Today I want to look at how to recover from spiritual abuse. Recovering from spiritual abuse is done on a personal and corporate basis. If you’ve been under the power of a spiritually abusive church or person, you need to take strong steps to find healing. But if your church has been spiritually abusive, then the church has their own work to do. I’ll address that in my next post.
How to Recover from Spiritual Abuse
Here are some possible steps you might take as an individual to recover from spiritual abuse.
1. Remove yourself from the abuse. This seems so obvious, but surprisingly people remain in abusive environments for a variety of reasons.
- Mostly they doubt themselves. Deep down they think this is their fault. If they were only a better person/Christian they’d see things clearly and see how they are wrong, just like everyone is telling them. Their “abuser” is right. They are just overreacting. So, false guilt plays a big role in keeping someone from leaving.
- People will also doubt their ability to make it without the influence of their abuser. The abuser played such a big role in their life. Yes, they crossed boundaries, but maybe they needed to do that to keep them on the straight and narrow. In other words, they are quick to minimize and deny the abuse.
- Plus there is the peer pressure. If your friends and family all say there’s no problem, who are you to disagree? You don’t want to be the only one leaving. Isn’t it better to keep quiet and go along…not make waves? But this is why you need to get out. You need to clear your head from this kind of thinking. Just because others don’t see the abuse, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Think of it as being wounded in battle. If you are wounded, you don’t remain to keep fighting. Let others do that. You need to get to a safe place before it’s too late.
What if the church has “repented” of the abuse? Should you stay then? Maybe. I’ll
talk about this more in future posts. But unless the church does a wholesale admittance and cleansing of the abuse and establishes new leadership, there will be too many vestiges of abusive behavior in place and it will subtly eat away at you (and others).
2. Take a break. Part of the sickness of spiritual abuse is that it builds an unhealthy dependence on a person or church rather than a dependence on God. To help show you that you can survive with God alone, take a break from church. There was a season of five years when I didn’t attend church. This is probably more than the average person needs, but God did something in my heart that shaped me and prepared me for future ministry (ironically).
3. Get perspective. If you’ve been abused then most likely your thinking has been distorted. You’ve bought into some lies that need correcting. You need to put some distance in between yourself and your church for a period of time (if not indefinitely) in order to clear your mind and get back on track. A few ways to do that are:
- Talk to friends from other churches that are known for being healthy and grace based.
- Talk to a pastor from a healthy church.
- Read about spiritual abuse to understand how it works.
- Read about grace.
4. Get counseling. Abuse does a number on your soul. It’s a transgression that’s hard to quantify but is nevertheless very real. You need to sort it out with someone who can see the abuse clearly. Plus, it’s important that you understand what it might be about you that made you susceptible to the toxic thinking in the first place. I’ve found that people who struggle with insecurity and shame are especially vulnerable to the legalism promoted by spiritual abuse. They are naturally driven to want to please others to feel good about themselves. Abusers provide that.
5. Develop a strong devotional life. Spiritual abuse sets up a person, or church, as an intermediary between you and God. All the rules and requirements may have made you think you were on the inner circle with God, but it actually pushed you farther away. So work on developing your relationship with God through prayer, reflection, and meditating on scripture.
Spiritual abuse sets up a person, or church, as an intermediary between you and God. All the rules and requirements may have made you think you were on the inner circle with God, but it actually pushed you farther away.
6. Establish healthy boundaries. Some people have trouble saying “no.” They feel obligated to go along with friends, family members, and people in authority. Hopefully you will look at these issues in counseling. But it’s very important to not just protect yourself from a toxic church, you might have to protect yourself from unhealthy people in your life too. Just like an alcoholic has to be careful not to let people back into their lives that could cause them to relapse, so does the person who has been spiritually abused.
People will come at you trying to minimize or deny what’s happened to you. They’ll say things like: “You are overreacting. It wasn’t that bad.” “You are just resisting what God wants in your life. You are being rebellious.” “They can’t be abusive. They are good people. They really helped me.” “The devil is using you to divide this church.”
Boundaries will help protect you from these attacks.
7. Re-engage with a healthy church. Most churches talk about grace. But many churches talk about it better than they practice it. Visit a number of churches. Sit in the back and just listen and observe. Now that you’ve gained some perspective, look to see if grace is taught as well as lived out. Remember, abuse and legalism can be subtle. You don’t want to engage in a church that puts you on the hook to please THEM and not God.
Should you return to your old church? That would be ideal. If they have done their work to eliminate and repent of all abusive behavior, and you have found healing, then the best case scenario would be for you to be reunited with your church family. But that’s a big “if.” So be careful with that. Don’t be coerced to go back unless you feel good about it: you feel strong enough and you sense it would be a good thing for you.
You will undoubtedly be tempted to leave church forever. I understand that. I did that for many years. But I came to realize that God has chosen to move in the world through his church in spite of our brokenness. So I hope you will find your way back to church and become a fully functioning part of the body of Christ.
For a full discussion on how to identify and recover from spiritual abuse see my book, Broken Trust.