What is Spiritual Abuse?

Nov 04, 2022

The spiritual life is the real life. Everything we see comes from the unseen.

When we see a big skyscraper, it could have started with a little girl who used to like playing with blocks. As she grew up, she developed her interest in design and building. She went to school to study how buildings are made and then became an architect. Now we all see this building, can go inside it, live in it, work in it, and use it. But it started from something unseen by the rest of us.

Spiritual life has to do with both the relational component of ourselves and with the way God created things to work. It is the life we can’t see, the life of development within ourselves, it is the ‘software’ that produces the world and phenomena we live in.

Spiritual abuse attempts to interrupt that pattern.

What happens in spiritually abusive settings? You become less of who you are supposed to be.

You get:


You become:

Less trusting of people
Less relationally competent
Unable to utilize your relationships

Spiritual abuse is often perpetrated by someone who uses their religious or spiritual beliefs to manipulate, control, or coerce another person. They may act more righteous than you are, or profess to have a deeper connection with God, but really they are just trying to hurt you, weaken you, and control you. They may try to use their spiritual beliefs to justify their controlling or dominating behavior, but there is nothing just about it.

Spiritual abuse is fundamentally not relational. If something is happening where the emphasis is not primarily on making relationships work and making love grow and serving humanity, then something bad is going on there. If it becomes too much about the performance of religion and rules, then it closes the possibility of relational connection.

It becomes cult-like. In a cult, you don’t have freedom of choice. Your thoughts are policed and your actions are controlled.

There is no forgiveness or grace. There is only judgment. You will find yourself constantly feeling guilty, bad, judged, and condemned.

It is authoritarian. There is someone ‘on a pedestal’ and treating everyone else as less than they are. There are healthy ways to use authority to support others, where everyone is seen as equals and valuable, and then there are abusive ways to use authority where the one ‘leader’ puts everyone down and controls with shame and fear.

It is a closed system. Everything outside is bad. There is a We vs They mentality. We are right, they are wrong. It is not open-minded.

Spiritually abusive environments are toxic and judgmental. Growth environments are forgiving and helpful.