The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 3: Abused Christians
We continue our Thursday series blogging through “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.” The first post in the series is here.
This chapter is about how people who have experienced spiritual abuse have a lot in common with those who have had other abusive experiences. Many of them have felt pressured not to talk about what has happened and they feel alone and crazy. This chapter names ten areas of struggle that many survivors of spiritual abuse have in common.
1) A distorted image of God: Seeing God as one who is never satisfied, vindictive, apathetic to victims of abuse, powerless to help victims, fickle and manipulated by our slightest mistake.
Some people have an image of a “Santa Clause God” who keeps lists and stalks you, watching for every mistake. They may believe that while their salvation was not dependent upon works, their position close to or far away from God does depend on works.
2) Preoccupation with spiritual performance, leading to the extremes of self-righteousness and shame. Being overly focused on your behavior can encourage you to become perfectionistic with yourself and judgmental of others. It may result in anxiety and an urge to control how things turn out.
(Note: two paragraphs at the top of page 44 almost seem to have been written with the Basic and Advanced seminars in mind. I do not reproduce them here but you may be quite intrigued to read them.)
3) Distorted self-identity as a Christian. Guilt vs. shame: guilt is a “spiritual nerve” that responds to wrong behavior. Shame leaves you feeling defective as a human being. Shame may be used as a motivator while you labor under a negative image of yourself.
4) Problems relating to spiritual authority: Knee-jerk reactions of compliance or defiance regardless of whether you agree or disagree, and regardless of whether the authority is right or wrong. They use the term “toxic faith”–an apt term and the title of another good book that deals with related issues.
5) A hard time with grace: An overwhelming sense that you need to pay back; difficulty receiving grace from God or others. Guess what? If you are working this hard, others should be too! If you see others who aren’t working as hard as you, it often seems like they are lazy or getting off the hook too easily.
6) Problems with personal boundaries. Boundaries are the lines where others stop and you start. You may lock the front door to your house, but emotionally and spiritually your front door is wide open for others to barge in with their demands and trample all over your house (and I would add that sometimes they do it with muddy boots).
7) Difficulty with personal responsibility: The extremes of under-responsibility and over-responsibility. When it occurs to you that no amount of performance will win the prize, you may give up or settle for just getting by. Or you become responsible for everyone else’s job, including God’s. In the extreme, you feel that having needs or opinions is selfish and you martyr yourself, resulting in being numb to life.
Matthew 9:36 uses the words “distressed” and “downcast” to describe those who were being weighed down with expectations and devoured by their spiritual leaders instead of being shepherded. “If you’ve been through this, you wind up very tired, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. This may show up in the form of lack of energy or motivation, impatience with the needs of others, depression, a sense of being trapped, or finding ways to escape.”
8) Lack of living skills. You may have been taught a “bunker mentality” which kept you away from education and opportunities. Some people get tired of this and leave, but often must take lower-paying jobs than they would have otherwise had, all while their former associates look down on them as having “missed God’s call.”
It is a disgrace to promise people the benefits of a college degree and give them a second-rate education while charging them as if it were first-rate.
9) Hard time admitting the abuse.
- You are told that you are “the problem” for noticing that there is a problem
- Admitting the abuse feels like disloyalty
- Abuse has come to feel normal
- Denial is a common human instinct. The numbness of denial feels easier than the excruciating pain of the inconsistencies being experienced.
- Shame: you feel defective for allowing yourself to have been drawn into the situation in the first place.
10) Hard time with trust. A trust relationship with God is at the core of the Christian life. It’s a big deal when that trust is wounded. Mark Twain opined that a cat who sits on a hot lid will never sit on a hot lid again, but he probably will not sit on a cold one either. So “those who have been spiritually abused will have a hard time trusting a spiritual system again.” (p. 50)
I identified with most of the items on their list. A couple stand out:
Lack of living skills: In talking with former ATI (Advanced Training Institute) students, I hear a lot of pain over the issue of lack of living skills. In my mind, ATI misrepresented itself as an organization that would provide students with marketable skills. I am thankful that I personally quit trusting them and left for college. Many former students report that they served the Institute, sometimes paying for the opportunity to do so, and now feel stuck and wish they had a degree. I don’t think feeling “robbed” is too strong a word for this.
Personal boundaries: Many of our families were loving and well-intentioned but would be described by counselors as “enmeshed.” I believe that the teachings about “surrendering rights” were excessive and were used to plow over other people’s boundaries. I value the “Boundaries” book by Cloud and Townsend; it provides a Scriptural and balanced consideration of boundaries and is a much-needed corrective for many of us.
Trust: When the family you grow up in is not a safe place, and then you discover that the Institute is not a safe place either, it’s not surprising that many former students would struggle with trust.
Questions for discussion:
Note: please feel free to comment about these questions or anything else that stands out to you about this chapter.
What do you think of their list? Would you add or remove anything from the list?
They poked at several common Christian children’s songs. What do you think? Nit-picking or helpful corrections?
Do you think they are correct that shame can be a factor that inhibits people from admitting the abuse? Is it possible that some of our parents feel this shame?
Here’s a tricky one--do you suppose it is possible that some of the leaders who were impatient with the needs of others might have been feeling the results of excessive expectations themselves? (Not trying to excuse anyone--feel free to agree or disagree with this question)
What about their list? Have you struggled with any of the items described?
People who have misused their spiritual power have disrespected or beaten down your boundaries. They have shamed you out of your ‘no’… (p. 47)
Having an opinion has come to equal lack of submission. (p. 47)
A cat that sits on a hot stove lid won’t ever sit on a hot stove lid again. But it probably won’t sit on a cold stove lid either. (p. 50)
(Click here to continue on to Chapter 4)