Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Process of Healing from Spiritual Abuse

I am at work these days beginning a book based on the following ideas. I worked for several years on the research end for a doctoral project. It is a subject that has burdened me for a long time and one that many Christians (and even unbelievers) deal with at some point in their lives. The Process of Healing from Spiritual Abuse is divided into three sections: oppression, transition, and restoration. I hope to take that basic outline and develop it into 10-12 chapters.

Let me know if it is helpful to you. Also, if you have any personal experiences you would be willing to share with me that fit into these categories, let me know.


The first section is oppression. In this section, the person endures an atmosphere of oppression. This atmosphere includes both a pastor who is the conduit of oppression as well as a church that enables the oppression. Therefore, there is an individual problem as well as a systemic one. The victim feels oppression not only from the pastor who should be a model of grace and truth but also from the church system which should be an agent of healing and truth. Like the people in Isaiah’s day, victims of spiritual abuse feel disillusionment and may have a hard time at this point hoping in the Lord. Persons in this stage may feel very disenchanted with the local church. Persons enduring oppression may experience demoralization or may even be living in denial that the abuse is actually happening.

The next stage of oppression involves the awareness and acceptance of wrong done. It is in this stage that the person experiences the break-through barrier, the point when he is confronted with the truth that the pastor and system are abusive and that he must prepare to leave the abusive church. This awareness and acceptance will be a very painful time; the individual will feel as if he is going through a death and will experience some stages of grief. This time may also involve receiving more oppression. As the person becomes aware of the reality of the abuse he may begin voicing those complaints. As he rocks the boat and sounds the warning, just as Isaiah was often rejected, so he will be rejected by many in his church. The abusive pastor will most likely scapegoat this victim and the person will turn into the outcast of the system. Persons in the awareness and acceptance of wrong done stage will be acknowledging and beginning to understand the wrong done to them and others. As they move through this stage they will eventually begin to focus on finding a solution, not just staying stuck in their oppression.

The final stage of the oppression section is the call to be open to God through a prophetic voice of change. In the prophet’s day, Isaiah served as the prophetic voice of change, calling the people back to the Lord. Isaiah reminded God’s people that in spite of their oppression God had not abandoned them. He would not forget them. He was deeply aware of their situation. And in the midst of such dismay, they could open themselves afresh to his doing a new work in their lives: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”[1]

God will offer similar calls today to people in oppressed circumstances. A prophetic voice of change calls the persons to once again be open to God at work in their lives. Victims of spiritual abuse may receive that call through several avenues. It may likely come through the daily reading of the Word of God. The prophetic voice of change may come through the immediacy of the Holy Spirit as the individual prays or worships. The still, small voice of the Lord may gently whisper as the person is quiet or spending time in nature.[2] The prophetic voice may come through the counsel, admonition, or warnings of a friend or family member. It may come as individuals speak against the sin or the system, leveling a rebuke (Stephen Arterburn calls this person the prophet of the system in his book Toxic Faith).

Persons observing the abusive pastor or system may sound a warning to the victim of the severity of their situation and exhort them to trust God to do a new work in their lives. The voice may come as the person reads some literature on spiritual abuse or some other subject. Or, the voice may simply come through the conscience of the abused person. Whatever the method, this stage of healing from spiritual abuse will involve the call to be open to God through a prophetic voice of change.

At this point, just as the prophetic voice in Isaiah’s day brought the people to a crisis of belief where they had to decide what they believed about God, so today this new call to be open to God again will challenge the victim. In spite of past failure and pain, disillusionment and disenchantment, and oppression and anger, the person must choose to open the door of their life to God again. The Lord must be allowed to enter into the secret chambers of the victim’s life to allow the winds of hope and healing to continue to blow.


If the person responds positively to the prophetic voice of change and opens himself up afresh to the Lord, the person will begin the process of transition. The first stage of this section is a thorough self-examination. If the person is going to healing and move forward positively, showing evidence of resiliency, he must at this stage in the process begin a thorough self-examination. This step is crucial in order for positive results to follow, for the person to be able to withstand the backlash of leaving the abusive system, and for the person to transition from oppression to restoration.

This stage includes three steps: identifying negative thought patterns, establishing correct thought patterns, and embracing godliness. First he must identify negative thought patterns. Victims of spiritual abuse have often learned to think wrongly about themselves and others. They may have been trained in bad theology designed to protect the pastor and his enablers from accountability. They may have a distorted image of God, the Bible, or themselves. They may see themselves as failures, unworthy of love. Trusting other people or God may be very hard. Guilt and shame may mark their psyche. They may experience gripping fear or problems establishing personal boundaries. Whatever their problem, victims often have to take time to begin identifying the negative thought patterns that have grown during their time of oppression. This negativity could be in the form of wrong attitudes that the person developed toward other people due to the influence of abusive leaders. If this is the case, the person needs to go through a cleansing process, asking the Lord to forgive and cleanse them from their wrong judgments and misunderstandings. This stage of change is similar to Causey’s deal with the sin in your life and identify strongholds. Uprooting and tearing down that which is wrong must take place during this stage before the person can begin building and planting.[3]

As the victim identifies these negative thought patterns, he must replace the old with the new. This next step in a thorough self-examination is called establishing correct thought patterns. This reprogramming of the mind involves the person learning to think biblically and correctly about God, self, and others. This reprogramming includes approaching the Bible with a clean slate and letting go of misconstrued ideas or theologies associated with abusive leaders. The person must utilize the weapons of warfare given to him by the Lord in order to begin to experience healing and freedom. It includes filling the mind with sound, orthodox teaching, reading solid Christian material, and opening lines of communication with Christians who are not perpetuating the abuse. The isolation that may have accompanied the abuse needs to be replaced with a re-engagement with the mainstream Christian culture. This step in the transition phase is similar to Causey’s last two phases, change the way you think and destroy strongholds in the mind through the use of divine weapons. The goal is to experience a new God-given freedom, and the mind must be reprogrammed in this stage from the old to the new.

Then, as the person continues to undergo a thorough self-examination, he does so by embracing godliness. If the victim is going to transition from oppression to restoration and be freed from the bondages of spiritual abuse, it is imperative that he takes time to examine what will make for godliness. Many people leaving an abusive pastor or church fail at this point. They leave in haste and in an ungodly manner. The serious disciple of Jesus Christ will spend time at this stage asking the Lord to examine himself, asking for the enablement of the Spirit of God to be holy, and desiring not to display the acts of the flesh but the fruit of the Spirit.[4] The person in this stage desires to leave in the right way and please God with the way in which the victim leaves.

The person in this stage of a thorough self-examination is carefully developing a plan and process to begin change and leave the abusive system in a healthy way. Isaiah reminded God’s people in Isaiah 58-59 of the responsibilities they had to walk in an upright relationship with God. The prophet calls them to thoroughly examine their lives to prepare them for God’s best. So today if victims of oppression are to transition from their bondage to days of restoration, they too must allow God’s Spirit to search them deeply.

If a person walks through the steps involved in a thorough self-examination, then he is ready for a noble exit. Just as Isaiah promised a coming day when the exiled Jews would be released to leave their captivity, so a day comes when it is time for an oppressed victim of spiritual abuse to leave the abusive pastor and church. In this stage the individual is going through the process of actually leaving the former church. Duties will be resigned. Friendships will be lost. Gossip will abound.

The first step of a noble exit is refusing to retaliate. As the person has thoroughly examined himself and has embraced godliness, he is ready to not take vengeance. As mentioned in the theological review, this person must not spend time and energy trying to defend his reputation or right wrongs done to him or others he loves. Instead he will choose to exude godliness even when that means being misunderstood. The person moving toward hope and healing will let God defend his reputation and will leave the outcome in the hands of the Lord. Hand-in-hand with refusing retaliation is choosing a forgiving spirit. This move from exclusion to embrace is essential if restoration is to occur.

Forgiveness will over time release the victim from the bonds of his oppression. It will enable him to move forward and not get stuck looking backward. The victim may have to forgive himself for being abused and may have to forgive other people that enabled the abusive pastor. The person in this stage of a noble exit begins changing his behaviors and surroundings. This stage receives much positive and negative recognition from others and requires much energy, focus, and determination. It is necessary to realize that this section is entitled “transition” because it is just that – a process.


The final section of the process of healing from spiritual abuse is restoration. Time and again the prophet Isaiah promised that if the people would endure and keep hanging on to the Lord, he would eventually bring them out of their oppression into a day of restoration. No less is true today for victims of spiritual abuse. Just as the prophet promised the healing ministry of the Lord in Isaiah 61:1-3, the Lord is able to fulfill those words in the lives of people today: an anointing outpoured, hope promised, healing given, freedom bought, favor extended, vengeance coming, comfort provided, and purpose realized. Restoring includes giving back that which has been lost. The Lord is able to return much life, vitality, and a sense of his presence and glory to the person moving towards hope and healing.

The first step under restoration is a new connection. The new connection for the Jews would occur when they left Babylon and returned to their homeland. For the Christian today healing from spiritual abuse it will occur as he finds, joins, and becomes engaged in a new church. The Lord has another house of worship and family of God for the person to enjoy. This new connection will be an essential aspect of the healing process. It is often in the new place of connection where it seems that the Lord restores the years the locusts had eaten.[5] The healing person needs to find a healthy, balanced church where the reciprocity of giving and receiving can occur. New relationships can be formed. A healthy relationship with a pastor can begin afresh. And hope can be buoyed by the new connections forming. Similar to Prochaska’s stage called maintenance, in this stage the person makes concrete steps to solidify the decisions he made during the transition period.

The final two aspects of the restoration section are vertical between the individual and the Lord. The healing person must practice God’s presence in the present. The individual makes a firm commitment to become again a person who seeks the Lord wholeheartedly. The wounds of the past will not stop him from crying out to God, seeking his face, and immersing himself in the Scriptures. As this person abides in the Lord’s presence moment by moment, resting in him and talking to him, he will internalize this necessary spiritual habit of practicing God’s presence as a way of life. This healing person will begin again to embrace the reality that God has not left him, that his nature has not changed, and that he is always readily available. Isaiah promised Gods’ hurting people that the Lord would be gentle with them and stay close to them, relating to them as a shepherd to his sheep.[6]

Finally, if the person is going to leave behind the shackles of victimization and experience restoration, he will learn to trust God for the past and the future. A key reoccurring theme in the prophet’s words to the Jews in The Book of Consolation was the repeated call to trust in God’s goodness and sovereignty. His goodness is evidenced in his faithfulness. He is utterly dependable, even when life has fallen apart. His promises are thoroughly tested, and the hurting child can still bank on them. YHWH’s sovereignty extends to both the past, when the abuse occurred, and to the present, which can hold hope and healing. The person now enters afresh into a lifelong process of hope and healing. He can trust God to continue to work out his purposes in this life and the next. The pains and disappointments of life can be viewed through the lens of a sovereign God who promises to cause everything to work together ultimately for his purposes and his glory.[7]

[1] Isa 43:18-19 NIV
[2] The prophet Elijah received a revelation from the Lord as he quietly observed God’s creation. 1Kgs 19:9-18 NIV
[3] Jer 1:10 NIV
[4] Paul contrasts the acts of the flesh (hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy) with the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) in Galations 5:16-23, reminding the reader that they are in conflict with one another. NIV
[5] Joel 2:25 NIV
[6] Isa 40:11 NIV
[7] Rom 8:28-39 NIV

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The "No-Talk" Rule

I have given away Ken Blue's book Healing from Spiritual Abuse probably several dozen times. One day I gave a copy to a lady who had just left a painful church situation. She emailed me in a few days and told me that she had ordered ten more and given them all out!

Blue's book is very practical. He shares helpful insights, such as the "no-talk" rule that often occurs in an oppressive religious situation . . .

"One of the most troubling abusive traits in the dysfunctional church or denominational family is the unwritten “no talk” rule. This rule implies that certain problems in the group must not be exposed because then the group might look bad and things would have to change.

Allowing such deception and suppression to exist within a fellowship not only fosters numerous abuses but is a flat denial of the meaning of Christian fellowship. If there are certain issues – such as leadership, decision-making, or how money is spent – which you cannot discuss with members of your church, you do not participate in Christian fellowship with them.

Another abusive result of the “don’t talk” rule is that when people from inside the group finally break the silence and begin to talk about the group’s problems, they are persecuted. They are told that everything was just fine until they started causing trouble. (Incestuous families react in the same way toward the first daughter to blow the whistle on her father and her family.)

If the whistle-blowers reveal the group’s problems to the outside world, the group will mobilize to discredit them. Often the troublemaker’s mental and emotional state is brought into question. Almost never are the actual issues raised every admitted, let alone dealt with. The real problems are not acknowledged; instead, the whistle-blowers themselves become the problem. Thus honest examination is averted and denial maintained.

Any call to unity must be examined critically. Is it true Christian unity or unchristian uniformity that is being called for? Real unity is mutual submission which is freely and voluntarily given moment by moment. It is never coerced. If the unity called for includes keeping quiet about deep-felt concerns, it is not true Christian unity and we need not submit to it.

Some church leaders defend their heavy-handed, autocratic style of leadership and their hierarchical church structure in the name of “church unity.” Only a strong, central authority, they imply, can maintain discipline and “unity among the brethren.” The problem, of course, is that real unity can never be achieved by coercion. Christian authoritarianism confuses spiritual unity with unanimity. Unity is achieved as people freely submit to one another. Unanimity, or uniformity, on the other hand, can be achieved with autocratic controls. It can be prescribed, measured, and monitored. It is essentially external, whereas true unity is first internal. Uniformity looks for correct behavior, whereas unity wants a right spirit. Unity delights in differences.

The honor we offer our leaders, however, can only be offered freely. "

Image used courtesy of Pexels