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What is spiritual abuse? There is a whole package of meaning in “spiritual abuse” that a lot of people do not quite know. Sometimes when we say the phrase “spiritual abuse” many people who lay claims to being spiritual do not quite know what we are talking about. However, people who have experienced spiritual abuse, even when the phrase “spiritual abuse” is brought to their attention, may not know exactly what it is we mean by the phrase, but they have a sense that it is something that has happened to them. They may have not quite known what to call it in the past, but they sense something wrong has occurred in their previous or current experiences with religion.

They sense a constant pressure placed on them to conform to a certain criteria of standards rather than be transformed by God which has led them in their spiritual communities to question why they are Christians. They seek guidance for effectively interpreting what God would have them do. They feel overwhelmed and discouraged. The effects of things being done in God’s name within their spiritual communities are making them question whether or not today’s version of Christianity can even be trusted. When others had spelled out to them what Christianity is they tried like crazy to be that and after some time had passed by they figured out that they could not be that anymore -so they concluded that maybe they are not a Christian.

But perhaps the version of Christianity that was spelled out to them had been misrepresented and the standard they had been trying to live up to was not a real thing. What got me interested and fascinated about the topic of “spiritual abuse” in the first place, other than, for instance, just the topics of “legalism” or “grace and law”, is that many people I have been working with in the field of chemical dependency have had a great deal of problems and issues with seeking help from Christian communities. The common wording of some of the people I speak with goes something like this: “If I could sit in a room of a Christians and not be told stupid hurtful things, I would continue to be involved and it would be easier for me to trust them.” In other words if people could attend church without feeling like they were being abused, that would be a really good thing. Everything else is gravy, but that is the mashed potatoes. Feeling a sense of love and acceptance is the number one important thing most people would like to feel from Christians today.

Some people’s previous experiences with Christian communities have been so painful that they do not want to even talk about it. It is like walking side by side with someone and as you walk you notice the person stopped walking with you and is laid out on the floor behind you with a bloody nose becasue they ran into an invisible wall of plexiglass that stopped them from moving forward with you. They don’t want to go any further with you becasue the pain of hitting major walls hurts them too much. They may have never went with you all the way and attended services at your particular religious community before, nor have they ever heard anything good or bad about it except from you. But what is it that causes such emotional and even physical discomfort for many people to get into spiritual conversations? It usually boils down to things done to them or around them “in the name of Jesus” that have hurt them so badly, giving them a picture of Jesus and the “people of Jesus” that they just can’t find a happy resolution for.

Some people have a hard time physically be in a room, church or not, where things of a spiritual nature are being discussed. This is usually becasue of many bad experiences in the past that were done in the name of God. Because of this I began wondering if there is a phenomena at work here that is describable, whether spiritual, psychological, sociological, emotional, or otherwise, for what many disheartened people today are suffering from.

The dynamic of spiritual abuse is a real thing. But in a place where spiritual abuse is happening, individuals don’t have permission to say that’s what it is. So obviously, people may feel really crazy, or at least they are made to feel crazy by others around them. At the time you are getting spiritually abused, you feel crazy that you are or think you are becasue supposedly there isn’t even such a thing. How could there be such a thing? But there is such a thing and the dynamic I want to compare it with is something that happens in a dysfunctional family or an upside down family system.

Let’s suppose I am a dad with two daughters. The younger daughter comes to me with a request, saying, “Dad, tell my older sister to give me her pad of paper.” My response would be, “Well, is it your pad of paper?” Her reply is “No!” My response, “Have you talked to her about it?” Her reply is still “No!” My response, “Well, go ask her if you can use her pad of paper. If she says “yes, you can use my pad of paper” than you can becasue it’s her pad of paper. If she says “no” than you can’t becasue it’s her decision what she will or will not do with her pad.” So the younger daughter goes down the steps. She doesn’t know that I as a father am listening from upstairs at the top of the steps to hear if she will follow through with what I told her to do. The younger daughter told her older sister, “Dad said you are suppose to give me the pad of paper!”

That’s not that uncommon. The phenomena of kids trying to get their parents to do their work for them instead of learning to do their own work is common place in most family systems. Let’s pretend what the next step would commonly be. As a dad, I would call the younger daughter upstairs and say to her, “I just want to tell you two things. The first thing is that was a lie. What you said to your sister was a lie becasue I did not tell you to demand from your sister in my name that you should give her the pad of paper. I told you to go ask her and if she says the answer is “yes” than it is “yes” and if the answer is “no” than it is “no”. It is her pad of paper, she is allowed to do whatever she wants to do with her own property and possesions. The second thing is this, I really feel angry with you when you use my name to get your sister to do what you want her to do. That is not okay! That is not cool!”

I use this scenario becasue I have seen it before in many kinds of family systems. It makes me start to wonder, actually, not even wonder becasue I think this. I think God gets angry when people use his name to get others to do what they want them to do. That is the answer to the question of “what is spiritual abuse?” It is getting others to do things they themselves want them to do for them by invoking the name of God. People use God’s name to get someone else to perform for them in a way that they want them to perform in order to meet their needs. That’s spiritual abuse! When it happens that way, it’s spiritual abuse. When it happens a different way, it’s regular abuse.  Using power to get someone to meet your needs is abuse, but doing it when invoking the name of God, it is more than just abuse, it’s spiritual abuse.

I think people using God’s name to get their own needs met and to manipulate others is a common practice today. It results in a lot of painful consequences and casualties. Many people have experienced this at one point or another in their life, which is why I think Christianity is so often rejected by many today. So when people say I do not think I can be a Christian anymore or I do not think I can commit myself to becoming a Christian, it is possible that someone in their life or even a group of people in their life used God’s name to get them to perform tasks to meet their needs or the needs of their group or organization. The person was not able to perform according to expectations, so the person gives up hope. The truth is that there is no human being that can ever perform good enough to fill up another human being.

So naturally people fail. And they didn’t fail becasue they didn’t try hard enough. They failed becasue it wasn’t ever their job in the first place. But they think it was becasue they didn’t try hard enough, so they try harder and harder. And so now by definition they failed at being a Christian, even though it was never God who had that expectation on them in the first place. I once talked with a women in treatment who said, “If God is a man, I want to be as far from him as possible.” This was her invisible plexiglass wall. I also heard one man say, “The non-Christians I’ve worked in my recovery process have shown me more patience, compassion, and understanding than most Christians I’ve ever known.” This causes me to recognize something is really happening here that can’t just be conveniently dismissed. People don’t just say these things without real reasons to say them. I can’t ignore them just becasue other people do. Most of these people are not simply ignoramuses. Many have known about God, had previous experiences and possibly encounters with God, and participated in Christianity before.

Dealing with the issue of “spiritual abuse” is not simply dealing with a struggle with whether or not there is or isn’t a God or whether or not Jesus Christ is real. Their struggle is knowing that there is a God or that Jesus is real, but wondering if God cares or if he is kind or nice. Because to them, they have only felt shame and rejection. Does God care? Is God nice? Does God want me? Or is he just interested in my performance? Why is he so demanding? I try hard and it never seems to be enough. It seems like I am always in deep trouble becasue I am not doing all this stuff that everyone else is doing or tells me I ought to be doing.

People who are tried and wounded are given more to do instead of rest. Tired and wounded people don’t need more to do. They need to rest. But in religious systems that care about performance, tired and wounded people get more to do. This makes them even more tired and leaves them more wounded. In systems like this, God’s Word has been used on struggling people to instruct them not to deal with their problems, but instead to focus on numbers and stats. Church numerical growth is more important to God than your problems. Church numerical growth is more important to God than your family or your health. Grow the church numerically and you will be rewarded with health, prosperity and your personal problems and family issues will resolve themselves.

There is a phrase that is often thrown around that I think is really distasteful: “Fake it ’til you make it.”  This means that even if it is not a real thing, do it anyways and your heart will eventually follow. If doing the thing that wasn’t real to you in the first place until your heart followed really worked, the Pharisees would have been okay. Because they did the “right thing” with accuracy, consistency, and persistence and their hearts never followed, and they were empty cups with clean outsides. They did not follow even though their main concern was doing the rightest thing they could do, even righter than you. “Fake it ’til you make it” is called “faking it”, plain and simple. But supposedly if you get good at that, God will bless it. I don’t buy it.

So instead of offering broken and tried people rest and grace, today’s religious system has handed us our performance as the solution to all our problems. This makes us more tried instead of less. Without trying to minimize the extreme seriousness of other kinds of abuses, like physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, child abuse, and other kinds of abuses,  I want to say that I think spiritual abuse is the worst abusive assault of them all. I also think spiritual abuse comes often in the context of those other abuses.

The reason I think spiritual abuse is the worst form of abuse is becasue what happens to the victim of it is that they end up with a view that their best friend, namely God, as being their worst enemy. God, their only hope, is their worst enemy who is against them and not an advocate who is for them. God is not a person who is safe to go near. They are stuck with this process where they are suppose to keep seeking out and going toward this person that they are worried about who isn’t very nice, welcoming, approachable, or accepting of them. So I think spiritual abuse is one of the most shaming and difficult to untangle forms of abuse becasue it damages people’s spirit. It wounds their soul. It puts invisible plexiglass walls and obstacles in peoples paths. It makes it hard to get to God. The reason Jesus came was to make it easy to get to God. So easy that you didn’t have to get to God, God got to you. God found you. God came to you.

What If Christianity Were A Product To Be Sold?

The Distribution Of Christianity

Distribution of Christianity

Distribution of Christianity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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