The road to spiritual abuse is paved with good intentions

This post is a part of a series on spiritual abuse.  You can see other posts in the series here (as they are published.)  A lot of this content is from the research of Dr. Lisa Oakley from Chester University.  I highly recommend her book** with Justin Humphrys if you want to learn more about this!]

One of the reasons it’s so hard to label something ‘spiritual abuse’ or ‘spiritual misuse’ is that it feels like such a personal and dramatic accusation.  That’s also one of the reasons we often fail to see our own responsibility in abusive situations.  It feels impossible to reconcile the possibility that we have been a part of something abusive when we know our intentions were anything but that.

Truth time: when I started to dig into this with a friend and we looked at the examples of abuse, I felt immediately defensive.  I said one day to my friend – Have I been a part of this?? Did I perpetuate spiritual abuse??

I wasn’t really looking for an answer. I was honestly inviting her to rescue me from a growing sense of panic and shame.  And she did.  With the truth:

“Fabs.  We both have.  And now we know better, and we will do better.”

That feels horrible, but it also feels right.

I hate the idea that I have somehow participated in control and coercion – it turns me inside out.  Because it is the opposite of what I want to do with my life.

I didn’t mean to.  I can feel that protest screaming loudly in any part of my soul as anything else.  I can answer back to that cry with love and tenderness: I know. I believe you.  I know this to be true: I have done the best I can to love people the best way I know how with the information I have at the time.

And at the same time – let me say this loudly for those of you in the back: I have been wrong.  And people have been desperately wounded by my mistakes.

And both of those things can be true at the same time.

There’s some kind of relief in that.  There’s relief in not having to make one untrue to make sense of the other; you can believe your heart’s intentions and simultaneously take responsibility for your behavior.   Sometimes responsibility – not resistance – is the antidote to true shame.

I know – with every fiber of my being – how precious and necessary it is to believe your experience of yourself. And at the same time – I know how important it is to weigh your own behavior against your own intentions and take responsibility for the gap between them.

In Escaping the Maze, one of the most helpful sections to me was this one:

“People often control and coerce without understanding the consequences of their actions. Often intentions are very well-meaning…People often genuinely and honestly believe that they are following God’s plan and will, and that what they are doing is for the good of the person or the church or organization…Spiritual abusers may behave in faith that they are doing just good and godly training to help the others; spiritual abuse can happen even when the abuser has a good heart – they genuinely think they are helping the victim.”

Intention doesn’t determine the health of behavior.  

If we want to find out if we may be complicit in abuse, we cannot just ‘check our hearts.’ We seem to think Gospeling our hearts will guarantee we don’t participate in oppressive systems, but this is – terrifyingly – not the case. “Spiritual abuse is often very subtle and leaders, in particular, need to be made aware of how they may unknowingly abuse…” 

That thought has kept me awake at night, thinking of all the ways I have perpetuated racism, oppression, and abuse simply because I was thinking the symptoms of those things would always show up in my intentions.  The reality is – unintentional abuse can lurk in cultural norms, systems of behavior, jokes, organizational structures, and inherited language.

What if we trained our leaders to ask themselves:

  • how did we unknowingly behave in a controlling way?
  • how did we unintentionally coerce?

Intention doesn’t determine damage.  

“It is important to say that even when people do not intend to harm others this does not make the harm any less.”

Intention doesn’t change responsibility.

Without true responsibility – you will never take steps to adjust the systems or behavior that contributed to the misuse of spirituality.

I have seen people willing to apologize.  Willing to say – sure, Fabs, I am sure I’ve done that.  And yes I’m sorry.  But that is not true responsibility.

And let me go out on a limb here: I work with enough victims on a daily basis to throw out the possibility that no one really cares about getting an apology.  Victims rarely navigate all the obstacles that come with speaking out because they want you to feel bad.  They sometimes are willing to push through the pain, the anger, the loss that comes with speaking out – because they want the system to change.

Church – people don’t go to the press because they want to burn down the church.  They go because they came to you behind closed doors.  They wrote letters.  They spoke up – and you said sorry.  But nothing changed.  There was no true accountability.  And so they try to find someone who will make you accountable.  Someone who has more power than they do.

What if we trained our leaders to ask themselves: what steps did we take today to prevent us unknowingly behaving in a controlling way? What systems exist in our culture to prevent unintentional coercion?

For those in power: we can know and believe our own intentions, while still taking true responsibility for our behavior. We can believe we aimed for ‘spiritually healthy’, and we can acknowledge we landed on the spectrum of ‘spiritual abuse.’   We can listen and learn from victims: analyzing structures and systems and taking tangible steps to not repeat the same mistakes.

For those making sense of their own injuries: you aren’t an idiot for trusting and believing.  Maybe your leaders really did love you and they really did the best they could.  You can believe that and still hold them accountable for their behavior.  You can believe them when they say they aimed for ‘spiritual healthy’, and you can believe yourself when your scars testify you landed in the spectrum of ‘spiritual abuse’.

You get to decide how you want to move forward in that tension: evaluating your safety by more than just intentions – but by if you see a culture taking responsibility in a way that leads to lasting change.

2 thoughts on “The road to spiritual abuse is paved with good intentions

  1. Thank you for putting words to this. My family and I have recently left a place with “good intentions” but no accountability or change. It’s been tough, and this post makes me feel less alone.

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