Most trauma has spiritual implications. “Why was I hurt?” “Why wasn’t I protected?” “Do I deserve to have bad things happen?” It is agonizing to believe that Spirit (God, Goddess, Allah, Elohim, the Grandmothers, the Universe, your Higher Power, your Deep Self, etc.) endorses the pain you endure. Survivors of spiritual abuse contend with a shattered connection to Spirit at the same time.
Harm from spiritual officials
Spiritual abuse occurs when spiritual officials (preachers, rabbis, shamans, etc.) use their power to harm their congregations. Blatant examples include ritual abuse, where worship and horrific abuse are combined, and cults, which control their members’ social, financial, and spiritual lives. Spiritual abuse can also be subtle, for example a minister who tells a woman to return to her abusive husband without concern for her safety, or who counsels gay and transgender youth to “pray to be cured.”
Any religion or set of beliefs can be used for spiritual abuse. The abuse can be explicit in a congregation’s theology, such as believing that everyone must submit to the leader, or contrary to it, such as a priest sexually abusing children.
Damaged connection to Spirit
Spiritual abuse also occurs when any abuser damages the recipient’s sense of worth, purpose, or connection to Spirit. An abusive partner instills a sense of hopeless inevitability by repeating, “We were meant to be together.” Parents continue a legacy of lives ruled by fear rather than joy when they control their children’s behavior through threats of eternal damnation.
Spiritual abuse violates not only trust in the abuser, but also trust in Spirit. It breaks your connection with your right to exist and take up space. It is much harder to leave an abusive situation while convinced that you deserve abuse. It is much harder to heal afterward when the abuse feels like proof of your worthlessness.
Faith is what you know for sure
To heal, look inside for faith. Not for what you think you should believe, or for what someone says you should feel, but for what you know for sure without the need for external proof. Reach inside for what you are certain of. What do you turn toward like a flower toward the sun? What do you long for deep inside, no matter how hard you try to ignore or erase the longing? Those longings tell you what you know you deserve.
Look inside for your urge to heal, the part of you that searches for solutions. Have you felt suicidal or hopeless and fought hard to survive? Somewhere inside there is a determination to live and thrive.
A private matter
Faith is a private matter between you and Spirit, even when you worship with a congregation. When someone tells you what to believe without your consent, it is a boundary violation and a red flag.
Faith helps you choose beliefs
If a belief leads you into a spiral of doubt and pain, consider discarding it. Some people find it comforting to believe that they chose their parents before birth. I find it intolerable to believe that my deep self would intentionally cause me that much pain, so I dropped that belief.
Move toward beliefs that bring you relief, lightness, and a sense of renewed possibility. Faith tells me that I live in an abundant Universe and it is possible to get my needs met without abuse. This allows me to leave abusive situations and keep looking for new ways to meet my needs rather than believing it cannot get better.
Be wary of judgment
Be wary of judgment and bargaining as you reach for your faith. For me, those come from inner voices mimicking what they think I should find. Faith tells me that judgment and bargaining have no place in my connection with Spirit. Underneath all the yelling and doubt, I find quiet, kind, steady compassion.
Your faith exists with or without your trust and belief. You might find an ever-burning flame inside and wonder if you dare to claim its power. You might find wordless support that scatters when you try to capture it, yet always returns. You might realize that you already have much of what you long for.
You deserve kindness
Each trauma survivor forges an individual peace with the coexistence of trauma and Spirit. Whether or not you have experienced spiritual abuse, I know without needing proof that you belong here and you deserve kindness, not pain.
For more information on ritual abuse, see the Survivorship Frequently Asked Questions page.
In Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, Martha Beck shares her experience of spiritual abuse, longing, family, Spirit, and faith. Her memoir tackles these serious subjects with a light touch and humorous details.