Spiritual Abuse

I do not know Ray Ortlund, or anything about his beliefs (so I am not endorsing him), but I came across a very interesting article by him today entitled What It Means To Be Truly Reformed. He believes in Reformed theology, and is discussing how even the word of God can be manipulated and twisted so that it is no longer true. If we are adding to or subtracting from the Word, then we are changing it. Many abusive churches do this, and as Ortlund says, it can even become a club used to hurt others.

I really appreciate how he closes the article, which is the excerpt I highlighted below. These four excerpts draw out the pieces I believe really apply to disillusioned and abused believers, but I encourage you to read the whole article.

Theologically, I am Reformed. Sociologically, I am simply a Christian—or at least I want to be. The tricky thing about our hearts is that they can turn even a good thing into an engine of oppression. It happens when our theological distinctives make us aloof from other Christians. That’s when, functionally, we relocate ourselves outside the gospel and inside Galatianism.

But no matter how well-argued our position is biblically, if it functions in our hearts as an addition to Jesus, it ends up as a form of legalistic divisiveness.

In other words, “When Christians, whatever the label or badge or shibboleth, start pressuring you to come into line with their distinctive, you know something’s wrong. They want to enhance their own significance by your conformity to them: ‘See? We’re better. We’re superior. People are moving our way. They are becoming like us. We’re the buzz.'” What is this, but deep emotional emptiness medicating itself by relational manipulation? This is not about Christ. This is about Self.

Whatever divides us emotionally from other Bible-believing, Christ-honoring Christians is a “plus” we’re adding to the gospel. It is the Galatian impulse of self-exaltation. It can even become a club with which we bash other Christians, at least in our thoughts, to punish, to exclude and to force into line with us. What unifies the church is the gospel. What defines the gospel is the Bible. What interprets the Bible correctly is a hermeneutic centered on Jesus Christ crucified, the all-sufficient Savior of sinners, who gives himself away on terms of radical grace to all alike. What proves that that gospel hermeneutic has captured our hearts is that we are not looking down on other believers but lifting them up, not seeing ourselves as better but grateful for their contribution to the cause, not standing aloof but embracing them freely, not wishing they would become like us but serving them in love (Galatians 5:13).

Ray Ortlund’s blog, Christ Is Deeper Still.


The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (Psalm 23:1-5)

One of the battles I fought in my journey of disillusionment was that of spiritual confusion. Often spiritual concepts didn’t make sense to me and I would try to sort things out but my mind honestly could not sort through the issues and come a place or peace. Sometimes people thought I was causing the issues by not trusting or by being controlling but spiritual confusion is a true condition that we can suffer from which keeps us from thinking, hearing, and receiving clearly.

I have already written about how we can have power over our thoughts. I have learned two scriptural truths that help us to overcome spiritual confusion. The first is found in Psalm 23:5. The passages says “You anoint my head with oil”. The oil that is referred to is likely what shepherds used to care for their sheep. They placed oil around the mouths of their sheep to prevent flies from laying eggs in the moist areas around their mouths. If the eggs were laid they would drive the sheep mad as the eggs hatched. Sheep would bang their heads on things and do anything they could to find relief from the infestation. Spiritual confusion is an infestation we can experience. The enemy lays eggs of confusion and disillusionment causing us to feel cloudy, confused, depressed, frustrated, and in discord with others in the body of Christ. We need the Lord’s oil not just around our mouths like the sheep but on our head, on our brain and spirit to keep us from being infested with the enemies lies.

Once we have that oil on our head and spirit there is another tool we can use to protect us even further, the helmet of salvation.

In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:16-17)

The helmet of salvation goes on over our head. It protects us by giving us assurance that we are saved. With the protection of the helmet we can stand firm knowing that our heads are protected from attack. It has already been made clean and clear by the work of Christ, and the helmet protects us from doubting and faltering in our faith about that. It keeps our head clear from further attack.

Spiritual confusion is a debilitating condition. It locks us in darkness, confusion, and despair. Christ came though to heal the sick, to save the lost, to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and to release prisoners from darkness.

His oil can set us free. His helmet can keep us free.

These quotes are from Religiously Transmitted Diseases by Ed Gungor. He describes a belief and action disease that exists within the church as Elder-brother disease. The name of this disease comes from the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Gungor states that people, especially leaders with this disease is the key reason people are growing to love God but hate the church.

When those of us who are older in Christ see the failure of others and God’s unwarranted and incautious restoration of them, His kindness, forgiveness, and love often seem irrational and even unfair. We don’t understand the Father. How different this story would have read if the prodigal had run into the elder brother first. I am certain he would have turned back to the pigs. I have witnessed folks being written off by the elder brothers. And for good reason – the prodigals acted improperly and hurt their fellow believers. And now they are labeled. Labels are always paralyzing. Has anyone ever labeled you a “misfit” or “rebellious” or “inconsistent” or “untrustworthy”? If so, you probably agree that it wouldn’t be so bad if the labels were said to your face and the accuser actually committed to helping you work through your stuff. But more often than not, the labels are a kind of insulation between you and others. They are reminiscent of the “kick me” signs people used to stick on your back in grade school. People may be courteous to your face, but you can see it in their eyes: Something’s up. And when you walk away, you know you have about as much a chance of belonging as a snowball in hell. It’s easy to think about going back to the pigs under such conditions. At least pigs don’t reject you. (p.189)

There are millions of failed believers still in the pigpen because the elder brothers have positioned themselves at the doorposts of the church. These self-righteous boys and girls are keeping prodigals away. The protective, performance-based view of the elder brother is a spiritual disease, and it is the biggest cause of the “dechurched” of America – those who still love God but hate the church. Let me leave you with a scary thought: the elder brother still runs most religious organizations and institutions. Perhaps that is why most organized churches are losing their voice in our culture. (p.197)

I have talked with many who have experienced elder-brother disease, and I have seen leaders who have this disease. It is crippling to the church, and is not representing the true heart of God. I applaud Gungor for bringing this issue to light, but now we need to discover how to combat this disease and prevent further spread of this disease.

I received information today about the “charges” from my last church. The information still is not concrete with specific actions that I did and how that was sinful, but instead are vague generalities about the pastors’ struggle to communicate with me and how he had heard from others in the church that I was sharing that there were communication difficulties between us. So I have been charged with 1) lack of submission 2) spreading discord.

The counselor who communicated this to me has again asked for specifics from the elders about who I spoke to and what discord I spread but as it took eight months to reach this point I doubt we will get anything more. They have stated that I am not repentant and that my communication to others about what has occurred is clear evidence of that. They are very upset that I have expressed to them that others who I have turned to for counsel feel I have been abused, and that there are unhealthy and inappropriate things in how the church is lead and how I have been treated. Those are not my statements, but have come from others. The leaders will not communicate with me directly, but they do not want me communicating to others to process through things, seek input about what I have done and how I can change, or even share my story and glorify God.

I again struggle to know where that line is between sharing openly and transparently about our journey and story, and not spreading discord. It seems like it comes down to the heart that it is shared with. If we are sharing with a heart to hurt others or slanders their name then that is wrong, but if we are seeking to be open and transparent it seems like that is honest and can be used to help others grow and heal. I recently heard someone express that we are called to be open and vulnerable, but we don’t need to be naked (share everything).

Does anyone have thoughts about what is appropriate to share and in what settings?

I don’t want to hurt anyone or cause disunity but it doesn’t seem right that I never am able to share about my story either. I want to glorify God and be obedient to him in all I do, and I feel like my story could bring hope and healing to some others who have walked through similar paths of pain and disillusionment.

One of the struggles I have wrestled through during my recovery over the last five years has been the idea of revenge or retaliation. It isn’t something I have come out and shared with others. It isn’t something I feel good about at all! It is that deep dark secret I have tried to hide because it shows me the depth of my heart and how sick it is. I have carried shame and guilt for these feelings. I have felt so despicable for the thoughts, but I have also had to come to terms with the fact that my feelings were real, and if I did not deal with them now they would just show up later in some other form.

What do I mean by revenge in the context of my spiritual abuse and struggle with church leaders?

I have been tempted to want to make them pay for what they did to me. I have wanted to tell others how I have been wronged in a manner that hurt and slandered the leaders.  I have wanted to smash windows, flatten tires, destroy property, slap them in public, or pour a drink over their head. The week I was suicidal I even thought about where I could die so they would find the body and feel the guilt over my death.

First, know that I feel horrible for every thought that went through my heart and mind. The thoughts were wrong! They were sinful! They hurt my relationship with those from my past church and they hurt my relationship with God. I have repented of those thoughts and have worked with God over why I ever even had to experience the thoughts and feelings, because while the world might tell me it is okay to think and feel them, just not to act on them (some would say it is even okay to act on them), I don’t feel that God’s word agrees. Yes I had been traumatized and hurt. Yes there are things others did that I consider wrong, but I did things wrong also. I can’t cast a stone at them knowing the sin and issues in my own life.

I haven’t known what to do with these thoughts and feelings though.

They were strongest at first. I was in so much pain from how I was mistreated that pain was all I could think of. My pain, wanting to give them pain. I knew it was wrong but I still thought it and felt it. I would try to force the feelings to go away. That doesn’t work. I would deny it was there. That doesn’t work. I would try to express it through writing or some other means. That at best was a temporary relief. I would lay awake at night feeling sick because of the thoughts. I would catch myself during the day wishing something bad upon someone.

Ultimately I had to deal with my heart. I had to make a choice to forgive. I had to make a choice to love. Even if they never spoke to me again I had to forgive them for me. My pain was eating me up inside and costing me tremendously. I had to find freedom because I was trapped in pain. I had to let go and surrender my right to get even. I had to surrender every vindictive, vial, cruel, hateful, evil, malicious, angry, painful, unloving thought and feeling.

It was hard! Very, very hard!

Today, I don’t live with the burden of revenge in my heart. I do not feel the hatred, but honestly feel love, compassion, grace, and forgiveness. That doesn’t mean that I don’t experience moments where my heart wants to deceive and betray me again, especially if some new negative aspect arises. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still have to fight for forgiveness and love. It is a choice.

Every day I choose to love, I choose to forgive, I choose to hope for reconciliation.

The reconciliation likely will never come as the elders have cut me off from any further contact with the pastor, and this week they were supposed to finally present the charges against me  (that should have been given eight months ago), but that didn’t happen. However, because I have chosen love and because I have hope in Christ and the Gospel I have hope that some day their hearts will be drawn to the Lord and they will forgive.

Revenge …. retaliation … hatred … pain … … … I have given them up and am trying to live with my eyes on the Lord.

At the beginning of the year many people make resolutions to do something differently in the coming year. Often these are made with good intentions but are not followed through upon. Another thing that often accompanies the change over of the year is looking at what has occurred during the past year and the marking of milestones.

Identifying and marking milestones is something that can be very important in the recovery process. It helps you to identify that you have made steps forward toward healing and away from unhealthy actions or thoughts. It does not matter if they are big milestones or small, but identifying them can help find a sense of accomplishment, success, and hope.

How you mark milestones is up to you. You may want to keep a list of them, celebrate them, record them in a journal, share them with close friends, reinforce them through some reward, or something even more creative. The important thing is to notice them! On my journey it has not always been a milestone of doing something, often it has been marking a milestone of the absence of something such as no more nightmares, no more fear of being in a church, and making it 4 hours/24 hours/2 weeks without crying. Sometimes when the negative aspects of our grief, sorrow, and journey go away, when the temptations to drink, sleep, or cry disappear, or when our anger, bitterness, hurt, and broken-heart begin to heal we feel better and do not even realize it. Take the time and make the effort to recognize those milestones. They truly are important so that you can see how far you have come, and you can stop looking at how far you still have to go.

In the Old Testament it was common to bring together a pile of stones to mark a spot of rememberance and to identify the location of something important. It was a symbol of what had occurred. You also might want to create a ritual of something like this. Place a stone in a dish or jar every time you can mark a milestone. You might want to use money instead so you can purchase something or do something to reward yourself. Even keeping a tally on the wall or in a journal can give a physical action to marking the milestone which then gives it more significance and helps lend itself to a feeling of success.

You are on a journey, but there a journey has many things to see, do, visit, accomplish, and note along the way. Don’t pass by all the scenic overlooks and picturesque spots. Take a moment to celebrate you have made it this far and all you have to do it make it to the next milestone before you get to celebrate again!

Today is such a mixture and it is only 10:45 AM.

  1. Today is the anniversary of my abuse five years ago. It has been a day of dread for the last three years, but I approached it with joy, hope, and promise today knowing that God has changed my heart and life. I have been so excited for this anniversary because I knew that if it passed without dread that it was proof of Christ’s changes in my life. I was greeted by an amazing full arch rainbow that brought me such joy of God’s promises to us.
  2. I started with a quiet time today where I found a level of understanding and surrender of my heart, soul, mind, and strength unlike anything I have known before. It was an amazing time with the Lord and I came away feeling completely different.
  3. I went to coffee shop to work and my old pastor came in and approached me. Through a very tense conversation he told me it is clear I have not changed, that I have a divisive heart that is causing disunity in his church because I have refused to stop trying to resolve issues after he has told me to have no further contact with anyone at his church. I have tried to resolve things for seven months and he claims I keep twisting things and cutting off communication. We finally ended up with a counselor on the phone speaking to each of us separately (although the pastor overheard my entire part of the conversation).
  4. Now I stand before God again asking him to show me how my heart is not submitted, how I am divisive and disunifying. If there is sin in my life I want it out now! I am done walking this path and I want to change, no matter the cost. If these are things in my life I am blind to them and desperately need help to see them. I have already contacted my new pastor for accountability and support because I do not want to repeat any of these actions. I know I am a sinner and need the Lord’s transformation in my life.

I don’t know what the rest of the day will hold, but even through the difficulty this morning I am still able to stand with confidence that I have changed, that the Lord has transformed my life, and I know I still have work to do in my life but I know that I am on the right path to making that happen. My immediate reaction was to turn to Him in repentance and to ask for him to change me. I desire His truth, His perspective of my life, and obedience to His standards above all else. I wouldn’t have done that in the past and I am so joyful to know that I am making new choices, choices of  hope, redemption, and love.

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