Broken Cisterns: Cultic Codependency (Part 1 of 2)

“Steve, you sound angry,” my pastor said. His voice dripped like brown caramel on my head. The room spun and roared.

Painting by author.

Painting by the author.

“No,” I said, but my fists clenched. Ferris* had just told me that I couldn’t go to college yet—I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t spiritually mature enough. Outside, I could see summer sun lean heavily against the pine trees. Somewhere a cricket chirred.

“I think that you do feel angry,” said Ferris. “I think that you feel angry with me. You know that anger against God masquerades as anger against God’s servants, don’t you?”

“I do not feel angry,” I lied. I looked into Ferris’s eyes and it seemed like stepping into a spider’s web.

“I think that you do feel angry,” Ferris said. He smiled at me with dull teeth. “To feel anger against me makes you a rebel. To rebel against me at this point—after so many years of ministry—would indicate that you don’t really want to serve God after all. What a shame, don’t you think? Especially after all that you have suffered… after all your family has suffered.”

I remembered my brother. When he left our church I bricked up my heart against any thought of leaving. I took the plunge to stay within the tight strictures of our hyper-conservative church. Despite my misery I believed that I was right. God was pleased with me for staying, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he? And then I could go to heaven when I died.

I looked at Ferris with unseeing eyes and said, “Yes, to rebel against God’s servant at this point would waste my suffering.”

“Oh Steve!” Ferris said, “My good boy! My son!”

I felt his words like sunrays on a frozen roof but still sat with my head bowed.

Ferris continued: “You cannot pick and choose what you want to believe, Steve. Either I speak as a genuine servant of God and everything I say comes from him, or I lie and you are overly credulous and misguided. However, if you believe that God speaks to me and that he has revealed his words to me then you must believe that he has the ability to correct me. Him alone.”

Beads of sweat crawled like spiders through my hair. I nodded.

codependent-relationship-cults-liberty-for-captivesFerris looked at me and smiled paternally. “You must trust me, Steve. Entrust yourself to me completely. God has good plans for you—wonderful plans! You are highly privileged, surely you realize that? Your brother has chosen the way of the world, but God has chosen you for special blessing. You must submit completely to my authority. If you do, you will finally arrive as one of God’s true servants. Only trust me, for I am the wisest man you will ever meet.”

I stared past him. His words made sense. I wanted assurance that God loved me—needed it, even. Ferris offered this assurance with empirical confidence. He had what I wanted.

“All right,” I said, “I trust you.”

“I can tell that you trust me!” he said with delight.

His voice reminded me of the time in second grade when Ben Dreyvan* punched me in the stomach and said, “Now you’re my best friend.” I had kneeled on the brown grass in my yard, the blades tickling my calves, holding my stomach while a thread of spittle wisped from my mouth. “Yup,” Ben had growled, “Now I can come over whenever I want.”

Ferris looked so pleased, like a Boy Scout at a jamboree. “What a special relationship we have, don’t you agree?” He smiled warmly at me. “You are like a son to me. Don’t you love me, too?”

The musty smell of old carpet wafted around me, untangling its ancient pedigree. I saw thick books on Ferris’s shelves, remembered his Ivy League credentials, believed that he was far, far beyond my depth. A Bible scholar par excellence. I looked at him as Catholics must look at the pope, as Frenchmen once looked to Joan of Arc, as Samson had looked at Delilah.

“Yes,” I whispered, “I love you.”

“Oh Stephen!” Ferris said, “Let me embrace you. I know how much you love me—I can see it on your face.” He rose from his gray-green chair and wrapped his bony arms around me. Overhead, the fluorescents buzzed.

I felt the stiff collar of his starched shirt press into my throat and smelled the warm, wet scent of Aqua Velva aftershave. I felt the pressure of Ferris’s arms but in my heart I sank far, far away into a deep cavern undersea.

The dungeon clanged shut and I swallowed the key.

*Not their real names.

Pretty sick, huh?

How can two sane people get involved in such an unhealthy relationship? Especially two people who claim to follow God’s Word and rely on his Spirit?

One word: Codependency.

codependencyThe major unhealthy relational issue involved in cults today is codependency. While spiritual blindness, spiritual warfare, and psychological imbalance also play prominent roles in cult dynamics, codependency is probably the greatest relational bondage within cults.

According to counselor June Hunt, codependency is “anyone who is dependent on another person to the point of being controlled or manipulated by that person.”

Codependency is a relationship addiction, which means that it appears to meet basic psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs of those who practice it, making the pattern hard to break.

There are two sides to the relationship: the person who is dependent, and the codependent enabler who fails to draw proper boundaries and allows themselves to be exclusively needed by the other person.

codependency-in-cults-liberty-for-captivesWhy is codependency wrong? Because it attempts to make a god out of a person. The Bible has a name for this: idolatry. Indeed, in Jeremiah 2:11-13, God records this complaint against his people:

“Has a nation changed gods when they were not gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, and shudder, be very desolate, declares the Lord. For my people have committed two evils: They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

Folks in a codependent relationship use that relationship to try to meet all three of a human being’s fundamental needs: security, love, and significance. But the relationship is a broken cistern. It cannot hold water.

What are some signs that you might be in a codependent relationship? I have borrowed the following checklists from June Hunt’s book on Codependency. Remember: you can be either the dependent person, or the enabler in the relationship.

Ten Signs of Codependency:

  • I feel responsible for the feelings, needs, and actions of the other person.
  • I try to fix the problems of this person, even to the detriment of my own well-being.
  • I feel angry when my help is not wanted.
  • I tend to be rigid and judgmental in the eyes of others.
  • I deny my own feelings and needs—so I’ve been told.
  • I feel guilty when I stand up for myself.
  • I feel good about giving but have difficulty receiving.
  • I try to be perfect in order to avoid anger or criticism.
  • I look for my worth in the approval of others.
  • I find that I am attracted to needy people and that needy people are attracted to me.

The Codependent relationship profile:

  • Both feel a loss of personal identity.
  • Both violate their consciences.
  • Both have difficulty establishing healthy, intimate relationships.
  • Both struggle with low self-worth.
  • Both control and manipulate.
  • Both have difficulty setting boundaries.
  • Both become jealous and possessive.
  • Both fear abandonment.
  • Both experience extreme ups and downs.
  • Both are in denial.
  • Both have a false sense of security.

How many of these attributes can you see in the story above? Quite a few, right?

In part 2, we’ll look at some root causes of codependency and biblical steps toward a solution.

6 comments on “Broken Cisterns: Cultic Codependency (Part 1 of 2)

  1. […] involved that really hinders real love from happening.  Steve over at Liberty for Captives talks about co-dependency. Though it is in the context of spiritual abuse, the characteristics are the same for […]

  2. I love this because I’ve seen this play out so much.

  3. Great job! Love your writing and ability to truly capture the concepts of codependency. I have written three books my self on the subject matter and how it related to my life–actually defined it…

    It is amazing really–that anyone could insist that none of us can pick and choose what to believe??? As if, we are too disregard the divine ability to ‘think’ of our own free will???

    Bravo…and amen brother…lol…

    Lisa A. Romano

    The Road Back To Me

    My Road Beyond The Codependent Divorce

    Loving The Self Affirmations–Breaking The Cycles of Unconscious Codependent Belief Systems


    • Thanks so much Lisa! I will need to check out your books. Codependency is so common. I’m happy that you were able to swim out of the riptide of this mindset and now are throwing life preservers to other strugglers. Well done.

  4. There have been so many times where I’ve been in the same exact situation with the leader of my church/cult. I’ve had variations of that conversation so many times… it’s frightening that it happens so much.

  5. Further on this topic from sociological and mindfulness psychology perspectives: http://pairadocks.blogspot.com/2016/08/understanding-co-dependence-as-soft.html or Google: Understanding Codependence as “Soft-Core” Cult Dynamics…
    …and Cult Dynamics as “Hard-Core” Codependence

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