Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Identifying Spiritual Abuse and Narcissism

The following talk was given as a Lifeline Connect zoom talk at the Deborah Rise Movement on October 31st, 2020. Following the recording is a transcript of the talk.

The title of my talk is “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” with a sub-title of “Identifying Spiritual Abuse and Narcissism”.  Why Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? This was a phrase used by Jesus regarding the kind of people we will be talking about today. The idea is that they appear to be “sheep” who come alongside us with gentleness, but in reality, they are “wolves” who can devour and destroy us.

Often when there is spiritual abuse or narcissism, the abusers are highly respected Christian leaders in public, yet those who know them well, see a different side to them.

Here is why Spiritual abuse and Narcissism is so deadly.

In normal cases of abuse, a Christian can go to God for refuge and comfort. In the case of spiritual abuse, the victim’s picture of God is so marred and distorted, it leaves them with a feeling of complete hopelessness, where they feel like spiritual worms, and are wracked with guilt and shame. This is why there are some who even walk away from the faith.

Why Talk about Spiritual Abuse and Narcissism?

Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I grew up in a strong Christian home with many Christian leaders. I gave my life to Jesus at a young age, went to a Christian School. I memorized Scripture, read a lot of books and gained a lot of knowledge. I was being groomed to become a Christian leader. So, I imbibed a lot of spiritual pride growing up. God in His grace used my marriage to expose this pride. It was a long time before I realized that I had been blinded to the fact that I was a spiritual abuser in my marriage. It took me an even longer time to realize that I had grown up in a spiritually abusive situation as well. I will explain this in more detail presently.

By the grace of God, He was faithful and helped open my eyes to the truth. I am still asking God to help me undo the years of damage I have caused and am working towards healing in my own heart as a victim, and also trying to heal the hurt I have caused as a perpetrator. We are still a work in progress because the wounds and scars have been extensive, and some are still raw. So, this subject is very close to home!

Since my eyes have been opened to these truths, I have also studied them extensively. I have observed that this is a widespread problem in Christian organizations, churches and in families, but it is not much talked about or dealt with.  That is why I am speaking about it. I know that I am probably going to shake up a lot of people, and I pray that God will use what I have learned to help others.

Here are four reasons that I am talking about this subject.

  • I know that I would have benefitted if I had understood what spiritual abuse was early in my marriage. Possibly I can speak into the lives of younger versions of myself, and God-willing, help spare them and their families years of pain.
  • Possibly what I share with you today can help some of you who are living in a fog of pain because of the spiritual abuse you have experienced. I pray that God will enable you to have hope and move towards healing by seeing Jesus more clearly.
  • I also hope that those of you who have been so deeply hurt will be able to get some guidelines and next steps on dealing with your situations.
  • Possibly onlookers will be better able to recognize spiritual abuse when it happens and be able to speak up and defend those that they see suffering.
  • That we will stop being a part of the problem by praising and eulogizing spiritual leaders and putting them on pedestals.

Some Situations to Consider

The scope of my talk is specifically when spiritual abuse comes from a Christian source, not obvious cases of oppression or persecution from unbelievers.

There are some cases of spiritual abuse which are well known. For example, if a person enforces their authority and demands submission, that would count as spiritual abuse. Another obvious example is, everyone knows that church prayer meetings are great places to catch up with the latest neighborhood gossip. This can be slanderous and hurtful to those being victimized.

A less known case is when divorcees are shunned from places of Christian fellowship such as their church or their small groups. They are often told that God forbids them to remarry, without taking the time to understand their situations, such as the case of marital infidelity by the husband. This is spiritual oppression and abuse.

Another example is if a person goes to a “healer” asking for prayer when they are sick, and they are not healed. The healer then turns around and says it is their fault because they did not have enough faith. I have known people to lose their faith over such condemnation, and this is spiritual abuse.

However, the most devastating kinds of spiritual abuse are the last five points in the list. It comes from spiritual control, inducing guilt, emotional manipulation, bullying and shaming, and avoiding confrontation using various techniques. Let me give you some specific examples, so that you will begin to understand the kind of behavior I am talking about.

This is an example of having the “desire to control”. My marriage was an arranged marriage. My parents approved of my future wife before we even met. Eight months after we got engaged, my mama who was also my spiritual godfather and lived in a different country, wrote to me saying I must break off the engagement and start from scratch because I did not seek God’s will properly. He had started a theological college and was also my spiritual mentor. He prefaced what he wrote by saying he had spent many days and nights weeping in prayer and wrestling with God before he was convicted to write to me. He never gave me any specific reasons, so I wrote back that I clearly felt God’s leading through my parents who had approved the alliance, and it would be wrong to break our word to my future wife and her family for no good reason.  He wrote back that since my mind was closed to correction, he had nothing more to say. He said that he would continue interacting with me but not with my wife. After this he chose not to come to our wedding. Over the years he never explained the reasons for his opposition, despite my repeatedly asking. He refused to interact with my wife or our children until the end of his life. This was very harmful. Not a single person was willing to acknowledge the sinful abuse and mediate. They felt that since he was so spiritual, he must have had a good reason for his actions and could not have done anything wrong. Put yourself in my wife’s or her parents’ shoes and imagine the confusion and hurt this caused.

The next point on the slide is “inducing guilt”. Here is an example from an incident that happened just before my wedding. For some reason my mother felt that in order to have a truly God-glorifying wedding the bride should not wear a veil and there should be no wedding cake. So, I communicated this to my fiancé’s family who were planning the wedding. Understandably they pushed back, because this did not make any sense to them. So just a few days before the wedding, my parents visited my future in-law’s home, and my mother told my fiancé: “Do you have any idea how this will destroy the testimony that Peter has taken so much trouble to build up over the past few years?”. All of us were stunned to hear this – including me. I would do anything to be able to change what happened next – or rather, what did not happen next. I kept my mouth shut. This deafening silence on my part would mark the beginning of my marriage, where I continued to be blinded to the hurts my wife experienced from others and I failed to protect her and stand up in her defense, and also for the truth. My fiancé later shared with me that she had cried all night after that incident. She kept thinking that if she was having such a negative impact on my testimony, what would be the point of even going through with the wedding? Truth of the matter is, that God was being dishonored not by those things, but by the way His name was being used to control a situation for someone else’s agenda. Incidentally, just like many South Indian weddings, although my family did not ask for any dowry – which is a well-known evil practice, they expected the bride’s family to bear the weight of the entire wedding expenses and felt they had the right to control and to be demanding. If at all, this was the bigger sin in the whole situation. This is an excellent example how God’s name can be used to unnecessarily burden a person with feelings of guilt over things that are inconsequential. I have tried to make this right with my wife and my in-laws, but I wish it had never happened this way.

I will now give an example of “emotional manipulation”. My wife and I were going through a personal issue which we chose to share confidentially with both our parents, requesting them to pray for us. My mother immediately said she would share it with her siblings for them to pray as well. One of her siblings was my mama who had opposed our marriage. So, I told her that this was a confidential matter and that she should not share it with anyone – specially not my uncle who had cut himself off from my wife. This made my mother very upset. She said that she and her siblings were very close and always prayed for each other, and that maybe we did not know what that kind of deep Christian fellowship was like, and that I had no right to ask her to keep the matter confidential. However, I continued to insist that this issue was ours to share with the people we wanted to, and not hers. This made her so upset that she did not speak to me for a couple of months. This was the time I was leaving India to go for my post-doctoral fellowship. We left the country without her saying goodbye. This is using emotional control. When confronted the perpetrator gets hurt. So, they break communication to inflict punishment, until the victim feels guilty for what has happened, and apologizes for causing the hurt. That is exactly what happened in this case. I did apologize – and the issue never got resolved!

I am just skimming the surface of hurtful interactions we have had to face. I am not going to be giving any more details because my purpose is not to air out grievances, but to educate you on this extremely critical area of sinful spiritual abuse that is pervasive in the Christian community. Let me just say this. The manner in which I dealt with these hurtful interactions provides another example of how I myself acted as a spiritual abuser, although I was blinded to it. Whenever my wife tried to explain to me how much she had been hurt, I would tell her she was being unforgiving.  This accusation of unforgiveness caused her to think she was a sub-standard Christian. And she had nowhere to go except to suffer silently. She could not even take this to God, since it was spiritual guilt that she was experiencing. Her picture of God began to get distorted and her wounds began to fester without reprieve. Imagine what it would do to her when I told her that God says, “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, then neither will your heavenly Father forgive you”. This became a deadly weapon used by wielding Scripture. There were times when she was so devastated, I questioned whether she was even a believer! The problem was that I had a wrong view of what “forgiveness” really meant. You can forgive but still keep a distance when there is no repentance from the other party. So, the issue was not that she was unforgiving, but that she did not know how to deal with the repeated hurts that she kept experiencing, because I failed to protect her from them. And when even I was not listening, there was nobody she could share it with – not even God. Meanwhile, I genuinely felt I was doing the right thing by my reactions and was completely blind to the fact that in reality I was myself being a spiritual abuser. It grieves my heart to know how quick I was to give everyone else the “benefit of the doubt”, while I was not willing to do that with my own wife! Can you even imagine how hurtful my behavior was to her? If I had defended her, we could have together been able to deal with all the wolves that were attacking our marriage from the outside. But instead, I just piled it on even more! And after years and years of struggle in our marriage, after wrestling with God and shedding many tears on my part, God in His great mercy opened my eyes and showed me that I should have seen truth in the Word of God all along. She had been right. But by then, a lot of damage had already been done.

I now understand why at times my wife would tell me in sheer frustration: “I will really start knowing God only after you die” The point was, that the picture my side of the family and I were painting of God to her was so distorted, that it was destroying her spiritually, and also seriously damaging our children.

This is the horrible effect that spiritual abuse can have on a person, and why it is so important for us to be educated about it and stop It in our own lives and families. Jesus said that if we cause someone to stumble, it would be better for us to have a millstone tied around our necks and to be thrown into the deepest sea. That is how seriously God takes spiritual abuse.

I thank God for His mercy in opening my eyes before it was irrevocably too late, and my wife and I have been working towards healing. The wounds are deep, and the process is long. But I am so grateful to God for preserving our marriage, and that now we are on this journey together. I thank God for graciously working in my wife’s own heart by revealing Himself to her in fresh new ways that are drawing her so much closer to Him. This is how amazing our God is. He can take the worst of situations and the most brokenness and redeem it and transform those ashes into something really beautiful. I pray that if any of you are in similar situations, you would be able to learn from our experiences and be spared from similar pain. … or that you also would be able to find hope and healing at the cross.

False Shepherds

I am now going to talk about the root cause of spiritual abuse and Christian narcissism.

God speaks of false shepherds in the book of Ezekiel: “Ah, shepherds … who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them … and they became food for all the wild beasts.” (Ezekiel 34:2-5)

 This passage provides a key to understanding the source of spiritual abuse and narcissism. The key characteristics are the following:

  • Top priority is “Me”. I am the most important. I am Number One.
  • I use others so that I can be exalted at their expense. I don’t care how I hurt them.
  • I do not have any genuine care about the well-being of others, but I may show it superficially.
  • Jesus calls Himself the “Good Shepherd” and contrasts with false shepherds. There he says: “The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy but I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

Here is the problem.

Our society often puts Christian leaders and teachers on a pedestal.  We constantly praise and flatter them. We constantly invite them to speak in our meetings, and we consider ourselves honored if they grace our get-togethers with their presence. We look up to them. We treat them as demi-gods.  It is possible in Christian ministry to become nationally or even internationally famous, or even become very wealthy.

All of this can get into any human being’s head. This kind of glory and adulation can become addicting.

Jesus says of the pharisees in Matt 23:5-7: “Everything is done for people to see. … They love the place of honor in banquets and the most important seat in the synagogues. They love to be greeted with respect and to be called “rabbi”.

We see this in our culture. For example, I have seen pastors expect the assistant pastor or others to put on their robe on them, and they expect to be given a cup of coffee just before the church service, while they treat everyone very rudely. When ministry leaders make house visits, they expect to be thanked profusely and given money. They often will not visit those who are poorer and cannot afford good monetary “gifts”. Here is a specific way they do not strengthen the weak, while they are “feeding themselves”.

But this can get worse. Constantly being praised by people and being put on a platform, causes severe damage to anyone’s soul over time, because only God has the capacity to accept this kind of worship. The person can actually start believing they are spiritually better than everyone else. This often leads to spiritual abuse. Taken to an extreme it changes the wiring of the brain, and becomes a mental disorder called NPD (narcissistic personality disorder).

There are many Christian leaders who lie somewhere within the narcissistic spectrum. This is spiritually damaging to them and can be destructive to those closest to them, even to the point of damning their souls. I would encourage you to look at the pastors and ministry leaders you encounter in the light of all that we have talked about.

Jesus told the pharisees in John 5:44: “How can you believe if you seek praise from one another, and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” This is straight from the mouth of Jesus. Seeking praise from people can actually be a hindrance to having saving faith. That is how serious this is.

I would like to give you the opposite biblical example of how Paul and Barnabas dealt with a similar situation. They were in the city of Lystra, and after Paul healed a crippled man, everyone wanted to worship them, saying “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men”. You know Paul and Barnabas’ response? You can read about it in Acts 14:14-15. They tore their garments and rushed out to the crowds crying “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men of like nature with you”. They did not consider themselves special and saw the tremendous danger of accepting that kind of adulation.

Every leader is a human being just like everyone else. James makes this point, even when talking about the prophet Elijah, in James 5:17. He says that Elijah was a man with similar human frailties that the rest of us have. Therefore, the bible speaks of “servant leadership”. We are to consider others to be more important than ourselves” in Philippians 2:3. Jesus Himself said: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Every person in spiritual authority including parents, teachers, ministry leaders, pastors, evangelists, etc., are likewise called to follow Jesus and take up their cross in service, rather than lording it over others.

 Signs to Identify a Spiritual Abuser

Having already given specific examples, let me just make a couple of additional points.

Spiritual abusers surround themselves with an inner circle who constantly affirm them. The popular inner circle feeds their desire for praise and adulation. Whenever a person goes against them, they shame that person and shut them down.

Thus, the abuse becomes a self-feeding cycle that gets worse. This causes an environment of fear and intimidation rather than openness and honesty. Spiritual abusers are often willing to lie without a conscience, because they genuinely believe that protecting their platform is worth it, for “the sake of the gospel”.

Signs to Identify a Christian Narcissist

The key distinguishing factor of Christian Narcissists is a grandiose sense of self-importance and entitlement. They genuinely believe they are more spiritual than everyone else, and they have a need for constant praise and admiration. They exploit others, and frequently demean, intimidate, bully or belittle those who do not toe the line. They control by praise or punishment. Those who go against them are demonized and become a scapegoat who takes the blame for anything that went wrong as a fallout of the narcissist’s behavior. This frees the narcissist to continue that destructive pattern of behavior.

Here is an example of emotional manipulation when a narcissist is being confronted with hurt that they have perpetrated against someone.

The narcissist responds: “You do not know how much you have hurt me. Only God knows”

This makes the victim feel guilty and to desire to appease the hurt they have caused (even if it is not their fault). So, they ask the narcissist: “What did I do to hurt you?” Notice that immediately the victim’s original concern has been deflected, and the conversation has already moved elsewhere.

The narcissist may respond like this: “I do not remember. I have forgiven you and committed it to God”

See the manipulation here.

  • If the narcissist has really committed the matter to God, why was this even mentioned?
  • The victim’s confrontation has been flipped
  • The victim is made to feel like they are the unforgiving perpetrators because unlike the narcissist they were unable to forgive and commit the matter to God.

Thus, the effect is that it induces a sense of guilt in the victim, and in confusion and frustration with a conversation that went nowhere, the victim drops the subject. This experience also makes them think twice about bringing that issue or anything else up again with the narcissist. That is how an atmosphere of fear and intimidation builds up. Often people not closely interacting with the narcissist have no idea that this kind of manipulation is happening behind the scenes. Having effectively shut down the victim, the narcissist comes out on top and gets stronger in the cycle of spiritual abuse.

Here are some other kinds of responses a narcissist may make:

  • “Don’t judge me”. The Bible warns us not to judge or we will be judged
  • “I answer to God, not to you”
  • “God knows my heart”
  • “How dare you question me? Do you know who I am?”
  • “God is blessing my ministry, so clearly you are the one in the wrong, not me”.
  • “You are like the person trying remove a speck from my eye, when you have a log in your own eye”

In all these ways, confrontation is obstructed with spiritual sounding responses, and the victim is unable to have any of their concerns addressed.

To make matters worse, if the victim goes to someone else in the narcissist’s inner circle, even seeking Matthew 18:15-17 resolution, those people become what is technically termed “flying monkeys”. They have been groomed by the narcissist to support their point of view, and they tend to believe the narcissists version of the story – and the narcissist often has no qualms about lying – rather than objectively investigating the truth. This only causes more devastation to the victim. So, it is important for victims to choose people who have no vested interest in the relationship.

Christian Narcissists control the narrative of the spiritual health of the ministry they lead. 

Jesus is Different

“A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not extinguish” (Matt 12:20). If you are wounded and broken, Jesus will not do anything to destroy you. He will come alongside you and help you to heal.

Jesus came to “heal the broken-hearted and to set the captives free” (Luke 4:18). This was the purpose for which Jesus came.

Jesus said that He is the “Good Shepherd”, and that He lays down His life for the sheep. He serves the sheep and does not expect the sheep to serve Him (John 10:11-16)

He says: “Come to Me” – in the context of spiritual oppression and abuse (Matt 11:28-30). “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light”. If you feel the burden of being a Christian is too heavy, it is possible you have not fully understood the freedom that is available in Jesus.

We need to study and meditate on the truths of the Word of God and the promises of God. This will help us understand our own worth in Christ and will also help us recognize those shepherds over us who do not behave like our Chief Shepherd.

He never accepts us based on our behavior. He died for us so that He could invite us as we are. The transformation happens after this as a result of His magnificent love.

“It is only those who are sick who need a physician” (Mark 2:17). This is why He came!

 Jesus can Heal You

We can be wounded in two ways: (a) By others (b) by our own sin. Usually we struggle from a combination of both.

Jeremiah poses a question to the struggling people of Judah: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” (Jer 8:22)

A well-known hymn applies the words of the text this way:

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Jesus is truly the “balm of Gilead” for all the hurting people of the world. God’s grace is always greater than all of our hurt (whatever it is) and all of our sin (however bad it is).

Philpot says: “There is more in the balm to heal than there is in guilt to wound; for there is more in grace to save than there is in sin to destroy.”

Our True Healing comes from the Cross

Jesus bore our sins on Himself so that we could be set free from all of our guilt and all of our shame.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1)

Why? Because Jesus bore it on our behalf. Every single wrong thing we ever did were borne by Him, if we have put our trust in Jesus. There is nothing left in us that God will condemn.

He looks at us and sees the perfection of Jesus Himself, because He looked at Jesus, and saw all the filth of our sin.

God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we may become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

A Note to the Victims

First of all, I want to say I am really sorry for what you have gone through. Please hear me clearly. If you have been mistreated spiritually or emotionally by a Christian leader (I repeat that it could be a spouse, a parent, a teacher, a pastor, a ministry leader), it was evil and sinful. Period. They have not treated you the way Jesus would have done. Let us call a spade a spade! God cannot be pleased with such behavior.

However, since we have seen that often personal confrontation of a narcissist does not work, how can a victim deal with it?

  • Fix your eyes on Jesus. Comfort yourself with the Promises in His Word.
  • Fight the urge to feel sorry for yourself and to stew in your own hurt
  • Avoid fighting for your rights, unless the honor of God is at stake
  • If you cannot find any way to stop the behavior (by trying to talk, to confront, Matthew 18:15-17, etc.), if possible, distance yourself from being in a position where you can be abused
  • If for any reason distancing yourself is not possible, and you do not see any resolution in sight, then take the matter to God
  • Ask God to give you the grace to release bitterness and unforgiveness from your heart. Only then true healing can begin

But on the other side of the coin we need to be honest. Even victims in their pain and confusion often respond sinfully to the abuse they face. Unfortunately, a narcissist will even use those sinful responses to further tear down the victim and make a more solid case for themselves. This can cause a downward spiral for the victim. Satan “the accuser of the brethren” also uses this as a weapon to make the victim feel even more miserable, guilty and hopeless. So be aware of this.

Have You Been Victimized? Seek Help

Each situation is different. As we have seen situations can become very complex. Victims should seek help using God-given means. Spiritual abuse wounds the heart at the deepest level, and you may need others to walk alongside you, and help bind up your wounds and point you towards the Great Physician Jesus.

Pray for wisdom regarding how to deal with your situation. God promises: “If anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask of Him who gives freely without reproach” (James 1:5)

Actively seek help. You may not be able to deal with this alone.

  • Your church
  • A Biblical Counsellor/Psychologist
  • Support Ministries such as The Deborah Rise Movement
  • Christians whom you trust for support

Feed yourself on the truths and promises of Jesus. He is the One who created you, and who fully knows every detail of what you are going through, and who fully understands your situation

Safeguards Against Becoming a Spiritual Abuser or Christian Narcissist

I want to now address anyone having any form of God-given leadership or authority. As you can see, the pathway to Spiritual Abuse and Christian Narcissism is very wide and slippery, and it is extremely easy to develop these patterns of behavior. So how do you guard against them?

  • Submit yourself under the authority of God in everything you do (family, work, ministry, etc.)
  • Recognize that you are a sinner who frequently sins, even if you are a leader
  • Think higher of others than yourself.
  • Treat others with respect, and work towards really empathizing with their feelings when they share
  • Do not make excuses for sinful behaviors such as pride, self-righteousness, lying, selfishness, lack of compassion, anger, lust or adultery, etc. Repent quickly and wage war against your flesh.
  • Seek only to please Jesus and do not get your worth from your public reputation
  • When you wrong someone in public, apologize in public. When you wrong someone in private, apologize in private. Always seek to make things right
  • Accept correction from anyone (even your children or subordinates). Wage war against thoughts such as “Who are you to tell me this”. “Healthy correction is good, and if you accept it you will be wise” (Prov 15:31)
  • Be vulnerable and encourage honesty and show yourself open to correction
  • Hold yourself truly accountable to one or more people in your life
  • Integrity means being the same in public as you are in private. Battle against any behavioral pattern in yourself that is different in private

A Note to the Onlookers

Micah 6:8 “Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God

Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and to untie the cords of the yoke” (Isa 58:6)

God takes justice seriously

  • To see someone being victimized and not doing anything about it is tantamount to agreeing with the oppressor. In God’s eyes you are also culpable of the evil because you did not choose to intervene.
  • To keep quiet only enables the abuser.
  • We should be more willing to “err” on the side of the vulnerable rather than on the side of the powerful
  • Do not flatter or worship Christian leaders. It can be dangerous or even damning to them.

Conclusion

I think this wraps up what I wanted to share with you today. Take this message to your homes, your ministries, your churches and your workplaces. Talk about it and make changes. We need to educate, and we need to fight for God’s honor.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, I want to pray for all those who are listening to me right now. Some of them have been hurt by Christian leaders and I want to just commit them into your hands at this time. I pray that they will be able to find healing in you. I also pray for those here who may be spiritual abusers and narcissists, that the Holy Spirit will convict them about the dangerous path they are on and draw them back to you. Finally, Lord I pray for each one of us. Please give us wisdom to guard against the pitfalls, and courage to speak up on behalf of the vulnerable when we encounter spiritual abuse. In all of this, may Jesus be glorified, and I pray this in His name, Amen.

 

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