If your husband uses scripture to coerce you and control you –
If he accuses you of sin, saying that God revealed this information to him –
If he makes unilateral decisions for you and the family –
You may wonder, “Am I being spiritually abused?”
And the answer is yes.
Abby is on the podcast to take a deep dive with Anne into what spiritual abuse looks like and how she sought and found deliverance. Tune in to the BTR.ORG podcast and read the full transcript below for more.
Spiritual Abuse Boils Down To Control & Coercion
Abusers use spiritual abuse to coerce and control victims. This can look like:
- Coercing the victim into sexual activity using scripture or the misogynistic logic that it is her “wifely duty” to be submissive
- Refusing to help with household duties
- Convincing the victim that she does not have access to God’s direction and must submit to his revelation or intuition
- Making unilateral decisions
- Controlling the finances
- Refusing to let the victim work
- Accusing the victim of “sin”
- Controlling whom the victim can associate with
- Controlling the victim’s hobbies
This list isn’t exhaustive, but may help victims identify specific areas that the abuser is using spirituality and religious texts to control and coerce her.
Spiritual Abuse Isolates Victims
By nature, spiritual abuse is generally very isolating. Victims may not be allowed to associate with others outside of the faith community. Abusers may refuse to allow victims to have contact with their families and friends.
In Abby’s case, she was denied medical care, access to education, and contact with her family:
I was even, and my children, likewise, were also prevented from getting medical care because of this same issue. He would say, “God’s going to heal you. You don’t need a doctor.” So that conditioning and fear was there for a long, long time. And so it was a big risk for me [to seek support].Abby, Member of the BTR.ORG Community
It Is Possible to Seek Safety From Spiritual Abuse
Many victims of spiritual abuse feel trapped in a situation that may feel impossible to escape from.
Often, not only is it the abusive spouse keeping the victim isolated, but family members, friends, and clergy enable the abuse and isolation.
Even though it may feel daunting, it is absolutely possible to seek safety from spiritual abuse.
Abby’s deliverance came in stages. She began learning about abuse, worked toward separation, and ultimately divorced her abuser and began building a beautiful new life for herself.
BTR.ORG Is Here For You
We are here for you as you begin your own journey toward safety.
The BTR.ORG Group Sessions are here for you to process trauma, ask questions, and find the community you deserve. Join today.
Welcome to BTR.ORG. This is Anne.
I have Abby on today’s episode, she was orphaned at the age of 12 and adopted into a family that attended the Community of Christ Church in Northern Missouri. She married her husband, also a member of that same church, at the age of 18. And they were married for 26 years and had five children while dating and married. She experienced spiritual abuse in the form of misuse of the word of God by her husband and several of the influential male leaders of her church. So we’re just gonna get into our story now and have her share her experiences. Welcome, Abby.
Thank you, Anne. I’m honored to be here. I hope that my story will help others know that God himself does not want his daughters to be oppressed in any way and that he is the ultimate authority or one that calls the shots, if you will.
When Abby Started To Sense Abuse
Let’s talk about the beginning of your marriage, perhaps dating where you kind of started to sense that something wasn’t quite right.
I sensed it from the beginning. But because of lack of education and self-esteem, I wasn’t sure what to do about it. My former spouse would sit in the car with me for hours and tell me what God told him about me. And let’s just use a silly example. God told me you were wearing a dress when X, Y, Z happened. And I would say, no, I was wearing the purple dress, not a blue one. And he would overpower me. And the truth became that the dress was the color he chose. That sounds really silly, but it was a very powerful way of controlling.
I don’t think that sounds silly at all. I think it sounds extremely traumatic and strange.
“God is the Ultimate Trump Card”
Well, and God is the ultimate Trump card and he knew I was a woman of faith and was very devoted. Some other issues were, I went on a hiking trip with the youth of my church. All of us got to top of Mount Albert were having fun and I fell in a snow drift and one of the guys pulled me out and we left and afterward he forced me to stay away from that boy. He wouldn’t let me go out with other friends, he would dominate my time, he actually stopped in the road while I was getting in the car with Stephanie, my friend said, oh, you need to go with me. And one of the most poignant situations was he had a pornography issue at the time. And I had learned to play the guitar from a former boyfriend. And so in order to prove my devotion to him and him professing, he was giving up or abandoning his addiction, required of me to throw my guitar along with his porno magazines into a well, and I was never allowed to play the guitar for youth campfires ever again. Yes, it all seemed odd. I actually went to a school counselor and said, look, do I not communicate well, this person is just not understanding a word I’m saying. And she says, you have a fine command of the language, but I was uneducated. I did see red flags.
Really quickly for our audience. Was this a public school?
“He Overpowered My Own Conscience”
A church school. And even the night before our wedding, we sat in the car and I just said, there’s just something wrong. I just can’t go through with the wedding. And so I said, goodnight, got out of the car. He pulled me back in and overpowered my own conscience. He has a way with words and was able to convince me how wrong I was to not follow through with the wedding.
So you’re saying you knew something was wrong. You even talked to a school counselor about it, but you obviously didn’t know at the time to call it abuse. Did you do anything to try and stop this behavior from happening, like praise or love any of the typical Christian things?
The early part of our marriage, I was a pretty strong-willed young woman. We often had fights and it was mostly over him saying and persisting that the dress was blue instead of purple kind of situation. Those kinds of conversations would lead to argument. The argument would lead to being forced on the ground, held down on the bed in a corner until I finally just gave up and consented. Then the dress was blue. So I had to shut up in order to maintain peace in our household. I just ended up stuffing for years and then I would have outbursts of anger. And I’m like, what’s the matter with me? I’m so angry. And I understand now why, until about 20 years later, I wasn’t even able to articulate the concept of these behaviors as abuse.
Why Is It So Difficult For Victims To Identify or Label Abuse?
So many women from all over the world have found that it’s so difficult to recognize that this type of behavior is abuse and it takes years to figure it out in your case. I’m sure you’d heard the word abuse before. Why do you think for you? It was so hard to figure out that it was abuse or even to label it abuse until years later?
Well, predominantly I believe that it was my belief system. I read the Bible, I read how Jesus died for those who persecuted him. And there are several passages that talk about honoring authorities, the laws of the land, submitting to your husband, suffering like Christ. All of the things that I endured with him in my mind at that time was purely, “I’m suffering for Christ.” I went through a period of going through the homeschool movement in which many of the presentations of homeschool families focused heavily on women submitting. And so I thought internally that I was doing what the Lord wanted me to do. Yes, I’ve heard the word abuse, but the two did not connect. And I also thought it was what God wanted me to do.
When Spiritual Constructs & Religious Cultures Condition Women To Accept Abuse
In your experience, the whole spiritual construct or, and the world you were living in the culture of your religion, kept you from seeing that it was abuse.
Absolutely. And additionally, his behaviors were not Christlike in many ways.
So in light of this being actively abused, you are practicing the types of principles that seem like they’re a good idea, right? Love, service, forgiveness, that are taught by your religion, but in the context of abuse, they’re really harmful to you. When did you realize that these common types of marriage principles or just healthy living principles were not working in your case?
Well, there’s several pivot points where I became aware and then would get pulled back in. One of the most powerful influences and also moments of pivot of saying, wait a minute, this isn’t right, God wouldn’t do this, were the times that he would hear from God that I had done horrible things. I guess I can just be completely transparent here. He would accuse me of adultery for just talking to someone, would accuse me of spiritual homosexuality for speaking with my mother. In other words, isolating me away from people who had a different opinion and would give me options to his treatment of me. I remember specifically fleeing the home after an episode and going to the library for retreat. And on its side was a book by Jack Aterburn, if I have the author correct called Twisted Scriptures.
When Abby Realized She Was a Victim of Abuse
And I’m like, what is this? And I picked it up. I snatched, it went to my mom’s home. It took me two or three hours to recover from the episode. And I’m reading this book and I’m like, this is what’s happening to me. And I went home and I stood in the kitchen and I still remember the clock saying 10 and the hands were at 10 o’clock. And I said, this isn’t going to happen anymore. I don’t remember what happened, how he did it. I just remember ending up on the floor in defeat and being accused of spiritual adultery, repeated incidents of being accused of adultery. When I knew between me and God in my own heart and conscience that I had never done that. And then to have it be accused publicly, not only in front of my children, but in front of people of the faith. And so the conflict between the two was horrible. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally said, I will not do this anymore.
When you’ve decided this, and you’re not getting any traction with him, you’re ending up just continually being blamed, did you start to try and get help from other people?
Should I Share Abuse Resources With My Abusive Husband?
Yes. A prominent helper, so to speak, was a very prominent leader in the faith. And I was convinced by him, a church faith leader, that I was not submissive enough and that’s why I was having so many problems. I also fled to a women’s shelter. I was given the power and control wheel after an episode and I was in crisis. And it made a lot of sense to me, but not all of the wheel was completely full at that time. Maybe a third of it was, or at least I recognized and I took it home to him thinking if he just seized this, we could get help and everything would be okay. And that wasn’t the case.
So many women do that, right? They read Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft for example. And they’ll be like, oh, he has to read this chapter or something, thinking that that’s going to help. And at betrayal, trauma recovery, we do not recommend that. You try to talk to your abuser about the abuse at all. That only sets you up for more abuse. So what women need to do is start making their way to safety, meaning to separate themselves from the harm in whatever shape or form that that takes that they’re capable of doing at the time. Because sharing with your abuser, the information that you learn is very dangerous. What generally happens is they take that information and they weaponize it and they actually use it against you. You are not abusive, but they are accusing you of it because they learn the language of it. And because they learn how to speak. When they talk to other people, third parties, therapists, church leaders, they’re able to convince other people that you are abusive because they know the language of it. And so I don’t think it ever helps them. It just helps them weaponize it against you.
“It Is Dangerous to Divulge Anything To Your Abuser”
And I could’ve said the exact same thing too, if I was speaking as an advocate and not telling my story, I would’ve said exactly what you just said. It is dangerous to divulge anything to your abuser. They will weaponize it no matter what it is.
So the point of learning this information at BTR.ORG, if you follow us on Instagram or TikTok, you may have seen Jane, who is a content creator here at BTR.ORG, doing videos about information like this. All of the information that BTR.ORG produces, the purpose of it is to educate you, the victim, about abuse. The purpose of it is not for you to take and show your abuser in order to help him understand abuse so he can stop being abusive. That is not how this works. He will just weaponize it and use it against you. So please keep that in mind, as you learn more about abuse, that the purpose of it is for you to understand it, recognize it, and start making your way to safety.
Yes, and I think another part that pivoted me was the way in which he would use our children. My oldest remembers, and I saw it too. I just didn’t have language for it until I read Lundy Bancroft’s book, how perpetrators use children and thereby also abuse children. And I want to emphasize the abuse of a spouse. A wife, mother of children, is abuse of the children. He would batter me to the point that my children would flee, escape out the living room window and go and play in the creek and the fields just to get away from the abuse and then would come back traumatized. What’s wrong with mommy? And he would trauma bond with them, comforting them while I’m in an emotionally broken state and tell them, “Your mommy’s mentally ill. We need to pray for her. We just really need to pray for her.”
Abusers Often Manufacture Emotional Tethering With The Children
And so my children grew up bonding with him during most critical junctures. And so it would separate me emotionally from my children. And even when I finally left, I could not take my children because my older children were groomed to report on, spy on, tell dad that I was a bad girl. So if I had taken them to a shelter, especially the oldest son, would have called dad and said, “Hey, we’re over here. Come get us. Mom’s being bad again.”
That is so hard.
That whole setup of grooming the children has destroyed the constitution and emotional condition of all five of my children. And we’re still suffering the consequences.
That’s awful. I’m so sorry. So talk about, as you start really making your way to safety, how did you finally get some traction on being able to get to safety? And what did that look like for you?
Well, separation, complete disconnection, was the first step of traction, starting to think and act and decide for myself, which took time to recover because everything was deferred to him previously. But I can’t emphasize enough the separation, even though you’ve got all this covenant language, “death do you part,” you have to get away and start recovering on your own with outside resources. And I started my own business, integrated into my community, volunteered at a local women’s shelter. Did public speaking, studied. I think I’ve read every book, almost every book on domestic violence, coercive control, spiritual abuse, definitely educated myself, started college. And I think my greatest traction point was when I was no longer a woman with my tail between my legs in front of spiritual leaders. No matter what faith they came from, I previously thought, oh my goodness, I need to be meek and submissive. And now I’m totally confident in my relationship with God and in interfacing with faith leaders and saying, look, that’s not what the scriptures say, or educating them on what needs to happen, what they need to know to help victims that come to them for help. And what they’ve in the past is dangerous.
When Abusers Create Fear of “The System”
Yeah. That’s so good. That’s really important to talk to people about that separation part. What was the next phase of your journey?
Actually, because I didn’t have my children with me. I went to division of family services. I know that may not have been in most cases the best choice, but fortunately, in my case, at that time, the social worker, I told her, I, I left home. This is why I’ve got five children there. They’re homeschooled, they’re isolated and they need help. And she did help me. She did believe me. She enforced removing the children from him, but he manipulated the system. And then I filed for divorce.
Can we talk about that for a minute? I have found that many women who are being spiritually abused, part of that spiritual abuse is sort of a fear and a distrust of government resources or help. Can you talk about how abusers use a fear of services that people could use, perhaps government services or community services and why that plays into why they stay isolated and how they have a hard time getting out?
Spiritual Abuse: Not Allowing Victims to Receive Medical or Civil Care
Absolutely, uh, definitely was afraid to go there. They weren’t the kingdom, they were of the world, do not go down to Egypt, Isaiah says, and you are disobeying the higher laws of God to go to the world for counsel. And it was horrible. I was even, and my children, likewise, were also prevented from getting medical care because of this same issue. He would say, God’s going to heal you. You don’t need a doctor. So that conditioning and fear was there for a long, long time. And so it was a big risk for me and I had already, by the time I spoke to her, realized after many unfortunate episodes with church leaders who failed to get me the appropriate resources and addressed the real issue of our home.
I did go to this social worker; the terror of leaving an abuser, threats of murdering me, “You’ll never see your children again,” was horrible. And I thought, well, I’ll just go back. And she told me, “Abby, if you go back, I will take your children from both of you because he is abusing your entire family. You need counseling.” And I hadn’t gotten counseling at that point. It would’ve been a year and a half after separation. I didn’t know that I could trust a secular counselor. And she was extremely helpful, led me to Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery, and also Lundy Bancroft. So it was good for me, but it was so hard to trust secular resources.
Learning to Trust Secular Resources after Spiritual Abuse
Were you surprised at how helpful they were when you finally were able to do that? Were you like, wait a minute, they care about me. I mean, I just think like this whole time you’ve been trying to do what God wanted you to do. And by the way, God loves you, right? He cares about you. And yet in this system, you’re not being cared for at all. In fact, you’re being dismissed. And then you go to these secular people who actually are caring for you and trying to help you and listening to you and believing you. Were you shocked? Were you like, wait a minute, I was taught these guys were bad and here they are. They’re amazing.
I was, I mean, two episodes. First of all, the social worker was a she. She does not, did not, does not believe in God. I was really upset because I thought I was a godly person and I was being a bad example, look at my household. And she called me one afternoon. And I can’t remember the whole content, but I said, “Jenny, you do believe in God. Every single morning you put your feet on the floor. You go to work and you deliver the captives. You deliver the orphans. You are helping people in abuse. You believe in God, because that’s what he would do.”
Hmm. What did she say to you?
Learning to Trust & Love an Atheist Social Worker After Being Spiritually Abused
She was in shock. And then when I was with my spouse, I would cry and pray on my face and God delivered me. And you know, the truth will set you free is what kept going through my mind. And I didn’t understand why I wasn’t free. And I was accused of rebellion for running and hiding from him, which I would, would typically run and hide at a park, a local park and I was labeled rebellious. And so when I was sitting with the counselor, she said, “Abby, don’t you realize that it’s a normal response to run and hide in the park? And that’s a normal response to abnormal behavior.” And I just stared at her. You mean I’m not rebellious? I had no clue that I wasn’t rebellious for hiding from the abuse. And I would like to say two women believers, if it makes any sense to you, I believed some of the scriptures like Esther, Abigail, predominantly Old Testament scriptures that women were very subdued.
They’re very dominated in the patriarchal culture and they had to wait on God’s deliverance or at least seemingly so. And so I had adopted that, that belief system that I had to wait for God to deliver me. So I would fast, I would pray, I would lay on my face and cry and I won’t go into the whole story. But there came a moment where I prayed and I told God, I will go home. If you tell me yourself that I am not rebellious, adulterous, all the labels that he had covered me with like manure, he basically said, Nope, you gotta do this. You gotta get up. You gotta, you gotta submit to me, honor me and take the consequences. I’m like, you mean I can’t go home and, and that’s not the whole story. That’s not the intimate story behind what I’m trying to say. My deliverance came through my growing and in strength and in personal relationship with him and with other people, it didn’t come from a magical deliverance of knocking him on the head – I had to do the work.
Understanding Deliverance From Abuse
This idea of deliverance is something that I’ve been studying for years. I love stories in the Old Testament and the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. I studied from the Book of Mormon about deliverance and people separating themselves from wickedness. There’s so many stories and God is a God of deliverance. He really is. And you think about the parting of the Red Sea, which is one of my favorite stories. So Moses parts the Red Sea, and then the Israelites, they have to walk through it. I don’t know how large the Red Sea is, but that’s probably quite a walk. Right? And also the bottom of that sea is most likely muddy and rocky and hard. Like we always focus on the parting of the red sea and then they just magically walk through it. But I’m like Moses, part of the red sea. And then them actually walking that hard, long slog through the bottom of a body of water that has been there forever, you know, is not something to discount.
They had to walk through. The more I study deliverance. The other thing I realized is there are these stages of deliverance, right? In the story of Moses, the first stage is Moses brings them out of Egypt. And for a minute, Pharaoh’s like, okay, they can go. And that’s the first stage. Second stage Pharaoh decides, wait a minute. No, no, no, I’m gonna go after them. So the second stage is when he parts the Red Sea and they go across and then there’s the third stage where they’re wandering around in the wilderness. And so same with our deliverance. There are these stages, but in each stage we are required to pack up our bags and actually move ourselves out or cross the sea or in the case of the 40 years in the wilderness, there were times where they just had to believe that they would get manna that day.
“Please Start Praying For Your Deliverance”
Like they didn’t know how they were gonna be fed. They didn’t know anything, but they did the best they could under the circumstances. So I encourage women now who are just desperately praying that their husband will understand or that they will get it. Please stop. Please stop praying for that. And please start praying for your deliverance and then start asking Heavenly Father, how, how am I going to be delivered? What do you want me to do to bring to pass my deliverance? Another thing about the story of Moses is that when they were backed up against the Red Sea, he actually had to command the sea to part, right? Moses didn’t just get to the sea and then be like, oh shoot, what are we gonna do? Oh, no, he actually took action. And he commanded the sea to part like he had to do something.
Keep that in mind, as you’re praying for deliverance, it is going to require you to begin to take action for your own safety. And the amazing thing is miracles will occur along that path that you could not have done like Moses, no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he said to the sea part, he could not have just parted it, right. God is the one that parted it. But he was the one that actually took action to speak the words out loud. So I think knowing that it’s going to be stages of deliverance, knowing that you need to play a part in that, that you have to move your feet is really important. So please listeners, as you’re listening, I just encourage you to begin to consider deliverance, start studying it and then realize all the different parts – it’s not just praying and that magically he’s gonna get hit by a bus or something like that.
What Action Can You Take To Move Toward Safety?
And I’d like to also point out that Pharaoh and the Israelites, their will had turned into helplessness. Yes. They maybe prayed every morning and noon and night for deliverance, but their will was so broken by Pharaoh’s abuse. And so, yes, it’s going to be hard. I can only imagine that some of the Hebrews were weak, physically weak and emotionally weak, and they still had to take action. I so agree with that. That’s basically what I’m trying to say is that I had to take action and yes, there were miracles along the way.
Can you talk about some of the miracles that you experienced, some of the ways people helped you, maybe this would be a good time to talk about the Bishop that helped you?
Yes. Previous to the Bishop that came to my shop, I started a new drapery and upholstery workroom, just a very small testimony of feeling so defeated and overcome. And look at me, I’m a Christian woman going through divorce. I’m just, I just don’t have the Spirit of the Lord anymore. And I just felt totally defeated and did not like the consequences of my actions, but they were, they had to be there. I had to take the actions that I did and I was at the pool with my daughters and I got up to walk out the gate to get a towel or something. And this woman just confronts me at the gate and she goes, you have the most beautiful spirit of the Lord. And I’m like, you’re kidding me. Are you really saying that? I mean, that was one little tender way.
Education About Abuse Can Help Clergy Stop Traumatizing Women
And there’s so many others I could tell, but he just reminded me. Yes, I’m with you. You haven’t lost me just because we’re in the middle of a battle. And so I was at my shop and a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Bishop came to my door with two missionaries. And at that time I had already experienced years of faith leaders letting me down and betrayed my trust. So I basically bit his head off. I laughed because he was so patient while I told him what had happened. When all the steam was gone, he just stood there kindly and gently. And he says, “Abby, I don’t judge you. I want to publicly apologize for every faith leader that has let you down. I will do everything in my power to help you.”
And I had been so publicly humiliated in my church circles that I could hardly go to church for fear being publicly humiliated. And this Bishop would literally text me while I’m sitting in the parking lot. “Well, come in. If anybody hurts you, you let me know and I’ll take care of it.” He truly shepherded me. I gained my best friend. We now work together. We’ve been friends for 12 years and I couldn’t ask for a better friend. She’s a true Christlike, loving person. She and her husband helped us through.
Is she a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints?
Yes. She was the Relief Society President at the time.
During this time you joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Faith Transitions After Leaving Abuse Are Normal & Can Be Very Healing
Actually I did, yes. They enabled me to start college, gave me the practical supports to become self-reliant and stand on my own. They’ve been there at every juncture, whether it was a house fire, the death of my mother or move. They’ve always been there for me.
That is really good to hear, especially cause we have so many horror stories of church leaders. So that is that’s great to hear. I myself received food from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for years trying to build BTR.ORG actually at the time. And so I was definitely supported financially and physically by the church. And so I have a great respect and appreciation for the work that my church does. I’m so grateful for that. That is a miracle. So where are you now? Do you feel like you’ve established peace in your life? How are things going now?
Abby’s Post-Traumatic Growth
The past 15 years have been hard in the way of not having relationship with my children. They’re still trying to figure things out. One of them has recently come forward. So that has been a really difficult path to go through, but I would have to just continue in my path and make the best decisions I could. I’m just about to graduate with a degree in Behavioral and Community Health. And I own my own home. I have friends and serve where I can, especially teaching faith leaders about how best to respond. I have a support group for victims of domestic violence and the focus of that is to not only support them, but help them dismantle passages of scriptures, the interpretations that have kept them in bondage and what God really wants for them. Yes. I feel like I’m at peace.
Is there anything that you’d like to share in conclusion with victims who are listening or people who feel like maybe they’re not so sure if they wanna try to make their way to safety?
“God Does Not Want You To Be Oppressed, Abused, Betrayed, Used”
Making your way to safety is a hard road and God does not want you to be oppressed, abused, betrayed, used. He does not want your children to grow up witnessing that pattern. It’s okay truly, God does love you. And he loves the perpetrator as well, but that’s between him and God and you most importantly need to get away from the abuse. However that happens. And there’s obviously with Anne and others, there’s so much more support now than when I first left. There’s a lot of help and you’re not alone.
Well, thank you so much for sharing your story. We really appreciate you coming on today. Abby, thank you so much.
Of course. Thank you for asking me.
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