My recent article, “Shedding a Light on Spiritual Abuse” really hit a nerve! The overwhelming response I received let me know that many people related to the message or are concerned for others who are suffering. I appreciated the thoughtful and sometimes poignant responses to the article. I know every situation is different and deserves individual consideration and not blanket solutions or pat answers that offer precious little comfort. However, seeking the Spirit to help us understand and follow true scriptural principles can help us all.
Professional counseling is often essential in order to sort out problems resulting from abuse. As individuals, we can only do our best to increase our powers of spiritual discernment and ability to recognize and do something about spiritual abuse.
More Explanation Is Needed
In an attempt at clarity in my first article, I undoubtedly over-simplified a complex subject. I have decided this subject deserves to be broken down and examined more closely. (If you didn’t read my first article, you may wish to do so before proceeding, since this second article is built on the foundation established by “Shedding a Light on Spiritual Abuse.”)
I have chosen to focus on recognizing ways we abuse ourselves in this article, because the abuse we afflict on ourselves is the abuse we can do most about. How often do we judge ourselves harshly, speak to ourselves harshly, and mistreat ourselves in ways that could be defined as abusive to our spirits? How often do we dwell on abuse from others, continuing that abuse in our minds in ways that could be called spiritual self-abuse?
Is Spiritual Self-Abuse a Valid Term?
I realize that the term “spiritual self-abuse” is not in common usage. However, I believe it is not only accurate, but descriptive of one of the greatest temptations Satan throws in the way of good, well-intentioned people.
The problem of semantics can be huge. The way I define and understand spiritual abuse may be different from the way you do. Let’s attempt to find common ground. Some of the dictionary definitions of “abuse” are: “To treat badly, to mistreat, to use harsh and insulting language about or to [someone].” Dictionary definitions of “spiritual” include: “caring much for the spirit or soul, sacred, religious.”
As religious people, we “care much for our spirit or soul” as well as for the spirits or souls of others. Isn’t any kind of abuse really abuse of the spirit (or spiritual abuse) if it injures our spirit, our very soul? However, when we add the component of being injured by receiving true principles in ways contrary to the Spirit, the hurt deepens.
One Meridian reader gave me permission to quote an email she sent in response to my first article:
I have learned so much, but have beat myself up for the mistakes I made in the past. I converted to the church as a teen but had abusive parents who I now realize were spiritually abusive too. Your article for the first time made me see and feel that without the Holy Ghost even gospel principles can be a whip. I had never conceived [realized] that. So brought to tears over your revelation. Thank you so much! I am overwhelmed with gratitude.
The Necessity of Seeking the Spirit
What can we do to avoid using true gospel principles as sticks to beat ourselves with rather than as lights to guide us? Let’s take the definition from the previous article and change it to apply to the way we deal with our spiritual selves: Whenever you hear a true principle without the purifying lens of the Spirit, misunderstand or distort it, implement it with self-coercion, or use it to diminish self and make you feel you aren’t good enough, you have crossed the line into spiritual self-abuse.
My keen interest in this subject comes from my realization that no other wounds have left me needing the healing touch of the Savior as much as those received from spiritual abuse. However, only in the absence of the Spirit can such wounds fester. Only when I stay in the darkness of deception and continue the abuse in my mind (whether it was first received from others or inflicted on myself) does it become more and more problematic. Only immersion in light and truth from the Holy Ghost can protect us from long-term damage from spiritual abuse.
Does the Truth Edify Us? If Not, We May Be Hearing It Through a Filter of Shame
Much of the abusive dialogue and harmful feelings that injure us spiritually take place in the battleground of the mind. The way we “receive” what is taught, written, and said to us is all-important. As quoted in the first article, “And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? If it be some other way it is not of God” (D&C 50:19-20).
“Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth? Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together” (D&C 50:21-22).
Edifying. That’s how it feels if the message is coming from the Spirit. If it doesn’t feel edifying and causes us to have self-abusive thoughts, it is “darkness” and not of God: “And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness” (D&C 50: 23). If the truth is both taught and received with the Spirit, it is edifying and causes us to rejoice. If we feel darkness instead of light when we hear true principles, we need to search our hearts for the reason.
LDS counselor Peggy McFarland contributed the following:
Sometimes there is a “filter” of learned shame on the part of the receiver and the real message gets “scrambled.” If messages in church, scriptures, or church-related text are received as, “I’m not measuring up,” or “I’m bad,” and result in constant discouragement or in some cases, severe anxiety, we can be sure we are receiving them through a filter of shame. Sometimes the sender has mingled erroneous concepts with gospel truths which cause us to misunderstand or misapply the message in non-inspiring ways. Regardless of whether the error is with the giver or receiver, it is vital to know that when a true principle is communicated in its purity through the conduit of the Spirit, we will be enlightened and edified. The Lord, even when He is chastening us, motivates with love and encouragement, not shame and fear.
How Do I Start to Find Relief from Spiritual Self-Abuse?
While there are multiple reasons we may spiritually self-abuse, the very first thing we need in order to avoid self-abuse is to develop an awareness of the thoughts we may not be noticing because they are largely unconscious.
Let’s identify common spiritually-self-abusing thoughts and then challenge these thoughts. First, let me pose a couple of questions.
- When is the last time you said to yourself words such as, “You are so stupid! You know better than that! What is the matter with you?”
- How much more likely are you to point such “harsh and insulting language” at yourself, in your mind, than verbally to others?
It is wise to start noticing what we FEEL during/after a message. It’s through our feelings that the Holy Ghost speaks to us. Through awareness of our feelings we are going to be able to use D&C 50 to notice when we are edified and when we are not, when we are receiving by the Spirit and when we are not.
“Beating ourselves up” is common terminology among Mormon women. Who among us has not done it? And what do we beat ourselves up about? Rarely is it sin. Usually it is our perception of not measuring up to someone else’s expectation, or even our own. Yet in Alma 42:29 we read, “And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance.”
One over-conscientious LlDS friend of mind suffered so painfully from perfectionism and not getting constant approval that she began to have severe physical symptoms. She said, “The pattern I was in made me miserable, yet I mostly suffered about differences in preference or opinion, not things that could be considered sins at all.” Who is it that seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself””. Satan, of course! (See 2 Nephi 2:27.) He is the one that constantly tempts us to feel miserable over things that are not sins!
Subtle, Hard-to-Recognize Aspects of the Problem
Let’s dig deeper. Counselor Peggy McFarland continues,
Our religion teaches us that we fight not against men, but against dominions and principalities. These include belief systems created by none other than the Father of All Lies who is as much among us now as he was in the beginning.
Satan exploits our innate, natural man need for love and belonging in mortal families and ward families. He drives within us an insatiable need to meet group expectations in order to gain “group acceptance,” known in the scriptures as “the honors of men.”
The “unwritten rules” of our family and ward associations (“precepts of men” and “traditions of the fathers”) can create tremendous harm to our spirit selves when they are not based upon true principles of the gospel. The same harm happens when they ARE based on true principles, but we misconstrue them or use them as sticks to beat ourselves with. False belief systems can be teaching us not to feel, not to ask questions, not to seek our own understanding of what we hear for fear of risking alienation. They numb us to the whisperings of the Spirit, even the dictates of our inner voice, and can be so subtle as to be invisible to the conscious mind. Yet they exert a power which can crush the spirit of an individual and leave him or her reeling, stumbling backward, away from the very God who seeks to feed spiritual hunger and clothe with protection and nurturing.
In our desire to be obedient, accepted, approved, we may learn to deny or suppress any feeling we think may be ungodly or inappropriate. Above all, we need to be able to safely approach God to help us process our mortal frailties. Satan, by interweaving the false belief system that leads to suppression with our very desire to do what’s good and right, by mingling this lie within the foundation of our quest to be obedient to our Father, can effectively silence the very medium by which our Father maintains communication with us through his Holy Spirit—our feelings.
The personal connection to God may be subverted and replaced with idolatrous images, such as the “God of the Good Mother” or the “God of the Good Family” or “the God of Performance.” Nagged incessantly by an unconscious voice that says, “What will others think?” we develop a false self that worries about appearances at the expense of personal needs and relationships. The harder we try, the more exhausted we become. When our religious life fuels shame and isolation from God and others, “To whom shall [we] go?”
Here’s one woman’s story told to Peggy with permission to share:
I was born into a family where the appearance of strong religious practices was more important than the actual faith that underlies those practices. Somehow it seemed more important to keep up the appearance of perfection than to actually be on the road to perfection. In our home the feelings underlying the keeping of these commandments were not as important as just doing what was supposed to be done according to the interpretation of my parents.
Because belonging is a true basic need, it is hard not to pretend [and keep hoping] that we can get what we want from those who, in fact, cannot give us what we really want. Questioning the “unwritten rules” can therefore feel devastating. Ultimately, these personal “great and spacious buildings” will crumble and create a crisis of faith. It is no accident that the Savior called those whose lives were built upon appearances as “whited sepulchers.” A sepulcher is a tomb, a place for those who have died. Anyone who has crashed from spiritually abusive belief systems knows what that kind of “death” feels like. We yearn to be made “alive in Christ.”
This sister explains the rebuilding of her own personal faith:
I have very much lived the life of a Pharisee. I have struggled to do all the things that we are asked to do by our Church leaders and never found that it brought me the joy and peace that I thought gospel living would bring. I realized for me the element that was missing was Jesus Christ. He was missing in my life. I was doing things in hopes that they would bring me to Him, not realizing it is in coming to Him that I receive the strength and faith that allows mountains to be moved…I look at everything from breathing to Church attendance with new eyes and can no longer do things just because I am supposed to. There is a joy that comes as I do these things because I want to and the Savior is enabling me to do them. He alone knows when I am ready to take the next step and He walks with me through it.
Spiritual Self-Abuse by Short-Circuiting the Redemption Process
In her incredible book He Did Deliver Us from Bondage, Colleen Harrison suggests that healthy guilt is like a smoke alarm that sounds a very temporary alarm to get our attention and motivate us to correct the problem. Self-Abusers, on the other hand go directly into shame and stay there until they realize what they are doing. Here’s an example:
Response to a powerful discourse on tithing that is spiritual self-abuse:
Good grief! There’s one more thing I’m falling short on. I’ve always believed in the law of tithing so how can I possibly have let myself get into this situation? That is so typical of my whole life lately. I’m falling short in every way. I’m so discouraged with myself. I believe the gospel but I can’t seem to live a tenth of it. It’s getting so going to church or listening to conference talks just makes me feel worse and worse about myself.
Healthy response to the same discourse:
I didn’t pay my tithing last month or this month. I have a testimony of the law of tithing. I’ll go home immediately and catch it up, even though I will be short of funds the rest of the month. I will pray fervently and ask the Lord to give me strength to keep this commitment. (God-reliance, not self-reliance)
My friend Jacob, who contributed greatly to my articles about what it really means to be “saved” pointed out that the full healthy response to sin usually is:
Commitment to Christ.
Recognition of guilt.
Turning to Him and saying “Jesus, thou son of God, have mercy on me.”
Feeling His redemptive power and forgiveness.
The Savior never delights in our suffering, but delights in rescuing us. But He cannot rescue us until we ask, then (unless there is a purpose in delaying) He will do so immediately, “Yea, I would that ye would come forth and harden not your hearts any longer: for behold, now is the time and the day of your salvation; and therefore, if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you” (Alma 34:31, emphasis mine.).
We Self-Abuse When We Short-Circuit the Redemptive Process
A person stuck in spiritual abuse is like one who gets on the elevator of redemption, but hits the “down” button first and gets off on the bottom floor before it can take him to the top.
Jacob said, “Some LDS people mistakenly think that acceptance of the gospel is like stepping onto an escalator of ever-increasing happiness. Actually, it’s more like getting into an elevator, with no numbers on the buttons. Sure it can take us upward, but the first button we all seem to push is the button for the basement. The key is to not get out there! Stay in the elevator until you figure out the buttons!”
Let’s look at Ether 12:27 in order to understand how this works. We follow the first directive, “Come unto me,” and find that the closer we get to Christ the more we are aware of our need for Him because of our lack. After all, He says that when we come to Him, “I will show them their weakness.” We may expect only lofty views when we come unto Christ, instead, our elevator may first land us in the basement. When we act as spiritual abusers we stop there, and maybe even get off the elevator. We ruminate on our weakness, self-flagellate and beat ourselves up for our weakness. We forget to take the next step and humble ourselves, come unto Him and have faith in Him so He can make weak things strong. We forget that the whole point of Christ’s Atonement is to rescue us from our ignorance, weakness, and mistakes.
The late Larry Barkdull said, “God programmed the experience of life to be one of continual lack. Our resources and abilities seldom equal what is required to heft our burdens. As we struggle to cope and progress, we find ourselves in the constant need of seeking help from someone who has greater strength and ability. Try as we might, we cannot change life’s program. But once we admit that we will never have enough and that we need constant help, we will be in a better position to come to Jesus and draw strength from a Resource that never diminishes.”
Let’s Not Suffer Unnecessarily
Sorrow in life is inevitable. Misery is optional. Spiritual self-abuse is guaranteed to create misery because it is based on Satan’s lies. He wants us to be constantly spiritually abusing ourselves. He knows that the worst kind of abuse is getting us to doubt our own spiritual capacity and worth. He also wants us to doubt our own lovableness—especially to doubt God’s love for us.
May I bear my testimony that our Heavenly Father and Jesus are ever-present to comfort and heal us from every kind of abuse, that Their love never fails. How I feel about this was well illustrated when my daughter-in-law bore her testimony after their newborn was blessed, saying how much she loves this new baby she waited so long for, and how she yearns to comfort him when he cries. Then she said something like, “And how much more does our Heavenly Father love us and want to comfort us.”
I had the subject of spiritual self-abuse on my mind as I listened to her testimony and immediately thought of the scripture, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” I am one of the least. When I attack and abuse myself, I am hurting a child of God that He loves dearly—and so I am hurting Him. That realization gives me even more motivation to explore, learn to understand, and get the Lord’s help to repent of the ways I may be spiritually abusing myself. The Lord stands with out-stretched arms, always reaching toward us, always loving us, always desiring to help us. He never looks at us with comparing or discouraged or anxious or impatient eyes. Not one of those qualities is part of His nature. So we can be certain when we feel any of those things we are in Satan’s arena, not God’s. May we fight the powers of darkness whose aim is putting up a screen of false ideas between us and the divine help that is always available.
Author’s Note: I want to thank Peggy McFarland, a licensed LDS counselor, for her help on this article, and for the help she has given me in my life. She has been a good friend for many years. She has recently moved to Nampa, Idaho, and specializes in girls and women’s abuse issues. If you live in Oregon or Idaho, phone counseling is an option. She is a wonderful counselor and has been a great help to me personally. I highly recommend her. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, for solid help in sorting out gospel truth from myths and recognizing the difference between healthy thoughts from self-abusive ones, Google my book Trust God No Matter What! and Colleen Harrison’s book He Did Deliver Me from Bondage.