Do you want to make Jesus angry?
Do you want to make the Virgin Mary cry?
Aren’t you aware how your actions hurt everyone in your church family?
Why are you questioning God’s appointed leadership?
For some people, those questions seem part and parcel of their daily life. For others, however, they leave deep scars.
Multiple studies — A total of 79 percent of relevant studies — “showed a link between religion/spirituality and psychological well-being.” But placed in the hands of a narcissistic leader, religion can lead to what some have termed “spiritual abuse” — damaging manipulation in the name of God, the group or even the victim’s spiritual well-being.
The Spiritual Abuse Resources Network defines it thus:
The misuse of spiritual authority is the core of spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse results when individuals are deceived and or otherwise manipulated in ways that cause detrimental changes to the manipulated individual. Spiritual abuse is especially acute when it harms core elements of the self, including a person’s relationship to God, religious/philosophical beliefs, self-determination, and capacity to think independently. Though often associated with cultic groups, spiritual abuse may also occur in mainstream denominations when pastors or others misuse their authority or when individuals violate the ethical boundaries of proselytizing or other kinds of influence situations.
And as a May 2020 Baptist News report relayed, the damage can be lasting.
George was raised in a Christian community whose extreme theology and abuse of religious power resulted in spiritual trauma that’s taken years of recovery for the Dallas resident.
“I’m over 90 percent there,” says the 40-something whose first name has been changed to protect his identity.
George says his recovery began in the early 2000s and has included a mix of Christian and secular counseling and the discovery of Facebook groups for those who have suffered religious abuse.
“Will I ever be 100 percent normal? That’s a pipe dream,” he says. “You never fully escape it.”
The issue of spiritual abuse has been put in stark backlighting in the news cycle with the recent revelations of RZIM’s investigation into the late Ravi Zacharias’s alleged conduct. In one instance, Zacharias allegedly used a spiritual abuser’s tactic to hide physical abuse. The New York Post reports:
One of the massage therapists told investigators that “after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her,” in a transaction which she called rape.
Ravi told the woman, who is religious, that if she spoke out against him she would be responsible for the “’millions of souls’ whose salvation would be lost if his reputation was damaged,” according to the report.
Pointing out possible damage to a church or ministry’s reputation caused by disclosing abuse is a common spiritual abuse tactic. Likewise, leveraging reputation in order to silence or continue abuse stays at the top of many abusers’ toolboxes. In an essay for Common Grace about the characteristics of spiritual abuse, Erica Hamence writes:
[Abusers] Use the Christian community to protect the abuser, and isolate the victim. The abuser may make himself or herself vital to significant ministries, in turn making the victim feel responsible for their possible collapse if they revealed the abuse. The abuser may manipulate others so that they think highly of the abuser and think little of the victim, making the victim feel like they wouldn’t have any support if they did expose the abuse. The abuser might paint themselves as the long-suffering or patiently enduring partner of an erratic or dramatic or emotional woman (or child), undermining the victim’s credibility whilst underscoring theirs.
Another common abuse is the demand for complete loyalty and availability to a spiritual leader or group. Discussing the dismissal of former Acts 29 Chief Executive Officer Steve Timmis, Christianity Today reports:
One couple said they were confronted for missing an impromptu barbeque with their gospel community in order to spend planned family time with their kids. They were accused of not putting the mission of the church first. Several who took interest in ministry opportunities outside the mission for their gospel community—which could shift or change under Timmis’s orders—also received pushback, told not to pursue an outside Bible study or social time or not to volunteer with a local coffee shop or summer camp. Students in the university town were discouraged from returning home to their families over the summer—it was seen as a sign that they weren’t really committed to the life of the church.
Author Mary Pezzulo was raised in an abusive charismatic Catholic movement and writes at Steel Magnificat that she continued to participate in spiritually abusive groups even after moving out of her parents’ home because victims sometimes can’t recognize patterns to which they have become accustomed; she compares learning to recognize the signs of abuse as being as rigorous as learning a new language. In the post, she discusses realizing she was the victim of spiritual abuse after being bullied by a priest and spiritual group leader at college. She writes:
A priest sexually battering somebody and then telling them it was their fault for being sexy is an obvious, extreme example of spiritual abuse. So is a parent beating a child and telling them they’re “training them up in the fear of the Lord,” or a cult leader starving and beating his followers. These are such blatantly wrong examples of spiritual abuse that it’s easier to recognize them. But spiritual abuse can also be emotional and verbal, and that abuse is also traumatic in a different way. A Charismatic community leader who scares people all the time to keep them on their toes and obedient is being abusive. So is a pastor who spreads gossip about a family of parishioners that leads to their being shunned by the community. So is a catechist who humiliates a student. So is any leader who teaches their followers that they’re bad and evil and only by being punished by the leader can they be good again.
Pezzulo offers five tips for spiritual abuse victims. They are: recognize you are a good person deeply loved by a God Who made you on purpose; if you’ve been spiritually abused in the past, chances are you’re accustomed to it, so you have to take special care; spiritual abuse can be difficult to spot, because it comes in sheep’s clothing; spiritual abuse is usually committed in the name of love.
On the point of love, Pezzulo writes:
Spiritual abusers are great at saying they love you. They’re experts at making you feel deeply loved one minute and torturing you the next– and, often enough, while you’re reeling from the abuse, you’re still feeling that the abusive person loves you so it must be for your own good somehow.
Her fifth point, she emphasizes, is very important: pain is a sign that something is wrong.
Many victims of spiritual abuse are taught that pain is a sign of love. Pain, we’re told, is something our abusers inflict to help us be good. We’re only suffering so much because we’re bad people they’re trying to fix. But remember the first rule: you’re already a good person.
While exiting spiritual abuse can often be difficult, Pezzulo had a final point for people who had been abused:
God loves you, and true love doesn’t want people to be hurt.
Read Pezzulo’s entire post describing an incident of spiritual abuse here. You can pre-order her new book, “Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy,” here.