What Is Spiritual Abuse and how do you recover?

Spiritual abuse

Are you a victim of spiritual abuse? Unfortunately, many people are, but they may not realize it. When you grow up in a strict religious culture, some things that seem normal can actually be abusive, but it’s hard to recognize if you’re used to it. 

What is spiritual abuse? I’m going to share my personal story with you today so you can understand the concept better. I’ll also talk about how to recognize it and recover from spiritual abuse.

Spiritual Abuse Definition

According to Dr. Lisa Oakley and Justin Humpreys, co-authors of the book, Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse,” the spiritual abuse definition is: A systemic pattern of emotional and psychological abuse through coercion and control in a religious context. This is a simplified version of a longer definition from their book, but I think it gets the point across. Spiritual abuse can include:

  • Manipulation
  • Guilt and shame
  • Exploitation
  • Required obedience
  • Forced accountability
  • Putting the abuser on a pedestal because they are a church leader
  • Punishment
  • Isolation
  • And more

Spiritual abuse can be very damaging, and you may even have spiritual abuse PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). People who have been part of a cult often have trauma from spiritual abuse, but it can also happen inside of church organizations. When you are being spiritually abused, it’s confusing because the abuse is coming from someone who you consider your authority and spiritual leader. In fact, this is how so many religious groups get away with years of spiritual abuse. They demand obedience and say that it is what God wants and that God put these people in authority. Additionally, because they are anointed by God as church leaders, questioning them about any type of malpractice will seem uncomfortable or even possibly wrong (like you’re challenging their authority).  

Scripture, misinterpreted or taken out of context, can also be used to keep people under control. This can lead to a form of trauma bonding. Trauma bonding is the unhealthy emotional attachment that occurs in abusive relationships. The bond is what usually prevents people from leaving abusive relationships/organizations or not recognizing the patterns of abuse. In extreme cases, trauma bonds can happen in religious settings because there is vulnerability, confessions of sin, and is a place where people can look to leadership for guidance and protection. In a healthy church, these are all good things. However, in an unhealthy church, if a person in authority is using God’s word as a means to control, manipulate, or coerce, it may feel wrong to leave that situation because they’ve brought “God” into it, which convolutes things and can bring a lot of confusion. This is why we must recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships/churches.  

Because of the uneven power dynamic, it’s hard for church members to get free from a spiritually abusive relationship. However, it’s not impossible, and there are ways to heal from it. We will talk about that next after I share my experience with spiritual abuse. 

My Story With Spiritual Abuse

As a young adult, I was part of a church organization that was very controlling, and there was a big emphasis on authority. The leaders often quoted (out of context) the scripture, “Don’t touch God’s anointed” (Psalm 105:15), meaning, don’t question the leaders, just obey and follow them. There was a big emphasis on rules and regulations, and sometimes people would be “corrected” publicly in humiliating ways.

This is a form of spiritual abuse that was pretty obvious. But there are more subtle forms of spiritual abuse as well. Control can come in many forms, such as being guilted into volunteering or giving more financially then you feel you should.

Another form of spiritual abuse I encountered comes from a patriarchal teaching, where it’s taught that the husband is the “priest of the home,” that the wife and children must submit to and obey and that woman should not be in leadership.

I once attended a Bill Gothard seminar where he used a diagram with umbrellas showing “spiritual covering or authority.” God was at the top, then the husband under God, then the wife, then the children. This type of teaching is actually a form of spiritual abuse and control. Husbands and wives should be viewed as equals (more on that in another blog). 

Getting Free

When people stay in these types of controlling situations for a long time, it can really impact their lives. For me, leaving the organization that I was in was traumatic because all of my friends were a part of that group, and they were told that they were no longer allowed to be in a relationship with me because I left. 

However, God led me out of the group, and over time brought a lot of healing to my heart. I have no hard feelings toward the people involved in that group and have forgiven them. However, I do disagree with the theology of it and want to speak out about it in order to help other people recognize control and spiritual abuse so that they can get free from it.

Recovering From Spiritual Abuse

As I said earlier, you can have spiritual abuse PTSD when you are in a bad situation for a long time. Leaving the church or organization where you are being controlled is a great first step, but you also need to seek healing from the trauma you experienced.

For example, after you’re free from spiritual abuse, it can be hard to know who to trust. You may feel more guarded with authority figures. Your beliefs may also be shaken now that you are questioning what you were taught.

It can be a hard and sometimes lonely process to unravel your spiritual abuse, but there is healing on the other side that makes it all worth it. The most important thing to remember is that God did not abuse you, flawed humans abused you. You may be questioning what you know and believe about God, but He is always there with unconditional love for you. It is so important to separate the abuser from God himself. The abuser did not represent God well, and it is vital to understand that. GOD IS LOVE. PERIOD. 

Your journey to healing from spiritual abuse is really about you and the Father Heart of God. In fact, it’s okay if you need to spend some time away from institutionalized religion. Taking time to strip away wrong teachings and get to know the heart of God and his love for you as your Father is key. 

How do you do that? Here are a few tips:

  • Meditate on His word and what He says about you
  • Talk to Him daily
  • Start a journaling practice
  • Worship him through the things that bring you joy, like dancing, singing, or painting
  • Find people you trust and observe how their actions bring love and life in new ways

Over time, you can form an amazing bond with the Father, and he will heal the pain of your spiritual abuse just like He did with me. One day, you may also be able to forgive the people and institution where you experienced spiritual abuse. 

It’s also helpful to talk to others about your experience. You probably have other friends who have gone through something similar, and I always recommend going to therapy with a licensed professional.

The healing journey is not always easy, but it is always worth it.

Living Free From Spiritual Abuse

Now that you understand spiritual abuse, you can identify it before it has a chance to happen again. In time, you may feel comfortable with spiritual leaders and learn to trust them again, but that doesn’t mean that you will blindly obey them or let them control you.

You can also pray and ask God to bring you a community of believers who are also free from spiritual abuse. That means that no one is trying to control or guilt each other. Instead you are all trying to grow closer to God as a Father in an environment of love, respect, and freedom. 

If you need someone to guide you along your heart-healing journey, or help you receive healing and freedom from spiritual abuse, set up a one-on-one with me today.

Author: Anna Harris

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