I grew up in a very conservative subculture of an already conservative homeschool culture, in a pretty conservative stream of the Christian faith. Though I learned much from these experiences and am grateful for them, they laid the foundation for spiritual manipulation later in life. The Manipulators used words and phrases that I had heard before. They seemed biblical and very right, but they were not.
I had been groomed for this. My family of origin was very loving, but that did not prevent me from absorbing patterns of interaction that left me wide open to spiritual manipulation. A foundation had been laid that gave the Manipulators their tools—tools that inflicted deep pain. Tools that I’m just now beginning to recognize.
My hope is that this article will expose these tools and show how manipulators wield them. Many spiritual manipulators follow a pattern. They use the same key words, the same accusations, the same tactics. Their weapons can leave the Target breathless, alone, and without recourse. There is no safe place to hide. If you’ve ever been targeted, you’ll know the pain and confusion these four tools can inflict.
In brief, spiritual manipulators tend to use four tools: they accuse the Target of disrespect, gossip, pride, and having a “blind spot.” Manipulators love using these four accusations, regardless of their truth. They are easy to drop on people, and usually the purpose is not to bring the Target back to Jesus, but to manipulate the Target and/or protect the Manipulator.
If you are accused of these things, examine the accusations carefully. Seek God’s counsel and the wisdom of trusted friends. It took years for me to recover from some of these accusations, and that only happened after many mature church leaders and friends (and a good therapist) countered and defused them.
TOOL #1: Disrespect
When the Manipulator senses any sort of disagreement or eroding influence, he or she will accuse the Target of disrespect. Manipulators will often start with the accusation of disrespect, hoping the Target will apologize quickly and stop whatever action is “disrespectful.”
Be very, very careful when you hear the word “respect” being thrown around, especially in conflict. In controlling religious circles, it is a magical tool used to shut people up. It is often used by Manipulators to protect those in power, believing that if everyone would just be quiet and “respectful,” it would all be okay. But the trouble is, the minute you have to start demanding respect, you’ve lost it. Yes, of course, we are told to respect those in authority, the government, church leaders, etc. However, that truth is not a prohibition on kindly disagreeing and respectfully bringing up things you see as inconsistencies or flaws.
If you’re accused of disrespect, check your motives, check with some trusted counselors outside the situation, and watch out for Tool #2.
TOOL #2: Gossip
Manipulators will use a w i d e definition of gossip—and apply it liberally. They love labeling any negative talk “gossip,” even if it’s not. They will preach about it, talk about it, and elevate the sin of gossip to the level of blasphemy. By labeling all talk of this sort “gossip,” they magically remove their own responsibility to deal with the truth.
Be aware that despite all the preaching and teaching on gossip, a concrete definition will be absent. For example, if reporting a possible crime to the authorities is “gossip,” it’s time to re-examine the definitions.
I heard some really bad stuff about a person once, so I went to the person directly and asked if it were true. Their incredulous response: “You’re asking me to verify gossip?!” Well, I guess, but that’s not gossip. I wasn’t spreading false information, and I wasn’t lying about anyone; I was simply going to the person who was the object of the gossip and asking about some things that very much pertained to my life. I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. However, the Manipulator accused me of gossiping.
When being accused of gossip, don’t be surprised if the Manipulator also blames you for “taking up another’s offense.” Feel free to remind him, respectfully, that sometimes the Bible actually commands us to take up another’s offense, especially when the other person is powerless to defend him or herself.
If you’re accused of gossip, review the Biblical definition, check your heart, and watch out for Tool #3.
TOOL #3: Pride
If the first two tools don’t work, manipulators will often accuse the Target of pride. Manipulators seem to love the blanket accusation of pride. If the Target disagrees or has her own opinion (of events or ideas), she is arrogant and prideful. A more humble person would see the correctness and rightness of the Manipulator.
This type of accusation puts the Target in an awkward position. The Target can’t really argue back, because that just reinforces the Manipulator’s point. The Target is left with no alternative but to accept this accusation, and thus this is a very useful tool for manipulators. Furthermore, since we are taught from a very early age that pride is one of the worst sins ever, this accusation carries a lot of weight. We know it’s serious business.
This accusation in particular rocked my world. I now realize that it was not made in good faith. It was not made to help me get closer to Jesus; the accusation was made to control me—to control my behavior. And control me it did. For years, I questioned everything I did, everything I said. “Am I being prideful? Does this look arrogant?” It was a life without freedom, a life without grace.
Fortunately, through wise encouragement from older Christians and a good counselor, I was able to see the damage done by the Manipulator. The fear of coming across as prideful or arrogant is still there. The voice of the Manipulator still rings loud and clear. However, I don’t listen to that voice as much as I used to. I’ve realized that some of the things about me that were labeled “arrogant” and “prideful” are in fact gifts from God. Gifts to serve the Church, not sins to confess. I have found freedom.
TOOL # 4: The Blind Spot
Manipulators tend to save this one for last. If they’ve tried everything else and are unable to manipulate the Target, they may simply accuse the Target of “having blind spots.” And if the target denies the existence of a particular blind spot, that’s taken as proof of its existence.
This is the Manipulator’s perfect tool.
Do we have blind spots, spiritually? Yup, probably. And could God use a Manipulator to reveal those blind spots? Maybe. But it seems that confronting blind spots is better done by a caring friend or a close confidant— not a Manipulator who uses the “doctrine” of blind spots as a last resort, with the end goal being control.
Spiritual manipulators are angered and annoyed by people who aren’t easily manipulated. And although anger can be holy, it is one of the surest signs of a spiritual manipulator who’s out of a job. A spiritual manipulator who can’t manipulate is like a gun with a knot in the barrel. So be careful!
Spiritual manipulation hurts and wounds—deeply. If you’ve been targeted, may God in his infinite mercy restore the damage done. May he provide deep peace and a safe shelter. May you see the character of his heart, washed clean of the manipulators who used God’s words to damage and control rather than to heal and set free.
Grace to you all.
I originally published this article at Recovering Grace under the pseudonym Mark Andrews. It has been slightly edited for a broader audience. This is my story. I hope and pray that publishing this piece to a wider audience will help at least a few people recognize, heal from, and avoid, spiritual manipulators.