Recovering from Spiritual Abuse: Webinar with Kyle J. Howard

Kyle J. Howard discusses what it looks like to recover from spiritual abuse and trauma.

Kyle J. Howard recently joined me for a live webinar discussing spiritual abuse and how to recover. We talked about everything from trauma to bitterness to whether or not Christians really must forgive their abuser no matter the context. It was an incredible conversation! I’ve selected some excerpts below for you to read (if you’re a skimmer like me). But feel free to listen to the complete audio above. It’s well worth your time!

In What Ways is Spiritual Abuse Overlooked in the Church?

Kyle: I think it’s a profoundly neglected area. And I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. One is that the very consumption of power is something that is often overlooked in churches…. I’ve gone through seminary up to an advanced M.Div and never heard once anything in any of my pastoral classes related to the power dynamics that come with the position of spiritual authority. It’s just a non-category.

So when we think about spiritual trauma or spiritual abuse, I think much of that hinges on the reality that many people in positions of authority, or who have power within the church, do not realize the impact. Or, if they do, other people—who should be assessing them—don’t realize that they are wielding power in a way that actually is harmful.

What Is Spiritual Trauma?

Kyle: When we think about trauma, one of the ways that I’ve often defined trauma in my lectures is that trauma is haunting pain. It’s like when you think about a haunting. There’s typically two models, the Poltergeist model or Ghostbusters…. [With Ghostbuster’s], there’s a ghost that’s taken up residence in a home and the ghostbusters are those who come in and seek to get rid of the ghost, if you will… Typically people move into that home. Everything seems fine and then all of a sudden that ghost rears itself, and they realize there’s a haunting going on here.

Well, trauma is the same way. Trauma is something that happens to someone that is so profound in regards to pain that it’s not just something that happens for a moment, but rather it haunts them throughout their life. It’s something that they carry around with them. And every now and then it rears its ugly head and reminds them that they’re living there rent-free. And those are what we call trauma triggers. Those are those moments where that trauma reminds that individual that, “Hey, I’m here. I’ve taken up residence.”

So trauma is haunting pain. And when we think about spiritual trauma, what we are talking about are the multitude of different ways in which people have developed a haunting pain as a result of spiritual experiences.

What Is Spiritual Abuse?

Kyle: When we think about spiritual abuse, what we are talking about is people who have wielded some form of spiritual authority or power over against someone that has caused and led to oppression, marginalization, hurt, or pain.

Someone can experience spiritual trauma as a result of no one directly impacting them or targeting them but because of something that has happened. So a church breakup, for example. A feud happens in the church and that church splits. That could lead to someone having a degree of trauma related to spirituality because that’s the church that they grew up in, etc.

That’s different than a pastor who has manipulated or gas lit an individual. And so now you have the abuse dynamic of leaders, with authority or power, wielding it in such a way that they’re now causing haunting pain.

So spiritual trauma is an umbrella, and under that umbrella, there’s a lot of different ways in which people can develop haunting pain. And when you think about spiritual abuse, all spiritual abuse leads to some degree of trauma. But spiritual abuse is more about power dynamics and how someone has wielded power dynamics in a way that has caused that haunting pain.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Guilt as a Result of Abuse and Conviction as a Result of the Holy Spirit?

Kyle: When the Holy Spirit comes with conviction, the Holy Spirit never comes with an indictment without any sense of hope. That is the work of the devil. The devil is the accuser of the brethren. And the devil’s job is to try to convince Christians that hope is gone, that there is no more hope, that there is no more comfort, that there is no peace in God. And so therefore go the other direction. Flee from God….

But think about Nathan’s rebuke of David. Even with Nathan’s rebuke of David… He says, “I’m going to forgive you. I’m going to wash you. Yes, there’s going to be consequences, but there’s going to be restoration as well. Even when the Holy Spirit comes with profound conviction, there is still this hope. It’s kind of more of a soft whisper of come back to me, come back and be reconciled, come back and be restored. And that’s always the case when it comes to repentance, when it comes to conviction that leads to repentance.

A Holy-Spirit-wrought conviction is a conviction that says, “Come back to me. Return to me. Be restored.” It’s not one that seeks to push you out of the camp, because Jesus said, “It is finished.” Jesus was the one who was sent out of the camp in our place so that we never have to experience the excommunication of God that Jesus had as he became the curse for us.

Where Do People Begin the Recovery Process?

Kyle: One of the main things [I try to do] is help people to understand their story. What I mean by that is not just their personal story but where their story falls in regards to redemptive history. We have creation; we have the fall; we have redemption; and we also ultimately have consummation. And every Christian who experiences spiritual trauma is experiencing that within that spectrum. And they’re experiencing that as fallen people within a fallen world with fallen people—people who have been redeemed but are still being sanctified. And this story of pain is taking place within a world that dishes pain out.

We do see the promises of God in Revelation 21—no more weeping, no more sorrow, no more death, no more sickness, no more trauma—we see those promises of God in regards to what he is doing with his church. But we also recognize that we are inserted into this story in the middle of it, where there’s still a whole lot of pain and there’s still a whole lot of suffering….

…And so understanding in a bigger picture what is the story of God? Where are we in that story of God? On this earth that’s filled with corruption, filled with sin, filled with pain, how do we understand ourselves and the pain that we’ve experienced and the suffering that we’ve experienced here? (Job is a great place for that.) And then where are we going in this? Is my suffering, my trauma the end of the story? Or is this something that is going to be redeemed? Is there going to be redemption in this? And we know that there will be redemption in this.

What are some practical things that people can do as they are walking through the recovery process?

Kyle: On a very practical level, I would tell people to map it out, draw a diagram, draw a map, draw a straight line. And start on one side with creation. Then you have the fall, redemption, and ultimately consummation. And put yourself there. Mark it. Where am I in this story? Visualize it, map it out. This is who I am. Where is God in this story? [Jesus] sits on the right hand of God, and he is overseeing this and assuring that the consummation will come…. How are you understanding God’s placed in his? How are you understanding Christ’s place? Write that out. Actually write out, where do I see God in my haunting pain? What role, what place do I see God in it?

Jeremiah 32:37-41 comes to mind. That’s a text to look to where it says I will gather my people from all the nations. I will put my heart within them. I’ll put the fear of me within their hearts. So they will not turn away from me and I will not turn away from them. I will not turn away from doing good to them, and I will plant them in their land in faithfulness with all my heart and with all my soul. And that land he’s talking about is the new heavens and the new earth. God is saying that he will not turn away from us. He will not turn away from doing good to us and that he’s committed to this with all his heart and with all his soul. The only place in all of the scriptures that God says he’s doing something with all his soul is securing us and not turning away from us.

So that’s where God says he is. Where do you see God? What role do you see God playing? Is he profoundly distant as if he has forsaken you? Or is he there? I would have people write out where they [see themselves] so they can actually see it on paper, read it to themselves, and begin working towards what is the promise of God versus how I’m feeling. And I think this is an important point…. It can take awhile for our feelings to catch up with what we know to be true.

This is really only a fraction of what we discussed. Listen to the whole thing above!

Recommended Reading:

The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson

Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Shame and Rejection by Edward T. Welch

Broken Trust: A Practical Guide to Identify and Recover from Toxic Faith, Toxic Church, and Spiritual Abuse by F. Remy Diederich

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen

Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores by Diane Langberg

Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Diane Langberg

God and Soul Care: The Therapeutic Resources of the Christian Faith by Eric L. Johnson


4 thoughts on “Recovering from Spiritual Abuse: Webinar with Kyle J. Howard

  1. Kat Reply

    I didn’t manage to catch the original webinar when it was live, and was hoping you would repost and here it is! Thank you so much. I have never experienced explicit spiritual trauma but I have experienced trauma that has had huge spiritual implications. This was very beneficial, even if it was sometimes hard to hear. I feel especially convicted (?) or maybe encouraged by the point that was made about not giving up when struggling with the tension of negative emotions about spirituality while pursuing the same. Or not seeing that tension as a failure or in a sense a ‘sin’. I’m not going to lie, I still don’t want to deal with that tension because it’s hard, but there is some hope in knowing that i’m not condemned to hell for struggling and that it can and will change with time. Thank you again.

    1. Bridget Eileen Reply

      Yes, I think that was probably the most challenging part of the conversation for me too…this ideaof learning to accept the tension. As Kyle mentioned, that’s not something any of us want. If I could choose, life would never involve anything but things that feel good and make sense! But that’s just not the world we live in. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Lauren Reply

    This is a very important topic, and I appreciate you and Kyle taking the time to hash it out. I’m astounded that there is not class or unit in pastoral studies about power dynamics and trauma. This truly needs to change.

    On a trauma note, I think that for many people, God and Satan both feel separated from their trauma. The trauma ghost lurks in the subconscioha, making things feel scary or intimidating or impossible that once never were. The survivor doesn’t know when or how or if the things that they once enjoyed should be enjoyed again. It just feels untouchable, confusing, and the whole situation feels like it should be avoided. The situation is avoided. The consequences of the trauma feel like a vacuum that now stands in place of something that was once there and can now no longer be felt. The old is inaccessible. There is disassociation. How can someone write out where God or Satan is in the midst of emptiness?

    That is what trauma can feel like. Like nothing.

    1. Bridget Eileen Reply

      I wonder if this is one way in which our feelings need time to catch up to what we know to be true. In that sense, for myself I know that what I need are close friends to incarnate the love of God to me in ways that I just can’t feel by doing “spiritual” things anymore. Even if God feels distant, the love of a friend can remind me that he’s still there.

      But that’s not a complete answer, because what if you don’t have friends who love you well? What then? On some level I feel like if all the old bridges you formerly walked to connect with God have burned down in the fires of trauma, then it’s not wrong to build new bridges to find new ways of connecting with him that don’t harken back to the trauma you experienced (obviously not talking about creating new theology here, but rather new avenues to commune with God, new ways to do church if you even choose to call it “church” as perhaps the very word is a turn-off and a trigger, new ways to do “fellowship” etc etc).

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