Overcoming Relational Aggression

14 October 2013, 06:00



KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIs spiritual abuse and relational aggression happening to you? This is how it used to play out in my life.

I just had you over to my house to talk and you pulled my movie collection off the shelf and shivered. I ask you what you are thinking; I would hate to miss any hidden message from God. You feel like my choices aren’t godly. Oh no. I guess I hadn’t thought about it much. I just enjoy getting away. Next you tell me “getting away” time should only be reserved for God and his Word.

That makes me nervous, since I skipped my daily time in the Word today to make cookies for your visit. I probably shouldn’t tell you that. I drop my eyes from yours and feel uncomfortable.

You tell me that you love me, that you are a sister in Christ, that you have my back. Your arm goes around my shoulder and you pull me into a hug. Next you say it hurts you to share such things with me, but it is for my own good because I still have to mature a lot. I am uncertain about how I feel now, as if you stabbed me in the back, but didn’t realize it. You tell me that you are sacrificing your feelings to set me right on things that I am ignorant about.

I am a little worried. Does my ignorance hurt others? Does it hurt you? I didn’t ask you to “sacrifice” your time and feelings for me. Now I feel guilty. The next feeling I have is an obligation to pay you back for your effort today. What else do you see that I could change?

A sweet smile crosses your face and you announce that you will be God’s mini missionary to me. But…a missionary, that’s for the world, right? Since when did we need to become missionaries unto each other? I don’t understand.

I have a job outside of my home and you are telling me that is the man’s world and the woman’s world is in the home. You just told me that we are missionaries, so how can I do that if I turn my back on the world? You tell me that it is the joyous gospel of grace for a woman to be at home while her husband serves in the workforce since that is his God-given role. I am stumbling over the half-truths coming out of your mouth. I thought the gospel was about Jesus; when did it become about me staying at home? You say we should look different from the world and this is how we do that.

Men are strong, they have what it takes to be in the world you tell me. You explain that women are “naive and weak” and you say it like a curse. I feel shamed. I could see how I am not as smart in some ways as my husband, but you don’t let me continue my train of thought as you launch into the area of godly dressing.

All men are lustful creatures and the jeans I am wearing would cause any number of godly men to stumble. I feel suffocated. You just told me that men are the stronger creatures, so why am I being punished because they can’t control themselves?

This is what we do, you tell me, we sacrifice for other people. You smile again. Your life is hard, but you have found faith, contentment, and peace in submitting to and trusting your husband, both physically and sexually.

That’s nice… but I didn’t want to know that last part; it’s not anyone’s business. Oh but it is, you correct me yet again, you seem to think it’s okay to hold everyone accountable for everything they do and think. Nothing is sacred to you. I am thinking I want to punch you now. But I quickly replace that thought with something else—who knows if God lets you read thoughts.

I thank you for coming over and you grab my hand and start praying. You pray that I will see the right path to follow. I feel your grip tighten. That I would honor my husband, that I would learn how to be a good wife and mother and that I would grow in the light of God’s Word.

Guilt washes over me again; I purpose to go have my quiet time as soon as you leave and then my mind runs, as if in an alternate reality, unstopped. If I don’t have my quiet time with God, how could I expect Him to teach me what He wanted me to learn today? How can I be a good wife and mother if I am missing out on His word? Oh my gosh, you must be right. You must see everything. I am a horrible mother, wife and person. How gracious you are to still love me despite all of… me.

The panic is rising in my heart as you say goodbye, something inside of me does not want you to go. What if the way I wash the dishes brings disgrace to the gospel? What if my husband says something and I react wrongly, forever blemishing my testimony? It is like a terrifying merry-go-round of thoughts, constantly rising and falling; the guilt, shame, works, and anger at the helplessness that it will never end.

Actually, it can end. At any point in this circle of abuse, you have the ability to stand up for yourself and say no. You can mentally or physically walk away, and retrain your thought pattern.

Spiritual abuse and thought manipulation are real. Peer pressure doesn’t end in high school. Spiritual manipulation and relational aggression can be as toxic to your mental and spiritual life as substance abuse is to your body.

The truth is that God is not a bully; He does not shame us or force us into obedience. He does not stab us in the back while telling us that He loves us. He does not come into our homes to condemn us because of the music we listen to, the movies we watch, the clothes we wear or where we work. He does not want us to obsess about how we look to other Christians or what they might think of us.

He does not want us  to play God in other people’s lives either. The Holy Spirit never goes on vacation, so people—no matter who they are—don’t have the right to make you feel bad about who you are in Christ. Salvation in Christ is freedom from guilt. It is grace, not shame. It is acceptance of who you are, not hatred of what you have not yet become. It is peace, not anger at never being able to be “good enough.”

If you aren’t experiencing peace in your spiritual life, may I encourage you to look at the people you are allowing to speak into your life? Are they positive or negative? Do they shame and manipulate you, or do they encourage you to obey what God is showing you? Be selective with the voices you allow to speak into your life, and draw boundaries if needed. It’s never too late to walk away from abuse.

Rebekah spent ten years of her life involved with ATI. After leaving the church steeped in ATI, she began to  reevaluate everything that church stood for. She followed her dreams and became a published author of a short children's novel. She is married to a wonderful man who has greatly helped her in her journey out of legalism. She resides in Kansas and has desires to minister to those who have been affected and hurt by ATI.
All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.


  1. Shelly October 14, 2013 Reply

    Oh my. This describes so well the relational aggression I have experienced. I wish at the time, I had the courage to tell the person NO! but all too often I would hang my head in shame and purpose to try harder. To think that I let people have such power over me when Christ came to set me free! Thank you for writing this.

  2. LJ October 14, 2013 Reply

    Wow! I truly felt like getting sick as I read the first part because it is how many of us in this group have been treated to some degree by others. And unfortunately some of us may have been guilty of being on the giving end--sometimes because of being instructed to do so by our leaders. Very thankful for God's grace and that He is bringing us healing and spiritual freedom from the legalism of churches and individuals. Thank you for sharing this difficult experience with us.

  3. dreamer October 14, 2013 Reply

    I read a Kenneth Copeland devotional yesterday. In it, he said that he once asked God what was the number one thing that keeps Christians from experiencing the full anointing of God. And God replied "Your dogged determination to correct one another." Wow.
    I can't say I have experienced the abuse and manipulation you described firsthand, but I have been made to feel guilty in my life because I didn't live up to other people's standards of Christianity. I've come to realize that, in many things, I don't fear condemnation from God, but I do (or did) wonder what my "Christian" friends would think of me. That was very eye-opening for me. So I totally get where you're coming from.

  4. esbee October 14, 2013 Reply

    I have been big time hypocritically guilty of judging others though not saying it to their faces, but I would notice their music, the dvd's the books they read, so many ways I would secretly take note of how I was to deal with them. I did not realize until recently how deeply ingrained that legalism was in me.

    In another instance where a lady in our church came to us "out of love" to tell us that we should not hang out with a certain person from church because they had left the church without asking permission of the pastor (I think that was the reason-it was so long ago) because of that they were out of sync with God and walking in sin. (I never knew you had to have permission where you chose to go to church in America or when to leave or that is was a sin to leave of your own accord). Any way I was about to let her have a loud verbal piece of my righteous mind when something odd happened...my little cat, Winifred, who was very shy around strangers did something she never did before or again after...she jumped in this lady's lap, settled in AND PURRED! I saw that as God telling me to allow this person to have her say, not judge her and just keep the love of Jesus forefront in my reactions. So I thanked her for her love and concern. BTW, the meaning of Winifred is "holy, blessed reconciliation; joy and peace".

  5. Lauren S. October 14, 2013 Reply

    I cringe doubly reading this. Once because I was treated this way from as early as I can remember, and twice because I WAS that manipulative person beginning in my early teen years. I tried to take on the "more wordly" teens in my church as fixer-upper projects. For some reason, they didn't seem to appreciate it much.
    I have tried to apologize, but if I ever do run into them again, I'm afraid I will be too ashamed to speak.

  6. Vera Berry October 14, 2013 Reply

    We never put our movies away and it was a constant source of issue with some families.

    I do presently work at a very prestigious children's hospital, which is a Magnet. I work with very sick babies in a telemetry unit. I love the work I do and I love even better the money I'm bringing in. It has been one of the most difficult times of my life. I had to retake the NCLEX, which I passed with flying colors. But it didn't matter. Nobody wanted to hire a 50 year old that hadn't worked for 18 years. I had to do a year of home health at $16.50 per hour with no benefits, which is peanuts in the nursing world. I finally landed a job at this hospital and immediately was under persecution and I wasn't even talking about Jesus or my convictions. I have finally won the respect of my peers but it has taken two grueling years. Had I just worked one day a week back when, we would not be in this boat and I would have had the needed experience to get a full-time job.

    We were constantly told in ATI that the reason we were struggling financially was because we were sinning in some way. Of course, sin was defined as not keeping the laundry list of standards, which are impossible to keep. Try going a day in Miami without hearing a little rock music. Hardy hardy. The truth was that grace had set me and my husband free from sin many years ago. We just needed to take hold of it. And the further truth is that it is near impossible to raise 6 children on one very meager salary. Every problem we had in life seemed to fall on us and yet, Jim Sammons made his millions by going into debt and buying low and selling high. What a hypocritical teaching!!

    Every solution in ATI required money. So when our son Michael started to smoke cigarettes and smoke pot, we wanted to send him to Mr. Gothard to help him. Unfortunately, we didn't have any money. Mr. Norvell didn't want to deal with a delinquent youths whose parents didn't have money because ATI is all about money. That TC said they couldn't help us unless Doug quit work and went up there to spend time with Michael. Seriously? They must have been joking but no. They were not joking. They ruined my son. Without proof, they accused him of stealing computers from the first TC in TN where he was waiting to go to AK. After promising us to help Michael, when we got to Knoxville that year, they conveniently forgot about Michael and even though Doug was trying to get some answers, nobody would talk to him. Finally, after much adieu, they agreed to send him to AK. I know my son and I know that he was prepared to change before we got to TN. So with all this bad attitude toward Michael being there because the rich kids paying for the IMPACT program were coming and they didn't want to deal with Michael, they accused him of stealing a Tic-Tac (mint) from the truck he was in after working all day. I am not making that up. Instead of taking him to town as they had given their word to him they would do, they forced him to dig trenches. Michael said, "Forget it" and started walking toward town to go home. We get a call from a screaming Mr. Norvell who later lied that he had never screamed at me. They sent my 14 year old home on a two day bus trip. Michael hated us, ATI, homeschool and everything else in between. He dug in his heels and never cooperated with us again. He started doing drugs more heavily. But then one day when he was around 20, God opened the door for him to get a job and ever since, he has been a different person. He has won the respect of the people at work. He is clean from drugs.

    These TC were sold to us as places where people could get help. But all those millions invested in these places were a ruse. We were set up. All sin and so it is ridiculous to suggest that a sinning child is the fault of a parent. ATI had no answers for anyone because they never understood the message. In our own home without spending $2000 for a solution, Jesus came as the Savior. It's free. Wow.

    I am not wholly sorry this happened. I think we would still be a part of ATI today had we continued with this. But instead, we now fully see that the law cannot make man righteous and anyone teaching that is preaching another accursed gospel. In other words, according to Paul, Bill Gothard is accursed. See Galatians for more details.
    Gotta go, ttyl

  7. Tangent October 21, 2013 Reply

    Wow Vera! Thanks for revealing the fallacy of putting your trust in man, even such a "godly" man as BG. I am so glad that you found Christ to be sufficient. It is ironic how much the institute's programs cost, isn't it? But the free grace of God is priceless.

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