés and cash receipts, clothing, shoes, and all the menagerie of items that we call worldly possessions. While going through his things I found an old legal-sized FedEx envelope that contained just a couple of sheets of paper. I opened the envelope and carefully removed the unfolded 8” x 10” sheets. On these sheets of paper was a handwritten letter to me from my Dad. He had planned to send it as a fax years ago, but for some reason the transmission failed. I was living in Russia at the time. Why he decided to write it or what he was thinking eludes me, but on those seemingly insignificant pieces of paper were language—words of affirmation, of praise, of admiration and, surprisingly, words expressing that my life had made his life better; my choices made him proud and my existence made his life meaningful. It felt like a voice from the grave. I sat cross-legged on my Mother’s bedroom floor, tears streaming down my face as a sense of wonderment settled over me at what I was reading. The letter healed me and restored me and made me healthy; the words on that page written by my Dad’s hand were powerful. There was no apology in that letter, but the words of affirmation were like a balm. Healing words. Language can restore.

“When silence or tricks of language contribute to maintaining an abuse that must be reformed or a suffering that can be relieved, then there is no other solution but to speak out and show the obscenity hidden under the verbal cloak” (Camus, 1960, p. 173). Apologies, words of affirmation, admittance of wrong doing—all of these are language that help lift the “verbal cloak” and aid in relieving suffering.

Language is Life Concentrated

Pike (1972) proposed that, “Language directs and guides” (as cited in Brend, p. 311) and that language should be used to help people express their personalities. “Language identifies person. Language identifies us… Language concentrates life’s memories, truths, and joys. It expresses them, and guides them, and concentrates them… Words are like that … they concentrate truth and joys” (pp. 309-10). It is in that same vein that language concentrates our pain and sorrow as well. Language helps us to express our sufferings and to cry out, “This is not fair! This is wrong!” As Brinkmann puts it,

Human beings are meaning-making creatures, who not only suffer in an immediately felt way, but who can interpret and articulate their discontents through the use of language. There are different languages of suffering that have been—and still are—in use, when human beings make sense of their problems in living. Building on pragmatist and hermeneutic philosophies, I argue that different languages enable different forms of understanding and action, and that we need many different languages in order to fully understand the human condition (2014, p. 630).

As stated in the beginning of this paper, suffering is a complex and multifaceted issue and language too is complex and multifaceted. These two integral elements of life intertwine and interface in such mysterious and yet significant ways. Language plays a key role in human suffering—whether as an instrument of abuse, as a way to express pain and suffering, or as a path out of suffering that brings healing and restoration. The fact of the matter is language, and only language, is capable of bringing meaning to human suffering because by its very definition, language is meaning.


  1. The Jim Crow Laws emerged in southern states after the U.S. Civil War. First enacted in the 1880s by lawmakers who were angry about their loss to the North and the end of Slavery, the statutes separated the races in all walks of life. The resulting legislative barrier to equal rights created a system that favored whites and repressed blacks, an institutionalized form of inequality that grew in subsequent decades with help from the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the laws came under attack over the next 50 years, real progress against them did not begin until the Court began to dismantle segregation in the 1950s. The remnants of the Jim Crow system were finally abolished from the law books in the 1960s through the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement.
  2. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a psychological theory proposed by Abraham Maslow. His theory focuses on describing the stages of human development. Hierarchy stages: 1. Physiological needs; 2. Safety needs; 3. Love and belonging; 4. Esteem; 5. Self-actualization. Maslow studied what he called exemplary people rather than mentally ill. He studied the healthiest 1 percent of the US college population. His theory was fully explained in Motivation and Personality (1954). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed as a pyramid with the largest and most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom (physiological needs like food and shelter) and the need for self-actualization at the top.

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