For those of us who have experienced spiritual abuse from a religious leader or lay person, trying to regain our spiritual balance can take herculean effort over a long period of time. Depending on the degree of spiritual abuse, the struggle may last a lifetime.
I think it’s best to keep in mind that spiritual abusers are nothing new to humankind. History is strewn with examples of spiritual abusers and their victims. Those of us who have experienced spiritual abuse are in good company!
But how does one heal from spiritual abuse? Is it healing to become an atheist or a cynical agnostic? Is it healing to throw off all moral restraints? Is it healing to join another power-abusing religious or non-religious group?
In my own experience, most of the spiritual abuse I’ve encountered isn’t from being a member of any particular religious group, although I certainly have experienced some degree of spiritual abuse in some of the churches to which I formerly belonged. In my own experience, most of the spiritual abuse I’ve endured has been as a result of rejecting for over forty years my brother Ken “Pastor Max” Parks’ claims to being a “prophet of Jesus” and “the hand of God’s wrath” and his obsessive resentment of me for not bowing down to him. My brother Ken’s spiritual abuse was heaped onto the emotional and physical abuse I’ve incurred from him and my three other brothers since my earliest memories.
Going through the experience of any form of abuse, including spiritual abuse, requires self-examination, especially if a person willingly joined a power-abusing religious group. Youthful naivete is incredibly dangerous, as I found out in one particular church I became involved with in my teens and early twenties. At that time I was not only being subjected to the spiritual abuse of my brother Ken but I also experienced abuse and witnessed others being spiritually abused in the church that I thought was led by people with a conscience and a healthy moral compass. A lot of deep introspection, reading books about healthy and unhealthy churches, and consulting with others affirmed in my young mind that I wasn’t “judgmental,” “unforgiving,” “oversensitive,” or “failing to be submissive,” as I, and others, were accused of being by leaders and members of that church. Abusive people always try to gaslight their victims into doubting themselves and their gut feelings. An interesting aside is that there were people I knew who weren’t particularly religious but who shared with me generally high morals who recognized and were offended at the bad behavior that the church leaders and some members exhibited and even brazenly justified. It’s a sad commentary on any church when non-religious people actually live out a higher moral standard than those who claim to be God’s people.
What, then, are the steps people can take after they realize they’ve been spiritually abused? Again, self-examination is an essential first step toward healing. Here are some questions to ponder:
- Am I willing to develop being comfortable with spending quiet time by myself in reflection and developing healthy self-esteem and self-care?
- Without beating myself up with excessive guilt, am I willing to recognize that at least in some small way I contributed to setting myself up to being taken advantage of, deceived, and hurt by spiritual abusers?
- What attracted me to become involved in that religious group that violated my trust and denigrated my personhood?
- Am I too trusting, and therefore easily led to believe whatever people tell me, whether in a religious setting or anywhere else?
- Do I want people to make up my mind for me and tell me what decisions I should be making in life?
- What, specifically, are my insecurities and how do I let those insecurities dictate my likes and dislikes as to what kinds of people and groups I let into my life?
- Do I compensate for my insecurities by seeking to “save” or “feel sorry for” dangerous, abusive people in some distorted way of trying to compensate for my sense of poor worth as a person?
- What thought patterns can I develop to become more carefully observant and discerning in my interactions with all people, including those in religious groups?
- How can I make sure I’m not going to the opposite extreme of becoming paranoid and distrustful of everyone?
- Am I angry at God for the abuse I’ve experienced, whether I chose to get involved in an abusive group or whether I’ve been targeted by a spiritual abuser due to my refusal to join the abusive group?
- How did my concept of God influence why I got involved in the abusive religious group?
- How have I let the abusive religious group leader and/or members continue their power over me by allowing them to influence who I think God is and how I choose to think and live?
- If the religious group made claims of being Christian, have I taken the time to dig deep into the Christian Scriptures and well-reputed commentaries so that I can understand the distinction between what are genuinely Christian teachings and what are distortions of historic, traditional Christianity and the Christian Scriptures? (Keep in mind, there are core Christian beliefs and practices that Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant denominations all share in common.)
- If I chose to become a member of a spiritually abusive group, don’t I owe myself the honesty and healthy self-care to give myself the time to examine what factors led to my being spiritually abused and how I might be able to discern and prevent going through spiritual abuse (or other forms of abuse) again?
- If I were to step back in time, is there anything I could have done differently or could have said differently to avoid being spiritually abused?
It’s important to remember that everyone gets deceived by others at some point in their lives, even after developing good discernment skills. The fact of the matter is that there are some people in this world who are expert manipulative deceivers. Some can appear to be very self-confident, while others can appear to be very self-abasing and people-pleasing. But one of the prevailing traits of manipulative deceivers (most if not all are narcissistic) is that they believe their own lies that people, especially nice people, are stupid and easily swayed emotionally. That’s where their own self-deceit bites them in the backside when they encounter people who have developed strong self-worth, discernment, and confidence in their ability to stand up for themselves and what they know is true, good, and morally right. Those who have developed good healthy mindsets have generally made themselves impervious to the classic gaslighting and other manipulative, deceptive techniques of abusers, usually due to having learned painful lessons in the school of hard knocks. Spiritual abusers always make contradictory statements, or spill out confessions of some immoral or illegal wrongdoing and tell you that you’re the only person they’ve ever confessed to and then tell you not to repeat to anyone what they’re confessing. Or they make other unreasonable, immoral, or illegal demands of you or others. Once the spiritual abuser shows their hand that’s your time to jump into action, confront them in an even-tempered manner on the lies or the wrong they’re doing, inform them that they need counseling, and let others know what they’ve done or said. We are our brother’s keeper, and we must let others know about the harmful or even dangerous behavior of others. Once we’ve done that, if others in that religious group choose not to act responsibly, then they have shown their true colors, and we must detach ourselves from those who practice unhealthy behaviors. As the old adage goes, “With friends like that, who needs enemies,” or another take on that same quote, “With friends like that, who needs enemas.”
In religious settings, narcissistic manipulative deceivers capitalize off of the fatal flaws in the mindset of so many religious people:
- “Who am I to judge?”
- “We must give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
- “Deep down inside, everyone is really a good person.”
- “You just need to be a more forgiving person.”
In historic, traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs, none of those statements have any Scriptural basis. We must practice good judgment for everyone’s safety sake (Jesus: “Judge a tree by its fruit”). In reality, and as described in Judeo-Christian Scriptures, there are some people who actually enjoy doing harm to others, and therefore they are not good people, and we should never give such people the “benefit of the doubt,” and nor are we required to forgive people who show no remorse for the harm they do to others (they are not “bearing the fruits of repentance”). No religious leader or lay person has any right to tell you to spiritually lobotomize yourself of all good reason and basic good sense when spiritual abuse becomes obvious in the form of immoral, unethical, or illegal behavior. To belittle, minimize, excuse, or ignore any form of spiritual abuse isn’t loving or forgiving toward anyone, especially more potential victims. It is instead a complete denial of reality and demonstrates a severe lack of moral courage.
It’s vitally important after being on the receiving end of spiritual abuse, or any other form of abuse, to give yourself time to grieve and feel justifiable anger. It’s also vitally important not to beat yourself up. If you had uncomfortable feelings before the incident that proverbially broke the camel’s back, then give yourself the time to examine why you didn’t speak up or react more appropriately after those initial gut feelings that told you something wasn’t right. Again, don’t beat yourself up and don’t subject yourself to the “paralysis of analysis.” Life is one long learning lesson, and, like it or not, sometimes the best way to learn is through pain (remember the oft-used analogy of burning one’s hand on a hot stove?). Be determined to take the time to learn all that can come out of your painful experience so that you can become more healthy minded and eventually be a help to others.
The pain of spiritual abuse — either caused by our own choice to be involved with an abusive religious group we initially thought safe, or caused by spiritually abusive stalkers acting out resentment that we will not bow our knees to them — will very likely leave a scar that lasts a lifetime. As a Christian, I am reminded in Scripture that the resurrected Jesus, God the Son, still bears the wounds He so unjustly incurred at His crucifixion. As a survivor of two of my brothers’ sexual assaults, which thankfully I was able to fight off and get away from before more damage was done, I am reminded that Roman crucifixion also subjected Jesus to sexual assault. The Roman soldiers who flogged Jesus did not avoid flogging His private parts, and, contrary to most depictions of Jesus on the cross, He was crucified utterly naked, exposed for all to see. As Fr. Mike Schmitz has commented, “Jesus shows us His wounds so that we won’t be afraid to show Him ours.” Jesus knows what it’s like to be spiritually backstabbed by power-lusting, corrupt religious leaders. We cannot, we must not, allow religious hypocrites and spiritual abusers to define Who God is and our belief in God, and thereby give our spiritual abusers the main goal they seek: to destroy faith in a good, loving, just God. If we lose our faith in God or if we design a nebulous spirituality in our own feeble attempt to try to make sense out of the brutally senseless, we give the spiritual abuser what he or she wants: Either believe the lie that our spiritual abuser is God, or represents God, or believe in nothing at all. I will not give my abusive brother Ken “Pastor Max” Parks and other spiritual abusers what they seek — to project themselves as an all-powerful god to blind me to the true God and thereby destroy my faith in the true God. Yes, I still have my wrestling matches with God over why spiritually abusive beasts of hell are given the breath of life to continue unabated spiritual damage, and I’ll probably engage in those wrestling matches with God until the end of my life. But what keeps my spiritual and mental sanity is the knowledge that there is more to life than just this life, however short or long this life is for me or for spiritual abusers. It’s important to keep in mind all the time that the damage to souls that spiritual abusers enjoy inflicting is the only paradise — temporary paradise — they’re going to get. One day, sooner or later, they will die, and so will I. I’m setting my eyes on an eternal paradise by living now according to the healthy standards of a good, loving, just God. And I’m looking to Jesus by doing all I can, with the help of God, to make my suffering redemptive for the benefit of others. There’s more to life than just this life.
One resource that has helped me tremendously to regain my spiritual equilibrium is reading credible books on Near Death Experiences (NDEs). Here again, some degree of discernment needs to be practiced since it appears that some people are just out for attention and profit by claiming they’ve gone through a death experience. But there are credible, consistent accounts, some recorded by medical doctors, about people from all sorts of backgrounds who have described ongoing consciousness after this life is over. These people describe in intricate detail glimpses of heaven or hell (or both). They all speak of encountering a Being of light — many, regardless of their religious background, describe this Being as Jesus — who surrounded them with deep love, had them undergo an assessment of their life with all the good, the bad, and the ugly they’ve committed, expressed loving grief over the bad choices they’ve made, and sent them back to this life to live selflessly with a certainty of what they know to be right actions and belief. As a result of these experiences those who have undergone NDEs are changed dramatically and live with a strong conviction that there is an accountability for choices made, resulting in either going to heaven or hell for all eternity.
I also highly recommend to those who have been spiritually abused a book, compiled by a number of authors, titled Wounded Faith: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse (https://www.amazon.com/Wounded-Faith-Understanding-Healing-Spiritual/dp/0931337119/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1661734680&sr=1-1). Like any resource, there are a few points here and there that I’m not in complete agreement with, but there is quite a bit more I do agree with. This book can definitely help people in their healing journey, and point them toward other resources. My website www.stopabusivelawsuits.com also has a Resources section that offers help for people trying to recover good spiritual and mental health after suffering from abuse.
Healing from spiritual abuse starts with recognizing what exactly is spiritually abusive and then extricating oneself out of a spiritually abusive situation. For a former member of a spiritually abusive group this can mean breaking all ties with the spiritually abusive person and group. In the case of those like myself targeted by a stalking spiritual abuser, this can mean defending one’s reputation, defending oneself physically from threats of violence, and using the Internet and other sources to spread the warning about a spiritual abuser who has made him or herself a public figure looking for public trust. Whatever the case, it’s important for people coming out of a spiritually abusive situation to give themselves time to grieve and experience anger. For some people it may be best to distance themselves from participating in any religious community for at least a time. It may be difficult or even impossible for some time to read the Scriptures, especially certain Scriptures that were used like a bludgeon by the spiritual abuser. This is a power that the spiritually abusive can wield over their victims (former members or non-members targeted by stalking spiritual abusers). Recognize that healing from spiritual abuse just takes time, patience, and lots of prayer (even angry outbursts at God are prayer!) to be able to read the Scriptures without hearing the voice of their spiritual abuser. Sometimes a different version of the Scriptures may help to overcome this effect of spiritual abuse. Healing can also come by seeking out reputable and competent counseling to work through all the emotions associated with having been spiritually abused. Good counsel and healthy self-reflection will help turn what can be even a brutally horrible situation into a life lesson that can not only help the abused individual become stronger mentally and spiritually but also give that person the insight and compassion to come alongside others who have experienced or will experience the excruciating pain of spiritual abuse. Out of these spiritually abusive experiences people can develop a healthy belief in God and, with discernment, find spiritually safe people. That’s the redemptive quality that can come out of the process of healing from spiritual abuse.