Listener Feedback: Spiritual Abuse

This week on the podcast, Dr. Dan Allender and Rachael Clinton, Assistant Director of Program Development and Admissions, respond to feedback about our recent series on spiritual abuse. From the volume of responses, it is clear that this category strikes a deep and personal chord for many listeners, and we did not want to let this moment pass without acknowledging the complexity of this crucial conversation.

Dan: “Let’s define spiritual abuse well. It’s where you’re bound by a person of great power who necessitates a particular direction in order to keep relationship with them.”

Rachael: “These are categories that are not coming up in everyday conversations, and yet the response we’ve gotten has told me they probably should be.”

Dan reflects on his own experience of listening to the series, hearing Rachael share her experience, and realizing that he has experienced spiritual abuse in the past without directly naming it as such. Indeed, we have heard from many people have engaged other categories of abuse in their stories but have felt like spiritual abuse was the realm where they were most prohibited from receiving healing from God.

Rachael: “It’s not like any of us find ourselves in the throes of a spiritually abusive narcissist because we are drawn to darkness. We’re drawn to this appearance of light that is giving us life. And that is what feels so insidious.”

It breaks my heart to think that people feel the only option is to leave God and leave the faith.

Responding to questions they have heard from others, Rachael and Dan return to a few ideas mentioned in previous episodes that need to be approached with nuance and thoughtfulness. Because of its insidious nature, wrestling with the implications of spiritual abuse calls into question our understanding of the nature of God and our capacity for receiving life from community.

Rachael: “Because God had become so distorted in this spiritually abusive context, I know now that what I was rejecting was this false image of God, and really saying, I would rather go it alone and find something of life and air and breath than to be in this bondage. And that was a scary thing for me.”

Dan reflects on having met many people who have experienced spiritual abuse and now live as if leaving that context necessitates leaving faith in God. It’s another hallmark of spiritual abuse: the rigid, inflexible boundaries, the strong sense of in or out, mean that if you reject this community you’re rejecting God. Those who leave these insidious, harmful contexts often become suspicious of anything that has to do with God or religion. It is an escape into cynicism, a movement that keeps us bound to the system of harm we tried to flee.

Rachael: “That cynical move is a move of dismembering, it’s a move of disembodiment. The risk is, you’re no less bound to that abusive context or to that abuser when there has to be that much defense in order to stay safe. There’s a loss of freedom that is absolutely heartbreaking.”

Part of healing, then, means recognizing that God is not bound to any one community, and that it is indeed safe to bring our questions, complaints, and laments to God—our God who lacks the dangerously reactive ego of a narcissist. It is a movement that requires us to address the vows we have made to protect ourselves from harm, and the ways that the dogmatic structures of abuse continue to haunt us long after leaving the abusive context.

Rachael: “Those vows are so connected to others-centered contempt and self-contempt. […] There’s still an indictment on your own heart, that you were complicit in something like that. Jesus wants to bring freedom to those places where your heart has been named dark because of the harm in that community, and wants to tend to the places where you actually do long for communion, you do long for care, you do long for a place to bring your gifts and participate in the Kingdom of God that is unfolding all around us.”