By Grantley Morris
This webpage explains why spiritual abuse, lost confidence and self-hate often travel together and why recovery is so difficult.
Some of us remain crippled, even to this day, because of bullying and verbal putdowns delivered decades ago. During our most formative, vulnerable years – either as a child or when older as a new Christian – many of us were brow-beaten over and over by one or more significant people in our lives. If the offenders claimed to be close to God, it becomes spiritual abuse.
To help explain the impact, I will begin with a brief mention of children.
Childhood is too short for little children to question everything adults tell them, and the danger is simply too great for them to refuse to believe whatever they are told until they have proved it for themselves. It is vital for their safety and development that children be virtually prewired to accept as virtually infallible truth whatever respected adults in their lives tell them. Even at this tender age, if the person abusing that position of trust claims to speak for God or to somehow represent him, the devastation will almost inevitably go beyond severe self-esteem issues to having profound spiritual implications. Even when people are older, however, something similar (though perhaps not quite as deep) comes into play during the period when they first come under the sway of spiritual role models.
No matter what their physical age, new Christians are as vulnerable as babies. Even if they have the safest of spiritual homes, just outside is a world strewn with spiritual dangers. There is so much information they need to rapidly absorb in order to function spiritually and gain protection from dangers that spiritually threaten their very survival. The practical reality is that at this pivotal point there is simply no time for them to critically assess the accuracy of everything they are taught.
In theory, when things settle down, we should prayerfully reassess the accuracy of what we unthinkingly accepted when we had had so much to learn so quickly. Adjusting our thinking, however, is far from easy after mistaken beliefs and attitudes have been built into our lives.
Uncritically accepting everything we are taught and letting others mold us works beautifully when nurtured by kind-hearted people as God intended. It makes us alarmingly vulnerable, however, when someone we accept as a role model and source of truth, instead of manifesting the heart of God, repeatedly puts us down.
Whether the authority figure hurting us is a parent, a pastor or other key person in our lives, it is usually someone who managed to win the respect of other people. The perpetrators’ approval rating among those they gather around themselves makes it harder than ever to realize that this behavior is actually spiritual abuse. Instead, the very thought seems blasphemous and we are tragically likely to presume that the person must be reflecting the heart of God and to allow his/her rants to drown out the Spirit’s whispers.
These whispers will seem disturbingly foreign and unbelievable because they are gentle, encouraging and uplifting – the exact opposite of what we have been taught. God has faith in us and has great plans for us, and if this is contrary to what key humans have told us, we are preconditioned to conclude that the Spirit’s promptings must be nothing but our own misguided wishful thinking.
In short, even without deliberately intending to, abusers can so corrupt their position of trust and power that they browbeat and brainwash and undermine their victim’s confidence so appallingly as to render them unable to think for themselves or even believe their Lord when he speaks to them.
Just as there was much that was right and Bible-based about the beliefs and preaching of the spiritual leaders who crucified their Messiah, so it is with the wolves in sheep’s clothing that enter the very church of God (Scriptures). “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ ” warned Jesus (Matthew 7:22-23).
It is often not this dramatic, however. There are those who sincerely do their best to preach Christ but do it with a harshness that fails to reflect the tender heart of Christ. And there are people who, due to past hurts, are so sensitive and expect harshness and putdowns so much that they read into the words and actions of others a harshness that was never intended.
It has been my privilege to have had large numbers of child abuse survivors open their hearts to me. The greatest tragedy is that even long after the abuser has left, his or her impact is as devastatingly strong and toxic as ever because, partly for reasons just explained, the abuser’s brainwashing has been so effective that the victim has taken on board the abuser’s values, almost without realizing it. It is not that victims treat other people as their abuser did – that is rare – but they treat themselves as atrociously as the abuser did, especially in their self-talk. They insult themselves and accuse themselves and despise themselves as much as their abuser ever did, and they actually believe they are right to do so.
Sadly, spiritual abuse victims are just as vulnerable.
No matter how well-respected a person might be in the community, it remains ungodly to put people down or be harsh or unkind. No Christian wants to take on the values of someone who acts unchristlike, and yet this is what we inadvertently do when we fall into the habit of verbally abusing ourselves or treating ourselves with the harshness of our abusers. Tragically, however, the habit becomes as strong as heroin.
As astonishing as it seems, rather than facing the devastating conclusion that we have taken on the values of an abuser and are even addicted to it, we Christians are easily seduced into letting ourselves off the hook by actually convincing ourselves that we are pleasing God by acting like the devil in how we treat ourselves. It is frighteningly easy to re-label as humility or dying to self or fighting the flesh, what is actually a deeply ingrained addiction to perpetuating in our lives the ungodly way our abusers treated us. If we verbally abuse ourselves or think lowly of ourselves as our abusers did, let’s at least not pretend we are being godly by modeling ourselves on them.
Of course, we must never passively accept less than God’s best in our lives. There is no room for acting like spoilt brats, irresponsibly demanding that God do all the work while we laze around, content with mediocrity. We must cooperate with our Savior in passionately wanting change and not only praying for it but exerting every effort to persuade, encourage, inspire and urge every part of us to surrender to our Lord so that he may reign supreme in every aspect of our lives, as he does in heaven. This is neither cold-hearted indifference and sloth, nor is it imitating the devil by condemning ourselves and beating ourselves up like some hate-filled tyrant. Let’s get this right: Satan is the accuser (Revelation 12:10); God is the forgiver. Suppression and oppression come not from the heart of God but from his enemy. Refusing to join forces with the devil means refusing to slander, ridicule or belittle ourselves or anyone else. Neither demeaning self-talk nor being cruel to oneself is in heaven’s spiritual armory.
The above is taken from a webpage that you should read more of if you have been a victim of putdowns and now find it hard to stop being unkind to yourself. It is not uncommon, in fact, to end up so confused by an abuser as to be convinced you are being biblical by putting yourself down and treating yourself almost as badly as the abuser did. As I say in the beginning of that page:
Ably supported by the enemy of our souls, we Christians have a tendency to unintentionally distort biblical revelation in a way that perpetuates our problems.
Put another way: none of us has a perfect belief system, and the longer we who are committed to the Bible believe a particular lie, the more certain we become that it must be divine truth and this conviction clouds the way we read the Word of God. We have far too much integrity to knowingly distort Bible truth but we end up unconsciously cherry picking Scriptures – mentally highlighting ones that seem to support our misconceptions and letting contrary Scriptures fade away or reinterpreting them, like someone cutting jigsaw pieces to make them fit where they do not belong. The alarming consequence is that, despite them actually being contrary to God’s ways, we become increasingly sure that we are divinely required to make our misconceptions rule our lives.
The upshot is that if someone, whose spiritual status we respect, repeatedly puts us down or treats people harshly, we are likely to end up not only enslaved by a deeply entrenched habit of being hard on ourselves, but feel sure that by doing so we are pleasing God and being thoroughly biblical.
We cannot begin to tackle this destructive habit until we become convinced that despising ourselves or treating ourselves harshly is unscriptural and contrary to God’s heart. That’s the purpose of the webpage I’ve quoted from above and at the end of it are links to how to break the habit once you become convinced that God wants you to do so.
As devastating as spiritual abuse is, healing is available. It hinges, however, on letting go of the bitterness and resentment we feel, regardless of whether those feelings are directed toward God, ourselves or other people. For help with this, see How to Heal from Spiritual Abuse.
This link will take you to the exact point in the webpage where the above extract ended: I Hate Myself! Support and Bible Help for Christians who are Hard on Themselves
Recover from Spiritual Abuse