I’m in the process of writing a new book that deals with toxic faith and spiritual abuse. It’s become a fascinating project because about ten people are actively working with me, giving me input from their own spiritually abusive history.
One thing that’s become quite clear is the difference between toxic faith and spiritual abuse. They are definitely correlated, but they are distinct from one another.
Toxic Faith vs. Spiritual Abuse
Toxic faith is the soil from which spiritual abuse grows. Without toxic faith there is no spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse functions and is sustained, in both abused and abuser, by distorted thinking about who God is, and how he operates.
Put simply, toxic faith is performance-based thinking, meaning you have to earn the right to be approved and accepted by God. The better you perform, the more God likes you.
That, in a nutshell, is all it takes to completely mess with your mind. It sounds so simple. And, in fact, it sounds so normal. Isn’t that what religion is all about: performing for God? Your value is determined by your church attendance, giving record, by how much you volunteer, or pray, or read your Bible, as well as by your obedience to church rules.
God keeps a spreadsheet on everyone with a complex algorithm that spits out your standing with God. But you don’t know what that value is. Church leaders have the unique wisdom and power to make that determination. They alone have the insight to know who is on the inside track with God and who is not. The worshipper is kept in suspense, not knowing if they are doing it good enough, dependent on the wise counsel of their leader.
What I’ve described is extreme, but only for making my point. This happens all the time in churches. Many people have outright rejected this kind of religion. They won’t let the church bully or intimidate them. This is why there has been a tremendous falling away from the church, first in Europe, and now in the United States. But others get trapped in abusive situations because of a sincere desire to know God and serve him.
What God Did For Us vs. What We Do For God
In the early church the apostle Paul was constantly waging a battle against purveyors of toxic faith. Paul had a very simple message:
If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:10,13
Our confession is based on what God did for us, not what we did for him. Notice the activity of God in Paul’s words here:
You were dead because of your sins … Then God made you alive with Christ. He forgave all our sins. He canceled the record that contained the charges against us. He took it and destroyed it by nailing it to Christ’s cross. Colossians 2:13,14 (emphasis mine)
We were dead, but God took action. Paul’s point was that God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. We are incapable of saving ourselves. Our job is to believe in the One (Jesus) who rescued us from our broken relationship God. Anything we do for God should come out of gratitude for what he’s done, not out of obligation.
But old habits die hard. Paul lived and preached in a Jewish world. Performance defined the Jewish mindset. Circumcision, Sabbath, and observing the Law were central to honoring God. People were convinced that if you did not abide by this performance framework, you were lost.
As Paul traveled about the world with his message, the Jewish evangelists would follow right behind him with their own message contradicting him.
We get a good glimpse of this tension in the letter that Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, a region in modern-day Turkey. He made these accusations to people he had previously won to Christ:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 1:6,7
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? 3:1-3
Toxic Faith and the New Believer
Toxic faith has a powerful impact on new believers. They are eager to know God. Their heart is open to learn and quick to obey. They are ready to be conformed into the image of God. The innocence and trust displayed makes it a beautiful time in one’s faith journey.
But that same innocence and trust is spoiled with the introduction of toxic faith. Instead of living a life of devotion out of gratitude for God’s unconditional acceptance, the believer is convinced that a life of devotion is necessary to be accepted by God.
I really don’t think people intend their faith to be toxic, nor do religious leaders conspire to offer a toxic faith. Our problem is we misunderstand the nature of God’s unconditional acceptance and it naturally develops into abusive scenarios.
Slowly and subtly spiritual abuse begins to grow out of our inadequate view of God. People in power begin to use performance-based religion to control their followers “for their own good” because they “know best.” The young believer, not knowing any better, acts against their own instincts in fear of letting God and others down.
Spiritual Abuse: the Fruit of Toxic Faith
A while back I read a story that gave a good example of how toxic thinking led to spiritual abuse. An eight-year-old girl went to take her first communion at church. She had a wheat gluten allergy, so she brought her own rice based communion wafer. But when the church officials heard that she used a rice wafer, they invalidated her communion. You see, they thought that the bread that Jesus used for the first communion was wheat based, so only wheat can be used for communion bread.
The mother of the girl was disgusted, saying, “This is a church rule, not God’s will, and it can easily be adjusted to meet the needs of the people, while staying true to the traditions of our faith…I didn’t know that the divinity of Christ depended on wheat.”
This didn’t need to happen. This devoted family shouldn’t have had to make a choice between worshipping God and the health of their child. But this is a perfect example of how toxic faith naturally leads to abusing people rather than helping people draw closer to God. Thankfully this mother wouldn’t stand for it, but many believers are not that wise. They will conform to the rules to their own detriment, thinking they are showing God true devotion.
Jesus spoke of wolves coming in sheep’s clothing. There is no better disguise for falsehood than the church. That’s why it’s so important that you are careful in what you believe and whom you believe. Toxic faith is fertile soil. Wherever it exists, spiritual abuse is sure to grow.
If you would like to receive drafts of the book I am writing, please email me here and I will add you to the list. Please share this with others who might find it helpful.