The first two articles in this series provided a general description of spiritual abuse and then expanded this by considering abusive systems. In this article, we will explore how the individual is impacted and victimized by a spiritually abusive system.
An Abusive Religious System Traps You in Shame
A religious system that is abusive is just that: a system. It may be a church that views believers as statistics that contribute to the success of the church/system ̶ at the expense of the individual needs, desires, and gifts of its members. The members become commodified, that is, treated as replaceable statistics. Numbers matter too much to this kind of church system.
Performance and shame-producing teachings are also characteristics of such a system. A common consequence of this emphasis on performance is conditional acceptance. The believer is led to believe that no difference or disagreement should be voiced, especially with co-members. Differences are minimized, which pushes the individual to a place of being alone. They often question their own opinions, and, in extreme cases, their sanity. Shame avoidance becomes the main motivator for a person’s behavior, in contrast to being motivated by freedom and grace.
A Healthy Spiritual System Leads to Life
A healthy spiritual system, by contrast, encourages each person to become all that they can be within the Body of Christ. This Body doctrine is taught and implemented practically. When all the members, and not just the leaders, are treated as whole people, the entire system is healthier.
Jesus addressed an abusive religious system when he confronted the Pharisees over their emphasis on externals and the loads they put on the backs of the people they were supposed to be leading. (Matthew 23:4) Jesus reached out to those who were “weary and heavy-laden” by the burden of the weight of extra religious expectations laid on them by the religious ruling class. Even Matthew used the term “downcast and distressed” to describe the people Jesus preached to and show the results of such legalism. (Matthew 9:36)
Spiritual Abuse Distorts Your View of God
A major tragic result of a spiritually abusive system is that it causes distortions in the believer’s view of God.In their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen describe how this damaging setting can create a gulf between the believer and God. Believers find themselves at odds with their Best Friend. Their Helper comes to be seen as a harsh taskmaster, who is rarely satisfied with their performance. Or else God becomes a mean entity, like an “unfair judge in a road race who keeps moving the real finish line.” Alternatively, God may be seen as helpless, maybe asleep, or even awake and still powerless to help them. God’s true character becomes obscured, and is mediated by the leaders of the unhealthy system.
Recovery and healing from this negative relationship will involve a re-discovery of who God really is. The abused person will need to be freed from their mistaken assumptions about God. If the new life that Christ offers is to pursue a relationship with the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – then that life cannot simply involve Christian behaviorism, or exhortations to “Believe and behave accordingly.” Instead, it will be free and productive (with much fruit), and it will exemplify the true picture of Christ to a watching world.
A Distorted Sense of Self
Not only is the individual’s perception of God distorted when they are victimized spiritually, but they also have a distorted sense of self. Their personal boundaries have often been crossed, and they are confused about who and how to trust. Most of all, they have been taught to mistrust themselves. Legitimate healthy needs have been suppressed under the guise of “denying themselves” in the service of a higher good or person. Working with a counselor will involve helping such a person to reclaim who they really are and enabling them to build a solid sense of self. The person needs to develop personal resilience and distance from others, while becoming comfortable with who they as an individual.
Victims of spiritual abuse often need to process trauma as they may have real PTSD. This is a specific kind of betrayal trauma, and recovery from it is a high priority. While someone can say that they are fine, inside they may be experiencing many ongoing symptoms of trauma and be truly stuck.
Rediscovering True Freedom after Abuse
A characteristic often seen in those in unhealthy religious systems, or in those who have left one, is great confusion and discomfort with authority. Because their sense of trust has been abused, it is often easier to refuse to trust altogether. Alternatively, they may trust too much, or rely on new rules and assume false authority. Moreover, many abusive religious system have strict gender separation, and this usually means males are automatically seen as superior and have power over all females, even outside marital relationships.
The antidote to the misuse and abuse of authority is for the individual to experience and understand the true meaning of God’s grace to the person. An expanded understanding of grace, and of the freedom it brings, can aid the former victim to reclaim their personality and become personally empowered as a person.
Christian Counseling for Spiritual Abuse
As a Christian counselor who works with victims of spiritual abuse, I am aware that this is a far-reaching topic that is very difficult to cover in a short piece like this. If you feel that you have been impacted by an unhealthy religious system, and would like to explore this matter in a confidential setting, Christian counseling can provide a safe space in which to rediscover your relationship with both God and yourself.
Johnson, David, and Jeff Van Vonderen. 1991. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church. Bethany House Publishers. Minneapolis.Photos
“Dead Grapes,” Courtesy of Donna M. Cowan, Seattle Christian Counseling; “Grapes, DSCN6858.jpg,” courtesy of Squaio, Morguefile.com, http://mrg.bz/m5HxMC; “Leaf,” [sic Leave], dreamstime.com, ID 166061.