Spiritual Abuse and Our Brain 

When we are operating out of our fear/shame/survival brain, we are operating out of the most primitive part of our brain. It’s the part of our brain that senses danger and is designed to keep us safe and alive. It is NOT the part of our brain we are designed to live in and operate from in relationships. 

The problem is, when we are in an abusive environment, this is where we get stuck. We can become hypervigilant – always assessing our surroundings or gaging the people around us, our relationships, our community- assessing if we are safe. This is not where we experience life-giving connection and freedom. 

If we pull in spiritual abuse to this understanding of our body and brain, when Scripture, spiritual positions of power/leadership, etc. are misused in ways that cause harm, we experience destructive effects both personally and systemically. 

For example, a common approach is a pastor may use fear to lead his congregation to salvation. This may sound something like, “If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity? Heaven or the eternal separation of God in hell?” What is the operating system of the person in the congregation that doesn’t know? I don’t know about you, but that’s terrifying. Of course, I would throw my hand up in the air because I don’t want to spend eternity in hell!! The problem is, I’m making this decision out of my trauma/survival brain, not the part of my brain that experiences safety, attachment and connection. 

What sets up then, is a faith operating system that continues to use fear and shame to “keep us in line.” When we are operating out of fear and shame, we try to control others. This creates an environment that values conformity to the system’s rules that is often measured by behavior rather than the matters of the heart. We set up a system that values reformation rather than transformation. We try to control behavior, “sin management,” and miss the place of secure attachment and connection to God. 

From a place of secure attachment and connection to God, we experience life and transformation (our behavior naturally changes). This is where we are designed to live from in relationship with Jesus, not an operating system of fear and shame. That is a product of the fall, not our invitation of resurrection and restoration. Jesus came to give us LIFE and LIFE to the full (John 10:10). To restore our connection with God in the way He always designed us to live in relationship with him. God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 2:7). 

An operating system driven by fear, shame and control (we try to control others, rather than self-control which is the spirit God gave us) actually blocks the relationship we are inviting others into with God, creating a real paradox. This is the very thing Jesus confronted with the Pharisees, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23: 13-14). 

Jesus was deconstructing their system that was actually doing the opposite of what they thought. Does that sound familiar? Jesus was not afraid to deconstruct the religious system. He was motivated by his love for them. He knew it was necessary for people to enter into connection and relationship and experience the kingdom he came to bring, including the Pharisees. 

The question for us as leaders & believers is, do our methods match our message? Does the way we present and live the gospel match the gospel? 

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