Spiritual Abuse: Is It Real?

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A basic, working model of spiritual struggle and suffering (E.Thomas, 2017)

It can be disquieting for me to hear that my belief systems have caused people deep and abiding damage to their cores. It can be so disquieting and disturbing that I cannot accept that what has brought me light and life has brought death and destruction to someone else. Thus, I blame the “victim” and carry on with life. Some people, apparently, need more time to wake up and be enlightened. Or to be saved. Or to walk a better path. Or pray harder. Or get a grip. Or read better science. Or let go more.

I’ve taken a long time to post about this particular subject because: 1) I’m still grappling with the effects of what I would term as spiritual abuse and trauma, and 2) there is so little research out there to really look to.

The reality that there is less research devoted to spiritual abuse and trauma over and above other more visible abuses is alarming. To me that suggests a few possibilities: 1) we still believe it doesn’t really exist (despite some loud voices crying out for the dismantling of religious and spiritual circles; why is that?); 2) we don’t know what it really looks like or how to address it; 3) we don’t want our personal beliefs tampered with. After all, if a good thing has transformed my life, how could someone else possibly dare to question it as abusive or threatening? If a good thing that has helped me in my life is determined to be abusive for someone else, then I potentially become a part of an abusive cycle which is something I did not sign up for me.

This post is just an introductory one that will offer some basic, working definitions. Over the next while I hope to delve more deeply into the subject, gaining better understandings and insights into my own life, into the lives of others individually and culturally.

The short answer: yes, spiritual trauma is real. Period.

Here’s the longer answer:

Spiritual Abuse: 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.” Another definition of spiritual abuse is “the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.” (Nicloy, 2006). Nicloy goes to say that he doesn’t believe that most perpetrators actually believe they are doing harm, and in fact might be unaware of the damage they are doing.

The NACR (2017) breaks this definition down into further specifics by addressing the abuse of children’s emerging spirituality damaging their sense of self, sexual abuse in connection with a clerical figure, the use of spiritual truths or sacred texts to keep people in submission or dangerous situations, the abuse of religious figures by congregations, religious coercion (cults), invoking divine authority in order to generate specific behaviour (I’ve been told to pray more because I am anxious about my soul; then God will accept me), placing undue burdens on people with less authority. (Jeff VanVonderan)

This is a broad area. However we need to understand that whenever we are talking about the core of our beings being violated or damaged, these violations and damages have some of the greatest potential to impact the rest of who we are. This is so not only because these wounds are specifically directed at the core of who we are, but because they include the Divine Source of life and love (whoever or whatever that Source is for a person). Couple them together and suddenly the one Source who is to be trusted and loved above all else becomes a monster, a judge, a distant force without care, or a figure that perhaps even wants us to suffer.

Spiritual Trauma: “Spiritual trauma is, essentially, the violation of the sacred or spiritual core in human beings, harm at the innermost level. What constitutes the sacred core in human beings—what exactly is this spiritual core?…There is one thing that most human beings would agree on as located at the core of our beings; and most religious traditions would label as the spiritual core of human beings—and that is the child-like yet profound expectation that good and not harm will come to us. When this is violated then we have suffered an injury to our spirit; at the extreme, this expectation that good will come to us is replaced by what Philip Roth refers to as the “wisdom of someone who has no expectations.” (Kruk, UofBC).

Let me clear: as far as I know at this point, spiritual abuse and spiritual trauma are intimately connected (see diagram above), but are also separate experiences. Abuse can certainly lead to trauma, but like other forms of abuse it does not always cause a traumatic degree of angst.

On the flip side, not all spiritual trauma is caused by spiritual abuse. We all walk through dark nights of the soul that can be brought on by anything that we experience. We all ask questions around meaning, around purpose, around death and dying, around the existence of a higher being, and around what happens to us after we die. When we receive incomplete, incoherent, incomprehensible answers, or even silence, our spirits experience traumas that are real, valid, and in need of healing.

Spiritual Harm: this definition is a little murky as I could find only vague references to it. If I’m understanding the term correctly, it specifies the intent to harm under the umbrella of abuse or trauma. If a spiritual leader knows they are acting abusively, and even desiring to do so, this is harm. However I am leaving this definition at that as I need to delve into it more substantially.

Spiritual Distress: this is a normal process that every human being walks through during the courses of our lives. As I mentioned in the trauma section, we all ask deep, abiding questions that shape the core of who we are as humans in relation to what is greater than ourselves. Our journeys through these questions can cause no small amount of distress! However, there may or may not be external forces/influences causing harm or abuse to our inner selves.

With all of this being said, how do we discern what is abuse? What is trauma? What is harm? And what is distress? They are all so closely connected that all four could be present in a person’s life, or perhaps only one. I have no solid answers for myself at this point other than to look to my own life and see how these experiences have shaped me and impacted me.

For example, a consistent theme preached from the pulpit while I was growing up was that “my sinful self was so abhorrent to God that God couldn’t stand to look at me unless it was through the lens of Jesus.”

I want to be careful here.

Remember when I said what one person would consider abusive is still someone else’s salvation message? I’m not here to coddle people who still hold strongly to these beliefs, but I do wish to try and be respectful in my communication. In the end, however, I need to honest with my truth.

This is abuse.

In the myriad of Christian traditions, we espouse to be in relationship with a God of love. Not only that, but many Christian denominations trust that God IS Love — the Source, the Essence, the Being of Love Itself, Love Incarnate.

And yet…Love can’t stand to look at me because of how I was created by this Love?

Self-esteem aside, I learned that self-compassion was not acceptable as it was a selfish act. I needed to feel as bad about myself as I possibly could because without understanding how depraved I was, I wouldn’t be able to understand the depth of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

I had to love the Love of the Universe who hated me until this Love killed his own kid.

I’m not here to debate penal substitutionary atonement theory, although I will say it is a dominant belief in evangelical circles still even today. To question it is to question one’s identity as a Christian. It can be seen as a threatening thing to do at times.

As a child hearing these messages, the religious dissonance led to religious schizophrenia. These weren’t mystical paradoxes to be wrestled with for all time. These were (and are, I believe) abusive statements that caused deep and scarring wounds to the innermost parts of who I was. Except for Jesus, I was unlovable. And yet no matter how hard I held on to Jesus, I couldn’t love myself, fully love others, and especially God.

Truthfully, I wanted to destroy myself.

Were the preachers and teachers who passed this doctrine on out to get me or hurt me? Likely not. They have no idea the harm they caused to me, to themselves, and to the many others they shared this teaching with. No idea.

But that doesn’t make it any less damaging. The ripple effects of this one teaching alone helped set me on a course of mental health issues, damaged self-esteem, violence towards myself, and an inability to really connect with God — the real God of Love who was trying to call through that miasma of fear, loathing, and terror.

I could go into numerous concrete events that I would classify as abusive, but I will save those stories for another day. I hope we can walk this journey gently together. Healing takes so many forms and my prayer is that all of us of who know we have been abused, harmed, traumatized, or distressed will find solace with one another and reconciliation with the truth and love about God.


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