Spiritual Abuse and Those Who Crave It
by Mary Stephens
NOTE: Trigger warning for those who have suffered from spiritual abuse or scrupulosity. Also, this is not intended to imply that the victims are at fault. This is written to address the serious problem of people who feel that they need and deserve abuse to make them "right with God," who gain some sort of emotional "satisfaction" and "atonement" by submitting to it.
Some time back my dad and a family friend were discussing the strange and disturbing problem of abusive pastors. Our friend, a pastor himself, told my dad that he had had a lady in their assembly come to him and suggest that he should be a lot harder on them than he was. She somehow seemed to think that they "needed" to be beat up spiritually for their own good. Our friend was puzzled and disturbed and definitely did not comply with her wishes! This confirmed something he already thought - that the reason that there are so many abusive pastors is because the people want abusive pastors. If they would get up and leave those churches, if they would fire those pastors, if they would speak up and tell "God's man" that he was out of line, there wouldn't be many of these monsters afoot. The horrifying reality is that there are people who like it!
And no wonder. God said that Israel had reached this point thousands of years ago.
Jeremiah 5:30-31 A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?
We might still wonder, though, how this state of affairs came to be. Why do some people like to be spiritually abused and mistreated by their pastor? And, for some of us, we wonder why there are those who refuse to see the problem and leave it.
Scrupulosity and Spiritual BDSM
I see it as a sort of spiritual BDSM (bondage and sadomasochism). The person in "authority" abuses them and they accept is as part of their spiritual duty, in fact, they see it as "necessary" for their happiness and personal betterment. For some reason, the people who submit to it seem to think that they deserve it, that it "helps" them, that they "need" it, and ultimately that it is immensely satisfying. The abuser and the abused find some kind of sick mutual pleasure in the whole business. The preacher beats the people down and thrashes them verbally and emotionally. He feels justified and affirmed in this by seeing "the altar full" or people groveling to his every whim. The ones who seem to thrive on the treatment apparently feel they deserve it or that it actually helps to make them a better Christian. Both parties feel validated and satisfied with the part they play.
Satisfied? How can that be?
Yes. I don't understand it myself, but it's a complex thing, much like the sexual form I suspect, though I'm not familiar with the latter at all, and only somewhat familiar with the spiritual problem as far as personal experience goes.
Perhaps the first inkling I had that something was wrong was years ago when a former friend of mine expressed her great appreciation of a certain evangelist who was "so convicting." "Every time" she heard him preach she was "so convicted." I eventually learned that the man was a "thrasher" - that he verbally beat those to whom he preached. The implication that I got was that if you didn't fall under heavy conviction for sin during a sermon, it wasn't that great and the preacher had failed in his job. This made me uncomfortable, probably for several reasons.
One reason was that my own dad did not preach this way. His goal was not to "fill the altar." He seldom even gave an invitation other than to "put shoes" on what we had learned and go live it in our day-to-day lives. He did not dream and talk about seeing a "full altar" as if that would set the seal of approval upon his preaching and ultimately change lives. In fact, my dad taught more than he preached. His desire was to see people grow on a personal level and learn to follow the Lord on their own two feet - spiritually speaking. He was delighted when people (and his own children) would bring him things that they had learned and discerned on their own, whether in relation to his teaching or not. Ephesians 5:1-2 Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.
This problem is generally more acknowledged among Roman Catholics, Jews, and Mormons than among Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Fundamental Baptists and others similar groups - as far as I can tell. I think that those of us in the latter categories tend be in denial that such things can exist among us, or we are ashamed to admit when we have these problems. I think that some who are truly born again, and perhaps have someone close to them who realizes the nature of the problem, are helped out of it in some way and so never understand the extent of the problem on a wider level. This was my own experience, and it was quite by "accident" that I ever learned what it was I had dealt with, and still do at times in some ways. My impression has been that it was a thing better known in the more distant past.
Having said all that by way of explanation, eventually, I at least partly viewed my difficulties as a problem with an oversensitive conscience. I could get "under conviction" for the smallest (usually imaginary) offences. So, when I hear a lady gushing about getting "so convicted every time I hear _______ ______ preach," alarm bells go off in my head. When I hear people talking about getting every little detail of their lives approved by their "dear pastor," I'm genuinely uneasy.
Is the measure of spiritual greatness the ability to put people "under conviction"? I don't see it myself. The only place we see any form of the word "convict" used in the KJV is in John 8:9 -- the story of the woman found in adultery and the accusers who were convicted by their own conscience leaving while Jesus said nothing, but only wrote in the sand. Imaginations get rather crazy with all kinds of "convicting" things He could have been writing, but I am sure that if we should have been informed what it was - if it was important - God would have told us. I think the silence was the key there. And, curiously enough, the phrase "under conviction" never appears in the Bible. (I went and checked a number of other translations at Bible Gateway as well, out of curiosity, and it wasn't in any of them.)
So, how did we get to the point where being "convicted" became so all-fired important? And, how did so many come to believe that being spiritually abused is "good for them"?
I don't have an exact answer for that, but I have some ideas.
In the first place, we have had a number of fire-breathing preachers who became exceedingly famous for their "results" and zeal over the last couple centuries. I'm not saying that all these men or their messages were evil or anything like that. But, I do think that some of them and their methods were questionable at times, and sometimes really wrong. The brow-beating, "do-this-or-you're-damned" type preaching that some engaged in seems overdone at the very least.
Charles Finney is one such person who comes to mind. Having read The Last Call published by Jack Chick in which he used Finney's material heavily, I have to say that I was somewhat disturbed by some of the "requirements" to be "used of God." I know. Some people would immediately jump in and say that it was because I "needed to be convicted," because I was a failure before God, or a terrible hard-hearted sinner that I felt that way. That, friends, is exactly what I'm talking about! Having suffered under the searing demands of a conscience run wild, I am wholeheartedly sick of Christians condemning one another because someone doesn't do just as "they ought to do" to be "right with God" and justifying wholesale spiritual abuse as the "appropriate solution."
Here's a quote from Jack Chick himself about Finney and the book: "One hundred years ago, God raised up a voice so cutting, that it penetrated the hardened hearts of the sleeping Churches. The Christians were shocked and angered by such piercing words. God was crushing the believers by the voice of Charles G. Finney and a tremendous revival swept over the land. Today there is no voice strong enough to awaken the sleeping Christians and the end time is here. The Lord has placed on my heart to bring before the believers some of Finney's burning words." (Jack T. Chick) Source.
Did you notice - "God was crushing the believers by the voice of Charles G. Finney..." Show me where in scripture the servant of God is called to "crush" people by his voice. In fact... 2 Timothy 2:24-25 And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; [And in case you don't know what "all" means see the definition.]
The very fact that the book is titled "The Last Call" is bothersome because of the implication that if we miss this call there will be no other. And, yet Jesus Himself said "... I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Matthew 16:18 And again, "...lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen." Matthew 28:20 If Jesus doesn't plan to forsake us or let His church be destroyed by Satan, why should "the last call" have occurred back in Charles Finney's day, pray tell? This is nothing but fear tactics - cudgeling Christians with "burning words" to force them into man's idea of what "spiritual" looks like.
And this is only one very tiny tip of the iceberg. The church is full today of people who are beating God's sheep, sometimes to death, in order to force them into performing to certain expectations, to keep them in bondage to their own particular set of beliefs, to terrify them into complying with expectations of those in power, and to subdue them so that they won't stand up and tell the "authority" that he is unfaithful to God's word. I hope you notice all the violent words I just used. I'm talking about spiritual abuse here. I'm also talking about people who accept it, expect it and think they "need" it to be "right with God." I'm talking about spiritual BDSM - where there is a dominator/abuser who enjoys hurting someone for his own gain and the person(s) who receives the abuse willingly and apparently enjoys it in a twisted sort of way. The cycle feeds upon itself and only those who are willing to break out of it ever escape. For them it is quite literally like coming out of a cult.
But, regardless of the results, it is an extremely unhealthy way to live.
I am going to quote from an article I wrote on the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. This quote is about the observations of a unsaved lady on the subject of BDSM and accepting abuse as a supposedly "enjoyable" part of a relationship.
The first one was written by a doctor and psychologist who specializes in youth and adolescence, Miriam Grossman, MD. Dr. Grossman clearly spelled out the fact that acceptance of or desire for abusive relationships are a sign of a psychologically unhealthy woman, and that in real life those relationships never work out well for either party involved. Real life tells us that abusive relationships lead to unhappy endings, not happy ones. Dr. Grossman wrote a letter to young people explaining why they should not see this movie and should resist its message. Among other dangerous ideas presented in the movie that she exposed in her letter, this one really hit an important mark:
"3. Anastasia exercises free choice when she consents to being hurt, so no one can judge her decision.
Sure, Anastasia had free choice – and she chose poorly.
A self-destructive decision is a bad
1 Peter 5:2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;
And where did Peter get that?
John 21:15-17 So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
Feed. Feed. Feed. Not ABUSE. Not BEAT. Not "crush"! FEED.
"...the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men..."
Note: One thing that can be deceptive is that some men who are suffering from scrupulosity themselves may sound very kind and sincere in their desire to see you "live for God." Stop and ask yourself what you take away the most from their preaching. Is it a sense of the greatness of Jesus Christ? Is it some tool or stepping stone that will improve your own relationship or that will help someone you know? Or do you come away with a sense of your own vileness and unworthiness? Do they point you to look into the lovely face of Jesus, or to focus on your own "sinful" condition? Every time I have listened to Paul Washer I have come away feeling terribly dirty, despite his apparently well-meaning words. This may be a misunderstanding on my part, but if not there is something wrong somewhere.
The Fellowship of His Suffering
Another thing that has affected the thinking of many Christians is the glorification of suffering and pain as a means to deal with deserved judgment. This, of course, has its roots in monasticism and the practice of flagellation, which has been influenced by scrupulosity as well. The performing of certain tasks, rituals
One of the significant things that has very likely encouraged this way of thinking is the concept of "the fellowship of His sufferings" and "the mortification of the flesh." Starting far back with various monastics and Roman Catholic orders, moving into the Protestant church and others, and then into more modern times when various men and missionaries have been made heroes for their suffering lives, the idea that we can attain great spiritual stature through self-inflicted suffering and pain has flourished. I emphasize "self-inflicted" because there has been much that was, in reality, self-inflicted; not God-inflicted or Satan-inflicted or man-inflicted (the last being persecution).
Philippians 3:10-11 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.
In their zeal to enjoy the "power of his resurrection" and attain "the resurrection of the dead" there have been those who have looked for "the fellowship of his suffering", and when it didn't take the course they expected or come as soon as they liked, they found ways to subdue their own flesh and try to gain that power by their own means. This may sound harsh, but it is sadly apparent. Some of these men and women have then been exalted as great, shining examples of "the spiritual life" because they were so hard on themselves and their "results" were so good - and in some cases they did do a great amount of good work (which doesn't mean God approved of their notions). As this way of thinking became more admired, it was natural that Christians would see that fear and guilt motived people to exhibit the outward appearances of "being right with God" and that this "got results." Guilt is a most powerful tool; fully equal to its partner, fear. Personally, I think this has been going on throughout the church era to various degrees depending on the spiritual climate of the day. It just takes different forms in different groups so that it is compatible with their own belief system.
There are other verses that have likely been used to encourage this mindset. Here a some I found.
2 Timothy 2:12 If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us:
Romans 8:17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
2 Timothy 3:12 Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.
So, to have the power of His resurrection, to reign with Him, and to be glorified with Him, we must suffer it seems. But, this suffering is not self-inflicted. Jesus Christ Himself suffered willingly for us, but His suffering was not self-inflicted. He suffered wrongfully and was persecuted - not because He was abusive to others, not because He injured Himself, and not because He was actively seeking situations that He could turn into suffering.
1 Peter 2:19 For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.
This is the kind of suffering we should be enduring for Christ's sake. It will come in God's good time and in His way. Seeking abusive preaching in order to get a sadistic pleasure out of self-loathing or to salve a conscience that demands pain to be "spiritual" is not what this is talking about! This does not refer to self-destructive behaviors, but to suffering wrongfully and enduring grief for the sake of having a good conscience toward God. The tragic thing is that many people who are in these abusive churches and groups have consciences that are malfunctioning and they don't know it.
Hebrews 13:18 Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly.
A good conscience is mentioned a number of times in the N.T. One thing we might take from that is that we can have a bad conscience. A conscience that tells us that we need to be abused and destroyed - "crushed" - in order to be "good Christians" is certainly a bad conscience!
Hebrews 12:5-11 And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.
I think that the concept of the chastening of God has entered into this as well. Some appear to think that by chastening themselves, they can attain holiness, and I think this has also influenced the "need" for abuse in some minds. But, according to what God has told us in His word, He is the only one who can chasten us for our profit! This doesn't mean that we don't strive against sin or mortify the deeds of the flesh, but we are not called upon to chasten ourselves, nor to submit to other humans trying to chasten us to make us holy. That is God's job. (By the way, parents, your job in chastening your kids is not to conform them to the image of Jesus Christ or to make them righteous. Only God can do that!)
The last verse I want to mention is that of humbling ourselves. I fully expect that the idea of humbling ourselves has figured into this issue.
1 Peter 5:6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time:
Because pride is such a tough thing to break, I suppose it is easy to assume that some kind of abuse, suffering, or trial by fire is required to be "truly humble." This, of course, would play very easily into the self-destructive mindset that seeks abuse. Strangely, though, many of those who take the right to abuse other Christians "for their own good" often have the stench of pride about them. Sometimes it is hard to see, but by simple virtue of the fact that they think themselves worthy to dish out this abuse they call themselves in question in many ways.
Finally, my last theory of something that has affected this mindset is this: Because the church has been used as a place to bring in sinners, men have tended to preach hell-fire sermons in the assembly of the believers in the assumption they are preaching to unsaved people. Combine that with the awful tendency of some men to assume that virtually anyone in their congregation could be "lost" and therefore need to hear "hard hitting" salvation messages, and we find churches where most of the preaching is geared toward putting sinners in fear of eternal damnation. Christians who listen to a steady diet of this have been known to "get saved" repeatedly (some of us call these "retreads"). Well, it is no surprise that with this kind of preaching going on that some men would slide over into berating and blasting the saints, thinking that beating them verbally will make them better Christians.
And maybe I should mention this in that context - sometimes men who are hiding something are terrible abusers since they judge everyone else by their own half bushel.
All things taken together, what appears is a man-made method for becoming "deeply spiritual" which involves the giving and receiving of spiritual abuse. The thinking that says, "I need to be beat up by the pastor in order to be 'right with God'" is a very, very sad thing. Speaking from my own experiences with scrupulosity, I will also assure you that it does not lead to joy! Nor does it guarantee "victory over the flesh."
When I was starting into the scrupulosity my youngest brother went to my mom one day and said, "What's wrong with Mary. She's no fun any more." As a young child he didn't understand the right terminology, but the truth was that I was losing my sense of humor, my joy and my love of life. I was morbid and self-focused and I was beginning to impose my own conscience upon those around me. My parents worked hard with me to help me overcome this terrible weakness in my character. A few years later that same brother told my mom that I was back to myself again, in so many words. True, I went through some deep anxiety and other things after that, but my brother could see when the deep effects of the scrupulosity were lifted.
Christian friend, do you think that you need to be spiritually brutalized in order to "please God" and "be a better Christian"? Do you crave being "so convicted"? Do you think you need to be "crushed" by the pastor or you don't feel like you're really growing in the faith? Is "the altar" your confessional where you think you must go to attain victory? This is not a healthy relationship with the Lord. This is a sad, sad way to live, and it is not the freedom that Christ died to give you. God never intended for you to allow yourself to be in bondage to man.
In fact, we read in 2 Corinthians 11:20, For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face. The suffering here is not referring to suffering as in pain or discomfort. It means that these Christians were enduring or "putting up with" abusive people. But it is curious that he should use the word "suffer;" it fits remarkably well with this topic. In the verse just before this, these kind of men are named as fools. 2 Corinthians 11:19 For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise. The Corinthians were putting up with fools - fools who were abusing them badly - because they thought they were wise! If you read the tone of the passage in context, it is not a compliment to them, but more of a shameful thing - shameful that they were letting these fools abuse them.
John 8:34-36 Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.
Galatians 5:1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
Romans 8:15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
If there is one thing I learned from the scrupulosity it is that we cannot live in righteousness, joy and peace in the Holy Ghost while we are focused on ourselves and what we "need to suffer" to be "spiritual." Self-destructive behavior, no matter what form it takes, never leads to happiness or peace. It is a burden too heavy to be borne; it is bondage. Romans 14:17 For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.
Jesus said, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Matthew 11:28-30 We often use this in reference to people being born again, but the truth is that there are many who are already saved who need to learn of the meek, restful, and gentle ways of Jesus Christ. Oh, friend, God is not waiting with a club to crush you should you make one false step! He loves you and cares for you beyond anything you can comprehend or think. He wants you to be His friend!
John 15:12-16 This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.
Yes, He wants us to keep His commandment, but what did He command? To love one another as He has loved us. And, it is His will to make us fruitful. We do not need to beat ourselves up, nor to allow others to beat us up, to attain that. It Is HIS Will! And if your fruit is not what "they" expect, that is their problem, not yours and not God's!
If you need help dealing with this, please seek it among those true believers who have been through the difficult process of deprogramming from this. Spiritual abuse is much more common than you think and there are Christians who are willing and able to help.
If you know someone who is living this way, please do what you can to show them the love of Christ - the true, kind, gentle love of Christ. I don't know what it feels like to be inside the mindset that accepts and desires abuse as a form of spiritual growth and satisfaction, but I do know the horrible feeling of living with scrupulosity - that feeling of being a rubber band stretched taut and never ever able to let go, of never quite achieving the perfection desired. I see the effects of that in many of these hurting people, but their experience is far, far worse than mine ever was! My heart grieves for them and the way they are living. If you have not experienced it, you cannot imagine what a relief, what a tremendous, overwhelming relief, it is to not be bound by one's own fears of "failing God" - to be able to see Him at last as He is - as much as a human mind can - as the kind, loving Father He is to every one of His children.
Someone may be thinking that by writing this I will encourage others to be careless, to let go of their "convictions" and to live however they see fit. If you think that, you need to examine your own heart. Those who think that the only way to keep other Christians "in line" is to abuse them, break them down, and put them in bondage, do not themselves understand what the Christian life is about. Love is not deserved. Love is not earned. Love is not something we get by suffering and "getting right with God."
1 John 4:17-21 Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. We love him, because he first loved us. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.
Romans 13:10 Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
James 2:13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
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