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Why Spiritual Abuse is Difficult to Consider

I can remember where it started. I was sitting in the back of a classroom at Gardner-Webb School of Divinity. I was in my first year of seminary, and I was hanging tightly to the friendships I had made during orientation. We were far enough into the semester that we had gotten past our surface-level introductions. We had already seen each other break down in tears over midterms and in sharing our stories. We were now in the deep waters of walking this journey of answering a call together.

I remember hearing the term spiritual abuse as one of my classmates told her story. She told a story that sounded so similar to mine even though we grew up in different faith traditions, in different communities of faith, that I was speechless. This is what I had been told it meant to be a woman. This is what I was taught I could and couldn’t do, but surely I hadn’t experience spiritual abuse, had I?

If I started to consider that perhaps the theological teachings I had always believed were in fact being used to manipulate, coerce, and silence, then what? I couldn’t possible come out of this realization with a faith that was intact. I was in seminary for goodness sake, I couldn’t question to the point of having to reconstruct and analyze every teaching in just three years, could I?

But then I heard another story and another story. Woman after woman, man after man who were told they could or couldn’t do certain things because “people would leave the church,”  because “women weren’t called to do that,” because “it would cause a split the church,” because “that’s not the way things were done” over and over again church leaders using their power to control and maintain the status quo. Again and again passionate, gifted ministers being put into holding patterns being coerced into “waiting their turn.”

This is spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse results in power retention in those who already have power. There is a whole generation of young people who were raised in churches and communities of faith tainted by spiritual abuse whose voices, ideas, and, yes, spiritual gifts have been silenced. We need these voices in our communities of faith. We need these people to speak up and speak out about their experiences with spiritual abuse. We need these stories to come to light so that our communities of faith may become places of hope, healing, and wholeness rather than places of hurt, abuse, and brokenness.

This is not an easy journey.

It is not easy to consider whether we have experienced spiritual abuse. It is not easy to ask ourselves the tough question of whether our communities of faith are places wrought with spiritual abuse, but this is the confessional work the season of Lent calls us to do.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

When we leave our spiritual practices, protocol, and patterns unexamined, we leave room for spiritual abuse to occur over and over again. May this season of Lent be a time of reflection and analysis. May Almighty God give us strength on the journey.

On the Spiritual Discipline of Confession

As a part of the Lenten season, we have included a prayer of confession as part of our worship service reminding ourselves that we are dust and to dust we shall return:

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have done wrong, and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed the desires of our own hearts too much. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we should not have done. O Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer of confession. AMEN.
Even though I knew it was coming as part of the service, I still found myself struggling through the “we have done those things which we should not have done.” Even though it was a communal confession, the truth of those words overcame me.

Confession as a spiritual discipline was not part of my upbringing. My understanding of the confession that took place across the street at the Catholic church was that it was an excuse to keep on sinning because it allowed you to do what you wanted to do, receive absolution, and go on your merry way.

I was so wrong in my understanding of this deeply spiritual act. 

For me, the admission of being wrong or of having conducted myself in a way I don’t believe honors nor represents what it means to be a follower and disciples of Christ is gut-wrenchingly difficult. I was taught to be right, to be certain in regards to matters of faith and the Bible. I was taught to have the answers ready at any moment and somehow in that teaching, I was never taught how to be wrong and to come to terms with being wrong.


I was comfortable admitting I was a sinner because everyone was a sinner, but when it comes to specific matters and circumstances, I pass the blame and redirect the conversation with ease and often without detection. I defend and deflect ensuring my perspective and view is heard while avoiding the whole question of whether I heaped shame and guilt on another child of God. There’s always a reason why I “did the thing I shouldn’t have done;” and because I have a reason, I hope I could just avoid the whole question of responsibility and culpability.

And even in those moments when I recognize and acknowledge that I have “done the things I ought not to have done,” publicly confessing to that is not something I’d like to do. But confess I must not only because it’s Lent, but because this is an important spiritual discipline.

Until we can rid ourselves of the need to be right, we are only dust and to dust we shall return. When we can confess to our dusty nature without abandon and truly embrace this part of our very being not just on Ash Wednesday, not just during Lent, but always, then and only then will we be able to have room to be love and kindness to those we meet.

It’s not until we can confess to those parts of ourselves we’d rather not admit are there that we can offer peace and light to others when their dustiness shows in the same way ours does in “doing the things we ought not to have done.”

O Lord, in your mercy, hear this my prayer of confession.