Abuse is incredibly hard to identify, especially spiritual/emotional abuse. It’s hard not simply because there are no visible marks on people to indicate that abuse is happening, but also because abusers are adept at deceiving. Spiritually abusive people, in particular, hide their abusive behavior behind an image of holiness.
We have been exploring how Jesus rebukes spiritually abusive people, and we have explored, in particular, the words of Matthew 23. Here Jesus lists a number of behaviors that the religious leaders were guilty of and which are fitting descriptions of the kind of spiritual abuse of power, position, and doctrine. One of the key features of abusers is that they don’t look at all like abusers, at least on the surface. That concept comes out in this text too. Jesus speaks of the Pharisees as those who:
… do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long,and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagoguesand greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. (Matt. 23:5-7)
These leader love to bee seen as holy and righteous but their “holiness” is a facade. Jesus’ point in particular is that they are not genuine and their desire is to be made much of, to be exalted, not to serve the Lord or others. So, he contrasts these religious leaders with his own disciples saying:
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt. 23:8-12)
The contrast is intended to not only help the disciples of Christ live differently, but also to highlight the spiritual manipulation of the Pharisees.
Spiritually abusive people are very “image-conscious,” says Darby Strickland. The reason that abusive behavior is often shocking when revealed, and the reason it is hard for many to believe, is because the abuser is often highly respected, friendly, and seemingly godly. They make a name for themselves as knowledgable in the Scriptures, a servant to others, and a respected spiritual authority of sorts (even if only in their small circle of influence). Others would be shocked to know how they actually think and live in private, because they have so tailored their image to fit a certain picture. Strickland writes that abusers:
work hard to maintain an image of righteousness when they are in public. They deny or cover up their own sins and flaws. And they re good at performing acts that appear righteous and at bringing attention to their holiness.” (Is It Abuse?, 214)
Their image allows them to get away with their spiritually abusive behavior, which makes maintaining that image an key priority.
Maintaining this “holy” image requires, as Strickland says, denying, covering up, or minimizing their sins and flaws. The abuser is never wrong, or rarely wrong, or minimally wrong. They will often use Scripture passages, twisted out of context, to justify their behavior, or they will use even confession as a way of maintaining control – i.e. “I asked for forgiveness so now you have to forgive me and can’t bring up my behavior again.” If they are to be perceived as holy then they cannot own genuine guilt and failure.
Jesus has strong words of rebuke for such spiritual abusers. Their image is worthless! To the Pharisees in particular Jesus says they are like whitewashed tombs. They look good on the outside, but they are dead inside, full of bones: that is hypocrisy and wickedness (Matt. 23:27-28).
It is important for us to know these truths because the seeming holiness of some people is what makes us doubt our assessment, or doubt the evidence, or deny our experience, or minimize someone else’s testimony. After all, we think, this godly person can’t really be a spiritual abuser! The appearance of godliness, however, can be part of the veneer that enables them to keep controlling others. Don’t allow a person’s image to deter you from seeking the truth. The “appearance of godliness” is not the same as genuine godliness (2 Tim. 3:5).