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Physical abuse is rarely hard to define or recognize. When spiritual abuse is present, on the other hand, it can be extremely difficult to figure out what is really going on, even when the pain of it is extreme. So let’s define spiritual abuse, shine a clear light on it and bring it out of hiding. Years ago, a revered (now retired) counsellor, Ed McCormack helped me come up with this definition: Whenever a true principle is taught without the Spirit, implemented with coercion, or used to diminish another person and make them feel they aren’t good enough, it is spiritual abuse.

Here’s an example. A wife badly needing validation says, “I’m hurting so much. I need you to tell me just one thing you like about me.” He looks at her with disdain, walks to his desk, opens the top drawer, and pulls out a couple of sheets of paper where he had been recording scriptures and quotes from the Ensign in one column and in the other column evidence to “prove” that his wife wasn’t measuring up to the counsel of the Brethren.

When a child or spouse is put down in the name of righteousness, when the principle is true but the spirit is the opposite of love and charity, confusion and discouragement usually result. Brother McCormack pointed out to me some important passages in D&C 50. We studied them together, using them as guidelines to understand spiritual abuse. In the remainder of this article I’m going to use verses from that section to clarify this principle.

Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? And if it be by some other way it is not of God” (D&C 50:17-18).

Brother McCormack pointed out that the very word of God taught without the Spirit with the intention to make someone else wrong or bad or to beat up on them emotionally is not of God; it is spiritual abuse.

Why this Principle Is Vital to Understand

Good and evil are fairly easy to sort out, but good that is taught with the adversary’s tactics is a tough one. It was Brother McCormack’s opinion that many young people leave the Church because they have not found growth or freedom or happiness in the skewed way the gospel is sometimes presented.

An example is my husband’s grandpa who ran away from his family and left the Church when he was a teenager, largely because his father was beating him consistently to “motivate” him to go to church meetings. Force never works to motivate people to spiritual actions. Even if they comply on the outside, they may be resentful and resisting on the inside. Coercion was the devil’s plan, and whenever we use it, we vote for his plan instead of God’s plan of agency.

Disconnection from Heavenly Father’s Love Is the Greatest Danger 

LDS counselor Peggy McFarland said,

With my clients I find that spiritual abuse is always present when there is any other kind of abuse, such as sexual or physical abuse. Ultimately, the greatest harm caused by abuse is spiritual harm where the victim of abuse becomes steeped in a shameful view of himself or herself. By its very nature, abuse causes victims to feel disconnected from their Heavenly Father’s unconditional love for them, to become lost from this “most precious” of all things.

Spiritual abuse occurs on a continuum from mild to severe depending upon whether other forms of abuse are present. Recognizing subtle forms of spiritual abuse will help our loved ones to resist the shame that is an inherent part of the Fall. We are taught so clearly in the temple and the scriptures that Satan always wants us to shamefully hide from the presence of our Heavenly Father. It is Satan who compels with fear and shame, rather than love. 

A True Story that Illustrates Unintended and Subtle Parental Spiritual Abuse

A friend who lives in a state far from the “hub” of Mormonism, is a totally conscientious parent, and devoted member of the Church. She shared the following experience but requested to remain anonymous:

When our 15-year-old son began to complain about going to church, we were caught off guard. He had always been a very obedient son and loved his Dad as a hero. Rather than try to understand his concerns, we were angry with him and had a punitive attitude. We told him that if he didn’t want to go to church, he could stay home and do chores.

In retrospect, at the heart of our position was our need for all of our children to appear obedient so that we would look like successful parents. In other words, our motivation was pride, not the loving qualities that God describes in D&C 121, such as “pure knowledge, long-suffering and love unfeigned.” We indeed rebuked him, but not because we were “moved upon by the Holy Ghost” and we did not subsequently support him with an “increase of love,” to make sure he did not esteem us as his enemy.

One Sunday I happened to walk past my son’s Sunday School class which was being held in the hall. Our son was sitting in the back of the class with his chair tipped back and his head leaning against the wall. His eyes were closed and his scriptures were on the floor. It was obvious that he was completely disengaged from anything that was going on in the class. Looking back, I can see that my first emotion was embarrassment, which Satan easily fueled into anger. Later, we lectured him for not having his scriptures open and not paying attention. In no way did we create an environment where it was safe for him to tell us why he was not participating in his class. The spiritually abusive message we sent was that he was “bad” if he didn’t meet our expectations. We unwittingly taught him that God didn’t care about what he thought or felt, that his value came only from his religious performances.

Our hearts were softened however, as we came to understand the circumstances behind our son’s behavior. This understanding came from another parent in the ward, not our son. In our ward there was a large group of boys who had grown up together from Primary age. They had always been good friends. However, as they went into high school, one of the boys became the “leader of the pack” and decided that he didn’t like our son. This boy encouraged all the other boys to isolate our son from the group, and sadly, the other boys were too weak to resist this peer pressure. One by one, our son’s friends stopped being his friend and church became a place where he felt rejected and alone. Our son was not questioning the truths we had taught him, he was just desperate for a friend.  When another family with teen boys moved into the ward, our son developed friendships that made church more inviting.

Fortunately, over the past 20 years since this experience, we have repented and made amends to our son for our punitive and spiritually abusive parenting style. Both of us were raised in homes where physical abuse, and consequently spiritual abuse, was present. Both of us needed to understand how the “traditions of our fathers” negatively impacted our parenting style. As parents we unknowingly passed on the shame of the physical and spiritual abuse we endured to our children. Thankfully, through family counseling, feedback from our children, and sincere repentance, we have learned to parent in a manner that more reflects our Heavenly Father’s parenting style.

How to Recognize Spiritual Self-Abuse

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).

Even when the truth is taught by the Spirit, if we receive it “some other way”—in the adversary’s way—it will discourage us and make us feel down and miserable and inadequate and incapable of living it. In this way the adversary is tempting us to spiritually abuse ourselves and be discouraged by the truth. I’ve done a lot of this in my lifetime, but only recently recognized the pattern as spiritual self-abuse.

Perfectionism itself can be spiritual self-abuse. If we take the scripture “Be ye therefore perfect” and add the word “now” we change it to “the philosophies of men mingled with scripture.” We can change pure gospel principles into misery-making, impossible-to-reach unrealistic standards by thinking we should perform flawlessly in every way this very moment. And we can become expert at self-flagellation and denigration, which must delight Satan because through such misguided thinking we are becoming like him: miserable, instead of becoming like Christ: full of light and hope. 

The Source of Light and Rejoicing

If the truth is both taught and received with the Spirit, it is edifying and causes us to rejoice. 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).

If we are not edified by what we hear, either it is not the truth or it is being taught or received without the Spirit. “And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness” (D&C 50: 21-22).

There is no rejoicing together in scenarios of spiritual abuse. In fact, darkness abounds. The abuser feels justified in his negative, unrighteous judgment and negative treatment, because, after all, doesn’t he have “the truth” on his side? Never mind that he is using that truth as a stick to beat with instead of making it into a torch or candle to light the way. The abused feel utterly discouraged, confused, down-trodden, unable to see the way ahead and begin to see the abuser as his enemy. Actually, the abuser is not the enemy, but has been misled and used by “the” enemy of us all to be an instrument of discouragement.

The Savior’s call to repentance, on the other hand, is never a discouraging accusation; it is a vote of confidence that you can do better, an affirmation of your worth. He assures you that you are loved and wanted, that He desires to be with you. In great love He says, “Come unto me.”

There is only one similarity between Jesus and Satan: The Savior wants us to be like Him and be with Him. So does Satan. Spiritual abuse is one of Satan’s favorite tools because, if it succeeds in discouraging and pulling down, it can pull both the abused and the abuser into his web. We can avoid that web by cleaving to the light.

That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day. And again, verily I say unto you, and I say it that you may know the truth, that you may chase darkness from among you” (D&C 50: 24-25).

I’m so grateful for light and truth and the power of the Spirit to help us discern truth. I pray that we may all receive more light and truth into our lives, that we may be edified by truth and repent when we are becoming involved in any measure of spiritual abuse to ourselves or anyone else. This is an area of our lives that really is black or white. If we are being edified and edifying others and finding reason to rejoice together we are in the light. If any discouraging, accusatory, judgmental words or feelings are present, we are not. if the spiritual abuse is aimed at us, we need to ask for a blessing, go to the temple, and increase our scripture reading and prayer so we can discern between truth and error. If the spiritual abuse is coming from us, we know we have need to repent, seek the Spirit and get back in tune with the Source of light and love and peace and joy.

Living by the Spirit and avoiding or repenting of spiritual abuse doesn’t mean we escape tribulation and sorrow in this mortal realm. It does mean we can escape unnecessary misery, bondage, and the wiles of Satan often evidenced in spiritual abuse. Is that not cause to rejoice?

Note: Peggy McFarland has recently moved from Oregon to Nampa, Idaho and opened a private practice there. She specializes in girls and women’s issues, depression, anxiety, and trauma. She has had extensive experience in counseling people who have spiritual abuse issues.