Spiritual Abuse and Starting to Heal

[Trigger/content warning]

Over the dozen years I’ve been in pastoral ministry, there have been many reasons why people I know have walked away from their faith, from God, from spirituality, joining the ever-growing ranks of ‘nones’ (those who claim no religious affiliation). For many, it is the problem of suffering and evil in the world — how can a good and loving God exist and do nothing?

But one of the biggest reasons that I’ve encountered for folks’ disillusionment with God and faith and Jesus and Christianity is the chasm between what Jesus was like and what his followers — and especially those who claim to speak for him — are like. It is hypocrisy, it is spiritual abuse, it is a lack of integrity, it is misuse of power and platform, it is exclusion and marginalization and oppression. These sins can so undercut the witness and words of Christians that it is no wonder people question whether Jesus actually makes any positive difference, whether Jesus is actually worth following.

A couple of weeks ago, I addressed this in a sermon on the Parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-12), because that is what Jesus was addressing — those who claim to speak for God but do what God would not do: engage in religious exclusion, economic oppression, and spiritual abuse.

It led me to share, for the first time in public, my own experience with spiritual abuse. Here’s some of what I said:

In a previous church I was part of, I experienced what I later came to understand as spiritual abuse. As is often the case with abuse, I was made to think I was the problem; I wondered if I was the troublemaker, if I was the one being unfaithful to God. I’m already one who is fairly conflict averse by inclination, so it wasn’t like I was raring to go public and wave a flag in righteous anger.

Like I said, I didn’t even fully know what was happening. So I kept silent about it. Left quietly. Wrestled with my faith and my calling. In the years that followed, especially once I was able to name it, and as I connected with others who’d experienced similar things and similarly not known how to understand their experiences as spiritual abuse — I mean who wants to claim that they’ve been abused? — I continued to wonder if I should’ve spoken up, if I could’ve done more to help keep others safe. Sometimes I still wonder.

To be a Christian in the United States is to experience and have to figure out our faith in a country where certain forms of Christianity have dominated the landscape and our history, many of which have not looked at all like the God—the Jesus—they claimed to speak for. I think of churches and priests and pastors who have committed or covered up abuse of women and children, and disbelieved those who had the courage to speak up. I think of slaveholding and white supremacist forms of Christianity that denied the humanity and freedom of fellow image bearers while preaching so-called good news. I think of patriarchal and misogynistic forms of Christianity that deny the equality of women and the ability of women to lead in God’s church, those who were often the most faithful—last at the cross and first at the tomb, and first to preach the resurrection. I think of homophobic and transphobic forms of Christianity that deny the belovedness of all people, not just depriving the church of opportunities to learn from our queer siblings but even driving them to question if life is worth living.

Healing from spiritual abuse can be so hard to come by. Because it isn’t just an intellectual or rational exercise. It is tied into our emotions and our bodies and our families of origin and our worldview. It is hard to separate our experiences of — and our experiences at the hands of — those claiming to represent God from our experiences of God. In the words of Carol Howard Merritt:

The reason religious wounds can cut so deeply is that they carry the weight of God with them. In some way we have felt that God was behind what wounded us. So the first step in spiritual healing is to learn to love God by separating God from our experience of being wounded.

Carol Howard Merritt, Healing Spiritual Wounds

I would offer three steps on the path toward healing from spiritual abuse — not exhaustive by any means, but intended to be a start.

First, we heal when we look to Jesus. Because when we look to Jesus, we see who God really is. What God looks like. What God says. What God does. We need to be reminded that God did not condone what the pastor of your last church did; God is not like the youth leader who failed to report your abusive situation or who perpetrated it; God actively opposes the self-proclaimed Christian politician who tweets Bible verses while legislating against the very people God defends: the poor, the immigrant, the vulnerable. 

I take so much comfort from what I learn from Jesus here in this parable in Mark: who God stands with and who God stands against. Jesus stands against economic exploitation, Jesus stands against religious exclusion, Jesus stands against spiritual abuse. And by implication, Jesus stands with those who have been made poor, those who have been labeled ‘sinners,’ those who have been hurt and harmed by people in positions of spiritual and religious authority—directly or indirectly.

Second, we heal in community. In her book Sacred Wounds, Teresa Mateus says, plain and simple, “We heal in community. There is no other way.” Just as Dr. King was not alone in his activism. Just as Jesus had his band of disciples. Just as God declared it was not good for humans to be alone. Find your community in which to heal. Find people with whom to heal, people with whom to pursue justice and righteousness and being formed in the likeness of Jesus. Find people who will celebrate your image-of-God-ness, who will cheer you on and challenge you to do the right thing, even when it is hard. Seek healing in community.

And third, we heal by living out a better way. Whatever level of sharing you are able to participate in as part of your healing, whatever you are able to name and wherever you are able to name it, live out a better way. Call out bad tenants. Call out bad stewards. Call out harmful actions. But don’t just be a prophetic voice. Be a prophetic witness too. Live out the better way that God is leading you in.

You may not be a religious leader. But all of us — as Christians — are called to be ministers of the gospel.

All of us are called to be bearers of the good news. All of us are called to look after, to steward that which God has given us: wherever we may have influence or authority — in our workplaces, in our families, in our classes, in our friend groups. In our selves too: with our time and our money, with our energy and our relationships, with our bodies and our minds, with our words and on our screens.

What kind of tenant are you? What kind of steward are you of what God has given you? Of the life God has given you?

We have all been wounded in some way, and I pray we are all healing in some way. We are all invited, to use the words of Dutch author Henri Nouwen, to become wounded healers:

To speak about and to live out God’s better way in whatever place God has us.

To allow God to bring healing to us and to bring healing through us to others.

To learn to live like Jesus in order that others might also experience the healing and liberation of God.

May it be so.

Check out the full sermon below:

Image by Serkan Göktay via Pexels.com.

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