Spiritual abuse comes in many forms. It can be subtle or overt. It’s damaging regardless of the shape it takes. Most spiritual abuse isn’t the sort that gets news coverage.
When children are taken from their homes because a cult leader has sexually abused them in the name of God, it’s easy to call it spiritual abuse. But, it’s the more subtle, mainstream abuse that’s widespread.
A recent conversation with a friend caused me to consider how to better define and outline spiritual abuse. As we discussed spiritual abuse, she commented, “it seems like anything religious is spiritual abuse”.
Although I understand her point, not everything hurtful in the name of spirituality of God is spiritual abuse. Sometimes people are simply insensitive and ill-informed. Abuse of the spiritual nature points more to self-serving leadership and narcissistic power than ignorance.
The more subtle the abuse, the harder it is to identify.
The difficulty with spiritual abuse is that it’s slippery. It’s hard to define. When God, faith, or spirituality are used to control and manipulate (directly or indirectly), it’s tough to sort out where the line is drawn.
Because the nature of spirituality is a mystery at its core, seeking to outline or define spiritual abuse is problematic. It’s easy to stay in the dysfunction and fear.
To help sort through the weeds, here are a few ways spiritual abuse shows itself :
- Honest questioning is met with defensiveness and contempt.
- Subtle shame is a constant undercurrent.
- Group direction comes from a single human source.
- Feelings of depression and anxiety are considered a lack of faith.
- When you point to a problem, you become the problem.
- Relaxation is another word for lazy.
- All ‘success’ is God’s, and all ‘failure’ is your own making.
- The specific group claims a trademark on holiness.
- No longer attending means losing the relationship with those still attending.
- Gossip in prayer are a form of overt control.
- Feelings are only acceptable for certain individuals.
- Faith is meaningless if science is taken into account.
- Full acceptance is withheld until the behavior is acceptable.
- Forgiveness is a form of denial.
- Leadership demands blind obedience, and anything less is disrespect.
- Condescension is in the organization’s DNA.
- Conversations seem loving- but afterward, you feel you need a shower.
- Exclusive us and them language.
- If you aren’t fearful, you don’t understand the message.
- Dreams are frivolous.
- Deep contempt for outsiders.
Not all spiritual missteps constitute abuse.
People are human, and having grace for each other’s humanness is a beautiful thing. We are going to mess up. “Hi, my name is Tara.”
It’s important to understand the difficulty in seeing clearly when one is on the receiving end of such behaviors and beliefs. Up is down and black is white, and relational acceptance is support for this thinking.
The subtle crazy-making is part of the process. The ‘what is wrong with me’ thinking is the thing that makes it all work. Keeps it in place. To believe we’re the problem and someone else (who is shaming us as a form of ‘protection’) has the cure, keeps us marinating in shame.
There is life outside of controlling, manipulative groups. And, friends, the water is fine! Jump on in. We are here to support, honor and hear you when you’re ready. You don’t have to have it all figured out, and you are not alone.