Since I was sick in bed this weekend, I caught up on some reading. I’ve been meaning to read this book for years. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: recognizing and escaping spiritual manipulation and false spiritual authority within the church is a comprehensive examination of spiritual abuse and its victims, abusive leaders and post-abuse recovery.
One basic purpose of the book is to help readers examine their own practice of Christianity first:
Are you practicing grace, allowing the Spirit of Christ to live through you in such a way that you help lift oppressive weights off of others and spiritually empower them to live? Or are you trying to force people to live under laws, rules or formulas for spirituality that cause them to feel weighed down, unable to measure up to your standards? (pg. 25)
I especially appreciated the definition of a Christian “growing in godliness”:
…they convey restfulness, which comes from being comfortable and at peace with God…they convey a sense of fulfillment knowing that whatever spiritual work they [are] doing is in God’s will instead of…striving for more perfection… (pg. 41)
For people who have been spiritually abused or had a hurtful church experience, we are accustomed to spiritual leaders who give us advice that focuses on our behavior. I remember the first time I met someone who just rested in her faith. She wasn’t overly concerned with outwardly religious behavior. I was almost annoyed by how easeful she was about her practice of Christianity. In fact, I mistook her peacefulness for laziness.
The truth was that all I knew of Christianity was abusive and unhealthy so meeting someone with healthy spiritual boundaries was like meeting a religious alien. I didn’t recognize it.
First of all, I had a distorted image of God. As the book points out, victims of spiritual abuse sometimes have an ‘overriding preoccupation’ to “somehow decipher God’s will for every area of life, down to whether or not it was in His will to have a certain soft drink (pg.41).” Um, yeah. [Think about how this is manifested in systems like Bob Jones University which requires a stringent 'behavior code' from its students].
A distorted image of God leads to a distorted self-identity; mainly, an identity based in shame: there is much “confusion between guilt and shame. Guilt is a valuable signal indicating a wrong behavior…shame is an indictment on you as a person…You feel shame even when you’ve done nothing wrong; you feel defective as a human being, and like a third-rate Christian underserving of God’s blessings and acceptance (pg.45).”
The book goes on to describe abusive spiritual authorities, saying that “if a pastor’s spiritual authority were real, he would not have to demand that others notice it…those who are in positions of true leadership demonstrate authority, spiritual power and credibility by their lives and message.” People naturally want to follow a leader whose life matches his message. An abusive spiritual authority is one whose message places a heavy burden on his followers while he himself refuses to lift one finger in carrying it.
Abusive spiritual leaders also may live double lives: preaching against sins they are committing themselves. Or, maybe they are really big on the importance of submission and obedience, all while preaching about this “from the pulpit of an independent, separatist church (pg. 123).” That was my personal experience. Our independent, separatist little church was reeeally BIG on submission, obedience and loyalty. Funny how that works.
What I found most helpful about this book were the lists that characterized spiritually abusive systems. For example, a spiritually abusive system is characterized by: power posturing, performance preoccupation, unspoken rules, lack of balance, paranoia, misplaced loyalty and codes of silence (pg. 187).
Sometimes, the very first step to understanding your abusive church experience is to recognize the defining characteristics. Although the book didn’t provide many practical ideas for HOW TO recover from an abusive church experience (Take Back Your Life provides much more in-depth recovery tips), The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse is an invaluable resource for people trying to understand and make sense of their experience. I highly recommend it!
*my review of Take Back Your Life: recovering from cults and abusive relationships