Earlier this week we shared one of the chapters from the book review "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse". This article is the summation of blogging through the chapters. If you would like to read through each chapter, you will find the hyperlinks at the end of this article.
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Concluding Thoughts
The first post in the series is here.
We come to the end of this road together. This has been rewarding for me, and I hope it has been for others as well.
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
All the way back in the introduction, the authors asked us to handle this material with care. It’s not meant to be a witch hunt. No system is perfect and hopefully we won’t be too quick to pin the “abuse” label. It’s different when someone is willing to admit their mistakes — and everyone does make mistakes. The book can tend to raise some strong emotions from previous and current wounds. If this happens for you, it is recommended that you get some time with safe friends and/or a counselor to work through some of it.
Knowing that all people and all systems are imperfect, where is the dividing line between normal and abusive, between imperfect and toxic? Any thoughts or comments? Has your opinion about this developed or changed any as a result of this book?
A few things have stood out to me. Power-posturing is a core element of abusive systems. Moses, Paul, Timothy — they each had authority that stemmed from speaking and acting in line with God’s truth and God’s mission in the world; their authority did not stem from demanding submission from others. The Pharisees and religious leaders that plotted to kill Jesus and his followers did not have true authority; theirs was a false authority which they defended with a vengeance.
False shepherds strain out gnats while swallowing camels. They will obsess over the smallest details while being blind to soul-crushing pain and abuse right under their noses. False shepherds load sheep down with many burdens, which the leaders themselves are unable or unwilling to bear. (If I might be so bold, one way a leader might do this, as we’ve seen from Bill Gothard’s ardent defenders, is to claim that he himself has the spiritual gift of “exhorter” and is, therefore, exempt from the standards to which he holds everyone else). It reminds me of a lesson I learned while a counselor at camp: get the campers to do all the running and exercise while I watch. They wear themselves out and I still have energy to lead. As a camp counselor this is a good idea! Healthy delegation is good leadership; it is an abuse of power to use it as a control tactic, looking out for the good of the leader and the system at the expense of individuals.
The cost of abusive leaders is measured, at least in part, by ruined relationships. Those who never cared to seek God are not vulnerable to false shepherds. It is those who come seeking the good shepherd and find instead those shepherds who use the sheep for their own benefit who are vulnerable. When Jesus said that the Pharisees were guarding the door to the kingdom of heaven, the tragedy is that those who are being locked out are those who came seeking the Good Shepherd but were turned away by false shepherds.
This is another key aspect of abusive leaders: they are not servants for the good of the sheep. Instead, the sheep are used up for the good of the (false) shepherd. This can be extremely subtle and confusing at first. People sense something is amiss but they are not sure what. It may be that the spiritual leaders are pretending to be their best friends. But the people in the system begin to find that they are being used up, not charged up.
In this system, truth-in-love becomes the enemy while the “can’t-talk rule” reigns. Power-posturing people are instinctively threatened by the straightforward truth. They must always manage appearances and control what people say. This often means sweeping both abusers and victims under the rug in an effort to manage appearances. This is so different from the image of a body that is being built up in truth and love, such as what is presented in Ephesians 4.
At Christmas, we hear that the message to the shepherds was, “Do not be afraid, we are bringing good news that brings joy!” Abuse twists the gospel away from bringing joy, back into something that instills fear.
The chart on pages 187–188 crams years of wisdom into the space of a few inches. It is a good description of the trap and of the trapped. As painful as it may be to realize, abuse is in some ways a two-way street; it is a trap with bait that attracts prey. If the victim wishes to escape and stay out of the painful traps for good, he or she must take a clear-eyed look in the mirror at some point, probably with the help of a trusted friend or counselor, to figure out what it is about the prey that was attracted to the bait.
Unspoken rules: something that newcomers to an abusive system discover quickly. Misplaced loyalty: a requirement for advancement in the system.
The solution? Renewing the mind. Plugging back into the source of Life. Walking in step with the Spirit. Our God is a good and relational God. He does not trip us for the sake of kicking us while we are down. He does not lord our every past mistake over us. He does not exaggerate our smallest fault and punish us disproportionately while excusing selfish excesses on his own part. He truly loves us and seeks our good. He came to give life, full and free. We are valuable to him, not simply grist for his mill. This is not a message of libertinism — our bodies are temples after all. But it is a message of liberty: we are children, chosen and adopted, we are not slaves to be driven by the sting of the whip. You were set free to live as a child of the King. Please don’t go back to slavery!
One question I am left with is, “What are those of us who escaped in the past supposed to do for those who are living it now in the present? How do we help?” Tim Keller has a great book, “Generous Justice.” It is eye-opening to see how much concern God expresses in Scripture for the “quartet of the vulnerable,” which is the poor, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. Doing justice sometimes calls for an active role in helping someone. Even so, in the vast majority of cases of spiritual abuse, it would be counterproductive to ride in like Clint Eastwood and ride out the hero, leaving a figurative trail of bodies in our wake. There is a gentle power in the healing touch.
I know these are “Christianese” words, but I do truly believe that grace, truth, love, faith, and hope are important ingredients to that healing touch. Jesus was full of grace and truth. We are called to live out truth in love. False leaders have a lot of power to be able to damage so many people’s lives, but if the One who is in us is greater than the enemy of our souls, it is even more powerful to be able to help bring life and healing to the wounded. Godspeed to you as you work through the areas of woundedness in your own life and as you walk with friends who are doing the same.
Here is a table of contents for each of the chapter posts in this series:
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 1: “Help Me…”
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 2: Spiritual Abuse Is Not New
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 3: Abused Christians
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 4: The Pre-Abuse Set-up
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 5: Identifying the Abusive System
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 6: When You Cannot Leave
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 7: Abuse and Scripture
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 8: Revictimizing Victims
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 8: Revictimizing Victims, cont’d
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 9: “Because I’m the Pastor, That’s Why!”
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 10: “You Can Trust Me”
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 11: Image Is Everything
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 12: Straining Gnats, Swallowing Camels
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 13: The Weight of Religion
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 14: “No Admittance”
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 15: Spreading “The Gospel”
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 16: The People Get Devoured
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Introduction to Part Three
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 17: How to Escape a Spiritual Trap
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 18: Renewing the Mind
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 19: Recovering Right Focus (Part 1)
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 19: Recovering Right Focus (Part 2)
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 20: One Response: Flight
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 21: A Second Response: Fight