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.