Spiritual abuse is often unrecognized among Christians and churches. A person who has experienced hurt at the hands of a religious leader who “spoke for God” will likely have a distorted view about who God is as a result.
Here are just a few examples. A pastor told a woman who was being physically abused by her husband that God wanted her to stay in the marriage and endure the abuse because it was an act of obedience to God and that He would change her husband. Church leadership who assumed control over the members to the extent that permission and “blessings” had to be obtained from them prior to getting married, changing jobs, or buying a house. A church that taught that God is punishing, and that for every sin committed you should received corresponding levels of punishment. If something bad happened, it was always because God was punishing the sinner.
A church that taught that God’s blessing, approval, love and salvation are all conditional based upon one’s performance. Two responses often occur as the result of spiritual abuse. The “abused” believer often “strives” to be good enough to deserve God’s love and grace. He or she compulsively tries to strive for God’s favor of “quits” because he or she realizes they can’t ever measure up to God’s impossible standards and leaves religion altogether. When I have asked people who have experienced spiritual abuse and hold a distorted image of God, their answers usually fall in one of four categories. They see God as a policeman-an enforcer who will exact punishment for any wrongdoing. God’s job is to be on the lookout for those who violate His laws, to catch them and see that they are punished. They see God as disapproving, rejecting, critical and perfectionistic. People with this view describe God with statements like “I can never do it well enough to please God, so why try?” They see God as absent or distant. This person will say, “God doesn’t know that I exist,” or “Yes, He exists, but He is not really involved in my life.” They see God as a tyrant. As one person put it, “He acts without reason to make my life miserable. Another stated, “God must really hate us, just look at all the horrible things that happen to people.”
Fear, questioning (“Where was God when…”), lack of trust, lack of joy and gratitude can plague the life of a person with a distorted view of God.
So how can a right view of God be rebuilt? Here are a few suggestions.
Identifying the distortions in a safe setting with someone they respect and trust is key. Because damage was done in a relational context, healing must also take place in a healthy, safe relationship.
Ask God to heal the distortions. We must recognize our dependence on the Holy Spirit for healing. The woundedness often goes so deep that our cognitive understand will take us only so far in the healing process.
Understand the causes of the distortions. It helps to ask questions to determine how the distortions got rooted in the person’s mind.
Build a relationship with a safe person. It is imperative that wounded people be in a relationship with a safe person. As trust is established with a caring helper, the one being helped can begin to see and experience how the same process can take place with God. This process takes time.
Connect with a healthy church. The healing process is enhanced and enriched by a sense of belonging and acceptance that can take place in a functional Christian community.
Choose the truth as an act of obedience to God. It is a partnership between the individual and the Holy Spirit facilitated by the ministry of the Body of Christ.
Commit to do the work. The individual who has been hurt must also commit to do the hard work of applying truth and taking negative thoughts captive.
The daily infusion of truth about who God is and how He sees us is essential spiritual food.
Pastors, address the issue of distorted images of God from the pulpit in a way that draws out the alienated and encourages them to connect with others who can help them in the process of healing and growth.
Have you been hurt in church? Don’t bury it. Allow God to bring healing in your life today. He wants to reveal Himself to you.
Dowdle, Steven. Helping the Hurting in Your Church. Lake Mary: Creation House, 2007, pp. 105-117.