Surviving Spiritual Abuse

There can be no doubt that a growing number of people, brothers and sisters in Christ, have been severely damaged by abusive behaviour from their own brethren. They entered the community of believers assuming that they had at last found "the truth", the body of Christ on earth, and thus brought high expectations with them. But then they met behaviour perhaps worse than what they encountered in the world. And they hit a crisis of faith. I feel qualified to write about this, as I saw it happen to literally hundreds of lovely folk whom I baptized into Christ who were then caught up in church politics which damaged or destroyed their faith. I will resist writing of my own experience of spiritual and emotional abuse at the hands of my brethren and the church I served from my youth to this day. I fortunately emerged from the experience relatively unscathed, by God's grace I kept my focus. But I am writing this for those who didn't, or who realize they swerved from the end point, which is Christ. I see no point in wallowing in our negative experiences. We're going through a grieving process for that which we have lost, as we realize that never again will we have the naieve, trusting view towards our brethren or the church which we once had. And we must be careful not to get caught up on any one stage of that grieving process. We have to face the reality that our church community is not what we thought it was, or hoped it was; and we have all grieved over that. But we must move on, for getting caught up on one stage of the grief process is where we become dysfunctional and a burden rather than an assistance to others. Paul teaches that if we suffer anything, it is to obtain comfort with which we ourselves can then comfort others who are going through the same grief (2 Cor. 1:4). This is where internet forums, for all their many drawbacks, do have some advantages. Through them all those who suffered can share positively the comfort and insights they've received through their traumas, in order to provide comfort to others. The details of what we each suffered are a comfort in themselves insofar as others will realize that they are not alone. For how many times have we heard it admitted: "I thought I was the only person who'd gone through this... I thought it was just our family...". But we must go beyond mere sharing of experience, lest we become the club of mutual misery. Beyond this lies the sharing with each other of what we have learnt, of what God has done, of sharing His comfort with others. If we don't do this, then the whole process ceases to function as God intended. If we keep our grief and God's comfort to ourselves, without sharing it with others, then we can only become self-centred and dysfunction sets in.

So what, then, are the lessons to be learnt from the abuse suffered at the hands of fellow believers?


The experience of abuse causes us to examine and challenge our perceptions. For many victims of abuse, there is a degree to which their sufferings occur within their own minds. Naturally the component of "actual" against "perceived" abuse will vary from case to case. Those who died in the gas chambers of central Europe had 100% actual abuse- none of it was merely imagined. At the other end of the scale, a person may irrationally perceive that 'someone' in cyberspace is haunting them, and they perceive this as 'abuse'. We're all somewhere in that continuum. And so, in a way, are some [not all] of the abusers. Take a piece of paper and write down what you think the abusers are saying or thinking about you- and make the effort to do this, rather than making a mental list. The exercise is so much more effective. I recall the first time I did this. As I wrote those things down, I soon realized that actually, this is precisely what I think about 'them'. To the word and to the letter. I think you'll find the same if you do that exercise. The conclusion I reach from this phenomenon is that to some extent abuse is in the perception of the sufferer. There's abuse that is real, and there's abuse that's only perceived. That being as it is, it's still awfully true- there's abuse that's for real.

The experience of abuse affects our perception of "church". Many have come through their abusive experiences to appreciate the difference between what has been called the visible and the invisible church. "They are not all Israel who are of Israel" (Rom. 9:6). Those with true spirituality may be found throughout the various fellowships; they are the invisible church, the body of Christ which God sees from His perspective. One thing that experiencing spiritual abuse teaches us is the utter folly of division between true believers. The traditional lines of division between believers become meaningless as we reflect: 'I am supposed not to fellowship that lovely, sincere sister in that group; but I must fellowship that abuser in our group'. Spiritual abuse robs us for ever of our naive belief and experience that the church is a loving, close-knit, caring community of people who try to follow Jesus. For some, the cruel breaking of that belief, the desecration of that image, leads them to lose faith in God and His Son. This may be because their faith was too much in the church as an institution, rather than in the essential core reality of the Father and Son and that great salvation which is in them. And so again, good can come from the whole terrible experience- in that the church is no longer a crutch to us, but we are thrown into a direct, personal relationship with the Father and Son, with no mediators or brokers between us. But that can be a scary prospect, as it was for Israel, who pleaded to have some mediation between them and the God of Sinai. The realization that the idea isn't going to happen is a huge loss, and it will involve us in a grieving process. The problem with grieving processes is that people can get caught up on one stage of the process and remain there- e.g. anger or self-hatred. Realize that we who have been abused are on a natural grieving and healing process, which we should allow to run its course. The end point is of course a recognition of the loss. Nothing can ever change that in this life, nor the broken and lost relationships, the damage done in some way remains. Whilst on one hand we should always be open to reconciliation, seeking the repentance of our abusers, on the other, there are some things which are done to people which result in permanent damage in this life. Living in denial of that reality only causes more pain, and is a sign we've not come to the end of the grieving process.


Much of the pain felt by the spiritually abused focuses upon the issue of injustice. They were treated like this, but others are treated like that; you can't break bread in a church, but he can, even though they know that he is homosexual; she isn't allowed to attend the gathering but he is, and so forth. The Lord told a parable about a woman who repeatedly asked for 'justice', with the implication that she would only eventually find it at the Lord's return. But He went straight on to tell another parable, about the repentant man who beat upon his breast saying "God have mercy upon me, the sinner"; this man "went down to his house justified". The theme of 'justification' is thus a thread which continues from the woman demanding 'justification' (Gk.) against her abuser (Lk. 18:1-14). The Lord's point wasn't merely that justice will only be ultimately done at His return; but further, that we are all serious sinners, who have been 'justified' by God's grace; and this colossal-scale experience of receiving undeserved justice / justification should mean that we're not so concerned about receiving justice in human matters in this life. There cannot be perfection this side of God's Kingdom being established upon earth. To seek for perfection in relationships is perhaps reflective of a lack of faith or understanding relating to the Kingdom of perfection which is yet to come. One of the greatest things for me about that Kingdom is the unity and perfection of relationships which there will then be. It is, however, all so hard because the New Testament presents how the church should be- an ideal of loving, sensitive, caring relationships in the spirit of Christ. And this is very attractive to us. It's very hard, therefore, to face the reality that this great intention, this lofty possibility, has actually been left unachieved by the church. It's like reading the descriptions of God's house in Ezekiel 40-48. This wonderful temple could've come about in Ezekiel's time. The possibilities are given in such great detail- but their fulfillment was quite simply dependent upon whether Judah wished to make it come real by living up to it (Ez. 43:10-12). And they chose not to. It's the same with the ideal "house of God" presented to us in the New Testament. Those who tend towards perfectionism find this very hard to cope with. It is indeed a tragedy, that so much Divine potential is as it were wasted, not realized, by our dysfunction. But none of this should take away from the personal reality of salvation and relationship with God which we each have. This is not to say that exposing abuse and dealing with it shouldn't happen. It should. But let's not feel that if justice isn't done, we are somehow without justice. We are the ultimately justified, and our standing before God's judgment seat is far more significant that our standing before that of mere humans.

Forgiving, Not Excusing

The Lord taught that our focus upon Him and His return should affect how we feel about others, even our enemies. Lk. 12:54-59 continues a theme of living appropriately to a belief that we shall all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. The Lord pictures us as walking to meet our judge, along with our adversary. And His parable assumes that we will automatically be found in the wrong, the case will go against us; and so therefore we better make peace with our adversary and drop the case. We are walking towards the day of judgment, our meeting with our Judge. The bottom line is that we should not be walking to judgment day carrying with us a case against our brother. Drop it, whatever it is. At least, in our hearts. It's simply impossible to live at peace with all- Paul spoke from much personal experience of living at peace with others insomuch as it depends upon us: "If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (Rom. 12:18). Again, this doesn't mean that abuse shouldn't be challenged and exposed. It should be. But we as sinners shouldn't be walking to judgment day carrying with us the weight of a case against our brother.

Nobody is perfect, neither is anyone wholly evil. Even those who have abused us. The strange mix of good and evil within us is what makes self-examination and self-management so difficult, and what so easily muddies human relationships. Like you and me, the abusers are composed of both flesh and spirit. They may live exemplary Christian lives in many areas; but when it comes to certain issues, which happen to concern us, their internal 'devil' comes out very strongly. Sadly, tragically, they tend to justify their sins of abuse as acts of righteousness; and this is where there arises the specter of systemic evil, the evil of a system which teaches men and women to do acts of rejection and harshness in the name of "defending the Truth", "upholding the Truth of Christ" and other such war cries. We will each come before the Lord in judgment, and realize how we too had some blind spots, some areas of terrible failure; partly from the weakness of the flesh, our lack of focus and faith; but also partly from our having been mistaught, our misunderstanding of what the life in Christ was all about. David prayed for forgiveness for his "secret faults", those sins he suspected he committed in ignorance (Ps. 19:12). If we pray this prayer as we should, and if it's really so that God's forgiveness of us is related to our forgiveness of others... then we really need to forgive our abusers. It is, finally, the only way for our own sanity and maturity. By doing so we aren't stating anything about our abusers' final salvation nor standing with God- that is between Him and them. But for us to forgive them is important; and it is this which is, if you like, the ultimate counter-attack, our final victory over them and what they have done.

But forgiving them is not excusing them. If we confuse these two categories, we'll end up minimizing what they have done and are doing. We simply must forgive. The only option is revenge, against others or against ourselves. The pain the abuser causes you always feels heavier to you than it does to them. But let's also reflect that what we may consider as minor failings on our part toward another are felt as brutally heavy by them. Because of this, revenging pain never balances out. So... we simply must forgive, or else we will be caught up in ever more debilitating war within ourselves and with others. To say "they do what they do in misguided faithfulness to God" is to excuse sin; for the Lord commented that a time can come when those who kill us think they do God service. Perhaps we sometimes find forgiveness hard because we confuse it with excusing. Forgiving both others and ourselves requires us to be specific- she / he / I / they did this, that or the other sin. We don't just vaguely 'forgive', we must narrow down what we are seeking to forgive, to hard, actual specifics. All the time we're excusing the wrong others have done to us, we can't begin the process of healing. They have sinned; let's get it as straight as we must get the fact that we too have sinned. Blaming it on the church, on upbringing, on misunderstanding, is all very well- but it can never be allowed to obscure the reality of their sin. By making ourselves and others accountable for sin, not blaming it on anything else, we open up the possibility of forgiveness. We forgive people, and ourselves, for what is actually done, and not for who people are . Attempts to forgive the abusers or ourselves for who we are often end in miserable, depressing failure- because we were going for the wrong goal. It takes courage to be specific, not least because the self-righteous religious societies in which we live often unconsciously want us to live under an umbrella of permanent shame, to make them feel and look better. So, go for forgiveness. But be realistic. We will still have some anger and damage after achieving forgiveness. Probably we can only forgive both ourselves and others in dribs and drabs and not in the one-time magnanimous way that God does (for we are not God)... but all the same, forgiveness is an achievable goal. It's the ultimate sign of freedom, that we aren't going to be dominated by others' abuse, railroaded by the enormity of what they have done into the blind alley of unforgiveness. We are going to forgive, and thus be ultimately free and creative, after the Divine pattern in Christ.

Don't Demonize

As we've noted, our abusers aren't wholly evil. So we must beware of demonizing them. By sounding this caveat, I'm not for a moment suggesting that abuse doesn't take place. I know all too well that it does. But all the same, we need, I think, to be reminded: Don't demonize. And don't glory in a victim mentality, assuming some huge innate moral superiority against your abusers. We'll be assisted in this by appreciating that the same basic tendencies are within us as within the most outwardly evil of people. Our experiences of Hitlers, Stalins etc. should make us look within ourselves rather than demonize them. One only has to skim read Robert Simon's Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream Of - and look seriously and honestly into our own hearts- to see that we're all tempted to be the same desperate criminals. I know that some readers will object to this suggestion... but I can only appeal to your brutal honesty about the thoughts and desires that at times skate through your mind. "Everybody always talks about changing the world, but no one ever talks about changing himself", so Leo Tolstoy observed somewhere in War And Peace. And it's true. Solzhenitsyn both experienced and reflected upon abuse more than most; and his conclusion is the same: "If only it were all so simple! If only... it were necessary only to separate [evil people] from the rest of us and destroy them! But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" (1). Psychologists have noted that most people will admit to feeling that someone or some system has been or is somehow against them; a child or teacher at school, a boss, a neighbour, a family member. We need to be aware that in identifying some church members as abusers, we run the risk of merely giving way to this same basic tendency which is within most of us. By demonizing in this way, it enables us to take out our anger, our dysfunctions, our gut dislikes of others- in the name of God, in the name of participating in a battle against 'abuse' in which we nobly take the side of Jesus. We tend to assume that God takes sides in all the squabbles which occur here on earth- and, of course, we like to think that He is on our side, and therefore our opponents are against God and therefore particularly awful and worthy of our best hatred. Shakespeare's Macduff reflects our assumptions in this area: "Did heaven look on and would not take their part?". It's this presumption that God is on our side in matters great and small, from a squabble with the neighbour to our fight against abusers, which can lead to the arrogance which is every bit as bad as perpetrating abuse. Remember how the prophets condemned Israel's leaders for pride as well as abuse.

Final Thoughts

Don't take out your hurt upon others who aren't directly responsible for the abuse perpetrated. Let's not get like the shop assistant who yells at her customers because she was yelled at by her partner over breakfast. On the other hand, those who are accessories to the abusers, who give them power because of their own weakness and refusal to stand for principle... they too have much to answer for, and cannot walk away wide eyed and innocent from what has been perpetrated. Your feelings about them will have some legitimacy. Just as if you are violently robbed, your anger will be more against your two 'friends' who stood next to you and did nothing, than against the robber. But remember... you too are weak, you too go with the flow all too easily, unthinking for the implications of your inaction, in so many matters great [to others] and small [to you]. So- stand up against inaction, against sins of omission. For this is exactly the environment which allows spiritual abuse to flourish.

Spare a thought for the abusers. They likely have moments of remorse, or at least doubt as to the correctness of the way they are taking. Those moments must be lonely for them, until they rush to the internet or telephone in order to find reassurance in their chosen path from the (bad) example of others. Lewis Smedes makes an acutely powerful observation: "The pain we cause other people becomes the hate we feel for ourselves. For having done them wrong" (2). Our abusers on some level of their consciousness do know what they are doing. The more we feel sorry for them, the more we pray for them in their self-hatred, the more we are mastering them and what they have done to us.

Finally. Keep your focus upon the Lord Jesus. He gave us each something of His, which we are to trade, use, develop, and we will give account of our stewardship when He returns. In that day, it will be quite inappropriate to excuse ourselves by saying "Well, he did this... they did that... she did that". The intensity of the Jesus-me relationship- and it's pretty intense because "the son of God loved me and gave Himself for me"- means that our response must be to Him, without letting he / she / they hinder it or the quality of it. Don't let them win. Triumph over them in the life of love, joy and forgiveness. For it is this which is, as we've said, the ultimate counter-attack, our final victory over them and what they have done.


(1) Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Monad Press, 1974) p. 168.

(2) Lewis Smedes, Forgive And Forget (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984) p. 72.

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