Spiritual Abuse – Part 1

Over the next few weeks I will be doing a series of posts on spiritual abuse. Abuse is a huge issue with multiple personalities and complex behaviors while at the same time being subtle and difficult at times to identify. It is not an easy subject to discuss both for those who have been victims and those who have victimized others. Those who victimize are victims themselves. There is no way to broach the subject without ruffling a few feathers. It is an ugly issue and multifaceted. It is a subject about which I feel compelled to write. Because this issue is complex it is going to take more than one or two posts to flush out the symptoms and identify the problem and present some kind of help. I don’t believe this kind of thing can be discussed without offering some kind of assistance or at least letting people know where they can get help. I don’t presume to have all the answers. I don’t. I don’t have a degree in counseling. I have no professional credentials. What qualifies me to speak on the subject is that I am a survivor of spiritual abuse. I have my story. I believe that sharing my story can help others.

Through these posts I hope to help untangle some of the issues while sharing my story. I am a survivor of spiritual abuse within the family and the church. I stumbled into the concept of spiritual abuse when I was beginning my journey of recovery from codependency. I pray that somehow through sharing my story that others may benefit. 

Part 1 Spiritual Abuse & a follow-up to What happens when shepherds eat the sheep?

It occurred to me after I posted What happens when shepherds eat the sheep, that I left things dangling a bit. And I don’t like dangly bits. This subject is one that is close to my heart for a several reasons. First because I was a victim of spiritual abuse. Secondly because I have witnessed the abuse of others. Third and probably most importantly I had to admit that I unwittingly perpetuated the system in which the abuse was allowed to continue. Fortunately, I got help. Not unlike other recovery settings once you find a way out you, want to help others find their way out as well.

I didn’t grow up in a religious household. But I did grow up in an abusive home. My parents were young and self focused. They behaved in ways which expressed their need for their children to meet their needs, not necessarily the other way around. Neither of them experienced much in the way of nurturing while they were growing up. They didn’t have it and were unable to pass on to us what they did not possess. This environment was conducive to all sorts of abuse. We all suffered a variety of physical, verbal, emotional, psychological sexual and spiritual abuse. My parents were victims who simply did to others what had been done to them. While it doesn’t minimize or excuse the behavior it helps to identify and explain it. This story isn’t about bad mouthing my parents because I have an axe to grind. It’s about uncovering an issue that I needed addressed so that I could seek healing. It’s okay to talk about these things. As we talk about the issues it helps us to know we aren’t alone. We aren’t crazy.

It is uncomfortable to talk about certain things. But talking about it exposes it for what it is. When it gets exposed we can get a better grip on things and make conscious decisions on how to handle the situations in which we find ourselves.

My grandfather taught us to love God, love our neighbor and to pray. While these are good things in our household it often ended up with putting our parents needs above the needs of the children. After my mother came to Christ she ended up being influenced by a very legalistic church. While she had a dramatic salvation experience by the power of God’s grace she seemed to lose track of grace and fell into the common trap of religious performance.

Spiritual abuse is just as damaging as any other form of abuse. It is insidious. Trusting spiritual leaders seems to go with the whole idea of being a Christian. Because it isn’t just leaders who abuse it is important that we look at multiple sides of the issue. In the beginning of her life as a Christian my mom didn’t trust herself to understand how to apply the Scriptures. She relied on others to lead her. Unfortunately she became the victim of spiritual abuse. Since she didn’t have a foundation of unconditional love and acceptance in her own life she fell victim to the unspoken rule that we have to earn God’s love. This was done by somehow finding out the will of God and obeying His command without question. Of course it was church leaders who knew what the will of God was for her life. Later this evolved into her knowing what the will of God was for our lives. Often there were harsh rebukes with impending doom sent from heaven if we didn’t comply. Just simply being a child of God saved by grace wasn’t enough. It was the power of the cross and your works of obedience. That is a subtle distortion of grace. But it is a distortion none the less. Anything that adds to the completed work of the cross doesn’t add something to grace it takes grace out of the equation. And that isn’t the gospel message.

It can be the little old lady who passes out communion or the usher who greets you at the door, spiritual abuse doesn’t have one face. It can be the intercessor, someone in the chorus, or even the janitor. One doesn’t need a pulpit to inflict spiritual abuse. It can be the well-meaning sister or brother in Christ who delivers accusation rather than grace and unconditional acceptance. When what you have experienced leaves you in shame, condemnation or feeling like you don’t measure up, you quite possibly are the victim of spiritual abuse.

Before we get too far into this subject I want to recommend a book. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. This book and a dear friend who loved me enough to step into a very messy situation helped me to begin my journey of surviving and overcoming spiritual abuse. I was given this book the year it was published (1991). Our church had just gone through the devastation of losing our pastor because the elders didn’t like his involvement in the community. They wanted to control where he expressed Christ’s love. In the eyes of the church board that was within the confines of the church that paid his salary. In the end love walked out the door when they forced him to step down. That was only one place which I had to face the ugliness of spiritual abuse in the disguise of church counsel. More on that later.

In chapter five of their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse the authors write:

“There are certain characteristics that can be observed in all spiritually abusive systems.”  There are seven characteristics they view as being the most common. Those seven are:

  • Power Posturing
  • Performance Preoccupation
  • Unspoken Rules
  • The “can’t talk” Rule
  • Lack of Balance
    • Extreme Objectivism
    • Extreme Subjectivism

In 1991, when their book was first put in my hands, I was thirty-two years old. I had four children under the age of ten. I was divorced from an abusive alcoholic husband. A couple of years prior my mentor and I began a journey of discovering codependency. The concept of abuse was still fresh. My head was still spinning from the information overload about family of origin issues. I was still new to letting go and trusting the outcome. I was learning how to deal with my emotions in a healthy way and attempting to set healthy boundaries. I was not always accomplished and refined in dealing with things in a healthy manner but I was on the road to recovery.

At that time, I was unsteady in my baby steps of dealing with family dysfunction. It was both startling and exhilarating. I was excited and thrilled that I had discovered what the problem was. I was nauseated and disgusted to discover what the problem was. I found that the cycles of behavior were being repeated. I was repeating them. I needed to make a some very deliberate changes. I was a terrible mess. I was simply repeating the behavior I had learned. It was all I had known. Thankfully I ended up at a therapist who didn’t condemn me. She helped me by equipping me with alternative behavior. She signed me up for parenting classes so I could learn how to parent differently. She never at any time expressed horror at the things I shared with her. She didn’t minimize any inappropriate actions. She held me accountable while offering solutions and pointed me toward healing. In order to change what I was doing I had to learn to do things differently. If no one shows us we don’t know any better. I didn’t. But I was learning.

Every recovery group will tell you it isn’t about perfection. It’s about progress. Just keep coming back. I learned that doing it wrong wasn’t the end of the world. I was a perfectionist. So doing it right was ingrained in me. I didn’t know how to live any other way. I not only had to learn how to parent my children differently; I had to re-parent myself. I had to take myself in hand and treat myself differently. And slowly over the years I walked out of the abusive cycles. I left the abusive systems. I have a healthy life that at that time I didn’t think was possible.

At that time, however, I had to unlearn everything I thought was right. I was having to learn life over from the beginning. Sometimes I made great strides. Other times I made what I deemed catastrophic mistakes. Through the support of others I kept going despite not doing it perfectly.

Climbing Annapurna

It was an uphill climb. At times it was like climbing Annapurna. Annapurna means filled with food or possessed of food. I knew my healing would come by climbing a mountain I didn’t want to climb. I prayed for courage every day as I faced the icy peak of family abuse. My family hated me for exposing the underbelly of our dysfunction. No one was more upset with me than my mother. My mom went home to be with the Lord in 2013. For the last five years of my mother’s life she and I had the opportunity to restore the relationship that had been ravaged by spiritual, emotional and physical abuse. I am grateful for what restoration we experienced.

Spiritual abuse is a tricky thing. It isn’t always a religious leader who is the perpetrator. It can be, but spiritual abuse can be found in any dysfunctional system. What makes it so insidious is that it is often so subtle that it goes undetected. Because spiritual abuse wears a religious mask it often looks and sounds right on the surface. At times the ones inflicting the abuse are family members or a trusted confidante. It can be anyone whose opinion we value. We might value their opinion or look to them for wisdom because we are unsure of ourselves. When we trust we make ourselves vulnerable. Abusers take advantage of vulnerability. When we are in a spiritually abusive system we don’t always know that it’s abusive. Being influenced by the system we have the potential to treat others the way the system treats others. In spiritual abuse that can come in the form of subtle but toxic shame.

I like Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability. Through listening to a couple of her TedTalks and seminars and reading her book The Gift of Imperfection I have been able to identify when I am operating in shame. When I identify my actions as being rooted in shame I am better equipped to deal with my reactions. I can hold myself accountable in a loving and non shaming way. I’m not always right. I don’t always do things perfectly. Sometimes I say things that hurt other people. My intention isn’t to hurt. But when I do harm and I am confronted with it I can accept the accountability and apologize and make amends. I can only do that with shame out of the way. In a healthy spiritual environment it’s okay to make mistakes, even hurtful ones. Spiritually abusive systems don’t allow for mistakes. In abusive environments outward appearance is more important than inward healing

But what is spiritual abuse? How do we deal with it? First and foremost I suggest getting outside help. And when I say outside help I mean don’t try to get help from those within the system you believe to be abusive. If they are there, they are either a part of the system that is doing the abusing or they are might be as stuck in it as you are. And stuck people while they can be a comfort are well, they are stuck. Finding help will include doing a little homework.

I suggest starting with some good resources. Below is my go-to short list: (links to Amazon) Some of these books are a bit dated but the information is still very relevant. You can Google® spiritual abuse. There is a plethora of information online. I would also suggest checking out information on codependency. I found there are a lot of similar identifiers with codependency and spiritual abuse. They both involve issues within the context of relationship.

Love can often go awry. Our concept of love, when distorted for some reason can become dysfunctional, codependent or even abusive. Checking out the symptoms and identifying characteristics of codependency can help put the issue of love in perspective. We will look at love in the weeks ahead as we press forward on this subject.

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen.

Tired of Trying to Measure Up by Jeff VanVonderen

Untangling Relationships by Pat Springle

Conquering Codependency also by Pat Springle

A House that Grace Built by Stephanie A Tucker

Here’s the synopsis of

Soul Repair: Rebuilding Your Spiritual Life by Jeff VanVonderen, Dale Ryan & Juanita Ryan

Do you fear that God is angry with you? Do you wonder if God is really FOR you? If God really loves you? Deep down many of us believe that we are not good enough, and never will be good enough, to have a meaningful relationship with God. This is because we have been spiritually trained in ways that have left us with distorted and inadequate spiritualities of four different kinds: abusive, anorexic, addictive, and codependent. And we are left with a toxic combination of fear and shame. We may try to get it right. We may try to control ourselves and others. We may try to please God and to earn God’s love. After a while we find ourselves exhausted and discouraged, and we may feel even more alienated from God.

What I have found in my own life and the lives of those who have suffered at the hand of spiritual abuse is that deep down there is something inside of us that may have difficulty truly accepting God’s love and grace. We somehow can feel like we don’t deserve God’s love. It may not be a conscious thought. Most times it isn’t. Yet, we can end up feeling like we have to do something to earn God’s love. While there’s a lot of messy stuff to try to untangle, the first step is identifying spiritual abuse.

To repeat: In their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse the authors write:

There are certain characteristics that can be observed in all spiritually abusive systems. in Chapter Five they discuss identifying the abusive system. There are seven characteristics they view as being the most common. Those seven are:

  • Power Posturing
  • Performance Preoccupation
  • Unspoken Rules
  • The “can’t talk” Rule
  • Lack of Balance
    • Extreme Objectivism
    • Extreme Subjectivism

Over the next few weeks I will dig into this issue a bit further. I want to close tonight with this: I am not on a witch hunt. This isn’t about shaming others. Anyone can at any time forget the grace of God and speak or behave in a way that spiritually hurts others. Being insensitive at times doesn’t mean someone is an abuser. This isn’t about seeking out abusers to hang them out to dry. It is about identifying a problem and examining our own Christian practice first. This isn’t about condemning others and dragging people through the mud. It is about uncovering an issue and learning how to identify and deal with situations which may be spiritually abusive. All abuse is hurtful. I am not minimizing the pain or suggesting that people aren’t truly suffering. They are. Which is why I am writing these posts. I believe that in the midst pain our response to spiritual abuse is important. My intention isn’t to harm others because I was harmed. My intention is to the best of my ability facilitate getting help and healing and bring hope to those who have been affected by spiritual abuse.

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. Romans 8:1-2 NASB

May the Lord bless you and give you peace.

8 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse – Part 1”

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