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Humiliation Manipulation | Guest Post

by David Orrison

Every once in a while a light shines out revealing the truth of our surroundings. Sometimes it only lasts a moment, but we gain insights that change our understanding of the world. Suddenly, the explanation we have been looking for explodes like a flash of lightning.

For several years we observed a phenomenon we struggled to understand. We watched as people in our (insert your favorite legalist/performance community here) group put each other down, humiliated certain people, and offered the most self-righteous criticism we had ever heard. If we tried to interfere, we were met with rejection—by the victims! An obvious pecking order existed, but why it was tolerated was beyond us.

The pecking order extended beyond our group. When someone came from HQ it was obvious that he or she was of a higher class than the rest of us. When we attended gatherings, it appeared that the put downs and criticisms happened even among the elite leadership. And, again, the victims seemed to be more committed to the group than before.

In my counseling office, the real feelings would come out. Anger, hurt, rejection, depression—spewed out as the consequence of this kind of group interaction. I would ask why the victims allowed the abuse to continue and they would have no answer. They just wanted to be a part of the group. They believed that there was something in it for them, if they could just get their act together. 

As I counseled and observed, I realized this was the way almost everyone in the group felt. They lived in fear of criticism, knowing they never really measured up to the group standard. Husbands felt like they were failures. Wives felt disappointed and ashamed. Kids felt frightened and angry. No one was happy! So, why did they stay in the group and what made the group popular?

I puzzled about this for a long time, believing my observations to be accurate but not being able to explain what was going on. Then, while watching a favorite television program, I heard a succinct explanation of the situation. It was on “The Mentalist”, March 24, 2009, about 28 minutes into an episode called, “Carnelian, Inc.” Patrick Jane, the main character, explained brainwashing, the way a certain group was able to manipulate its members. He said:

“When the individual is humiliated 
their perceived value of the group is raised.”

Jane called it “group suffering.”

To restate, the value of a group rises in the eyes of an individual member when that member is humiliated by other group members. That’s exactly what I had observed. But now I understood what was going on.
You see, our group advertised itself as offering the world a better way of life. Oh, they never officially said the word “better,” but we all understood it that way. Better than what? Better than the life you would have if you didn’t have the group. Better than your neighbors. Better than the rest of your family, your church, your world. If we conformed to the standards of the group, we would be better.

But the standards of the group were difficult to discern and follow. Each family had booklets to study that began with a brief quiz. We were to answer the questions the best we could and then we would learn the answers as we studied the booklet. I, as the father, was the leader, of course. I was supposed to lead the family into the truth. But it was amazing almost beyond words to see how consistently stupid I was. We all were. We would talk through one of the questions, search Scripture, and do our best to come up with an answer that was almost always wrong. In our family it became a joke. We would come up with an answer and then suggest the opposite just because we knew that our answer would be wrong. After a few dozen of these (sorry, I was slow) we just gave up. It was so painfully manipulative.

But now I see the reason. Getting the wrong answer all the time is humiliating. My family and I needed the teacher and the group to lead us because it was so obvious that we could not lead ourselves competently. Yes, we wanted to follow the Lord, but it became very clear that we couldn’t do that on our own. We needed what the group offered. 

May I put it very bluntly? The quiz showed us that we were dumb. Obviously the group, particularly the teacher, was so far beyond us in intelligence and spirituality that we simply had to stop asking questions and believe what we were told. What would happen to our children and our marriage if we tried to follow the Lord on our own? Disaster! Just like we heard over and over in the teacher’s stories. What a blessing it was to be a part of the group!

Well, we got out of the group when we began to see what was really being taught and how it was affecting the rest of the members. We felt manipulated, of course, but the Lord had given us the ability to hold the group at arm’s length and receive the criticisms and teachings with a grain of salt. Don’t get me wrong; we were not immune. But when we understood that we were being manipulated, we got out. Of course, that’s another story.

Why do people continue in a group when the group/teacher continually points out error and weakness? Because they have been convinced that the group/teacher is the only way out of that error and weakness. Guilt affects most believers. We remember what we did wrong before we knew the Lord and we know that we continue to do things that are wrong. Many churches and preachers have used that guilt in our lives, never or rarely showing us the freedom from guilt we have in Christ. Many believers accept messages of guilt and shame simply because they continue to feel remorse for their sins. If you tell them they are bad, they will remember what they have done and agree with you. From there on, teachers offer ways to compensate for those feelings of shame and guilt. The believer who finds it difficult to accept the love and forgiveness of Jesus is open to the teachings of performance.

The true message of the gospel is one of love and acceptance. There is no condemnation, we are told, for the person who lives in Christ. No condemnation, no shame, no humiliation. Jesus really does mean for me to come to Him just as I am. He will take care of the rest.

What would it be like to be a part of a group that doesn’t use humiliation to manipulate its members? Frankly, this is what the church should be. We have an amazing message with the single focus on Jesus. In Him is no shame. In Him is wonderful welcome. He takes us as we are and walks with us. He makes changes in us and leads us into new truths about ourselves and our world. As we accept the fact that we are accepted, we are set free to be who we are in Him.

David Orrison has been a pastor for over 30 years with a sincere desire to help people know the love and grace of the Lord Jesus.  He holds a PhD in Theology from Trinity Seminary.  He has worked with pastors and other church leaders who have been discouraged by the expectations and failures of ministry.  He has also helped parents, spouses, and young people who have been hurt by the legalistic teaching of what he calls, “performance spirituality.”  His website, www.gracefortheheart.org, and blog, http://graceformyheart.wordpress.com, have been sources of encouragement and teaching for many.  He is available for speaking engagements as well.  He and his wife, Alice, have eight sons and live in Colorado. 


  1. Excellent insight! Though oddly I find it makes me want to quote Groucho Marx:

    "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept someone like me as a member."


    "I've got a mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it."

  2. I am a 4th generation person of the club David talks about. My great grandmother attended their meetings, Grandparents were on staff for 20+ years, parents were on staff before marriage, and again after marriage living at their HQ. I worked on staff for 4+ years before marriage as well.

    I find David's post to be very insightful. At the same time, it is frightening to me. With my multi-generational exposure I grew up thinking that the humiliation he talks about was good & normal. Actually, I would describe what went on as "superiority" but the opposite of that, what happened to everyone else, was humiliation.

    I didn't have a 'pre-group self' to go back to, I didn't have any other point of reference.

    It was startling and felt uncomfortable when hubby and I ended up in a church where the Pastors & Elders humbly taught the word. They were so quick to say "We don't know everything, we want you to go study this yourself, we are teaching you 100% what we believe to be true, but we could be wrong. Go, study this yourselves, come to us if you have questions or see something else in the scripture." Since hubby grew up in the same group I did, we both were dumbfounded by such a careful and humble handling of God's word, and teaching of the flock on how to apply it.

    That sort of teaching was our first step out of the GroupThink we'd grown up in.

  3. What a depressing, treacherous way to exist.

  4. Oh such words of truth, how so unlike Jesus who wants us to think for ourselves and really know why we believe in Him and are not programmed to live like matrix people. I feel that men need this grace ministry a lot because many of them have been mentored by legalistic parents or mentors and fall miserably when they feel the guilt trip. May this pastor's ministry help multitudes.

  5. I like this. Mr. Orrison's post has given me much to ponder and think about.

  6. This is so true, I believed that I was the worst one in my family, and that everything would get better if only I shaped up.

  7. Thank you for these grace-filled words.

  8. I wonder how Christianity in America would change if everyone just started focusing on Jesus Christ?

    I think the very worst thing that has happened to my faith was the fundamentalist deification of the Bible over the God the Bible was meant to reveal.

    Thankfully in my young Christian days I was influenced by Jesus people, who taught that Jesus was the center-piece, the show stopper, the purpose and grand finale of all God's words to man, both before his birth and after his ascension. All of the Bible was meant to be read through the lens of the life and words of Jesus!

    Yet as an adult, returning to the church in an effort to live for Jesus, I found an evangelical/fundamentalist religion in which the gospels are merely four out of sixty-six books of the Bible. People who focus on the gospels are called names, and their character is disparaged as being full of sin and the desire to sin (antinomian, greasy grace, easy believism are just a few of the insults).

    But those people are not caring for the flock of God. They are building their own kingdoms here on earth, gathering followers for themselves, and their minds are on earthly things. It is stupefying that the church which began centered on the life and words of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit of the Living God in the new birth, willingly gave that up.

    But that is what dispensationalism is all about. The Holy Spirit supposedly left the church in all but name as soon as the canon was approved by men, and the gospels became only 4/66, and Jesus became a centerpiece of doctrine instead of the center of our lives and the way we view our selves and our fellow human beings.

    May the Lord build His church and overthrow the wicked shepherds and the fat sheep who are fleecing the weak and the weary ones that the Holy Spirit is calling to Jesus. And may all who are faithful to the heavenly calling; to love Jesus and honor Him, to live with the love Jesus has for us and to serve our families; our neighbors and our world in humility; may the faithful increase and Jesus be glorified in the earth!

  9. Thanks, everyone, for the great comments! One of the most common responses when a person finally realizes that he or she has been manipulated is rage. I will write more on that sometime, but it makes sense, doesn’t it? There is some anger at ourselves for letting ourselves be deceived; some at those who led us into the manipulation (parents, spouse, etc.); and considerable anger toward those who have taught us and convinced us that we were stupid or less in some way. (No wonder they have to teach that anger is bad!)

    JessB – Praise God that you learned that humiliation is not a “normal” part of Christian faith! There is an elitism in legalist circles (the superiority you spoke of), but only a very few actually believe themselves worthy of it. Most are controlled by the humiliation process. I am so happy that you found a good church!

    Cranberrycottage – Yes, but remember that most people, especially children, will find ways to be occasionally happy even in the worst circumstances. That family next door knows how to pretend to be happy and can actually be happy, sometimes, in the midst of such “treacherous” control.

    Jsevenup – I often say that guilt isn’t a very effective motivator but it’s the only one we have so we use it as much as we can. Tongue in cheek, of course. What would the church be like if we tried love?

    YoungMom – That sounds so sad! The fascinating thing I learned is that almost everyone felt the same way. All part of the manipulation. (Except for the occasional narcissist, of course. Another thing I write about.)

    Shadowspring – I recently read a facebook note that a friend received which clicked with what you said. The man called the KJV, “Jesus Christ in book form.” When I read that, my theologian’s hat flew off my head and hit the ceiling! There is such a thing as bibliolatry and we do encounter it in the more dispensational mindset. But the Bible is not Jesus, nor is it to be worshiped. We love it, read it, study it – and through it we understand more of Jesus – but Jesus is God and worthy of our worship.

    Thanks everyone! Don’t hesitate to write me directly if I can answer questions or just give encouragement. dave@gracefortheheart.org


  10. Great article. I hope that those who read it, and feel beaten down by the authority figures in their life/church, will begin to question why?

  11. David this is wonderful! You really pulled the veil off on a lot of these areas. Thank you.

    Simply Amazing - I never realized until now that what was actually going on back then was *a false sense of unity. whoa!!

    & the guilt, and wrongness of each family member makes so much sense now -while still leaning on the wrong belief system; I can very much relate.

    I would say from my own unraveling and personal redemptive experience, the oppression is so difficult to address in the mind because it is so invisible and binds us from liberation like a metal clutch and it is cyclic.
    Especially as women who feel so much.... we can get stuck here. Bringing the mind with us into the spirit journey for retraining and conditioning for the wholeness journey is the most essential partnership. (left behind we are still slaves to the cognitive control.)

    so much truth in this post! I wanted to comment on a few...
    "Better than what?"
    I have always felt I needed to be better than, and had to learn the hard way that life is not about competition, it is a beautiful playground for gentle souls to develop and learn IN LOVE.

    also I enjoyed this reassurance you shared today:
    He makes changes in us and leads us into new truths about ourselves and our world. As we accept the fact that we are accepted, we are set free to be who we are in Him.

    wow, thank you for clarifying some of this on the cognitive level. It totally makes sense!


  12. Doesn't seem to matter if the group is Amway/Quixtar, IBLP/ATI or a street gang--it's all the same. Sometimes, when I'm around life-long Christians, I feel this way too--like your family I sometimes feel I need to think the opposite.
    Wonderful, thought-provoking post.

  13. I've overcome many strongholds since coming out of the independant baptist denomination. The churches we attended were extremely legalistic. The 15 yrs we attended left me emotionally scarred.
    Some who still are caught up in the web of legalism feel it is perfectly acceptable to try and manipulate me to bring me back into the fold by placing guilt on me for leaving the "family faith" and being hurtful towards them simply because I won't adhere to the "family standard". One family member is so irrate at our new found freedom in Christ he went on a two day email tirade against me claiming I live in a "putride psycotic world" and will release the gates of hell against me if I ever speak out in disagreement from his "family faith".
    My husband tried to get his brother to understand that we are new creatures in Christ and no longer live according to the "family standard" but wish to have fellowship with the rest of the family despite our differences. He also asked his brother not to attack me further. His brother said I shouldn't have taken his words as an attack. He was just venting. He went further to say he wouldn't had to vent if I didn't openly go against the family standard. Apparantly we have to agree 100% with the family standard or we are 100% against the family.
    Anyway, this is a pattern we see all the time from his family. They find out we are walking in the Sprit not by rules that makes them mad. They go on a tirade once they discover where our faith in Christ takes us, (a non denominational church, read the NASB instead of the KJV, I wear pants so do our girls etc.) Once we break a rule, they back up the dump truck and let us have it. After a period of time they say, Gee sorry! Only to have the whole process reapeat month after month, year after year.
    I know we are to forgive, but does that mean we have to keep relationships intact? Should we keep being the family dog so to speak just for the sake of keeping family relations intact? Should we be continually mistreated by them? We literally moved across the country to get away from the churches and family who have caused us great pain.
    I believe many stay in these cult like churches and family because we've been told we have to forgive and forget when one does us harm. I've had this such guilt placed on me for years. I want restoration, but when I try they get mad and say our relationship suffers because I won't forgive. It has nothing to do with there hurtful actions in their eyes. According to them I have to just let it all go and come around for more mistreatment.
    It is conditional love. If I obey the rules, I am "loved". If I disobey, they "release the gates of hell against me." If one finds his/her identity within these groups it is EXTREMLY difficult to break from them. These churches and my husbands family were our circle of friends. We lost every last relationship when the Lord set us free from the bondage. Just our freedom in Christ alone is enough of a rub to get them worked up let alone being transformed into His image. We are rejected, dispised and our character maligned since we have left the "family faith". That's a high price to pay, but well worth it! It was scarry for us to walk out in faith but we knew the Lord was calling us out and trusted he would provide. We stepped out into a whole new world from what we were raised in.
    I believe the fear of the unknown keeps people in abusive realtionships.


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