[Editor’s Note: God made us relational beings, to live interconnected lives. But we don’t always do that well. We want to explore how our faith shapes the way we love the people God gives us. Join us as we consider what Jesus has to say about #relationships.]
“You know you’re not part of God’s elect, right? Do you even know what that is? Doesn’t matter—God doesn’t love you, that’s all you need to know.” These were the sort of words that frequently escaped the mouth of my abusive ex-boyfriend.
In the beginning of our relationship, he would encourage me and tell me how inspired he was by my love for God. A couple months later, this had all changed. He was using the Word of God to his advantage by twisting what the Bible was saying and taking passages out of context. As he gained control over me, I grew convinced of the lies he was telling me.
This was spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse occurs when a person uses religious contexts to gain power and control over their victim. For example, in Christianity, we are commanded to love God and love others. One who wishes to twist this truth for their advantage could start saying that if you loved God, you would do xyz for them, because loving others means that you make him or her happy by giving them xyz.
John 15:13 writes, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Does this passage mean that we are to serve others by giving them all of our time and energy? Does this mean that even when the expectations of a friend are unreasonable, you are to meet all of them, even if it means losing your life in the process? Certainly not. This would be taking the passage out of its context, and using it in this way would be abuse.
The God of the Bible does call us to lay down our lives, but not just for any reason. This call is for the sake and glory of Christ alone. Christianity requires that we live humbly and in submission to the authority put above us, but again, not if that submission leads us to sin.
Spiritual abuse in the Christian faith is a problem because it leads one to think that they are doing something that honours God, while in fact, it simply gratifies the abuser.
As I grew to understand that what my ex-boyfriend was doing was spiritual abuse, in hindsight I now recognize some red flags:
- In his times of anger, he would tell me that I was not one of God’s chosen people. However, when things calmed down, he would lightly reassure me that God loves me. He chose his words based on what was convenient to him in that moment.
- He interpreted parts of Scripture in ways I’ve never heard from anyone else. When I thought I understood his interpretations, I would attempt to share these the way he did, but whenever I tried explaining, listeners would be quick to correct me. I didn’t know who to believe.
- He wasn’t willing to talk with other leaders in the church about what he was teaching me in private. He kept me isolated from others.
- Although he verbally said that he repented from his sins, it was clear that he was not willing to take steps towards actually changing his behaviour.
Abuse is serious, especially because it typically reoccurs without the abuser being willing to stop what they’re doing. I experienced these red flags over several months, and I had many conversations with my boyfriend about the confusion and hurt I felt, even bringing his housemate into it at times, but my situation did not improve.
If you suspect that you, or another person, are experiencing spiritual abuse, I would advise you to reach out to a trusted friend, other church leaders, a counsellor/therapist, or even the police, which is what I had to do in the end.
Although calling the police (using their non-emergency number) may seem extreme because spiritual abuse (similar to emotional abuse) is not a crime that warrants consequences by the authorities, it is just another way to seek clarity about whether you or someone you know is going through spiritual abuse. Personally, I found it beneficial to get a range of opinions and consult different friends, leaders, and people in authority. Though sometimes it was overwhelming to hear what different people had to say, it was helpful to hear their insights, while understanding that I still needed to discern how I personally wanted to move forward. (For free and confidential sources of help, please check out the end of the article.)
Although spiritual abuse can happen between anyone (romantic partners, church/ministry leaders, friends, family, etc.), victims are likely to be those who are newer Christians, or those who don’t have a strong understanding of how to read and understand the Bible. For me, I was an easy target because I had just started to read the Bible on my own, with little to no guidance in how it should be properly interpreted.
As for the abuser, these people tend to be insecure, needing to feel power and control over another person to make up for the lack of inner security. My abuser fit the saying that “hurt people hurt people.” It still makes me sad to know that he struggles to believe anyone really loves and cares for him.
Though abuse may seem obvious on paper, I’ve found that it’s often more subtle than one might think. I simply didn’t know whether anything was wrong or not with what my ex-boyfriend was saying, and this discouraged any questions about the possibility that I was in fact experiencing spiritual abuse. I was afraid of being accused of gossip and slander. I wanted to do the right thing, but I couldn’t figure it out on my own.
That’s why increasing awareness by having conversations about spiritual abuse is so vital in churches. Awareness helps protect Christians from those who use Christian teachings for their selfish gain. As we learn together what spiritual abuse may look like, we’ll also be able to care better for victims.
Experiencing spiritual abuse from my ex-boyfriend—who calls himself a Christian—continues to be a struggle even after I’ve left the relationship. It’s been difficult to relearn the passages that he once twisted for his advantage. Years have passed, and still there are a few places in the Bible that trigger my trauma: he would scream these words, telling me that I did not understand them.
But I know my God is greater than the hurt and lies I once experienced, and I will continue to trust in him as he works through me.
[Editor’s note: To hear more of Rebecca’s gripping story of spiritual abuse, please pick up a copy of But He Said He is a Christian from Amazon.ca.]
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please call 911.
Free and confidential help is available 24/7 through Crisis Services Canada (1-833 456-4566) and for those under the age of 29, through the Kids’ Help Phone (1-800-668-6868 or text CONNECT to 686868).
Both organizations also offer listings of local services: see Local Resources and Support and Resources Around Me. For those who are Indigenous, please also refer to the Hope for Wellness Help Line (1-855-242-3310).