Touch, Spiritual Abuse, and the Charismatic Renewal

Touch, Spiritual Abuse, and the Charismatic Renewal March 22, 2022


I want to say a couple of things to people who have been spiritually abused in Charismatic settings: particularly to people like me, who are recovering Charismatics that still want to practice religion and find their own ways of talking and listening to God, but might not be sure how to go about doing it. If you were Charismatic for a long time or since childhood, you might not realize the ways healthy boundaries have been violated or what’s normal and what’s not. These are probably are common knowledge to everybody else, but they aren’t always common knowledge to recovering Charismatics. So if none of what I’m about to say seems relevant to you, I’m glad, but people in a certain niche need to hear it.

The first thing you have to know is that, in non-emergency situations, touch is supposed to be consensual. This is sometimes the opposite of what’s expected in Charismatic circles, but in real life,  touch is something that’s offered and can be refused. It can be offered verbally with a “would you like a hug?” or “may I touch you?” It can also be offered non-verbally by offering a hand for a handshake, or by holding out one arm for a hug and making a questioning face but not grabbing the person until they reciprocate the gesture. That kind of thing. The phenomenon you might have grown up with, where all the creepy people in the “community” are allowed to grab you in a bear hug or worse because the Bible says to greet one another with a holy kiss, and you’re considered problematic for not liking it, isn’t normal or healthy. You’re allowed to refuse touch. You can say “no thank you,” you can step away, you can turn an offered hug into a nice safe handshake by firmly taking the outstretched hand and shaking it. That’s normal. People who treat you like you’re being unreasonable for that are behaving manipulatively, even if they don’t know that they are. They don’t deserve your time and energy.

Prayer is the same. You’ve probably been taught that it’s different, but it’s not. You can’t stop someone from praying for you privately, of course. That’s their business, just like you can’t stop people from thinking about you. But if someone wants to pray over you, you’re allowed to say “no” or walk away. They are actually supposed to offer to pray over you. It’s supposed to sound like “May I pray with you? All right, is it okay if I put my hands on you?” and you are allowed to refuse, and they take it from there. It is wrong and abusive for someone to just walk up to you at a church service or anywhere else, and put their hands on you, and start praying in tongues. It’s wrong and abusive for them to start shouting prayer AT you when you don’t want it. You’re allowed to shrug them off and walk away, and you probably should. If you want to loudly say “Hey, cut that out! That’s weird!” or something like that as you walk away, you can. If that would be embarrassing, you can just leave without saying anything. Whatever helps you feel in control.

Because, and this is a very important point: you’re supposed to be in control of your own body. You don’t turn into someone else’s property when you go to church or to a Bible study or a prayer meeting. Your body is still your body. That’s not contrary to the will of God. God wants it that way. People who try to make you feel that your body belongs to them are not doing God’s will, they are being abusive.

Now, here’s something else you might not know: consent is ongoing. It’s not a one-time thing. You’re allowed to say “yes” to a hug if you wanted it at first, and then pull away if the person is hugging you weirdly or for too long. You’re allowed to say “yes” prayer when you’re feeling like you want it, and say “no, not now” to prayer at the next prayer meeting. If you’ve made an appointment for deliverance prayer with a spiritual advisor and you change your mind, you’re not committing a sin if you cancel. If you’re in the middle of being prayed over and you decide you don’t want it anymore, there’s nothing rude or sacrilegious or disrespectful with saying “guys, I think we’re done for now” and walking away. You can do that at any time. If someone gets offended by that, they’re being unreasonable. If they say “Hey come back here!” they’re being abusive. If they start screaming at you and calling out your demons as you walk away, that’s incredibly abusive. Never pray with them again.

If someone grabs you, holds you down, yanks on your clothes or otherwise tries to restrain you so you can’t run away from being prayed over, that’s assault. That’s not just abusive, it’s a crime. You need to get away as soon as you safely can, and you need to tell someone, and you need to do your best to never get into that situation again.

And there is absolutely no reason whatsoever that someone should touch you in a sexual way while they’re praying over you. It doesn’t matter what your prayer intention was, or what excuse they give for doing it, or if they’re way older than you are or the same sex as you or anything else. It doesn’t matter if they say “the Holy Spirit told me to do it” because the Holy Spirit absolutely did not. They’re not allowed to touch any part of you that would be covered by a bathing suit for any reason. That’s abuse.

And to any of my readers have never been a part of a Charismatic community and are shaking your heads in disbelief right now, let me assure you: all of this really does happen. And people can get so used to it, they don’t even know that it’s wrong.

I keep saying you should walk away, but I fully realize, sometimes these are things you can’t get out of. I’m not shaming you if you’re trapped in a situation where this is happening to you and you can’t see how to escape. If you live with spiritually abusive Charismatic roommates or family members and you can’t find a way to move out right now, that’s not your fault. If you are in a scary situation and someone does something unexpected and you don’t know how to react so you just stand there looking uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean you consented and don’t  have a right to complain later. If you’ve been manipulated by a spiritual leader into all kinds of touch and man-handling under the guise of “prayer,” you might be feeling stupid and like you should have known better, but this isn’t the case. It wasn’t your fault. You were abused, and when people are being abused they don’t always know what to do or have the ability to react rationally. You’re innocent.

Finally, you need to know: there’s a thing called a panic attack. Panic attacks can happen when you are in a stressful situation, such as in a crowd when you don’t like crowds, or in a loud place when you don’t like noise, or when a terrible memory has been triggered– and sometimes panic attacks just happen, full stop. When you have a panic attack, you might feel your heart race, your breathing go funny, your body get sweaty or start to tremble. You might feel like you’re going to faint. Your mouth might go dry. You might feel like you’re going to throw up or have diarrhea. You will probably have a sudden surge of fear or even anger and the desperate urge to run away. These are PHYSICAL symptoms. They’re what your body does to protect you when you’ve had a bad scare, or when you’re so used to being scared and feeling out of control that your body feels like it needs to be ready to run all the time. But when you’ve been spiritually abused in the Charismatic Renewal, you’ve probably been told that that kind of surge of emotion and physical symptoms is a manifestation of the presence of a demon. It’s not.

It’s actually common to have a panic attack when people are praying with and over you. And it’s a completely understandable response to have a panic attack if someone is violating your boundaries and praying with you when you don’t want it, or in an aggressive way. (If you haven’t been in the Charismatic Renewal, maybe you don’t know what it is to “pray aggressively,” but trust me, it’s a thing, and it’s terrifying.) But if another Charismatic sees you having a panic attack, they’ll often lean into the prayer and start yelling at a demon instead of help you. If you have a panic attack and try to run away, that’s when they might try to assault you to make you stay. And people who are manipulative and deliberately abusive will tell you that your panic attack is a sign that you’re possessed and you have to come back to them for more prayer or the devil will win.

A panic attack is not a sign of demonic possession. It’s a sign that your boundaries have been violated and you’re scared. It should be treated by going somewhere you feel safe, grounding yourself and taking deep breaths, not being abused or assaulted by well-meaning or deliberately abusive Charismatics.

If it makes you feel better, you can even choose to stay where you are and pray through the panic attack. Sometimes I’ve done that. But never let anyone convince you it’s not a panic attack.

A healthy prayer life is possible, but it’s hard if you’ve been through a hard place and might not even know what’s abuse and what’s not. These are just a few of the things we need to know.




Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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