Should we repent for allowing ourselves to be spiritually abused? Yikes.
I am re-posting the following article in its entirety from my friend Julie Anne Smith’s blog, Spiritual Sounding Board. It refers to an original post by Dr. Stephen Crosby. This article will make you think.
I came across an article on spiritual abuse Spiritual Abuse: It takes “Two to Tango” written by Stephen Crosby. I noticed a TWW reader mentioned it, causing a little uproar as the reader challenged “survivor blogs”, and it was also referenced at SGMSurvivor site as a good resource for spiritual abuse survivors. In the comment section of Crosby’s bio, he responds to a reader:
I have experienced the abuse myself and understand it spiritually, theologically, relationally, and psychologically; I help people recover, or perhaps discover for the first time, the reality of their sonship and relationship to their Father, rather than relationship to the church or Christian religion.
It sounds like Crosby spends a significant amount of his time helping people and he clearly has an understanding of spiritual abuse. Here’s the part of the article that intrigued me the most, in particular the third paragraph (the bold parts were from the article, not by me):
I have dealt with literally hundreds of people who have been legitimately abused in unhealthy church environments. I am very sympathetic to their pain and have my own hair-curling horror stories I could tell of the things that have been done to me, my wife, and my children by “leaders” in the name of Jesus. I GET IT.
However, I’ve noticed a difference between those who are restored to spiritual health quickly, and those who remain in reactionary woundedness for years or decades. Those who recover quickly admit that there was something broken or unwhole in themselves that was a “hook” for controllers and abusers to play on. They do not just blame the perpetrators of the injustice against them. Healthy, whole, functional, adults–especially fully resourced believers (2 Pet. 1:3)–are not easy to control and abuse.
As legitimate as the mistreatment may have been, somewhere the abused individuals (assuming adults–not children or minors) failed to exercise their God-given abilities to protect themselves. God has given every mentally whole adult the “power of no” to protect ourselves. How much more so believers who have the indwelling Spirit? The trouble is, we are often not whole and we often ignore the Spirit’s prompting because of the emotional cost of following what He says to us. Being Spirit-led takes more courage than people normally think, but then again, courage is one of the first evidences of being a regenerated, Spirit-filled, human being (Acts 1-4).
This is a recurring comment we have seen here when discussing spiritual abuse – that we are partly responsible for the abuse we incurred, we should have seen the faulty doctrine, the signs, the fruit in the leaders’ lives, etc. Here’s more from the article:
Folks could have said “no” to leaders. Why didn’t they? Could be lots of reasons for that. What was the “hook” in the soul that folks could not say “no”? Folks can leave a ministry or church. They don’t. Why? Could be lots of reasons, some very difficult to face. They could have confronted.
What about wives in a complementarian or especially patriarchal environment? Do you think they need to own their part of allowing the abuse when their marriage may in fact be a system where women have no voice? In SGM-like churches and my former church, husbands are called the priest of the home. They are responsible for the family spiritually. Women are many times left out of the process.
Towards the end of my time at the abusive church I had to make the choice to “sin.” I remember feeling strongly that I was in deep sin by doing what I was doing: telling my husband I no longer could go to THAT church, that it was killing me mentally, spiritually. Somehow I had the wherewithal to say, “enough is enough,” but there was a personal cost and a cost to the family. I felt so guilty for saying I could not go back to that church and would be going somewhere else without the family. I was completely bucking this religious system I was part of and had no idea what would happen next. I was saying NO to my spiritual head.
I had difficulty reading parts of Crosby’s article. Spiritual abusers are masterful manipulators. They can pull the wool over people’s eyes. I get confused wondering what I could have done differently. And then the guilt comes again. Am I supposed to be asking God to forgive me for obeying my husband by going to the church he led our family to?
The article then goes on to discuss that many of us had psychological needs met by our abusers and that’s why we chose to remain. Ouch! I think there may be some truth to that in some instances, but again, what about wives in patriarchal families where the father makes these decisions for his family?
The final paragraph:
If you have been seriously damaged in a church situation, I urge you to forgive quickly, take responsibility for your own soul, repent to God for not using the tools he has given you to protect yourself, find people who can love you without agenda, help you find inner healing if you need it, and be restored to a vibrant and healthy kingdom life.
Am I supposed to repent to God for not using the tools He gave me? Again, ouch. I think there is good information in this article, but for me, it was difficult to read on the emotional level – no warm fuzzies, that’s for sure.
[End of Julie’s post.]
A very thought-provoking post, is it not?
I had some questions, so I read Dr. Crosby’s entire original article and then asked him to clarify several points. He graciously took the time to do so, and we developed a fruitful exchange. I’m still thinking this all through, but I believe some helpful definition of terms is in order, as well as some more nuance. I will post my position–that is, what I think the Bible teaches–in a follow-up article. In the meantime, what do you think? I welcome your comments on this topic.
You can see Dr. Crosby’s original article here. Please note the following copyright info:
Copyright 2013, Dr. Stephen R. Crosby, http://www.swordofthekingdom.com. Permission is granted to copy, forward, or distribute this article for non-commercial use only, as long as this copyright byline, in totality, is maintained in all duplications, copies, and link references. For reprint permission for any commercial use, in any form of media, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hey Steve! Yes, thought provoking indeed. I do think we need to be careful about assigning blame to the victim. If there is something dysfunctional (and we are all to some extent or the other) in a person’s psyche that subjects them to abuse, to say they didn’t repent for not using the tools might provide too simplistic of a response. There IS a reason people stay in abusive relationships and often are blind to their own dysfunctional motivation. And as this article points out, and rightly so I believe, that abusers are manipulative. So the combination of the two doesn’t really make for an easy escape. I think it might bring unnecessary shame on the abused.
Yes, nothing about leaving a cult is easy. I agree with you, Lisa, that assigning blame to the victim is unhelpful and can result in unnecessary shame. Thanks for your perceptive comment.
Thought provoking. I know this was personally true in my life. When God helped me to stop seeing myself as only a victim I began to live my life as if I was not still one and begin to move forward.
Thanks for sharing, Paul. Taking responsibility for our actions and attitudes is such an important part of becoming a whole person and moving forward in empowered healing. I still wonder about the word “repent” though, in terms of “repenting for allowing myself to be spiritually abused.” I guess it depends on the definition of terms. Still mulling…
I think it is important to realize that in any place where we have been sinned against, there is also a measure where we can turn to God in repentance. I believe there is some truth that those who are abused have abdicated their God given rights and roles and have sinned by omission. It is a hurtful thing for sure to not only be abused, but to also to see one’s part in (at times) allowing the abuse to occur. This does not necessitate that it is a persons fault for being abused. The two are not related. The sin of the abuse and the manipulation fall solely on the abuser. To say ono ehas a role and an ability to repent does not say it is the persons fault. However, I agree that in ANY situation when we are sinned against, we can extend grace and forgiveness only because we have also received grace and forgiveness. I believe this is what truly allows the healing. We can extend mercy when we receive mercy.
If we think of repentance as turning to God from our own plan to what is right to what His plan is, then it is not shameful,! Rather itis taking our rightful place as chosen and beloved heirs of God’s kingdom and living like it!
I have had a few unhealthy relationships and one in particular that I would consider that had been emotionally abusive. However, it was only when I saw the hole in my heart that I was trying to allow this person to fill (that only God can!) that I could recognize my own participation in an unhealthy relationship and my need to repent of it.
For anyone (and I truly think this is all humans whether we realize it or not) that are in recovery- whether we are the addict or the co-dependent we all have need for repentance!
Lots of wisdom, here, NannyG. I agree with your point that we must extend grace and forgiveness, take responsibility for our own actions and inaction, and turn to God for his plan rather than our plan. Your definition of repentance agrees well with Dr. Crosby’s. I guess because I associate repentance with turning from our own sin, I still struggle with the use of this term in the context we’re describing. It probably all boils down to a definition of terms, since I think we are in substantial agreement with the psychology and need for responsibility and change here.
I think we all agree with the need to identify our own lack/brokenness and turn to God humbly to fill us and make us whole and empowered. And we must repent for the many actions of sin we may have committed as a result of subscribing to a spiritually abusive environment. After my cult broke up, I had to go to a number of individuals and ask for their forgiveness for ways I sinned against them.
But is allowing ourselves to be spiritually abused in the first place a sin? Is it a sin of omission? The verse in James says “Anyone who knows the good he ought to do, and doesn’t do it, sins” (4:17). I always thought that this presupposes that the person knows the good they ought to do–recognizes that they aren’t doing it–and still chooses not to do it. That’s sin. At least, that’s how I interpret the verse. In which case a spiritually abused person very often doesn’t know that what is happening is wrong–in fact, he or she usually believes that this is what the Bible teaches. They are immature, deceived, and misguided. Are these things sin?
There is also a power differential at work. Just as a child who is sexually abused by an adult is not to blame for the abuse, I question if victims of spiritual abuse are actually to blame for their abuse. Rather, they believe that the “spiritual authority” in their life is truly God’s servant who has biblical and spiritual power over them. They are spiritually blinded and deceived, and they must recognize the reasons for this and seek to take responsibility and to change, but are they liable for their own abuse? Maybe. But I still go back to how Jesus dealt with the Pharisees versus the people who followed them.
Should we repent for allowing ourselves to be spiritually abused? Regret, yes. Responsibility, yes. Repentance for specific sins, absolutely. Repentance for being in the system at all? I need to think more about this and reflect on Crosby’s definition of repentance, as well as the way you describe it, NannyG. It sounds much nicer than the definition I’ve always had, but then again, I grew up in a broken system which distorted all kinds of theological terms. I promise to think more about this. Thanks again for your great input!
Thanks for commenting back. His last paragraph really seems to be encouraging persons to forgive themselves. In my spiritual formation and counseling classes it seemed that the real root of the issue is our identity and repenting means turning to our new identity. I think you’re right it does come down to definitions, and for me if the word ‘repent’ brings someone who is in recovery greater harm than good- then chuck the word! I would say it comes down to using a religious charged word to people who have been abused religiously. It’s just not going to help as intended. You’re right, if someone has been abused as a child, it is never their fault and they have many guilty and shameful feelings. However, the article is saying ‘you’re not a child, you’re an adult and you abdicated your role.’ It is because of this that one may find the need to ‘repent’ or forgive themselves. Yet in the same regard, this child who has been abused may take years to relearn what a word such as ‘love’ means when the person who abused them might have emotionally abused and misused the term.
Recovering from years and years of spiritual abuse which in many ways stole your identity as a youth and young adult will certainly take time! And real recovery doesn’t mean you won’t have scars, but that in time the wounds will heal and not be as raw. II think its a very admirable and healing step that you have approached many for the specific ways you had hurt them due to your involvement with this church. Honestly Steve, I don’t know whether God is asking someone personally to ‘repent’ or not… I think I’ll leave that to the Holy Spirit– He always has much better timing, care and ability to speak the truth than I do! Best wishes and many prayers on your road to healing!
Well, I would say everyday there is something to repent about- whether the wrong word was spoken or we did not take action in area where there was needed intervention. So in this case I do not know if I would have used the word “repentance” because it singles out the victim as someone who needs to make this whole situation of abuse right. When a victim is abused the process takes time and God has His time and place for healing with the victim of abuse. This can take years and I believe that any healing and forgiveness has to be the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit intervening. I think the biggest thing for the victim to me is the willingness and surrender to just let the hurt go into the Lords hands and let Him heal. This is where I believe it starts, not with repentance. Repentance may come down the road when that person has healed and see the areas that they were faulty on.
Even though I am not a victim of abuse, I know this is the case with areas of sin in my own life that I had a hard time to let go. I would pray and pray – nothing happened. I would get so frustrated at my own sin because nothing would get cleared up. We have all been there- some of us deal with anger or pride, etc..AND those issues of sin seem to last for years.
So I had to just trust- Soon the Holy Spirit started softening my heart and I knew that He was working on my sin. Gods way of dealing with sin is always convicting and revealing, but always gentle and assuring; showing us that His way is the most effective in dealing with sin.
Sometimes we as friends, pastors, or family members want to make things right and get problems dealt with so we end up interjecting our own methods of dealing with certain sins or faults or even abuses. Not everyone gets there by the same methods. God deals with people in His own time and His own place. What God wants are people whose hearts are trusting in Him to get them where He wants them to be- no matter how long or how hard the process could be. If He is powerful enough to cleanse us of our sins, He sure is powerful enough to deal with our sins also if we are so willing.
Well said, trust4him. I like your reminder that God does not use formulas when dealing with his children. Not everyone gets there by the same methods. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
I agree well said! Thanks for sharing. I too find there the Lord is marvelous, patient and sometimes seemingly slow in his dealings with his children and transforming us in His image. I’m glad that it is his kindness that leads us to repentance!