I have a dear friend who is right now wrestling to believe that God is as good as she hopes, while someone who professes to love her is trying to enslave her to ideas that God is cruel, wrathful and coercive and that the only way to avoid God’s wrath is to do what this other person desires her to do. It is hard to believe that otherwise normal, well intentioned people can fall into such coercive and cruel techniques when desperate, confused and themselves enslaved to their own desires but I’ve seen it happen time and again, and it’s always ugly.
I have no wish to create a new category of victim or opportunity for people to excuse themselves from doing the right thing, but in my years as a counselor I’ve definitely seen people operate under what I can only call spiritual abuse; using scripture and God for their own ends. Guilt, fear, shame are warped from any normal usefulness to become tools of control. People in authority can fall into it of course, but so can people under authority. I’ve seen children do it to parents and congregants to pastors, as well as the other way around.
Spiritual abuse is often combined with other kinds of abuse; monstrous evils justified in the name of God. We’re aware of the big historical events such as the inquisition or the crusades where such abuse become institutionalized, but too many people today remain enslaved to to angry, desperate, confused, controlling people who do their evil deeds under the disguise of false humility, appearance of wisdom, and heavy doses of proof-texted scripture.
The answer is not to throw out the spiritual with the abuse, anymore than it makes sense to decide all money is worthless because counterfeit money is, or that all sex is bad because sexual abuse is so horrendous.. In fact, Christ died precisely so that we could be free of enslavement to guilt, shame, anger, and each other. It’s important to learn to live by faith, to trust God, to live up to the calling we’ve received, but this takes dependence upon God, cheerful generosity to others, and voluntary servanthood, which should not be confused with involuntary servitude, or manipulated “love.” God calls us to serve one another, but at no point does scripture ever indicate that it is the job of authority to make other people serve or submit to us. At the same time, genuinely loving and righteous people may challenge you in general terms to give more than you’ve been inclined, to increase your humility and be willing to die to self in service to others. Rarely will these people make these calls to benefit themselves, however, and you should be at least cautious if they do.
Persuasive people often make their case through the force of their own conviction, calling us likewise to share their convictions, to “stop being selfish, trust God and stand firm” for the faith” but being convinced does not make them right and Paul used these words very differently than the spiritual abuser does. He encourages us to take a stand for freedom and against enslavement.
Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.
It is neither loving to the abuser, nor helpful to your own life, to put yourself under a yoke of slavery to anyone. If you choose to serve someone (and God may regularly lead you to do so) it will be in freedom, not in coercion, manipulation or resentment.
How do you know whether you are being spiritually abused, or rightfully challenged by someone to respond to God?
It may help to ask three questions:
1) Are you being encouraged to seek a God who glorifies Himself through His amazing Grace and Love towards you or a God who Glorifies Himself by forcing perfect behavior in you, particularly behavior which feels wrong to you, but only benefits the person encouraging you toward this behavior?
2) Is there one primary counselor in your life who is actively restricting and narrowing the circle of other counselors in your life? Often this means pulling you away from other authorities God has already placed in your life such as parents, friends, pastors… Good, honest and true counselors trust God to work through a multitude of people, and not only through themselves. If they are narrowing your counsel, discrediting all other people in your life, than you should be concerned.
3) Do they wear you down with many words, even if those words come from scripture? Do they discourage honest questions about their scriptural approach or make you feel stupid for asking? When away from the barrage of words do you feel clarity that you don’t feel when under the same barrage? Do their words and wisdom reflect the following verse:
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness
Rarely do the many words of the spiritual abuser seem peaceful, considerate, submissive, merciful, and so on. Rarely too, do they produce the harvest they claim in righteousness. This because, as James says, they are not sowing in peace, but in dissension and selfish ambition.
It is between you and God whether you use the above words to dodge true accountability and appropriate authority, and I hope you will not.
On the other hand, if you have a controller, a spiritual abuser, in your life; if guilt is the primary glue of your relationship with them, or shame, or fear or even just “relief” when they are pleased with you and not angry, then please seek help. If you aren’t bound to them through marriage or parenthood, get away. Just run. When you have some distance you can perhaps reconcile if an objective counselor thinks such a thing wise.
Even if in the bounds of marriage or parenthood, seek help to determine if you should be distancing yourself anyway. If the spiritual abuser is using scripture or righteous sounding arguments to justify sexual or physical abuse of your, or to coerce you into doing things you know are wrong, God wants you to get away and get help, not to submit to such things.
The ministry I’m engaged in with the Hidden Life is to bring freedom and life to, among others, those enslaved by their own desires to control, as well as those they attempt to control. Pray that God’s free Gift in the Gospel will change lives, break chains, and free people to Glorify God as they embrace freedom in Christ. Pray people are given courage to trust God is as good as they hope.