Before anything else can be said, I want you to know how incredibly sorry I am for the pain you have been through. Abuse is always wrong but when it comes from the ones claiming to follow Jesus, it can be one of the most damaging things in the world. The gospel of Jesus should never include force. It should never hurt the ones it claims to serve. I don’t know the abuse you have been through— whether it was a pastor, elder, family member, or friend, but I do know that you are worth more than the treatment you have received.
We all see life differently. And religion no less than any other topic. Everyone has their own convictions and standards, and while that does not mean there is a relative truth like postmodernism advocates, we do all come to God’s Word with our own set of biases and world views and apply certain details of it differently. That’s ok. Variety is one of the things that makes the body of Christ healthy. We don’t all have to see every last little detail in the same light to love each other and be unified.
Beyond that even, it is healthy to have conversations about our differences of opinion and belief. If we only surround ourselves with people who interpret every part of the Bible the exact same way that we do, we’re much more likely to become narrow minded and self-sufficient. Sometimes those conversations even look like healthy conflicts where we challenge each other to search our Bibles more deeply and in the process become more grounded in truth. No person is an island, and the minute we think we are above counsel and advice from those around us, we set ourselves up for failure.
But abuse is something entirely different to healthy conversation and debate. Abuse is sinister and selfish in character.
Sometimes though, that very reality makes us question if something is really abuse. I mean, the abuser may have a good heart and never intend to abuse its victims, so what really counts as abuse?
I think sometimes we forget that we are all sinners and we are all tempted to selfishness. Abuse is really just selfishness lived out and inflicted forcefully on other people. Abusers are not necessarily cruel hearted, inhuman people. Sometimes they are simply people who have been hurt so deeply themselves that in an attempt to equalize their own emotions they lash out and control others. That doesn’t make it ok, of course, but far too often conversations on abuse take an unChristlike stab at the abuser. As wrong as their actions are, they are still a heart that is loved and died for by Jesus and worthy of our sensitivity and prayers.
Spiritual abuse is using force or manipulation to convince someone that their belief is not accurate. It uses any form of physical, emotional, or psychological pressure to convince someone that the abuser’s view is the only accurate one. It squelches out personal thought, prayer, and study. It programs the conscience to think a certain way, which can then speak for the abuser even when they are not around. It chokes out a personal relationship with Jesus because it invalidates the individual’s ability to trust any of the things they learn or experience in that relationship.
Of course anyone controlling our brain for us is unhealthy. It’s giving up control over our frontal lobe which is the decision making part of our brains. The problem with spiritual abuse, though, is that it tries to convince the victim that it is their moral duty to give up that control and that if they don’t they are displeasing God and may even loose their salvation.
The victim then becomes confused about who God is. If you’ve been there, you know exactly what I mean. Are the things I find when I study my Bible that go against the views of my abuser (pastor, elder, family member, friend) really accurate or am I so biased that I can’t understand truth for myself? Are the answers to prayer that God gives me really a thing or are they simply me reading my own desires into every circumstance? Is my sense of God’s presence, peace, and leading in my life really valid or is it just simply a feeling that holds no value if I cannot prove it to my abuser?
These are some of the questions that are haunting. The abuser's view of God (which is automatically going to be warped as they are acting in force not love) begins to fill your mind and overwhelms the view you have of God from your own study and experience. The mental turmoil is agonizing because you want to please God but you’re not even sure who He is.
The whole idea of external control of our thought processes is not a new one. From the very start Satan insinuated that God was forcing us not to know both good and evil by keeping us away from the tree. Since then he has proceeded to inspire the action of force in countless groups. Radical religions and dictatorships that try to control the belief system of their subjects have sprung up all throughout history. Every time they end in incredible suffering because no man was made to be controlled by another.
It’s one thing to recognize spiritual abuse for what it is, but when you’re in it, how on earth do you get out?
This can be the scariest, most overwhelming question. Not only is there the fear of relational turmoil but of rejection from God. If this is where you are in your journey, you probably feel like you’re going through hell. The darkness can be intensely deep. I can’t make the pain go away but I can share a few of the things I’m learning...
1. The character of your abuser is not the character of God
This can be especially confusing when it comes to spiritual abuse because the abuser is likely in a position of authority and thus is to be treated with respect. It’s a scary thing to admit that someone you have looked up to is misrepresenting Jesus. But it’s one of the first steps, because if God is really like your abuser, why would you even want to follow Him?
Far too many people get stuck here and never realize the beautiful truth. Jesus is nothing like your abuser. He will never force you. He will never manipulate you or take control of your mind so that you cannot think for yourself. He is not out to make you feel guilty, ashamed, or worthless. He respects your individuality and never wants you to follow any of His teachings because you feel like you have to. His whole relationship with you builds up your dignity instead of tearing it down. He is out to protect you, not to destroy you.
2. Not all spiritual leaders are abusers.
When you’ve been burned once, it can be incredibly scary to trust again. But just like we can’t stereotype people of a specific race, we can’t stereotype spiritual leaders. One of the most empowering things when you have been through spiritual abuse is to seek out a mentor who is balanced and biblical and let them help you learn how to study the Bible and communicate with God for yourself. Old habits don’t undo themselves. It can be vital in moving past the voice of the abuser in your head to find someone who is willing to point you in the right direction, while not just answering your questions for you or telling you what to do.
3. It takes time.
This one can be really hard to accept. We all want to think that as soon as we remove ourselves from abuse and start thinking for ourselves we’ll be able to quickly move beyond the confusion and pain. But thought patterns that took time to develop normally take time to change. Be patient with yourself. Some days you may see the face of Jesus in all its beauty and be blown away. Other days you may wonder if your abuser was actually right and if you’re just going crazy. Sometimes you may be bold and courageous about standing up for what you believe and other days you may feel like you’re being spun around in a washing machine by all the different voices shouting their opinion. It’s ok. Finding freedom and your own relationship with Jesus is a journey. It doesn’t all happen in a heartbeat. In the moment that can feel incredibly discouraging but in the long run you’ll look back on the journey and praise Jesus for the highs and the lows. It’s there that He takes the lessons you’re learning beyond a head knowledge to a heart experience that changes the whole way you do life.
4. Stand up for your own beliefs
This is probably the scariest step. Taking a stand for the beliefs that you and Jesus come to when you know the result will be conflict and more attempts at manipulation can be terrifying. But it is one of the biggest steps in finding healing. As you stand up for what you believe, you defy the thought that you are not capable of studying God’s word for yourself and having your own relationship with Him. The freedom He has been growing in you takes root so much deeper because you are exercising it. The peace you experience as you take a stand for who you have found God to be goes beyond understanding. You can’t do it all at once, of course, and that’s ok. As you take little steps to live out what you believe, God will give you opportunities as you can handle them to stand up for your beliefs.
5. The One who first implanted in you a desire to follow Him will stick with you until the very end.
He’s not going to give up on you. Ever. You are not His subject to control. He made you to be His companion— to walk through life with Him sharing joys and secrets. He aches to see the confusion you’re going through and He’s not going to stop fighting for you for one moment. As hard and confusing as the journey is, He is out to be your support and protector every step of the way. Even when your mind is so clouded by the voices around you that you can’t see Him. He won’t leave.
As much as an apology does not take away any of the pain you have felt, I want you to know how sorry I am for the hurt that you have had to walk through from the ones who should be the biggest champions of Jesus’ love. It isn’t fair, and as you process your hurt and anger and confusion, know that you are not alone. You’re not the only one fighting the mental battle to find freedom.
Your experience is important. Your voice counts. And I have no shadow of doubt that as Jesus shows you more of His beautiful heart and sets you free from the darkness you have been through, He will use your story to make a difference for someone else going through their own darkness.
More than anything, I hope you know you are loved and valued.
from one heart simply seeking to know His more fully,