What Goes On in the Soul
of the Spiritual Abuser?
This question, more than any, other troubled me very much as I healed and continue to heal from my realization of spiritual abuse. Delving deep to find these answers perhaps impeded my own healing in some ways, though after many years of pursing true forgiveness, I believe I also needed to search out the answers for my own well-being and acceptance. When one has been deeply wounded, I believe it is natural to ask questions about why someone was motivated or why they neglected to notice how profoundly they wounded us. I found it troubling to realize that there were essentially no simple answers to these questions.
The best wisdom that I’ve found in it all has been to consider "But for grace, there go I." Or to expand upon that quote from the "Art of War," by considering that I have seen the enemy, and that enemy could easily be or have been me. (Or is that from Aurelius?) Only by God’s revelation through the Holy Spirit have I been able to find satisfactory answers, and without His Divine Intervention, I would have realized nothing of the moral state wherein I once found myself. My zeal for God’s best in my life and in the world was so great, nothing that advanced the cause ever seemed adequate, and everyone around me seemed complacent. Ah, but someone had all the answers and the mystical plan that would work and evangelize the world and transcend all the pain in life, whether it was time or not! And to break from the complacency, some little foxes and vital truths escaped my attention until I found that there were many and too many unanswered questions. After buying into the ideal plan, why on earth did I stop where I did to recognize the rapidly accumulating problems? Why do others keep plodding along in pursuit of the glorious goal when I could go no further? I’m adding that to the list of things to ask the Lord. None of us has arrived and we are in a continual process of becoming something, and for the Christian, that means to be conformed into the Image of Christ. Despite our failures and weaknesses, even through what often proves a very messy process, God somehow works it all together for His Glory. But the answers are not clean and simple ones and are as complex and difficult as the human heart.
The prophet Jeremiah said that our hearts were so deceitful that no one could know them, and Pascal said in the Penses that "the heart has its reasons that reason knows not." Part of what Tobias and Lalich call "unmasking the guru" involves a learning to see our spiritual abuser in very real terms, without the pomp, circumstance and power we once attributed to them. We are all fallen, fallible men who approach this life with our unique foibles and shortcomings, and part of coming to terms with the process of spiritual abuse involves recognizing the elements of idolatry that come along with the natural tendency to put our loved leaders or ideals on a fantastic pedestal. We need to have no pedestal but that one for God alone and for the Word. Men never can occupy that spot in our hearts, and our Jealous God will call those things that displace Him to account as we follow Him. When we reach that vantage, these questions of "why" and "how" and "didn’t they know" come to the forefront in our process of seeing the world without the scales and blinders. Here, hopefully, we can learn compassion for the spiritual abuser, when we realize that they are more likely deeply embedded in the system far deeper than we ever were and are now dependent on making it work. The same things that hooked us into the idealism hooked them, too. (So I hope.) They were deceived as we were and perhaps to a greater degree. Whatever "fed" us while we were a part of the system has a much greater influence over those in leadership.
There is also some wisdom in realizing that a uniquely amazing and wonderful attribute of the human mind is not so much the ability to realize truth but rather the ability to hide ourselves from it. The mind is an amazing thing that helps us survive, primarily through distracting us from reality. Life is painful, and to realize this in its fullness would likely destroy us, so the remarkable thing that the mind does serves to shield us rather than to open our eyes. Consider how the prophets responded when they saw God. Moses was forever altered. Isaiah fell on his face before the Throne. And whoever it was that appeared to Daniel left him what is described to us as physically weakened if not ill in his flesh. Part of experiencing the holiness of God comes from recognizing our own depravity apart from Him. We may have vicariously eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but our minds work hard to mask us from the cruel, bitter realization of that evil, even the evil that we mortify daily. It is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but that which proceeds out of him. Though, day by day we are changed, we are still subject to the evil influence of the sin nature. Only by the insight that God gives us through the Spirit by opening the Word to us do I believe that we recognize this process. Our natural minds guard us, but only the Spirit of God opens our eyes. And He does not open our eyes fully, all at once.
The Christian has the sin nature as a concept to ponder, but societies have also sought to otherwise depict this paradox of good and evil in the heart of man. From this concept springs the idea of "doubling" where a man splits these two natures apart from one another inside the depths of the heart in an attempt to hide his own, yet unmortified, depravity. This ability helps us survive tragic circumstances and helps soldiers survive warfare, and varying degrees of it help us cope in less than ideal circumstances in life. When describing this ability of the mind, Robert Lifton cites the legend of Faust who makes a deal with the Devil in order to gain great success in life. Goethe’s Faust stands as an inwardly divided figure who is keenly aware of his worldly responsibilities and commitments as well as a second self that epitomizes the hubris of selfish gain. As Rushdoony once put it, there is an economy of guilt and pity and gain that the human mind recognizes. This doubling allows a man to fantasize about the preferable good self while distracting himself from the pit of evil, and the evil means that justify the good and idealized end are split apart from one another. The guilt gets transferred to the shadowy evil lurking in the heart somehow as the mind focuses on the fantasy of the idealized end. Part of declaring and defining aspects of life as completely good or utterly evil in spiritual abusive system stems from this process of doubling, essentially in an attempt to avoid the messy truth that we have much evil left to mortify in our hearts as long as we live. It is this process of doubling that allows men to commit horrible acts in the name of a greater good without an apparent twinge of ethics that one would expect, especially from someone in Christian ministry. It is a temporary and very human way of surviving evil wherein an internal bargaining process helps the end justify the means.
In the many sources I’ve read in an attempt to understand the mind of the spiritual abuser and the manipulator, there are nearly always two central elements inherent in
every abusive dynamic:
1. There is always some narcissistic sense of entitlement
on the part of the abuser.
2. There is always some process of redefining or
demonizing the victim
(or those outside the privileged group).
Ideologies that seek to foster transcendence of some aspect of the human condition enhance and facilitate both of these elements. It is true that most leaders of abusive systems have narcissistic traits, Machiavellian qualities and what some describe as an impairment in normal human empathy. The two most common personality disorders that are consistent with gurus and cult leaders are the narcissistic and anti-social personality disorders, and both conditions that involve varying degrees of the impaired empathy. The experience of abuse certainly does not encourage any type of resolution or healthy growth in these areas of personality. It is reasonable to state, especially for those within helping professions, that personality traits certainly predispose spiritual abusers to the pitfalls in the system, and the dynamics further reinforce the entitlement and narcissistic traits in the leader. In that sense, failure to call these leaders to account only reinforces if not rewards their continuing behavior.
Ideology and the greater good also facilitate the redefining of certain people as undesirable. In the "Nazi Doctors," Robert Lifton examined as much about the development, histories, deeds and psychology of the doctors who worked in prison camps during WWII, citing the process of "doubling" as the human ability that allowed for such atrocities to occur on such a wide scale. The redefining of others outside of the totalistic group becomes a part of the ideology that is often meant to enhance life for the achievement of the greater good. He says, "To the extent that one embraces the far reaches of the Nazi vision of killing Jews in order to heal the Nordic race, the paradox disappears." (pg 430). The key to this shift in ethics involves a shift away from personal ethics to the ethics of the group and the ethics that structure the greater good. Responsibility for personal behavior and the ethics inherent in them is shifted over so that the person no longer bears the pressure. The group manages that instead of the process being dynamic and ongoing. The difficulties are transferred over to the group-think ideology. "This is what I learned to be right and just, so I no longer bear that personal responsibility."
The immediate demand of a sense of warring against an evil foe also intensifies these distinctions and makes questionable ethical behavior less problematic. Many today view Christian living as outright war against the culture so that all aspects of daily living are seen not as an opportunity for daily personal growth internally but as sacramental war efforts that do violence to the enemy. Within patriarchy, as Noll cites a statement from the fundamentalist revivals of the early 20th Century in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, "wholesome living" is viewed very much to be "the unmediated agency of God." Pope Pious XIII said (and I paraphrase from a John Robbins book...) within a few years of these sentiments of the fundamentalist revivals, that a life well-lived was the best and most effective path to heaven. This also involves a great deal of paternalism wherein the greater good of the ideal makes small ethical issues seem rather insignificant. Following the rules and set standards of daily living become like religious sacraments that all promote the greater good with all the ardent zeal and glory of a warrior. But to the ethics of war and wholesome living equate well to one another? War involves survival, ethics and other dichotomies that are not conducive to daily living in a peaceful society.
Lifton wrote (Pg 431):
"War is the only accepted institution (a highly honored one in the case of the Nazis) in which there is a parallel healing-killing paradox. One has to kill the enemy in order to preserve – to "heal" – one’s people, one’s military unit, oneself. And if one follows the rules of war, one also heals those among the enemy whom one has not quite killed but merely wounded and captured. The "equivalent of war" image, with its claim to courage and endurance, lends "honor" to the self. A Nazi doctor could thus avoid a war in which his life would really be threatened (that on the Russian front) but participate in a claimed moral equivalent of war in which he faced no such danger... He could experience a psychological equivalent of war, at moments feel himself "on the battlefield of the race war." On this and many other issues, partial conviction could combine with rationalization". "Even the term anus mundi ["world of selections"] can become associated with a positive mission involving the principle of "the necessity to sweep clean the world." The healing achieved by killing could also become part of the immortalizing vision, the "holiest human right and ... obligation." which is "to see to it that the blood is preserved pure, and by preserving the best humanity, to create the possibility of a nobler development of these beings."
There is also a power in consistency through commitment, ritual and validating the ritual through perpetuating the chosen rituals. The continuing of the behaviors associated with the group and the system provides validation to those who are promoting the ongoing behavior. It all becomes a vicious cycle of self-validation. Lifton wrote that "In psychological terms, we may say that the backed-up power so threatening to its possessor is the potential sense of guilt, which can be fended off only by continuous application of that lethal power outward to an enemy" (pg 433). Continuing the behaviors then is a means of avoiding the ever-present guilt that threatens to invade the conscious mind of the abuser. If the behavior stops, then it infers some sense that there was something questionable about the practices from the start. That holds its own psychological threat. "The healing ethos fights a losing battle, if it fights at all, as the Auschwitz self takes over." There is "not a sudden epiphany but rather the end point of a process, brief and intense enough, in which the Auschwitz self progressively took hold."
Our human nature predisposes us to certain, predictable tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. Our worship can be enhanced with rituals, or rituals can be used to manipulate us. Idealism appeals to man's desire to transcend the less fortunate aspects of human living and this fallen world, and it's our created nature to desire to bring that change. War is a means of calling us to that which is higher and greater than we are, calling out and validating the good aspects of our nature. It is easy to scapegoat someone when they are defined to be a lesser creature in some way, by creation, ethics, ability or productivity. Entitlement among leadership, idealism and elitist scapegoating can make for a very dangerous combination. In the extreme case and example of the Nazi Doctors, the combination proved deadly. Sadly, these very same dynamics that brought about such atrocity also operate -- alive and well -- within many Biblical Christian churches and Christian organizations. Perhaps that gives some insight into how we can get pulled so far off course without our ready realization of the process of just what sensitive and remarkable creatures of worship we are by design. If we will not worship God in the way he laid out for us and our reach extends beyond this into the sophistry of man, our worship bears potential to become corrupt beyond our wildest imaginations.
God have mercy on us all. But for grace...
Quotes, unless otherwise noted, taken from Robert Lifton's
Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide"