The Innocent Face of Spiritual Abuse
Have you ever been spiritually abused by a well-meaning Bible Thumper or someone who we describe as Holier Than Thou? I hope this doesn’t describe you.
We defined spiritual abuse in Part 1 as “a kind of abuse which damages the central core of who we are. It leaves us spiritually discouraged and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God.” Another definition of spiritual abuse is “the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.”
The first definition really fits with the spiritual self-abuse we looked at in Part 1. Now let’s explore how spirit-filled Christians can be guilty of spiritual abuse.
Spiritual Abuse From Growing up in a Legalistic Church
Churches and leaders who are still living under the burden of many rules and laws instead of the freedom Christ paid so dearly for, cause a lot of spiritual abuse. Religion imprisons but relationship with God through Christ’s sacrifice is freedom.
Jesus accused the Pharisees of legalism and was very harsh about their spiritual abuse of the people. Paul writes about it in several of his letters but especially in Galatians.
Spiritual Abuse is not a New Problem
In Ezekiel 34 we read of spiritual corruption of the Religious leaders who were hindering the people’s relationship with God through oppression and neglect.
Malicious gossip and false guilt are easy to spread in a religious community. Many have left not only the church but their faith because of maliciousness in the church.
Individuals Who Spiritually Abuse Often Have Faulty Thought Processes
- Black and White Thinking can result in a lot of spiritual abuse. This way of thinking leaves no room for unanswered prayer or the mysteries of faith. It’s either/or and us/them. Grace and Mercy are difficult to fathom.
- People who are Dissociated aren’t aware of their inner being and therefore can’t look into the inner world of another. Emotions and self-awareness elude them.
- The Narcissist simply is the centre of his world and can’t imagine anyone not agreeing with his point of view. This can be so extreme that his point of view even trumps the Bible. He’s not open to hearing anything different.
- The Zealot is so caught up in winning souls for Christ he’s lost sight of the people who are those souls.
The common thread is a lack of feeling or empathy for the plight of others. In Scott Nicloy’s article, he writes of a well-meaning pastor who says and does all the wrong things while supposedly comforting another grief-stricken pastor. He leaves satisfied that he’s done well and leaves the other two clergy shaking their heads. He was never aware of the grief process nor of the fact that he’d deeply hurt instead of encouraged.
Most Spiritual Abuse is Inflicted by Christians Who are Very Sincere
The hurt and harm of spiritual abuse are rarely inflicted upon people with the intention to wound anyone. Sincere Christians who believe they’re obeying the Bible in sharing Christ with others and who often believe they are being led by the Holy Spirit can be guilty of spiritual abuse to fellow Christians and Non-Christians.
Ronald Enroth writes in his book Churches that Abuse:
Do the abusers intend to inflict hurt? In most cases, probably not. They usually are unaware of what they are doing to people in the name of God. They may, in fact, be convinced that their behavior is what the Lord has mandated. What others interpret as control they may view as caring for the flock. They are usually so narcissistic or so focused on some great thing they are doing for God that they don’t notice the wounds they are inflicting.
The sincere Christian will usually change his ways when confronted in love with the ill effects of the abuse they’ve committed in the name of Jesus. It’s only the severe cases that will not see the harm they’re doing.
Control and Power can be Motive for Spiritual Abuse
Distorting the teachings of scripture or focusing on one verse without context for the sake of getting their own way, often over a small thing, is a form of spiritual abuse. We see this behaviour over change in the church.
I’m reminded of Church Lady from Saturday Night Live. There’s also a great story of a woman who wouldn’t let the congregation eat in the church because of her beliefs and even forced the new building to be built without a kitchen. You can read how the story ended here.
Another Christian is so busy searching for sin and pointing it out that they completely miss their own. Jesus addressed the problem of looking for the speck in someone else’s eye when you have a log in your own. The Bible reminds us that we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Let’s encourage each other in our efforts to remove the sin from our lives and be generous and kind to each other. We all have something that’s been holding us down as the songwriter put it.
The extreme here is a husband who is using scripture and religion to manipulate and control his wife abusively.
We Must Guard Against Doing Harm to Non-Christians
Major Scott Nicloy of the Salvation Army summed it up well:
Here, of course, lies the responsibility of the Christian community. We need to lovingly confront those who may in fact be sincere in their Christian faith, and yet who are, nonetheless, abusive. We must not call Christian love what is really in essence abuse. At times, in doing good, Christians do great harm. Christians need to recognize the harm we often inflict upon others, even when we are seeking to do the greatest good of all, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. The great challenge for Christians is to observe that ancient dictum: “In doing good, do no harm.”
I hope you haven’t seen yourself in any of the examples. It’s my aim to help you understand the abusers and to gently guide them. Guard your own hearts and grow your relationship with God so you won’t fall into being a spiritual abuser.
Here’s an interesting book on the subject.
Tired of Trying to Measure Up: Getting Free from the Demands, Expectations, and Intimidation of Well-Meaning People
Share in the comments or on Social if you have had experience or have observed spiritual abuse. How did you react or feel?