By Joe Brinkmann
Spiritual abuse is a subject that is not fun to address. It almost feels like we are going through the belongings of our favorite deceased grandparent. As we sort, we say to ourselves, “Please don’t reveal anything shocking! I want to remember them like I’ve always imagined them.” But if you’ve spent any time around church (or grandparents) you know that everyone has dark secrets. People are sinners. Yes, there is grace, but there are also consequences. And these consequences run deep when it comes to entire communities of people. Whether you can identify clear spiritual abuse or not, chances are you have probably encountered it somewhere to varying degrees. You may even be the perpetrator.
Definition of Spiritual Abuse
So, what is spiritual abuse? We don’t want to play the “blame game” and call anything and everything we disagree with “abuse.” So let’s define the term. Here is one way to think about it…Spiritual abuse is the misuse of God’s truth by a group or individual in order to bring people into submission to that institution or individual. In other words, it is using the Bible to bring conformity to a non-Biblical standard. It can happen in families, churches, friendships, marriages, counseling centers, universities, and the list goes on.
As Biblical counselors, we claim to be using God’s word as a standard for our counsel. Couldn’t we, also, be in danger of spiritually abusing people in our counseling? Yes. And this is partially why I think it is a good topic to address in this context. Why trust us with your soul when so many other Bible-toting Christians have hurt you before?
Claiming a book is divinely inspired can be a very tricky thing. If God said it, then it bears some weight. It has authority. This is a good thing. But when someone uses that authority to bolster his own authority over someone else, it is not so good anymore. Instead of healing, it has now become harmful. It’s sort of like police and the law. They get to enforce a law that has authority behind it. Authority that is, in itself, really good and helpful. However, if the police use that authority to justify their own agenda, it is now misconduct. Instead of protecting, they are harming. In this case, the problem is not with the law but with the police.
At its core, spiritual abuse is a God-replacing act where people use God-given authority to coerce submission to themselves. This is entirely different than advocating for the role of God’s authority in people’s lives, using sound Biblical teaching and discipleship to bless those under its influence. Instead, spiritual abuse leaves a different taste in our mouths.
How It Feels
I could go on and on about ways that spiritual abuse manifests itself. People are led to feel pressure about how to dress, what parts of culture to partake in, how much they should sexually please a spouse, how often they should pray, how much faith to have for healing, how to discipline children, what doctrines to believe, whether to go to doctors, how many kids they should have, etc. All of this results in feelings of shame and fear. People are left saying, “What if I don’t do this the right way? Will God still love me? Does God care anyway? I feel like I let God down. God is disgusted with me.”
Isn’t it interesting that Adam and Eve had those same feelings when they listened to the serpent? The serpent twisted the words of God (spiritual abuse), they acted on those words, and the result was shame and fear. Intimacy with God was replaced with distance. They moved from hearing God directly to hearing him through the voice of another. Why did they trust the serpent more than God’s words? One reason is because the serpent was crafty.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:1-5)
At the bottom of all spiritual abuse is an evil that knows how to manipulate the understanding of God’s authority and intentions in the hearts of its victims. Perhaps one of the biggest tragedies is that Adam and Eve listened to the words of someone other than God in order to get something from God that they already had. The suggestion of the serpent was really just a way for them to become like God, but they were already made in God’s image. They already had what they ultimately wanted.
This is where I return to Biblical counseling and the dangers of repeating spiritual abuse in the process of offering Biblical counsel. The goal of Biblical counseling is not to place moral obligations on the heads of desperate listeners. It is not to take a place of spiritual authority in the life of a wandering soul. The goal is to help people come before God through his word and by his Spirit.
For some of you, this is a frightening place to be. God has become a distant mystery or perhaps even a threat. Reality is that he knows our weaknesses and sufferings. Jesus, God in the flesh, comes to us as one who is gentle and lowly (Matthew 11:29). Instead of twisting God’s words, he perfectly fulfilled each one of them even unto death. This is the merit of his true authority, and he uses all of it to bless us as sons and daughters of a loving God.