Dealing with Spiritual Abuse – Part 4
This is part of a series of posts on spiritual abuse. I do recommend that you read the other posts before you read this one; you can read them here
Effects of spiritual abuse
Finding out that you’ve been a victim of spiritual abuse can be devastating! It can cause many questions to arise in your heart and cause you to distrust yourself, your relationship with God and leaders in the church in general. How do I know? Because it did those things to me! It took a long time for me to process that hurt and abuse, seeking out help in person and through books and internet articles, and learning to re-trust both God and myself again. In this last post in this series I want to share some things that I learnt during that time that will help you move through the recovery process.
If you’ve been spiritually abused these are some of the effects it may well have on you…
- You’ll question a lot of what you believe – about God, about the church, about leaders.
- You’ll doubt and question yourself, and you’ll blame yourself for being a victim.
- You’ll doubt your ability to discern things properly and to hear God correctly.
- You’ll want to separate yourself from others.
- You’ll be tempted to become untrusting of leadership in general.
- You’ll question whether you ever want to be a part of a church again.
- You’ll go through a grieving process.
- You’ll get angry – very angry, probably.
- You’ll be tempted to wallow in hurt and self-pity.
- You’ll want to strike back, especially by telling others how bad that leader or church is.
- You’ll want to blame God for it, or for not protecting you from it.
You need others in this process
If you’ve been the victim of spiritual abuse then you need people who will walk with you through the healing process, and they should be people outside the situation itself. Make yourself relationally accountable to friends and trusted people. By relationally accountable I mean have people who love you, will walk beside you through the process, and who are not afraid to ask you questions. For this you’re not looking for hand-holders who agree with your wounded views, you’re looking for people who will help you move through it and will ask you questions like....
- How are you processing your hurt or grief?
- Are you aware of the stages of grief, and if so, where are you in that process? (The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.)
- How’s your relationship with God? How has this situation affected how you see Him? How has it affected your trust in Him?
- Have you forgiven those leaders and others involved?
- What’s the quality of your relationship with other Christians like at the moment?
- What are you currently looking to in order to fill the gap that this situation has created in your life? Are you using things to anesthetize the pain – like alcohol, food, TV binge watching etc?
Some things to help you move through the healing process
- Realise that not everything taught or done in the spiritually abusive system was wrong. It’s important for survivors to recognize that good things and bad things can exist in the same system. Keep the good and throw out the bad.
- Get perspective. To do so you will probably need to remove yourself from the abusive situation. As long as you stay in it you won’t be able to see clearly. Don’t be afraid to take time out from church – taking time out from church can be necessary and healthy, however, staying removed from fellowship will, in the end, bring its own problems. Ask, “What does fellowshipping with other believers look like for me in this season?” “How can I do it in a healthy way?” If you’ve been abused, then most likely your thinking has been distorted. You’ll have bought into some lies that need correcting, and to do so you’ll need to put some distance between yourself and the situation for a period of time (if not indefinitely) in order to clear your mind and get back on track. A few ways that can help with that are:
- Read about spiritual abuse to understand how it works.
- Get prayer ministry, if needed.
- Talk to a pastor from a healthy church.
- Talk to friends from other churches that are known for being healthy.
- Own any part that you had. Survivors of spiritual abuse must recognize that they may have played a part in allowing the abuse. That can happen in different ways – seeing abuse happen and not speaking up, excusing wrong behaviour, or justifying it, taking the official viewpoint against other churches or individuals, and more. Often we can unconsciously treat others the way that we see leadership treating them, thereby perpetuating the abuse, even when we don’t mean to.
- Forgive. Forgiveness is a necessary part of moving on and getting free of the effects of the abuse. It may take time to forgive, and you’ll find that forgiveness comes easiest when the hurt is dealt with and healed. Making yourself forgive by willpower alone when you are unhealed will put a band aid on the problem, not fix it.
- Be patient with yourself. Healing does take time, and you will need to give yourself permission to feel angry, to question, and to feel the hurt. But you also need to give yourself permission to celebrate your gifts, abilities, strengths, character etc. These will have taken a bashing, so go easy on yourself. Build yourself up again and relearn to trust yourself.
- Don’t lock yourself away; community is important – spiritual or otherwise. Spend time with friends, make new ones, join a community group, get a hobby that involves others. These things are important for learning to trust others again.
- Find help – someone to talk to that’s not involved in the situation; read books on healing. If you need to, seek counselling. Journaling helps; use that tool. Don’t wallow in your hurt, be intentional about seeking healing and wholeness. There are lots of places you can get help – other churches, counsellors, healing prayer ministries etc.
- Learn how to walk in relationship with God again. Your devotional life during this time is very important; it’s there that God will minister His love and healing to you. Make sure that you don’t neglect this. Any previous rules and requirements that you lived under in relation to devotional life may have made you think that you were on the inner circle with God, but they’ve probably pushed you farther away. Redevelop that loving friendship with God again, based on relationship, not rules.
- Be aware that your views on what form a spiritual life should take, may change. What you thought were necessities because of strict rules may now be seen as unnecessary or even harmful. For example, if you fasted every other week because the church said you should, re-look at that and ask God what He thinks about it. If you thought you had to do certain things to please God and be close to Him, re-look at what the Bible says about that. God wants you to be free of religions restrictions.
- Establish healthy boundaries. Boundaries are not about excluding people, they are about setting healthy ways for people to be in your life. You may need to say “No” to some people being as close to you as they were. Some people may come to you and try to minimize or deny what’s happened to you. They may say things like, “You’re overreacting, it wasn’t that bad.” Or, “You’re just stirring up trouble and being rebellious.” “You’re resisting the discipline that God wants to bring in your life.” “They can’t be abusive, they’re good people and they really helped me.” “The devil is using you to divide this church.” If you can’t find a healthy way for a person to be in your life by setting boundaries then you may need to distance yourself from them. There are some good books out there on making healthy boundaries, so get yourself one and make boundaries that will help keep you safe in the future.
- Pray for those who hurt you. Even when leaders are abusive we are still told in Scripture to honour them and pray for them (1 Timothy 2:1-3). Honouring them doesn’t mean glossing over, or hiding, abuse; it means that we face the facts, but still walk in honour - loving the person because Christ loves them, respecting their position and speaking in a way that addresses the problem but doesn’t put them down personally.
I know from experience that it’s a devastating thing to be a victim of spiritual abuse, but there is hope and healing; there is a way back to being able to trust the Lord and His people again. It may take some time and some tenacity on your part, but it is worth it. The church family is something that God loves very much and He longs for it to be healthy, just as He longs for you to be whole and healthy.
In the last three posts in this series, I’ll be changing tack a little and looking at how abuse happens in another way – when congregations attack or abuse their pastors. This is every bit as real and happens sadly, too often. If this series of articles is to be a fair and balanced series we must look at that side of things too. Can I encourage you to stay with us as we do, and let’s expose abuse of any sort for the ugly ungodly thing it is!
In regard to that, if If you’ve found this post helpful then can I ask you to please share it by using the Facebook share button at the bottom of the post.There are so many who need the help to work through the abuse they’ve suffered, and if you and I can help them do so then it’s worth taking that small moment of time to click on the button.
Places to go for healing ministry
Restoring the Foundations NZ - https://www.restoringthefoundations.org/teamprofile/murray-heather-mccall/
Restoring the Foundations worldwide - https://www.restoringthefoundations.org/
SOZO New Zealand - http://www.bethelsozonewzealand.com/
SOZO worldwide - http://bethelsozo.com/
Some resources to help you further with setting healthy boundaries
‘Boundaries’ series of books – Henry Cloud and John Townsend
‘Keep your Love On’ – Danny Silk