Have you ever heard someone say they were spiritually abused and didn’t know what to think about it? Do you consider yourself to be spiritually abused but don’t know how to move forward in healing? My goal here is not to give you all the answers, but rather encourage you to dig in to this sensitive topic and grapple with the questions that come with it.
While the topic of spiritual abuse can be confusing, what’s clear is that there is hope, and healing can happen! I pray this helps you take the first steps in that direction.
Like all forms of abuse, the effects can be life-altering and long-lasting. Trust issues can arise, keeping you from corporate worship and building relationships with other Christians. Spiritual abuse often leads to fear, anxiety, isolation, and in extreme cases, can cause some to walk away from their faith all together.
Psalm 147:3 tells us that the Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. Please know there is hope, healing can happen and trust can be restored. As with any abuse, the Lord can redeem your past and use it for your good and his glory.
Spiritual abuse is using the Bible or your position as a spiritual leader to influence others for personal gain. This would likely be categorized as emotional and psychological and doesn’t exclusively happen within the church body. For instance, it can also happen in the home and in personal relationships.
Spiritual abuse might include manipulation and exploitation, accountability enforced by threats, censorship of decision-making, coercion to conform, and the inability to ask questions or voice disagreement. The abuser might suggest they are in a “divine’ position and therefore require your obedience.
What Spiritual Abuse Isn’t
Being hurt by the church is not the same as being spiritually abused. For instance, all churches are made up of sinners. There will be disagreements, slander, short tempers, misunderstandings, and acts of selfishness and pride.
Pastors won’t always say the right things and elders won’t always lead well. Nursery workers can lose their patience and Sunday school teachers might replace the curriculum with their own agenda.
A women’s bible study can easily turn into a social club and prayer can be used as a form of gossip. Churches are made up of broken people who hurt each other but this, in and of itself, is not grounds for claiming spiritual abuse.
We live in a culture that likes to use the word “abuse” freely and often in the wrong context. Being treated poorly is categorically different than being abused.
Is Spiritual Abuse Always Crystal Clear?
The answer is unfortunately no. Consider the following scenarios.
Randy has been constantly unfaithful to his wife. The elders of his church have counseled him to stop this behavior and to repent of his sin. Randy refuses to give up his mistress and work at restoring his marriage. After a long season of discipleship and counseling, Randy’s behavior still has not changed. Because of his unrepentant sin, Randy was removed from membership and put out of the church. When Randy talks about this situation with friends, he tells people his church spiritually abused him.
As an adult, Margot has had trouble letting go of the legalistic teachings from her childhood. She is often distressed and confused when making decisions on what to wear because modesty was often associated with body shaming. She questions if it is okay to go dancing with her friends or if it is okay to watch R-rated movies. Margot knows her parents taught her what they thought was right, but she sees things differently now and is often angry about her upbringing.
Robin is married to a man who won’t allow her to get a job. He interprets his role as the head of the home to mean he is the only one who can provide financially. He also discourages Robin from having friends who attend other churches. He fears she will get confused and question his authority. Robin feels safe and considers herself to have a happy marriage. She is content staying home and having a small circle of like-minded friends and thinks everyone should live this way.
Jackson is currently attending a church that encourages husbands to beat their wives if they are not submissive. This church encourages parents to place their children in solitude when they misbehave. The elders discourage their members from reading the Bible themselves, claiming that God’s Word is too deep and can only be understood by trained leaders. The elders go so far as to mandate their members-only eat a vegetarian diet, as modeled in the Garden of Eden.
Questions to consider:
- Do you consider all of these situations to be spiritually abusive? Why or why not?
- Can you call someone spiritually abused when they themselves are happy in their situation?
- Does the motivation of the church or individual play a part in whether or not their actions are abusive?
- Can we attach the word abuse to anything that causes us distress, discomfort, or dislike?
I’m not going to answer these questions for you but rather encourage you to spend time thinking, praying, and talking about this complicated topic with others.
How to heal from spiritual abuse:
Being the victim of spiritual abuse can leave you feeling alone, confused, and wondering if you can ever trust again. I believe healing can happen. Here are some steps to help you move in that direction.
1. Know That Jesus Cares
There are countless examples in the Bible of how Jesus cares for us, but one of my favorites is found in John 11:33:
“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.”
What we see here is Jesus, not turning a blind eye to someone in pain, but being deeply moved in his spirit and being greatly troubled. He cares about what you have been through. He cares about your pain and suffering. He cares about the long-term effects spiritual abuse can have. He cares. May you find comfort in that.
2. Talk to Someone
Abuse victims often stay silent for fear of their claims being dismissed, not taken seriously, or not believed. But I urge you to tell your story. Whether it’s something you lived through a decade ago, or it’s something you’re currently experiencing, talk to someone. This could be a trusted friend, family member, or a biblical counselor. Read Galatians 6:2 with me:
“Bear one another burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Allow someone the blessing of bearing your burdens by telling them your story. Allow yourself the joy and blessing of having someone walk with you on your road to healing. You don’t have to suffer alone. Pray that God will surround you with people who will genuinely love you, point you to Christ, and help you process your pain.
3. Pray for Change
If spiritual abuse has come from church leadership, pray that God would help you find a healthy church. This can be difficult to do on your own because trust has been broken, and you might not have a good sense of what a healthy church looks like. Take your time. Meet with the leadership of multiple churches, talk to the members, and pray that the Lord will lead you to a safe, healthy, gospel-centered church.
John 14:16 says “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever–”
If you are a child of God, you have the Holy Spirit (the Helper) in you. Utilize him! If your spiritual abuse is coming not from a church but from your spouse, for instance, pray that God would change their heart. Pray that God would show you how to be faithful to HIM and in your marriage. However, if your situation resembles Jackson’s (see above) and you are physically unsafe, you should contact the authorities immediately.
4. Study the Scriptures
If you’ve spent years in a spiritually abusive situation, studying the scriptures can be overwhelming. You’ve been taught to interpret the scriptures in a certain way, or perhaps you’ve not been encouraged to study them at all, so reading the Bible now is like looking at it with new eyes. But that’s a good thing! Look at Ephesians 1:18-19:
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.”
You want new eyes to see his Word! Ask God to open the eyes of your heart so that you can receive the gospel for what it is. Pray that God would free you from the bad theology that has been ingrained in you.
5. Get to Know God
Spiritual abuse can paint a very inaccurate picture of God. Victims are often left with the perception that God is angry, mean, distant, blind, or uncaring about your situation. You likely don’t see God as a loving father. A vital part of healing from spiritual abuse is recognizing that the abuser is the enemy, not God. The abuse is not to be trusted, but God is.
Ask God to give you eyes to see him, not only through his Word but also in your life. Spend time talking to him, reading about him, listening to sermons about him. Get to know him. Learn to trust him. Meditate on Hebrews 10:23:
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”
Something that’s important to remember is that God is faithful, even when we are not. Separating God’s goodness from the evil works of your abuser is vital for your healing and for your continued walk with the Lord.
6. Trust That God Will Redeem Your Past
For the victim of spiritual abuse, Romans 5:3-5 can be a tough pill to swallow. But I ask you to spend time reading this, meditating on this, and praying that God will help this be true for your life.
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Freedom from your past abuse comes to fruition when you are able to look at your past through the lens of this verse. Your pain doesn’t have to be for anything. God will use it for your good and there is a lasting joy to be found in that truth.
7. Don’t Walk Away from Your Faith
We have an enemy who wants nothing more than for us to doubt God’s love for us. The enemy will go to great lengths to make this happen. Read John 10:10with me:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” This is the heart of the enemy that we face. His lies are what caused someone to distort God’s Word and spiritually abuse you. But Praise God, the verse doesn’t end there;
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus came and gave up his life for you so that you might have life and have it abundantly. Don’t let the enemy’s lies distract you from God’s love. Don’t let the sins of others weaken your faith. Lean into God and the truth of his Word.
Spiritual abuse takes time to recover from. Learning to trust again is extremely difficult. And if you’re currently in an abusive situation, getting out can seem impossible. But know you are not alone. You are not alone in your suffering and you don’t have to be alone in your healing. May you find the strength to resist the lies of the enemy. May you find comfort in knowing you are not alone and that God not only grieves with you, he longs to heal you. I leave you with 1 Peter 5:9 – 10:
“Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace,who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
Beth Ann Baus is a wife and homeschooling mom of two boys. She is a freelance writer and author of novels, Sister Sunday and My So Much More. In her writing, Beth often pulls from her own experiences of abuse, anxiety, depression and OCD. Beth has a heart for women’s ministry and is in the process of becoming a certified Biblical Counselor. She loves serving alongside her husband and pointing couples to the Word for strengthening their marriages and home life. You can find more from her at www.bethannbaus.com.