How to love someone who was spiritually abused

After my facebook post recently inquiring about authors and influencers that friends have experienced to be problematic at best and abusive at worst. A LOT of discussions was had regarding Spiritual Abuse. Many stories were shared, and there are all sorts of levels of grief and trauma being acknowledged, named, and processed. 

Here is a few helpful descriptions of Spiritual Abuse from the book “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” by Johnson and Van Vonderen.

” Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.” Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other persons’ state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being. Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a spiritual standard”…. and when not met, the individual is left bearing a weight of guilt, judgment or condemnation and confusion about their worth and standing as a Christian. It’s at this point, we say, that spirituality has become abusive.”

“It is possible to become so determined to defend a spiritual place of authority, a doctrine, or a way of doing things that you wound and abuse anyone who questions, or disagrees, or doesn’t “behave” spiritually the way you want them to When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person’s standing as a Christian — to gratify you, your position or your beliefs while at the same time weakening or harming another — that is spiritual abuse.”

“Let’s be clear again; Not all strong Christian leaders are abusive, nor are all spiritual systems abusive. It’s also possible that healthy leaders and spiritual systems can sometimes, unintentionally, treat people in hurtful ways. There is no such things as a perfect family or church where people don’t ever get hurt. But the difference between an abusive and non-abusive system is that while hurtful behaviors might happen in both, it is not permissable to talk about problems hurts and abuses in the abusive system. Hence, there is no healing and restoration after the wound has occurred and the victim is made to feel at fault for questioning or pointing out the problem.”

This book is incredible and I could go on and on with powerful words in it. I highly encourage you to pick it up and read it if this is at all resonating with your experiences in your church, ministry, or family.

This book and the Facebook coversation led me to many thoughts about loving those who have been Spiritually Abused. Here are my top tips. I’m sure many more could be added. I hope this can be a helpful start though.

  1. Listen to them. Listen to their stories. Listen to their emotions. Listen to the statements that don’t make sense to you. Listen to them question everything. Listen to their anger. Listen to them verbally process. Just Listen. Talking through Spiritual Abuse (almost to the point of beating a dead horse) is one of the number one ways survivors can start to heal. Because acknowledging it was real and was abusive and is far from the heart of God is very very important due to the nature of the abuse being such that often it looks like godliness not legalism, like good not evil.
  2. Don’t assume they don’t know the gospel.  Put aside your need to hear the right words in the right order from those who are hurting due to abuse from Christian leadership and systems and be long-suffering in your love for them. Trust that the Gospel that saves is powerful enough to sustain and keep through the darkest of days. 
  3. Come close to their lives and be there for them. Love and serve their family without condition. Don’t push away from them because they might seem to be pushing away from Christianity. Don’t dismiss them as backsliders if they aren’t following your path of sanctification. Don’t label them if they start questioning the tenants of our faith no matter how basic or nuanced those beliefs may be.
  4. Telling them to not quit the church or that they need to find the right church, is kind of like telling a victim of sexual abuse they shouldn’t give up on all men/women or telling them they just need to have the right kind of sex to find healing. 
  5. There has to be a season of deconstructing and that might include distance from the church as a structured body of believers and even God’s word.  The Construction Process hopefully will result in a healthy understanding of the church, God’s word, and of Jesus. But sometimes it won’t. But that’s the risk one must take. It must in order to find freedom. 
  6. The grieving/lament process will include anger, anxiety, depression, lack of trust, distancing, and many other physical and emotional reactions and coping mechanisms. This is part of it. And like with any other type of grief and healing, there really isn’t a time line. You can’t rush grief. It must be gone through. If you try to bury it, go around it, ignore it, replace it… it will only come back and be harder to deal with. 
  7. Speaking up against Spiritual Abusers and about Spiritual Abuse is going to feel like Christians are fighting each other or that we are airing the churches dirty laundry. But over and over in Scripture Jesus publicly addressed, corrected and put into their proper place those who were spiritually abusive. He wanted to make it crystal clear that this wasn’t a part of HIS kingdom! 
  8. What encourages you may feel like harm to them. Don’t quote scripture to them or invite them to your church/events. Worship songs may bless your heart but sting theirs. 
  9. If your experience at church and with believers have been blissful it’s tempting to think that someone who has been in abusive churches or families isn’t very common. But when you’ve experienced it then you tend to see its impact and influence everywhere. 
  10. Don’t offer them books/podcasts/sermons on depression, anger, on when you don’t desire God, or how to have JOY in times of trial or struggle…. DO ask them if they would like you to pass on a book/podcast/sermon specifically on Spiritual Abuse/Unbiblical Leadership that you have listened to or read and you thought of their suffering. 
  11. GIVE THEM TIME!! And be there when Joy does come in the morning…even if it’s 4,853 mornings later, having learned so much yourself by being there alongside of them during the dark days (even if it didn’t feel like you were alongside of them because of their distance) and know someday they will be able to smile, and be known, and to look back at the past and not be triggered or hurt.  They will still have the scars and they will still probably always be more careful than you when it comes to trusting spiritual leadership. But healing will come… and it will look differently for each one of us. 
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