The Trauma of Spiritual Abuse, Part 2: Blinded, Bleeding, Broken

For Part 1 of this series, click here.

Please note: I wrote the following post over a year ago. Since then, I have learned many more things about myself, about the Christian life, and about abuse. If I were to write this today, I would, frankly, not be as easy on my parents, especially my father. However, at the same time, I believe that even his own problems also stemmed from Bill Gothard and his teachings. Regardless of who is at fault, the following does indeed describe the pain that I went through. And yet it is inadequate.

How do you describe the trauma of spiritual abuse to someone who has never experienced it? How do you describe an invisible wound that goes deeper than any physical wound? And how is it possible for such terrible results to come from teaching that doesn’t seem that much different than the Bible, at least at first glance?

As I began to read about the effects of sexual abuse, I started to see some definite similarities between the effects of sexual abuse and spiritual abuse. Both are abuse. Both can seem fairly innocuous (“All he did was touch her breasts on a couple occasions”). And both can have far-reaching consequences that no one, including the victim, recognizes as the result of the abuse.

But the results are there, nonetheless. I know from experience, and I know from the experiences of many others who I know and whose testimonies I have read. I can’t speak for all ATI students. But I know the consequences and trauma in my life, and I want to share them here. It is the also the story of many others.

I want to interject that the damage of ATI was compounded by the spiritual abuse of another system: the Mennonite church. Yes, the conservative Mennonite church is also a spiritually abusive system, full of man-made rules not specifically given by God.

Another interesting fact is that my parents were not the “Gothardite” type. Unlike some ATI parents, they did not buy into everything that Bill Gothard taught. They did not go around parroting platitudes about “Give your expectations to God,” “If someone praises you, deflect it to others,” “You need to stay under the umbrella of authority,” etc. They had tried to take the meat and spit out the bones. And yet, the things they did accept, and the teachings that we children received directly from ATI, had a terrible effect on our entire family.

I also want to state at the beginning that my parents are wonderful, kind people. They are loving, non-abusive parents who truly love God. They raised me in ATI because they wanted the best for me, not because they wanted to “get control of me” or abuse me. I know of no one else that I would rather have for my parents. So my case, I believe, is an especially good one for examining the effects of spiritual abuse, because the following results were not the result of bad parents. They were the result of a bad, abusive system.


The spiritual abuse of ATI produced spiritual blindness in me. I grew up in a Christian home, with Godly parents who loved me, loved God, and wanted the best for me. I read my Bible religiously (especially after I made a vow to read it for five minutes every day), I memorized the entire book of James, and I could recite or and least repeat the gist of many other verses and passages. In a quest for wisdom, I repeatedly read the book of Proverbs until I was sick of it. I also saw God at work in our family, providing for us in miraculous ways.

And yet, I was blind to who God really is. I served Him out of fear and duty rather than love. I totally missed what grace was really all about. I totally missed the important message of the Bible that we do not obey God on our own strength, but by His power.

It wasn’t until God started giving me eyes to see, and ears to hear, that I finally began to know Him for Who He really is.


“God has not given us the spirit of fear,” the Bible tells us. But spiritual abuse built a lot of fear into me, especially in three areas.

I want to note, too, that there are two types of fear: healthy fear that keeps us from doing stupid things like jumping off a cliff or walking in front of a car; and toxic, paralyzing fear that keeps us from doing the things we should do. Wisdom gives us healthy fear; abuse breeds toxic fear.

Fear of God

The Bible speaks of “the fear of God”. But the fear of God that I had was not a healthy fear. It was better explained as being afraid of God.

My whole purpose in serving God was based around fear of His discipline and judgment. I needed to do the right thing so He wouldn’t punish me—worst of all, punish me by sending me to Hell. I lived in fear of being punished by Him for some small infraction of His commands. I passed out tracts because I felt guilty about not evangelizing.

I was controlled by various feelings that I thought were “God speaking to me” and telling me to do things. If I “disobeyed”, I would feel horrible, an awful, empty, dark feeling. I would start writing journal entries and not finish them. I would spend a long time looking at a passage, waiting for God to show me whatever it was that my feeling had told me to wait for.

I was a happy-looking guy, to those who didn’t know me well. Few would probably have guessed the fear that lay under the surface. But it was there—lots of it.

I also feared being disciplined by God for doing things that He had not ever said were sin, but that had been defined by men as sin.

Fear of man

“What will others think of me?” That is a resounding theme in a spiritually abusive culture.

We were taught to evaluate others by their outsides. We were also taught to present a good outside to others—to have a higher standard than the rest of the world. So in addition to worrying about what God might think if we did something, there was also the added fear: “What might someone else think of me if I did that?”

Once again, healthy vs. toxic fear comes into play. We should care enough of what others think of us that we comb our hair, refrain from picking our noses in public, don’t burp loudly, and otherwise behave in a courteous, mannerly way. But when it switches to a toxic fear of man, it becomes paralyzing.

It wasn’t just the world I was concerned about, either. If I went to a meeting with more conservative Mennonites, what were they thinking about me? Was I dressing to a high enough standard to please them? What were they thinking about the fact that I was wearing a polo shirt instead of a button-down?

Fear of parents

My parents were loving, non-abusive parents. As a little boy, I remember having a wonderful relationship with my dad. We would do things together, play together, and generally enjoyed each other’s presence. And we definitely have had a lot of fun together throughout the years.

But as the “higher standards” and performance-based mindset of ATI crept into our family, and as I grew older, the relationship soured, especially as I hit my teen years. Due to the authoritarianism of ATI, and many other negative consequences that I will detail below, I became afraid of my dad. He became, in my eyes, a strict disciplinarian, whose love I was trying to earn. I felt that I never measured up, and never would. (This was also how I felt toward God.)

Even after leaving ATI behind, and I reached adulthood, we have struggled to leave these consequences behind.

Irrational behavior

Trauma, fear, and abuse lead to irrational behavior. Many times, the person is not aware of why they do what they do, and they are just as frustrated as those around them.

It’s important to note that, in reality, this “irrational behavior” is not as irrational as it may appear, once the full situation is understood. In fact, the person is probably acting more or less rationally, if you realized all the factors that went into their thinking.

Irrational behavior was definitely a problem for me. For example, Dad would give me an instruction of something he wanted me to do. I really wanted to please him, so one would think that I would be an excellent helper and would do everything well. But no. It seemed that his wishes went to the bottom of my priority list. Often, when I did finally carry out his instructions, I would do something wrong and have to do it over again.

We have a family farm, and I work for my dad, so this was a big problem for us. It irritated both Dad and I, and I couldn’t explain why it happened that way. This only irritated us even more.

Eventually, I realized that it stemmed, at least in part, from enmity.


The too-high expectations of ATI produced a lot of conflict in our family. I was upset that my dad didn’t do things the “way he was supposed to”. He was upset that I wasn’t turning out the way that I was supposed to, and doing the things that I should. We both loved each other very much, but enmity developed between us.

I should share here that the effects of ATI and its teachings also caused me to hurt my father in many ways. There were many times where he gave me good advice and I ignored it. We got into all sorts of arguments and conflicts. We were repeatedly hurting each other, all the while with good intentions.

It was a sad situation. We were essentially like two little boys fighting each other because invisible bullies (Satan, his demons, and his abusive teachings) were forcing us to do so. Unfortunately, because the bullies were invisible, neither of us knew that the other one was being driven by a bully. In fact, neither of us realized that we were being driven by a bully. We only saw each other, so we both felt that the other person was the enemy.

This sort of family dichotomy is very difficult for those involved. We loved each other, yet we were enemies with one another.

This is one reason why I would put Dad’s instructions on the bottom of the priority list. My enmity with him produced a hatred for his instructions and many other things that he said. Therefore, I hated doing anything that he wanted me to do.

Note that this was an inner, unrecognized hatred. I didn’t really understand what was going on. I knew I didn’t really, down inside, want to do what Dad told me to do, but I didn’t know why.

Lack of love

When you are enemies with someone, it’s difficult to love them. Additionally, when you are afraid of someone, it’s difficult to love them. And it’s difficult to feel any love they have toward you. So it was for me.

I knew that God loved me, because “the Bible tells me so”. But I didn’t really feel His love. I lived in fear of Him, even though I had seen many examples of His love in my life.

But after all, I was trying to serve Him as best as I could, so I deserved to get something from Him, didn’t I?

The truth was, though, I didn’t love God very much.

Inability to make necessary changes

One of the cornerstones of abusive systems is that they replace the power of God with the effort of man. The solution to sin is not the grace of God, which gives us the power to overcome sin. It is my own effort: following formulas, meditating on Scripture, trying harder to do what’s right, making vows and commitments…

And that’s how I tried to make changes in my life. And it failed. Big time. For years. And it resulted in a lot of frustration for both me and those around me.

The breakthrough started when Dad said to me: “Do you realize that you cannot change on your own?”

That question started me down the path of finding the power and grace of God.

There is also another aspect to this inability to change. Spiritual abuse creates warped thinking patterns and detrimental coping mechanisms that prevent a person from being able to do the right thing. I shared an example of this a little earlier, in the case of putting Dad’s requests at the bottom of my priority list.

Loss of faith

When God is supposed to act a certain way, and He doesn’t, it destroys one’s faith. Additionally, when you are afraid of Him, it destroys your faith. How do you trust in someone who is out to get you?

I grew up believing that God only really cared about me if I did the right thing. If I obeyed Him perfectly, had all the right attitudes, followed all the promptings He gave me—then I was a good Christian, God would love me, and He would look after me and see that things went right for me.

But if I had a recurring problem that I couldn’t conquer, then God wasn’t happy with me. Obviously, I didn’t love Him enough, so He didn’t love me very well either. I asked Him over and over and over for wisdom, tried to make the right decisions, tried to work hard and do a good job—and failed over and over again. And things didn’t go very well for me.

Apparently, I had missed something. I needed to try still harder so that God would be pleased with me and answer my prayers.

But as time went along, and still nothing happened, my faith weakened. Where was God? Why didn’t He help me?

To be totally honest, if God hadn’t revealed Himself to me, to where I KNOW that He is real, and that He loves me, I would be an atheist by now.

Lack of maturity and responsibility

Ruth Gabriel was a secretary to Bill Gothard during the 70’s. Gothard controlled her to such an extent that she found herself starting to pray “Dear Bill…” instead of “Dear God…” Gothard eventually sent her up to his Northwoods training center, where his brother, Steve, sexually abused her.

Ruth left IBLP (then IBYC) in 1980, and got married. Her husband Larne writes:

Even after leaving the Institute Ruth found it very difficult to make decisions. Shortly after we were married she passed out in a grocery store while trying to decide which product to purchase. Even to go to the mailbox, in our rural setting, she had to get dressed up; the Institute’s requirement of appearance had been so strongly drilled into her that it was hard to break free from the Institute’s bondage.

I can identify with Ruth’s problems. The result of authoritarianism is not maturity and responsibility; it is immaturity, irresponsibility, and fear of making decisions. I had this problem for several reasons. First of all, I was afraid of making the wrong decision without my authority to tell me what to do. Second, I expected the one in charge to make the decisions, and then I would submit to those decisions. My fear of my father prevented me from thinking clearly, understanding instructions and the underlying point of those instructions, observing a situation objectively, and making wise decisions. This resulted in me making bad decisions, which fueled my fear of making decisions.

In addition, we ATI students were trained to believe that we were not mature enough to make decisions on our own. We were taught to stay under the umbrella of authority and follow instructions, right up until we got married.

In retrospect, I think that the teachings of ATI helped to push pre-teen children to be more mature; but when they reached adolescence and needed to learn to think on their own, the authoritarianism and patriarchy now held them back from learning to make decisions on their own, and to be mature and independent. It also taught parents to keep a firm grip on their children and not allow them to become independent adults who could make their own decisions.

A warped view of the world

Through both ATI and the Mennonite church, we were taught that the world was bad. All you had to do to discourage something was to call it worldly. Also, there was the implication that the evil of the world was greater than the power of God, and we had to be careful lest we were contaminated.

Make no mistake, there is much evil in the world. I have seen it and know it. But God also tells us, “You are of God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4) We need to beware of the evil in the world, and follow Jesus instead of “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16); but we must not be afraid of the world. Nor is it wrong to do something just because the world does it. We avoid things because God tells us to do so (whether through Scripture or by guidance of the Holy Spirit), not as a knee-jerk reaction to “the world”.


This warped view of the world led to isolation. We pulled back from those who didn’t share our ATI standards, lest we be influenced by them. We looked down on those who didn’t share our non-Biblical standards.

I like to use the term “hunker in the bunker”. It describes what we did and felt—and what we were taught by the homeschool movement: “The world is a terrible place. Keep your kids out of it as much as possible! Everyone is out to get your kids! Run! Hide! Hunker in the bunker!”

But you know who was in the bunker? The Enemy of souls, brought in by Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, Michael Pearl, and other false teachers who pretended to be ministers of righteousness. And hunkering in the bunker with the enemy is more deadly than being outside with the enemy, because there’s no place to run away. And if you think they are your friend, you won’t run away.

In other words, being isolated with bad influences is worse than bad influences without isolation, because there aren’t many other influences to help counter the bad ones. And when you think that the bad influences are actually good influences—well, you are in big trouble.

Failure to evangelize

It’s pretty difficult to evangelize the world when you are not involved in their lives. When you have the “hunker in the bunker” mentality, you feel very nervous about stepping out and getting to know people who don’t share your faith. What if you end up losing your own faith?

(Can I just add here that you have to first know God—in a deep and personal relationship, where you actually know Him like a family member—before your faith can truly stand up to attack?)

It’s also impossible to truly evangelize the world when you have a long list of non-Biblical teachings that they must obey in order to be good Christians. Even if you should happen to make a convert, you will make them a disciple of your brand of religion, rather than a disciple of Jesus.

On a final note: the conservative Mennonite church has held the “hunker in the bunker” mentality for many, many years. As a result, most conservative Mennonites have “Mennonite” names—Yoder, Miller, Mast, Hostetler, Stoltzfus, and on and on and on. Few have names like Smith, Jones, or Williams. This is because most Mennonites can trace their spiritual heritage back to Europe. The only reason that they are Christians today is because of evangelistic work done centuries ago. If the church were to consist only of those who joined the church within the last 50 years (and whose parents were not Mennonite), there would be few people left.

Hopelessness and worthlessness

The result of all this failure was hopelessness. No matter how hard I tried, I could never seem to measure up to what I needed to be. No matter how hard I asked for wisdom, and how many times I read the book of Proverbs, I still kept making dumb decisions. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help Dad to understand my point of view—and he felt the same way with me.

I believed that God only cared about me if I did the right thing, and I felt like I never did the right thing. My situation was hopeless.

And since my self-worth was based upon how well I performed, and I didn’t perform well, I also felt worthless.

I should add here that according to what I’ve been told, when a person feels hopeless, helpless, and worthless, they are likely to become suicidal. While I never seriously considered suicide, I can’t deny that there were times where it passed through my mind.

It wasn’t my parents’ fault

Throughout this article, I have repeatedly mentioned problems with my parents, especially my dad. You may think that I blame them for what happened.

But it wasn’t my parents’ fault. Did they make their own mistakes along the way? Of course! But the real problem was that they were conned into believing that ATI and its related teachings would help them produce children who were “mighty in spirit” and be world-changers; children who were Godly and better than those around them; children who would be leaders and pace-setters. Who wouldn’t want that for their children?

As I said at the beginning, my parents were loving and non-abusive. I still don’t know of anyone else that I would rather have for my parents.

In fact, to be quite honest, as I look at the results in other families, I feel that my parents deserve credit for how well we did turn out. Despite their mistakes and misconceptions, Mom and Dad loved Jesus and did their best to follow Him. They participated in ATI because they wanted the best for their children.

In addition, while I’ve focused on the effects I experienced, my parents also suffered. They experienced the frustration of trying to train their children to follow Jesus, while being hindered at every turn by the effects of false teaching.

The effects that you read above are not the effects of bad parents. They are the effects of spiritual abuse.

They are the effects of Satan’s corruption of the pure faith in Christ. Satan has two methods of working (and they’re not necessarily the only ones). One is to convince people that it’s okay to disobey God, that grace covers all, that it doesn’t really matter what you do. This results in people who “profess to know God, but in works they deny Him” (Titus 1:16)—people who claim to follow Jesus while living in open sin.

But for the people who really want to obey Jesus and follow Him, Satan uses the opposite tactic: get them to do more than what Jesus taught, to hold higher standards than what the Bible teaches, to view things as sin that Jesus never condemned. He tempts them to add their own rules and doctrines to the pure teachings of Jesus, instead of walking and living in the Spirit. He tells them to err on the side of caution, and teaches them that “caution” is going beyond God’s commands.

It seems so safe. It looks so righteous.

But this spiritual abuse results in all the effects I just got through describing—and more.

In fact, I believe that it is actually more dangerous than Satan’s first method (tell them that it doesn’t matter what they do), because the Pharisees fell into that trap, and they are the ones who crucified Jesus. (See more at “If Jesus Showed Up, Would You Hate Him?”)

Error is always toxic, no matter what form it takes.

I was lied to,
But You told the truth,
‘Cause You are the truth.
I was lied to,
But You showed the truth to me.


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14 Replies to “The Trauma of Spiritual Abuse, Part 2: Blinded, Bleeding, Broken”

  1. Hi Joel
    I attended a church that was into the ACE curriculum. It had characters with names like Pastor Alltruth and other nonsense like that. Even then I remember thinking that it was a denial that some pastors lie and arent faithful to God or trustworthy. Submission to authority no matter how unjust was heavily emphasized.
    It was a heavily controlled system and many of the illustrations seemed to come from the same publisher as Basic Youth material. However I am pretty sure that at that time, Gothard
    s teachings had been adopted by many churches including ours. In the movie Courageous, you can see some indicators of that influence, including the eagle portrait in the coach`s office. Gothardism was heavily into using the eagle as a symbol.

    Now, more than twenty years later, I find it hard to think through it all. For instance in the OT we are told that if we cherish sin in our heart, God will not hear us. That was sort of taught to us in a way that was more like If, at this moment, you are in a sin or are struggling with a sin, God will not speak to you or respond to you unless you first get it right, get your heart right and totally remove the sin from your life and yourself from the sin.`` Which is quite crushing because it means that at the moment you most need Gods help, when you are wrestling with sin, He refuses to speak to you until the sin is gone. Confessing it is not enough. God will not give you any help, support or provision unless you remove the sin first.

    So I understand what you mean by how spiritually abusive it is. What`s awful about it is that it sounds like the way of righteousness, and of pleasing God.

  2. Thank you for speaking the truth. My Dad would roll in his grave if he knew I was reading this and saying “Amen” in my heart. It makes me cry and laugh at the same time because I believe he really understood all this and if he really knew he had the freedom to believe this he would have. He just didn’t know he was allowed to, lol! Oh the crazy things religion makes us believe!

  3. I’m sorry for how you suffered so much. Wolves in sheep’s clothing are always a problem, and leaders aren’t always good at exposing them. No wonder Paul warned the elders in Ephesus so much. How horrible that your parents bought into the lies and it changed their parenting. I’m glad you’re all coming out of that.

    God revealed himself to me as a child. I had asked Jesus into my hear when I was about six, and after that I used to play with Jesus sometimes. I would sense him near me sometimes during times of intense family stress when I was sent outside to play, and so I would make room for him to sit next to me, or make room for him to sit on my bike seat while I rode. I could “see” him sometimes as well, but in a different way then we see each other. I know now God allowed me to see and sense things in the spiritual realm for my survival. I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, and wasn’t aware of the Christian subculture. I didn’t know any Christians in high school. I just thought I was one of the few people left on earth who believed in God. I seemed surrounded by atheists and agnostics.

    It so confused and dismayed me when I joined Christian churches when I left home at 18, and discovered that God is often presented as unknowable, and that what is important is conservative values, which are supposed to impress God. It goes against my entire life experience. Even as I grew in Biblical knowledge and could share from Scripture how we are saved by grace through faith, not performance, I remain shocked at how little this is lived out. Obeying God’s commands are to protect us from harm, and as we learn to die to ourselves in our daily in our walk with him, we learn more about the protection behind the commands and what a loving father he is.

    I heard an illustration once I can’t quite remember that demonstrated how people pervert obedience or rule keeping into a basis for reward, but I’ve forgotten it. It had something to do with something like a child demanding candy because he hadn’t hit his brother or put his hand on the stove burner. We’re welcomed into heaven as beloved bride, not rewarded with heaven for murdering fewer people than Stalin.

    Conservative Christian groups seem to have no idea how to teach about sin, and our sinful nature which remains after being born again. Asking my Father for help and forgiveness on a daily basis, with victory over harmful habits over time, is second nature to me by now. We confess our sins to a loving father who rushes toward us and throws a party over our repentance. Period. Repentance is always what he’s looking for, but too many Christians think he’s sick of granting forgiveness after a certain amount of time. What lies. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. Stay close, and when you wander, come back. You are always welcome. But don’t treat his homestead like a place where you’re owed your own subplot because of your credentials. You won’t be allowed past the gate. Kiss the son, lest he be angry! (Ps 2)

  4. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing. I can identify with some of the things you’ve shared. I’ve never seen anyone put it into writing, quite like this. 🙂

    Julia Whitt

  5. Thank you for writing this, Joel. Gothardism was not something I was raised with, but I can absolutely relate to your experience described under “Fear of God”.

  6. I feel as though I could always sense this from the outside on the kinds of groups that you mentioned.

    I grew up in a very broken family, but we were not Christians. As a young woman, about age 20, I got saved, but I easily got sucked into some spiritually abusive situations. Not any of the circles that you mentioned, but still people who, generally, ascribed to those values. I walked away very hurt. I feel like I am a victim of spiritual abuse, but also of other abuse that eventually got tied into my spirituality. I can so relate to the struggles with decision making, the cycles of obsessive compulsive thinking and behavior.

    I think that it is very easy for broken souls like me to be drawn to extremes. People who are seeking boundaries, seeking substance in their fragile souls. It really does kill a healthy faith.

  7. Thank you for writing this. I grew up in a very similar situation in regrades to ATI / Gothardism and only recently have begun to see it for what it is even after having been out of that for a long time.

    I could write much more but have a hard time putting my thoughts to paper.

    Thank You.

  8. Thank you so very much for sharing!! I also grew up under Gothard with abusive parents. Finding your website has been a true gift to me!! I am devouring every post!! God bless you brother!!

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