“How do I believe again?” the young woman asked me after I finished my talk at the Spiritual Abuse conference in Hartford. Her words still haunt me. Her tearful eyes were full of questions, doubt, sadness, resignation, hurt. “How do I believe again?”
I remember when I felt just as she did. After exiting from the cultic “church” in which my husband and I had been involved, we both struggled with our faith, neither one of us certain we would be able to find our way back to God—and even more doubtful we could ever find a way back to a healthy church. We were “wounded sheep.” Fortunately, we were able to do so, thanks in large measure to our Providential encounter with an Episcopal Church in the Dallas metroplex.
This church provided a safe haven for us and gave us a place where we could heal and find our way back to God.
The term, “spiritual abuse” has made its way into contemporary Christian discourse over the last twenty years. Although the term was popularized in Christian books in the 1990s (e.g. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Johnson and VanVonderen, 1991), the Bible talks extensively about the subject. In the Old Testament, God tells Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel:
“Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? …You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd…Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord…because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock…I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock.” (Excerpts from Ezekiel 34, NIV).
Spiritual abuse has been defined as “a kind of abuse which damages the central core of who we are. It leaves us spiritually discouraged and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God” (Recovery from Spiritual Abuse, Juanita and Dale Ryan, 1992). Like other kinds of abuse, spiritual abuse results when a person in a position of power or authority manipulates another in order to serve the manipulator’s needs. Spiritual abuse differs from other types of abuse because there is a religious component, such as a misuse or misinterpretation of scripture, a distortion of the character of God, or a foreshadowing of eternal damnation.