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This Holy Wanting

It's not limited to patriarchy, of course. Nor to women. But emotional abuse is a common tool of choice for those who feel the need to control and manipulate the ones within their care. It can break the spirit faster than any other method of discipline because it uses the number one element that cuts deepest and quickest to the heart and  personhood: shame.

Emotional abuse—
consistent shaming, criticism, or neglect of wants, needs, desires, feelings, and emotions by a dominant partner, parent, spouse, or figure(s) of authority.

Emotional abuse can be overt: verbal destruction aimed to intimidate, coerce, or subdue another person. It can be subtle: withholding love, attention, affection and approval to compel someone to change, perform, or behave as desired. It can be so covert that perhaps neither party is really cognizant of what's occurred until devastating truth is revealed through traumatic measures such as self-injury (also associated with sexual abuse), thoughts of or attempted suicide, and depression. They are bad fruits from bad roots.

 Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
And those who love it will eat its fruit. Proverbs 18:21

Verbal Assault / Criticism

It's no secret that words are among the most powerful forms of influence. Through words God created the world. Through words we have God's will, nature, and heart as revealed through Scripture. Jesus Himself is the Word made flesh which dwelt among us (John 1). A word fitly spoken has the power to heal, nurture, encourage, teach, exhort, and to bring life. (John 6:63, 68)

Alternatively, words can steal, kill and destroy. "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." And when words come from a heart that seeks its own, that exalts itself, that is not surrendered in humility before God, these can crush the spirit and bring death. "Can you believe what he said to me?" "I never forgot what she told me." "How can you say such a thing?" Some of our best and worst memories involve words. Not only the phrases themselves, but tone, facial expressions, and poignant silence all effectively communicate a message.

Labeling is one common way the daughters of patriarchy are verbally manipulated. To hear, "You are rebellious, defensive, not thinking, leading your brothers and sisters astray,  or _____" coerces change while not encouraging life or growth. Who wants to be considered rebellious? Stupid? Evil? Yet just as effective, what is left unsaid also bears consequences of its own. "We heard a lot about what we should and shouldn't do," says Catherine, "but never 'good job', 'I'm proud of you', or really even 'I love you.'" As women who crave life-giving validation, support, and nurture from parents, husbands, even friends, when words are wielded as weapons we experience deep, often life-lasting scars.

Criticism and verbal shaming ~ "If you were more obedient, respectful,  serious, righteous, mature, godly, humble, patient, kind, etc" or, "If you were less sensitive, emotional, artistic, imaginative, impulsive, etc" ~ are frequent, familiar emotionally abusive tactics. While we can agree that as Scripture states, "There is none righteous, no not one," the focus is different. The kindness of the Lord leads us to repentance. Pointing out flaws, sharing disappointment that your daughter or wife is not all she "could" or "should" be, and other shaming ignores the crucial issues (relationship and personhood) and creates a screen through which all thoughts, feelings, and actions are filtered. It literally becomes you. This screen effectively shuts out truth ~ truth which is: God values you, loves you and sent His Son to redeem you. He has made you worthy. Shameful messages communicate that you are worthless and unloveable as you are. That you must change / do better / measure up. And these lies quench life.

Again, this isn't limited to patriarchy or to women but it is so prevalent in this context. Within patriarchy, emotional-verbal abuse is especially convoluted because it's often mixed with spiritual abuse.  "God isn't pleased with you!" "If you wanted to be a good Christian, you should ____." It's all about manipulation, coercion, dos and don'ts, and control. "How can you call yourself a Christian when you do that!" "Godly / biblical / feminine / Christian women don't ____." Sometimes there are messages of truth that we need to hear, but the Bible is clear that truth needs to be spoken in love for the edification of others. (Ephesians 4). And abuse of any kind is never okay in God's eyes.

Neglect of needs, desires, feelings

This is a very tender element of emotional abuse for all involved. I say all, because generally people are prone to withhold that which was withheld or absent, lacking, from their own lives. As I have often stated, most of our parents have tried to do the best they can. They do not intentionally seek to harm us. As adults, we are free before the Father to seek the truth of our pain and healing from abuse. He will show us the way, show us truth, and help us to heal, forgive, and show mercy to others.

Neglect is a serious issue. 1 Timothy 5:8 states, "But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." In context, Paul talks about physical provision (which could be another article by itself) but I also believe that emotional, spiritual, and intellectual provision ~ all vital for life, growth, and godliness ~ also apply and are equally as valid. I have also written about needs and emotional abuse here.

Emotional neglect essentially belittles, overlooks, abandons, diminishes, and slays this aspect of our lives. Many austere families teach that all desires and / or feelings are bad. Or they attempt to tell you which feelings, desires, and emotions are okay. These beliefs are dangerous because they deny truth and without truth, we can't have lasting healing. Many feelings, in and of themselves, are neutral. How we respond and act upon those feelings determine whether we sin (hurt others with our anger, for example) or grow (seek to understand why we feel anger and learn truth). Temptations, in and of themselves, are not wrong (1 Cor. 10) but how we respond to them teach us where we need to grow, be strong, and seek the Lord for righteousness.

It is written that God is jealous. (Jealous: feeling, symptom) Why is He jealous? Because of His great love for us and His desire that we serve and worship Him alone. (Love: motivation, truth) Feelings are crucial to a healthy heart. Much like a thermometer reflects temperature, feelings help to reveal what is inside of you. If you were to brush aside the feeling itself, labeling it wicked and ungodly and then succumb to shameful thinking, you have not addressed the core issue but destroyed the very evidence that will clue you in to what's really going on inside.

Desires are similar; additionally, our desires can help show us God's will for our lives. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:27) When we learn that desires are only bad, we quench the Spirit through this imbalance and do not speak truth. This is where knowing what is in our hearts proves vital. Some desires are lustful. Some desires are self-serving. But not all of them are, and within extremely religious or fundamentalist families, we aren't taught about holy desires, God-given desires. We don't learn how to distinguish; rather, many of us grew up believing that wanting something indicates right there that it isn't godly. We equate desires and wanting with selfishness alone.

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness;
Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! 

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! Isaiah 5:20, 21

This neglect further embeds shame into our being and continues to separate us ~ not to God, as in sanctification and true unworldliness, but from God. Many times our wants are actually God-given choices, good gifts from Him that we can utilize and return to Him in service.


Being raised in an environment rife with shame, messages of criticism, emotional blackmail, lack of encouragement and support all systematically tear down the heart, soul, and spirit. Jesus, the emotional God-the-Son, came to heal the brokenhearted and set at liberty those who are oppressed. Your healing will depend on where you hide your heart. Who has it? If you've given it to anyone other than Christ, your way to freedom, life, and wholeness will be thwarted by our Jealous God who longs for you to find rest in Him.


  1. Ah, Hillary, the title of this post is marvelous. So true that there is no deeper evil than to pervert a person's longing for the Divine. So much abuse happens that we disregard as "not real abuse" or even applaud from our own misguided understanding of spiritual realities.

    To come between a soul and her Creator with "should" and "ought" and "if only", to bring fear and shame to one who only seeks to worship in love, to repress grace, ... there are no words deep or wide or strong enough to express my grief at what evil parades as spiritual training.

  2. Sandra, I am with you in that grief.

    It takes time to replace that lifelong filter of shame and other lies.

    Its wonderful to "see" you again.

  3. Just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this post today as a wife.

  4. This post resonated with me deeply, so much that I don't really know what to say. For some reason, though, I remembered that Casting Crowns song, Set Me Free. Have you ever heard it? Powerful...

  5. Hillary, I have long believed that spiritual abuse is the worst abuse of all. This post really brings that home. Bless you,friend.

  6. Thank you for this in depth article and the hope God uses you to give to victims so they know what they are going through is REAL and there is HOPE.

  7. Really fascinating article.

    These kinds of things are things I am trying to avoid in my relationships, but are they ever really totally avoidable? We are all humans surrounded by humans, and there are times I simply cannot be there to meet my daughter's needs - because I have issues like depression and other health issues.

    Your conclusion is where I end up most of the time - all I can do in meeting her needs is to give her the ability to seek God for the fulfillment of the needs I can't meet. It's such a moment-by-moment thing...

    I appreciate your comment at my blog this afternoon - and came over to visit. Thanks for opening your world to me too!

  8. Really like your blog. I saw the link from Julie's, Cushy Christianity. Great words. Thank you.

  9. Thatmom ~ I agree, because while we can heal from any abuse, if we are confused by the nature and truth of God through spiritual abuse, that affects all of life.

    Sisterlisa, thank you so much! I'm enjoying your blog as well. Thank you for stopping by.

    Kelly ~ ah, what I've called "reflections from the fallen". His grace is sufficient. <3 Blessings to you!

    Angie, thanks for saying hello! I need to check out Julies' blog. :-) Hugs!

  10. As a husband, father, pastor, and one who had twice now been in a position to try to help women from these situation, I appreciate your blog and your thoughts here. If only the father's could come to understand true servant leadership that protects and nurtures. I know your ministry is vital and I hope your readers know that there are men out there who are seeking to be the dads God meant us to be.
    My wife and I had the privilege of taking in a refugee of such a home as you describe in this post and help her see what loving caring authority could be. Watching first hand the vitriol and anger that followed her as her family tried to reassert control all in the name of God really shocked me. It is she that connecting me to your blog.
    Praise God for the work you are doing and I hope that there are other men who can restore faith in what Dad's are supposed to be.

  11. Sirah, wow. Thank you for stopping by and for your truly humbling words. Thank you for your service to the Lord in helping those in need ~ ones who often are left as the least of these, but who are so very precious to God.

  12. *sigh* Words...they can create life and beauty...or they can destroy life and bring ugliness. So much power in such a little thing...the tongue. Out of the mouth of people come what is in their hearts.

    Keep writing, hon. You have a way with words and you tell about things that need to be heard/read.


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