I never will forget his words.
“If she tells me, ‘I deserved it,’ I have two problems instead of one.”
The kind of distorted, self-negating thinking he encountered is exactly what causes abusive situations to flare up and get out of hand. It plays right into the hands of the abuser and lies at the center of our discussion of the person who is targeted by spiritual abuse.
Dr. Phil Monroe’s article, “Why are some people prone to spiritual abuse?” (which unlike me he published right on schedule) sheds light on what those vulnerabilities are and why it can be both difficult and painful to leave an abusive situation.
One of the biggest set-ups for spiritual abuse for women dovetails with an issue I raised in When Life and Beliefs Collide, but didn’t connect to the issue of spiritual abuse until now. In his article, Phil Monroe calls it “self-doubt.” In The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, authors David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen call it “learned powerlessness.”
What this boils down to is a low view of self and a fundamental dependence on others to do the thinking, leading, and deciding that over time leaves a woman unable to do those things for herself. Her God-given decision-making muscle atrophies.
It is a huge set-up for spiritual abuse when those she looks to for guidance and protection are protecting something else at her expense. They are protecting themselves, their sense of control, power, and authority, their entitlement to unquestioning loyalty and alignment, and/or their reputation and ministry.
These vulnerabilities leave her without agency. She loses (or never develops) the ability to think, discern, decide, and act for herself. She becomes so used to relying on the judgment of others, she doesn’t trust herself or believe that gnawing feeling inside that tells her something about this situation is desperately wrong. Instead, the more she is scolded, shamed, and lectured the more willing she becomes to accept the abuser’s demeaning messages and humiliating conduct.
A spiritually abusive person exploits vulnerabilities many women are unaware they even have, often because those vulnerabilities are consider godly attributes—things like submissiveness, patience, forgiveness, and trust. So it’s easy to be blindsided by a spiritually abusive encounter from a trusted source and not know what to think, which way to turn, or how to get out.
Yes, there are exceptions.
Some strong personalities have an inherent ability to detect when someone has crossed the line and the ability to let them know. But even in those situations, another volley of spiritual abuse gets fired back. They can be accused of being divisive, argumentative, and obstreperous. But when someone is conditioned to doubt themselves or has learned powerlessness, their first instinct is to blame themselves. They enable the abuser by wondering if they’ve done something wrong and even deserve to be abused.
Abusive situations are never simple.
In tough economic times, it seems fool-hardy to give up a job that puts food on the table and a roof over your head. Often years of investing in a career, relationships, and a ministry are at stake. It isn’t easy to lose respect for someone you’ve looked up to and trusted. Then there’s always the hope that with prayer and perseverance and “trying harder” things will get better.
What complicates things is the fact that as Christians, we are supposed to have a healthy ability to think critically of ourselves. And not all criticism that comes our way is unfounded. But if constructive criticism is delivered in abusive ways, a serious problem remains. This is when it helps to turn to a third party to gain a more objective perspective—someone who is not in the situation and whose perspective is not distorted or swayed by loyalties or power or politics or risks to themselves.
Most of the stories of spiritual abuse I hear come within the context of long-term relationships where admitting what is actually happening can be excruciatingly costly and require levels of strength a woman has never had to summon up.
God has a way of overturning these situations in surprising ways as a woman is forced to find her voice and exercise a brand of courage she never imagined needing, especially with a Christian brother or sister.
I pray that God will shine the light of truth on men and women who are spiritually (or in any other way) abusing others.
But we also need the light of God’s truth to shine on us.
My book When Life and Beliefs Collide identifies where we must start both in addressing and preventing abusive situations. The starting point is not with self-esteem classes, but by taking ourselves and our minds seriously and going deeper in our relationship with God. Knowing him better and deeper takes us to the Source of light who shines the truth on us. Strength and courage don’t appear out of thin air. They grow out of understanding who God is, how he sees us, and that we bear his image and from knowing that therefore he has invested us with infinite.
I fear that much of what women are absorbing in women’s ministries and Bible studies contributes to these vulnerabilities and is insufficient to fuel the kind of courage and strength we need at the first flicker of abuse. Instead we are being lulled into that learned powerless and self-doubt that leave us unprepared to reject an abuser’s words and behavior and to stand our ground before abuse gains traction.
God didn’t create his daughters to cower in the face of abuse, but to stand up, not only for ourselves (which is often the hard part), but also for others who will be the next victims. We are not powerless. We were born to think, to discern, to decide, and to stand against evil. God equips us to take responsibility for the situations we face and to think, decide, and act, even if doing that takes us out of our female comfort zone.
We are, after all, ezer-warriors!
So here are some questions to think about. Feel free to join in with any other comments and insights you wish to offer.
- What makes a person vulnerable to a spiritual abuser?
- Why are we unaware (at least at first) that the behavior we’re encountering is spiritual abusive?
- Why are so many women not equipped to stand their ground when it starts?
- What can we do to prepare women and girls to detect it, to stop thinking someone else will rescue them, and to stand up to an abuser before that person gains the upper hand?
Here is the complete series on Spiritual Abuse:
- It all started with Lean In: Seek and Speak Your Truth
- Part 1: This Can of Worms Must be Opened!
- Part 2: The Perfect Storm
- Part 3: The Many Faces of Spiritual Abuse
- Part 4: Identifying the Triggers of Spiritual Abuse
- Part 5: Standing Up to Spiritual Abusers
- Part 6: The Underlying Belief System of Spiritual Abuse
- Part 7: The Enablers of Spiritual Abuse … or When Silence isn’t Golden
Dr. Phil Monroe on Spiritual Abuse:
- Spiritual Abuse: What it is and Why it Hurts
- Why Do Some Spiritual Leaders Abuse Power?
- What Factors Support the Use of Spiritual Abuse?
- Four Belief System That Support Spiritual Abuse
- Do You Enable Spiritual Abuse?
- Failures to Act—Why we don’t always blow the whistle on abuse