As much as physical, mental and verbal abuse are worthy of conversation, spiritual abuse has earned a well-deserved seat at the table.
Spiritual abuse has quietly lurked in the background of religion for centuries, yet many have stayed quiet.
Although things seem to be shifting as more people are finding the courage to come forward with similar stories of pain, trauma and shame. The thread tying their stories together is pain at the hands of those who claim to follow a loving God.
As with most abusive cycles, the pattern is learned. Too often those inflicting the most damage believe they are doing the right thing. They simply repeat what was taught to them, holding to a firm conviction that they are pleasing God.
As with any form of abuse, there are small instances and large instances.
But all are worthy of being validated. All are worthy of being seen and given space for anger, sadness and ultimately a deserving path towards healing.
As someone who identifies on the receiving end of spiritual abuse, I understand the feeling of betrayal when people who once felt safe now feel like enemies. And how self-survival quickly takes over inside a group that you once felt you belonged in.
It took me years to heal and to learn to trust again. And – even still – there are moments when the trauma resurfaces and I feel like I’m right back at square one with a ton of healing work to do.
But, healing and restoration do come.
My journey over the last 15 years provided much relief as slowly I connected with others who quietly raised their hand and said, “me too”.
I re-entered a faith circle again, but with much keener awareness.
One of the most vital pieces of the restorative process for me, was the ability to recognize spiritual abuse when it was happening – whether to myself or someone else.
Stories can be our best teachers. I learned to be a student of my own story as well as others. My observations became my own survival guide (if you will) of familiar traits of spiritual abuse.
I’m sure there are more. And I encourage you to do more research on your own. But, here’s my internal list that has slowly evolved over the last 15 years.
Signs of spiritual abuse:
- You are encouraged to pull away from people who do not think like the leader. This is common in abusive relationships. You see this idea especially inside relationships with domestic violence – a pulling away from family and friends is an early indicator. Although, in spiritual settings, this practice of pulling away from friends and family seems innocent – good even. Because you want to follow the person who is leading you to grow in your faith. You want to only be influenced by their words and their discipleship. But, when this subtle practice intensifies, and the required boundary lines deepen, it can become unhealthy. It is good and wise to surround yourself with many points of view and many different perspectives. If you find yourself in a spiritually unhealthy environment, having people on the outside may just be what saves you. They may be able to see what you are unaware of. Jesus surrounded himself with all kinds of people. You are free to trust that inner voice to be your discerning guide – not the human leader. That inner voice is stronger and more powerful than any human voice; it is fully capable of navigating you through relationships with those who think and believe differently than you. And you may be surprised; that inner voice may just speak to you through them.
- Free thinking and independent connection with God is discouraged. One of the beautiful things about the way humans are made is that we have incredible minds. And each of us have the ability to think, reason, problem-solve and connect spiritually on our own and in our own way. We do not need outside sources for any of those practices. They are innately part of our design. Healthy spiritual environments encourage this. But, in spiritually unsafe environments, there is a common thread of opposition to this. Where blind following of the leader’s thinking is the norm and the free-thinking individual is the rarity. Where you feel like you can’t question the leader’s judgement or their interpretation of scripture or venture to believe something differently than them; they have solid absolute beliefs and the group follows. If you don’t follow, you may hear phrases like, “I think you heard God wrong” or “I heard from God for you and he said you should (fill in the blank)”. Good spiritual leadership encourages you to connect with God on your own and champions whatever that practice looks like. They do not overstep that boundary. They encourage you that you are free to hear from God on your own and that you don’t have to fear doing it wrong. They remind you that you are even free to make a mistake and think you heard God and actually didn’t. They trust God is big enough to handle that. In summary, you should feel free to ask questions, offer different thoughts, opinions and beliefs without fear of being shamed or out-casted from the group.
- The institution is held at a higher value than the people inside it. This one probably breaks my heart the most. You see this often with personal relationships inside the group. Common examples are divorce, leadership abuse or family disagreements. The institution of marriage, for example, is held much higher than the individuals inside the marriage. The health of the individuals is not the focus – because that might mean divorce. Saving the marriage document becomes the priority and critical, toxic issues are put to the side because “God hates divorce”. Of course God hates divorce. We all hate divorce! But, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t at times the most healthy option for the individuals. God is pro- healthy people before he is pro-marriage. In the case of leadership abuse, where an abused person comes forward, they may be met with comments like, “I’m sorry that happened to you, but you shouldn’t say anything about it. They are such a good leader and we wouldn’t want to hurt the church or damage their leadership”. The person and their pain are silenced for the sake of the institution. With family disagreements, where one family member believes differently than another, the one with the ties to the institution will militantly defend their group and beliefs while trying to change the other. If unsuccessful, they withdraw from the relationship, clinging to the institution instead. They value the institution more than the family relationship.
- A held belief that God rewards your faith and withholds blessing without it. The sick person is told if they have enough faith, God will heal them. The person in a bad marriage is told, if they have enough faith God will change their spouse. The parent with a troubled child is told, if they have enough faith God will fix them. But when the healing doesn’t come, the marriage gets worse or the child completely goes off the deep end, you become the failure and God becomes the withholder. This positions you for depression, anxiety, fear, shame and ultimately anger towards God which is why it made this list. I have seen more damage done under the notion of this belief – it’s just awful. And it’s simply not true. You are free to have as little or as much faith as you can muster. And you will not be on God’s good list if you have a ton, nor will you be demoted if you have less. NOTHING can separate you from God’s love. Period. God’s love is big enough and strong enough to handle whatever amount of faith you do or don’t have. Through the suffering you may experience in this life, God is there to hold your hand and love you through it. You will not be punished for not “doing it right”. You are free to handle it well or handle it poorly. Lucky for all of us, God’s endless blessings and grace are not dependent on our behavior, actions or faith badges.
- A firm push towards submissive behavior. The authoritarian view presents an image where God is the head of the leader, the leader is the head of the men, the men are the head of the women (wives) and children fall under them. People are told to “submit” to the leader they are under whether it be their pastor or their spouse (depending on their gender). They are told if they step outside of that submission, they are opening themselves up to all kinds of pain and heartache. Basically, they are given a heavy dose of fear to stay submissive. Whether you believe in this model or not, is not the point of my mentioning it here. The reality is, the amount of abuse stories that stem from “you must submit” are vast – and utterly heartbreaking. Now, not every relationship under this model is abusive. However, any relationship that removes your permission to say “no” or “stop” removes two of your greatest God-given gifts: your power and your voice. God never desires his children to live in fear other humans. Christ came so we could be free and live a life of abundance and joy. Your body and your mind are sacred and should be valued and protected as such. You are free to say no.
- You are not free to be yourself. This is often the catalyst for much heavy trauma and pain. Because when one feels like they cannot be themselves inside a spiritual group, it isn’t just the group that is rejecting them – it is GOD rejecting them. Just like you would not want to be inside a relationship with someone where you have to pretend to be something you’re not in order for them to love you – the same rule should apply towards spiritual relationships as well. People don’t speak for God on whether you are accepted or rejected. God speaks for himself. You are your healthiest, best you when you are free to be exactly who you are. No changes required. This is often countered with statements like, “well, you think you are this way, but that’s because you haven’t walked into freedom in Christ yet”. No one should have permission to decide what the “free” you looks like other than you and God. That is sacred, holy ground. And when someone begins to pick apart the way you don’t “fit” the group and tries to pray or conference or therapy or fast you into being someone you are not, they are playing a role way above their pay grade. The damage caused by this can be shattering. You are made perfectly in the image of God; no matter what anyone else says. Please, sweet friends, find a tribe where you are free to be exactly who you are.
- Fear over love. The resounding theme in all of the points above is a strong holding of fear over love. Sadly, many of the practices done above are done under the name of “love”. Believing that if they really love someone, they will practice “tough love”. Sometimes tough love is needed in human relationships, but we should not try to exercise being the hand of God’s tough love. That is not our job. Love looks like Jesus who embraced, welcomed, shared with, protected and nurtured. All without expecting anything in return. He gave. He opened doors. He did not withhold or shut people out. In summary, anything that makes you feel afraid or shamed is not of God. Period. (And no, it’s not conviction either). Fear and love are like oil and water – they cannot share the same space.
Friends, if you have been a receiver or giver of spiritual abuse, there is hope. You are not alone. I promise, there is an ocean of “me too’s” waiting for you.
I encourage you to reach out to those in your life who are safe to talk to and share with. Professional counselors are a wonderful resource and tool for healing as well.
Your mind, body and soul are precious – but the spiritual part of you is the most sacred. Protect it, fight for it, value it.