Chadwick Boseman, otherwise known as Black Panther, gave a commencement address at Howard University in 2018. He said, “Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”
We all long to know our purpose or calling. One of the action steps I write about in the Understanding Your Calling 7 Step Action Plan is taking time to build a resume of significant life events and memories. This is an important step, but in my experience, there are times when past wounds can come back and impact us in negative ways. In Lessons from the Sidelines, I write about these areas of our lives as choke weeds. Paul describes them as strongholds.
I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do.2 Corinthians 10:2-7 (NIV)
Spiritual attacks come in many different forms. When we begin the intentional work of pursuing our callings we need to understand we will also face increased attacks. Satan doesn’t concern himself with the apathetic. Rather he focuses on distracting people who are seeking the Lord with intentionality. Helen Calder explains that some past memories cause soul damage. Remembering these experiences can reignite trauma as if it was the first time.
Soul damaging experiences are identified by another name. Spiritual abuse.
Even though the Church has a long, documented history of Spiritual abuse it’s something that’s rarely discussed. Occasionally, when held accountable within the context of leaders causing physical harm, acknowledgment occurs by force. However, it is often only once Christians look outside the Church for support where we will find the proper council we need to heal.
Spiritual abuse is a subject we cannot ignore when we pursue our calling. As we reflect on the milestones of our past we may discover roadblocks or hurdles that caused us to veer off course. If we don’t address the why behind our choice to stray away from our calling we risk repeating past choices.
People Leave the Church From Due to Spiritual Abuse
Over at Gallup, Frank Newport says that in 1975, 68 percent of Americans believed that organized religion could be trusted. By 2019, trust in the church had reached a new low, with only 36 percent having confidence in its leadership.
There are multiple reasons for such a drastic drop. While many have preferred to blame outside entities such as an attraction to liberal ideology, those of us who have paused to consider why people are leaving the church and also listen to their answers have confirmed the same information over and over.
Spiritual abuse takes many forms because spiritual attacks take many forms. One significant way spiritual abuse is applied is when those seeking control of a situation demand we shift our perspective away from God’s truth.
We are all works in progress and no one’s sin is any less damaging than another. It’s grace alone that saves us and an active faith engaging in serving God that produces Spiritual fruit that continues to deepen our relationship with him. However, we aren’t supposed to walk through the Christian life alone.
Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV) says:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law? Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Part of the life of a believer is loving our neighbors. That includes other believers who have wounded us. Let’s be clear here though. Sometimes we love from a distance for our safety. Jesus gave two commands. First, to love God. The writer of Hebrews describes this trust as anchoring our soul to God. We can always trust him.
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.Hebrews 6:17:20 (NIV)
Holding on to hope that God is unchangeable is vital as we strive to pursue our calling in partnership with him and thrive in our sweet spots. Because he is unchanging we can claim the same promises today that we read in the Bible.
If you long to use all of the strengths, gifts, talents, passions, skills, and dreams God has laid on your heart in a unique way but you feel stuck this post may be for you. If you have a wound because you’ve been told you’re not capable of fulfilling your calling by someone else who placed their opinion above God’s truth over your life then this post may be for you.
Focus on God’s Truth, not Man’s Preferences.
One of the most challenging places to discuss consistent spiritual abuse is that of personal convictions. However, personal convictions are just that…personal.
There are places in Scripture where we have flexibility. There isn’t one specific path of employment. There isn’t one type of house to live in or one size of family God requires.
There are times we feel so passionately about our preferences that we decide our decisions should extend to everyone. Someone who is NOT a spiritual abuser will share a conviction and encourage others to self-reflect, remove idols, and place God in his rightful place. First in their lives.
Spiritual abusers twist the truth. They exhaust their victim with verbal abuse, mental abuse, and/or physical abuse ripping out the anchor we’ve tethered to God and replacing it with their personal preferences.
Spiritual abusers allow the pendulum to swing too far. They determine that anyone who disagrees with their personal preferences is unholy and will spend eternity in hell. They will also announce this untruth as fact.
Spiritual abusers not only rip away the truth, but they also refuse to allow victims to heal by justifying any expressed harm as “deserved”. From a secular perspective, the term that applies in these situations is gaslighting.
Spiritual abuse is set apart from other forms in that the abuser incorporates God as a weapon. Abusers will use various techniques but they will all have the same goal. Rather than focusing on ministry, an abuser will strive to distract you. They convince you are you aren’t worthy of the mission God has laid on your heart. They may voice “concerns” in a way that devalues your efforts and causes you to compare your efforts negatively. A spiritual abuser might use the tactic of busyness when all else fails. This distraction causes you to focus on the mission of God rather than on God himself.
One circular conversation is that regarding immigrants and the application of Luke 10:25-37. The parable of The Good Samaritan beings with the reminder that we are commanded to love our neighbors. For some reason, the Church has very strong opinions as to how other Christians should live out the conviction of their calling as they apply this command in their own life. Oddly, there are pastors who have gone so far as to say those who show compassion for immigrants within the borders of the United States aren’t true followers of Jesus.
These same Christians will claim a superior understanding of Scripture and berate or shame the victim they are abusing until they submit to their opinion. These conversations weaponize God’s word and attempt to shame the victim for trying to live like Jesus. Brené Brown says, “shame kills empathy and empathy is the foundation of love and justice.” That’s often the goal of a spiritual abuser, to cause them to feel so much shame they no longer empathize and desire to “love their neighbors” and reflect God’s love to the world.
The hypocrisy of contradictory statements does more than cause frustration for victims of spiritual abuse. It cuts deep into their heart and soul leaving tender scars long after wounds heal.
Even if an abuser is eventually called out for their behavior they will often attempt to avoid blame. Common tactics to avoid releasing power over their abuse victim include:
- Acting like they are the victim
- Qualifying an apology – “I’m sorry you feel that way, but here’s why you’re wrong….”
- Twisting Scripture or the meaning of application to fit their narrative
The unwillingness to reconcile is one of the ways we can recognize abuse and separate it from normal everyday conflict. I cannot emphasize this enough, friend. Even though abusers avoid reconciliation we cannot avoid the harm they cause. Wounds from spiritual abusers cut deeply. We must face these strongholds—even the ones from spiritual leaders. You can do this with God’s help.
Focus on God’s Truth
Wade Mullen, has conducted over 500 interviews with victims of abuse by church leaders. In this 40-minute video, Wade explains how spiritual abusers try to control their victims. As he spoke I found myself flashing back to different scenarios I’ve encountered since graduating college. Some I had pushed away. Interestingly, this is something Mullen addresses:
“Those who do escape the web walk away bewildered, unsure of how to address an issue that once was as clear as day. To the abuser’s satisfaction, they soon forget that behind all those threads is an entrapped truth, a truth that could have freed others had it remained free itself.”Wade Mullen
As Mullen discussed the impact of spiritual abuse and how it hinders many in the church from living out our callings I realized that this was something that I’d addressed in Chapters 3 and 4 of Lessons from the Sidelines.
We are always growing and learning. As Brené Brown says “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.” The only thing I know to do is to strive to focus on God’s truth. In this particular case, this means giving you a few additional tools to consider as you work on clarifying your calling.
As I share, when you are busy trying to please an impossible Spiritual abuser who is in a position of power over you, eventually you’ll find yourself fighting isolation, failure, and even looking to walk away from your calling. This tension can also cause harm in your marriage or other personal relationships.
Mullen explains, “A primary goal of the exposed abuser is to capture the truth in a web of deception. It’s a highly deceptive process intended to control your perceptions so you see only what the deceiver wants you to see.”
You need to fight to hold on to the truth.
When we allow the truth of an abuser to permeate our thoughts we impede our ability to thrive in our gifts, skills, and talents. As believers, we need to remember that God is bigger and more powerful than every human.
Jesus said in John 10:10 NIV, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Remember, God is unchanging. We only need to trust that it extends to us as well.
What is the Calling of Jesus Followers?
As followers of Jesus, we’re called to be salt and light and God also expects a posture of humility. We must always pause to reflect inwardly first. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold each other accountable to the truth. If someone refuses accountability or insists they are the only source of truth you can depend on, those are red flags that the person is an abuser to avoid.
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor. Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.Galatians 6:1-8
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.Galatians 5:16-26
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.Matthews 5:13-16
There is an analogy you’ve likely heard that applies in situations like this. When training employees to spot fake money every technique suggested includes comparing the potential fake bill against the real bill. Testing the money and comparing it against the real bill to see if they match exactly is the only way to ensure you aren’t holding counterfeit money. Of course, we don’t make these assumptions by ourselves when we apply this principle to people. We must also rely on the expert (God) to give us discernment. It’s helpful to have an accountability partner to make sure you are evaluating yourself and the situation clearly as well.
Are you Striving to be Salt and Light?
In a follow-up article, Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D. answers a pressing question. Are Gaslighters Aware of What They Do? While this is a question that requires longer conversation and self-examination, Mullen is clear that Spiritual abusers are aware of their controlling and manipulative actions.
He identifies their harmful choices as the standard tactics of deception spiritual abusers will use to attempt to assert power over victims.
Part of being salt and light in a dark and tasteless world certainly involves ensuring God is first in our lives. But we have a higher calling than simply worshiping God. Jesus told the disciples to love each other.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.Leviticus 19:18
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”John 13:34-35 (NIV)
Notice that Jesus didn’t qualify this command. Jesus spoke up and defended an adulterous woman when everyone else wanted to stone her. He showed a woman alone at a well she was welcome heaven even if her community shamed her. Jesus ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the lame, and blind.
He treated everyone as God’s children, his brothers and sisters. Because they were and so are we.
But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.James 1:25-27
James brings up an important point and it’s one Paul also repeats in his letter to the Romans.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.Romans 1:20-25
God loves us so much he gives us free will to choose a relationship with him. We always have the opportunity to partner with God or prioritize our personal preferences.
Regardless of our priorities in who or what we worship, we will face trials. The disciples, apostles, and even John the Baptist died for their devotion to Jesus. Regardless of the trials we will face, we don’t need to live in fear.
For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.2 Timothy 1:7-8
Another place spiritual abusers present themselves in the Church is by falsely demanding Christians position the idol of patriotism as equal to religion. There is a difference between United States Theology and Biblical Theology. There are millions of people in the world who will enter heaven without having sworn allegiance to any political party or the flag in the United States.
This fact itself is enough to tell us that anyone who preaches this theology is a false prophet.
1 John 4
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
4 You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit[a] of truth and the spirit of falsehood.
God’s Love and Ours
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
Abusers Demand to be Judge and Jury
One technique abusers will employ is to misuse the Bible by boosting teachings that seem to support their opinion while burying teachings on truth, justice, light, and accountability. Abusers judge others faithful or faithless on the basis of their obedience to the teachings they present as fact.
Abusers will boast in their connection to God and His Kingdom, establishing themselves as agents of God. If you push back on their interpretation or teaching they may resort to manipulation suggesting they are under spiritual attack and your goal is to derail their ministry or teaching efforts.
A spiritual abuser will use God’s word as a weapon to cause shame and condemnation rather than to correct and convict.
It’s important to remember that because we’re all sinners anyone can become a spiritual abuser without proper guardrails in place. Leaders need people to hold them accountable to remain faithful to Christ-centered lives.
Simon Sinek explains that in both secular and spiritual circles the most offensive leaders include those who don’t protect their people.
It’s Time to Live Like Jesus is Lord
The Church is crying out for Jesus followers to live in a way that reflects the heart and character of God. The only way this will happen is if each individual begins the difficult work of rooting out weeds of sin holding them back from a fuller relationship with God free of idols.
When we prioritize removing idols that separate us from God we will hear him more clearly and discern his guidance more clearly as well. We will also see ourselves more accurately and it is at this point we will have the ability to thrive in the fullness of the sweet spot of our calling.
We can do this! As we take on the difficult task of identifying past wounds from spiritual abuse let’s also remember 1 John and love each other. Removing idols isn’t always as freeing as we might assume. We will face spiritual attack as we fight to put God first, but there is strength in numbers. As we focus on God’s truth we can lean on those who will lovingly direct you to focus on our Lord and Savior first.
The more we focus on God and pursue him, the better we will become at identifying his voice and understanding our calling.
For more information on spiritual abusers check out Wade Mullen, Aundi Kolber, this article from Mary DeMuth, and this article from Dr. Tony Evans. Finally, check out this article: Pressing on with Purpose by Brené Brown