At thirteen years old, in eighth grade, I attended confirmation classes in my church and sang in choir, rang bells in hand bell choir, and participated in youth group. Ardent for the Lord, I led my youth group in a twenty four hour prayer vigil. But I was also vulnerable and awkward. Too tall too fast and prone to saying the wrong thing, I carried a full contingent of insecurities. So when my mother’s prayer partner and friend, (I will call her Gladys) cornered me one day after I had baby sat her children for an afternoon, I possessed few defenses against any spiritual authority. After all, my mother trusted her and seemed to respect her spiritually. Little did I realize at the time that she was a spiritual abuser.
A sunny and warm Southern California day, I remember standing outside of her house, staring at the foxglove blooms in her front yard. Foxglove is beautiful and poisonous. Gladys was attractive and wealthy. She claimed to be prophetic and often wrote out long words from the Lord for others.
“Alice,” she said, “I need to talk to you.” She said this urgently and looked at me intensely. I waited silently.
“The Lord has been telling me about you,” she said. Her face was set in stern lines. I didn’t quite know what to say. I had never heard that God did that before. I knew that God talked to people. After all, I thought I heard His voice sometimes. But He never talked to me about my friends. God talking to Gladys about me intimidated me immensely. I was immediately afraid. The look on her face said it wasn’t good.
“He is disappointed in you. You are not living the way you should,” Gladys said. Her face arranged itself into a sad expression. “You need to change,” she added. Just then my mother pulled up and I got in the car. I did not tell my mother at the time. Terrified and ashamed that God revealed this to my mother’s best friend devastated me. I spent days combing my life for sins.
I concluded that God was disappointed with who I was, not any specific sins.
I, who loved God from six years of age, disappointed God. He was ashamed of me.
It took nearly a decade to regain a sense of God’s love for me. Spiritual abuse is couched in religious terms. Abusers take the name of the Lord in vain in very serious ways. They claim He has said things that do not align with what God’s word says. And the harm done can permanently separate innocent hearts from the love of God. Here are a few of the lies about God that spiritual abuse seeks to spread:
- God is untrustworthy. Spiritual abusers often set themselves as the go between, inserting themselves in your relationship with God. God spills the dirt about you to them. Prophetic words are to exhort, instruct, and encourage the believer. But in setting themselves up as God’s chosen accusers, spiritual abusers undermine a believer’s faith and attempt to set themselves up as God’s mouthpiece. Generally speaking, the Holy Spirit convicts our hearts of sin without condemnation, although with urgency. Abuse always isolates. God is about reconciliation.
- God is angry, disappointed, or ashamed of you. While God hates sin, He is passionately in love with the sinner. He is not disappointed or ashamed of you, even when you mess up. I wish I had understood this earlier in my life. I approach God with boldness, as His daughter, because I am loved unconditionally. The idea of an angry God overwhelms me. How could I hope to stand, much less petition a God who is furious? God likes us. He loves us. His desire is to be with us. This picture of a disappointed God separates the believer from truth.
- God is a gossip. I believe in the gift of knowledge. However, when God reveals to us something about others, it is because we are called to either pray for them, or participated in the freeing of that person from bondage. I received a prophetic word from a visiting pastor one time while I was a single mother. My ex was threatening all sorts of awful things. I lived in terror of losing my children. This pastor came up to me, looked me in the eye, knowing nothing about me, and said clearly, “What you fear most will not come upon you.” In that instant, fear left me. God told her I was afraid and gave her the word that set me free. God isn’t a tattle tale. He reveals truth in absolute love. And I got custody in due time.
- God is an awful lot like the abuser. While we all have the tendency to remake God in our own image, the spiritual abuser claims to have a special in with God. God is in a good or bad mood depending on the mood of the person claiming inappropriate authority in your life. God, as presented by the abuser, is unpredictable and unsafe. He is pleased one moment, and storming the next. Gladys was somewhat volatile. I knew this from her interactions with her children. And so, she projected a view of God that was similarly volatile.
- God is controlling. I sometimes wish God were a little more controlling. But He is absolute in His gift of free will. I can honestly say that God has never, ever made me do something. He nudges, suggests, and even strongly instructs, but He laid out the Ten Commandments as basic rules. He sets out principles like the Golden Rule. But He does not compel. A spiritual abuser will use God to make threats if you do not comply with their authority. Abusers are after power. But we obey God because we are motivated by love, not fear.
Abusive authority is commonplace in this world. But a solid foundation in the revelation of God’s character through scripture and through a genuine, experiential relationship with God gives us discernment. Remember, though, to check out what those in authority are teaching your children about God. I forgave Gladys long ago because I am free to forgive through the gift of God’s forgiveness of my sins. But if you find yourself feeling separated from God because of the leaders in your life, it may be time to find new leaders.
Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. Luke 11:46
But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—If you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the Gospel. Colossians 1:22-23