Suspicion and Loyalty in Spiritual Abuse

This week, in our series returning to the crucial category of spiritual abuse, Rachael Clinton and Dan Allender continue unpacking the implications and consequences of abusive mind control, which distorts our desire for attunement in order to foster suspicion and mistrust. (We know that’s a mouthful. Be sure to listen to last week’s episode if you haven’t yet!)

Rachael: “I would say one of the most pervasive consequences is fear—a fear to explore, to question, to rethink. […] There is a genuine, primal, very embodied fear that if I question, if I explore, if I rethink, I’m going to have profound loss of relationship. I will be punished. But I think if we’re honest, depending on the level of mind control, the actual, deep-seated fear is that I might actually cease to exist.”

Dan: “Exactly. Part of the dilemma is, a lot of people that I’ve had the privilege to work with actually feel more terror when they begin to move away from the black and white. There is a comfort—at least initially, we’re drawn to narcissists. They offer management, control, power, charisma—all the goodies of arousal while also all the safeties of what feels like true attachment. And yet, of course, in their own empty absorption and also cruelty, they’re going to eventually run over you. And it will always be your fault—that’s one of the byproducts.”

If you begin to step out of the black-and-white dogmatism of spiritual abuse, you will likely experience a sense of dysregulation and profound isolation. You have lost your sense of connection to God, you have learned to be suspicious of yourself, and the people who had been your primary community are likely closing ranks once again—with you now on the outside. In that lonely, fragmented place, it can be so easy to turn against ourselves—I’m such a fool for getting caught up in that, I should have seen it sooner—or vow to never trust again, to never open ourselves to needing attunement or community or the care of God.

Dan: “It really does feel like a stain and violation that’s never going to have healing.”

Rachael: “And then this heartbreaking—this makes me so furious—this heartbreaking sense that part of the setup has also been a deep suspicion and fear of outsiders. You need community to heal, you need deep, good friendships, you might need work with a therapist, but you have been set up to distrust any person outside of this community.”

What does it look like to find a new sense of self after spiritual abuse? How can we begin to move toward even a glimpse of light and hope? Rachael and Dan engage a few essential categories, including curiosity and slowly rebuilding a willingness to learn and explore outside the rigid boundaries we have known. First and foremost, though, Dan and Rachael invite us back to that which spiritual abuse most fundamentally sabotages: hope.

Rachael: “I believe in the depth of my bones that healing is possible, and that Jesus is beyond capable of revealing himself, revealing Godself to us in ways that will dismantle every evil structure of spiritual abuse that would like to keep us imprisoned. That feels like a declaration I want to say with deep bone conviction, that Jesus is capable of revealing himself in ways that are kind, that are powerful, that are for us.”

Dan: “To start with a very core premise: Jesus is not bound to white supremacy. Jesus is not bound to capitalism. Jesus is not bound to the western way. Jesus is not bound to a particular denomination. […] Most of our understandings of Jesus are really some interplay of the Jesuses that Jesus is not.”

So often, well-meaning people encourage those who are emerging from spiritual abuse to jump into new, healthier versions of old, harmful practices or structures. We might recommend a particular church as a safe place to start over, or advocate for habitual prayer or Scripture reading. But for those in that place of dissociation and universal mistrust, there might first need to be a season that looks entirely different—a season in which the silenced parts of yourself can begin finding a voice again, and you can be reborn.

Rachael: “How about you let God do the work of laboring you anew, of breathing new life into you. And trusting that God wants to do that, and is not demanding that you have to have airtight belief with no doubt and no heartache. Because in this context, the doubt is actually just trauma. It’s trauma and fragmentation.”

Dan: “If we will allow ourselves to be shaped not by a narrow, black-and-white view, it opens the door to who Jesus is, what he’s accomplished for us, and what it is for us to be in a beloved relationship.”