Spiritual Abuse and the Road to Recovery

Spiritual Abuse and

The Road to Recovery



The primary focus of my original doctoral research on spiritual abuse and recovery was to understand how believers recovered spiritual harmony.  That is, how did believers in Christ journey from a devastating experience with their church leadership in their local church to a state or condition of renewed spiritual harmony.

The severity of the emotional and spiritual repercussions of spiritual abuse necessitates a recovery process in order to restore and rebuild what has been damaged.

This research helped to confirm many hunches.  For example, four main steps have been identified to aid in healing from spiritual abuse:

          1.  Allow sufficient time to grieve.

          2.  Forgive and release the situation to God.

          3.  Find a suitable faith community.

          4.  Move forward in Christ with the help of the Holy Spirit.

The need to help rebuild a solid theological foundation in people becomes the task of caring helpers in healthy spiritual communities.

These four topics will be used as a guide to this discussion in considering the road to recovery.


Healing from Spiritual Abuse

   1.  Allow sufficient time to grieve.

One thing about recovery is that it takes time.  There are no instant fixes when it comes to grieving losses.  Each person is unique and each person grieves similarly yet differently about the various aspects of a loss.

As one person observed about their grief group:

“We were effectively able to process our grief together without taking our “sour grapes” to our respective “new” churches.

Time to think:

“I “coped” mostly by “processing” relationally, although there was also a lot of think-time involved, as well as prayer and crying out to God for relief and understanding.”

Someone else found healing through ministering to another:

“I continued going to a different church ironically because of my work and I was in a unique situation because I took care of an individual with a disability.  I focused on him and his needs so I was able to observe church from a distance and stay disengaged until I was completely healed.” 

   2.  Forgive and release the situation to God.

As Christians, people know that forgiveness is part of the picture for them based on the forgiveness of the Godhead towards each person who has been folded into the Family of God.

Forgiveness is more for the one offended than the offender.

Forgiveness, like grief, cannot be hurried or simply done once.  Forgiveness takes time to process and work through, with God’s help.

One Participant stated it this way:

“I am no longer intimidated by leaders who utilize intimidation or control.  They are still my brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of this maturity issue.

I have learned a greater measure of forgiveness and graciousness.  And that it really isn’t about how others treat me, but about how I love others.”

Another Participant traced their journey forward to forgiveness this way:

“One emotion I had to deal with repeatedly was bitterness.  Forgiveness is the only antidote and I learned that forgiveness is something that may have to be offered repeatedly, every time the emotions overwhelm again.  And that’s OK. 

I also later learned (in a different context) that forgiveness does not require reconciliation.  I can forgive and still protect myself from further hurt.” 

The following is how one person worked through forgiveness and wove a brilliant word picture for others to envision it with them:

“Eventually I coped with struggling to forgive without down-playing the seriousness of other’s sins by making up an invoice for what I thought each of these people who had hurt me so badly owed me; either by neglecting to supply me with those things which were their responsibility to provide or by destroying what I once had through some sort of violation.

I had found before that forgiving a person for a sin when I had not fully grasped the consequences of their action was incomplete forgiveness.  This took time.

For one person my ‘bill’ looked something like this:

Now Past Due:

          A sense of security

          A sense of being loved unconditionally

          The ability to trust

          The truth

          My innocence

          My purity

          A sense of being forgiven

          A sense of being good enough to function in this world

          A sense of being valued for my strengths and talents

          Respect for myself as a healthy sexual woman

          An understanding of grace and forgiveness

          A sense that I am redeemable

          The knowledge that God actually likes me.

Then I took the piece of paper which the bill was written and wrote across it “TETALESTAI” (Jesus’ last word on the cross) It is finished.  Done deal.  Paid.

I hiked up into the mountains, made an altar of stones and destroyed it (or tore it up and buried it in extreme risk fire season) for several people. I decided to “let go” of any obligation I felt they had to ever pay back the things on those lists.

I would henceforth depend on Jesus to make up for my rather large deficiencies and give me what I had been trying to limp along without.”

   3.  Find a suitable faith community.

How a faith community will be shaped in the future for someone who has experienced spiritual abuse is interesting to watch unfold.  Many people need to leave the ‘model’ behind that has caused them so much pain.  Others are able to find a suitable, caring church family quite quickly.  This, too, depends on the person, the depth of the pain, the nature of the abuse, and the length of time that the person needs to grieve the loss.

Here’s how these Participants described this part of their journey:

“Searched for and talked to other people who had had similar experiences to mine, mostly so that I could realize that it all wasn’t just me (which I was made to believe).

I learned in time that the church I left is known (among other pastors here in town) to be a problem church that has the bad reputation of generating spiritually broken “refugees” who wander into the other churches and need immediate spiritual care.”

“I quit doing much, allowed myself to mourn, spoke with my new pastor a little at a time.  (Thankfully he had already encountered others who had left this church.

Not only was he aware of the problems, but they had praised me, and my work.  Even though I looked like a mess, he had an expectation that I had potential!)”

Not everyone who leaves the institutional church finds their way back there again.  Many find other expressions of the Body of Christ and join in new ways of worship, Word, and fellowship.

“Processing still going on, particularly since we are good friends with many people who still attend and live in a small town and can’t really avoid encountering people who attend.

Realizing that we’re not alone in what we’ve experienced and that there’s a growing movement of people exploring their Christian beliefs outside the context of traditional church.” 

   4.  Move forward in Christ with the help of the Holy Spirit.

There was nothing that a Christian can do to initiate their salvation or carry on their sanctification; these are divine works of the Godhead.  Knowing that the Holy Spirit is available for direction and comfort when the going gets tough can energize one’s thinking.

It is important to recognize that Christ has been with a person through all of their trials.  This can bring encouragement and comfort.  Going forward with God after any trial is always a step of faith.

This Participant put their thoughts this way:

“I have been confronted in many ways with how my beliefs were naive and uninformed.  I also had to deal with my beliefs about how God could “allow” this kind of suffering in my life.

This was a stage of the grief process that I hit at about the one year point.  Finding myself angry that God had not yet exposed the falseness and lies, I ultimately had to come to a place of trusting him with the outcome, even if I never saw it.

I have also had to take more responsibility for my spiritual journey and the direction it takes rather than following along with the direction of a leader.”

Thoughts from a few others:

“God uses many things to bring us into fellowship with Him, and to open our eyes to His love and desire for a relationship with us that is meaningful and freeing.”

“I had faith in magical thinking and faith in faith.  I chased miracles, signs, and wonders rather than solid thinking and fruitful living.  I was forced to put my faith in God and His influence on me rather than trusting in others.

I also have more faith in God’s sovereignty as God has proven Himself worthy of my faith.  My faith is far less vicarious and based in the leading of men.  It’s far more of a confident and peaceful faith rather than driven by chaos and guilt and compulsion to make some kind of a difference.”

Here is one person’s way of moving ahead:  they “mailed their letters to the fireplace!”

“I kept a journal and wrote many scathing letters which I mailed to the fireplace.

I followed up on my study of “What does grace feel like?”



The question:  Do people recover from the wounding of spiritual abuse? This question can be answered by “Yes.”  Recovery takes time. Since each story is complex and individuals are complex, then it is good to realize that there are factors which can help or hinder this kind of healing.

Putting one’s trust in the Real God of the Bible is often the first step.  This includes leaving false views about God, about the Church, and about church leadership behind and getting answers for oneself.

Looking at all that one has gathered into their belief system over time and systematically throwing out that which is flawed and unprofitable and keeping that which is true is the beginning of a process to rebuild a valid Christian faith.

Christians do recover from spiritual abuse and their insights can be of great help to others who find themselves in a similar circumstance.  Believers can appreciate the passage in 2 Cor. 1:3-4 in fresh new ways:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.          2 Cor. 1:3-4

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For Further Reflection

There are many articles on the Church Exiters website that can be helpful to processing one’s experience of spiritual abuse.

Observing how others have felt and have worked through the grieving process can be very helpful.

Knowing that so many others have gone through this process can be a huge encouragement to moving forward.

Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.                                                         Psalm 119:165

Peace to all of you who are in Christ.               1 Peter 5:14

Love must be sincere.  Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.   Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with God’s people who are in need.  Practice hospitality.  Rom. 12:9-13

Moravian Prayer:

You call us, God, to peace–not the peace of sleep, but the peace of people working together, helping one another and listening to one another. Make us instruments of your peace.  Amen.

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© 2012   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.