January is Spiritual Abuse Awareness month, and this article on the bigger picture of God’s grace is the last that I plan on posting in my series on Recovery from Spiritual Abuse, which I started on my futuristguy blog in 2008 (see the link for an index of all posts).
Summary. It is January 31st – last day of “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month” for 2011 – and I finally finished the last projected post in my series on recovery from spiritual abuse. It deals with our wrestling with the bigger picture of God’s providence and with what may be our biggest questions as survivors:
* Why does God allow abusive people to stay in leadership roles?
* Why do “good” things still happen to “bad” people like that?
* Why did the perpetrator’s abuses and their protectors’ excuses cost me everything and seemingly cost them nothing?
This is my best attempt to tease out some of the perplexities and complexities of trusting that God is truly in control, even over situations where spiritual power mongers do their thing and it SEEMS like they face no consequences … Still, God is at work both behind the scenes and on the front stage to benefit each individual involved and the community as a whole, to bring them all to wholeness. He is keeping the entire system of both individuals and community in mind, doing what is best for everyone and not only any particular one.
The past few years, I have written extensively on the subject of spiritual abuse. The topics I’ve addressed include:
- Personal lessons I’ve learned from surviving toxic leaders in all kinds of community- and ministry-related settings: church and parachurch, university and seminary, non-profit agency and for-profit business.
- Practicing a process of discernment and applying it to situations that apparently are abusive.
- Toxic versus healthy organizational dynamics.
- Identifying different kinds of abusive leaders, and what might make particular people the most susceptible to falling into the traps of specific types of abusers.
- Specific strategies and tactics that various kinds of abusive leaders use to gain and maintain control over their “subjects.”
- Power dynamics and what drives most perpetrators of spiritual abuse.
- Recovery and restoration processes.
These issues are not theory for me. They are based in multiple gut-wrenching experiences, processed over many many years. So, what knowledge and wisdom I have gained has come out of great personal cost through suffering and healing.
And yet, today’s post may be the most difficult one I’ve written on the subject to date – not because it will necessarily be so controversial. Instead, it is difficult because it deals with a cluster of complexities and perplexities that we who have survived abuse may be the most reluctant or ill-equipped to consider. And that revolves around issues of “theodicy” – God justifying His character when things in the world don’t seem to mesh with who He says He is:
- Why does God allow abusive people to stay in leadership roles?
- Why do “good” things still happen to “bad” people like that?
- Why did the perpetrator’s abuses and their protectors’ excuses cost me everything and seemingly cost them nothing?
Perhaps these questions represent the pinnacle of:
- Our anger and frustration about the abuse we endured.
- Our secret revengeful hopes at times for punishment on those who abused us and those who enabled the abusers through their active complicity or their enabling passivity.
- Our exasperation at a God who let this happen and seems to have done nothing about it.
We hurt. Others hurt for us. We hurt others because we hurt. And often, it looks like those who violated us through their false authority are doing just fine, thank you very much. But let me suggest that all is not necessarily as it appears with perpetrators of spiritual abuse.
Every person will be held accountable to God for every word and every deed. That’s future.
Whatever was hidden in the darkness will be revealed in the light. No one can escape that revealed reality, even when it looks like misdeeds are staying hidden. (Matthew 10:26. Romans 14:10. 2 Corinthians 5:10. 1 Corinthians 3:11-15; 4:5.) So, a time of judgment is coming. But that’s in the far-away future. So … what about now? What about right now and in the very near future?
I know this is speculative, but my gut intuition is that God is actually holding the larger situation in check, even while a toxic leader seemingly gets to continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing. Spiritually abusive leaders typically have a deep lust for power – to exercise control over others and over circumstances. Is it possibly the case that God has cornered them into situations that actually prevent them from achieving the full level of what their lust would drive them toward? Yes, some people are still being hurt thereby. But is it possible that God has providentially arranged to limit the destructive impact of a toxic leader so it is far less than it would be otherwise?
From my experiences I would suggest this:
Every perpetrator has likely already done some kind of irrevocable, irrefutable deed or patchwork of problems that reveals who they really are. The documentation, the depositions, the details on the internet – sooner or later, the evidences of their ill-done deeds will eventually catch up with them – perhaps far sooner than they, or we, expect. Not only that, but those who reinforced the perpetrator, either as an active protector or a passive bystander, likewise often get found out.
I have known spiritual abusers in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. Each and every single one of them did something that cannot be taken back … only covered up, or explained away, or met with a false apology that is not sustained by real repentance. The abuser’s attempt to retrench and retake their position of power does not remove the event, or the witnesses, or the damage, or the consequences. Their track record of lacking integrity will eventually catch up with them. For instance, here is what happened with some of those I know who perpetrated spiritual abuse:
- Their toxic organization imploded and they lost their job.
- They were asked to leave, fired, or forced out.
- They succumbed to severe mental illness when they could no longer cope with or control their situation through manipulating others, and required psychiatric intervention.
- They had to continue worrying about whether lawsuits, IRS investigations, or even criminal charges would be launched against them for malfeasance, misuse of non-profit resources, harassment, etc.
- They wanted to become a “big fish in a big pond” and have great influence, and instead got stuck in a role as a minor celebrity – a small fish in a pond that is/was/will be evaporated.
- They suffered from serious physical symptoms and health problems due to stress as their tactics began to fail and their façade of power began to crumble.
- They became isolated from roles of influence as people heard stories of their toxicity. They eventually lost project partners, service opportunities, friends, co-workers, endorsers, etc.
- Details and questions about abusive actions and unresolved indiscretions remain posted on the internet as permanent reminders of what they did and/or what they failed to do; like one’s credit rating, their internet reputation now follows them wherever on earth they go, from that day of posting forward.
Perpetrators are not happy people, regardless of how they appear on the surface and regardless of the adrenaline “rush” they get from exercising their addiction to power. Their ruse of spirituality will not remain intact forever, and the consequences and accountability for their masquerade of meanness will dog them. And perhaps that is exactly what must happen – the collapse of their illusion of control – for God’s grace and mercy to break through in their life in order for the Holy Spirit to bring in transformation. God cares as much about the conversion and Christlike transformation of a spiritual bully as He does about anyone and everyone else.
And here is what happened with some of those who protected, supported, and covered up for the perpetrators of spiritual abuse:
- In the process of supporting an abusive pastor/leader and perpetuating the related toxic system, they ended up losing thousands of dollars in funds and other assets that they had turned over to the church/organization. This was the reality, regardless of whether they ever repented of their involvement in perpetuating a toxic system. What they gave was gone.
- They came to their senses when they realized they themselves had been victimized – deceived, manipulated, controlled – or when they experienced some kinds of losses – funds, fame, or “face” – that hit them in the heart and softened them to the truth.
- They experienced guilt and shame and remorse, and sought to make things right with those who’d been hurt by the abuser they had protected, and therefore had been hurt by them as protectors. Some even attempted to confront the abuser(s).
- They apologized, or at least acknowledged that I was not crazy but had actually identified rightly that there were abuses going on. They became open to me where previously they had closed their heart and mind to me as a person and to my perspective on the situation.
- They sought me out to inform me about what had happened with the perpetrator(s), and sometimes to ask me to help them process their experiences and find peace, resolution, and recovery.
Protectors are not happy people either. Their foolishness will eventually come to light and they will not be able to hide in the shadow of the abuser whom they shielded. And still, God cares as much about the conversion and Christlike transformation of bystanders who let a spiritual bully do his/her thing as He does about anyone and everyone else, including the perpetrators of abuse.
But still, that all is tentative (even if probable) and it is still lurking in the future. What about NOW?
The present is perhaps the most vexing for we who are survivors, when abusive leaders continue their counterfeit ministry apparently unimpeded. But let me offer two radical suggestions. (1) This is not all about us as individuals, and (2) the Holy Spirit is doing far more behind the scenes in our community or congregation than we realize.
Grace has often been described as “God loving us unconditionally and providing things we DON’T deserve,” while the complementary counter-concept of mercy is “God NOT giving us what we DO deserve.”
So, here is a question for us to consider:
If we received retribution for what we have done in our own life, would the consequences be any less dire than what we feel the abuse perpetrators and their protectors deserve?
I believe the concept of gestalt fits here. The Wikipedia article on gestalt defines this term as the “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form.” In my understanding, gestalt is about being holistic in our observations, processing, and interpretations. Using it as a verb, if we “gestalt” something, we take in what appears on the surface as well as intuit the interrelations among various things in the situation. For instance, if you watch the TV programs Lie to Me or Human Target or Castle, you see how characters who have a lot of “people smarts” or “street smarts” can walk into a room where there a party is going on and “read” the body language and expressions to gather information instantaneously on who appears to be there for what reasons and who looks suspicious and why.
My main point here is this: We as individuals are not the only ones hurt by a spiritual abuser. An entire system of people gets harmed by the actions of abusers and those who shield them. In other words, abuse harms an entire community as a whole, not just a number of isolated individuals. And so, recovery is not only about what I as an individual must go through to find healing and then ongoing health, but what this whole interconnected network of people – perpetrator, protectors, survivors who escaped, and victims still in the situation – must undergo in order to find healing and then ongoing health (if possible).
Also, to sustain health, the congregation must confront and revamp their entire system of organizational structures (such as constitution, by-laws, doctrinal statement, ministry structure, leadership selection process, process of documentation for decisions, etc.) that supported the perpetuation of abuse. If that is never addressed, you can expect another user to take advantage of both individuals and the community.
But we cannot do this except from a “gestalt of God’s grace” with the Holy Spirit surrounding us, empowering us, transforming us to become more Christlike. If we try this purely in our own personal power, we will fail – and in fact, may become like the very people we are so focused on stopping from further abuse.
What about now? Yes, if at all possible, abusers should be confronted and removed from ministry roles through a biblically appropriate process. Nowhere does the New Testament indicate that abusive leaders get a free pass to stay in their roles of power. But if they are not removed, then we need to persevere with God’s providence in the situation and allow things to continue unfolding.
That does not mean being silent or protecting toxic people or toxic organizations. It does mean letting God render grace and mercy for everyone in the entire community system, and not just deal with the responsible individuals and the recovering survivors as individuals. It also means giving up our demands to control their destiny and perhaps to require a specific form of consequence; to attempt to control them – isn’t that just reversing what they did to us?
From all the Scriptures I’ve reflected on for years about “New Testament leadership,” authority, trust, abuse of power, grace, mercy, transformation, etc., I’m fairly sure that what I’ve just said is accurate. I’m not so sure that I like it. I see power-mongers as so prevalent in the churches – preying on both the naive and the courageous – that I’d rather see them all swept out at once. There are days when I’d like to see a little bit of fire and brimstone reign right in on those in a “BULLY pulpit”!
However, on my better days, I do hope for a more gentle and humble and persevering approach to change for all of us. And I suspect we together will be far more amazed at God’s goodness, power, and love, when we perhaps get a greater glimpse of His multiplicity of purposes that were accomplished through His kindness [not “niceness”] which led to repentances and helping everyone involved deal with consequences of abuse. And won’t that make an even more dramatic ending for the plotline of our interwoven stories as a community?
May we experience God’s grace and mercy in our sufferings caused by spiritual abuser, and may we extend Christlike grace and mercy to everyone, both inside and outside our community of faith …