The Patterns of Spiritual Abuse

I recently watched the newly released documentary on Discovery+, “Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed,” and also binge listened to several hours of “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast. Both of these hit soooo close to home. It was as if they read my journals about the things I experienced for 8 years, and there were times I literally laughed out loud at things that would make people cringe, because it was too familiar. I HIGHLY recommend watching and listening to them, but I do have a caution.

⚠️ Trigger warning/viewer discretion: if you’ve endured & survived spiritual abuse (or assault at the hands of Christians), and haven’t started a healing process, please proceed carefully, but know that you’re not alone. If this unveils some things to you & you realize you’re in this situation, you’re not alone, and you’re not crazy! If you realize you are the abuser, there is help and mercy available for you to wipe some of the trail of tears you’ve left behind you.

For those who may the cynical, I want to start with the difference between church hurt and spiritual abuse. Church hurt happens when someone or a group of people who claim to be Christians fail us, let us down, and/or exhibit characteristics that don’t align with the fruits of the Holy Spirit as listed in Galatians chapter 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The veil is lifted and we see things that leave us wounded. This is usually not a one time occurrence, but a pattern that the person or people have no remorse more, and the hurt person is left feeling like people in their church are no different than people outside the church, so what’s the use.

Spiritual abuse usually begins with church hurt, but there’s a much deeper and insidious spirit at work here. As someone who experienced emotional and spiritual abuse for almost a decade, I write not just from my experience, but also from my studies on trauma and abuse. What I’ve noticed is that the script of spiritual abuse is EXACTLY the same; the pattern became clear from my journey, reading books about trauma, the above mentioned documentary and podcast. So, here are some notes I put together to help people understand spiritual abuse.

1) We’re all in different places in our journey, so if this culture is normal to you, you may not see anything wrong with it. Be mindful that it’s a lot more comfortable to stay put in the abuse we know, versus getting out into the freedom of uncertainty, instability, and starting over.

2) Not every church, religious organization, ministry, small group, etc., is a cult or toxic. I’m grateful that I was part of a healthy community for 4 years after my abuse. But if you’ve ever gotten out of a cult, you can spot another one in a heartbeat, and it will send chills through your body. Also, not all abusers are men. Many people have no idea what goes on in women’s ministries. The abuse from men tend to be center stage because they’re literally on stage. The abuse from women is behind the scenes and rarely seen (but heard) from those in that woman’s life.

3) 2 years ago, my then therapist asked why I hadn’t shared all I experienced openly & exposed what was happening. My responses were that it wasn’t yet time and no one would believe me. I’d be labeled as crazy, bitter, or whatever other label people wanted. People have already seen a little bit of what was done to me and they’re scared (this is the abuser’s pattern to instill fear in others by making an example out of you). Even today, I’ve only told my sister and my then therapist the full story. A few people know snippets, but nowhere near the depths of emotional and spiritual manipulation I survived. As people slowly leave this person, I get a phone call from a broken woman about the damage that was done to them, and it’s so eery how the abuse script stays the same year after year, and regardless of the group. But a day of reckoning is on the horizon as more truth comes to light.

4) Abusive leaders have a large network of people that they’re extremely charismatic and generous with (including the survivors’ family members). So when any allegations arise, it’s unbelievable, makes it that much easier to make the person no longer falling in line into an outcast & isolated, and keeps the cycle going. And often, the disregard from the people you thought would have your back is more damaging and painful than the abuser’s actions. It’s also understandable that people want to be close to power and this person, who in their eyes has never done anything wrong to them. We don’t take into account how people treat other people, especially those they don’t agree with; we’re only focused on how we’re treated, not realizing that our inability to hold abusers accountable based on what we’ve been told repeatedly, makes us an accomplice and just as guilty for the trail of tears.

Also, if the accusation comes from outside the group, that person/those people are labeled as the devil trying to get the members of the cult to walk away from God. This leader has made themselves the equivalent of God in their subordinates’ lives, so anything you do or say to them, you’re doing or saying to God (this is not a joke). The person/people following are literally being made in the image of the leader. As my abuser said, “when I die, I want my tombstone to say, ‘she didn’t die she multiplied.’” The survivor is never allowed to just simply walk away. I’ll hopefully share more details about my experience with this when the time is right, but narcissistic leaders are in constant competition and need for power, so when they realize that they are losing control over you, they will cut you off first with the silent treatment in order to gain back a sense of power. (Prolonged silent treatment with the aim of manipulating remorse for something you didn’t do is emotional abuse.) If that still doesn’t work, they will begin their city wide tour to anyone who will listen (their network) and spin the story to say that you were disruptive, didn’t know how to submit, not teachable, disloyal, etc. They will also say “you left them no choice,” and whatever else lie they make up to feed their ego and protect their fragile minds. But the goal is to destroy you in the name of protecting whatever is left of their flock, status, and reputation. This is why it takes many years, and sometimes decades for abuse to be publicly released. The person who calls out the problem BECOMES the problem.

5) Abuse thrives in deep secrecy, denial, and a ton of control. Control over what you say, post, and the way you portray them to the public. They see you as a reflection of themselves. The control permeated into other areas of my life; over what I believed, wore, who we were allowed to hang out with (or the churches we were allowed to visit or not visit), how we spent our money, who we dated, our relationships with our parents, harsh name calling, and all of it was all done in the name of being part of this family where the leaders were called mom and dad, despite many of us already having parents. (Aka you’re being groomed to be part of a cult.)

Just a few years ago I was praying Old Testament Psalm-like smiting prayers for these types of leaders. But as more people share their stories, and as I’ve gone through almost 3 years of my healing journey, I sincerely pray for mercy for them, and I’m reminded of James 3:1 – “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” God will demand justice for the abuse done in Jesus’s name.

6) Therapy (and sharing with my sister) also helped me be aware and see the ways I was repeating the cycle of control in my life. Sitting with a trauma-trained and clinically licensed therapist, who was also a Christian, helped me see the ways patterns in my family allowed me to be susceptible to this type of treatment for so long. This was all I’d known for the first 22 years of my life, so when the grooming started, I took the harshness to mean I still wasn’t trying hard enough to be a good Christian woman. There were times when the Holy Spirit’s calm convictions didn’t match the screaming I was subjected to, but the leader would automatically gaslight me and say (in the presence of others) “the enemy will try to take you away from this group,” so I could never trust my judgment. According to them, the will of God was for me to stay put and submit. Abuse is not love (nor any of the fruits of the Spirit listed above), so it is NEVER the will of God for us to stay in these kinds of environments.

One way people realize they’re being abused is when they are exposed to a different way of living. You don’t realize just how polluted your air is until you breathe in clean air. All the things I thought were normal weren’t. When people didn’t respond the way I thought they should to things, it was because I was in a new healthy space, seeing how healthy people respond. I was expecting overbearing and invasive, and because I never got that, I thought the new person I was around didn’t care for me. I took their boundaries and self-protection to mean I got on their nerves and they couldn’t stand me. What I thought was weird was actually healthy behavior, and what I thought was normal was toxic behavior. I had 0, zero, absolutely no concept of boundaries because for 32 years mine were never respected. So the first time I started learning how to put up boundaries, I did it quivering, and it turned many of my relationships upside down. Thankfully, I’m in a much better place of exercising my NO and my limits, but I’m still doing the work of trusting that a healthy person’s boundaries is not a reflection of me.

7) There’s a false belief that if you talk about your experience, you’re gossiping, not healed, bitter, jealous, or trying to tear the person down. Not necessarily true. Again, abuse thrives in secrecy (and isolation), so exposure is sometimes the only way for it to stop. Abused people abuse people (meaning most abusers were abused themselves), especially when there is no confession, truth telling, and space to heal. In these spaces loyalty is better than truth. Far too often, the words gossip and forgiveness are weaponized to keep the abuser in power, and keep the cycle going.

8) Being spiritually abused messes with the way the survivor views God and Christian communities. The ability to stay with God, still love the church, forgive oneself & others, is ONLY by the grace of God. A Christian that knew snippets of my experience asked me how in the world I’m still a Christian, and my response was “literally the grace of God and God holding on to me.” If God didn’t introduce me to a healthier community (clean air) BEFORE moving me out of the toxic air that was choking me, I would have walked away from the Church altogether. This is why I don’t judge a single person who has walked away from the Church or Christianity. You never know the depths of their painful journey. Thankfully, my introduction to Jesus was not through this group, I lived with my sister at the time, who was also a Christian and attended a different church, so I had an internal wrestling match for 8 years because discernment helped me see that this abusive woman was NOT God.

One of my favorite writings from abolitionist Frederick Douglass is “Slaveholding Religion and the Christianity of Christ.” In it Douglass talked about how many African-Americans emerged from slavery as Christians. The Holy Spirit helped the slaves discern between the false God of the Bible the masters were using to keep them in bondage and justify their crimes, versus the true God of the Bible who wanted to liberate them. As many times as this woman twisted God’s words to keep me under her grip, the Holy Spirit was simultaneously showing me parts of God’s word that was meant to release me. Looking back, I realized I stayed because of familiarity and the fear of the unknown.

These are just snippets of my journey, and the patterns of spiritual abuse. If this concept of spiritual abuse is new to you, please start by taking a deep breath. Really, please pause and breathe to release the tension that might be built up in your body from reading this. I highly recommend a good trauma-informed therapist who will not trash your faith in God in the name of restoration. Finding good Christian licensed trauma-trained therapists is really hard (this is NOT “Biblical counseling”), but I believe God still works through prayers, so please pray for the right person to be placed in your path. It might take a few tries, but I believe it’s possible.

For additional learning and understanding:

*Feature picture: a way out of the shiny cage.*

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