Exposing the Schemes of Evil

How do you know that someone in your life is setting you up for harm? While we don’t want to promote paranoia, it’s important to be aware of some of the common strategies of those who perpetrate harm against you, whether that is spiritual, sexual, relational, financial, or emotional harm. 

Dan begins this episode by saying, “We are meant to expose the schemes of evil, and we can’t expose them if we’re not aware of them. But to become aware, we’re dabbling in some degree of darkness, of the violation of human dignity.” 

So dear listeners, please be aware that this episode covers the sensitive topic of abuse, and we advise you to exercise self-awareness and self-care should you choose to listen. 

As Rachael says, “Our hope is to help loosen the binds, not create more burdens. We’ll try to move tenderly and gently with wisdom, but also boldness.”


Episode Transcript:

Dan: Rachael, it feels important to almost give a trigger warning for our topic. It’s not one of those where you say if you have young children around, but if you did, I probably would say nah. What we want to talk about today is being able to discern past, present, possibly future. How do you know that a perpetrator is operating in your world to set you up? Or the word will be used in quite a bit, groom you, for some degree of harm, spiritual harm, financial harm, sexual harm, relational harm. And it is not an easy topic, obviously, because the last thing we want to do is promote paranoia. And that is to now be looking at every relationship from, are you grooming me? Are you a perpetrator? And on the other hand, the dilemma for me in this topic is it is very possible to look at past experiences where you’ve been used, set up, but so easy to blame yourself. And so if this podcast adds any degree of self blame, it was just beyond heartbreaking. So it’s important to hear we are meant to expose the schemes of evil, and we can’t expose them if we’re not aware of them. But to become aware, we’re dabbling in some degree of darkness, of the violation of human dignity. And asking the question, how does a perpetrator set someone up for harm? Opens up our past wounds, opens up the particularity of paranoia, and can create, in one sense, more harm than good. So that’s my trigger warning.

Rachael: Well, and something you actually said to me, I don’t know if you remember this or not, one time in when I was getting supervision for story work, and you said, we’re meant to be aware of the schemes of evil, but we’re not meant to outsmart them. We’re not meant to become evil to where we can then think evil. And so I think it’s that, that wisdom and that paradox of what, if anything, our hope is to help loosen the binds, not create more burdens, because so many of us, and we’ll get into this, but the nature of perpetrators of abuse is to convince you in some way that you are a willing participant. So to even talk about this as you name so well is to touch on shame, is to touch on fear and powerlessness and a lot of different things. So we’ll try to move tenderly and gently with wisdom, but also boldness.

Dan: And some of this began because of research looking at one form of perpetration called mugging. And the studies that were done basically began with a question of interviewing those who perpetrate this kind of crime. Who are you looking for? What are the points of discernment? Why would you pick one person and not another? And what it came to, and again, it’s too simplistic, but what it came to is how we walk. The particular stance you take, how you move your body in the world became one of the prime. It wasn’t the issue of age, it wasn’t the issue of gender wasn’t the issue of physicality. Like muggers, pick small people. That’s not true. They pick people who, and as they describe their heads are down, they’re not looking up. They don’t have a pace that is moving somewhere with purpose. And in that sense of how a person who’s about to perpetrate a crime reads their world, again, this sounds like if you’ve been mugged, it’s your fault. And I want to scream again to say, of course not. But we need to know what is a perpetrator looking for to, in one sense, make their crime of whatever sort more possible to do without being caught. And this is again, just to go back to the category then, to what degree there is the working of self-blame. Put it so well, Rachael, and that was part of the perpetrator’s intention for you to feel at least somewhat if not fully responsible. So if I can just pose it to you to say, when you think about what you have encountered personally, when you think about what you’ve worked with thousands of people that you have cared for over many years of story work, what categories come to your mind?

Rachael: I mean, we’re going to be getting into this. They’re so hard. They’re so hard. But also we don’t have to be bound. So I want to step into it, but categories that come to mind for me are grooming. And the intentionality of that goes into, in some ways, setting you up. And we’re going to talk more about that. And there’s some thoughts I have about it and how it mirrors good care. And that’s what can be so tricky, especially in spiritual context, that sense of complicity that we’re meant to feel when we’ve been harmed by someone who is bringing some intentionality. And there’s a setup, and we’re going to get into the details of that. And I just think about the crazy-making nature of it, the threat. That there’s usually both a building of trust, but then a kind of tightening of the… boundary lines get closer and closer and closer, and that if you break the rules or you kind of get out of the dynamic that there’s a deep threat against your life, against people you love. So it very feels like it can be a very sophisticated movement. And I know that can be confusing sometimes because some people go, well, what if my perpetrator was another child? Or just different things. So maybe we can put some nuance to that. But there there’s a sense of, I will just say, I think most perpetrators, read very well. They read very well. And that’s where we get to that tricky sense of, well then don’t, we’re not saying, okay, well, to avoid being read, well just become very evasive and confusing. It’s not a change who you are, it’s grow in awareness, right?

Dan: Yes. Yeah. And the phrase that I have come to many times is that person is offering more than what is expected by a huge amount. We’re meant to read one another and we’re made to have a certain insight into one another. But this is a level that is supercharged. You are offering so very much and often more quickly than is actually warranted. So a relationship, you meet somebody and within five minutes you feel like they’re your best friend. It, it’s too good to be true. The old phrase, it usually is. And so I mean the category, even though it’s not that central to what we’re getting at is phishing. And again, that’s not my form of fly fishing, that’s P-H-I-S-H-I-N-G. I mean, every week Becky or somebody will show me something from the United Postal Service and it looks so good. I mean, it’s so realistic. And usually there’s either a threat involved or a problem to be resolved or a gift to be given. And there are all ways to get you to click on and begin the process of infiltrating your life/computer with a disease essentially. So we are, we’re facing perpetrators every, I think day, but again, probably not in your neighborhood, but possible, probably not in your church, but very possible. So when we’re beginning to ask you to address what grooming holds, we’ve already named, I think one of the first categories. And that is the person attunes to you really well and creates a level of quick intimacy that feels like fabulous. And then in that, I would say a second major stage is begins to share things with you that feels like… I’m privileged to know. So it could be a secret of some sort about you about your life or some revelation that you struggle with something and you’ve told no other person, but you tell me because I am, I’m the kind of person that they seldom meet. So that interplay of you are so special, so special, you can hold secrets. And often actually that bears some degree of shame so that I know that what you just told me feels somewhat dangerous. You have really trusted me. So what do you do so far? You’re groaning.

Rachael: Well, I just, because I was just making a connection between two different stories that I’ve never made before. So I’m like, oh, this is so helping me in real time in a way that’s very, very disturbing. Truly. I was thinking of the two most detrimental and shattering assaults I experienced in my adult life in dating. And one was at a Christian camp with one of the men’s directors being drawn to me, a little bit of an age difference. And the other one was a stranger in my neighborhood who pursued me at my tea shop. But I was just thinking about how both of them named something about me that I so desperately wanted someone to see as true. So in the first encounter, language of your heart is just so stunning. I feel like I would be a fool not to get to know you, that then I felt so special, so chosen. And because of his status and his place, it was kind of like to be chosen by him alone was like, oh my gosh, I feel so special. But the fact that in a season where I wanted someone to see this goodness I possessed, but then also entrusting me with some of the pain and suffering of his life, reading that I’m someone who’s nurturing and will try to help as a way to feel like we had this intimacy. The other situation, I’m at a tea shop working on a sermon on hope for advent, and a man approached me in a season where I’m, and part of the hope I was pondering was my hope and longing for companionship. It was my greatest war with hope in that season. And says to me, what are you working on? I just have to know because you just look so alive. And so our entrance was me talking about preaching as a woman and him engaging that. And then again, in that conversation that night, letting me know about some of the suffering in his life to where the part of me that would be hooked, of I can offer you something different. So I don’t think I had made the connection that both of those situations were just, the grooming was so clear.

Dan: Oh, it’s painful to hear. And yet, because again, here, this is so heartbreaking to say they read you well.

Rachael: They read me really well,

Dan: Really well. And in that gained access and being read well is meant to create access. But again, back to that phrase so much, so quick,

Rachael: So quick.

Dan: And in that intensity, I don’t know, to me, whenever the lottery is over three or 400 million, I buy a ticket, not two tickets, a ticket. Because if Jesus wants me to win the lottery, I only need one. So that intensity of desire that just wells up even when I know, oh, come on, it’s one out of 280 million, but it’s one. And I could be that one. So the allure of this is what I was meant for becomes the access point. And your point is so brilliant before, and that is we don’t want you to kill that desire in order to avoid the possibility of being used.

Rachael: Oh, I mean was my great, this has been my greatest resurrection work is to actually bless and welcome back the part of me that did start to feel like is dangerous, that the lover in me is so dangerous and keeps setting me up for harm. There’s something I must be doing to choose these people and call them to me. What’s wrong with me? Why do I keep inviting violent men to annihilate my personhood or to violate my body? So yeah, I will say, hell no to condemning these parts of us, but you might be making connections that there are parts of you that have been harmed and violated by people who were exploiting you, who were consuming their own lust; dishonoring you. And I think that that’s the next step of grooming that there is typically after this kind of, I’ve got you. I’ve read you well, a movement toward violating boundaries that usually start small.

Dan: Oh, yes. Let’s just underscore this and look, if it’s 25 mile per hour, I go 28, maybe even 30. So we’re not talking about, maybe it’s wrong and I’ve got tickets, but the, we’re not talking about it’s 25 and I’m doing 40. We’re talking about the person who can incrementally assess whether your boundaries can be violated with impunity. And that a slightly off color joke that actually is well told and somewhat funny. Do you laugh or are you able to look at that person and be able to go, well, that was well said, and actually somewhat funny, but also I’d really prefer that you don’t bring that kind of humor, that kind of acknowledgement. You’re a good storyteller, but no, no, this was not what I desire. But that ability to slightly off color language, slightly off color jokes, slightly violating gossip, do you endure it? Worse, is there something in that of we share something of the joy of violation and that participation, this is where the feeling of I was complicit. I laughed, I gossiped further. I joined you in violating something not severe, but something of human dignity. This is where the hook goes into the soul

Rachael: Or that touch that is not explicitly boundary crossing, but too soon, maybe too intimate for the relationship or the power dynamic. And again, these are places where likely in your body, red flags, warning signs are coming up, but maybe there’s also arousal, maybe there’s excitement. Maybe there’s places where we are all drawn to a little bit of danger and it feels like I’m wanted, I’m being chosen. I’ve been let into something that we share that’s special. So it’s still coming with a, you are special. You are different than everybody else. There’s a reason I’m sharing this with you. This is a reason why these are jokes that we share. There’s a reason why I feel like I can, I’ve known you my whole life and I can touch you in this way, but yeah. It’s the looking back. It’s not in the moment that you feel complicit when the boundary violation gets more intense and more intense and more intense, that you’ve already opened the door there, that then you feel like, well, I obviously chose this, so what do I have to shut the door now?

Dan: Well, and to go back to one of the areas that you have been deeply wise and called to engage in spiritual abuse, we know this is not just often a single perpetrator. Sometimes this occurs in systems. And so that notion of what’s it cost to get into the in group, no matter what culture system you’re in, often is a loyalty to the group in a participation with contempt toward others, a judgment of others and gossip about others. And that’s that same alert. You are special to be with us. We now share things that bind us to one another because nobody should hear us talking about person X, Y, or Z the way we’re talking about them. But we all know that’s a violation of well of scripture. Nonetheless, it feels alive and good, and all of a sudden, not just hearing and maybe laughing, but actually providing data now creates that gossip is a form of binding and bonding into a dark relationship that sets you up for a degree of spiritual abuse.

Rachael: Yeah, and I mean, think that’s what starts to get tricky when we talk about systems, right? Because at some point you’re being invited to be complicit, and sometimes you’re making choices to be complicit before you actually know the system or water that you’re swimming in when it’s a larger entity, when it moves outside of an interpersonal relationship. And we see this in racism, we see this in sexism. You’re the woman that gets to be at the table with all the dudes, but you kind of have to disparage other women in order to have a place at the table. And so that does start to get to be critical of these places. What is being asked of me? What is the cost of entry? What is the cost of entry? And is it actually one I’m willing to pay or one that I’m meant to pay?

Dan: Well, and the subtlety, again, talking about it, I hope we’re helping people get some degree of the progression, but as it’s happening, it’s fluid. You’re caught in a way in which you don’t even feel like you’re caught. It’s just the natural progression of relationship or involvement in whatever system you’re in. But I would also say another major stage is where certain obligations are put upon you that you are required to be at this meeting way earlier than would indeed be reasonable. But if you want to be part of what we’re doing, you better be committed enough to disrupt your schedule to be here. So all of a sudden, you’re now being required to bring something. You’re not just being read, cared for, honored, sort of allowed to be in that inner ring of a person or a system, but now something’s being required of you, which feels powerful. You want something from me and I’ve got something you want. But also what I would say is there’s almost always the beginning of a growing pressure. If I don’t do, I will lose big time. And that process, I think sets you up for, again, this intersection between I’m special, I’m pressured and obligated. Then there’s a growing sense, I think of fear. Fear of the loss, fear of being excluded or frankly, fear of being talked about the way we’ve talked about others. And then this, for lack of better word, it’s just a sense of I shut down. I don’t want to see, don’t want to feel, don’t want to engage, because everything largely, even up to this point is so good. But whether we’re talking about systems or we’re talking about sexual abuse, there’s almost always then a point of violation, which is unquestionable. A line of deep dignity violation has occurred. And then what happens is another form of grooming, and that is that sense of often the perpetrator apologizes.

Rachael: Oh, Yeah.

Dan: And it can almost draw out a kind of like, I can’t believe I did this. This was so terrible. I’m the worst person on the face. Virtually in their apology call forth all of your own desire to care, to forgive, to resolve, to restore. And now that process leaves you now powerful to forgive and to reconstitute a new relationship. But to me, it’s very important to know that oftentimes, even in the apology, the abuser will blame a sentence like this, if you weren’t so beautiful, I wouldn’t be so tempted. Uhoh, okay, you’re admitting you’re temptation, but it’s all because of this special quality of being so beautiful.

Rachael: Well, and if you have actually felt special in your beauty because of a way they’re intending you to feel, then you can’t deny that’s something of you felt special and beautiful. And so that’s part of the insidious nature of the grooming, that it’s not just like, oh, well now I got to hate my beauty. I got to hate the fact that I felt beautiful and I liked it, and it felt good, and it felt nice. Right. That’s where that feeling of shame and that feeling of, I obviously wanted this can really come into play.

Dan: Yeah. Well, again, this is where so much of my, I want to scream this sense of one level feeling crazy, like I’m feeling crazy even as we talking about this, while simultaneously on the other side, especially when you’re being abused in some form by a so-called Christian who’s able to articulate their failure and language of sin and owning, I’ve really done something so terrible. Please forgive me. Now, the pressure, but also the power to forgive becomes an even deeper bind with the abuser, I’ve forgiven you so we can begin again. And the fact whatever form of perpetration occurs the second, third, fourth, more time all becomes wrapped up in, yes, I really struggle with this, but oh, no one’s helping me like you, and thank you for forgiving me. And it’s a horrible image, but the noose just tightens and the web gets stickier. And in some ways, the benefits, crazy as it may sound seem still to outweigh the cost of the harm. So where has that left you, and what is the process by which in your life as you’ve seen both systems and 

individuals violate your own dignity and dignity of others?

Rachael: Yeah. Well, I want to go back to even saying it feels like the benefits still outweigh the cost. I think sometimes that’s sticky, but I also think sometimes it’s not that the benefits outweigh the cost, it’s that the threats of the harm that will come feel scarier than the harm you’re experiencing.

Dan: Oh, well said. Yes.

Rachael: The threats of the exposure that will come, the threats of the exile that will come, the threats of someone else will be harmed or whatever, the loss of dignity. And so I could see the flip side, yes, there’s a benefit and the secret gets to remain whatever the case is. So I think in my own life and in my work with other people, part of what has to has to happen… because one of the things we know is that forgiveness without consequences and forgiveness, that doesn’t involve accountability. That doesn’t involve, because accountability is where you kind of have to name what are we forgiving here? Because it’s not just like, I violated you. It’s, I violated you and that has actually distorted your sense of trust for many years and set you up to be in reenactments of this harm. And it’s like you actually have to start to be accountable for the debris impact. Rebuilding of trust. So this is such, this kind of forgiveness, even though we see it a lot in Christian circles, is a very anemic form of forgiveness. So I think for me, just right now, I’m honestly just in, I feel almost disgust in my body. I think I’m contending with what this brings up. When I think about my own stories, what this brings up, when I think about the work I’m doing with other people, it is that stickiness and to enter it, because so much of the healing work is to begin to name with particularity of what happened. Because rarely is someone coming and saying, I did just slap my hand down on the desk with a righteous indignation. If you heard. Rarely is someone coming and saying, I was groomed by a perpetrator and this happened. It’s similar to what I said for so long.Oh, I dated one of my youth leaders. That was the way I told the story. It as opposed to having to get into the details of what happened, that in some ways it wasn’t a dating relationship, it was an incredibly abusive relationship, and that person was in an abusive system being set up to believe that was the right way to be in a relationship. I mean, there were tons of dynamics in that particular church setting where older men were dating younger women and younger girls and children. I mean again… But that took years of telling the story to begin to see that it wasn’t just that I was some stupid 16-year-old whose was crush, entangled her for years with someone, because that’s how I chose this. I wanted this. So do I have to say, this actually deeply hurt me? So rarely are people coming with a sense of this story I hold. I can clearly see this was a perpetrator, I was a victim here. It’s so much because of everything we’re talking about of these perpetration strategies, it is so much messier. So there is a work of disentangling that has to happen. And again, because we have experienced something of feeling complicit in it, it is a very tender work, and it’s not a work where then you say… sometimes the grooming is to the sense of you would have been utterly powerless no matter what. Sometimes it is that reality. Sometimes when we’re older and we’ve gotten some care, we can feel like, oh, well, I should be able to smart this. But I think that that’s where I go. It that’s the scary nature of perpetration with, with people who are very skilled. So the assault I experienced at 33 or 32, I was very well, I was in the Allender Center world.I was working with people who I’m helping them make sense of grooming. I have all of these categories, and I couldn’t quite see in the midst of it what was happening to me until very quickly afterward I was able to go, oh my gosh. But actually not for a season, because I was so traumatized. I just felt shame. I just felt foolish. I just felt dangerous. And so I just say that because in some ways it’s what, going back to how we started, it’s not that if you just know these strategies enough, you know, can protect yourself from harm or I think you can actually with children start to give them language to reduce harm. You can know some of these strategies so you can preempt things like you don’t ever have to keep a secret from me. If someone says to you, don’t tell mommy or daddy… There are ways you can understand how someone grooming might work to then give people a doorway out, even if someone’s trying to box them in. So it can be effective at reducing harm, but there is no guarantee and there’s no sense to study these. And again, be holding it up to every person because the reality is this plays out on a spectrum. And when we’re talking about spiritual abuse and spiritual abusive context, when we’re talking about supremacy structures, we all of us know something of being perpetrators who are grooming other people to participate in the system that is harming them, whether sometimes we are aware of that or not. So in some ways, these strategies also have to begin to be looked at with ways we cope and ways we join abusive systems. But we are also talking about people on some end of the spectrum that are working out their lust and anger in a way that is perpetrating harm with intentionality.

Dan: Yes. Well, and the way you’ve framed it: disgust, when you feel disgust, rather than try to resolve it, is it possible to be able to say, what has set this up? And if we bring disgust and shame and that sense of being foolish, the moment you start calling yourself a fool, I am so stupid, I’m such a fool. Is it possible to, in one sense, pause and be asking, what’s the larger system? What persons or person is invested in me feeling disgust, shame, foolishness? And I think what I’ve heard from clients endlessly is that sense of when I feel crazy, I don’t get it. I don’t know what’s happening. I feel crazy. I’m confused. That is almost always the result spiritually of grooming, meaning in the unseen world or in the seen world, someone is messing with you and likely meaning 98.9% it’s not you, it’s not your confusion, it’s a confusion that has been foisted upon you so that you won’t see. So I think those are key elements of being able to read. Are there others that come to your mind, Rachael, as like, oh, when you feel X or Y?

Rachael: Oh yeah, I, I’m truly Dan, as we’re talking about this, I’m going back to the church camp experience and I’m just getting new, I’m just getting looking at some of these categories. So the crazy making is just so real. And I think when you’ve known narcissistic abuse, it’s like that shattering that comes, it’s like you can spend years trying to get pieces of yourself back and feeling responsible, feeling guilty or not enough or too much. And I think that’s, that was part of after being pursued and wooed very publicly, which really was so that he could show how great he was. And later I found out this was a ritualistic pattern for him. Pick someone, innocent, young as maybe this person will be good enough for me. And all the people in relationship with him kind of taking bets on, is this person going to make the cut? Are they good enough for him?

Dan: No, it’s wicked.

Rachael: Yeah. And so it was a simultaneous feeling of I felt like, oh, the ruminating I did, what could I have done differently? I wasn’t enough. I was too much. He would bring things like, you’re, why are you studying Greek? That’s so stupid. That’s so weird. Oh, I’m too much. Or God is telling me that you’re just not the right one for me, so I’m not enough for this really godly man, that sense of responsibility. But then the silencing too, right? You are left shattered, but also without any resource to talk about it, because to talk about it is also to implicate yourself, is to expose yourself, is to humiliate yourself, is to invite people into your shame or into a terror that something will happen to you, something will happen to them, something will happen to this person that’s convinced you, they’re actually fragile and they’ll take their life if you tell someone. These are all some of those strategies. So when I hear someone telling me a story where I can see they have been so incredibly harmed, but you would think they are the main perpetrator. Yes, in the story, that’s when I know I’m in the realm of this kind of debris.

Dan: Which again, I don’t know if you’re feeling this even as we go through this, but just talking about this feels exhausting.

Rachael: I do feel that.

Dan: There is something in the soul that was never meant… I mean, we have our own failure and sin to repent of, but when you are being called to repent over what is not yours, there’s something in the soul that you can hold what you need forgiveness for. But when you are being asked to hold what you don’t have any real responsibility for, it is a burden too great. And so that level of exhaustion such an important category. So we just, again, can you name first what you are suffering? I think that is by far the most important first step. That there is exhaustion. There is that sense of being silenced, of feeling crazy or all the other words, we’ve already

Rachael: Disgusting, yeah.

Dan: …put to this. And then to be able to say, and it’s not mine. I will not hold what I was not meant to bear. But then you’ve got the work that you have done so honorably, and that is you got to step into the story. Knowing it at 10,000 feet does not pull the roots out from the ground. Now it tells you where the weeds are. It tells you what field you’ve got to engage, but this is dirty work. This is hands in the dirt to pull up roots. That perpetrator or that system or both intended to almost be intractable. It can’t be changed. And that sense of hopelessness resonates so deeply for most victims because at that point, there’s no point just survive. Just go on. And the choice to pull it up, even if it costs you immense amount of time, money and energy, it literally is going to create ground where really sweet new fruit can grow. So what we’re inviting you all to is if you’ve escaped being groomed in this life, wow, count yourself one fortunate human being, and you never have to deal with phishing? You never have to deal with systems that are committed to complicity in order to create silence so that there can be exploitation of others? Open your eyes. The reality is we are all part of systems of perpetration, both as victims, but as you put it, Rachael, at times as participants, in a way in which when we begin to see how systems and individuals work, we can begin to go not on my watch.

Rachael: Yeah, I think that’s just what I would say as we close, one, healing is possible. Even for those of you that would say, okay, yeah, I have this story of perpetration and grooming from childhood, but it’s happened so many times. Even those reenactments are an attempt to find a different story. And it’s part of why this language, it’s not your fault is a good starting point, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to go deeper because there’s all these places where inside we go, yeah, but you don’t know about this one moment where I opted in by choice. In this moment. That’s where we’ve got to tend to those parts of us in the larger story and in the places where we’ve perpetrated harm, where we’ve groomed others, wittingly and unwittingly, and we’re hearing this and that’s where we’re going as people of God, repentance, accountability, repair, reconciliation is always a possibility. And that is also a healing process that takes time and tending. So all we’re inviting you to is to begin to go, are there places where I don’t have to be as bound as I have been? Maybe there’s a different way to interpret this story, to make meaning that can actually loosen and help me begin to pick, put the pieces back together over a longer journey and a longer history. Part of why we bring this is because we believe the resurrection is true here and now.