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Spiritual Despair (The Good Kind)
Spiritual abuse recovery begins with the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit shining truth in the darkness. This beginning work does not banish the dark. That comes later and gradually. Here, at the beginning, with a crack of the door, a slight twist of the blinds, or a flash of a match strike, the Spirit merely—but oh so significantly—shows the difference between the light and the darkness.
When darkness is all we know, we won’t hope for anything different. In such a condition, it’s not hope we need, at least not initially and only. We need to see the darkness for what it is. Which is to say, we need despair.
The first stage in Shannon Thomas’ model for recoverying from psychological abuse is despair. Despair is disorienting, but necessary. Otherwise, we can live in denial, thinking we are oriented when in fact we are not. A lack of honest despair keeps us pliable to the whims of abusive leaders, “tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes,” (Ephesians 4:14 NET). In a spiritually abusive environment, the solution to trickery and crafty, deceitful schemes is given by Paul in the following verse: “But practicing the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15 NET). So Thomas writes,
“We cannot heal if we fail to stay in reality. Fantasies of what might be, what could have been, or what should have been are very counterproductive to recovery. The truths that are hard to look at are the exact things a weary soul must see in order to be driven to change current life situations.”1
Thomas is not alone in seeing the healing, hope-generating power of despair. Actually, another Thomas, Thomas Merton, said this:
“A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.”2
There is a similarity here with spiritual rebirth and renewal. Entrance into God’s kingdom is conditioned on the regenerating work of the Spirit, bringing new life where before there was death. Resurrection comes to the dead; new birth is given to those who are not spiritually alive. So it is with healing from spiritual abuse. It begins with the reality of death. Awakening to this reality is a work uniquely appropriated by the Spirit.
The Spirit of Truth
In the Fourth Gospel Jesus repeatedly refers to the third person of the Trinity as the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17, 15:26, 16:13; cf 1 John 2:27). Those trapped in the darkness of spiritual abuse and church trauma are invited to know this Spirit, the one who illumines, reveals, discloses, teaches, all with the gentleness of a dove. Hear how Jesus emphasizes the relationship the Spirit has with the sons and daughters of God:
“You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:17).
It is personal, intimate, emphatic. “You know him.” What is it like for survivors to know and be known by this Spirit? Let’s consider that for a minute before circling back to the healing stage of despair.
 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15)
First, the Spirit is a safe guide and teacher.
He does not teach after the manner of prideful wolves who seek the glory of man. He can be trusted, because he selflessly guides you back to Jesus. You can risk learning from him, because, unlike toxic leaders who speak on their own authority and defend their authority at all costs, even the life of the sheep, the Spirit only speaks what he hears from the Son. He is a deferential teacher.
Second, the Spirit brings awareness to things difficult to bear.
In John 16:8-11 Jesus explains how the Spirit does this revealing work in convicting the unbelieving world. The Spirit can bypass psychological defenses and bring awareness of sin, false righteousness, and false judgment, things no sinful human wants to be aware of. Likewise, the Spirit can bring awareness where there is denial, light where there is darkness, reality and truth where there is illusion and falsehood. While it may sound demeaning to speak of denial and falsehood in survivors, those who have lived in the maze of spiritual abuse know how difficult it can be to see the true nature of abusive leaders and communities. It is so much easier to not look, not know, not ask questions, “ignoring the memories, the pain, and the current struggles that may be related to the abuse.”3
Which is why we need the Spirit’s help.
The Spirit and the Blind Man
Imagine this with me: how might the blind man’s experience in John 9 relate to this healing despair? As with previous reflections on this story, I have named this man Nathan. Assuming there is some chronological continuity between John 8 and John 9, when John says “As he [Jesus] passed by [and] saw a blind man from birth” (9:1), it’s possible that the setting is still in the vicinity of the temple in Jerusalem (8:59). So I’m led to wonder, what might it have been like for the blind man to live in Jerusalem?
Nathan was blind. He was a begger. This much we know, explicitly. What can we infer from that?
He likely could not participate in family business or earn any form of living, and was forced to beg. That is the obvious consequence of his blindness, at least in the text. But what about other aspects of social and religious life? Was he able to attend synagogue? If he could afford any kind of offering to present at the temple, was he afforded that privilege? What would it have been like participating in his nation’s faith without physical sight?
For example, it is possible that the community at Qumran interpreted 2 Samuel 5:8 as forbidding religious inclusion of those with disabilities:
And David said on that day, “Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind,’ who are hated by David’s soul.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.” (2 Samuel 5:8)
According to Saul Olyan, that verse is likely the basis for this Qumranic prohibition4:
No blind person shall enter it throughout his whole life; he shall not defile the city in the centre of which I dwell because I, YHWH, dwell in the midst of the children of Israel for ever and always.5
As Olyan observes, this prohibition is in line with the general tendency seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls to take biblical restrictions and make them more extreme.6 It might be a stretch to apply that to Jerusalem in the 1st century AD, but it does make one wonder. Such extremes are often characteristic of the Pharisees in the Gospels.
Taking that wondering a bit further, what about the social and relational impact of being blind? Being unable to see, he could never see how others saw him. I can imagine looks of pity, indifference, disdain, or even avoidance, much as people in big cities like New York and Chicago are so used to seeing homeless individuals that they stop seeing them altogether. Or what if there were looks of judgment from people who asked the disciple’s question in 9:2—“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”—and concluded that Nathan was a sinner, born in sin, not deserving of mercy? Indeed, that was the final judgment of the religious leaders: “You were born in utter sin” (9:34). Was that assumption already there, prior to their interrogation of him?
More to the point of this post, what if his lack of sight prevented Nathan from seeing the corruption of the money-changers in the temple (2:14-15)? While John guides us to view Nathan’s transition from blindness to sight as an image of coming to spiritual life and faith in Jesus, perhaps there is more. Perhaps Nathan was also blind to just how sick the system of faith had grown. Indeed, growing up in any system makes it difficult to ask critical questions. How much more when the system goes largely unnoticed and unseen?
In asking these questions, we aren’t wondering what it would be like to be aware of those perceptions and realities. Rather, what would it be like to not be aware? Wouldn’t it be easier to take a naive, deferential posture, assuming the best because all he had to go on were words which always proclaimed the goodness and righteousness of his faith community?
In such a condition, what must it have been like for Nathan to hear Jesus’ words to the leaders in ch. 8? I invite you to imagine this, even though the text is not specific about where Nathan was when Jesus and the Jews were talking (8:59, 9:1). What if Nathan heard these words from Jesus in 8:44?
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)
Attachment to leaders charged with providing spiritual direction and care can lead to confusion when they are accused of sin. We have placed trust in them, and in some ways draw our identity from that relationship. This is especially so when that trust has been forged, and even enforced, over multiple decades.
When Jesus predicted that one of his 12 disciples would betray him, “They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” (Mark 14:19). In my mind, I see those men asking that question in order to hear an assuring answer from Jesus: “No, don’y worry, it’s not you.” Their question is an incredulous “Is it me? Surely not!” And that is how followers often respond when another sheep says the shepherd betrayed Jesus by feeding on other sheep. “Surely not him!”
It is a blindness of denial that requires supernatural, capital-S Spiritual work. Just like Nathan couldn’t cause his eyes to see, those stuck in the fog of spiritual abuse, trapped by the disorienting deceit of an abuser, can’t clear away the fog on their own. The Spirit must blow the fog away. And, paradoxically, painfully, the wind of the Spirit first drives the sheep to despair before the Good Shepherd comes to lead them to greener pastures.
Survivors need this spiritual, life-giving despair because that is what moves them to ask questions. To long for something different and better. Despair is manure, feeding the soil in which desire grows. Desire sends down roots into the fertile soil of dark despair. The roots may grow in the dark for a while, perhaps even undetected by the survivor herself. But they do grow, until a sprout of hope pushes through the surface of the dirt, its green shoot eagerly ready to receive beams of truth from the Light of the world.
Quote from Dan Allender
“The horror of change is that it appears to involve a death that resurrection cannot restore. Therefore, the only apparent hope is to live in denial and to believe that God wants us to be complacent, spiritualized automatons. I view this as a diabolical coverup, a lie of such proportion and feasibility that it seems eminently reasonable…No one leaves the lethargy of denial unless there is a spark of discontent that pierces the darkness of daily numbness…What, then, is the reason for moving toward the goal of God’s embrace? Again, the answer is a hunger for more. God has made us with a natural desire to be as He is: alive, righteous, pure, passionate, loving. To honor what God has called us to be is the reason a man or woman choose the path of change.7
I have emphasized the gracious, sovereign work of the Spirit in helping victims of spiritual abuse see the true nature of their plight. Does this mean they should be passive? Or perhaps there is something suggestive in Jesus telling Nathan, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (John 9:7).8 Nathan wasn’t healed until after he took action in response to Jesus’ gracious initiative. Have you ever taken a small action that lead to shedding more light on an abusive situation? Was it quick and sudden, or slow and gradual? How might you give others hope, and have hope for them yourself, when they seem unable/unready/unwilling to see and despair of their abuse?
Shannon Thomas, Healing from Hidden Abuse, p. 77.
Thomas Merton, No Man is an Islans (New York: Harcourt, Inc, 1983), p. 22.
Dan Allender, The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse (Colorado Springs, CO: Nav Press, 2008), p. 43.
Saul M. Olyan. “The Exegetical Dimensions of Restrictions on the Blind and the Lame in Texts from Qumran.” Dead Sea Discoveries, vol. 8, no. 1, 2001, pp. 38–50. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4193177. Accessed 28 Aug. 2023.
Florentino Garcia Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English (Leiden, the Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1994), p. 167.
Olyan, p. 49-50.
Dan Allender, The Wounded Heart, p. 45.
Adrienne von Speyr, The Discourses of Controversy: Meditations on John 6-12 (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 239.