Connections Between Spiritual and Sexual Abuse

In this episode, Dan and Rachael begin to talk about the connections between sexual and spiritual abuse. Sexual abuse is also spiritual abuse, but not all spiritual abuse involves clear sexual abuse. They discuss the nuances, definitions, and processes of these two types of abuse and the intimate connection between our bodies as image-bearers of our Creator and the violation that occurs when someone commits abuse against another. We enter into this episode knowing the topics of spiritual and sexual abuse carry a certain kind of heaviness for many of our listeners. Particularly in this season, please tend kindly to your body and know that you can return to listen another time if this is not right for you today.

Listener Resources

Episode Transcript

Dan: Today we enter a difficult conversation and we’re going to be making a link between sexual abuse and spiritual abuse and for many who have endured sexual abuse to bring in the category of spiritual abuse is not a common category and for many who have been spiritually abused, bringing in sexual abuse is not often done. So we’re aware that we’re going to be asking a great deal of us, a listener and for those of you who would say, I don’t have any clear spiritual abuse or sexual abuse. Let me just promise you if you’ve got more than four friends, you have good friends who have endured both spiritual abuse and sexual abuse. So as we step into this Rachael we’re in difficult water.

Rachael: We are and that’s why it’s going to be really important for anyone listening, ourselves included, to just tend wisely and kindly to your body in this season. So if this is material that you think, you know what is a little too close to home, I think I’ll come back and revisit this at another time, then know that This is a podcast. We’re going to record it. It will be there for you when you’re ready. And another thing I would just say is these are also very large, vast categories and we’re not going to have time into 30-minute conversations to address with nuance well places we actually love to address well. So it is our hope that this would be an ongoing conversation that can expand over time. And I will just say for myself when we’re talking about spiritual abuse on this podcast, we are coming from a Christian orientation and likely some spaces that are, I just am aware when you’re talking about sexual abuse and spiritual abuse, there is a lot of good material out there right now and that is really good because there are entire communities, collective communities of people who could say I have experienced sexual abuse that is spiritually abusive and there are people who can say, I’ve experienced spiritual abuse that is sexually abusive and so we won’t be able to tell everyone’s story and so I would also say as you’re listening, if there’s more you want to hear or resources that you think would be good for us to be listening to, we hope that you’ll always feel the freedom to engage with us

Dan: You know, Rachael as we step in after truly a sweet and kind pastoral moment. We’re underscoring that all sexual abuse we’ll talk a little bit about the nature of sexual abuse, but we’re really saying all sexual abuse is spiritual abuse and not all spiritual abuse involves direct, clear sexual abuse. So that’s part of the nuance here that is important to underscore and in that what we’re going to be asking you to at least consider is the relationship between the two. Yes, there are differences, but there is a kind of power that is there with regard to both in one sense, any form of supremacy that rules over the body and has the authority to in some sense describe prescribe or conscribe ends up having the high probability of some form of violation that category was made deeply clear by our dear friend and colleague Linda Royster who brought at least to me many years ago the reality that all white supremacy in that sense, all supremacy, all power that does not serve for human flourishing for the interplay of justice and mercy inevitably will misuse. And in that misuse will violate in some form of violence. And so it’s one of these categories that as you hear, absolute power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts in a way that steals something of innocence. It devours and in some sense, punishes. So we’re right back to two key categories. All violation is the interplay of lust and anger or adultery and murder. So if you can hold that as a beginning point, what we’re talking about ultimately is sin in the form of authority where someone uses and then violates and that describes the reality of both spiritual abuse, but also sexual abuse. 

Rachael: When I’m thinking about the link between sexual abuse and spiritual abuse you know, there is a lot of linkage between these two realities because any, I mean you said that any form of abuse in general always has some element of spiritual abuse because abuse is a violation of our personhood and our capacity to give and receive love and to have dignity and to believe that were made in the image of God and that is one of our inheritance is that we are people who are made in the image of God and not just in ourselves as an individual but in our connection and our capacity for union and play and co-creation with others. So any time there is a violation of being an image-bearer. So in some ways that’s when you talk about supremacy, supremacy is at its very base a violation of the dignity and truth of being an image-bearer. One made in the image of the triune God. And so when we think about that spiritual harm, that severing of our personhood, whether it’s coming through sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, something that causes us to turn our face away, something that causes us to distrust and actually find discussed in our own body. And it’s hard because we hear this word spiritual and it’s often so divorced from our sense of the body, but the body is the primary playground we’ve been given to actually be spiritual beings and again back to that sense of being image-bearers as ones who bear the glory of God in our capacity to be in relationship with others in a relationship in our communities and ultimately, like you said, building towards flourishing, and we know that spiritual abuse exists on a spectrum, right, that there’s a reality of spiritual abuse that can be very explicit. You have a direct authority figure in spiritual authority who is misusing their power at its most basic sense, they are misusing their power to control, to coerce, to manipulate. And again, like so many of the processes of grooming, which we’ll talk more about in a moment with spiritual abuse are very similar to the processes of grooming with sexual abuse and when those two realities emerge when the perpetrator of sexual abuse is actually literally a spiritual authority, a pastor, a mentor, a para-church ministry leader, a teacher at a school that is coming out of a kind of theological imagination or biblical imagination, the harm and the suffering that comes as so diabolical because it’s not only maybe this threat of a severing from relationship in the physical, it is a threat of a severing of relationship with God. So we’re in, we’re in these really where there is that Touch one, it’s very diabolical. 

Dan: Oh, I just like even talking about it, I find myself wanting to shake because that intersection is such a shattering of trust, trust between two human beings, but when you bring the reality of the face that is engaging you bear some sense of authorization from God. So there’s another being God involved in that process. And it became clear to me early on when I was working with an abused woman who told me that her abuser after one horrendous experience of abuse said to her, I will never leave you. You will always remember me always and the chill, I mean this is decades ago these words were spoken but it became obviously clear this evil perpetrator understood something of Christ’s words of, I will never leave you nor forsake you. And that abuser was putting himself in the position of saying every time, essentially your sexual, every time your body has any degree of pleasure of you will remember me, I will be with you always that sense of I will have power over your life forever.  I think this is again the reality for all abusers. But in this case, this man actually was articulate with that desire to shroud her life and consume her pleasure for the remainder of her life. And that it’s where you just have to step back and say as you said, well Rachael, this is diabolic. Even if the person is not consciously serving evil, there is no question that person is wanting to make sure you are bound to them for the rest of your life. I think it’s so important Rachel that we’d be clear that sexual abuse uh, may not involve physical touch. So whenever a person with power, and that can be just a child your own age yet who has much more knowledge and intentionality uses you for their sexual pleasure. Whether it’s through touch or visually or verbally, that is a violation of your dignity. As you put brilliantly, a violation of your body, which is the very temple of God. So in that sense, sexual abuse is a unique violation, but it bears so much similarity to the realm of spiritual abuse. 

Rachael: And when we talk about spiritual abuse again, it’s really, I know it can be confusing because we’re talking about a very specific kind of abuse that is utilizing given spiritual authority that we, as people lend often lend our leaders whether that’s good or bad or wise, that’s a conversation for another day. But where when someone in spiritual authority or even a concert of spiritually authoritative concept gets utilized to wield power in an abusive way. And that abuse again can involve extreme examples where we see people in what we would think of as a cult where there are very rigid boundaries of who’s in and who’s out. But that spiritual abuse can also play out with bad theology that’s being used to control or exploit fear or to use shame as a weapon of control. So we can look at, I mean, we can look at some of these movements, like the purity movement of the early ’90s, I think the churches posture and treatment of the LGBTQ+ community with regard any time there is a—when fear and shame are used as tools to isolate to violate to divide we are in the realm of spiritual abuse and those are areas where we are in the realm of where spiritual abuse is directly connected to sexuality and it is in a really, I think dangerous and violating playground and so spiritual abuse exists on a spectrum, but it’s those places where your own autonomy, your body. I mean, there’s always a direct assault on the body and spiritual abuse. It’s one of the primary tools that’s being used. You don’t, you can’t, your body is deceitful, can’t trust it. It’s not, you need my authority. God is disgusted with your body. It’s a cutting off of wisdom. Ultimately, it’s a cutting off of wisdom and a lie to say my wisdom is better and more godly. And we’ll give you more access to God. And so I always think of for me in some ways, my simple definition of spiritual abuse is just when someone actually thinks they have the power to tell you if and when you are outside of the love of God, it’s ultimately a posture of spiritual abuse and lacks profound wisdom and humility 

Dan: And that’s a profound and crucial definition. And the only thing I would add is I see it as a conquest of the other through contempt and any time irrespective of what I believe about X, Y, or z within a doctrinal range of understanding whenever I treat another human being with contempt that will violate their human dignity in a way that hardly anything else will do. Ultimately, the abuser, sexually the abuser spiritually is using the power of their body to control, but in that control it isn’t just control. So they get what they want. There is something about that impulse to not just conquest, but to kill to demean to degrade and ultimately in that sense, to bring contempt against the other. So important to step back and say, how often does spiritual abuse occur in communities where at least at first things look, well, there’s a grooming process, you brought that up earlier, There’s an actual process, generally speaking for both sexual abuse and spiritual abuse. And how would you describe that? 

Rachael: Well, I mean, grooming is honestly, I hate talking about grooming, it makes me so mad because it mirrors what we’re meant for. It is an again, it is a misuse of attunement that we’re meant for, of being read well, of our needs being anticipated of being seen in ways we long to be seen and invited two belonging, um that our hearts long for. So I think there is a grooming whether it’s in a primary sexually abusive way, or a primary spiritually abusive way is always going to involve some invitation to belonging, invitation to care, invitation to connection, um, that ultimately were made for. But in our own wounding may not see it as being exploited by someone who knows, um, if they offer good care or they offer an invitation to safety or belonging. Then something at us is going to be like, yes, I want that. So you see that obviously, I mean when we talk about some pretty kind of textbook spiritual abusers, you’ve got a lot of people who are in leadership positions who work with kids, teachers, scout leaders, pastors, camp counselors, parents, uncles, aunts. However you want to talk about it and no, there’s as you named also piers. But these are people who are already in positions of authority, um, who are supposed to read children well, supposed to read people well, well, and again, I’ll be a therapist to that list. And as we, in one sense, what we’re talking about is often that individual who set you up and it’s an important phrase, grooming is a setup. 

Dan: It is a form, I don’t know a better word than the words seduction, but it is not primarily spiritual or sexual, but it is a use of care and kindness and attunement to draw you into the net. So by the time you are in the web there has been so much goodness that you have taken in and in that goodness, your body, your heart, your joy has had some level of rise and therefore you’re in some sense Now in the bonds that will become bondage and in that bondage, what I find is that the next stage of this grooming is I bind you to me uniquely. Like there is something very special about you and me and in that very special relationship uh sometimes secret, sometimes uh struggles are shared. There is a kind of, there is a hold we have together that binds us and you’re not like anyone else, you bear wisdom of goodness. And so every one of us wants to not only be seen, but deeply valued and enjoyed. And this is where oftentimes there will be statements about, you know, you are so beautiful. There’s somebody like you, there’s no soul like you. So that specialness eventually comes to be the basis by which we look back and say, how could I have been such a fool? How could I have been so stupid and you can already hear the sense of complicity and blame. That begins to rise because connection begins to open the door to a level of comfort that then gets taken to control and that is you can’t do X, you need to do why. And so there will be a setting of parameters about what is acceptable and what is not and often that may feel constructive, but for many of us, it feels like, oh someone is providing me with clarity about how to live well. So even then scripture gets used as the guard rails as to don’t do this, but do this and this is where it’s so hard to, to take apart. Sometimes the guard rails are really true, but they’re being offered as the truth to control, not a truth to actually create human flourishing, but it’s almost impossible that the early stages to see the intentionality of that person because so much is already so well. 

Rachael: Well, I think you’re tapping into that reality where there’s complicity and blame, there’s so much shame and shame is such an effective tool of isolation and control because it’s one of the most unbearable I think human experiences. You know when we feel humiliation and shame, it’s almost that feeling of, I’m so bad, I’m so disgusting. There will be no love for me, There will be no welcome. There will be no goodness for me. I wish I could fall into this hole and disappear. It is in some ways, a desire to cease to exist at its core, That feeling of like, you know, I don’t want to be here. And when I mean, the shame that we are bound to when sexual abuse happens is so profound, right? It’s that sense of if you tell anyone about this, your parents won’t love you if you tell anyone about this or the threat of further violence or further violation, but I think when there is a spiritually abusive element to it, it’s God won’t love you, you be exiled from this whole community and not only will you be exiled, you’ll be scapegoated. You see what happens to people who sin to sinners in this community. They bear the rage, they bear the contempt, um, they bear the exile. And so there’s an added layer of isolation and shame. And when we’re talking about spiritual abuse that’s playing out in a community, there’s also often an invitation to join in the perpetration of, of, you know, whether it’s explicitly or implicitly to kind of bring similar ideas and control and manipulation to others so that you can stay in belonging. So it’s a very powerful fusion in the ways that it fragments that it brings fragmentation of our brains. Our bodies are arousal structures, are relationships, but I think primarily our capacity to imagine and experience a relationship with God. 

Dan: Well, to underscore that to say, you know, your body is having to shut down because as the abuse continues, the greater the control of the greater the contempt, something in your body knows there’s violation. Yet if you know that you lose all the benefits of what the perpetrator has offered. So in that sense, it’s part of the blame. You see, I wanted his care, her care, I wanted that attunement and then when it’s actual sexual touch one’s body actually feels some degree of arousal and pleasure. So with all that it becomes the judgment base, that in some ways the abuser and ultimately the ultimate abuser, evil is attempting to accomplish that you join in the assault of your own self and body so that you create Now, in one sense, a spiritual abuse of yourself, sexual abuse of yourself. And that’s just crazy-making, I mean, even saying it, the body shuts down but is more roused, one feels more connected, yet more disconnected. And in all that fragmentation, what often happens is there is no one you can trust. So if it’s a pastoral figure, who you’re going to tell, if it’s a therapist who will believe you and not only believe you, but actually help you begin to move toward any level of care of being able to address the harm and to be able to find both justice and mercy for your own body. So I think what we’re saying is the brilliance of both. The interplay, dark brilliance of the interplay of sexual abuse and spiritual abuse. It turns you against your ability to trust God. It turns you against your own ability to trust your body and yourself. And in that you are so isolated that literally, this kind of harm can perpetuate over long periods of time, which only adds more blame. So before we end, uh, and we will come back to address what are the steps, even though we don’t believe in the methodology of steps. What what’s the process by which a person can begin to address this? But I don’t think we can end without in one sense saying we believe, we believe that the courageous, difficult work of owning. I don’t trust being able to even name that it’s a form of trust. It’s a form of acknowledgment of what your body and heart and spirit have endured and to be able to begin to step away and to bear some of that loss in isolation begins the process that we will try uh and walk you through when we return. 

Rachael: And I would also say that we believe that the living God is not bound to all the false images of God that so many of us have been given, especially by those in spiritual leadership and authority in our midst. And so we do believe that the gracious and wild and so kind. God who honors our personhood because God created our personhood delights in our personhood will be at work. Is that work has been network and will continue to be at work on all of our behalf.