Last fall, I unexpectedly encountered someone I haven’t seen in decades.
Mercifully, it was in a crowded setting where we did not have to interact, and I don’t think he ever saw me. I didn’t even recognize him at first. But when I was young and impressionable, that person-across-the-way deeply impacted my life through manipulative abuse of his position and influence.
As I look back now (with 43-year-old eyes and insights), I am shocked at the situation I got into, and that I could not see how unhealthy it was. But I was young and trusting.
He had authority and influence, and I was manipulable.
Manipulable- (adj) capable of being manipulatedMerriam-Webster
Unfortunately, that high school experience was not the last time I would be used and manipulated by someone in authority over me. I wish I had paid attention way back then, and taken time to learn some of the things I’m going to share here– how to be more discerning and less manipulable.
Wade Mullen is a former pastor who has studied the ways pastors abuse their position and influence, and identified “impression-management techniques” churches and organizations use to control the narrative after they have been accused of abusive behavior.
“The person who occupies a position of power—and the deference with which they are treated because of that position—is [an] important factor in creating an abusive environment.”Wade Mullen, “Something’s Not Right”
Some Christians write off “power dynamics”- but we’d be foolish to do that. Differences in power and position matter. Throughout Scripture we see God’s heart for the poor, the hurting, the powerless, the weak, the needy. For a variety of reasons, those not in authority are more easily manipulable by those with authority.
Parents, government officials, and pastors possess varying levels of authority and influence in people’s lives. Simply by way of their positional authority, they have access to private information, interact with people in vulnerable situations, and are trusted by those who need their help. Therefore, people in authority ought to be above reproach, humble, trustworthy, and kind in the ways they exercise their influence.
When deference and power are given to someone whose character is lacking, it is dangerous. When it happens in the church, it is wicked.
It is a wicked abuse of trust when someone with influence and authority uses his skill with words to lie, conceal the truth, and control the thinking, behavior, and decisions of those who trust him. That is manipulation.
And yet, we are humans interacting in a fallen world.
Wishing that no one in power would ever seek to manipulate doesn’t accomplish anything.
Jesus warned us of exactly this:
“Look, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.”Matthew 10:16
Sheep are vulnerable. Specifically, we are vulnerable to attack by wolves. AND THAT’s who Jesus says we will be “among” as we walk in this world. As Christians, we walk around with other believers, and also with those who seek to manipulate and devour us. Therefore Jesus calls us to grow in other characteristics– to be “innocent” (pure, blameless, sincere, without mixed intentions) and also become more “shrewd” (practically wise, sensible, intelligent, prudent, savvy).
To obey Jesus, we must grow in our discernment and understanding of manipulative tactics.
Jesus calls us to become less manipulable.
WHAT DOES MANIPULATION LOOK LIKE?
In order to grow less manipulable, we have to learn what a manipulative person looks like. While we might expect a sinister, cruel, and devious appearance, that’s almost never the case. We’re not looking for cartoon-villain characteristics.
“Every person in my life that later showed themselves to be abusive and harmful to others was at some point exceedingly kind to me.”Wade Mullen, “Something’s Not Right”
People who manipulate and use others may seem very kind and friendly on first inspection. In fact, a common attribute of abusers is that they appear charming and know how to blend in. Of course this must be true; otherwise, everyone would instinctively run away from them! Their winsome persona is part of the ploy.
Manipulative people may do things like:
- quickly draw people in to a deeper interpersonal level than accurately and appropriately reflects the existing depth of relationship
- compliment/flatter the one being drawn in
- refer to the one being manipulated with phrases like “dear friend” or “the only one I can be totally honest with”
- begin the relationship by some great gift or act of service, creating a debt of gratitude and good impression
- pretend to depend on the one who is being manipulated
The person being drawn in feels appreciated, useful, liked, or noticed.
“Ingratiation through charms—flattery, favors, and alliances—exploits our desire for acceptance, our value of kindness, our acceptance of favors, and our occasional need for another’s help.”Wade Mullen, “Something’s Not Right”
The manipulator presents a false exterior, concealing their true goals and desires, in order to gain trust and begin to use others for their own advantage.
“At its core, manipulation is a type of lying. When someone speaks falsely for the purpose of deception, he or she is being manipulative, because to deceive is to manipulate someone into thinking or behaving a certain way. So all of the Bible’s prohibitions against lying can be applied to manipulation. Lying is a dreadful sin.
Satan is the “father of lies” (John 8:44). We might also call him the “master of manipulation.”Here’s more on manipulation (in biblical terms: “lying/deception”) from GotQuestions.org.
BY GROWING IN DISCERNMENT, WE CAN HELP OTHERS
After we realize we have been manipulated, we must become wiser and more discerning to avoid being manipulated again, but also, in order serve others around us. By growing in discernment, we can help others avoid the harms we have experienced.
Wade Mullen warns about the danger of sticking our heads in the sand about those who manipulate others:
“if we ignore, minimize, justify, or excuse what we see to avoid disruption, then we help create space for deceivers to continue their charades-allowing their hearts to grow darker, the abuse to become serial, & more innocent people to be placed in harm’s way.”Wade Mullen, “Something’s Not Right”
Pondering times that I’ve been manipulated in the past, I’ve learned my own naiveness and lack of awareness of the possibility of hidden motivations, made me manipulable. And in fact, these tendencies still threaten me today. Unless I work to learn and grow from past situations where I was naive, I lean toward that old pattern of giving unearned trust to unproven people.
A few years ago, we took deliberate steps away from a very ungodly, unhealthy church situation. At the time that we left, I had not yet grasped the whole truth about the deceptive leaders. Like my teenage self with that abuser, my heart kept trying to only see the “good” in the people who had manipulated and used us. I wanted to believe that I had not misplaced my trust. I also wanted to believe that their actions were harmful toward us only, but that (surely) this was not how they treated people in general.
I was not yet seeing them accurately.
When you’ve been deceived for years, it takes time to see through the manipulation.
GROWING MEANS FACING THE TRUTH ABOUT MYSELF
But also, I want to confess something: In addition to telling the truth about manipulators, I have had to be willing to tell the truth, about myself:
I was naive.
I was naive for many reasons. Here are some I have identified, so far:
- I am too trusting. My desire is to believe that people have good intentions, and are on the inside what they are presenting to be on the outside. Because of this, I can override red flags that I should heed.
- I was trained to trust and honor authorities, and to submit to leaders especially in ministry settings. I ignored Holy-Spirit-given discernment and blindly followed this idea of “honoring” leaders unquestioningly.
- I wanted to believe that those authorities were honorable. If they weren’t, it would mean that my investment in that system/”ministry” was foolish. (AKA, I was biased and giving in to the sunk cost fallacy.)
- And I can now see that I had a biased perspective because I’d received flattery and faux honor.
- Probably other things too. I am still processing and seeking to grow in this.
By admitting this about myself, I want to clarify: this does not let manipulators off the hook. I do not believe that victims of predatory leadership bear responsibility for their own harm. Leaders who deceive and use those who trust them are wrong and will give an account to God for their sin.
But I do mean that I can see ways that, were I to encounter the same circumstances now, I would engage my God-given discernment. I would ask more questions. I would heed the warnings of the Holy Spirit, and not hastily wave away concerns when they pop up (especially when they frequently pop up!). Regardless of a person’s title/job, I would wait to give trust and honor when it is rightfully earned by proven character.
WRONG “CHRISTIAN” THINKING
Additionally, two factors that contributed to my naiveness are worth pondering publicly:
#1- Some Christian principles had been wrongly applied in my thinking:
- “believe the best,”
- “let love cover,”
- “honor your leaders,” and
- “turn the other cheek”.
None of these phrases mean that we are to cover up darkness, believe something contrary to the plain truth, partner with wolves, or tolerate unrepentant sin from people in leadership. The deacon and elder qualifications make clear: being in leadership isn’t just about what’s taught– it requires personal holiness and a spiritual maturity that should be plain to all.
and #2- I was NOT rightly applying other Christian principles:
- “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness; instead expose them.”
- “speaking the truth in love;”
- “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”
- “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”
It is wrong to give unquestioning loyalty to human leaders. I was wrong to do that.
Biblically, it is entirely possible for those who are called “shepherds” to be harsh, selfish plunderers who are harming and scattering the sheep, using them for their own advantage, rather than nourishing and protecting them. In fact, God rebuked the shepherds of Israel for exactly that:
“‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you …who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? … You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals.
…‘Therefore, you shepherds, …I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. ‘”(excerpts from Ezekiel 34)
So, what does it look like to turn from being manipulable?
When we repent from old ways, it means that we have to learn new, godly ways.
If we realize we have been under manipulative church leaders, we are to walk in the light, speak the truth in love, warn others, and be discerning about shepherds of whatever future church we join. While we absolutely want to avoid malicious, angry retaliatory speech, it is right to speak the truth in love. God calls His children to expose unfruitful works of darkness, because wicked deeds, and those who do them, can not stand the light.
God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.1 John 1:5
“light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”John 3:19-21
“It is okay, & even ethical, to bring dark secrets into the light, provided the goal of exposure isn’t to shame the abuser just for the sake of condemnation but to expose them as an act of mercy-for the abuser’s future health & for the protection of others.”Wade Mullen, “Something’s Not Right”
at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.Ephesians 5:8-14
We can’t avoid coming up against manipulative people in life. But we can grow in identifying them, their patterns, and the way they prey on the people around them. And we can refuse to look the other way, or (worse) partner with them. Though we are sheep, and wish everyone around us were also sheep, we can live in reality and become more skilled at identifying wolves. We can go into situations with our eyes open, equipped with the Spirit of God, and growing in discernment, so that we are better able to notice ungodly behavior, warn others, and walk away sooner.
We can also repent of ways that we have supported/given credence to ungodly people. In recent years, after walking away from ungodly leaders, I’ve benefitted from many conversations with people who were willing to share with me the ways I contributed to their confusion and harm by my support of those leaders. It’s been a gift to seek forgiveness, to listen to others who were also harmed by those predatory leaders, and to learn, so that I can learn to walk with greater discernment.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER:
If you wonder if you’ve been manipulable in the past, here are some questions that have helped me examine the past and take steps forward:
- What “red flags” or concerning behaviors did I overlook? Am I more attentive to these now?
- What motives fueled my approval/trust of the manipulative individuals? How can I turn away from letting that motive rule me?
- Are there things I am accepting or “approving of” (or, even “just” giving a pass to) that are actually detestable?
- Given that I failed to see things then, are there “plain” things I am not seeing properly in my current life?
- Am I honestly evaluating the character of leaders in my life?
- Am I listening and submitting to the warnings of the Holy Spirit?
- Are there people I need to warn, or seek forgiveness from, because I contributed to them trusting untrustworthy people?
These are some that come to mind for me, and have consumed much of my thinking over the past few years.
Some of this is why I’ve waited to write here. I had heart-level processing to do about the past, before I could move forward. I’ve been pondering the past paths of my feet, and considering how God might deeply change me in the present, so that I can, with His help, avoid such grave and costly missteps in the future.
What about you? Have you been manipulated in the past? Did certain principles, misapplication of Bible verses, or big ideas contributed to your manipulability?
If you are willing, comment and share, please, so that we all can learn and benefit from the things you’ve experienced and the discernment you’ve gained! Circumstances like these are difficult; they change us. But as we go through the difficulties, and as we change, we can help others by sharing the lessons learned, as well as insights given to us by the Lord.
May we all become more discerning and less manipulable!
Grace & Peace,
FOR FURTHER READING:
- When Your Faith is Shaken By Spiritual Abuse
- 13 Life-Preserving Ideas for Recovering from Spiritual Abuse
4 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse: Grow More Discerning and Be Less Manipulable”
Good stuff! I’m learning similar but in a different setting. The damage of “put the best construction on all they do” from the catechism (8th commandment) has excused a lot of red flags and misbehavior and allowed it to continue. Boundaries is what I’m learning right now, that existed only in certain settings.
Written very eloquently and Scripturally backed which is most important. You are speaking about a very important topic that many dont want to talk about. Thank you