It’s not just a salacious news article or one more statistic when it’s happened to you. When “God” is used to manipulate, shame, control, wound, and exploit, the damage to your soul is deep and long-lasting. What do you do when you’ve been harmed in the name of God?
A young woman wrote to me just this week; “When there is manipulation of God involved in abuse it can make things very confusing.” And that’s an understatement. When used by evil, God-talk and misused spiritual authority are potent weapons that can steal, kill, and destroy.
Such spiritual harm might come when a pastor, youth leader, or anyone in leadership uses their position of authority to gather sexual favors. Or when a husband or father uses Scripture to manipulate and control his wife or child physically or sexually. Or when someone in authority excuses their own or another leader’s bad behavior because God “owes” them, or because dealing with it would harm “the church.” And the harm becomes even greater when the church, that presents itself as the body of Christ, further shames you while protecting the one who harmed you.
If you’ve been harmed in the name of God, my heart bleeds for you. And I want to offer some hope.
Your View of God
Perhaps the greatest of all harms is what this kind of trauma does to your perception of God. From my own experience and from that of many I’ve worked with, I understand how difficult it can be to disentangle the “God-talk” from the abuse. This means the very One you should be able to go to for comfort, healing, and protection has been turned into a weapon against you.
That negative perception of God is false, but your soul can’t see Him any differently. Because of the confusion your head may “believe” that God is good, but inside you deeply revolt at even the thought of coming closer to Someone in whose name you were hurt so deeply. The whole idea of “God” becomes a double bind; you’re “damned” if you turn away, but you feel immense danger if you turn toward.
And truth? What is that? You’ve lost your ability to trust your own perceptions, or to judge truth for yourself. Those you had trusted to speak the truth spoke lies instead. Or mixed up lies with the truth so that you can’t distinguish between them. What part of what you heard about God is true, and what’s a lie? Or could everything you know and heard about God be a lie? Part of you “believes” God is real, but your heart shrinks back. Can you even figure all this out?
And glib spiritual platitudes, advice such as “forgive and forget,” or Scriptural truth bombs, feel like hitting an already-broken leg with a sledge hammer. If you care about someone who’s been harmed in this way, please don’t do this.
As Dr. Diane Langberg said in a recent conversation we had about spiritual abuse of authority, “Such a person needs a new God.” That person may be you. You may need to get away from everything you thought you knew about God, and start from scratch.
That’s hard. And it’s usually a painfully slow process.
What God Hates
If this is your struggle, one thing that may help your perception of God is to understand that He hates. Yes, God is love. (1 John 4:8) But because He is Love, there is something He hates with a hated that’s as perfect as His love is. And it is this; God hates what harms the one He loves. And He loves you.
You might identify with this hatred especially if you’re a parent. Just let someone come along who is out to harm your child, and just watch how angry you get!
And when God’s name or authority is used in perpetrating harm to the one He loves, His hatred is especially strong. Just imagine how much you would hate someone who harmed your child while leading them to believe that you were the one harming them.
Throughout Scripture God’s severest pronouncements are against those who oppress and exploit others out of their spiritual position.
“The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.” (Ezekiel 34:1-4)
That’s the Old Testament, but it’s in the New Testament too. How about Jesus’ own words: ““Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)
No simple words will make everything OK. But perhaps this one small slice of who God is can help a bit in your process.
Slow but Sure Path to Healing
From my own experience and from those I’ve worked with I can assure you that there is hope. You can get to the other side. You can come to experience peace, joy, and wholeness.
All that an article such as this can do is provide a few markers, signposts that are important in this journey. Next time we’ll talk more specifically about the process of healing after spiritual abuse.
Even so, if you’ve been harmed in the name of God, I hope this provides a moment of encouragement. And I’d love to hear from you if you’d like more help.
Your Turn: Have you been harmed in the name of God? How has that impacted your perception of God? Leave a comment below.
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