By Kara Johnson
“If you go, you’ll lose your leg,” she said.
I was a month into rehabilitation following knee and ankle surgeries and my body wasn’t healing well. My mom believed unconfessed sin was to blame, and she made it clear that my getting on a plane to visit a friend across the country was pushing me over the disobedience limit.
I believed her. Obviously I didn’t want to lose my leg or live in sin, so I pleaded incessantly with God to show me what needed confessing. When I couldn’t pinpoint specific sins, I began to wonder what kind of God I believed in. Supposedly he was talking to my mom about me, but why wouldn’t he talk to me directly? Why would he take my leg without telling me for himself that I was in danger of losing it?
Though it may sound ludicrous, scenes like this were completely normal to me. For years, the pattern of God “telling” my mom something and then her relating it to me guided me through every decision I made. By then, I was in my early 20s and living on my own thousands of miles away from home. Still, any time I dared to question or object to what my parents said, I was quickly given a lecture on the importance of honoring your father and mother (Exodus 20:12) and obeying those in authority (Romans 13:1). I complied the best I could, but was constantly under a strong impression that both God and my parents were severely disappointed in me.
The body of Christ is supposed to be a haven of safety and compassion to those in need. It’s supposed to offer truth inside a blanket of love, protection, comfort, and healing to a world of hurting, heartbroken, and misguided souls. When a family, church, or organization claiming to represent Christ abuses it’s authority, a toxic system is created and countless people are wounded in the wake of its destruction.
In their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Bethany House, 2005), David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen explain that the misuse of spiritual authority is not only common today, but also occurred when Christ walked the earth thousands of years ago. Jesus exposed the Scribes and Pharisees who operated under a hypocritical and pompous guise as those who “tie up heavy burdens . . . and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4). His words illustrate just how vehemently Jesus disapproved of their actions.
How do we define spiritual abuse? We’ll begin by considering what it is not. It’s not necessarily abusive when a leader exercises his or her role and responsibility to make the final decision on a matter. It’s not abuse when Christians lovingly confront other believers about sin, wrongdoing, or mistakes. It’s not abuse to disagree with someone and it’s not necessarily abuse when certain standards regarding things like dress code, language usage, or alcohol consumption are implemented.
While it’s true some leaders intentionally impose harsh burdens and rigid regulations on unsuspecting followers to purposefully misguide them, a majority of spiritual abusers have simply been mislead themselves. Often, such abusive people believe they’re acting within proper spiritual boundaries—usually under the leadership of another spiritual abuser.
Markers of Spiritual Abuse
Spiritual abuse can occur when shame, degradation, manipulation, and guilt are used to prove a point, enforce a belief system, or influence behavior. Abusers will typically try to control and dominate others by means of exercising what they believe to be their God-given authority. The opinions, feelings, and personal boundaries of others are ignored or rejected, and a significant amount of energy is spent promoting a “spiritual standard” that’s used to validate the spirituality of those involved. This standard is usually one-sided though. As heavy burdens of performance are placed on the shoulders of the followers, leaders tend only to adopt them as an external act not consistent with what’s exhibited behind closed doors.
Christians should be filled with hope, joy, and freedom; but if we’re involved in a spiritually abusive relationship, we may feel humiliated, ashamed, and restless instead. We may also develop weak personal boundaries. For most of my life I believed I was too stupid, sinful, or unfaithful to hear and understand what God wanted me to do. To say my view of God, myself, and my relationships with others was incredibly warped is an understatement. The day I boarded the plane, I was convinced I would come home without a limb. But by then I didn’t care. I had to know if this was how God operated and I was willing to take the risk to find out.
Reasons We Don’t Leave
To the outside world, staying in an abusive situation doesn’t make sense. Much like a Chinese finger trap though, the harder we try to pull away, the more stuck we become. The difficulty lies in the fact that we’ve probably invested large amounts of time, money, and energy into the person or organization. We’ve most likely made many of our friends through it, and we’ve
possibly even sculpted our beliefs, values, interests, and pieces of our personalities from its framework.
We may feel guilty, embarrassed, or at fault because often, just about the time we get up the nerve to confront the situation or leave, things seem to get better. This can be dangerous and deceptive because like a frog in a pot of boiling water, if we don’t jump out while our senses are telling us the water is getting hot, we may become desensitized and end up cooking to death.
Johnson and VanVonderen use the term “a new normal” to describe this situation. With each episode of abuse, the victim’s perception of what’s right moves farther and farther away from a healthy midline. Soon, instead of being able to see the discrepancies, victims assess each new abuse as only a small step from normal instead of considering the miles already tread in that direction.
I kept my history of spiritual abuse a secret until the day my future husband accidentally overheard a phone call from my mom. At first I was embarrassed and ashamed, not to mention completely terrified. When I tried to apologize and offer excuses for the things she said, he sat me down and explained that what had happened was not normal, acceptable, or my fault. Though it’s taken me several years to fully see he was right, I’ve been able to get enough distance to finally restore my view of what healthy, normal, and good actually look like.
Leaving an abusive situation isn’t easy. At times it feels like I’m having to learn everything over again because the filtering mechanisms I’ve used to interpret the world around me have suddenly been proven inaccurate. In my search for genuine truth, I’ve had to rewire the way I see myself, those around me, and most importantly, God. I’ve gone through intense grief, denial, anger, and regret; and I’ve been confused more times than I can mention. But by the grace of God I’ve found healing, forgiveness, and freedom.
The scars of spiritual abuse are real and painful. Christians who have been involved in a spiritually abusive relationship would do well to read Johnson’s and VanVonderen’s book. I found its contents to be life changing and invaluable. Talk to someone you trust and explain what has happened. It’s not easy to open up, but gaining exposure to an outside influence can help identify faulty belief systems and begin to reinstate healthy ones. The search for biblical truth is a lifelong pursuit. Jesus promised, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Such healing, hope, and spiritual liberty is worth fighting for.
Kara Johnson is a freelance writer in Boise, Idaho.
Learn More About the Dangers of Spiritual Abuse
“Spiritual Abuse” (discusses common characteristics and biblical responses)
Spiritual Research Network
(includes spiritual abuse questionnaire)