The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 17: How to Escape a Spiritual Trap
We continue our Thursday series blogging through “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.” The first post in the series is here.
What makes a good trap?
A trap has to be easy to get into and hard to get out of, and it must have some enticing bait to attract the prey. When the prey tries to get out, it will get stuck and struggle harder, eventually wearing itself out. There are different kinds of traps because there are different kinds of prey, but those are the concerns that drive the design of each trap.
Example: A minnow trap is a wire cage that holds crackers. Minnows can easily swim in to get the crackers but they cannot find the hole to exit once they are stuck inside.
(This is an example of a minnow cage I found on Amazon.com)
The Trap: In abusive systems, the trap is constructed when leaders build a system which demands loyalty and obedience. Fear: if you leave the system, you are leaving God’s protection and leaving God himself; there is also fear of all the perceived evils that are waiting outside the system.
The Bait: “Right standing with God” is a common bait which reminds us of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 11:13–15 about false apostles disguised as servants of righteousness. Part of the attraction of this bait is the opportunity to earn God’s approval with self-effort. Other baits include approval of people, a paycheck, or even the continued promise that things might get better.
The Carrot on a Stick and Equity Rescuing: The payoff, or the promised bait, keeps being just a little bit out of reach. Like the donkey chasing the carrot, the person trapped in an abusive system keeps running faster, chasing the carrot but never quite catching it. But the carrot is so close — if I quit now, I will lose all the effort I have put into it. Another version of this is the house that is a “money pit”: it keeps taking more money to fix but is never finished, always needing more repairs. There is another term for this: equity rescuing. Equity rescuing is when you put money into something in order to rescue the equity you have been trying to build up in it. The problem is that with every year that goes by, you are a little deeper in and have even more equity to rescue.
Equity rescuing in an abusive system happens when, from one step to the next, a person keeps putting up with more and more and worse and worse, thinking that if they stick with it just a little longer it will surely pay off.
How We “Fall Prey”
There is a fit between the characteristics of the victims and of the systems that trap them. A chart is presented on pages 187–188 that maps how these characteristics of abusive systems play into the learned powerlessness of their prey:
1) power posturing (aimed at distorted image of God in the victim)
2) performance preoccupation (aimed at perfection, inability to have fun without feeling guilt)
3) unspoken rules (aimed at an active “radar” for unspoken rules)
4) lack of balance (aimed at a “high need to control thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others”)
5) paranoia (if there is something wrong, I must have caused it)
6) misplaced loyalty
7) code of silence
I recommend you look at the chart for yourself if possible; I can’t do it justice without reproducing it in total.
The learned helplessness of “lack of balance” also includes being out of touch with one’s own feelings and guessing at what is normal. I know from the experience of numerous conversations with ex-ATI (Advanced Training Institute) students that many of them, perhaps the majority, have felt out of touch with their own feelings and have to guess at what is normal.
There is a list of questions borrowed from the book Toxic Faith — another good (and recommended) book about this subject. They give 10 questions to help diagnose what the authors of Toxic Faith term “religious addiction,” we will copy a few of them here:
- Do you sense that God is looking at what you do, and if you don’t do enough He might turn on you or not bless you?
- Are you giving money to a ministry because you believe God will make you wealthy if you give?
- Have you ever been involved with a minister sexually?
- Do you believe you are still being punished for something you did as a child?
How to escape the trap? People get trapped because they are a good fit for the trap. To break out:
1) Victims have to realize they are being spiritually abused and ask for help. It is helpful to be given “permission” to call their experiences abuse.
2) They need to renew their minds. It is as if they have been brainwashed and have to learn from the ground up who God really is and how he truly accepts us.
3) They have emotional and spiritual wounds from which to recover. This calls for safe, supportive, honest relationships.
4) Also in the context of those safe relationships they need to be given permission to practice living out their identity as a gift from Jesus. Emphasis is on gift-based versus performance-based.
The second item in the list was renewing the mind. That process is the subject of the next chapter.
(Click here to go on to Chapter 18)