"Now, you shepherds, listen to what I, the LORD, am telling you." Ezekiel 34:7 delivers a hard message to the leaders of Israel. In the midst of their neglect and abuse, God spoke. Loudly. "As surely as I am the living God, you had better listen to me." The very people who were supposed to protect God's beloved nation were inflicting pain. They didn't care for the weak, heal the sick or bandage those who were hurt. They didn't go after those who wandered off. They were too busy taking care of themselves and meeting their own needs. They treated God's people cruelly. And God was angry.
In no uncertain terms God declares, "I am your enemy" (Ezekiel 34:7, 8a, 10b, GNTD).
Spiritual abuse can be defined as "The use of faith, belief, and/or religious practices to coerce, control or damage another for a purpose beyond the victim's well-being." Yet even with a definition it is difficult to talk about. It can be hard to name and confusing to identify. How can the very people meant to facilitate God's grace inflict pain? How can a church, a place of safety, become unsafe? And perhaps the most difficult question: How can God let this happen?
An Ongoing Problem
Sadly, these aren't new questions. Israel's history is filled with leaders who constantly let down God's people. Even leaders who knew and followed God at times led the people astray. Patriarchs and judges, kings and priests and prophets often failed, and some actively abused their authority and their people.
We have some striking examples in the Bible in addition to the leaders God denounces in Ezekiel. King David was a man after God's own heart, but he also abused his authority when he committed adultery and subsequent murder (1 Samuel 13:14; 2 Samuel 11:15). The Pharisees devoted their lives to studying and interpreting the Law of Moses, but Jesus called them hypocrites and snakes who kept the people burdened and locked away from God (Matthew 23:4, 13, 33).
And we have striking examples in our own time. The pressures of leadership are heavy. We see accounts of spiritual abuse in the media, and many of us have experienced it in our own churches.
Spiritual abuse mars our image of God and drives us away from our faith communities. It is the result of leaders who misuse their power and manipulate God's truth, whether intentionally or unknowingly. It is fueled by ego, selfish vision and narcissism—and often by fear.
But spiritual abuse goes far beyond these leaders. It breaks our spirits and confuses our thinking. It causes long-lasting effects of guilt, shame and fear. It leads to severed relationships, anxiety, depression and the need for control in other areas of our lives. It is not what God intends. And it is something God takes seriously, calls to account and judges severely.
The Good Shepherd
In stark contrast to the corrupt rulers of Israel, God describes himself as the Good Shepherd. "I myself will look for my sheep and take care of them," he declares (Ezekiel 34:11, GNTD). Where people have failed, God will be faithful.
God then gives us a powerful image of what right leadership looks like. God provides safety and places of rest. God doesn't drive people away, but looks for those who are lost. God bandages those who are hurt and heals the sick. God brings about justice—separating the sheep from the goats, getting rid of all the dangerous animals in the land. God sets people free and protects them.
Israel's relationship with God isn't contingent on human leaders. In fact, it was never about these human leaders in the first place. They were supposed to lead the people to God, the Good Shepherd, not to be God. These leaders misrepresented God's character, led the people astray and neglected and exploited them. But Israel is still God's beloved nation: "You, my sheep, the flock that I feed, are my people and I am your God" (Ezekiel 34:31, GNTD). And God will defend them, even against their own rulers.
Working Through Spiritual Abuse
It can be difficult to separate our image of God from our spiritual leaders. Many people who experience spiritual abuse give up on their faith all together. Church has become an unsafe place and God seems untrustworthy. Why return to the source of a wound?
Just as Scripture speaks against spiritual abuse, it also shows us a way forward. Interestingly, it is through the abuse Jesus suffered at the hands of his own spiritual leaders. As he placed himself under God's just authority, his suffering led to a place of healing and reconciliation—for all people:
"When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls" (1 Peter 2:23-25, GNTD).
Jesus not only understands the pain of abuse, he entered into it and suffered in order to fill even those dark places with life. He embodied the role of the Good Shepherd through his life and ministry (John 10). Through Jesus' wounds on the cross, our wounds are healed. We are set free. We are brought near to God, the guardian of our souls. And we are brought back into the fold, safely gathered into the community of faith.
If you have encountered spiritual abuse in your life, be encouraged that God has not forgotten you. God is not limited to one leader, congregation or community. And God seeks out every lost sheep, including you. God invites every person back into the fold. In time, may you receive healing from the church—may the very place that inflicted your wounds become a wellspring of life. And may that make your knowledge of God's grace all the sweeter.
Hear God's promise as a promise to you: "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will find them a place to rest. I, the Sovereign LORD, have spoken" (Ezekiel 34:15 GNTD).
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