By Robin Mullins Senger
Spiritual abuse is devastating in more ways than we realize.
Like many who were raised in Christian homes, I inadvertently developed some significant misunderstandings of what the Bible actually teaches about proper roles of authority, submission within marriage, and the local church. This set me up to be easily victimized by several abusive religious men. I am keenly aware of how devastating spiritual abuse is as I have been the victim of it from various pastors and two spouses.
My own journey through hell began with an amazing testimony.
When I met Brian, he had an amazing testimony of God saving him from a horrible past. I had no reason not to believe that he had truly found God and was delivered from a previous life of teenage prostitution, gangs, drugs and crime. He had found God while serving time in prison and believed unwaveringly he was called to be a preacher. I wasn’t thrilled with the preaching part, but admired his passion for God and his knowledge of the Bible.
Unfortunately, what started out seemingly innocuous turned into a twisted, confusing dark spiritual valley. Had I seen it all at once at the beginning, I would never have been deceived. But the change happened by small degrees over time. Soft shadows mixed with sunlight. By the time I acknowledged that something was wrong, I felt I was in too far to just walk away.
“I am God’s chosen mouthpiece to this generation.”
Brian’s favorite thing to do was to take Scripture on God’s perfection and twist it into God demanding that we also be perfect like Him right now all the time. Brian believed he fulfilled this, and I and everyone else had to do so also if we really were “Christian.”
He assumed spiritual authority and I began hearing frequently that God had chosen him to speak to Christians who were falling short of perfection. If they would listen to him and obey his interpretation of Scripture, then they would go to heaven. Any self-professing Christian who did not listen to him would go to hell. He believed they were defying this generation’s mouthpiece appointed by God Himself.
I began to feel numb and dead inside.
The “spiritual” path he led me on turned into a true nightmare. Other forms of toxicity developed. In time my life felt numb and dead. I once had a thriving relationship with God. But under this abuse, I became increasingly confused and depressed.
In time, my own values slipped with more frequency in my effort to adapt to my unbearable circumstances. Guilt, fear and worry became my constant companions. Once a young woman full of joy and life, I turned into an empty shell just trying to survive.
Spiritual abuse attacks the very center of our beings. Some professionals have equated it with the effects of incest and I believe they’re right.
A dangerous cult leader mentality was forming.
The few people who knew what was happening frequently likened Brian to Jim Jones, the notoriously destructive religious cult leader.
Ironically, long before I met Brian, I recognized that my sister’s pastor was behaving in a very suspicious way. Worried for her and knowing she would not take her little sister’s word seriously, I strove to learn all I could about this mentality.
I wrote several pages in an article paralleling the ideology and methodology of Jim Jones to her pastor. I also investigated her pastor’s claims by making a few phone calls. Every single claim turned out to be false. Thankfully, my sister received my information before her family was too badly hurt.
Eventually I couldn’t ignore the fact that the methodology Brian used was the same as Jones and other cult leaders. But because I was married to him with children, I felt I couldn’t just walk away. Verses of Scripture were twisted and used to make me worried about the repercussions if I left or questioned his "authority." This was a process that developed over years, effectively confusing and warping my ability to reason clearly, or to resist.
Spiritual abuse is about power and control.
Our unquestioned spiritual beliefs are central to how many of us women understand and respond to abuse in toxic relationships. It is also what prevents many of us from thriving in our relationship with God. As with ALL other forms of abuse, spiritual abuse is about power and control. Christian women are often especially forgiving and “submissive.” Unscrupulous men can take advantage of this tender vulnerability.
Spiritual abuse is the misuse of power, leadership and influence to further selfish interests, at the expense of the target. A spiritual abuser uses your faith in God and sense of submission against you, in order to control and manipulate you to serve his own self-interests.
Here are a few of the ways my husband acted, that are common behaviors resulting from a cult leader mentality:
He was extremely image conscious.
He had to suppress all criticism immediately.
He twisted Scripture to 'prove' his authority over me.
He rejected my independent thinking and my interpretation of Scripture as a 'religious spirit' which he judged to be demonic.
He isolated me from everyone, including friends and family, who did not agree with him. Since most of our acquaintances thought he was a nut, I got pretty lonely!
He demanded absolute obedience and submission from his family at any price.
Spiritual abuse creates codependency, causing a person to become emotionally and spiritually dependent on the abuser. This is accomplished through fear, guilt, and what reasonably can be called "brainwashing."
God hates spiritual abuse.
God does not require you to stay in submission to abusive authority. God condemns violence and abuse and He is against those who misuse their authority. He promises to defend and help those who find themselves trapped.
Legitimate Christian authority is to be exercised in God’s love. Those who exercise God-given authority, whether husbands or pastors, are to serve and protect those under their authority, and are to help others read and understand the Bible for themselves. They encourage them to have their own relationship with the Lord and to hear from Him themselves.
Illegitimate "Christian" authority only appears to be divinely bestowed. The abuser believes that only he can hear and know the truth accurately. He will always suppress independent thinking and questioning.
God encourages His children to think, examine, reason, and discern whether something is really from Him. Counterfeits squelch that freedom.
It was embarrassing to go to church with him.
Brian truly believed that God had chosen him alone to reveal the “hidden” meaning of Scripture, and would only speak through him to others. If a person didn’t listen, they were guilty of rebellion against God Himself and were thus condemned to hell. His main targets were pastors and other church authority.
You can probably imagine the difficult position that put me in. We would go to church and he would confront the pastor with his version of the “truth,” and demand that the pastor submit to him. He never did it on the first visit, but I came to know what to expect. I cringed away from making friends because I knew we wouldn’t be staying.
The spiritual darkness I progressively lived in was very painful. Sometimes difficulties in life result in a spiritual awakening that gets us through it. That is what I had always been accustomed to. In the past I had always grown closer to God when life got tough.
But this time it was different.
I felt the distance grow between me and God as life got worse with Brian. At a time when I needed Him more than ever to survive, I felt alienated from Him and that I was left to deal with my problems alone. I did not enjoy His comfort and peace at the worst part of it. But that darkness is not where my story ends!
Looking back, now from a place of peace and restoration, I can say this:
God helped us survive! We would never have made it through without Him. Never! It sometimes FELT like God was far away and unconcerned about us. Sometimes it FELT like I had to figure it all out and do everything by myself. But that wasn’t true.
God says in Deuteronomy 31:6 “So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the LORD your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.”
He kept His promise to the girls and myself.
He allowed me to feel the way I did, knowing that it was maturing me. God knew I would understand Him in a deeper way down the road than if He let me feel close to Him all the time. He wasn’t going to let it go too far, or give me more than I could bear. And now I am grateful for His wisdom and love.
As powerful as our feelings are, God is greater than our feelings.
When He said He would not leave us or forsake us, He gave His Word! Our feelings do not negate His promise. We can absolutely trust His promises no matter what it feels or looks like.
When I look back, I see that the strength I had to get through every day, to think of solutions to problems, to protect my children and myself, and to see the truth about Brian – it was all from God. God helped us and protected us every step of the way, thwarted Brian’s plans at times to hurt me, and gave me the strength, wisdom, and courage to get us out before our lives turned into a tragedy.
One thing I did do right through it all was cling to His promise that He would NEVER leave us nor forsake us. God had never before let me down. I put every ounce of hope I had into that verse, trusting that someday I would see His hand in our lives. That became my reality.
During the dark times, I got to the point where I couldn’t even articulate prayer to Him anymore. I hurt so badly inside I could no longer pray to Him with audible words. But inside I clung to Him. God helped me and honored that little bit of hope and trust – it was all I had.
It takes courage for you to question the truth of what is happening in a toxic relationship – even if only to yourself. It also takes courage to actually leave that destructive relationship. God will honor your hope and trust in Him. Even if you haven’t previously shown that faith, you can start over right now, and place your trust in Him. Cling to Him and His promises. He WILL deliver you.