Before motherhood became my full time job, I worked in crisis intervention. Most of my clients were abuse victims. In training, I learned more than a person cares to know about abuse. On the field, I saw the affect abuse has on its victims. I sat in a focus group to discuss action plans for stopping abuse of women in our province. I even lead classes to inform young women for the purpose of prevention. I knew the signs of abuse. I was informed and prepared.
So, how did I end up in an abusive church? I’ve asked myself that question many times. While the question is fully loaded and would take thousands of words to genuinely answer, there is one key reason I want to tell you today. Lack of information. Despite all of my training and experience, I had never heard of spiritual abuse. Never.
Since starting this blog, I have realized that I am not alone. Many people have never heard of spiritual abuse, abusive churches or religious systems. (Also known as toxic faith systems.)
Information is key to prevention.
Definition of Abuse
Webster’s dictionary defines abuse as improper or excessive use or treatment : physical maltreatment
Honestly, I think that is a lame definition.
Abuse is the use of one’s position to gain power and control of another, particularly for self-gain. It occurs in several forms. A person can be abused physically, emotionally, financially, s*xually (* for the purpose of those with filters) and even spiritually. Forms of abuse often intertwine, snowballing from one to another.
Any relationship can become abusive. Domestic violence is the most commonly known form of abuse, most often involving women and children. Men can be abused, too. Animals are usually the first victims of violence in a home. A person can also be abused by a friend, in the work-place and, sadly, even in the church.
The Nature of Spiritual Abuse
Spiritual abuse can happen in any relationship. It is not unique to church groups and it does not only happen in cults. Parents can spiritually abuse their children. Men and women can abuse their spouses and their friends. Teams working together can turn on each other and become abusive.
In my research and experience, I have found the following acts to be typical in spiritual abuse.
- The use of guilt to produce obedience or conformity
- Attitudes that demand conformity versus unity
- The use of God’s name & authority for self-gain
- Strong emphasis on performance
- Alienation of friends and family or, in the least, an elitist attitude
- Control of spiritual acts (for example, tithing, worship, attendance, prayer, etc.)
Ramifications of Spiritual Abuse
At its best, spiritual abuse can cause self-doubt in a person. One may wonder if they are or ever will be good enough for the love of God. If the abused never breaks free, they could waste an entire life working for salvation from a God they never really knew. Many lose hope and ultimately end their lives.
Those who break free from the toxicity, do not often fair better. They live hyper-vigilantly, always on alert with a keen radar for what they escaped from. They lack trust in themselves to know the truth and are leery of those who teach. Many heal. Many do not.
Many victims have the ability to live independently taken away from them. Those who grow up in the toxic system seldom learn how to make decisions with confidence. Many do not know how to discern truth from lies. They feel insecure and wild without the boundaries of their religion. Those who do not trust themselves or do not have proper supports, often end up back in the abusive system they left. If not to the one they left, they are often drawn into yet another abusive situation.
Spiritual abuse can lead its victims towards apathy. At its worst, it can create fear and even hate for God and man. Many victims lose faith in the church and, even worse, God. Many atheists were once abused Christians.
How To Recognize Spiritual Abuse
Definitively, I hope that this information will help you. Sometimes, however, abuse is subtle and obscured by false love. Our respect and love for authority can make the truth difficult to discern. The best advice I can give is to pray for Christ to be your head and to always listen for him in the teaching. Get to know God’s Word. I mean really know him, not by means of a devotional or Sunday school lesson. Learn God’s will through his Word and meditate on it, always in prayer. Remember that the name of Jesus can be used in vain. Listen diligently for Christ to be the only answer for salvation. If any other means of salvation is even hinted at, you need to beware.
The following books are very informative and helpful. The first two are my favourite.
There are also some useful links about Spiritual Abuse in my sidebar. Of course, the ultimate resource is the inspired Word of God.
Spiritual Abuse is Terribly Unique
It hits straight at the core of who we are, created in God’s image. It separates us from our maker and puts man in his place. It separates us from the very one who came to heal the broken-hearted. I pray that something I said today helps you to understand and, perhaps, saves you from a dangerous situation. Be informed, but above all. . . Seek Jesus.
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