Recently, in reviewing A Church Called Tov, I said that spiritual abuse can be like living in a bad dream—not only because you can’t believe this is happening, but because none of the people you are going to for help are functioning as they should. The whole setting is off and you are trying to make any sense of it. Tov was excellent in introducing spiritual abuse, identifying the culture behind it, and helping the church build a culture that nurtures goodness. Wade Mullen wrote the Foreword. Mullen’s book Something’s Not Right focuses more on helping you decode what’s going on in this bad dream. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried dream interpretation, but Mullen is an expert in spiritual abuse interpretation. He wants to help those under spiritual abuse decode the hidden tactics behind it that are meant to disorient and manipulate so that you can free yourself from its power. He says,
Freedom comes first by understanding, and understanding means having the language to identify and talk about your situation.
I can attest to how true this is. You can’t navigate through abuse if you can’t name it and articulate what is actually going on. And you don’t really know what’s going on when you first encounter it. Most of us don’t think like abusers, and so we wonder, “What is wrong with me?” As we try to grasp what is true, the whole experience is crazy-making. And abuse is such a strong word. We know how to identify physical abuse and sexual abuse, but what is spiritual abuse, and is it really that damaging? Mullen says,
When someone treats you as an object they are willing to harm for their own benefit, abuse has occurred, and that person has become an abuser. Some of the worst forms of abuse are psychological.
Abuse is all about gaining and retaining power at the expense of another. This was strange for me to identify at first, how abusers want to take power from others, because I don’t think of myself and my relationships in terms of power. And besides, spiritual leaders already have power. But Mullen is right. Abusers rob you of your very agency, and as Mullen puts it, take the pen of your life story.
When I first encountered spiritual abuse, abuse from those in spiritual authority, I didn’t understand why it was so incredibly painful. I thought myself tougher than that. Logically, I knew it was wrong. I’m a fighter. A truth-seeker. Why was I so weak? Why couldn’t I get over it? Why was it affecting me so physiologically? My body was weary, anxious, sick-feeling, depressed. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t read, my brain was foggy, I was barely paying attention to what my own kids were talking to me about. It consumed me. I say this all in past tense, but it still continues. I remember googling about what spiritual abuse is and reading about how traumatic it is because it is such a deep violation of trust by those entrusted to protect and care for you. I’m so thankful for these books out now that can help educate us better.
Abusers deceive. I’ve heard so many say, “I see that this thing he did is wrong, but he’s such a nice guy. He loves the Lord and dedicates his life to him.” Abusers can be very nice guys. They even deceive themselves. As the Dixie Chicks put it, “you know you lie best when you lie to you.” What many do not understand is the pattern of abuse. And they don’t see that abusers use language and good behavior to deceive and ingratiate a whole community. Mullen talks about the image management they use to present impressions about who they are and hide their secrets of their abusive nature. They depend on a “performance team,” who are often manipulated as well to help control information, presenting all that’s good about the abuser and deflecting from or hiding “disrupting information”—“facts that threaten the audience’s image of the abuser.”
Abuse begins with language. Mullen shows how abusers use charms such as flattery, favors, and alliances to manipulate others to be more likely to comply with them. It seems as though they are being helpful, stepping in where others will not, caring about the things you care about, when really they are taking control. They are taking the pen.
Mullen is strong in his description of how abusers dismantle both your inner and outer world, often without you even recognizing it. They dismantle your sense of self, “getting us to distrust our own minds, the abuser bends trust away from what is trustworthy and toward the abuser.” They try to rename you in a sense, taking your self-respect. “A person who believes they have the right to redefine you will also feel the freedom to humiliate you.” In all this, they dismantle your agency.
The ingredients of trauma include confusion and captivity. Freedom from trauma, therefore, requires truth and empowerment.
I’ve shared before that for me, the hardest part of abuse is when the abuser, often through the supporters they’ve built, begin using their tactics on those you care about. They’ve already turned the knife by getting some whom you thought cared about you to minimize, neutralize, and give credence to their false narrative. But when they go after any who hear you, see you, stand up for you, bear with you, fight for you, and you have to see them get the treatment you’ve been bearing for so long, it makes you want to quit speaking truth. It further isolates you. This is dismantling your outer world.
Isolation is key to the success of abuse: as victims are severed from sources of external help, the abuser ensures that, should the victims ever decide to confront the abuser or appeal for help, no one will be there to hear their call.
Man, I have seen that in many, many cases of abuse. This is how abusers exist. They abuse because they can. There is a community that enables them. They have supportive relationships, institutional protection and help, and many on the sidelines who do see past their manipulation but remain silent. I will say this until I am blue in the face.
Mullen discusses tactics of silencing, including intimidation and pleas for sympathy, compassion, obligation, injustice, or even a threat of self-harm. And there is the plea of the secret weapon, what Mullen calls the human shield: pleas for their family. This one is especially powerful because no one wants the family to pay the price of the abuser. But it’s important to see the truth clearly: it’s the abuser who is hurting their family by their actions. We can try to care for and minister to the family, but we aren’t the ones harming them. And we aren’t helping them by keeping secrets.
The winds of deception are fiercest and most destructive when the truth is close at hand.
There’s so many tactics that I just can’t cover. I’m just skimming here. I did want to mention how strong Mullen’s chapter on concessions is. Concessions are faux apologies when an abuser is exposed and needs to do crisis management—“a tactic used to disarm a threat.”
The problem with that, of course, is that the shame then remains squarely on the shoulders of the victims.
He breaks down the anatomy of a concession, contrasted with a true apology. This is very important information that we should all learn.
And in closing, Mullen has a good chapter on what to do now in confronting and healing from abuse. I want to emphasize his point that abuse is a community concern. When confronted with the truth, we have to decide whether to pursue it, deny it, or ignore it. “Our response reveals whose voices we honor more.” It is way easier to believe the lie than confront abuse.
People who choose to remain neutral are giving safe passage to lies.
Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.Elie Wiesel
Bottom line is that this book is very helpful for victims of abuse. But all church leaders need to learn this. I love that three books are just now being released, hitting three angles of spiritual abuse head-on. Church leaders, buy and read them all—for the sake of the sheep that you are entrusted to protect. Nurture a culture of goodness in your church. Learn to spot, decode, and confront the tactics of abuse and the abusers who employ them. Study the dynamics of power that you operate under. I will also be reading and reviewing Diane Langberg’s upcoming book on the latter.
Confronting abuse is seeing it when it wants you to look away; making sense of what you are facing when it wants you to accept confusion; opposing it when it wants you to remain converted; speaking when it wants you to be silent.