The damages of abuse are well-documented and include PTSD, mood disorders, physical illnesses, and a host of relational difficulties. Less discussed are the damages an abusive relationship can inflict on a victim’s relationship with God. Often a good deal of spiritual abuse accompanies any other type of mistreatment and can really hamper a person’s belief in and relationship with God.
Because our relationship with God serves as a basis for both deliverance from the abuser as well as healing from the damages of abuse, the enemy often targets a victim’s faith. For most of us, our experiential belief trumps our intellectual assent in terms of any religious beliefs we may have. What this means is that our experiences with God have a more powerful effect on our emotions and bodies than a thought that we agree with on a purely intellectual level.
For instance, if I have been bitten by a dog, my body instinctively recoils from dogs, especially ones that I don’t know. I may be told that a particular dog is safe, but while I can acknowledge the words as being probably true, I still have to overcome some strong emotions to reach out and pet that dog. Because abuse of any kind has such a visceral effect on our bodies, souls, and spirits, our painful experiences set up a theology that is in opposition to what we ‘know’ about God.
Here is a short list of some of the damages that an abuser can cause in the spiritual life of his or her victim:
The abuser seems more powerful than God.
In fact, an abuser often becomes a terrible idol that one must constantly appease. Because God follows His own rules regarding free will, He does not force evil people to do good. This is a difficult truth to accept if one is caught in a cruel relationship. If the victim is an adult, they must grapple with their choice to stay at some point. When the abuse is directed at a child, the damages are more severe because the choices a child has are limited.
The victim is all alone.
The goal of an abuser is to isolate his or her victim from all sources of support, including spiritual ones. While I was married to my narcissistic ex, I could not keep friends. After I left, I learned that he regularly threatened them in order to get them to leave. While in the crucible of this relationship, I found God to be my strength. However, this only came after desperate seeking and many, many lonely moments. He had been there all along, but my abuser made that difficult to believe.
God can’t be trusted.
Continual abuse damages the emotional foundation that is required for trust to survive. For many victims of emotional, physical, or sexual exploitation, the unpredictable behavior of an abuser sets up an atmosphere of fear. A victim of abuse walks on a bed of very fragile egg-shells as they constantly try to predict the next mood swing. Because of the imposition of the abuser as a god-like, all-powerful figure onto the psyche of the abused, trust is simply not possible.
Trust is the ability to be at peace and live without fear in the presence of another. If one has never experienced these emotions, then trust is inaccessible. Of all the damages, this one takes the longest to heal from because it requires a full rehabilitation of emotional and physical experience. In other words, these sufferers need others committed to long-term relationships to model healthy love.
Victimhood can set up a false sense of righteousness.
A common dynamic I see in marriages in which mistreatment is the norm is that of the long-suffering wife or husband. The abuser gets away with outrageous behavior but the victim develops a martyr complex that offers just enough emotional reward to stay. The excuse often used is God’s hatred of divorce and ‘doing God’s will’. In truth, the victims are aiding and abetting their abuser’s bad behavior by enabling it.
This one was a very difficult one for me to admit to. I didn’t want to face the fact that my children sustained significant damages because I thought I was doing the right thing. When God called me out of my marriage, I was shocked. I realize now that God will never require a husband or wife to sustain long-term abuse. Such maltreatment is the abandonment of the non-believing spouse talked about in Galatians. In other words, God honors people over institutions, even marriage.
Abuse damages the true self of a victim and attacks their calling.
Because the nature of an abuser is mercurial, a victim often learns to become a moving target, morphing into whatever seems to allay the wrath of his or her torturer. The difficulty with this is the sufferer of the abuse becomes disconnected from their own self. Sometimes they dissociate because to be in their own mind and body is too painful. Other times they simply become social chameleons, becoming whatever the person they are with at the time wants them to be.
This disconnection from self derails their calling. They cannot be who God called them to be if they have no connection to themselves. We are called to be the most authentic self we can be in the presence of the God who created that self. When that sense of being is interrupted, growth is often stunted.
Abuse causes a deep sense of worthlessness and shame.
One of the most puzzling things about the nature of consistent abuse is that shame and worthlessness attaches to the victim and not the predator. But a deep conviction of one’s lack of value can really interrupt the ability to hear from or experience God. If one feels utterly unlovable, then believing in God’s limitless love can be difficult. Think of it this way. If you have a three prong plug and a two-prong outlet, accessing electricity can be difficult.
Sufferers of abuse have a difficult time believing in or experiencing love. Their two prong outlets simply don’t have room to accommodate God’s three-prong plug.
The good news is that more and more resources are available all the time to those who have been preyed upon by any kind of predator. The even better news is that God is close to the broken-hearted. I always find God to be a tender healer and restorer of my damaged self. The damages I sustained after twelve years of narcissistic abuse have not determined the course of my life.
But if you have sustained similar damages or know someone who has, remember that an intimate relationship with God may take some time to accomplish. And one of the truest things I learned in the healing process is that God sends us helpers if we ask. So seek out those who best represent His heart and they will help lead you back into love.