Spiritual abuse is a common – and particularly twisted – form of mistreatment found within the narcissistic family dynamic.
Many articles out there focus on spiritual abuse within the context of the church, but it happens within the family just as (or more?) often. It can be hard to notice, because these narcissists are upstanding Christians who we shouldn’t question, right? So I thought I would share my experiences with spiritual abuse in the context of the narcissistic family dynamic (but please know this happens in families in the absence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder too). I hope this helps others be able to pinpoint, and then stop, any spiritual abuse in their life.
The definition of the word “abuse” is as follows:
“Spiritual abuse” is the act of misusing Biblical principles for one’s own agenda, and as a means to continue maltreatment of another. Spiritual abusers will use Bible verses and faith concepts to justify their abuse and harm of another person; they will also use the Bible as a means to avoid changing their behaviour or taking responsibility for their poor choices.
Sounds like the perfect tool for the narcissist’s tool box. A narcissist is not interested in ever taking responsibility for how they affect others, nevermind change their behaviour to stop the hurt. On top of it, a narcissist will turn it on you and make sure you know that you are the problem. Never them. And spiritual abuse is just another facet of how they do this.
Here are some examples of what spiritual abuse looks like:
1. You are told you should continue bearing the abuse of someone, because Jesus was also abused and walked on.
Let’s get this one straight. Jesus was persecuted for his faith, and He was walked on and eventually crucified to fulfill Old Testament prophecy. The abuse and death he endured was for the salvation of mankind, not for the justification of an abuser’s actions. The suffering you endure at the hands of a narcissist or other unhealthy person does not serve a greater purpose; in fact, the only purpose it will serve is to enable the abuser and keep them in their sin longer. And that is not a purpose that God is on board with. The Bible does not tell us to bear the sinful actions of others; in fact, we are told in several places to have nothing to do with evil actions. Persecution for the sake of our faith (which we are told will happen if we are truly following Jesus) is an entirely different thing than being persecuted by another person’s sin. It is pure evil, in my opinion, to use the name of Jesus or anything written in God’s Word to even suggest that someone’s abusive behaviour is justified or should be tolerated. He came to make us free, not to put us in bondage to another person’s dysfunction.
2. When you question or call out an abuser for their behaviour, you are told you need to have more grace, or be more gracious,.
Grace is defined as the “free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” Grace is God’s gift to us, to empower us to be what the Bible says we are; grace is not for enabling sin. When an abuser (or an abuser’s enabler) uses the grace card on you, it is not really grace they are asking for; they are asking for you to tolerate their abuse and to quit speaking up. They are expecting you to enable them in their poor behaviour the way that others in their world do. Are we to give grace and allow someone to continue to mistreat us? No. In fact, Paul said that we are not to continue in our sin so that God’s grace will abound (Romans 6:1). God himself placed boundaries around His grace to prevent it from being misused. And narcissists are experts on misusing grace. The very nature of a narcissist (never seeing their flaws or their responsibility in anything, never mind doing their part to repair and reconcile) make them a prime suspect of this manipulative use of grace.
Are we to extend grace to others? Of course. But using God’s own word as a guideline, we are not to use grace simply so that sin – our own or others’ – can abound. And that is exactly what a narcissist does: their sin abounds, and they do not want to own or change their behaviour. Giving grace to a narcissist can be very dangerous ground. If someone in your world is telling you that you need to be more gracious, or expects you to extend more grace to them BUT IS NOT TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR BEHAVIOUR OR MAKING CHANGES, they are misusing the concept of grace to continue to abuse.
3. When you try to speak to someone about how their actions affect you, and they use Bible verses to justify their poor behaviour.
This is a common one I have encountered; a verse about “loving one another” or “bearing one another’s burdens” is slipped into a conversation where the abuser’s behaviour is being called out, and they don’t want to take responsibility. A Bible verse is a sick tactic used to shift the focus of the conversation and to implore the victim to be more “loving” or “patient”. This twisted use of Scripture holds some irony in it – an abuser uses God’s Word about love and patience, yet themselves show none of it. Spiritual abusers do not think the rules apply to them, only to you, and only to shut you up and stop you from questioning them.
It is wrong for anyone to use God’s Word to justify any ongoing behaviour that wounds another person; God’s Word is meant to bring freedom, not to bind people further. Quoting Bible verses to others should serve to encourage another person, not to abuse. Not to silence. Not to shame. Not to justify sin. Period.
4. You are told to be more forgiving and let it go, because that is what the Bible says to do.
Yes, the Bible absolutely says to forgive. However, to forgive does not mean to continue to be a doormat for someone’s abuse. Here is the definition of “forgive”:
Nowhere in that definition does it say “to continue to be abused and bear it silently”. To forgive is to cease feeling angry, and to cancel someone’s debt; but it doesn’t mean we keep lending to them. I once heard someone say, “Forgiveness is mandatory. Trust is earned.” When we forgive, it doesn’t mean we continue to make ourselves vulnerable and open to ongoing hurt and abuse.
When someone implores you to forgive but they don’t change their behaviour, count it as a red flag. They are using the concept of forgiveness to control and to avoid changing. Most spiritual abusers I’ve encountered want “forgiveness” so they don’t have to change, but have no intention of achieving true reconciliation (a process which involves both parties owning, acknowledging, forgiving, and changing future behaviour). Remember that forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things: you can forgive someone on your own, but reconciliation involves the efforts of both sides (something you will not get from a narcissist).
Spiritual abuse is a common tactic for the narcissists out there who call themselves Christians. It is just another way that they do what they know: To hurt people, and then to find any way to avoid responsibility or change, and to make everyone else the problem. Unfortunately, spiritual abuse spins God and His Word in a negative light, and perpetuates lies about Him that keep people from wanting to know Him.
I feel grieved to think of the countless sons and daughters out there who have been turned away from their Heavenly Father because of how their narcissist parent twisted and misused His words and message. If that is you, please know that God’s heart is the absolute opposite of what you experienced: He would never damage you, and He wants to heal you and set you free.