When you experience pain inflicted upon you by those claiming the name of Christ, especially by those in leadership in a Christian community, ministry organization, or church, it can turn everything topsy-turvy.
What is true? What is right? Did that really happen? Am I losing my mind? Who can I trust? Can I ever trust anyone again?
- Maybe you’ve experienced spiritual abuse at the hands of a pastor, elder, or group of leaders.
- Perhaps you’ve encountered or been taken in by a narcissistic individual.
- They may have withheld communion, attacked your faithful service, or jabbed you right in places where you already felt vulnerable.
- Perhaps they lied, privately, or publicly, about you.
- The people or systems you thought would protect you, left you with deep wounds.
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”Isaiah 5:20
SOME LESSONS LEARNED
After a season of dealing with this in our own lives, here are some of the things I expressed as I worked through my feelings:
(regarding gaslighting behaviors) — I wish I had known about these behavior patterns earlier in my life. It would have saved a lot of heartache.
Understanding what is happening and that it has nothing to do with you is a game-changer in relationships with this sort of dynamic.
Two things I’ve learned through pain:
One: Avoid people who have a long history of once-close, now-divided, BROKEN relationships.
And Two: Be cautious of people who welcome you into their inner-circle when you barely know them.
Number one seems obvious, and yet within Christian circles, when someone has the position and appearance of godliness and respectability, it is easy to overlook and to make allowances for patterns that, in hindsight seem like obvious red flags.
Number two is a little less obvious, because it can just appear like a good Christian welcome. But there is a stark difference between a person or a group that is welcoming, versus one who immediately pulls you in to become one of their most intimate & trusted friends.
The best decision we ever made was the hardest decision we ever made. God guided us through it. Slander & loss of relationships followed. But freedom & peace has been ours ever since. And God provided WAY beyond what my 1/8 tsp of faith believed back then.
I praise Him.
When I say “freedom and peace has been ours,” I do not mean “happiness and ease.” It has been hard. Depression. Sorrow. Disbelief. Loss. Anger. Helping our kids through the same. Truly, I’m not fully the same person as before we did that hard thing.
BUT. THERE HAS BEEN SO MUCH GOOD. God has sent sunshine & spiritual growth & job opportunities & new friends & friendly encouragement from old friends along the way.
I praise Him.
The stress of a global crisis (for me) is small potatoes compared to the life-altering stress of my husband being mistreated, used, and lied about. I am so thankful we took deliberate steps away from ungodliness and toward freedom, joy, and light.
BIG IDEAS FROM OTHERS THAT HELPED ME PROCESS:
In the spiritually abusive organization, excessive charm becomes excessive condemnation the moment loyalty is betrayed. Any non-supporters are moved to crucibles of condemnation where the heat is turned up until their resistance is melted down and they either comply or leave.~Wade Mullen
“Sorrow is feigned, confession is partial, forgiveness is exploited, restitution is an afterthought, and reconciliation is an illusion, as long as the truth remains hidden.”~Wade Mullen
“When you have something to say, silence is a lie.”~Dr. Jordan B. Peterson
“I was literally hit by a bus and suffered multiple serious, life-changing injuries. But the pain & trauma of that was nothing compared to what I have endured as a result of the trolling, lies, misrepresentations I have endured by [other Christians]…”~Karen Swallow Prior
A culture that perpetuates abuse will question the motives of those who ask questions, make the discussion of problems the problem, condemn those who condemn, silence those who break silence, and descend upon those who dissent.~Wade Mullen
Features of narcissistic leadership:
-needs to be at center~@ChuckDeGroat
-praising and withdrawing
-fauxnerability (false vulnerability)
Toxic leaders proactively wall themselves off from negative feedback. If uninvited concerns do get over the wall, they might claim they were blindsided and that people should be more assertive. They erect barriers to truth-telling and then blame others for not speaking truth.~Wade Mullen
“A major source of injustice and frustration in this world is that those who need to be held accountable for their wrongdoings & those who have the power to investigate & hold them accountable, are the same people.”~Jacob Denhollander
A threatened intimidator will tarnish the credibility of those exposing his wrongs. He’s not so interested in controlling the behavior of the truth-teller as much as he is concerned about controlling public perception of the truth-teller. The public becomes his target.~Wade Mullen
Some ideas that helped me heal, after ungodly treatment from those I’d previously trusted:
1- Mourning and lament are appropriate responses to grievous things.
When people you’ve thought were friends or godly leaders reveal themselves to be manipulative liars, it’s rotten. Slander is tragic– and SIN. There’s grief involved when you’ve been used.
So, grieve. Don’t lock it away.
I wish we still wore black while in mourning. How differently would we treat others if they wore their grief visibly?~Tai French
Maybe friends who were once a regular part of your life don’t call or write you. Maybe they believe outright lies about you. Maybe they even participate in gossip about you.
Maybe you’re spiritually starved because of years of sitting under prosperity-teaching, or fact-based teaching without any heart, or heavy doses of law without any grace.
Maybe you were sexually abused.
Maybe spiritual leaders you once trusted poisoned your church experience.
Maybe you and your children have lost almost everything familiar and it feels like all hope is lost, and like nothing will ever feel normal again.
These are grievous things, and you don’t have to act like they’re not.
2- The people who stay are the ones who write the story.
“The killers are the ones who write the history; the victims are the ones who get written about.”~one writer, about the JFK assassination
I’ve read about this happening many times with abused wives who, once they file for divorce, are lied about by their abusive husband and have to leave their former church, in shame. Amidst life-altering pain, they are abandoned by– and slander is believed by– those who ought to be loving and serving and coming alongside them like Christ.
We knew this before we walked away. No matter who you are, almost always, once you leave a situation, the people who stay are the ones who get to reframe what happened.
“There are times in our lives when abusers take hold of the pen of our story, and when that happens you fear turning another page because you don’t know what the next paragraph or the next chapter might hold. You’ve lost control of your own narrative and it is now in the hands of others.”~Wade Mullen
It is common that in spiritual abuse situations, the people who did the harm are the ones who get to “tell” what happened. You can be sure that the story they tell, by design, will uphold their rightness and authority.
This means your story may be fully known in the eyes and ears of God alone.
3- Nevertheless, God sees.
THIS was the message that comforted the slave Hagar. And it was the message God gave to Moses to deliver to the Israelites in bondage:
He sees what’s true. He saw every mistreatment. He heard the lies you were told. He hears the lies spoken about you. He hears when His hurting people cry out to Him. He hears your whispered, grief-stricken, half-thoughts– the groans of the soul that you can’t even fully formulate or bear to mumble.
And He delivers.
Deliverance doesn’t always look like we think it should. It didn’t for the Israelites. It didn’t for the Jews of Jesus’ day. But it comes. And in part, it comes when we realize that God sees what’s true.
For the hurting heart, the truth that God sees everything with full accuracy CAN bring comfort to us, even as we grieve grievous things.
4- Don’t just run away– learn what you can from it.
Do I learn through dark providences, or simply seem relieved when they are over?-Sinclair Ferguson
When you’re being bullied, used, wrongly accused, or realize you’re in a cult, it’s natural to just want to get away.
But if you don’t deal with the things that happened, and try as best you can to observe where the missteps took place, and what you failed to see accurately that got you into that situation in the first place, you could potentially end up in Very-Similarly-Rotten-Situation, Part II.
So learn what you can.
For us, that meant: talking through the first times we saw “the man behind the curtain,” and why we dismissed what should have been plain to our eyes. It has meant owning up to naiveness, and which practices/decisions led to us failing to see what was (in hindsight) obviously happening.
It meant talking honestly about how our fears kept us there, and which personality traits we have that made us more willing to “roll with” or “let love cover” things that, in hindsight, were clearly wrong.
5- Trust that God WAS, indeed, “doing something.”
We don’t always get to know what God’s purposes ARE. But we always know that He HAS purpose in what He does.
The suffering that comes to us is not random. It is not just the flow of chance events that careen along without a plan. It is not crazy coincidence. It is not haphazard and undirected. It is easy for us to see suffering as blind chance, bad luck, or what others are doing to us.~Tedd Tripp
This can take time. When you’ve been through mistreatment by those you once called “Brothers,” it takes a while to sort things through with discernment, forgiveness, and grace. But as you have opportunities to make decisions in your soul, lean in to a remembrance of and hope in God.
His purposes WERE good. They always are. We can trust them, even when they “hurt like billy-o.” (Eustace, via C.S. Lewis)
6- Accept that much in life is outside our “control.”
“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”James 4:13-14
Some events, and some people may never make sense to you. But all of it is still overseen by a God who makes himself known and knowable.
7- It’s OK to start looking forward. Your life can be something new. And it can be GOOD.
“Better a dry crust eaten in peace than a house filled with feasting—and conflict.”Proverbs 17:1
The Proverb is true. It may not FEEL true in the interim period, when you are grieving the loss of familiar things, and establishing a new normal. But it is true.
It is better to have less, with peace in your heart, than to reside in a place filled with churning and conflict.
Through all of life, and through all of our conflicts, we have the good Prince of Peace who will carry us, counsel us, and walk beside us.
MORE RESOURCES ON THIS TOPIC:
- Wade Mullen: How to Spot Spiritual Abuse (video/talk)
- Making Sense of Abuse– Aimee Byrd (article)
- How to Recognize Spiritual Abuse in the Church (podcast)
- Use and Misuse of Power – Diane Langberg (video/talk)
- The First Shall Be Last: A Biblical Perspective on Narcissism – DC Robertsson
- excerpt about building a healthy church community from Something’s Not Right (book by Wade Mullen)