Spiritual abuse is so insidious because the logic behind it can often sound completely biblical.
Of course, as Christians, we want to be obedient. Of course, we want to make godly use of our time and energy. But spiritual abuse takes advantage of our inclinations and twists Scripture and biblical concepts to gain power. Because the messages shared by leaders sound so biblical, we accept them as truth, so when the messages are spiritually abusive, they damage our views of who God is and who we are in him.
Here are seven biblical concepts that spiritual abuse takes too far and corrupts:
1. The Concept of Denying Yourself
Have you ever been in a position where you wanted to say no to something that didn't feel like it was the best thing for you, but you were told to "deny yourself" and do it anyway? Or were you ever encouraged to do something "for God" that was outright against your nature and told to push yourself aside for the sake of the Gospel?
Luke 9:23 says: "Then he [Jesus] said to them all: 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.'"
Denying yourself is, of course, a biblical concept. We must put our interests aside for the sake of God's interests. But God also knits you together in your mother's womb. He keeps your name on the palm of his hands. Surely, God didn't go through all of that trouble just for you to act like you don't even exist.
Spiritual abuse will tell you that you, as a person, don't matter. That all of your inclinations are only towards evil all the time. So, in order to be godly, you have to act like somebody totally different [and therefore, exactly the kind of person that a spiritual abuser can control.]
The truth is that you are wonderfully made. Your desires matter to God, too.
2. The Concept of Working Hard for God
Will anyone in a spiritually abusive environment outright tell you to run yourself ragged? It's very unlikely. But that is the message you will receive regardless.
The message that those who "produce" the most are the most applauded is regularly pushed on Christians. The people who share their faith with the most or lost the most sleep to do Bible studies with college students are lauded as the most successful. It's in how people who are "lazy" will get called out during sermons, but never those who are addicted/get their identity from their work.
It's in being told to "work like you are working for the Lord," which is really code for "ignore the physical limits of your body and serve even if you're tired."
The truth is that sabbath rest is absolutely imperative to our understanding of who God is. It's at the heart of Genesis 1, and it's at the heart of Jesus' Gospel message. Jesus encourages us with "Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matt 11:28).
People who are tired and stressed are easier to control. Fight against that mindset by being radical in your sabbath practice.
3. Accountability/Being in the Light
The Bible encourages us to confess our sins and to "be in the light" (1 John 1:5-10). A clear conscience is an essential ingredient for a relationship with God, and confessing our sins to one another strengthens our bonds and helps us to pray for each other.
However, this concept gets twisted in spiritual abuse when abusers force you to confess to people you're not comfortable confessing to. Instead of respecting a healthy boundary around giving out personal information, spiritual abusers will expect you to confess to a discipling partner you just met, a ministry leader, or a pastor in order for the confession to "count."
Further, in some cases of spiritual abuse, confessions can be used against a congregant as if it were blackmail.
Our sins are personal information. We absolutely need to be in the light, but as with any other bit of personal information, trust needs to be earned – not demanded.
The idea of submission is a huge playground for spiritual abuse to happen because it's all about power dynamics.
Submission to leadership is important to God and the health of the church. "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you" (Hebrews 13:17 ESV).
What I love about what this passage highlights – and what tends to be ignored in sermons, etc. – is that leaders will be called to give an account. Ezekiel 34 outlines how God himself will replace cruel leaders who do not shepherd their flocks with care. This concept can be insidiously used against congregants to feel powerless against their leaders.
Spiritual abusers will also emphasize Ephesians 4:22 "Wives, submit to your husbands." But the verse right before that calls both husbands and wives to "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."
The Bible uplifts women. But spiritual abusers will make women feel trapped in their submission as if doing their husband's bidding is their only call in life.
Submission is always a two-way street.
Like submission, humility is a biblical concept that all Christians should strive for – however, in spiritual abuse, humility is used as a trump card. A "be humble and do what I say, whatever I say" card.
Humility is seeing yourself clearly. In desperate need of grace, yes, but not a doormat. Imperfect, yes, but not stupid or broken.
Jesus was the perfect example of humility. He bowed low to lift others up. But that did not mean that he let others walk all over him, let others silence him, or make him feel worthless in the name of humility. Learn from your rabbi, and don't let others control you by telling you to be humble.
The Bible is clear. Getting advice is a good thing! Proverbs 15:22 tells us, "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers, they succeed." However, because spiritual abuse preys on one's sense of self, agency and intuition, advice is overemphasized to a point where people can feel like they can't trust themselves and must rely on the advice of others to make any decision.
There can also be pressure to get advice from the "right people," i.e., leadership, to feel like one has gotten the stamp of approval. And if you don't follow advice, that automatically means you are prideful/arrogant/rebellious etc.
Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that the heart is deceitful above all things. But does that mean that everything your heart wants is automatically sinful? Absolutely not. Jesus came to give us a new heart, a heart of flesh and not of stone (Ez. 36:26). This means that while we may still be selfishly ambitious at times because we still exist in a fallen world, it does not mean that we cannot trust ourselves or what we think is best.
Advice is great, but it is just advice. It does not outweigh what you feel is best, what you have come to via prayer, what you believe is best living out the Scriptures, etc. Advice is just advice from other well-meaning but fallen people just like you.
Similarly, Jeremiah 17:9 can be used as a trump card to make you doubt your emotions. Spiritual abuse teaches that our emotions are only fickle, only deceitful and only selfish. But this could not be further from the truth.
Proverbs 4:23 tells us that our hearts are the wellspring of life! The psalms are absolutely full of emotional language that chronicle the ups and downs of life and offer a way to use our emotions to connect to God.
Jesus himself both wept and was lonely and was filled with compassion and joy. He celebrated at weddings and cried at his friends' deaths. Jesus was able to experience the whole gambit of human emotion and yet not sin a single time.
The truth is that if we are cutting ourselves off from what our hearts are telling us, we are easier to control. And that is the goal of spiritual abuse.
Which of these concepts has gotten twisted for you over your years as a Christian? Take some time to pray, process and journal. Return to the sweet truth! Jesus' yoke is easy, and his burden is light, and God loves you unconditionally.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Chinnapong
Kelly-Jayne McGlynn is a former editor at Crosswalk.com. She sees the act of expression, whether through writing or art, as a way to co-create with God and experience him deeper. Check out her handmade earring Instagram and Etsy for more of her thoughts on connecting with God through creative endeavors.