One of my friends recently shared with me the story of her kitten problem. It seems that one day Kathy came home from work and discovered a very pregnant mama cat curled up on her back step. Being a mom herself and an animal lover, she took the cat in, fed her, and made sure she had a comfortable place to deliver her babies. Within a few days Kathy was now the proud owner of 5 cats! Needing to leave on a previously planned long weekend trip, Kathy put the cat in her garage along with all the necessary food and water she would need for 3 days. When Kathy returned she found 4 frantic kittens and no mama cat anywhere. She kept hoping the mother cat would come home when her neighbor stopped by to tell her that the cat had been hit by a car and been buried, not realizing that there were also kittens. Kathy began to panic, knowing the kittens needed to be fed, she called the vet’s office, and was told that they would need kitten formula fed to them with an eye dropper every 3 hours, day and night. So a long process of feeding the kittens began, along with cleaning up after them, trying to contain them, and listening to their cries…every 3 hours. As Kathy shared this story with me, she kept saying “The mother in me just couldn’t let those little kittens die. I had to nurture them. It just is part of who I am.”
As Christians, I believe that we ought to have a similar sort of nurturing instinct, a part of “just who we are” that drives us to have compassion toward others, that calls us to continually look out for the best interests of those who are in spiritual need, that is willing to sacrifice to do the right thing in order to help and protect a fellow believer, especially those who might be weak in the faith. This is why the topic of spiritual abuse is so heinous, why it is so painful. You see, the opposite of spiritually abusing someone is to spiritually nurture them. Spiritual abuse is the antithesis of obeying the one another commands of Scripture, particularly toward those who are vulnerable and in spiritual need. It is the misuse of influence or leadership that one might have over someone else, using their need and their weakness to the abuser’s own advantage and typically it is done in such a way that requires manipulation.
As I began to ponder this topic, I began to think about the fact that moms are natural nurturers and that Christian mothers are natural spiritual nurturers. While we want to be sure our children have cozy, warm beds to sleep in at night and delicious and healthy meals for them to eat every day, we also desire for them to grow spiritually, first by acknowledging their need for a Savior and then by trusting Christ in faith as they seek to walk with Him. To that end we provide spiritual training, teaching them to read the Bible and as they get older how to use a concordance or a lexicon. We show them the importance of prayer by praying with them. We introduce them to great heroes of the faith, both living and dead, and we make sure they sit under the teaching and preaching of solid Bible believing pastors. We help them identify their spiritual gifts and give them opportunities to exercise those gifts. But sometimes it is easy for a homeschooling parent to fall into the trap of concentrating on some of the secondary issues that float around in Christian circles without actually emphasizing what Jesus called the “weightier matters of the law.” We forget that being a Christian is having a relationship with Jesus Christ and that being a parent is having a relationship with our children as fellow believers in Christ.
A while back I received an e-mail from a delightful young woman I have gotten to know over the last year. She had listened to the podcasts on spiritual abuse and wanted to share something with me. She said that as she listened to the various aspects of spiritual abuse and how they are demonstrated, she realized that her own parents had used every single technique we talked about and how it had caused such an ungodly atmosphere in their home. While, on the outside, this homeschooling family appeared to be a model one, the reality was that the perfect behaviors of the children had come at the expense of their spiritual abuse and from the hands of those who were called to spiritually nurture them instead. This lovely and gracious young woman told me that her desire is to honor her parents and to seek to build a good relationship with them now that she is grown and married but it is difficult because the issues of abuse are still there and not acknowledged by the parents. In fact, they are still a very real part of their parenting methods with her younger siblings.
Sadly, I do not think this is an unusual situation. I believe that most parents desire with all their hearts for their children to have solid relationships with Christ and others, yet they do not understand that their methods of training their children are not based on true Scriptural principles that teach and apply grace to one another. Instead, they are often harsh and laden with guilt-inducing legalism and they establish unrealistic goals and objectives that cannot ever be realized at such levels of perfection. The over-riding philosophy is that a spiritual authority is somehow authorized to use any sort of manipulative technique in order to get the desired result and so parents will ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit calling them to nurture their children and instead they follow the siren song of spiritual abuse.
So what does spiritual nurturing look like as compared to spiritual abuse? Since I believe that the homeschooling community can be a breeding ground for spiritual abuse, and that, as I Corinthians 10 warns us “if any man thinks he can stand, he must take heed lest he falls,” I believe it is necessary to talk about how the topic of spiritual abuse can relate specifically to homeschooling families. Here are just a few of my thoughts:
A spiritual nurturer is more interested in issues of the heart. A spiritual abuser is more interested in outward appearance, obeying rules, and compliance. A mother cannot understand heart issues by observing her children from the outside. Sure, there will be actions your children take that cause alarm and that need to be addressed. But simply by forcing a child to change his actions you have not nurtured him. Nurturing comes by understanding why children choose to behave in certain ways, by spending lots of time with your children, listening to them at the most inconvenient of times, sacrificing your own desires and opinions and time and money. The opportunity for nurturing comes when least expected, when you are walking by the way, when you are tucking them in at night. Nurturing comes when you place yourself alongside your child, seeking to connect as a fellow believer, being transparent and real. It requires the discernment to recognize actual sin from a dislike for their preferences and the willingness to biblically confront it if it really is a sin. Nurturing means being your own parent of your own child, trusting that God knew what He was doing when he placed your own children in your own home and not in someone else’s. It means loving them so completely that you truly seek to know them, really know them. I remember the scene in the move Little Women when the German professor who had fallen in love with Jo says to her “Your heart understood mine.” That is the state of one nurturer’s heart to another’s.
A spiritual nurturer recognizes that God is doing an amazing work in the life of someone else and wants to be used by God to see that work accomplished. A spiritual abuser seeks to use someone else to fulfill his own agenda. If a homeschooling mom is truly honest, she will admit that there have been many times where her first thought about her child’s behavior or choices has been “what will other people think of us as homeschoolers?” When that happens, the desire for her own glory has superseded her desire for God’s glory. I remember when my son came home from college with a tattoo. How could this have happened, I wondered. He was homeschooled! What will other homeschoolers think of me when they see this? My son then told us the story of how he wanted to be sure that there was no Scripture that prohibited him from having a tattoo. So, after doing his own Bible study, he went to his Bible professor and asked him if he had missed something in his study. The professor sat down with him and went through all the passages that might apply and explained them in the Hebrew context for the believer today. Fully satisfied that it would not be a sin, my son designed a tattoo that expressed his faith and it depicts a man whose face is partially made of a cross, the symbolism being that my son was made in God’s image. How could I respond to that in any way other than to step back, forget about what others might think of him as a homeschooled young man, and to look at how my son was trying to express his own personal faith in Christ. Though it didn’t send me to the tattoo parlor to get one of my own, it caused me to repent of my own pride and the desire to have a perfect , man-made image as a homeschool mom. The spiritual nurturer looks at the way someone has been gifted and rather than reacting negatively to it, responds with a grateful heart to the Lord who gave those gifts and then seeks to recognize how God is using those gifts in the ministry of his church. A nurturer sacrifices his own preferences in order to see those gifts used by someone else. I once knew a girl who had grown up with a mother who repeatedly lamented “Oh, you are not like me at all!” The girl equated good, proper behavior as being like her mother, who was introspective and somewhat of a recluse. The problem was that this girl was naturally outgoing, friendly and loved being with other people. How sad it was that that mother could not see, until that girl was grown, that God had given the daughter different gifts and had intended to use them in spite of that mother!
A spiritual nurturer trusts in the sovereignty of the living God whose plan unfolds moment by moment. A spiritual abuser seeks to control situations and knowledge in order to accomplish his own agenda. Having an active and genuine faith in the God of the Bible requires that we live every day to the fullest, facing each new challenge knowing that God has never failed us and never will. A spiritual nurturer lives by that faith and in that moment, having no need to attempt to micromanage the lives of others or to manipulate the outcome. A nurturer simply trusts that God is working for his own good pleasure and for those he seeks to nurture.
A spiritual nurturer is honest, honest about his past, his present and his future. He knows that he is of no use to God if he cannot acknowledge God’s grace in all areas of life and share that grace with others. He realizes that his own image isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of life and sets aside that image to minister to those who so desperately need to know that God loves sinners and calls them to repentance, promising to do a new work in their lives. A spiritual abuser sometimes admits sin when it is convenient but does not understand real repentance and the fact that it means to turn away from his most cherished sins. A spiritual abuser will portray a perfectionistic lifestyle and will force his preferences on others by characterizing his beliefs as “Biblical” and the beliefs of others as “compromising, pragmatic, worldly, or post-modern.” He will not admit wrongdoing but will be the first to confront the sins of someone else. Memo: this rarely works in parenting and is not advised! It is the stuff that rebellion is made of.
A spiritual nurturer knows that God’s word is true and trusts that he doesn’t need to add anything to it to make it sufficient for life and godliness. He seeks to be able to support his own beliefs with the Bible and when he cannot, admits it, forsakes his ways, and conforms his life around God’s word. He will always choose God’s word over the traditions or doctrines of any man. A spiritual abuser looks for verses that will support his own belief system and will not think twice about adding on to God’s law. He will equate his agenda with the Bible, pressuring others to conform in order to be accepted.
Finally, I want to offer a few more thoughts on spiritual abuse and how we can respond to it when we experience it at the hands of others. Throughout the past few weeks, Matthew 5:44 has repeatedly come to mind. “Pray for those who despitefully use you.” I think it is essential that we pray for those who are spiritually abusive, especially as it relates to the homeschooling community. We need to repeatedly pray that the Lord will open the eyes of those who have refused to nurture other believers and, instead, have followed down a path of abuse and mistreatment. As we commit to pray for others, an amazing thing happens. We begin to genuinely love them and want the best for them, thus intensifying our prayers to see them repent.
Next, Colossians 3:13 admonishes us to “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” One of the saddest aspects of spiritual abuse is the bitterness that can come into someone’s life after having been mistreated by other believers, especially those who were mentors or in a position of spiritual leadership. So many times Clay and I have had people share with us that they used to go to church but haven’t been in years. And then they begin to tell a sad story of how someone treated them, often times just when they really needed encouragement and hope in their lives. For some of these people, even opening their Bibles has been tremendously difficult. The book of Hebrews warns us not to allow a root of bitterness to spring up and for good reason. Once a seed takes root and grows it is often nearly impossible to remove. In fact, look at what happens when a tiny acorn is planted…it becomes an oak tree and often can only be brought down by a severe storm or tornado. When we harbor bitterness toward someone who as despitefully used us, we close the door to repairing the relationship in the future. As tempting as it is to imagine the abuser as a vile and wicked enemy, we have to remember that we wouldn’t want someone to take a snapshot of us during our most sinful and worst behavior and hang on to it, denying the power of God’s grace to work in our lives. We must offer that same grace to another person. We must be ready at all times to welcome someone who comes to us in repentance and be willing to forgive them as Christ as forgiven us. We need to hope for that end.
We also need to be careful to not allow our experiences with spiritual abuse to become confused with our relationship with God or our ability to worship Him, read His word, or pray. Unfortunately, this is too often the case. As I have shared before, when we experienced terrible mistreatment at the hands of a group of elders, a friend of mine suggested this. He shared that when he, too, had been through the same experience and with the same church leaders, he sat down and began to read through the Gospels, looking at Jesus and His ministry, paying close attention to the details. He then went on to read in the book of Acts and eventually through the epistles. He told me that it was such a time of cleansing for him personally and the Lord used that experience to draw Him closer to God and to give Him a deeper relationship with Christ. I followed his suggestion and found myself with a renewed joy for the word and a greater love for the Lord. But something else happened as I read through the New Testament. I started to note that Jesus whole method of dealing with those who were truly seeking Him was one of kindness and gentleness, forgiveness and compassion. He also leveled his harshest and most biting rebukes at those who sought to add to His word and to place burdens on the backs of those who sought to follow the one true God. That exercise gave me the perspective I needed to see things I had missed before in the Word and I can honestly say now that if I had to go through it all again, I most certainly would to be in the place I find myself now!
We also need to examine what we really believe the Bible teaches about spiritual authority within the church and the home. Not every Christian will come to the same conclusion about church government, whether we believe in a congregational rule or an elder rule or some combination of the two. Spiritual abuse can be found in all these forms of church government. But there are some basic things all Christians must ask when looking at a church home, which ever type you believe to be biblical.
Does this church uphold the genuine biblical qualifications for church leaders? Here is what Scripture teaches about those who would lead a congregation: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”
Does this church believe that all believers, men and women, adults and children, are a royal priesthood? 1 Peter 2 tells us “As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him– you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ….you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” And then in 1 John 2:20 it says “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.”
And what about relationships within the family? Again, as we employ the one anothers of Scripture, we will live in harmony with our husbands, wives, children, and fellow believers, nurturing rather than abusing each other. Will we fail? Absolutely! But we know what we are supposed to do and are thankful that repentance, turning away from our own sins of abuse, and forgiveness toward those who have abused us will result in living a life of blessing.
We must remember that as painful as spiritual abuse can be and as tempting as it can be to perpetrate it against another believer to our own ends, we must keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith. One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Psalm 73. In it we find Asaph, the worship leader in the temple, struggling and suffering at the hands of those who sought to bring harm to him. After pouring out his heart to God, he comes to this conclusion “Whom have I in heaven but thee? There is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” May this ever be our own heart’s cry as well.