The Ugly Nature of Spiritual Abuse

A few of decades ago, my family sat under a pastor who was a wonderful teacher of the Bible. However, sadly, he became more controlling as his tenure increased. It was gradual, and like a frog in water that comes slowly to a boil, we almost didn’t jump out in time. In fact, our eldest eventually left religion completely.

This is the ugly, insidious nature of spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is characterized by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behavior in a religious context. Spiritual abuse can have a deeply damaging impact on those who experience it.

Indeed. Trusting spiritual leaders continues to be a challenge for members of my family, despite earnest effort to do otherwise.

Characteristics of Spiritual Abuse

There are several lists of characteristics available, so I am borrowing from a couple and condensing them. Furthermore, if you have been in this painful situation, you could likely add one or more aspects to the list.

  1. Abusive leaders have a distorted view of respect. They forget the simple adage that respect is earned, not demanded or granted.
  2. Abuse of power is always at issue. Abusive leaders misuse their authority to coerce people to do what they want, all in the name of God.
  3. These leaders push performance-based religiosity in order to ‘please God’; they mandate attendance at all church functions.
  4. No one knows the unspoken rules until they break one, i.e. don’t question the pastor; don’t talk about church problems.
  5. Abusive leaders label as rebels anyone who questions him or his policies.
  6. Exhibits black and white thinking
  7. Use exclusive language: “We’re the only church following Jesus.”
  8. Create a culture of fear and shame, often using Scriptures about not touching God’s anointed.
  9. Buffer him/herself from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader or protecting the church they have built.
  10. There is often a charismatic leader at the helm who starts off well, but slips into arrogance, protectionism and pride.
  11. Abusive leaders are often a narcissist.
photo by Samuel Martins

The First Step To Recover From Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is talked about mostly in psychological terms. But there is also a spiritual dynamic to it—a dynamic of the spirit. Spiritual abuse is not just something that comes about in a spiritual way…[it] is like physical abuse, which is not something that comes only in a physical way. When physical abuse happens, something physical is hurt. And when spiritual abuse happens, your spirit gets hurt. And that has long-lasting consequences.

photo by dnk-photo

Unfortunately, the first step to healing from spiritual abuse is removing yourself from the church or organization where it is occurring. However, choosing to leave one’s spiritual community or, in some cases, one’s entire set of religious beliefs, can lead to post traumatic stress symptoms. We are seldom prepared for the loss of security we had known.

And nothing prepared us for the loss of our complete friend group who remained part of the church we exited.

Staying, however, will only cause further anger and bitterness. It’s OK to be angry for awhile; God gave us emotions for a reason. Nonetheless, remaining in the situation could eventually direct those feelings toward God. About now, finding a counselor or someone to talk to would be very beneficial because these wounds are deep.

They are not going to simply disappear.

photo by Karl Frederickson

Next Steps to Healing

Grieve…the loss you are experiencing is akin to a death.

No one told my husband and I that we should give ourselves time to grieve the loss of our friends, the comfort of our ‘home church’, or the investment of 25+ years of our lives to this body of believers. Consequently, the grief continued to bubble to the surface for decades afterward, triggered by various situations.

While we grieve, we need to give ourselves permission to rest. Rather than resting, my husband and I were remodeling a home we had just purchased. In addition, we were dealing with grieving teens who had lost their youth group, and seeking to find a new church, thus a new church visit every Sunday.

We were exhausted. Therefore, our recovery took much longer.

In time, forgive the abuser(s). I’m going to be honest here. This. Was. Very. Difficult. For. Me.

Maybe because I erroneously thought forgiveness was a once and for all transaction, as with Jesus for me. I repeatedly felt guilt if I saw the abusers in public and felt the pain and anger rise up, again.

Thankfully, in time, I learned that forgiveness is 70 X 7, Matthew 18:21-22, ESV. Each time I was presented with the sin of the past, by God’s grace and mercy, I chose to forgive. This freed me from bitterness. It will free you, too.

photo by Joshua Eckstein

Learning to Trust Again

When trust is violated at a spiritual level, it creates an extreme hardship on the abuse survivor to trust anyone in a religious leadership capacity, again.

I think that recovery from spiritual abuse is in some ways the most difficult of recovery journeys. One reason is that the person who has the greatest potential for helping us recover from spiritual abuse is the person we feel most alienated from….

Let me explain that a bit. When someone gets physically abused, they don’t necessarily distrust the Department of Social Services. The abuser wasn’t acting as a representative of the Department of Social Services when they abused the person. Similarly, when a woman gets abused sexually, she doesn’t necessarily distrust the person from the women’s shelter who offers to be helpful… In the case of spiritual abuse, however, there is always a major problem with the “agency” that is specifically “designed” to be helpful: God. The fear is that if you go to God, you will get hurt even worse than you have already been hurt. Spiritual abuse always does damage to our relationship with God…It’s a wound of the spirit. It’s a wound right down at the core of who we are.

Three decades later, my husband and I continue to struggle with trusting spiritual leaders.

photo by Allen Taylor

God’s View of Spiritual Abusers

Be assured, God doesn’t look with favor at shepherds who abuse their flocks. For example, in Jeremiah 23:1-4, Jeremiah pronounced woe on the evil shepherds who had driven their people away. Their harsh ways and fearmongering had scattered the flock, but God would restore His people, again.

In the New Testament, Jesus spends nearly an entire chapter of Matthew berating the Scribes and Pharisees for their abusive leadership. In Chapter 23, Jesus pronounces woe after woe upon them because of their hypocrisy and the high standards they set for others, but not themselves.

Paul addresses false teaching in several of his letters. For example, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul begins in verse 6 expressing his astonishment that they could turn so quickly to desert him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. 

As Paul noted in verse 9, if anyone attempts to distort the gospel – Christ alone through faith alone – by adding other conditions, let him be accursed.

That, my friend, is how God looks at spiritual abusers.

Is there room for their repentance? Always.  Do they repent? Not often.

I’m not pessimistic about recovery for anybody, for anything. I’m hopeful. That’s why I do what I do. But I am aware of the track record and of how difficult it is for spiritually abusive people to see what’s real and to change that pattern.

God, have mercy…for us all.

The truth is, however, even at our lowest point, we were never alone. God was with us; we were not forsaken for a moment.

Good Grief – We Can’t Escape It, Yet It Need Not Consume Us

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Understanding grief

Anyone who has lived long enough has experienced grief. We can’t escape it. The late professor and Clinical Pastoral instructor, Wayne Oates once wrote, “Bereavement is the universal human crisis, striking everyone sooner or later,” (Basic Types of Pastoral Care & Counseling, Howard Clinebell). (https://amzn.to/3hTHuJt)

The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Unfortunately, and to our discredit, too often our culture grows weary of a grieving soul. There becomes a growing pressure, although usually a silent one, placed on the grieving one to move past the grief. Moreover, this pressure isn’t for the griever’s benefit; it’s so that others no longer feel the burden of your pain while in your presence.

However, be assured; your grief is personal. It is healthy. There is NO universal time limit on grief.

Grief is personal and individual, and every person experiences its nuances differently. Your personality, your support system, your natural coping mechanisms and many other things will determine how loss will affect you. There are no rules, no timetables, and no linear progression. Some people feel better after a few weeks or months, and for others it may take years. And in the midst of recovery there may be setbacks — this nonlinear process can’t be controlled. It’s critical that you treat yourself with patience and compassion and allow the process to unfold.

Stages of Grief

Most of us have read or heard of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief listed below. Let’s refresh:

  1. denial- This can’t be happening to me!
  2. anger – Why is this happening? Who is to blame?
  3. bargaining – Make this not happen and I will _____
  4. depression – I can’t bear this; I’m too sad to do anything.
  5. acceptance – I acknowledge that this has happened and I cannot change it.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this process was a neat, little package deal which we could make one pass through and be done with it? However, reality and experience has shown each of us that is not the case.

As noted earlier, we are individuals. Our grief responses are personal and individual, as well. For some, grief may last months; for others it may last a year. If the initial stages of grief are still in effect after a year, however, (continually feeling sad, hopeless; can’t function in daily activities,) it may have developed into complicated grief. If your emotional symptoms are coupled with physical symptoms such as:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Energy loss, exhaustion
  • Body aches and pains
  • Physical complaints similar to deceased

It’s time to seek outside help from a professional, a faith group, or support group. Seeking to walk this road alone is not working.

Ways to Avoid Complicated Grief

It’s not clear why one person’s grief develops into complicated grief and another person’s doesn’t. Nevertheless, there have been studies linking it to resilience, which is usually learned in – you guessed it – childhood. Regardless where we learned, or didn’t learn resilience, it’s never too late to begin implementing it into our lives.

Sadly, it is natural to want to isolate when we are grieving or depressed. However, that is one of the worst things we can do for ourselves. The following is a list of risk factors and protective factors for complicated grief.

  1. Having good social support, from close family or friends, can protect you from complicated grief when you lose a loved one.
  2. Being mentally healthy will also protect you, even if you have diagnosed mental illnesses. Untreated conditions, especially depression and trauma disorders, can put you at greater risk.
  3. Knowing how to manage stress in healthy ways makes complicated grief less likely. A great deal of stress that you can’t cope with puts you at risk.
  4. Trauma, including a very violent or unexpected passing of a loved one, can put you at greater risk for complicated grief. But, having processed trauma in productive ways can protect you.

Do We Only Grieve Death?

Whether we recognize it or not, grief encompasses more areas than the loss of a loved one. We find it much easier to heal when we can recognize that grief is what we’re feeling instead of (you fill in the blank).

For instance, when my husband and I left the church in which we had grown up, and raised our children, we were unprepared for the grieving process of no longer having that affiliation. We grieved our loss of identity.

A loss of identity occurs for a person

  • who loses a job
  • who has experienced divorce
  • moved to another city

It takes time to reestablish who you are in a new job, without your spouse, in another church or community.

Whenever a person loses a primary identity, they mourn a lost sense of self. They’re tasked with grieving who they thought they were and eventually creating a new story that integrates the loss into their personal narrative.

Loss, Loss, and More Loss

A second loss we grieve is a loss of safety. This occurs for people who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually assaulted. In addition, children of divorce grieve the loss of safety of an intact family, (though they may not verbalize it in those words.) Loss of safety can effect entire communities which have been mired by violence.

A third loss is a loss of autonomy. Examples of this include:

  • people with chronic or degenerative illness, grieving the loss of physical or mental abilities
  •  older adults no longer able to care for themselves who grieve their decline (this may also tie to a lost sense of identity as a contributing member of society)
  • someone experiencing financial problems and needing to rely on others for assistance, grieving the ability to provide for themselves

The truth is, every major life stressor involves some loss and therefore, some measure of grieving.

Laying Down The Burden of Grief

There is a story told in John 11:1-38, about the death of a friend of Jesus. His name was Lazarus. The sisters of Lazarus sent word to Jesus that he was ill, but Jesus delayed His arrival, for reasons only He knew.

As a result, Lazarus died.

I don’t think Jesus was surprised by this, because…well, He is all-knowing.

Nevertheless, when He arrived and witnessed the grief of the sisters, Mary and Martha, and the weeping of all the gathered friends, Jesus was deeply troubled.

In fact, Jesus wept.

This verse warms and encourages me. His heart was broken over the grief of those who loved Lazarus, despite the fact that Jesus knew He would be raising Lazarus from the dead.

He is a compassionate God. He comforts us in our sorrow and grief, (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, ESV). Never do we need to carry our grief alone…

The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears,
And delivers them out of all their troubles.
The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart,
And saves such as have a contrite spirit.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
But the Lord delivers him out of them all.

Psalm 34:17-19, NKJV

And even if He doesn’t, Jesus will walk with us through every loss. Sometimes, He even carries us.