I have heard of spiritual abuse but haven’t had a clear idea what it was or wasn’t. However, after reading these two articles today: “Poets Will Save the Church” and “‘Don’t Talk About It’: Reflections on Spiritual Abuse“, I believe I have a significantly better definition for it. Spiritual abuse is using God, the bible, and/or religious language and teaching to control, manipulate, and/or heap guilt, shame, and condemnation on one or more people.
This is a difficult and tricky subject I believe. While other types of abuse have the potential to be unclear, I think that spiritual abuse tends to be one of the most difficult to identify. Perhaps it need not be this way, but I think a significant portion of religion is closer to this than it is to Jesus’ love. In other words, spiritual abuse is close to what we often traditionally think of as spirituality maturity.
The fact is, spiritual abuse often comes from those who have spent years studying the bible and theology. Therefore many of the things they say are correct-ish. That is, the words they say, taken at face value, may be true. But they are either mis-applied or mis-used. To further complicate matters, I believe that many of the people who say these things are sincere and do desire people to demonstrate more of the character that God desires.
Because of this, it often seems to take a person with true spiritual maturity and wisdom to be able to discern spiritual abuse. This will be the case until we as a culture gain a better understanding of healthy and unhealthy spirituality and religion. In the meantime, making people more aware of this is the reason I started this series.
I think Frank Viola does an excellent job in part 5 of his series “Rethinking the Gifts of the Spirit”. He says that healthy spirituality focuses on Jesus, promotes a spirit of unity, love for one another, and I would add, confidence and peace in knowing the Father’s love. These things are the fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God brings life, peace, healing, and freedom. In contrast, unhealthy spirituality takes focus off of Christ and causes division and confusion. Abusive spirituality may involve gossip, slander, judging (condemning), shaming, and pressure to conform—especially to leadership. The abuser is often the opposite of humble but rather overly self-certain and therefore not open to hearing any criticism, even from other mature leaders.
Because of this, you aren’t likely to change his or her ways. My advice, don’t even try (see my note on Matthew 7:6, though I may be wrong about this). I want you to be able to see and discern the difference between Godly spirituality and abusive spirituality. Ask, “Does this person or teaching bring spiritual life or death?” If it is the latter, leave. Move on. You almost never have to stay in these situations. Don’t believe that it is the more spiritual or healthier thing to do. Get out and seek the true life of God. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (Galatians 5:1 and 2 Cor. 3:17).
Likewise, in your desire to see people become better, don’t fall into the trap of spiritual abuse either. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that many spiritually abusive people are sincere. But the desire for a positive end does not justify bad means such as coercion. While this may seem to make an outward difference in the short-term, it’s not the way to produce true change in people.