Healing from Spiritual Abuse

As we continue our discussion about spiritual abuse, this week we’re looking at its impacts and how we can begin to move towards healing. If this is a subject you’d like to continue to explore, or if you’d like to share this material with a loved one, we have a list of more articles, podcasts, and online learning opportunities below.

Additional Resources:

  • Confronting Spiritual Abuse Re-Release – This self-paced online learning opportunity led by Rachael Clinton Chen is available for purchase now through June 30, 2022. You’ll spend time understanding spiritual abuse in context: the systems, processes, and people who perpetrate it. You’ll learn to identify and name the abuse and learn ways in which you can start to heal.
  • Revisiting Spiritual Abuse – Listen to Part 1 of this conversation to understand how to identify spiritually abusive people and systems that you encounter.
  • Defining Spiritual Abuse – In this podcast episode from 2021, you’ll hear more from Dan and Rachael about how to define spiritual abuse in Christian contexts, tools used by spiritually abusive leaders to maintain power and control, and the insidious nature of spiritual abuse.
  • Defiance and Healing from Spiritual Abuse – This podcast episode from 2019 explores the long, slow movement of healing in the wake of abuse and the work of tending to small areas of growth while trusting that God is contending for us in the big areas.

Episode Transcript:

Rachael: Well, Dan, we are back today to talk a little bit more about spiritual abuse. And I think, you know, I’m just aware, I’ve been thinking a lot about our last conversation that we had. Um, and I know today we’re gonna jump in a little bit more to some of the impact of spiritual abuse and, and maybe even begin to think through what healing is possible. Um, but anytime I talk about this, especially the more I talk about it, I can talk about it. Um, and it still stirs up so much in my body because the reality is spiritual abuse is inherently embodied. It is a very… any abuse is happening in our body. And I think when we hear a word like spiritual, it can almost feel like, oh, this is happening to like our disembodied soul, which I think is a part of what we’ve come to believe because of spiritual abuse or this is happening to, you know, my spirituality as if that’s something separate from our personhood and our bodies and how we understand ourselves. And so I just wanna name again that I really do come to this material with a lot of deep convictions with my own story. It stirs up so much in my body. It stirs up so many memories. Um, and I really long, like the reason I do this and I still call myself a Christian. I do think there’s a place for like dismantling and deconstructing things. But for me, I do this because I really do believe the good shepherd is real and is working on our behalf and longs to redeem and longs to reveal himself, God’s self, the spirit. And so I think I just, as we begin today, I just wanna name, this is really tender ground. And for many people, um, they might really be in the thick of it where this feels really new, really raw, incredibly overwhelming. And you know, we’re going to lean more into this, but I think just as a start, because it’s so embodied, the nature of spiritual abuse is so isolating and we talked about distorting, right? And I would even use words like it’s disordering and because fear and shame are such primary tools, the way it manifests in our bodies is to create a profound distrust of our own gut of our own sense of interpretation, our own sense of making meaning, because so much of the abuse is you are not trustworthy. Your gut… your body is bad. You don’t know God like I do. You don’t have the capacity to read the scriptures like I do. Like there’s knowledge I have that you don’t have. So I think I just wanna start off by offering some compassion to where you might find yourself in a place that it feels like to even enter this conversation feels so overwhelming because you don’t have imagination that you’ll be able to see clearly ever again, cuz things are so fragmented and foggy and you don’t know what to trust or how, you know, things that were once, like you said in our last conversation, once so sacred have been marred have been used against you. And, and I think there’s just a lot of grief there and there’s a lot of fear still there. So as we step in today to talk more about the impact of spiritual abuse and what some of the hope for healing might be, I just hold that really tender ground that this is, this can be so deeply personal.

Dan: Yes. And again, we could go through a handful of topics, um, from sexuality to gender to evolution, uh, to the role, uh, of the church in society, culture, the issue of American exceptionalism, nationalism,

Rachael: Racism.

Dan: And as we, as we build a list of topics that are so called hot topics that, you know, I, I haven’t been on the road a lot, but IM starting to get back out there and uh, in a recent trip, uh, person and I’ll use the word cornered and it’s my judgment. I felt cornered. And I can say, I felt cornered because the person’s tone from the very beginning was I, I really wanna know what your view is on, and let me just use X, what I really want you to know your view on X. And I said, wow. Um, I have like a few minutes between when I start teaching again and I actually need to go to the bathroom. So let me give you a beginning. And it’s like, when I began, the person said, oh, literally, oh, so you’re a, and I’ll not use the next several phrases, but basically a liberal who doesn’t really believe in the Bible.

Rachael: Right.

Dan: And I I’m like, uh, the presence of contempt in judgment that corners a person and boxes them in. I felt in that moment, I’m not going to, I’m not sure I want to use the term spiritual abuse, but it felt that, It felt like I can’t have a conversation with you cuz you’ve already judged me. I, I can’t think with you about, yeah, there’s a lot in life. My views have changed on many things, including, uh, the role of husband, wife, and marriage, et cetera. And, and complementarianism vs. egalitarianism. There are so many things that we are rethinking in that process, but in the cornering and the contempt, uh, I felt, literally, the phrase I used when I talked to Becky on the phone is I just got slapped in the face. And anytime you get slapped in the face is a form of abuse in this case, spiritual abuse. Uh, I’d love to have you just sort of think with me, am I putting words to what you would put?

Rachael: Yeah. I mean, I you’re bringing a certain type. I think of it honestly just reminds me of Jesus’ interactions with the religious leaders of his day, where they’re constantly cornering him and trying to put him in a box and trying to expose him, you know, as a certain thing that is contrary to the systems, which obviously Jesus was the ultimate one who was exposing their own self righteousness and hypocrisy and misuse of God’s story. God’s people God’s power. Um, so I definitely think, you know, I’m assuming you’re wanting to talk a little bit about again, that spectrum of abusers? You want to talk that through?

Dan: Yeah, absolutely. I need help. Yes.

Rachael: Yeah. I mean, again, as we’re talking about, uh, really self, I mean ultimately for me, when I think about spiritual abuse, it’s like we are in the realm of a spirit of religion, which often is contrary to the kingdom of God. Right. Um, it, and it’s close enough that you think you’re really living faithfully into the kingdom of God, but you are bound to systems of power that will always be contrary to God. So when I hear this person, I think, oh, they’re so afraid. They’re so afraid of something that you are deeply threatening to them. And I, again, Jesus is constantly being interacted with as if he is deeply threatening, which I think he was deeply threatening to the systems of power and death that, that maintain the world’s order. And so to me, yes, the impact of spiritual abuse is a direct assault in our capacity to have faith, our capacity, to hope in our capacity to love. And that assault comes through distortion, exploitation, and weaponizing of good things that we’re meant for. And, you know, I’m just so grateful to you, Dan, for over many years, putting such profound language and understanding to these categories for me, that they’ve become so much more than like cognitive ideas or cognitive ascent to something. So, you know, the way we would talk about faith really is the sense of like a memory of the goodness of God, of, of good attunement and attachment and rest, like knowing that we are meant for goodness and flourishing and not just in our individual selves, but that that’s ultimately God’s desire and dream for the whole of creation for all tribes and nations, that there would be a flourishing, a, a capacity for rest, a capacity to receive God’s goodness. And unfortunately we live in a world where that has been so disrupted, um, by evil. And we live in the ramifications of that, but what’s so wicked and insidious is when someone who proclaims to be faithful is using faith as a weapon. So where faith becomes really dogmatic and, um, and a blind… we talked about this, a blind loyalty to someone’s truth, right. Because it’s usually being interpreted, interpreted and given, um, like where did we come to believe that faith was the absence of doubt or questions?

Dan: Yes. Oh, it’s such an important category that I know that if folks have been listening to us for a while, they can almost predict I’m gonna return to the Psalms, but it is one of those places where I’m so grateful that our God causes David, but others depend questions as part of worship. And the notion that doubt in and of itself is a destroyer of faith. Uh, I see it as the building block to engaging what the heart really is wrestling with. So that kind of rigidity, I think always within the realm of systems, um, persons that have a kind of, you know, you cross this little line, you, you are going to pay for it. Um, that has a kind of inherent, even though I think those folks would tend to say, oh, we’re deeply committed to the Bible. Deeply committed to the word of God. Um, what, again, I would say is, do you understand that people differ with you, um, and, and maybe radically. So how do you come to the engagement with people who do love Jesus, pursuing Jesus and have a very different view? Do you anathematize them? Um, and if you do, already, what feels like, uh, shall we say is some of the energy of all forms of spiritual abuse is self righteousness.

Rachael: Oh, absolutely. And it’s so tragic because you’re, you’re, I mean, that’s the, the seduction and trap of self-righteousness is we’re so convinced we’re right. And good. And everyone else is wrong. And we’re like so far outside of the fruit of the spirit, but we can’t see it. And we think we’re doing a good deed, a good thing by reprimanding people, by judging people by shaming people. And, you know, it’s just, I just go back to like, if God is big enough and kind enough, and patient enough to not only bear my questions, but to invite them, why would I wanna follow someone who says, well, no, God actually can’t tolerate any of these and you’re in trouble. Like when the story itself says, you know, there’s space for your full humanity and sometimes our questions and our anger and our crying out are the most faithful responses we can have if we truly believe God is good. And I don’t think God is, needs us to like defend God, you know, but we, we get in those traps. But I also think about, you know, where hope gets distorted and hope becomes optimism. You know, again, you talked about that spiritual bypassing, right? Like, um, hope becomes all things, work to the good of those who love God, but at the worst time, and without any other context of what God says about suffering and our pain and oppression and heartache, you know, um, or where hope becomes, this is your word. And I think it’s a brilliant word, a kind of exceptionalism, exceptionalism, um, because exceptionalism only lets a few people be exceptional and that will just never be like, God’s true vision. If only a few people get to be exceptional at the expense and cost of every everyone else and at the exploitation and oppression of other people. So exceptionalism though it may provide a false sense of safety. It may provide privileges that keep us feeling as if we are in the good graces of God. It will keep us far from the life we’re most meant to live like in the kingdom of God. And it will keep us like so afraid. I think.

Dan: I was in a context not long ago where, uh, a person who has a ministry, uh, near Ukraine was sharing something of the work that they’re doing to feed and house. And it’s beautiful. Uh, I am, I am for every work that’s engaging that heartbreaking Satanic assault against the people of Ukraine. However, you knew I was going to “however,” right?

Rachael: I did.

Dan: This really good person, uh, began saying, you know, God has really been good protecting the people we’re serving. And what I wanted to say is, yes, that is wonderful, but are you aware there are others that are dying that are not “being protected by God” that also love God. So I’m glad your ministry is serving, but it’s also no assurance that by serving well, you will keep people from being harmed. And there was an implicit promise that as you give money to this work, God is so at work that he’s protecting his people from harm. And if you, if you go further and deeper, indeed there is a protection ultimately of their life, their story. Their very being in this life and beyond, but you cannot be assured that a kind of exceptionalism, that if you trust this, your life will work. If you trust this great financial gain will come. And again, it’s a whole theological approach that, uh, I would call deeply into question. That is the, sow your faith and greater good will come. There is a truth to that, but not necessarily that you will be kept from pancreatic cancer, that, uh, a Russian bomb will, will somehow, um, explode and others will suffer, but not you. And in that kind of false hope, you are almost again, given this position of elitism. You are so special, you are so important and you will be so profited by being in our midst that if you depart the implication is great destruction will come. Bill Gothard used to offer this notion of the umbrella. That if, as long as you’re under the umbrella of authority, essentially no harm will come. But if harm comes, it’s an absolute proof. You have been outside of the umbrella.

Rachael: Yes. That’s the important nuance, right? Because I don’t, and you’re not saying it’s, it’s good for us to want to believe God wants to provide. That grace is for us. That provision is for us. It’s it’s that shadow side of, but if those things don’t come, if you are sick, if you are suffering, if there are hardships you’re facing, you must have done something to fall outside of the grace of God to fall outside of the umbrella. Um, so you better stay close and you better not mess up, which I then think leads to the war on love when we’re in spiritually abusive context, relationships and processes that something that’s actually meant to liberate us, that’s meant to be mutual. That’s meant to, um, help, is that giving and receiving of pleasure. It is the pursuit of justice and mercy and humility. It’s the capacity to repair. That’s what love is. It’s the capacity to want to build provision that extends beyond the chosen, right? Like that actually changes the world. But in spiritually abusive context, love is demanded. Loyalty is demanded and often, regardless of whether or not what you’re being given in return is actually good honoring holy, right, or from God. So someone could be harming you abusing you like explicitly, but however you are, you’ve gotta forgive them. You’ve gotta love them. They’re human. They get to be human, but you don’t. And I think it’s that feeling of, again, your word and a really good one bondage, um, where you once and that’s the tricky part of it, right? Because like you’re saying so often we find ourselves in these contexts because there’s something really good being offered to us that we’re hungry for. We’ve been read well, our places of deficit, our places of longing are being met initially, but in a way that then sets us up, that we feel like that we won’t get that goodness anywhere else. So, we should probably stay. And then if you have kind of fear and manipulation involved, you know, and at some point to leave, is if you’re in a spiritually abusive context, often those are your primary relationships because everything becomes so insular. So it’s not like you’re just leaving an abuser, you’re leaving a full community, sometimes, whether that’s a school, a nonprofit, uh, you know, a political system, a family system, and the biggest fear that you are going to lose God, because your relationship with God has been proximated through these people. Like they’re almost, we have become the mediator instead of Jesus being the actual mediator and intercessor, and like, perfector of, of all who you are in God, it’s like people or processes or systems have. So to lose them really does feel in our bodies. Like we are going to lose God. And I think that’s often why so many of us stay because we can almost bear some of those other things. I mean, they’ll be brutal, but we can bear them. If we lose God, it feels like I’m not gonna survive. And to me, that is, uh, just, I feel such heartache and such rage, um, that God’s love is distorted in that way, because the God I know has said there really is like you could run to the farthest ends of the earth, and there’s really nowhere you could run outside of the, the width and breadth and depth of my love. You could be in the darkest of night. And even that darkness is still light to me. Like I will find you. And it’s where we have this juxtaposition of like the really bad shepherd, like in Ezekiel 34 in John 10:10 juxtapose with the good shepherd who will do anything to bring lost sheep home and not just lost ’cause they haven’t encountered God. I often think exiled because they’ve been so harmed and heavy burdened.

Dan: Well and, maybe we won’t delineate it to this degree, but I’m curious what, what you would do is what’s the effect on your body of faith that is offered as dogmatism, as hope that is at least initially a form of exceptionalism or love that actually is a constraint and a bondage, not a freedom and flourishing. How, what what’s it done to your body?

Rachael: Oh, this is where I’m like, whoa, the effects of actual abuse that sometimes really doesn’t matter what kind of abuse it is. If it’s abusive, it seems to have a similar impact. So I think exhaustion, like it’s such a lose, lose setup. There’s really never, there’s never gonna be enough. You can do to like make it in in the ways you feel like you have to make it in to be good enough to be worthy of love, to be worthy of belonging, to be worthy of leadership. I think it demands a kind of splitting off of your personhood because being human is incredibly messy and complex.

Dan: I don’t know why that… I’m just like, yes. Oh yes. Preach it. It is just messy.

Rachael: And, and if you add being someone who’s well acquainted with abuse or trauma, that that mess gets even messier because there’s a lot of fragmentation. There’s a lot of heartache. There’s a lot of confusion in our bodies. So I think for me, that’s often like in spiritually abusive contexts, oftentimes the ways in which your messiness is actually reflecting where you need healing and hope gets only recoded as sin, moral failure. Again, a lack of faith, a lack of hope, a lack of love. So it’s, we’re in that realm and Jesus is so clear. So, so, so clear to those who teach and preach and have spiritual authority like whoa, to you. It’s like the only time in the Bible you see Jesus use like very scary woe language is to spiritual leaders and he uses language like it would be better for you to have a stone wrapped on your neck and thrown into a lake than to like, cause these little ones to stumble, um, woe to you who heap heavy burdens on already burdened people. So I think the impact on our bodies is, is a lot of exhaustion, a lot of shame and contempt, like why can’t I just get it right? Why can’t I stop sinning? Why can’t I believe like what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just believe? And I think I remember being in seasons where it just felt like my anxiety, which actually was a truth teller, like red alert, red alert, something’s wrong. And I’m like, my body is a betrayer. It’s a sinner. It’s against me. It can’t be trusted. Why can’t I just change my cognitive thinking to be more faithful, to believe more like there must be something wrong with me. So that contemptuous like shameful kind of it’s it is like having like rocks, like tied onto your back. And so then you’re working double as hard to achieve something that ultimately you’re never going to be able to achieve if shame and contempt and fear are the primary tools being used against you, they will set you up. And then I also would just say, um, yeah, like I, I named like that profound distrust of our bodies and being cut off from our own inner compass, like our own, um, the places where we actually do…We do… Like our bodies do tell us when we are in the presence of God and really receiving what we’re wired for because we are wired for love. That’s how God made us. So we actually do know in our bodies when there’s good attunement, you know, good care that’s honoring of our personhood, that it offers safety, but also offers autonomy. We know when we’re in the presence of someone who has humility and a capacity to bring good repair to own when they’ve harmed and say, I’m gonna do better, but in spiritually abusive context, because the harm is not just being brought by people, but ultimately it feels like it’s being brought by God. Those, that capacity to read those things gets really distorted because God really becomes like a punisher and someone who’s constantly angry with us and, and dissatisfied with us and disappointed in us and demanding more and more and more and more and more and more and more.

Dan: Well, we know this to be true. And that is trauma is inevitable. But a lot of people that I’ve worked with who have been significantly capital T trauma, spiritual abuse, um, have other abusive stories. And at some level, uh, if I can put it this way, physical abuse doesn’t have a lot of subtlety. Emotional abuse, generally speaking, doesn’t have a lot of subtlety. You know, being called names is not subtle. Being slapped in the face. Being physically beaten. It’s not subtle when you get into the realm of sexual abuse when it’s very overt. Uh, it, it has very little subtlety, but there’s a lot of sexual abuse that, um, uh, we, we often code with the word inappropriate. Um, but nonetheless, there is something more clear, often spiritual abuse seems like it has a longer season of subtlety. And if you have a history of abuse where you have learned to bear the burden to shut your body down, to split off, to bear up under the exhaustion and keep going, then in some ways it’s harder to actually name spiritual abuse because as you put it, our bodies are not ready to name it. And the moment we name it, we’re excluded to some degree by our community and powerful authority figures. But what you’ve put words to, it just feels so, I mean, even as you say it, I can almost feel like, like pain in my chest and that is, I have lost God. And I am at every level now. Um, and orphan a stranger, a widow I am, I am without. And that feels like for at least a lot of prior abused men and women, it, it almost feels like not only too much, but not that big of a deal to keep enduring spiritual abuse. So as we move to this, just, I wanna kind of at least get a few categories of how does a person just even begin to name that they’re in with a person or with a family or with a process or system that’s actually depriving them, not only of dignity, but in some ways is violating that beautiful Matthew 11, my burden, my yoke is easy. My burden is light.

Rachael: Well, there’s so much I could say about this. So I will just give a little plug that we are gonna be rereleasing the confronting spiritual abuse webinar that we did in June. It’s gonna be rereleased over the next couple of weeks and people will have access to the remainder of the year. So there’s just a lot more time and space to talk about things there. But I will just say this, I believe that God is good and God is real. And, and that God is a pursuer who honors our dignity and our personhood and wants to bring restoration. So I wish there was a way to move toward healing from spiritual abuse that didn’t involve some kind of wilderness, but I’ve yet to find it. And I, I think it’s important to name wilderness is not without provision. It’s not without connection and sometimes it’s not without like community. Um, but I do think part the, like some of the first steps of healing are like a, can often be a leaving and a kind of boundary setting, um, a separation or even like a sabbatical space where it’s just taking a step back, letting the noise quiet a little bit. And again, that can be so hard to do, ’cause there will be a lot that comes against you if you step outside of the system. Um, but because there has to also be space, um, like healing takes time and I am someone who believes that healing can be simultaneous. Like I am a both/and kind of person. So like I have experienced moments of divine deliverance where God knows like what I need needs to happen quickly, swiftly and pretty profoundly. But even that divine deliverance in like a moment where liberation can kind of come example, I do a spiritual abuse podcast with you and there’s a little bit of like a divine intervention of like, this is your life. Um, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for an ongoing healing process. Um, that takes time and you can’t heal from spiritual abuse without engaging your body. And that’s where some of the wilderness comes in because it’s hard to trust community and connection if you don’t trust yourself. And this is where I do think the spirit is very generous and very gracious and will rise to the occasion to help us be born again, um, to do some of that laboring work on our behalf. And so it, I think it’s actually a pretty profound leap of faith to say, I’m going to leave this abusive context. And again, the caveat is for so many people that can’t happen overnight that has to have a strategic plan in place for some people it’s their place of work for some people. So much of their life is wrapped up into it that they need time to untangle. And there’s, so there’s no judgment about the timeline. It’s just at some juncture, there has to be reasserting boundaries of your life that actually began to honor your personhood, that you are good and loved and beloved again, does that mean you’re not needing to do a lot of healing and integrative work on places that are really broken? No, that like our brokenness doesn’t get to eclipse the fact that we are loved by God and that we are met for goodness. Um, I, I think finding your voice and, and like letting the truth take up residence in your body and that, that might include a long season of lament, where there is a waking up to the harm you’ve experienced and it might lead to a season of anger and both like grief and anger, both might be true and they might dance together and they might take turns, but like what, what do you love? What brings you joy? Can you reclaim what it is to actually taste the goodness of life in the land of the living? And remember that you do have more wisdom, you do have more capacity for joy. You do actually have a capacity to discern what’s true, and what is profoundly untrue. And that might mean some commitment to therapy. It might mean some commitment to body work. It might mean some commitment to a small group of people that you’ve developed a trust with. Um, again, who are committed to the long goal of healing. Cause we can kind of take these detours of like, we just wanna, you know, kind of react to the thing we left. And like sometimes we gotta hang out there for a little bit, but if that’s where we stop, I think that can, in some ways almost become its own self righteous little enclave. And then I think just again, that movement towards finding your people. Um, and I think that’s what can be really profound in seasons of wilderness is we are more available to find people like, you know, for me coming out of my first season of wilderness led me to the Seattle School and some random kind of like, I don’t know what to do with my life. I’ll Google, you know, seminaries, ’cause I at least like to study God, so maybe I can start there. Um, so I, I just think there has to be both a lot of intentionality and that radical belief that the spirit of God is at work on our behalf and grace is grace. It has come and is coming and will continue to come, but not without like some experience of wilderness and loss and reclaiming.

Dan: Again, I can’t summarize any better than you already have, but that sense of you’re not going to address the reality or the harm of spiritual abuse without having, in some ways an initial cost that may feel worse than the cure. And yet in being willing to walk, uh, into the wilderness is going to challenge and at some level deconstruct something of what you have likely believed. And yet as you’re open to the process of, of trust being reformed and as the capacity to risk, as hope begins to grow and the mutuality of love begins to win your heart, to be able to give and receive kindness and goodness, and honor, there is a sense in which there are people, there are, again, this will sound so, uh, uh, elitist, but there are 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to the, in this case, not Bael, but to the spirit, the religious spirit, which is not just a category metaphorically, it much of Christian faith, I believe is under the shadow of a form of rigidity and dogmatism and cruelty and self righteousness and violence that whether it’s coming in one form of… No matter what it is, um, it always deprives the human heart of the true heart of praise and worship. So all I can say, uh, my interviewee, it’s such a pleasure and honor to know that, well, after I’m off this earth, you will be standing against the religious spirit in all its form. And in that sense, I wanna pray before we end.

Rachael: Thank you.

Dan: And Jesus, for those who are standing against the religious spirit, who are being accused of indeed being people who are not of faith. Uh, and I pray now, particularly for my dear friend, Rachael, uh, that her wisdom and her strength, uh, and her capacity, um, to playfully and yet, so solemnly tell the truth will invite so many more to a level of freedom where indeed, uh, our lives are about love. And so I ask for her protection, I pray for growing honor and freedom so that the work that she has done and others with her grow so that we are a community of praise. And we pray that all in your name, Jesus. Rachael, good to be with you.

Rachael: Thank you very much, Dan.