by Becca Ehrlich
Trigger warning: infant loss, spiritual abuse
A few years ago, I went on a 3-week retreat to Costa Rica to appear on a TV show called Lost Resort. On the retreat, we had group activities and one-on-one sessions with leaders of the retreat called “healers.” I had gone on this retreat to jump-start my strained relationship with God after losing my son at birth, and to come to terms with the fact that having biological children was too dangerous for me to pursue in the future.
About a week into the retreat, I was offered a one-on-one session with one of the healers, who specialized in sexuality and sexual healing. Though this healer had come to the retreat late, and I knew her less than the other healers, I was eager to start working through my issues and went to the session.
The session did not go well. Rather than helping me heal through my issues, the healer told me that my son died because I didn’t have enough faith and that the only way I could have a biological child “is by having faith.” She said she had received a message from my dead son to “please have faith.” When I challenged her on this, she responded that I should try for a child again despite the potential of death and life-long disability for myself or the child because “the only way to have faith is by testing it.” (You can watch the session here .)
After that session, I was a mess for days, both spiritually and emotionally. Even though I logically knew this woman was wrong, that I wasn’t to blame for my son’s death, and that I shouldn’t throw medical caution to the wind and try again, I still felt guilt and shame for the death of my son.
When the session aired on national television, other conversations were shown in which the main retreat leader and the other healers did not agree with what this healer did during our session. Rather than recognize her error, the healer instead doubled down on her actions during our session and ridiculed me on social media. She encouraged her followers to harass anyone who said otherwise, and to post awful things about me because I was a “pastor with no faith.”
Both my one-on-one session and the subsequent social media bullying highlight how prevalent spiritual abuse is in our world today. Spiritual abuse can be any type of abuse that occurs in a faith-based or spiritual setting, as well as abuse that is specifically aimed at someone’s spiritual well-being.
Some examples of spiritual abuse include:
- Using your religion’s holy book to control your choices (e.g., whether or when to have children, how to allocate your finances, etc.)
- Intimidation into conformity
- Insulting other belief systems
- Censorship from asking questions or disagreeing with the organization or leader
- Feeling isolated or rejected from your spiritual community
- Public shaming or humiliation
- Threat of spiritual consequences for not conforming
- Sexual or physical abuse within a spiritual community
In addition to these examples, another major type of spiritual abuse “introduces a grace-less contingency on our relationship with God.” In other words, this type of spiritual abuse involves teaching that God’s love and favor is contingent upon our actions. My session with this healer, and my experience afterward on social media, illustrate this particular form of spiritual abuse, as well as many of the examples listed above.
Spiritual abuse has not had a lot of media coverage in the past, perhaps because for a long time it was not considered actual abuse, or as “bad” or damaging as other forms of abuse. Fortunately, this is changing, and more and more books, podcasts, and other forms of media are addressing spiritual abuse and trauma.
One such podcast is The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, in which those at Christianity Today cover how spiritual abuse and trauma occurred in one particular church community. In a bonus episode called “Healing and Resurrection after Spiritual Trauma,” trauma therapist Aundi Kolber addresses spiritual abuse and the treatment of those who have suffered abuse at the hands of religious and spiritual leaders and organizations.
Spiritual abuse is particularly destructive because it often involves trusted spiritual leaders and deep spiritual consequences. When our faith beliefs are abused, we can have an identity and spiritual crises that shake us to our core.
If you or someone you know has experienced spiritual abuse, leaving the abusive situation and seeking help from a mental health professional is key. When left untreated, spiritual abuse can wreak havoc on our emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
Spiritual abuse is not the way God intends for us to experience our faith and spirituality. As we recognize the signs of spiritual abuse and take steps to stop it, we hope to have less and less people suffer.
1. Describe a situation of spiritual abuse that you heard about. What were some major aspects of that abuse?
2. What do you think the long-term effects of spiritual abuse would be if left untreated?
3. Name some ways spiritual abuse could be recognized and stopped.
Loving God, we know that abuse is a terrible way your people treat one another and that it can have long-term effects on our health. Help us to recognize and stop spiritual abuse. Be with those who have experienced abuse at the hands of spiritual leaders and organizations. In Jesus’ name, we pray, amen.
Becca Ehrlich is an ELCA pastor. She blogs about minimalism from a Christian perspective at www.christianminimalism.com and her book, Christian Minimalism: Simple Steps for Abundant Living, was released in May 2021. She is passionate about helping folks connect with God and live more simply, in ways that make sense for their own life contexts.
I’m so very sorry this happened to you. Thank you for sharing your faith, your message and your courage.
Dear Pastor Becca,
So very sorry for the loss of your son and also for the spiritual abuse you went through! Thank you for sharing your life with us! Thank you for your suggestions on how we can get help if we have had or are experiencing such abuse. Please keep writing and encouraging us!