One of the most common ways in which people are psychologically traumatized whilst in a cult or religious high control group, is the extreme pressure to “forgive” people who have abused them. I use the word “forgive” in quotes, because the concept often goes way beyond the Biblical mandate. Anyone who has read the Bible knows that we are commanded to forgive those who hurt us, which can lead to freedom from bitterness, inner darkness and turmoil.
However, there can only be true reconciliation between two parties when the one who has hurt or offended the other person realizes what he/she has done and apologizes. Why is it that some people seem incapable of taking this step? In all probability, they are Narcissists; which means that they believe themselves to be the center of the universe. They have real trouble understanding how their behaviour impacts others. In fact, their consciences don’t function in the same way as other people; simply speaking – they lack empathy.
Imagine a situation in which a woman is married to an abusive husband. Or, a man is shackled to a woman who psychologically or even physically abuses him. They are both members of a religious congregation. Week after week, they hear sermons about forgiveness and self-sacrifice. The person who has a fully functioning conscience takes these concepts on board, and tries to implement them into their life. However, the Narcissist does nothing of the sort. Instead; he/she sees an opportunity to emotionally manipulate his/her spouse even further. After beating his wife black and blue once again, he comes back with flowers and a “repentant” attitude, demanding forgiveness. These abusers can quote Scripture like Satan did to Jesus in the desert, twisting it to their own benefit.
If the person who is the victim manages to share with a friend or the leader of his/her congregation about the abuse they are suffering, they are often bombarded with the same kind of rhetoric. Rather than being told: “You need to get out! How can I help you do that safely?” many victims are encouraged to stay, pray and remain in extremely harmful situations.
A concrete example of this kind of toxic advice is found in one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Watchtower magazines, from February 15, 2012:
“Consider the case of Selma. When she began to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, her husband, Steve, was not pleased. He admits, “I became angry, jealous, possessive, and insecure.” Selma observes: “Even before I got the truth, living with Steve was like walking on eggshells. He was hot-tempered. When I started studying the Bible, this characteristic intensified.” What helped?
Selma recalls a lesson she learned from the Witness who studied with her. “On one particular day,” says Selma, “I didn’t want to have a Bible study. The night before, Steve had hit me as I had tried to prove a point, and I was feeling sad and sorry for myself. After I told the sister what had happened and how I felt, she asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. As I did, I began to reason, ‘Steve never does any of these loving things for me.’ But the sister made me think differently by asking, ‘How many of those acts of love do you show toward your husband?’ My answer was, ‘None, for he is so difficult to live with.’ The sister softly said, ‘Selma, who is trying to be a Christian here? You or Steve?’ Realizing that I needed to adjust my thinking, I prayed to Jehovah to help me be more loving toward Steve. Slowly, things started to change.” After 17 years, Steve accepted the truth.”
Poor Selma had to endure 17 more years of excruciating abuse, before her husband became a fully indoctrinated cult member!!!
Once you start to get to know survivors of cults and spiritual abuse, you will notice that cases of domestic violence are extremely common. Spousal abuse, corporal punishment, child sexual abuse; it’s everywhere. Why is it allowed to carry on and proliferate? Because instead of being empowered to stand up to and break free from their abusers, victims are actively encouraged to remain in a state of passivity and servitude, at great danger to themselves, their children and others, such as elderly relatives.
Many vulnerable people in these groups are shielded from proper protection, due to these kinds of attitudes. They are not told that that they can forgive their abusers and protect themselves at the same time. Forgiving someone does not mean putting yourself in danger. It means letting go of hatred and bitterness and moving towards a brighter future.