Spiritually abusive leaders and groups feed on the guilt of their members. They also continually recycle it, and even create it where it did not previously exist.
We are all guilty. None of us is without sin. All of us have at least one or two secrets that we do not want anyone else to know about. Once we become Christians, our awareness of personal guilt is sharpened and deepened. As we progress in Christian maturity, the persistent power of sin becomes more obvious to us. We come to realize what a difficult struggle it is to overcome a sinful habit or tendency, and this causes us to long for freedom from the things that are holding us back.
All of this means that Christians devote a tremendous amount of spiritual energy to dealing with sin and guilt -- by trying to avoid actions which lead to sin and guilt, and by seeking forgiveness and strength from God in the battle against sin and guilt. Spiritual abusers are experts at tapping into this spiritual drive that all Christians have and manipulating it for their own purposes.
What Steven Hassan writes concerning cult members is also a far too accurate portrayal of many people in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of churches and fellowships:
The cult member comes to live within a narrow corridor of fear, guilt, and shame. Problems are always the fault of the member, and are due to his weak faith, his lack of understanding, "bad ancestors," evil spirits, and so forth. He perpetually feels guilty for not meeting standards. ...
[Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control, p. 82.]
Most of us relate to guilt primarily as a feeling -- a very unpleasant feeling. Webster's second definition for guilt is: "a painful feeling of self-reproach resulting from a belief that one has done something wrong or immoral" (New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, 1988, p. 600). Of course, plain old objective guilt is "the state of having done a wrong or committed an offense" (ibid.), and that can exist whether or not it produces a painful feeling within us.
We can be objectively guilty and not feel anything, because of spiritual dullness, or what Scripture calls a "seared conscience." And we can also be not guilty, but feel as though we are. This called "false guilt."
Knowing this, the spiritual abuser seeks to inflict the feeling of guilt as often as possible on his followers, regardless of whether they are actually guilty of anything. This is done in a variety of ways:
• The leader accuses members of improper attitudes.
• The leader accuses members of false motives.
• The leader accuses members of sins of omission.
What these three types of accusation have in common is that they are difficult to defend against. How do you prove that you do not harbor ain improper attitude, a false motive, or that you did everything you could have done to avoid a sin of omission? Sometimes it is impossible to prove; usually it is very difficult.
In addition, if a spiritual abuser is good at quoting Scripture, he will most likely use Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (KJV) He will try to get you to admit that you cannot even "know" your own heart, and to persuade you that -- given his "spiritual authority," or "spiritual gifts," or "spiritual discernment" (or whatever he calls it) -- he knows your heart better than you do.
In this way, the abuser uses guilt to manipulate you, but not only you, but the people around you who hear the accusation against you as well.
To accuse someone in front of others takes a lot of nerve. Many of us mistake this nerve for something called "guts." While often we can barely tolerate people who "have a lot of nerve," we tend to respect people with "guts." If someone in our midst decides to go out on a limb and accuse another person in our midst of something, a typical reaction on the part of others in the group would be to sit back and see how it plays out.
If the accuser can get the other person to back down, then the accuser often gains the respect of the group. Spiritual abusers are usually good enough at manipulation that the number of times they get others to back down is impressive.
They are also good at teaching their followers to use the same accusatory methods, as one victim testified:
"Community adults would decide what my sin was, [and] then just lay into me … I wasn't allowed to speak to my father when he phoned; they told me it was the Lord's will that I not speak with him. … The way I was making beds looked 'rebellious' to them, so I was assigned to scrub the bathrooms. Each day I'd get yelled at and forced to scrub them again."
[By Hook or By Crook: How Cults Lure Christians, by Harold Bussell. (New York: McCracken Press, 1993), p. 52. Previously published as Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians, (Zondervan, 1983).]
This description is remarkably similar to the experiences my wife and I had in our ex-group.
When a so-called Christian leader works to ensure that the atmosphere of his group is constantly riddled with guilt, his purpose is not to help anyone spiritually, but to control people. As Stephen Shoemaker has said:
Cult religion traffics in guilt and shame. It preys upon people with heavy guilt and shame and offers a false solution: total commitment to the cult. Guilt and shame, when healthy, move us to life-changing behavior which leads us to a happier and healthier life. But they can be manipulated to promote unhealthy allegiance to a leader or group.
[From the sermon, "Ten Marks of Cult Religion," by Dr. Stephen Shoemaker.]
People can be manipulated into responding out of guilt feelings either because they have residual guilt feelings from past sins, or because their consciences have been made overly sensitive by false guilt. Either way, as Ken Blue points out in his description of "Guilt Manipulation," there is no shortage of guilt-feelings among Christians:
Rob and Bev were only seventeen years old when they got married. They wedded young because Bev was pregnant. Both sets of parents supported their marriage but felt shamed by it too. They expressed their disapointment with rebuke: "How could you treat us like this? After all, we trusted you." Bev and Rob worked hard to succeed in their marriage, partly (they admitted) to make it up to their disappointed parents.
In their early twenties, Rob and Bev joined a family-oriented fundamentalist church. They quickly caught the attention of the pastor, who, over time, offered them leadership roles in the Sunday school and the maintenance of the church buildings. The young couple eagerly responded to the pastor's expression of trust in them and threw themselves into their ministries.
But as the extent of their responsibilities became apparent to them, they realized they had taken on too much. They were each spending more than twenty-five hours per week on church-related business. This was clearly more than the young couple and their now three children could afford.
Their ministries gave them status and made them feel like responsible adults, so giving up one or both of their positions was difficult to consider. Nevertheless, they made an appointment with their pastor to discuss their dilemma. After hearing their story, the pastor slumped disappointedly in his chair and said, "How could you let me down like this? I trusted you."
Stricken by these words--the same they had heard from their parents--Bev and Rob vowed to rededicate themselves to their ministries. They will most likely burn out in a few months and then have a second major failure to live down.
In many churches guilt manipulation is less obvious than this, but its purpose is the same--the control of vulnerable people. ...
[Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse, pp. 54-55.]
This story leads naturally into a description of one particular brand of guilt trip that spiritual abusers commonly use which would be comical if it were not so devastatingly effective. I call it the "Leader-as-Martyr" technique. It was a favorite ploy of the leader of my former group.
At strategic moments our leader would inform us of all the sacrifices he had made to provide this "ministry" for us.
"You people don't realize what I gave up to do this for you," he would say. "I could have made big money out in the world!"
When a woman in the group could no longer take the abusive treatment she was receiving from him, the leader pulled out a long list of all the things he had done for her. Some of the things on the list were actually impressive. He had treated this woman rather special, which alone should have raised questions in our minds. But now these favors became weapons in his hands. "Look at all the time, all the money, all the effort I spent on you!" he whined.
When people questioned him, the leader accused them of "attacking" him. He would use the most extreme language to describe those who crossed him in any way. "My blood is all over this room!" he would shout. "Look at how you're killing me!" People who responded in anger to his abuse were characterized as "violent." (He liked to use a lot of extreme, metaphorical language.)
People who spend a lot of time pointing out the sacrifices and hardships they have endured on your behalf, and respond bitterly when you confront them with their sins, really have only one goal: to control you. Consider the following quote from just such a self-appointed martyr:
In these three decades only love for my people and loyalty to my people have guided me in all my thoughts, actions, and life. They gave me the strength to make the most difficult decisions, such as no mortal has yet had to face. I have exhausted my time, my working energy, and my health in these three decades.
Wow! What an amazing example of selfless sacrifice! Right? Three decades of utterly devoted service, facing "difficult decisions, such as no mortal has yet had to face!" And all for the love of his people! What an example for us to follow!
The source of these inspiring words for us to live by?
Adolph Hitler. (Quoted in Nasty People, by Jay Carter, (New York: Dorset Press, 1979), p. 17.)