Spiritual abuse

I met Sarah and her boyfriend a few months ago. I was struck by how self-aware and articulate she was. She grew up in my neighborhood and was prescribed mental health medication at the age of seven. When she talks about herself and her family, she uses clinical mental health terminology and sounds like a therapist. She seems to view the world and herself through the Diagnostic Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders. “He has neurotic impulse control disorder. I struggle with intrusive thoughts and have major depression. My family all have ADHD.” The years spent in and out of mental health institutions have come to define Sarah’s identity. She sees herself as a diagnosis not as a daughter of God.

Sarah got into a Christian woman’s shelter and began to separate from her abusive boyfriend. Things were going well and then she was kicked out of her housing. Sarah shared how her depression makes her angry and frustrated. How the shelter promised to take her to the methadone clinic and then didn’t. She tells me how she filed a restraining order on her boyfriend. How she went to jail for scratching him while defending herself. She can go to a domestic violence shelter but feels safer on the street with her friend. I offer to pray with her, and she accepts. I pray for protection and safety, affirming the courage it takes to leave oppression and abuse. To take care of our mental health with a balance of therapy, community, and medication. I pray that we could all know the love of God and rediscover our identities as his beloved children. When were finished praying she is smiling from ear to ear and says, “That’s what I thought prayer was supposed to be!” She then gets out her phone and shows me a video. It’s the prayer time at the shelter that kicked her out. The staff are screaming about how God sits on the throne and judges our thoughts and minds. How God moves and heals in our submission and obedience.  I tell Sarah that the church has failed to understand mental health and that yelling at women who are fleeing domestic violence in the name of Jesus is spiritual abuse. I tell Sarah some of my own personal stories of being traumatized by the people of God.

We continue to talk, and allow the Holy Spirit to minister and heal the parts of our identities that have been malformed by rejection and neglect.  We part ways asking each other, how have we misunderstood the character and nature of God? What lies do we believe about God? About ourselves? “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb (Psalms 139: 13-15 NLT).”

Michael Cox

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