When I was little, I had a fluffy, white, stuffed animal cat named Crystal. She was a favorite toy and a constant companion. I traveled with her, made up stories about her, and no matter where I was I could drift easily off to sleep if she was with me.
To this day, I vividly remember a nightmare I had about Crystal years ago. As I held her to my chest, she transformed into a hideous cartoonish villain. Her round blue eyes narrowed to red slits. Her sewn mouth opened to a jeering grin filled with venomous pointed teeth. Her soft white fur bristled and darkened, and her huggable body was all angles and arches as she took in a breath to hiss evilly at me.
I woke with a fright and kicked her from my bed. Gasping with fear, I struggled to disentangle dream from reality. It took a long time of suspiciously watching Crystal out of the corner of my eye—in the light of day, of course—before I trusted her enough to let her back onto my bed. That one frightening image was burned into my mind. It over-wrote years of happy memories, and my unquestioning trust that my favorite stuffed animal would always be gentle and comforting.
For some of us, our relationship with the Lord can have frightening parallels to my *melodramatic* childhood experience. We know that God’s character never changes,1 but for various reasons our understanding of God can undergo frightening or even traumatic change.
Unfortunately, a changed view of God can be forced on us—like a horrific nightmare we didn’t choose. In Scripture, God compares himself to a king, a father, a mother, a shepherd, a husband, and other roles present in our daily lives. If those types of people have harmed us in the past through abuse, neglect, or other distortions of their God-given relationships and leadership, they have changed our fundamental understanding of that role. And in turn, our understanding of who God tells us he is can be broken.
With enough time and repetition, our body and minds can be ‘rewired’ to hold that trauma. If we have been spiritually abused by a mentor or spiritual leader ‘in the name of God,’ the experience can traumatically alter our relationship with God himself. It can take a long time to heal—to sort out the truth of who God is from how he’s been falsely portrayed to us, to understand and believe that God is not dangerous.
I have recently walked through a dark valley of spiritual abuse. I worked in ministry under a boss and mentor I trusted with vulnerable parts of my spirit, and that trust was abused to take far-reaching control of many areas of my life—mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, occupational, social—all of it. No area of my life felt safe or untouched.
With some time and space after leaving the situation, my heart, soul, and body dropped out of the high-adrenaline survival mode I had been in, and the full impact of my experience shattered my spiritual life. This fallout is common to those who’ve survived spiritual abuse. In the same way that that one nightmarish image of a trusted comfort from my childhood over-wrote what my mind knew to be true, one experience with a bad shepherd can deeply damage a person’s faith in the Lord.
Victims of spiritual abuse experience the same repetitive cycle of abuse that a beaten wife or a rape survivor experience.2 They can struggle to sort out whether their experience was their own fault, and they can feel deeply grieved and violated, as well as immense shame and disorientation. The difference with spiritual abuse, is that what the survivor has experienced has been done to them in the name and under the ‘authority’ of God.
In cases of spiritual abuse, Scripture can be twisted to falsely condemn or control. The victims can feel strong guilt for disappointing their spiritual leader and breaking his or her rules, and often have been groomed to believe that such conduct is sinful even if scripture confirms no such thing. Victims of spiritual abuse fear leaving or speaking out against the abusive treatment because they’ve been manipulated to assume that no one will believe them. They fear that speaking out will lead to spiritual exile and rejection from their faith community. And they have to sort through all of these feelings often while they still can’t shake the internal and external accusations that control and keep them in fear.
At the beginning of my journey towards healing from spiritual abuse, my faith was shattered. Many times I was physically unable to open my Bible to seek comfort and truth in the Word of God that had so often been my most trusted anchor. I shook violently with anxiety in church settings and other religious gatherings. Prayer felt impossible because God felt dangerous. I couldn’t erase the angry, unsympathetic, vengeful, domineering, oppressive image of God that my abuser had modeled for me. Instead of the Good Shepherd I knew I would find in Scripture, all I could feel, believe, or imagine was a hired hand who looked after the sheep under his care only second after his own image and well-being.3
Whatever life experiences may have led you to feel this way, try as we might, the faith that we long to catch us, and the Good Shepherd we long to cradle us in our brokenness feels dangerous and unapproachable. Often no amount of logic or Scripture reading can enable us to muscle through what our nervous system screams at us is unsafe. When we try to pray or read our Bible, our bodies and minds can viscerally refuse, and we long to kick the danger away, just like I did after that childhood nightmare.
In all of our pain as we walk through spiritual abuse and the healing on its other side, we struggle to shake off the twisted ferocity of the ‘god’ our abusers have taught us relate to. This can be further complicated by God’s sense of justice that we see throughout Scripture. We know that his anger towards sin is fierce, and often our abuse has habituated us to assume that anger is directed at us. We struggle to reconcile those oppressive feelings with the mercy and goodness of God. What we cannot see, feel, or believe is that God is a good shepherd toward us—that he cares for our health and healing and rejoices when we turn to him.4
Though it can be hard to see the light at the end of that tunnel, it is faith in what we hope for5 that can slowly pull us through. We must desperately hold onto our memories of a good God who was a good shepherd to us, and pray it to be true.
And like the Good Shepherd that he is, the Lord will provide for our needs. He longs for us to draw near. He longs to bind up our wounds.6 He longs to sing and rejoice over us.7 We who have been spiritually abused fear a distorted image of God’s sense of justice. But the direction of that justice can be part of our healing: God cares most fiercely for the oppressed, the ‘lost sheep,’8 and the vulnerable.
The meekness of Jesus has been the greatest drive behind my healing: in his strength, he chooses to be gentle, and with his power, he chooses to protect. With all the power in the universe at his command, and all the needs and desires of the crowds clamoring for his attention, he chose to welcome humble children.9 His fierceness is often directed at spiritual leaders who mislead or complicated access to God for those under their care.10 At his angriest, when he flipped tables in the temple, he was furious that anyone would hinder those who wished to come to God in prayer.11 And he says that the consequences for anyone who causes someone young in their faith to stumble are worse than having a millstone tied around their neck and being thrown into the sea.12
If the spiritually abused are sheep who have been spooked and fear their Good Shepherd as a result, our God does not abandon us until we can return to the flock on our own. As a Good Shepherd, he responds to us with tender care. He comes to seek us out and restore us.13
And as he heals us and restores our faith, we often can look back as the Israelites did14 on our greatest stories of rescue. It is when we are lost and most desperately in need of a savior that our God acts in ways that teach us most to know and trust his good character. He gives us new memories that prove his goodness and trustworthiness.
If you are struggling through a season when God feels dangerous, I deeply sympathize, and I sit with you, brother or sister, in the grief and brokenness. I am immeasurably sorry for the harm you have experienced in the name of the Lord, and I pray that he will slowly and gently embrace you with his true character as you heal.
There is hope and help for your healing. If you are able, I encourage you to spend time reading the Gospels to learn how Jesus responds with gentleness and care to the people around him. Relearn his character.
A Christian counselor, especially a trauma-informed one, can help you immensely in your healing process. There is also much to be read and listened to that can help you understand your experience with spiritual abuse. Diane Langberg, K. J. Ramsey, and others are such trauma-informed counselors, and their writings and discussions in any media are helpful on these issues. Plenty of podcasts dive into these experiences as well, ranging from The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, which dissects a prominent instance of spiritual abuse, to episodes of the Allender Center Podcast, which discuss the mechanics, progression, and healing of spiritual abuse. The Common Hymnal and Porter’s Gate produce worshipful music that speaks specifically into these types of brokenness.
But even stories or books that obliquely reference gospel truths are helpful in your healing. The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and plenty of others can be instrumental in your healing as they can slowly walk you back to the divine realities of redemption, hope, and restoration through their reflections in the world and literature wholly separate from the Scriptures and contexts in which you were wounded.
Great healing can also come from Christian community around you. People who can speak these scriptural truths into your life, who gently share verses or stories with you when you can’t take them in on your own; brothers and sisters to walk with you and carry you to Jesus when you can’t move on your own—this is the Body of Christ that can surround you and be the hands and feet of Jesus to you as you slowly relearn that your Good Shepherd is not dangerous.
1 Hebrews 13:8
3 John 10:1-18, Ezekiel 34
4 Luke 15:3-7
5 Hebrews 11:1
6 Psalm 147:3, Ezekiel 34:16
7 Zephaniah 3:17
8 Matthew 9:36, John 10:1-18
9 Mark 10:13-16
10 Luke 11:37-54, Ezekiel 34
11 John 2:13-17, Matthew 21:12-13
12 Luke 17:1-2
13 Matthew 18:12-14, Ezekiel 34
14 Psalm 136