1. Abusive Spirituality

Jesus replied, "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them."

Luke 11:46

Bethany had been a dynamic lay leader among the women in her church for many years. She taught the only women's Bible study at the church and was almost always the featured speaker at the annual women's retreat.

Once in a while, one of the women would suggest that someone else might take a turn leading the Bible study or speaking at the retreat, but Bethany would respond by reminding them that God had called her to this ministry and that they should not second-guess God's decisions. In the Bible study, Bethany was impatient with women who had personal struggles, seeing it as a sign of a lack of faith. When women occasionally expressed concern about their troubled children, Bethany quoted Bible verses and explained that children don't misbehave if they have been instilled with biblical principles at a young age. According to Bethany, it was their own fault that their children were in trouble, and it was time that they took firm control of their children. It was also Bethany's habit to answer most questions that were raised during Bible study. There was no mystery about the Word of God; it said what it said, and Bethany was convinced that she knew exactly what it meant.

Over the years numerous women who had been active in women's ministry left the church. Several sent letters to the pastor, complaining that Bethany was domineering and judgmental, and that she made no room for others in leadership. The letters said that Bethany communicated that people needed to be perfect to go to her church. The pastor dismissed these letters as "sour grapes" or jealousy.

Then one day it became public knowledge that Bethany's daughter had been arrested for possession of methamphetamine. The church leadership responded to Bethany in the way she had been responding to the women at church for years: they told her that because she couldn't keep her own house in order, she didn't belong in leadership. Bethany was asked to resign from all her leadership positions. Bethany was devastated and soon left the church, unable to bear the shame she experienced.

When most of us think about spirituality going bad, we think first about people using spiritual authority to harm others. It is all too common that people in positions of spiritual authority use their positions to disempower and manipulate others, rather than to support them and build them up. Battered wives are told by their pastors that Jesus wants them to be more submissive; children abused by a parent are told that God expects them to obey their parents; whole congregations fear for their souls if they so much as utter a sigh of discontentment about their leaders—all of these situations are sadly familiar in the Christian community.

We know that there are extreme forms of abusive spirituality—religious cults that end in mass suicide, and religious organizations that exist to meet the financial, sexual or ego needs of their leaders. But there are also more subtle forms of spiritual abuse, like the kind practiced by Bethany. These abuses generally go unnoticed and unexamined. They are, for many people, "just the way things are."

Jeff's experience of growing up in an abusive church suggests what it feels like to take in the basic message of spiritual abuse:

My family lived in a town of six hundred people, and we drove two miles every Sunday to a town of two hundred people where they had seven churches. The marquee in the front of our church said "Independent, fundamental, Bible-believing, soul-winning, sin-hating, separated Baptist church." In this town of two hundred people there was another Baptist church—directly across the street—and their sign said the same thing: "Independent, fundamental, Bible-believing, soul-wining, sin-hating, separated Baptist church." But we had nothing to do with those across-the-street people. I went to school for twelve years with kids from that church across the street and never made friends with any of them. I never went across the street and into that building, because we were more separated, more fundamental, and more sin-hating than they were. Everybody but us was outside the kingdom. We were it.

Our pastor would point at you from the pulpit if you were chewing gum, and tell you that you were going to hell. It was scary until the age of eleven or twelve, when I decided to let that stuff roll off my back. When he pointed me out, I would think, Yeah, right. He's stupid. But one of the remnants of all that judgment was that I was being trained to be judgmental.

Being trained to be judgmental is one of the most damaging parts of spiritual abuse. It hurts like crazy to be judged, but it hurts just as much or more to be judgmental. In order to be judgmental, you have to work hard to maintain an image that allows you the luxury of feeling somehow superior. All those crazy thoughts you have, no one can ever know about those. All the anger and frustration and struggles you have, no one can ever see any of that. When you've been taught to be judgmental, you have to keep it all bottled up inside you so that you are always outwardly in a position to make others look "less than."

But what got to me, more than the things that were said from the pulpit, was having my relationship with Christ taken hostage. After I made some bad choices as a teenager, Christ was constantly used as a threat to get me to behave. It was as if my salvation were on loan. It was called into question all the time. Even though we were taught that there was nothing we could do to earn grace, in practice the opposite was true. Everything we did was weighed and measured to see if we deserved to keep grace.

All spiritual abuse has its roots in the same soil. Whenever we give others the message that their relationship with God depends on something other than God's love and grace—or that God's love and grace need to be earned in some way—we are perpetrating spiritual abuse. This message can be communicated from the pulpit or at the dinner table, with fists or with whispers. Whether or not there is accompanying sexual, emotional or physical abuse, the message of spiritual abuse is always the same: "God won't love you, unless..." or "God will only love you if..."

Spiritual abuse is usually a systemic problem. Rarely do we find that only one member of a church or family is spiritually abusive. Commonly, as the message of a few is heard and accepted by others, the entire system comes to believe and act as if God were really an unloving, absent or abusive God. Once the message is accepted, it is repeated in a variety of forms—some subtle and some not—by those who have accepted it. In this way, spiritual abuse is handed down the chain of authority, from pulpit to pew and from one generation to the next.

People who are caught up in abusive spirituality—both the abusers and the abused—are often judgmental because they fear that God is harsh and punitive, and they fear that they are defective. They are not able to trust God's mercy and therefore cannot experience, practice or give mercy.

In Luke's story about Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), we see clearly the experience of the abuser and the abused. Simon is a religious leader and teacher who has a great deal of power in his community. When a woman who is known to be a sinner comes in and weeps at Jesus' feet, Simon judges her. He does not see the woman as a fellow human being in need of grace, but as a sinner who doesn't warrant grace.

Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner."

Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you."

"Tell me, teacher," he said.

"Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?"

Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled."

"You have judged correctly," Jesus said.

Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little."

Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."

The other guests began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?"

Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (Luke 7:36-50)

Simon sees everything through the grid of judgment. He thinks of others in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, superiority and inferiority. Simon believes himself to be right, good and superior, and others (probably including Jesus!) to be wrong, bad and inferior. Simon does not know he is just as broken and in need of grace as the woman who is weeping at Jesus' feet. He reacts defensively to this truth because his fears and shame make his spiritual brokenness too painful to face. His defense is to be scrupulous, arrogant, prideful, self-righteous and judgmental. This kind of defense against brokenness leads directly to the abuse of others—through superior attitudes, harsh words, exclusion and devaluing. When this kind of judgmentalism is encouraged in the name of God, God becomes a kind of blunt instrument that can be used to hurt, punish, shame and control others.

One of Juanita's experiences illustrates how judgmentalism, even in subtle forms, can plant the seeds of spiritual abuse:

I remember driving alone one morning, my mind drifting between thoughts, when I suddenly had a strong sense that God was saying to me, "You are judging that person you were just thinking about." As I thought back to what had been going through my mind, I realized that I had been thinking of someone I knew—someone who looked to me for spiritual help—as if I were in some way superior and as if he were inferior. I had been judging myself as "better than" and this person as "less than," and I realized how easy this type of judgment was for me. This was certainly not the first time I had judged someone! I acknowledged my sin and thanked God for bringing it to my attention. This particular judgment was private—it existed only in my mind—but judgments like this are the seeds of spiritual abuse.

While reflecting on this event, it occurred to me that in the Gospel story about the woman weeping at Jesus' feet, Simon does not speak an abusive word. But he is filled with judgment. And judgment always finds a way to be expressed. The woman who came to weep at Jesus' feet would find herself disempowered and devalued by this person who had religious power over her and over others, just as the person I was judging would have been in danger of feeling disempowered and devalued by me.

The experience of being judged and devalued is the experience of being shamed. To feel shame is to feel exposed and to be seen as "less than." Shame is difficult to adequately define, but one good attempt comes from Gershen Kaufman, in his book Shame: The Power of Caring, who says that shame is rooted in "sudden unexpected exposure" that leaves us feeling "painfully diminished in our own eyes and in the eyes of others as well." He continues, "To live with shame is to feel alienated and defeated, never quite good enough to belong. And secretly we feel to blame. The deficiency lies within ourselves alone. Shame is without parallel a sickness of the soul."

This emphasis on shame as a "sickness of the soul" is helpful for our purposes. Shame leads to many kinds of spiritual dysfunction, including the kind of judgmentalism we see in spiritual abuse.

Even though Simon is secretly shaming both the woman and Jesus, Jesus does not respond to Simon's judgment by shaming him. Instead, Jesus responds with mercy and goes to the heart of the problem. "Simon," Jesus says, "do you see this woman?" Jesus invites Simon to expand his spiritual vision so that he can see this person of infinite value, who is loved and cherished by God and is capable of great love. This is how Jesus sees the woman: he sees, receives and responds to her love. Jesus invites us to see each other in the same way—through the eyes of God's love and mercy. Whenever we see each other as less than God's beloved children, we run the risk of doing spiritual harm.

A Biblical Overview of Spiritual Abuse

The Bible is full of examples of spiritual abuse. There are stories of spiritual leaders who exploited people for their own gain; there are stories about authority being misused in order to get things done in the name of God that weren't really part of God's agenda at all; and there are stories about people who trivialize the pain of others. Jeremiah, for example, talked about those who heal other people's wounds superficially:


They dress the wound of my people

as though it were not serious.

"Peace, peace," they say,

when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)


This kind of failure by spiritual leaders to take seriously the pain of others is spiritual neglect, a form of spiritual abuse. God's complaint about many of the leaders of Israel was that they were not using the authority they had been given for the benefit of the weak, for those who lacked a voice; the leaders were instead using their authority for their own purposes. The result at that time was the same as it is now: spiritual exhaustion rooted in misconceptions about who God is and what God wants from us.

In the New Testament, Jesus reserves his strongest language for criticism of religious leaders whose spirituality is abusive. For example, in Matthew 23:27 Jesus describes the Pharisees as "whitewashed tombs." This expression might seem like merely a picture of hypocrisy—being different on the outside than on the inside—but there is more to it than this. People at that time believed that if you touched a tomb you would be defiled. So Jesus is not only calling the Pharisees hypocrites; he is saying that if you fall under their influence, you could become spiritually harmed.

"Ferocious wolves" is another expression Jesus used for spiritually abusive leaders (Matthew 7:15). Expressions like these helped Jesus draw a stark contrast between the abusive and appropriate uses of authority. Jesus clearly taught that spiritual authority is not designed to burden people spiritually or to discourage them or to use them for personal gain. Rather, the purpose of spiritual authority is to build people up, to encourage them and to set them free.

Spiritual abuse was a central concern for the early church. The apostle Paul's primary adversaries thought he put too much emphasis on grace. They tried to correct his teaching, explaining that the good news is not simply about what God has done but also what we need to do. In some texts Paul's opponents were called the "circumcision party," because they believed it was necessary to perform the religious ritual of circumcision to secure God's approval. Today, circumcision is no longer thought of as the Cadillac of spiritual disciplines, but many religious communities invent other kinds of religious requirements or behavioral demands. The formal theology or "statement of faith" of many spiritually abusive communities may affirm the centrality of grace in Christian spirituality, but in practice they communicate that God's love is somehow contingent on our performance. The members of the early Christian community faced the same dynamic when they dealt with the circumcision party.

Types of Spiritual Abuse

Abuse can be appropriately called spiritual abuse when it takes one of two forms. First, abuse of any kind in an explicitly spiritual context can be spiritual abuse. The spiritual context could be a church, a religious retreat or a religious institution. Or the spiritual context could be created by the presence of a person in a position of spiritual authority, like a pastor or a Sunday school teacher or even a parent, who perpetrates abuse, regardless of where the abuse happens. When any kind of abuse—emotional, sexual or physical—happens within the context of a faith community, it is a form of spiritual abuse. Either the spiritual location or the spiritual role of the abuser can communicate that the abusive treatment is somehow approved of or permitted by God, and this communicates the basic, abusive message: that God is not a God of love and grace.

Second, any kind of abuse that does damage to someone's relationship with God is spiritual abuse—even if the abuse happens outside a spiritual context. This is an especially important point in the case of the spiritual abuse of children. Because children are actively engaged in the important process of forming a sense of who God is, any form of child abuse does damage to their developing spirituality and is for that reason a form of spiritual abuse. Parents who threaten their children by picturing God as a kind of bogeyman who will punish them if they misbehave can do damage to their children's emerging spirituality. Children can easily pick up the message that God is graceless, that love is conditional, that performance is the most important thing or that perfection is what is expected. All of these messages can get in the way of spiritual growth and development founded on the grace of God.

Spiritual abuse communicates the message that God does not love and accept us as we are, that we must work to earn God's approval and that God's love and grace are not enough. Once the devaluing messages of spiritual abuse become internalized, we start to live as if the messages were true, and this inevitably leads us to pass abusive messages on to others. Eventually, it becomes difficult for us to live outside a spiritually abusive environment or to even consider the possibility that God might actually love us just as we are.

A pastor friend of ours began his recovery journey while serving at a small church, and his experiences provide a useful example of how spiritual abuse can become deeply embedded in a person's spiritual life. As a result of the personal changes this pastor made, and his growing awareness of God's grace, his sermons became more and more filled with a sense of God's grace. One Sunday, a long-standing member of the congregation approached this pastor after the morning service and informed him that she would be leaving the church.

"Okay," the pastor replied. "I want you to know that I respect your decision. However, if you'd like to share your reasons for leaving, it might be helpful to me."

The woman's face hardened. "Fine," she said. "I used to be able to come to this church knowing that I would leave feeling bad about myself. You reminded me of how sinful I was, and how I needed to try hard to be better. It helped me to keep a lid on things throughout the week. But you just don't preach that way anymore, and it's making me anxious. I don't think I'm getting what I need to be a good Christian anymore."

The woman also communicated her suspicion that this pastor was not preaching from the Bible like he had in the past. She was convinced that if he were really preaching from the Bible, she would have bad feelings about herself—the shame—that she needed on Sunday mornings. She knew what the Bible was about. It was about guilt and shame, and this is what she thought she needed in order to function spiritually.

This story shows how, after years in an abusive system, the abusive messages become internalized and form a template for what is considered normal. To this woman, grace was suspect, dangerous, and she experienced guilt and shame as normative and godly; a loving God would be too much to ask for. Instead, she sought a new shaming environment that matched her internal template, which robbed her of a healthy spiritual life.

How Spiritual Abuse Happens

For some of us, our faith journey began with an understanding that we didn't need to do anything to earn God's love and grace. This good news came to us as a blessing. We knew we needed grace, and God provided it for us. At that point our hearts were tender toward God, and we wanted to do the things that God desired of us. Even if we weren't capable of making all the changes we needed to make on our own power, we suddenly found ourselves wanting to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, that desire made us susceptible to people who said, "Hey, you want to know God's agenda? Well, we know more about that than anybody else. We'll tell you what God wants, and encourage you to work really hard to make it happen." Then—very subtly and with good intentions—we began the game of trying to measure up.

The belief that we must work for God's approval immediately creates two problems. First, as soon as we begin to work for God's approval, we begin to judge others. We work hard to get grace, and so we feel justified in condemning anyone not working as hard as we are working. Second, working to earn God's grace usually means that we have to hide many unpleasant things about ourselves in order to measure up to expectations. Hiding or suppressing our sins rather than confessing them leads to a dual life. We become convinced that if anyone ever knew the truth about what goes on inside us, they would condemn us. Out of fear, we become defensive, and whenever anyone points out a problem with our behavior, however lovingly, we lash out and demonize them. Instead of admitting that we have a problem, we make them the problem. In this way we become perpetrators of spiritual abuse.

How Do I Know If I'm Spiritually Abusive?

We become spiritually abusive when we lose track of the fact that God loves us no matter what. For example, if Pastor Fred forgets that he can't earn grace and begins to believe that God measures him by the size of his congregation, he may become abusive in order to get those numbers. To make his congregation grow, Fred must motivate his people to bring in new members. Because he believes that God's approval rests on the size of his congregation, Fred transfers this graceless belief to his people. In his sermons he finds ways to suggest that the value and acceptance of true Christians in God's eyes are related to how many people they bring to church with them. If the congregation really cares about others, and if they really believe in the Word of God, they will invite more people to come with them on Sunday morning.

As simply as that, Fred has chosen to disempower his congregation. He is no longer there to meet the needs of the congregation; he is using the congregation to meet his own needs. Pastor Fred is trying to control the members of his congregation and the size of his congregation in order to feel okay about his relationship with God. In the process he is manipulating other people's spiritual lives rather than resting in the love and grace of God.

Spiritual abusers usually are not conscious of what they are doing. Few who accept leadership positions in a Christian community are thinking, I'm looking forward to manipulating people so that they get their value from how I tell them to behave rather than from Christ. Most spiritual abusers have good intentions. They see their actions as an expression of concern for the well-being of others. Few would be able to recognize, let alone articulate, that they are putting their faith in something they are doing rather than in God, and that they are encouraging others to do the same.

Anytime we are in a position of spiritual leadership or influence and we move away from grace, we are in danger of becoming abusive. We need to regularly ask ourselves several questions:

If we answer yes to any of these questions, we may be suffering from the destructive dynamic of abusive spirituality.

Hope for Abusers and the Abused

Whether we are perpetrators or survivors (or both), recognizing that spiritual abuse is part of our life story is a painful one. We have been harmed by the people we trusted the most, and we have taken that hurt and passed it on to the people who trusted us. If we are caught in this abusive cycle, our relationship with God is probably distorted by shame, rejection and judgmentalism. Healing from this kind of harm can be difficult and time-consuming. But healing is possible. In later chapters, we will discuss the healing process in more detail. At this time, we can best describe how people heal from spiritual abuse by returning to Bethany's story. Bethany had left the church where she had been spiritually abusing other women. Her daughter's addiction to methamphetamine led the church to believe that Bethany was unfit to serve in a leadership capacity. As you might imagine, Bethany was depressed after the church abandoned her. She couldn't sleep at night and had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. She had no appetite and stayed at home all day.

A woman who had been driven away from the church by Bethany almost five years earlier heard about Bethany's daughter and the church's response, and decided to reach out to Bethany. She called Bethany and told her that her own son was a drug addict. This woman had been attending a church support group for parents of drug addicts, and when she invited Bethany to go with her to a meeting, Bethany accepted.

At the support group Bethany met many other mothers and some fathers who had suffered the pain of loving an addicted child and who were surviving by depending on a loving God. Bethany heard at the meeting that it was possible to depend on God for practical help, that God desires to give us gifts like wisdom and guidance, compassion and serenity. She also heard people talking about their struggle to trust God's active love because they had served other kinds of gods for a long time. Some people in the group even said they had to let go of all their preconceived ideas about God and to open themselves up to new experiences of God. This bothered Bethany greatly. She felt that she had the correct beliefs about God and didn't need any group to tell her something that might lead her astray. But Bethany was also in a lot of pain. She heard the other parents talking about their experience of God's love and grace, and she wanted to have an experience like that. For all her convictions about who God is, Bethany had no experience to compare to theirs.

Through weekly attendance at this group, Bethany began to realize that she had been serving a god who was harsh, condescending and abandoning. She also saw that she had behaved exactly like the god she served. She had judged, corrected and condemned. Because of her daughter's drug addiction, Bethany now knew how it felt to receive that kind of treatment. Bethany was remorseful and angry. She didn't want to serve an abusive god anymore.

The support group for parents of addicts had a set of tools they used for growing spiritually. They all came to realize that they were powerless over their children's addictions and that they needed to surrender their own lives and their children's lives to God's loving care. Bethany began a daily practice of asking God to help her rest in the fact that God was loving and trustworthy, and then releasing her daughter into God's hands. The group also practiced regular confession and placed a strong emphasis on making amends for harm done. Over time, as Bethany listened to the honesty and humility in the confessions of the other parents, her heart softened. Judgment gave way to compassion; condemnation was replaced by an awareness of the power and availability of grace. Slowly, as she listened to other people's confessions, Bethany began forming a mental list of people she had harmed, and she realized that her daughter belonged on that list. Bethany then asked a group member to help her consider the kind of approach that might be appropriate in making amends to each person.

When Bethany went out to make amends to her daughter, she was filled with fear. She had raised her daughter under the same judgment and criticism that she had placed on the women at church, and as a result Bethany's daughter had been unwilling to talk to her for the past several years. In her imagination Bethany played out every possible bad outcome of meeting with her daughter, and each new vision was a torture. Bethany racked her brain to think of some way she could make up for the harm she had caused her daughter, but nothing, including an apology, seemed sufficient; there was nothing she could do. She had hurt her daughter, and it was not in her power to make things right again. Bethany realized that all she could do was to show up and honestly, humbly acknowledge that she had hurt her daughter.

In order to get out of her car, Bethany had to remind herself that maybe there really was a God who could help her through this. Making amends seemed like a test to see if such a God existed. As she got out of her car, Bethany prayed for help and wished there was an easier way to experience God. Yet this was the first time Bethany had actually relied on the love and support of others, and the first time she had taken a step of faith, trusting that a loving God would help her and her daughter.

Bethany and her daughter met for lunch. They ate and talked, and for the first time in her daughter's life they had a conversation in which the focus was not on her daughter's problems. In this conversation the focus was on Bethany's abusive behavior toward her daughter. Bethany spoke as candidly as she was able. She said she knew that making amends meant more than just saying she was sorry. She said she had no idea what she could do to make up for the harm she had caused, but she was committed to finding a better way to be a mother to her daughter. Bethany told her daughter that she loved her and that her daughter's arrests and addiction hadn't changed that.

When lunch was over and Bethany and her daughter went their separate ways, Bethany was left with a strong sense of God's presence. She had asked for help, and God had provided the grace, humility and courage she needed for being honest. As she sat alone in her car, Bethany felt comforted by the God of love and grace that she had read about in Scripture but could never really comprehend until now.

Bethany continued to attend her support group long after her daughter stopped using drugs. She found that this group provided her with a place where she could be honest about herself and her experiences without fear of judgment. Bethany also discovered that the longer she practiced the spiritual tools she was learning in the group, the more she could be useful to the parents who were new to the group. By telling her own story and the story of her spiritual rebuilding process, Bethany was able to give hope and strength to many other parents who were struggling with their children's drug addiction. In time, Bethany also started a small group for people who had experienced spiritual abuse. She found that by sharing her story as a spiritual abuser and as a survivor of spiritual abuse, she was creating a safe place for others, people like herself, to rebuild their spiritual lives. Telling the truth and serving others is now a source of pleasure and fulfillment for Bethany. Her relationship with God is growing as she shares God's grace with the people in her life who need and want that grace.

Questions for Personal Reflection

  1. The woman who wept at Jesus feet (in Luke 7) and the women who were in Bethany's Bible study experienced spiritual abuse. In what ways, if any, do you relate to the experiences of these women?
  2. Simon the Pharisee and Bethany were judgmental and spiritually abusive. In what ways, if any, do you relate to them?
  3. What do you think were some of the most important changes Bethany made that allowed her to break out of the cycle of abuse?
  4. Read the story of Jesus eating with Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50. As you read, try to imaginatively place yourself in the story as the woman who weeps at Jesus feet. Listen to what Jesus says to you and about you. Then reflect on this experience. What was it like for you?
  5. Read the same text again, trying to imaginatively place yourself in the story as Simon. Listen to what Jesus says to you. Then reflect on this experience. What was it like for you?