The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 1: “Help Me…”
We continue our Thursday series blogging through “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.” The first post in the series is here.
What is Spiritual abuse? How does it occur? Are you a victim?
The chapter begins with a meeting with Jeri, who had sought help from her pastor only to be informed that the ‘root cause’ of all her problems with depression and family relationships was her rebellion.
The authors break down an anatomy of spiritual abuse. It is a problem that with little investigation the pastor could so easily claim to know that there was a root problem, and that it was rebellion. But even beyond that, there are some subtle factors that contribute to the damage. Here are some of their key terms:
Power: When a person seeks out a pastor or spiritual counselor for help, there is effectively a power difference. A person seeking the help of a pastor becomes vulnerable in sharing their weakness. They are hoping to receive help from someone who appears to be strong. In Jeri’s case, the focus of the discussion was shifted away from the state of her emotions to the state of her being. From his place of “spiritual authority,” the pastor communicated that Jeri herself was a problem. This can be so subtle and so damaging. The person does not realize at first that they are not receiving help, and they often sense that their spiritual position before God is being judged.
Unfortunately, Jeri’s pastor seemed to play by the unwritten rule that he was the supreme authority and his opinions must always be accepted and never be questioned. Jeri had attempted an honest back and forth dialog but the pastor quickly interpreted the attempt at discussion as a rebellious spirit.
Manipulation: By “pulling rank” and forcing his authority, the pastor likely revealed his own insecurity. Instead of helping someone in need, he manipulated her. A theme is introduced here that will be repeated again in the book. Spiritual abuse happens when the caregiver fails to care for the person seeking help, and instead uses that person to meet their own needs, perhaps out of a need for affirmation or for support of his/her authority.
Spiritual abuse: 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. (p. 20)
There is more to spiritual abuse in the details, including overriding a person’s emotions without regard for the results. It also includes pressure to live up to a “spiritual standard” while ignoring their well-being. It is possible for congregations to abuse their pastors as well, when the pastor truly needs and asks for help but his or her well-being fails to merit consideration.
A person who experiences spiritual abuse often begins by asking for dialog or some form of support and is left instead with a weight of guilt or condemnation and feeling less worthy as a person.
“Abuse” is a strong term but it is merited. The authors point to breakthroughs in “family systems” counseling. (As a counseling student who has been introduced to this approach, my ears perk up at this. I think they are on the right track with this approach.)
Mistakes: All parents make mistakes; mistakes do not automatically equal abuse. The family is supposed to be a safe place for a child. It is abusive when family becomes an unsafe place due to the parent applying overly harsh standards or using the child for the parent’s own need for power, or for emotional or sexual gratification.
Trust: We want to be able to trust those in spiritual positions of authority. It is abusive if those people use their words to attack and wound anyone who disagrees or who fails to live up to their standards. In abusive systems, the needs of the people often go unmet, while the people are used by the leaders to meet their own needs.
These authors are seasoned and mature. They have no desire to stir up a witch hunt or for the book itself to be used in an abusive manner. They specify that it is not abuse for a leader to be decisive, even when someone disagrees with the leader. It is not abusive to confront sin. It is not abusive to ask someone to step aside from leadership in order to repair their own physical, mental, or spiritual problems. Standards (trigger word!) are themselves not abusive, per se. They become abusive when they are used to shame or degrade those who have other convictions.
An important point: a person can be both a victim and a perpetrator at the same time (p. 25). A parent may be suffering from spiritual abuse in the church and pass along the shame and judgement to their child, or unfairly accuse a child of rebellion when she was asking a fair question. A friend said it like this: “As a victim, I victimized others.”
Questions for discussion:
Are you practicing grace, allowing the Spirit of Christ to live through you in such a way that you help lift the oppressive weights off of others and spiritually empower them to live? (from p. 25)
Are you trying to force people to live under laws, rules, or formulas that cause them to feel weighed down and unable to live up to your standards? (from p. 25)
How can we as former ATI students avoid falling into that same old trap and unwittingly spiritually abuse to others? How would we know if we did fall into that trap?
Have you ever had an experience like Jeri’s where you let down your guard and asked for help but walked away feeling manipulated, attacked, or used?
Some helpful quotes from chapter 1:
“When a child trusts, and then is emotionally, verbally, physically, or sexually used for an adult’s gratification, that is abuse.” (p. 23)
“Any one of us can unwittingly forget about the empowering grace by which we’re to live the Christian life, and to act or speak in a way that spiritually abuses others.” (p. 24)
“The Christian life begins with freedom from dead works, from religious systems and from all human attempts to ‘please God.’ It’s time for many of us to shake off the religious systems and expectations we’ve created, and return to that joyful freedom in Christ.” (p. 26)