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 How Spiritual Abuse Redefines "Love"

I became convinced several years back that the true role of a Christian was to become a professional lover.

What does "love" mean? It's more than the common concept of romance, and extends to the sacrifice and commitment required to keep a relationship alive. For further study, look at the Greek words for "love" used in the New Testament (there are many books on this topic).

What does "professional" mean? It means that loving by God's definition becomes our entire reason for being -- our profession, or trade, and therefore we need to keep our professional credentials alive by interacting with other spiritually mature people in the same profession. In the case of Christianity, part of the professional requirement is bringing other people into the business.

A major characteristic of "cults" is their insistence on redefining terms.

 What is a Abusive Relationship?

Countless books have been written on the topic of spiritual abuse. For the purpose of this webpage, I'm choosing to draw from a book by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen entitled The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Bethany House Publishers, 1991).

Spiritual abuse mixes our commitment with God with our commitment to people (specifically religious people and religious organizations). Knowing this alone helps us to be healthier and more loving people, individuals who have the commitment hierarchy in order:

So the following chart shows in the left column what the specific spiritually abusive point is, and the right column how it helps erode our definition of "love." 

WARNING: If you are seriously looking and studying this chart, you may find some disturbing things about yourself and the people around you, and you may need to spend time in prayer or talking with mature Christians to have their input on whether or not your perception or interpretation of situations is correct. Therefore, please do not make any hasty conclusions based on initial emotions -- take time to think through whether or not these qualities of spiritual abuse really do apply to your experiences, and take time to interact with several spiritual mentors.

Spiritual Abuse Characteristic

Erosion to Our Concept of Love

"Shame-based Relationships" -- People learn to be or act powerless. Shame is not the same as guilt, a constructive signal which is an emotional indication of wrong actions or attitudes. Shame is a destructive signal about your personal worth, a belief or mindset that you are a bad and worthless person. (pp. 54-55) Shame induces feelings that people are:
  • not loved and accepted
  • not even lovable or acceptable
  • only loved and accepted if, when, or because they perform well
  • not capable, valuable, or worthwhile
  • very alone, not really belonging anywhere, to anything, or with anyone
Shame leads to spiritual isolation from what could be healthy and rewarding spiritual interaction with other Christians.
"Performance Focus" -- With this focus, how people act is more important than who they are or what is happening to them on the inside. (p. 56) Possible love damage:
  • Perfectionism, or giving up without trying
  • Doing only those things you are good at (not trying new things)
  • Failing to admit mistakes
  • Inability to have guilt-free fun
  • High need for approval by others
  • Living a double life
"Idolatry" -- The "god" served by the shame-based relationship is an impossible-to-please judge, who obsesses on people's behavior from a distance, and is more concerned about appearance, how things look, what people think and where the power is. (p. 57) Possible love damage:
  • Distortion of our relationship with the Lord
  • Inability to spiritually relate to true Christians
  • High anxiety built on other people's opinions
  • High need to control the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others in order to gain a personal sense of peace.
"Preoccupation with Fault and Blame" -- Forgiveness and personal apology are not enough when things go wrong -- people have to pay for their mistakes and feel so defective and humiliated that they won't act that way anymore. (p. 58) Possible love damage:
  • Preoccupation with documenting past history and mistakes
  • Taking actions to be direct indicators of spiritual worth and value to the Lord
  • Need to be right
  • Difficulty forgiving self
  • Difficulty accepting grace and forgiveness from the Lord
"Obscured Reality" -- In shame-based systems, members have to deny any thought, opinion or feeling that is different than those of people in authority. Interaction with people and places outside the system threatens the order of things -- the system (or organization) defines reality. Problems are denied or minimized, and therefore they remain (unless things change, they remain the same). (p. 58) Possible love damage:
  • Conditioned to be out-of-touch with feelings and emotions
  • Guessing at what is spiritually healthy
  • Threatened by opinions different than yours, especially from a religious leader
  • Suspicious or afraid of others not part of your system
  • Denial of reality
"Centralized Teaching" -- What is true is decided on the feelings or experiences of the religious leadership, giving more weight to them than to what the Bible says. People can't know or understand spiritual truth until the leaders "receive them by spiritual revelation from the Lord" or "until the timing is right" or "until the people are ready", at which time the spiritual leaders "impart" these truths to the people. (p. 70) Possible love damage:
  • Worshipping men more than God
  • Minimizing the miracle of the Holy Spirit in the converted Christian
  • Doubting or questioning our individual responsibility to make choices and learn from them
  • Inability to accept grace
"Image Management" -- Image managers are more concerned with how they look to other people, and in a shame-based system, religious leaders are loathe to admit error and slow to admit the truth. What counts less is the substance of the spiritual material, and more on how it looks and makes people feel. (pp. 131-136) Possible love damage:
  • Managing the image which we make with our lives
  • Requiring recognition from others, under the claim of "respect"
  • Wearing spirituality on the outside, but not believing it in the heart

 Making an Honest Assessment

I honestly find many areas on the above chart where I need to grow and pursue the Lord more diligently (and ignore what people and organizations say). Most of these problems stem from confusing the role of the organization with the role of the Lord. There are many benefits from having organized churches and ministries -- but the bottom line always is our direct relationship with God and what he thinks about our lives.

Feedback from our friends and associates may provide little or no help in uncovering real spiritual problems to overcome. What other people think will never amount to an assessment from the Lord, since God loves us unconditionally:

(Rom 5:8 NIV) But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

(Rom 5:9 NIV) Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!

(Rom 5:10 NIV) For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

(Rom 5:11 NIV) Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

(Rom 5:12 NIV) Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned--

Relying on other people, even spiritually mature religious leaders, to make decisions for us is a formula for disaster. Spiritual leadership is about sharing principles of living -- the human experience of making choices and living through the disasters and successes we create is part of healthy Christian growth. No church could hope to legislate all decisions which have spiritual impact on our lives -- many have tried to do this but have failed. People who believe such could happen are denying the miracle of the Holy Spirit.

God's solution involves accepting the fact that as humans, we are far from perfection, and that by his grace, we are able to live day by day and learn more about how to be like him. His covering of blood enables us to have a direct relationship with him, and though we struggle with sin, we are not beaten by the devil because he gives us new life through his spirit.

Satan (and perhaps other Christians) would have us assume that our moral failures (and those of others) amount to a break or separation in God's love and mercy for us -- this is not true, and God is even more willing to help the Christian who asks for it. The Lord expects us to rely on him for help and strength, and expects that he will to take the burden of sin on himself through the Sacrifice.

For more study, it would be good to obtain a copy of this book, and read the text honestly (having of course the opportunity for spiritual feedback from Christians).


Breaking free of spiritual abuse may seem difficult, and there are emotional difficulties involved with it, but it is not impossible. The difficult part comes in when we attempt our own salvation -- the Lord has provided his spirit to be the way out of spiritually abusive actions, and only this spirit can provide the lasting healing which we all need from sin. This healing helps us to similarly make the church a place for collective healing from the spiritual wounds and hurts from our past sins and experiences. We can use God's offer of grace to cover up spiritual abuse in our own past, and move forward to a more healthy concept of professional love.

©1997, Mark Tabladillo, Ph.D.

Page Created: October 18, 1997 by WCG.

The original page was linked to HarvestNETwebsite, until suddenly the page and website disappeared. Fortunately we had a mirror copy of it, and so we used the e-mail address on that to contact the author, Mark Tabladillo. He said the website server was changed and was down right now for as long as a month for an upgrade. The correct URL address for the article was supposed to be:
However, that url is still not correct so we  kept this mirror of the article here.
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