The start of the twenty-first century and the close of the twentieth century (the later half by fifty to thirty or so years depending on whom you talk to) was a period of time where dirty laundry and scandals in religion were aired out for the general public to see. Physical abuse, mental abuse, sexual abuse, cults, suicide pacts; all of these became news highlights and topics of psychology studies today. Yet, despite the news airing that there was one thing that wasn’t mentioned in both secular media and religious media: spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse (which I define as, “abuse or manipulation done by an individual who uses religion as the front to make the person do what is demanded or uses religion as the excuse for their behavior/demands”) is something that very few Christians know about and those who do don’t always acknowledge it. It’s the dirty little secret that is often swept under the rug. Not only that, it’s the one thing that no one expects to experience.
Like with other abuses and domestic violence the victim comes up with excuses. We justify the action because it feels like sacrilege to think that the missionary/pastor/Sunday schoolteacher is in the wrong. Excuses such as: I’ll do better next time, it’s my fault because I couldn’t meet the hours demanded of the ministry, it’ll never happen again, they were just having a bad day and I made it worse, and many, many others. Like the Roman Church of the medieval period, scripture and Biblical interpretation becomes so twisted that it becomes the poster child example of what Christianity should never be and what the start of a cult is.
It’s examples like these, and stories from those who have lived it, that compromise the integrity of faith, the religion, and even a community in the eyes of outsiders. It’s what proves atheists’ points and what makes the unsaved not want to touch religion with a fifty-foot pole. In personal opinion, it is probably a reason why children who grew up in church decide to never return. The feeling of manipulation that is attached with spiritual abuse might even be the reason why some decide to leave one religion for another or simply why those who grew up in church end up faithless as adults.
I’m going to drop professionalism for a moment and say that I’ve fought against writing this article for a while. Stubbornly, fought against it for weeks if not months. I started writing it, then deleted the draft, dabbled with rewriting it from a different angle, and deleted the document again. I didn’t even come up with a title until posting this. This is a topic that I despise all the way down to my bones because, despite my training in communications and even mental health first aid, I fell prey to it and ended up being a survivor of it. I grew up in a toxic relationship with faith and to paraphrase the experience, it was both harmful to my faith and to my health. Gaining self-respect was the only thing that got me out of the manipulation that loomed over my childhood and threatened my future as an adult. It was a tug-of-war over who was going to end up as the chew toy and I stubbornly didn’t realize I had to leave until a friend from a different religion smacked me upside the head. Yet, while I mentally left it took years to physically leave the situation of harassment and control. As an adult who grew up with that as the example of Christians, it is a miracle that I don’t damn the very thing I believe in. After seeing others who left the same church and doing a few interviews this is a topic I felt compelled to write because it’s that taboo topic of religion that needs to be shoved out of the shadows.
When we think of the perpetrators of abuse and even domestic violence, there’s a stereotype that says the person looks like trouble. This is rarely the case. The experience I had with spiritual abuse showed that the person doing the abuse is so charismatic you feel comfortable by their appearance, the appearance and social demeanor that makes you think that they cannot hurt a fly, but is so domineering and manipulative in private. So between excuses and appearance, you can end up being beaten down so badly but return because you feel like there is nothing to do other than put up with it. In the end, there’s a small bit of mistrust and paranoia because the blame falls on the victim and not the abuser.
That aspect of it became so deeply drilled into my mind and heart that my writing forte in fiction ended up being villains; the kind of villain that does not need a mask and a gun to be chilling, but rather was chilling because it was monster in human form. The villain that appearance says is the good guy but behavior makes him a psychopath. If there was ever a good thing to come from my experience on a mental aspect, it’s that I learned all forms of human behavior to the point that it impressed my teachers when grading the scripts and proses I turned in for assignments.
Like I said above, the thought of someone more spiritual than you being in the wrong is unsettling. The mere idea feels like walking into a church wearing the inverted pentagram or a, “Hail Satan” tee shirt. The idea is so farfetched that you never believe it’s possible until it has happened to you. It’s dangerous and something that every person, no matter the religion, should watch out for since it is a ticking time bomb in your life.
If you’re in such a situation, my advice is to gain enough self-respect to love yourself. If you honestly love and respect yourself you are not likely to stay and put up with the abuse. And remember, it is not your fault and you’re not alone in this.