Healing from Spiritual and Sexual Abuse
Today on the podcast, Dan and Rachael finish a conversation on spiritual and sexual abuse by discussing the impact of these types of abuse and ways we can begin to find healing. They acknowledge that at times it can be difficult to distinguish between the two, determine which came first, or how they affect the other, which is to be expected—these abuses are complex and nuanced. As you listen to the episode, can you begin to wonder: How can you begin to heal, to enter your story and honor your body without causing more harm to yourself?
- Explore our past podcast episodes about the nature and impact of spiritual abuse
- Listen to the first episode of a series, “Sexual Brokenness and Healing”
- Watch Dan talk about “Changing Realities of Sexual Abuse”
Dan: Rachael when we entered our last episode, you said a really important sentence that I think will be very helpful to begin our conversation today.
Rachael: I just was reflecting that I am aware we’re talking about categories that get real blended and confusing. Are we talking about sexual abuse? Are we talking about spiritual abuse? Are we talking about spiritually abusive sexual abuse? Are we talking about sexually abusive spiritual abuse? And I think in some ways we’re aware that there is weaving and a place where there’s connection in a place where there’s kind of some parsing out of what is what, but what is so hard to do in this regard is that in many ways spiritual abuse can be an umbrella for so many forms of abuse. It’s a playground and a place and a pathway, a certain type of grooming, so to speak. But as Dan said, we also can say all sexual abuse has some element of spiritual abuse, even if that’s not the primary goal and or you know what is playing out. So I just want to own we’re aware we are in some territory that could feel a little confusing, but I think we both have experience of working with so many people who would say yes, the primary harm in my life I want to engage is this experience of sexual abuse, but I’m also aware it happened and in a spiritual environment or with a spiritually authoritative person. So not only does it impact my body, my own physical body, but it impacts my capacity to be a part of the larger body of Christ that I’d long to be a part of. So in some ways we are talking about that place where maybe you’ve come to name whether it was a priest or a pastor or whether it was, you know, a theological kind of demand or biblical mandate that was being used to control or bring harm to your body. But you would say, I know I have experienced a form of sexual abuse that in many ways almost the sister to it is a form of spiritual fragmentation, spiritual harm, spiritual violation, that sometimes I can’t quite parse out which harm is worse and I feel so stuck as dan was saying at the end of our last conversation, because not only do I feel isolated from my own body and maybe from my family, I feel isolated from God and from access to a healing power that I actually know I’m meant for somewhere, but I can’t trust at all and any reference to God to Jesus, to the holy spirit to church, to these rituals that are meant to be sustaining is triggering. So in many ways, we’re trying to speak to that place where there has been a fusion, that it is actually hard to parse out. And sometimes you can’t take on all of that work at once. Sometimes you do have to move towards healing work in a certain way, but we do know ultimately so much of the healing does have to take place in an embodied way. So that’s some of our hope as we enter this conversation today to get into some of the mess of that place for those of you who could say I don’t doubt and I’m so aware that I have experienced a violation of my sexuality and it feels explicitly connected to a violation of my spirituality
Dan: And some of that as you put, well is positional, the sense of a priest, a pastor, a youth pastor, et cetera, a therapist. But some of it is a process. I’m thinking of a client who would go next door to an older man, a grandfather-like figure who would have her sit on his lap and he would read scripture to her and she loved to sing. So he would bring out a hymn book and they would sing together. I won’t go any further other than to say that was the grooming process for eventual sexual abuse. So be it positional or a process when you use the things of God as part of the attunement and arousal structure of creating connection. You’ve got the darkest, clearest form of the interplay of spiritual and sexual abuse, but there are other times where I’ve worked with people who had a significant spiritual leader in their life In one sense dressed them tell them what to wear, tell them how they look, tell them that they are, this is dangerous. You should not be wearing this because you’re going to arouse others. But in one sense, in that level of control over one’s appearance, there is a kind of, I don’t even like the word, a kind of like spider-like intrusion. I am determining your identity. I’m determining how you present yourself to the world and there is an investment in when I say your appearance in that sense, in your body’s power and in that there is a, I think subtler more nuanced, but nonetheless, equally invasive, controlling and in some sense destructive presence of both spiritual and sexual abuse. So we’re talking about overt, but we can also be talking about far more subtle forms of spiritual abuse that actually even if it doesn’t involve, direct touch is sexually abusive because there is a kind of judgment and violation of the temple of God, your body. One of the things that I see so often is the level of self-blame for both sexual abuse, but then when it’s added two more overt clear spiritual abuse is so often this he knew me, he saw me and I’ve never been delighted in, I’ve never felt so much honor as I felt until the control started to get darker and darker and darker. But by that point, I’m in the web and I don’t know what to do with how good it was and now in the darkening, I know if I address it, I’m going to lose. And so that’s that juncture of what feels like we go back to this word complicity, you feel complicit for remaining and yet that’s where so much accusation, judgment, and frankly self-hatred seems to be at play.
Rachael: Absolutely. And I mean I can say for myself as a 16-year old, I mean those who have listened to some of our episodes are past episodes on spiritual abuse. No, that part of my story is that I was set up in a relationship with one of my youth leaders at 16 and that relationship was a very abusive and lasted for a 3, 3.5 year period. And as I entered therapeutic work later as a in my 20s and started doing really good work. That particular, I would say developmental moment of that 16-year-old because she was, it was her first significant crush where there was possibility and it was something at that age that was just for me, part of the spiritually abusive set up as a young woman in a southern baptist context that said my calling to be who I am was not right and I needed to be with like a strong male figure who could kind of provide a covering for me in order for me to use my gifts. There was a setup. I need to be with someone in spiritual leadership so that I can be who I am and they need to be big and strong and powerful so that I can be as big as I need to be without being an abomination or a violation. So for me that fusion of arousal and calling that this is a way I can say yes to my calling. And so not only is the threat if I get out of this that I have, I chose this, I wanted this, I’m letting down God because this is what I’m called to and I’m gonna lose my calling, I’m going to lose. So when I think about that 16-year-old for so long in any kind of therapeutic engagement, I just could not even look at the way I would say. It’s like I couldn’t even look at her she was so threatening to me like so dangerous. Almost got us killed with her stupid arousal and her stupid desire and how could she have just been so pathetic. I mean you can hear, I don’t feel that way at all towards her now. And in fact, when I was dating my husband, you know that part of me started freaking out. How can I trust myself to choose love well? I mean look at the choice I made the very first time and I remember him saying to me when I was just like I am incredibly anxious. Like I really trust your 16-year-old. I think she hears really well and she sees really well. And so I think you’re right on that feeling of we have banished these parts of us. We have absolutely banished them. And part of what we know to be true about the healing process is we’ve got to find a way to get closer to them in our memory in the story but also in our bodies.
Dan: I don’t know how to say it better. There is no change without trust but the fabric has been so ripped by mistrust and legitimate mistrust that to step into now working with a pastor working with a therapist even sharing one’s own story with a good good friend is so dangerous and feels so foolish which is why people isolate and sometimes literally hold these kinds of stories for decades like decades until and we don’t know what prompts that moment of just going, I can’t live like this any longer. And a lot of times things will leak out dreams. A comment to a friend, a kind of statement like I would never go talk to a pastor ever. I mean the kind of adamancy and contempt becomes then noted by someone to be able to go well how come and it leaks but what we want to do iin this episode is to say how can we be of some level of help to enter the debris without doing more damage to yourself. And that’s so crucial to be able at least from my standpoint to be able to say honor, honor, your mistrust. Your mistrust is so legitimate and frankly so lovely. Thank God you’ve named you don’t trust me. Thank God you’ve been able to say I don’t trust men, I don’t trust men in authority. I don’t trust men who are spiritual and authority because you wouldn’t have told me that truly if there wasn’t even just a molecule that’s all I need a molecule of trust to be able to name your mistrust. And in some ways, it’s where I’m so comforted by the Psalms and how the Psalms take on the living God. I just happened to read Psalm 88 this morning, which is the only song that ends with basically darkness is my best friend. Take that God. You know, there are a lot of Psalms of complaint and lament but they pretty much always end with a slight note of you know God, you’re better than sliced bread but not Psalm 88 and all you need is one song to be able to say, okay, you actually take this as praise. What kind of spiritual being must you be? What kind of God must you be if you can not only bear it, but you invite me to engage it. So what we’re hoping you’re hearing well is the mistrust you have in some sense used to survive, needs to be honored and in many ways blessed.
Rachael: I would also just add, I think what has to come in tandem, not just with the mistrust, which I do think is often a very bodily experience, right? It’s where we notice we get kind of triggered, we get anger, anger comes real quickly or shutting down kind of numbness or a sense of like I have to just get out of here, right, those kinds of fight-flight or freeze responses right there letting us know this is some territory that is really unsafe. I think we have to take our bodies really seriously and so often, especially if you’ve been kind of raised and formed in a spiritual community or Christian community, so much of what we say is the healing journey is turning to things that right now your body may be saying those don’t feel safe to me and can you also trust that the living God of all creation is not bound to our rituals and sacraments as a way to connect and so you know, as we talk about how do you heal in the midst of this kind of being bound in these ways, in this particular fusion of abuse um I think there has to be an honoring of the body’s need to heal and mend without demand that it be bound to certain rituals and sacraments that may not feel and this season like safe opportunities for healing
Dan: For example, prayer. I was working with one person who said I can’t, I cannot pray, I will never pray, and but in this session she had screamed at me and I won’t particularly utter in a refined context like this, the specific words but use your imagination. And I said that particular word that does begin with fortitude. No, actually that wasn’t the word uh I said do you understand that the God of the universe takes the use of that word as part of price. That was very upsetting to her because first of all she didn’t want to swear and think it was actually connected to God, but even more so the part of her that was still like have a certain degree of like rigidity and fundamentalism that she didn’t want to actually come close to actually couldn’t imagine that the God of the universe could actually take our rage in whatever language and to actually receive it with both delight and honor. Not without grief, not without that sense of sorrow on our behalf. That that kind of expression would be heard as both anger but also desire. So what we’re saying is for many who have been severely abused there will need to be a reengagement with how wild God is and those questions of why wasn’t He there to protect me? Why and how was God allowing this to occur? I no, no answer. But I also know our God is not afraid to engage those questions. So when we begin to invite you to this process, we have said 1000 times and we’ll say it again, you have to step into your story, you can’t deal with this just thematically, you have to begin to move toward your story. And one of the things that I’ve often suggested Is that people form a kind of 10,000 ft timeline so that they can be above the abuse, not directly in the particular charity of the story, but it’s really important to get a handle on how you were groomed, you know, what was the original meeting or meetings? How were you chosen? What kind of special connection seemed to develop? Where was the first touch that appeared absolutely legitimate? And then how did it begin to awaken things within you and yet turned darker? Where did you begin shutting down even more? There is a kind of process, yes. You know, to say there are always exceptions to the rule, but this is a normal grooming process. Can, can you be above that? To say this happened in September, you know, of the year 2010. And then at least get a broad broad sense of how did this process of violation occur. And when I say 10,000 ft, what I’m really saying is sometimes you need to get a view of the large process before your heart can begin to move into the particular clarity of what occurred.
Rachael: It took me a long time to enter into the particularity of what occurred in the story I shared where I think I experienced a unique, fusion because I did need to know I got out and that I had more resources before I could enter the particularity. And you know, one thing that I think can be really tricky that I just want to name is so often and we don’t have a ton of time to engage us. But I think it’s important the kind of double bind of spiritual abuse so often the impact of sexual abuse on our bodies leads to addictions, leads to behaviors that are either reenacting the harm to bring soothing or are in some ways how we’ve joined in the complicity and shame and the punishment of ourselves and when we are in context that that impact of trauma that’s playing out in our lives, I’m not saying it’s good or bad or whatever is only engaged as sin and a behavior that just needs to stop because we’re in violation of God. It’s almost like a double spiritual abuse because part of getting into the story with kindness is beginning to understand where those moments of complicity came, where our hearts joined. Something wildly untrue about who we are because of the nature of the grooming and the nature of the violation, which then as any of us who have experienced that kind of harm, no leads to all kinds of debris. And so often within the church instead of that debris being tended to with wisdom and kindness and a process of healing and care, it is asked to be split off. It is kind of heavy burdens are heaped upon us in that moment. So part of getting close to a story is beginning to make sense of understanding how that debris came to be, which actually I think starts to give you more choice as to what kind of healing you want to pursue.
Dan: Oh this is so important to underscore um you know, a client that I work with who was drawn by her abuser, a spiritual authority into pornography as a very young10, 11 year old. And in that context, pornography became in many ways very self soothing along eventually with the use of alcohol. So as a 30 some year old, in the midst of a lot of heartache she would drink wine uh and participate in the process of pornographic masturbation. She assumed that was hated by God and was sin and wrong. This is the double bind you’re talking about and for me to come along and say, do you understand that this is heartbreaking because it does not add to your flourishing, but it’s also been the basis by which you have been able to make it to this place and it is comforting. It has provided you with some level of arousal and in that you have come with violence and shame. What would it mean for you to actually see the kindness of God and to actually hold the process by which you have survived so much darkness? Yes, it’s adding debris. But I don’t think things like our struggles with addiction change very radically without the kindness of God. And so the idea of honoring why the debris is there and how the debris has actually enabled us to make steps toward the beginning of significant change. I don’t see many people coming to that within the community of God understanding the complexity. Yes, it’s heartbreaking. Yes, it’s doing harm. But there has been something that’s kept you afloat to be able to bring your heart to this spot. So it is the kindness of God that allows us to come closer and closer to the particular charity of the debris, but also the story. And we’ve underscored this so often, that again, we won’t take infinite amount of time to say, you cannot enter the grief that will be healing without stepping into where shame has been deeply bound and shame isn’t just over the topic. Sexual abuse. Spiritual abuse is in seconds, moments of the process in which your body felt certain things and for us to get closer and closer to where our bodies felt alive aroused where the spiritual abusers delight actually still feels good even now today, even though we know only too well the violation, it’s where you get close to that with the kindness of God that allows the power of shame I think to be profoundly shifted and changed. It may be a slow dissipation, but there is a possibility of radical change in that. So the question is always how close can you get to the story with kindness and wherever you are moving into particularity and what seems to be aroused as judgment, accusation contempt. That’s where we’re inviting you to step back and to say, why do you hold such hatred for that? 12, 18, 22 whatever age you might have been at that time? Why is there such judgment when there’s not judgment from God but his honor and grief.
Rachael: And what you’re talking about Dan as we’ve named time and time again is a slow process. That requires a kind of building faithfulness in the small things. An honoring of the small things which are not insignificant. Oftentimes it is the small things that have the power to shift everything. Are we saying that he’ll income unless you spend a 20 year period? No, we actually believe in the kind of grace and provision of God to bring new communities to bring rescue to get you out of situations that are harmful to provide care resources. So I would say do I think a significant amount of healing and like a getting a rescue of being the one sheep that God chases after and make sure you have grace and provisions. I think that can sometimes happen in a matter of moments. It can happen in a day. So I’m not putting a time limit but that slower process, that deeper healing, that deeper healing that we’re actually meant to participate in to be participants in as a part of the healing that we get to be reauthorized as ones who can bless our own human dignity is ones who can be a part of the restoration process is a process of honoring the small and growing a capacity to linger in places and return to them and come back to them. You know, I mentioned this really therapeutic journey with letting parts of me be integrated back to me as a part of me that I can welcome back to the table and I know that could sound like weird language, but I think all of you have experiences with parts of yourself that you would say, yeah, that part has been exiled and is hanging out in the wilderness somewhere and I don’t like it. Those that journey of welcoming parts of us back that we need to be welcomed back by the God whose kindness disarms us and actually does have that capacity to banish shame to dispel and disarm that process sometimes is a slower process because it’s worthy of that kind of tending and that kind of honor and that kind of bearing witness to the small that needs to be named. And so I think sometimes that can be really can feel deflating or demoralizing that a healing process takes time. And so I wanted to nuance like I’m not saying rescue takes time. I’m not saying deliverance takes time, but I think that deeper healing, that deeper integrating that recovery work, that restoration work it really does require being faithful in the small.
Dan: I love that because sometimes just being able to say I can’t read the bible right now may seem like rebellion, but it’s actually a faithful statement that I know to some degree, it’s temporary, but today and maybe for the next six months I can’t and in that what appears to be rebellious and therefore judgment oriented can be a kind of honoring where I am, but also an acknowledgment of this isn’t where I want to be at some point. So faithfulness to the small gives you the opportunity to begin to think about what does it mean? Micah 6:8 to act justly to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. And again, we don’t have all the time in the world to address each element, but we want to just give you a sentence or two. If you were violated by a therapist, there are ways to address that violation because it is a violation of every state law, with regard to what a therapist is meant to bring. There are places where I believe the Spirit of God will invite you to begin to name and to name on behalf of the community of God the harm that has occurred, is it always required no. Is it a possibility that the spirit might take you to expose the man, the woman who is perpetrating harm, not only against you, but you can be guaranteed will be perpetrating that harm against others again. Let me nuance it again. Is it a requirement you have to do it? Of course not. But the spirit is inviting us all to consider what is the righteous, just way to live, but that can’t be done without as well loving mercy and that is you need to take in mercy for yourself in order to offer mercy for others. And there is a place of course for forgiveness of those who have done us harm, but not the way spiritual abuse is often perpetrated. Oftentimes it is spiritually abusive to ask people to forgive before they have begun to address the actual harm in their own heart and in their own body. So loving mercy is enjoying the kindness of God and walking humbly from my standpoint, at least in this context, acknowledges just what Rachael said. It’s a long, slow process. I can’t make it happen, but I can be available to what the spirit will bring, I can’t control, but I can receive and I can offer goodness. And I think in that process we’re saying deep, significant change can happen.