I have listened to this video of Wade Mullen on How to Spot Spiritual Abuse over a handful of times since last fall. It has helped keep me sane, helped me remember what is real and true and right. I wanted to share it because I think it will help many others. Mullen talks about the crazy-making questions those under spiritual abuse are asking themselves:
Is something wrong with Me?
Am I the only one who sees this?
How do I get out of this?
“There are times in our lives when abusers take hold of the pen of our story, and when that happens you fear turning another page because you don’t know what the next paragraph or the next chapter might hold. You’ve lost control of your own narrative and it is now in the hands of others.”
“An important step to recovery is acquiring an ability to makes sense of what happened to you. To begin to chart a course between the false reality constructed by the abuser and what is actually true…to move from confusion to clarity …from captivity to freedom….the truth has the power to help us to that.”
But what if recognizing and telling that truth is used as another knife against you? Mullen did his doctoral research on how evangelical organizations manage the impressions that others are forming of them in the wake of an image-threatening event.
In the video he reads from Jeremiah 5: 26-28 to help spot the deception of a spiritual abuser, saying that deceit reveals itself in language. Spiritual abusers are not as easy to spot as we’d like to think. Truth tellers often hear about the pro-social behaviors of their abusers, all the great things they do for the community, and how they are nice people. They can’t possibly be abusive. Mullen quotes from Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, “You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots.” It doesn’t come like that. He says look at the language. It begins in the language.
Jeremiah gives us the image of a trap. Mullen describes the spiritual abuser as a thief, “someone looking to deceptively gain possession of something they do not have.” I encourage you to listen to the deceptive methods used by the language and actions of spiritual abusers.
“The abuser transports fear in packages marked love.”
Something that I have really learned is that spiritual abusers need a community to enable them. They not only use their methods of deception on the victim of their abuse, but on the whole community that supports them. Communities are often ingratiated and manipulated by the tactics Mullen identifies. And the people who could do something in spotting and confronting spiritual abuse but do not significantly add to the trauma of the victim.
One method of spiritual abuse that helped me make sense of what I am going through is called dismantling: “cutting you off from your external supports while humiliating and debasing your identity, your inner world. The abuser constructs a world for the victim and asks them to trust in that world alone.”
We need to ask, what is the culture of our community? What is encouraged, and what is tolerated? I, for one, love to joke around. I appreciate good sarcasm even. I have no problem with regular poking, even at my own expense, if it is good natured. But we know when it isn’t good natured. And we know when a line is crossed even when we use humor to point out a critique. Mullen talks about how it can be used to create an exploitation of trust—”bending trust away from those who are trustworthy and toward the abuser. Laughter is a key indicator that humiliation is taking place. Victims are set up not only to be humiliated in that moment but to more readily accept similar attacks from those in their life who have been conditioned to see them as occupying a lowly status.” I have seen how this is used in a community to condition others to readily accept and participate in further humiliation.
Spiritual abusers love to be gatekeepers, adding additional, extra-biblical boundaries. They may begin as invisible fences, but the victims pay for it when they are crossed. And there is a loss of agency. “The abuser constructs a new world with a newly constructed reality, actions are dictated and controlled with increasing scrutiny and highly invasive rules….The spiritually abusive person creates an environment where you are constantly looking over your shoulder, always fearing what will happen if you step out of line.” Spiritual abusers “set themselves up as the safe zone and everyone else is dangerous…The power in the deception is in the fear it produces…The spiritual abuser is a con artist. They con…by exploiting fear and uncertainty.”
The Role of the Community
I encourage you to listen to the whole video. But the hardest thing to make sense of for many is the role of the community. The community themselves may not be abusive people. We could be talking about the friends of the abuser, the leadership in the church of the abuser, or the organization and alliances they are a part of. They are even harder to confront because it’s hard to take responsibility for being complicit in abuse when you yourself hate abuse. It’s hard to see you’ve been manipulated, you’ve enabled, or that you’ve misaligned your priorities at the cost of others. But there has to be a community that “cooperates with the abuser to maintain the performance needed to keep the structure intact.”
I have quoted Elie Wiesel over and over as it speaks to the pain of this dynamic: “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.” The silence is painful enough. The victim then has to decide whether they are going to speak out. The community has a defining moment with how they respond. They will then become the spiritual abuser if they see the truth-teller as a threat to the community.
“The abusive system then assaults the external and internal worlds of the victim in the same way the abusive individual has. It’s as if the victim has been handed over by the abuser to a team of abusers to begin the dismantling process all over again. These attacks put the truth-teller on the defensive. They’re now the ones who are under investigation and scrutiny and are backed into a corner asked to give an account for their behavior. And one of the most difficult moments for a survivor is when their story, finally told to the leader of the organization with the expectation that they will be met with light, is instead met with darkness. And they discover that the leaders are prepared to take the victim through the same process that the abuser has taken them through, only it’s starting all over.”
Our Secrets are Too Heavy to Bear
Spiritual abusers thrive in darkness. The victims carry their secrets and “a desire to be free from the burden of secrecy is repeatedly met with the fear of what will happen if the truth is revealed.” It takes courage to bring these secrets to light. And it takes a lot of wisdom to try and do this is a godly way through all the pain. It takes dependence on the Holy Spirit and leaning on the presence of Christ in their suffering. Truth-telling is “motivated with the hope of finally being free of the burden of secrecy and out of a concern that others are being harmed as well. Yet many experience at that moment a profound betrayal, when those that they tell demand that they continue to carry the secrets. Fears become a reality and hope is shattered as the organization cooperates with the abuser in their attempt to keep the victim silent. A refusal to believe and respond with justice, care, and compassion…they ask the victim to bear new secrets making the oppression even weightier as they leave carrying the truth not only about the abuse, and not only the truth about the abuser, but now the truth about the telling—the fact that they told someone, and also the truth about who they told. So the victim tells with the hope of being free of these dark secrets but tragically leaves carrying more of them.”
Do you see how this can rock a person’s sense of justice and love?
Mullen concludes, “We must begin to grasp the harm that is caused not just by the abuser but by those who fail to act when they become aware of the abuse. Our churches are only safe when victims are free of such secrets.”