If you haven’t yet read Spiritual Abuse Part 1, please do so before reading this post. 🙂
So, now that we have defined what Spiritual Abuse is, and now that I have made everyone super uncomfortable with this topic… (sorry and you’re welcome) maybe you have come to the either scary or relieving realization that you recognize some of these behaviors.
One question I got a few times after my post last week is, Is there a difference between someone who has exhibited spiritually abusive behavior at one time or another, and someone who is creating a culture and cycle of spiritual abuse? And if so, how can you tell the difference?
I’ll address that below, as well as talk about what to do once you realize you are in a spiritually abusive environment, and how to move forward.
I know this is such an intense subject, y’all, please continue to read this through a lens of compassion and understanding, knowing that I have covered this post in prayer and that if I were to be silent about this, it would be an act of disobedience to God. Please know that I talk about this out of a love for God and His people, His church.
My prayer and reasoning in discussing this is so that the Lord will reveal what needs to be revealed so that His people can find new freedom and hope in their walk with Him. It is not to stir up anger and division in the church, but to shine a light on injustice, oppression, and abuse, and to call out evil that has tried to disguise itself as good.
“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.”Isaiah 5:20 NIV
Abuse is evil. Abuse done in the name of God is no less evil, and I would argue that it is maybe even more so.
Abuse ignored for fear of giving the church a bad name only serves the abuser.
We serve a God who brings light into darkness, a God of justice, freedom, and restoration. It is time we value those things too, call out evil, and trust Him to take care of the messiness of it all.
“The oppressed get justice with you. The hungry are satisfied with you. Prisoners find their freedom with you. You open the eyes of the blind and you fully restore those bent over with shame.”Psalms 146:7-8 TPT
A Humble Person Vs. A Harmful Person
You may have read my first post and even thought about how you yourself may have struggled with any of those characteristics a time or two. I get it. We were all born into sin, with natural selfishness and a tendency towards some narcissistic traits. We are all human and the question isn’t will we fail at times but WHEN we fail, what do we do about that?
Here’s the thing, if you are self aware enough to look inward at your own actions and have genuine concern over the fact that you see any of these tendencies in yourself, it almost automatically means you have the one quality that makes you exempt from being an all-out narcissistic, spiritually abusive person… humility.
Additionally, since we are all imperfect humans, you may have seen one or two of these behaviors modeled before from a certain leader, or maybe even a parent or spouse – and that alone doesn’t necessarily make them spiritually abusive people. Instead of jumping to conclusions based on one event, I would encourage you to look at the fruit of their life. Do they typically love others well? Have they exemplified kindness, humility, and empathy for the vast majority of their life or ministry? Do they surround themselves with accountability and trusted relationships with people they view as equals?
There is a HUGE difference between a leader who had one bad day and made a mistake and a leader who continues to create a cycle of manipulation and abuse.
GIVE GRACE as much as possible, of course, and assume the best of others, but if you find yourself making excuses for the same behaviors over and over again, you have witnessed a cycle of spiritually abusive behavior happening to others even if you have not been directly effected by it, and there is just a general check of familiarity in your spirit when reading about spiritual abuse…OR if you find yourself dismissing all of these behaviors that you have noticed out of loyalty to the leader or fear of losing your community, I would say you need to really be praying and exercising that discernment.
You are not called to be a doormat.
You are not called to let abusive people use your patience, grace, and forgiveness as weapons against you.
You are not called to blindly follow anyone who calls themselves a Christian or a leader.
All authority is not deserving of respect and trust simply because they are in a position of authority.
The picture of the church as sheep to be shepherded only works when it is healthy. If the shepherd is abusive, we are not called to blindly keep following the toxic shepherd pretending we don’t notice that he’s leading us right to the wolves.
Look for the fruit. Look for humility. Look for qualities that prove trustworthy character.
Do humble people mess up? Yes. But they are able to admit that, to apologize, and to show empathy to those who have been hurt by them. Humble, healthy people will not claim to be above failure and mistakes, but they will do their best to adjust their behavior going forward, and they will feel terrible about their own actions or decisions hurting another brother or sister in Christ.
Spiritually abusive narcissists will not, and cannot hold this same perspective, it is so important to come to terms with this truth once you realize you have been spiritually abused. Often, a believer’s first response to a spiritual abuser is the desire to fix them or help them see their harmful behavior, and to change them.
As you are praying and discerning, I would like to reiterate that humble people do not just simply talk about being humble. Empathetic people do not just simply talk about their empathy. Godly people do not just talk about their godliness. Watch their actions, not just their words.
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.”Romans 16:17-18 NIV
Letting Go and Moving Forward.
It took me nine months to make my very first counseling appointment. I did a random Google search, found a counselor in my area, and booked an appointment. A few days later I found out that she specialized in Narcissistic Abuse Recovery.
I see you Jesus.
If I think back to that first appointment, this was the very first thing that my therapist addressed: “You have to come to terms with the fact that this person is physically incapable of seeing your perspective.”
She was right. I had long been afraid of conflict, a people-pleaser, and I was SURE if I just reached out one more time, I could resolve the issue. I had tried every way I could possibly think of to explain myself, to make peace, and to get closure, but I finally had to come to terms with reality, which was that I couldn’t fix this, and I needed to make peace with that and let go in order to heal.
At some point when you are reading this, many of you may be thinking “What about the biblical outline for resolving relationships that is outlined in Matthew 18?”
If you’re not familiar, the cliff notes version is that Jesus is telling us when someone sins against us, first, go to them directly to resolve the issue. If that doesn’t resolve it, then take one or two others with you to try and resolve it, and if that doesn’t work, then it must be taken to the entire church in hopes of restoration. This biblical outline is so helpful in restoring relationships and encourages us to get to the root of the issue and avoid gossip and making issues worse off than they actually are, however…
I think it’s important to clarify here that an abusive relationship is not the same as a broken relationship. An abusive relationship happens when one person has power over another, whether spiritually, emotionally, or physically.
On another note, the passage begins by saying, “If your brother [or sister] sins against you…” implying that Jesus is addressing those who are equals, who have committed themselves to being a part of a family or spiritual family.
I encourage you to seek the Lord first and use your discernment in situations like this, but from my own studying and prayerful perspective, I truly believe that following this criteria with an abuser just opens yourself up to more abuse, and that is not what the Lord desires for His children.
It would be the same advice I would give if a woman told me her husband physically abused her. I don’t believe confronting him is safe, I would advise her to get out. I truly believe Jesus would want her to do the same.
Take it from someone who had the tables turned on them when a spiritually abusive leader once tried to cite the principles in Matthew 18 (skipping the part about coming to me directly, though he lied and said he did and it was my word against his) to justify an hour and a half long meeting in which I was repeatedly falsely accused of a myriad of baseless things, gaslighted, and completely taken out of context. Unfortunately I was unable to defend myself. I had given that leader way too much power and influence over me, and the witnesses he had brought along were silent and affirming of his words due to being either employed by him, afraid, or sworn to his loyalty. By the end of this meeting, I was convinced the things he accused me of were true, that I did have a heart issue, a problem with authority, that I was divisive, and that I owed he and his wife a sincere apology for my behavior.
I was broken.
I even thanked them for leading me so well.
This happened two months before I learned about what spiritual abuse was, and once I did I could finally see clearly.
This is why I am writing about this.
Spiritual abusers take biblical concepts, but use them to their own advantage in order to control or manipulate others.
It’s not an even playing field.
When you are dealing with a spiritual abuser, you are dealing with someone who will:
- Gaslight you
- Misquote you
- Lie to and about you
- Seek to control you
- Accuse you of their own toxic behavior
- And ultimately, seek to destroy you, your calling, your reputation, and your influence.
And the worst part is, being a spiritual leader, they typically have enough charisma and are convincing enough that many people will believe them.
Knowing this, I hope you know why I truly believe it is unsafe to apply the Matthew 18 principles of restoring broken relationships when you are specifically dealing with an abuser.
You are not called to restore relationship with your abuser.
You are absolutely called to forgive them, but forgiveness does not equal restoration.
Restoration would require rebuilt trust, which requires changed behavior, and while I believe there is nothing that is impossible for God, I also believe strongly that you cannot heal wounds caused by an abuser, by staying in contact with the abuser.
Your first step is without question to walk away.
A soldier wouldn’t stop in the middle of a battlefield to address one wound while he is still being shot at. He gets to safety first.
You wouldn’t begin treating a small burn on your arm in the middle of a house fire, your first order of business is to get out of the burning house.
I use these examples because I know it is so much easier to understand the damage of wounds that we can see, it’s harder to see the wounds in our spirit, but I promise you they are just as damaging.
Now humor me here, I do not claim to be a theologian, but I find it interesting how just a few chapters down from Matthew 18, we have Jesus speaking against the Pharisees in Matthew 23. I think there is something to the fact that he was openly speaking against their behavior and renouncing it, and I think it’s because he saw that the harm they were doing was in God’s name. He didn’t tell all of his disciples to go meet with each Pharisee separately and confront them, he denounced them right then and there. I don’t want to put my own words into the text here, so please form your own conclusions, but I’d like to think that Jesus knew the Pharisees were spiritually abusive. They were using scriptures to manipulate others for their gain… so the goal wasn’t to encourage his disciples to restore relationships with them. His goal was to call out truth and bring darkness to light.
Jesus was sinless, so he wasn’t gossiping about the Pharisees, he was clearing the air on the ways the Pharisees had so inaccurately represented God. He was speaking truth so that others could be set free of the religious oppression they were under.
“Then Jesus addressed both the crowds and his disciples and said, “The religious scholars and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ throne as the authorized interpreters of the Law. So listen and follow what they teach, but don’t do what they do, for they tell you one thing and do another. They tie on your backs an oppressive burden of religious obligations and insist that you carry it, but will never lift a finger to help ease your load. Everything they do is done for show and to be noticed by others. They want to be seen as holy, so they wear oversized prayer boxes on their arms and foreheads with Scriptures inside, and wear extra-long tassels on their outer garments. They crave the seats of highest honor at banquets and in their meeting places. And how they love to be admired by men with their titles of respect, aspiring to be recognized in public and have others call them ‘Reverend.’“Matthew 23:1-7
So, What Now?
Find Safe People.
Your very first step when realizing you have been spiritually abused is to seek wise counsel.
A trusted friend who is not still directly involved with the ministry or organization where the abuse has taken place, a professional biblical counselor, spiritually healthy mentors and/or family members who again, are not involved with the place of abuse. It is important to know you cannot simply trust leaders that work for the abusive leader, even if you think you have a good relationship with them. Most likely, these people have been spiritually abused too, and are blinded by their trust of the leader and not able to think for themselves, they are not safe people for you to trust right now.
Safe people will help you process, as well as provide sound counsel for how to move forward, depending on your situation.
Find those people, tell them everything, and gauge their reactions. In our case, our mentors, friends, and family reacted much more strongly than we expected, since we had grown so used to the abusive behavior, and helped us see how much of what we had shrugged off for so long was toxic, unhealthy, and “not normal”.
Quickly upon seeking trusted counsel, we had multiple people confirm that what we had gone through was spiritual abuse – before we even knew what that was. We had been brainwashed in a way to think that our discernment and discomfort was actually a personal pride issue, and that any red flags we had seen were just because we were spiritually immature.
Safe people will help you see past the BS mind game you have been stuck in.
TRUTH NOTE: Telling your story for the purpose of finding healing and safety is not gossip, just as someone reporting a sexual abuse is not gossiping.
ANOTHER NOTE: In my experience in not doing this part well, it is important to use discernment when telling people who are in the same abusive community about what you have gone through. Often, these people are just as lost and misled as you were at one point, and since spiritually abusive leaders create a culture where loyalty to the leader is praised above all else, and where thinking for yourself and asking questions is discouraged, you may/will get some people who think you are insane. They may do more harm than good for you in this situation, even though they will believe they are doing the right thing by staying loyal to the leader. Do not be angry with them for choosing a side against you. Pray for them to see the truth. Pray for God to use your story to show them the path to their own healing and freedom.
It is not your job to save everyone. I am a firm believer that God brings things to light eventually. Relationships that are meant to be restored, will be, and the greatest testimony to your health and character will be for them to see who you become once you walk away from the abusive environment. Commit to loving them from afar and wishing them the best, even if they completely shun you or cut you out of their life. You can let go and move on without burning down every bridge. You never know what God will restore in the future. He’s the way maker after all.
GET OUT of the Spiritually Abusive Environment.
I mean it. I know what you are thinking because I thought the same things. I know this feels divisive of me to say, but when you come to terms with the fact that you are in a spiritually abusive environment, it’s a complete paradigm shift. You need a new perspective, and here’s the truth: a spiritually abusive environment negatively affects everyone involved, not just those who have had the more obvious things happen to them. A spiritually abusive environment is spiritually abusive to everyone in that it;
- affects your spirit
- affects your view of yourself and others
- affects your view of God and your relationship with Him
- affects your marriage and close relationships
- affects your spiritual growth
- affects your mental health
- affects how you make decisions
- affects all aspects of your life
A toxic environment is toxic to everyone.
I hear things like this all the time from people:
“I don’t think our leadership is healthy, and I keep seeing a lot of people get hurt, but nothing has been personally done to me yet.”
“I don’t know how you were so brave, we’ve been praying for a way out.”
“I see the spiritual abuse but I don’t wan’t to lose my friends.”
“Well, no church is perfect.”
“I don’t think the pastor is preaching sound theology, but we have been told not to ask questions and trust leadership so I am trying to do that.”
Believe me, I understand completely how scary it is to think about walking away from a familiar environment, an environment you may have even had positive memories in, maybe years ago it’s where you found Jesus, got baptized, and you’ve clung to the long-gone good in order to justify all of the bad, and I know what I am about to say may sound extremely rough and forward of me, but God has not called you to enable abusers.
Maybe you think you aren’t doing that… and I am sure you aren’t intentionally; but when we turn a blind eye to injustice, when we make excuses to remain comfortable rather than standing up for what is right, when we ignore our discernment and choose the fear of man over the prompting of the Holy Spirit, when we continue showing up to services, serving, tithing to, supporting, clapping for, and condoning spiritually abusive leadership. We are enabling the abuser.
Whether you like it or not, your church attendance speaks volumes of support for the way your church is being run and the way people are being treated.
Pay attention to how that statement sits with you. If it makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why.
Many well-intended Christians are stuck in spiritually dead or abusive churches out of a fear of man and what it would look like to leave.
If that’s you, I get it, I have been there, but your very presence in these churches is what keeps spiritually abusive leaders in positions of power.
We need to ask ourselves if we are more afraid of what people think of us than we are of being someone who allows a cycle of abuse to continue.
“I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ… Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.”Galatians 1:6, 10 NLT
Friend, I know you are afraid of losing your community. I know you are afraid of the unknown, who will reject you, and how your reputation will be handled after you’re gone. I know you’re worried about being misunderstood, or the drama of how it looks to leave a church.
I had all of the same fears, and all of them came true. ALL OF THEM.
Even now, there are people who think I’m legit crazy, who have believed rumors that are untrue, probably a lot I haven’t even heard. I have been called a wolf in sheep’s clothing and been told the devil is in control of my life and all kinds of other things. My husband and I both have had our names dragged through the mud, we’ve had multiple people tell us they can’t be our friends anymore because we make them question the leadership, we have seen it all…
My relationship with God has never been sweeter, my marriage has never been healthier, my circle of community just one year later has never been so authentic and life-giving. We have seen God carry us through every step of the way, and I have never been more in love with Jesus and His church. I have never been more excited for the future.
I have witnessed God restore some of the relationships we lost back to be even sweeter than ever before. I have watched trust in marriages be rebuilt and hope be reborn and lives be renewed.
I have seen God make a way where it seemed to be impossible. I have seen His kindness more in this season of my life than I ever have before. I have witnessed how He carries and heals our burdens, how He makes wrong things right, and how He puts purpose into every single aspect of our lives that we surrender to Him.
Fighting for freedom is so worth it, and like I said earlier, God will bring people back into your life if they are supposed to be a part of it.
I just want you to know in spite of how hard all of that was to walk through, it pales in comparison to how much freedom there is when you realize there is always a door to walk out of.
If you are an adult human who is not a tree and can uproot yourself whenever you like – not only that, but if you are a Holy-Spirit-filled, image-bearing child of God and you find yourself in a place that raises concerns in your spirit, you can walk out of those doors without reason or excuse.
Follow the voice of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it does line up with what man says, but also, sometimes it does NOT. Learn to trust and discern it, and when you hear it, LISTEN and OBEY.
Do not listen to the voice of fear over the voice of the Holy Spirit.
“For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”2 Timothy 1:7 KJV
Lastly, and I am reiterating this because it was the toughest part for me to surrender – but are you really willing to sacrifice your health, spiritual growth, intimate relationships, and potentially your calling in order to keep “friendships” who would drop you like last week’s leftovers if you stopped going to the same church?
Yes I cried a lot of tears, yes I had to grieve some broken relationships, yes I am in a season I never anticipated, passionately talking about a subject I never thought would be a part of my story, but I have seen so clearly in the past year how the Lord has taken what the enemy meant for evil and turned it for good. (Rom. 8:28)
Please also read my post 5 Ways to Move on from Church Hurt if you haven’t yet, as many of the principles that I would encourage here are the same.
A Prayer For You.
I am praying for you as you read this post, you who find yourself feeling stuck in a spiritually abusive situation, I pray that you will hear the voice of the Holy Spirit louder than ever before. That you will trust it, and not doubt it. That God will give you the gift of discernment. I pray that it will drown out all the noise. I pray that the Lord will reveal who your safe people are and that you will be able to open up to them and be heard, I pray that they will give you wise counsel, speak life into you, and that you will see more clearly than ever before. I pray against anyone who tries to shame you, defame you or blame you, that their words will not be heard by you, that the Holy Spirit would drown them out with truth. I pray against any spirit of fear that tries to keep you held captive. I pray that you will know that your identity is found in Christ and that He wants freedom for you too. I pray that you will be overwhelmed with peace and comfort as you make difficult decisions, I pray that you will be set free. Amen.
I am praying for you who have walked away from an abusive situation and are pursuing healing, I am praying that God will release you from that old season quickly, that the negative effects from the abuse will dissipate, that you will be able to forgive and let go, and move forward with so much hope and confidence in the fullness of Christ. I pray that you know you will not be defined by this season, and that God will not let it hold you back from the next one. I pray that you find a healthy community to help you heal, I pray that God will bring healthy spiritual leaders into your life, I pray that you also see God make beauty from ashes out of your situation. I pray that you know you are not alone, and that your time spent in an abusive situation, no matter how many years or months or days, will NOT be wasted, because of Jesus. I pray that others will be able to see you shining a brighter light than ever before so that they can’t help but notice how you look a lot like freedom. I pray that your story of bravery and courage will inspire others, and I pray that you point everyone to the healing you’ve found in Christ by choosing to walk away, but also to forgive and not be bitter. Amen.
The BEST is yet to come. Believe it.