October is my month of talking about Spiritual Healing. This is part of my Year of Healing, in which I tackle different topics of healing each month. During October, I will introduce you to the topics of unhealthy spirituality, spiritual abuse and what it can look like, and recovering from spiritual trauma using blog posts, poems, and a podcast.
Walk the Straight-N-Narrow: A Poem about the Spiritual Abuse of Spiritual Authority
Walk the straight-n-narrow, They said,
And nothing will go awry.
Walk the straight-n-narrow,
and don’t ask the question why.
So I walked the straight-n-narrow,
my feet grew bloodied, torn.
I walked the straight-n-narrow,
Feeling forsaken and forlorn.
Don’t trust your inner feelings, They said,
and you will not go astray.
Don’t trust your inner feelings,
but walk the narrow way.
So I kept my feelings stifled,
My heart grew tired, worn,
I kept my feelings stifled,
with only more questions born.
Don’t question our authority, They said,
and your soul could still be saved,
Don’t question our authority,
or burn when you enter your grave.
But I questioned their authority,
and I laughed in bitter scorn.
I questioned their authority,
walked the wild, my heart to mourn.
In 2014, I participated in my very first 30 poems in 30 days challenge (a practice that I have done every year since then). This was the very first poem I wrote, because I was still in deep grief over what happened to my Kindred Spirit. I still had no words to really describe the spiritual wounding that I had received over the tragedy, but my creative spirit knew how to process it unbeknownst to me.
I wrote about spiritual trauma and spiritual abuse on my blog this week–but it’s been a long time in coming for me to be able to express what exactly I felt, why I mourned, and what I was healing from. It’s interesting how my poems from that period reflect a marked knowledge of what I had endured long before my logical brain had words with which to describe it. Looking back on this poem, I can see clearly the ramifications of the spiritual abuse I was mourning–especially the spiritual abuse of spiritual authority.
I will define these below:
Spiritual abuse: When a person controls others using God/religion/spirituality as an excuse to control, manipulate, punish, use violence against, sexually exploit, etc. A spiritual abuser is someone who will often quote the holy book of their religion, know the insides and outs of their religion, and use their knowledge to oppress people in their power by implementing God into their arguments for why power and abuse are somehow righteous and necessary. They will demean your own questions or weird “gut feelings” as to why something is off with their dynamic, and they will make you think you’re crazy. Until, that is, something truly sinister happens or their facade is exposed.
Spiritual authority: The term that many people use to keep people in line with their version of God/religion/doctrine. Spiritual authority can be a person or a whole community. When spiritual authority is viewed seriously, then ultimately the spiritual authority is unquestioningly in control and can use that power to rule others. Spiritual authority can be used in many scenarios, but ultimately it is a way to say that a person and/or community has a direct line to God and can speak into other’s lives in a intimate, personal manner–oftentimes leading to abuse, control, manipulation, and exploitation.
The “They” I am referring to in this poem were the many instances (even before my dear friend died inside a cult) where I had seen “spiritual authority” used to control and manipulate others. “They” refers to pastors I have known, boyfriends, friends, and others who have been abusive using spirituality as a tool.
I could go into numerous stories, but for the sake of time…I will just highlight just a few examples from my life and other people’s lives.
Spiritual Abuse of Spiritual Authority Stories
Story 1: Boyfriend/Relationship
A boyfriend I had in college used his “spiritual authority” as a male to constantly dominate and demean me, telling me that because he was the leader, he would be following his dreams and I would be expected to get in line by supporting him. There couldn’t be room for 2 people exploring their passions, so he automatically used the Bible and religion as a weapon to tell me my dreams of writing or working in publishing were a waste, and because he was a male, God had given him priority. He constantly demeaned my intelligence, laughed at me, pushed me up against things in a subtly physically abusive manner to show he was more powerful than me, and got angry when I questioned him or was right about anything.
(I honestly didn’t think anything of this at the time: I believed men were superior by God’s design, and I was willing to sacrifice my own dreams (and callings) for what I considered “love.” A woman was, after all, only really something when she was with a man and supporting him.)
Story 2: Cult/Boyfriend/Husband
In Beth’s (my Kindred Spirit’s) cult, the males had a strict “biblical” policy that males were the spiritual authority over females, and that women should submit to them. Beth told me about an instance where a male in her group had ordered her to do something simply because she was standing there (“Clean up!”). She said that at first she felt weird about it, but because of her husband and the other’s holiness and closeness to God, it must be right to submit.
When I visited Beth in her home the last time I ever saw her in her natural environment before she died, she had to ask her then boyfriend (later husband) permission to go out and have coffee with me. He was clearly uncomfortable that I was there and not very happy that she was leaving the group to hang out with an “outsider.” Beth clearly did not have peace–deep down, her gut knew something was wrong– but she had learned to squelch that because of all the control and manipulation going on. And she was in love.
(In this situation, readers must understand that I still believed in the concept of unquestioning submission to “spiritual authority” in men and these red flags didn’t jump out at me–which is scary to think about in my own life now, as I have had spiritually abusive boyfriends before).
Story 3: “Prophetic” Friend with No Boundaries
I once knew a guy friend that would show up at our house (a house of 3 females) and spend hours lecturing us on his biblical, prophetic giftings and how special he was and how he heard things from God. He once sat for hours in our apartment talking about how women were ultimately not supposed to be leaders or lead men, and that our genuine questions about some of those “biblical” principles were demonic. He point blank told me that if I believed in equality for women, that God would not use me. (Which has proven to not be the case at all, as this blog is just one example of the way God has used me to help people.)
He told me once that I better make sure I married the right man, because once a woman was married she had no call for divorce (other than, of course, outright infidelity on the man’s part) and he felt sorry for women who got in bad situations–but God would judge them for leaving a man. He would stay talking at our house until like 4am in the morning sometimes, never once considering that all of us probably wanted to sleep in peace. And we were too polite at the time (a common issue women deal with) to really tell him no.
He would get angry and super sensitive when any of us tried to set boundaries with him (like, you know, NOT wanting him at our home at 3am in the morning). When I wouldn’t text him back soon enough, he’d send me crazy texts in all caps about replying to him sooner. He kept “speaking” into our lives–telling us he’d had “a word from God” about things we should/shouldn’t be doing. At the time, it bothered me–but I never really considered how strangely abusive and boundary-pushing his “friendship” was with us until I moved away. Yikes. That’s what’s so scary–is that because of his maleness and his adamancy that he had some special link with God, it felt harder to push him away because–I mean, maybe he was special?
(He ended up writing me a 4 page email after I left telling me how much he felt that we were so similar and “kindred spirits”–which we weren’t–and basically telling me how I should run my life and what I should believe, etc., and critiquing/criticizing a bunch of things I’d written on my blog, which he had thoroughly read. It as a bit stalkerish at that point and made me very uncomfortable.)
Story 4: Pastor and Sexual Harassment
I once knew a married pastor that would literally stand at a corner of the church room and stare at me during worship services in a lustful way that made me extremely uncomfortable. He once came up to me and touched me in a weird way, playing with my hair in a suggestive manner. I kept away from him. He later had an affair with someone in the congregation, and while most of the congregation was shocked, I was not surprised in the least. I left the church because several pastors there felt very unsafe and were pushing boundaries in weird ways (both with me and others).
I tell this story because it was very subtle–and there are worse examples of pastors and spiritual abuse than my story–but the unhealthiness was there. Things don’t always have to be over the top for things to be toxic. I knew I had been justified in my worries, because that man was using his “spiritual authority” as a way to get around moral issues and exploit women in the congregation. This is an all too common scenario in churches, unfortunately.
Story 5: Prayer, Dreams, and Demons with Roommates
I know of a living situation of a group of four girls. Three of the girls decided they didn’t like the 4th, and so they accused her of being demonic and that she was full of demons and was affecting the house. One of the girls claimed she had a dream with a demon in it, and the demon had the face of the 4th girl. So the girls “prayed about it” and and basically kicked the 4th girl out because she was the cause of the “demonic presence” in the house.
All because they just didn’t like her–but they couldn’t have real conflict or real conversations over what was going on, and instead they masked everything under a spiritual veil that made their decision completely legit and unquestioning in their eyes. I mean, when you bring in the “spiritual authority” of prayer, dreams, and demons into the mix, you can’t really argue about a choice–now can you?
(I’ve met this girl, and she is as far from a demonic person as you can get–sweet, kind, and caring. But it caused her true pain and confusion and led to a lot of self doubt and hurt.)
Most of these stories are about male spiritual authority abuse–because let’s face it, male have historically been the ones in “spiritual charge,” but I do want to be clear that anyone can be a spiritual abuser. From an over-controlling mother who “prays” and “hears from God” a lot to try and manipulate your career decisions, to a friend who truly thinks they have to marry a person who is unhealthy because “God told them to,” spiritual abuse and toxicity can happen in a lot of areas.
No matter what your gender or walk of life–power makes people hungry, and spiritual power can be the hungriest kind of power for a person because it has the backing of God. It’s final. No question about it. “Do THIS or YOU WILL BURN if you don’t!!” or “DO THIS because I’M GOD’S PROPHETIC MESSENGER!” or “DO THIS because I PRAYED!” or “DO THIS because DEMONS!”–all of these are dangerous mentalities and can be a really, really unhealthy sign in a person/community.
Yet still, many people are afraid to question someone/a community in “spiritual authority,” because the stakes seem that much higher. I mean, they’re closer to God, right? I could go to hell, right? I could lose my reputation, right? People won’t understand my actions, right? I’ll be seen as a rebel, right?
When people see someone/a community as a “spiritual authority,” they are more likely to trust, admire, and respect that person/community. They will be more likely to be afraid of a fall out or ruining that person’s/community’s reputation or to be seen as a questioner of God–because that person starts getting associated with God. Which, if you really think about it, is super, super dangerous no matter if a “spiritual authority” figure/community is nice or not.
NO ONE IS GOD. Period. Questions and concerns are right, doubt and conflict of beliefs are okay, because they keep power-hungry people in check. No person/community is absolutely right on every single thing–including religion, spirituality, or God.
No one should unquestioningly dictate your spiritual life and lay down the law for you. That’s for you to decide. You ultimately must think for yourself and do the hard work of learning how to discern what is good for yourself, how to connect with God, because no one has the ultimate authority in your spiritual life but YOU AND GOD. It’s called free will for a reason, and you have to exert it or you will be duped.
Thinking for oneself, and really doing the hard work to listen, discern, and connect with God, is hard. Most people sort of want a free pass, to have others think for them and tell them what to do. Most people are so afraid of really journeying on a personal spiritual path of freedom that they just want the shackles, the rules. Most people are afraid of God, ultimately–and it seems so much easier to just have a nice religion to settle into. They just want ANSWERS, dammit. Even if the answers ultimately ring false and lead to doubt and despair, control and manipulation. Not doing the hard work to be actively spiritually independent, smart, and discerning can lead to a variety of toxic situations.
And spiritually abusive people bank on this, because it’s that laziness or fear are keeps them in control. Spiritually abusive people are looking for easy targets, for devoted followers, for growing numbers. And they will do anything to get these things, because they just want the fame, glory, and power at the end of the day. At the end of the day, they want to be God.
(For further reading on toxic leaders, I have a blog post called Leaders & Leadership: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.)
Have you seen people overstep their spiritual authority? Have you done so? What problems has it caused?
What can you do to recognize spiritual abuse in your life or community?