You have probably heard of a variety of types of abuse: verbal, sexual, mental, emotional; however, you may not have heard of spiritual abuse. Although you may not have heard of it, it is very real.
While all abuse could be considered a spiritual abuse because it damages a person’s spiritual lens, The National Association for Christian Recovery states more specifically spiritual abuse is the following:
- Takes place in a spiritual context (i.e. A church setting, by a spiritual leader, etc.)
- The use of spiritual truths and/or scripture to harm another
- “Coercive” spirituality such as promoted by cults
- Using God, or relationship with God, as a way to manipulate and shame others
Mary Demuth also observes that spiritual abuse can also look like the following:
- A leader develops an atmosphere of dependence on himself in the name of Jesus; therefore, the congregation cannot act on its own
- A leader demands total devotion from followers, including but not limited to financial resources, while he/she lives a lavish life without sacrifice
- Blaming/shaming congregation for the leader’s downfall
- Using his/her power for his/her own gain
While the above is mentioned in a context of a religious organization, spiritual abuse can happen in other places such as home, school, etc. However, regardless of where it occurs, it is not okay. Spiritual abuse may appear to be in Jesus’s name and be small or a slight of hand at times, but it is anything but small or slight and definitely not in Jesus’s name.
In my training as a therapist in both undergrad (at a Christian school) and in my graduate program, spiritual abuse was not an abuse I was taught to notice. It was my own experience with it that allowed me to understand its reality. Now, as a trauma therapist, I see the reality of all abuse, including spiritual abuse. It is an abuse that heaps coal upon any other abuse that may be occurring.
As I work with broken men and women whom have experienced spiritual abuse, here are some common scenarios I hear. A person cannot understand God’s mercy and grace because they were taught or told they did not deserve it. Parents only modeled God’s wrath and not his mercy. A person who believes God is a malevolent God who turns his back on them because they have “sinned.” A man or woman who was coerced by a leader using the leader’s status to receive sexual advances and leaving the man or woman abandoned. The husband or wife who believes he or she is “crazy” because he or she was taught he or she is only to submit or “rule” the home regardless of how a person feels. Believers who in “Jesus name” were guilted, shamed, and/or abandoned for their sin. It is hard to explain grace when wrath is all that has been shown.
Because of these lies taught, many people turn from their faith, deny God all together, or live in fear that God will abandon/strike them down, or believe they are not deserving of God’s mercy and grace. But this is far from who Jesus is and the love He provides.
God’s truth is that by grace we have been saved through his love, sacrifice, and mercy (Ephesians 2:8). Romans 5:6-8 tells us that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. God did not withhold his love from us until we became righteous. He sent his Son, the greatest act of love, while we were still sinners so that we could experience his mercy, grace, hope, and healing. Therefore, if someone is using the church or spirituality to withhold love, heap shame, guilt, and blame upon someone to gain devotion to him or her, then he or she is spiritually abusing another. A person is acting against God’s character and His word.
The truth is this:
Love never gives up
Love cares more for others than for self
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have
Love doesn’t strut
Love doesn’t force itself on others
Love isn’t angry
Love doesn’t keep score of other’s wrongs
Love doesn’t celebrate when others fall
Love enjoys truth
Love never ends.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (MSG)
If you are experiencing spiritual abuse, know that because of Jesus’s blood on the cross and his resurrection, you are welcome to experience all the love God offers. But if you feel that has been withheld from you, know that we can help. As a faith-based organization, we believe and trust in the word of God and that his mercies are new every day (Lamentations 3:22-23). We can help you find that as well.
Peri Reed, M.S., LPC, RPT
Certification for trauma in children and adolescents