Helping or Enabling?

As noted before at this blog, the sheer number of hits on my pieces on the subject of toxic relationships is a sad testimony to how many people, Christians included, face these situations and look for answers.

I wanted to share some thoughts today that originated with some postings of a friend of mine on the subject of enablers. Enablers are the people within families who perpetually facilitate the destructive and toxic behavior of the one I call the Destroyer.

For years in Christian work, I participated in full-throated ridicule of psychology. We Christians didn’t need it. It was all based in humanism and should be rooted out of counseling for believers. After seeing so many Christian families, many who deny any validity to psychology, as messed up as the rest of the population, it made me wonder.

While the diagnosis of sin that lies at the root of behavior problems is not addressed in secular psychology, what I do find helpful is the observational part of psychology – the study and categorizing of specific aberrant behaviors. Understanding some of the ways that these sins manifest in dysfunctional families is helpful to those impacted.

For example, understanding sins like narcissism can help struggling spouses and adult children see what they are dealing with, and why the problems only worsen with time, despite endless hours of prayer and self-evaluation. There are unhealthy behavior patterns put in place in dealing with these people that, when identified, can be broken with God’s help.

Aiding the Destroyer

Without the assistance of enablers, toxic individuals within families are isolated. Toxic individuals grow worse when their egos are sustained and filled by those willing to serve as human air compressors. This may be a spouse, but it can also be adult children who are trained that the toxic family member’s ego is the most important thing within the home. Inflate the ego, or pay the price. The lesson is learned early and the twisted dance begins. Add a spiritual element  to the choreography and the dance gets even more macabre.

Enablers have much to answer for. Their refusal to see the sin of the individual they are supporting and servicing damages not only the toxic individual by strengthening them to continue, but damages those around them. What the enabler labels “submission” and “godly support” of the toxic spouse is not righteous in the least. At the root of enabler behavior is emotional neediness that trumps the well-being of everyone else in the home. The enabler can then attribute their conduct to just doing what God asks, when all along it is about them and their unmet needs. Few will ever admit this.

Children grow bewildered in these homes. As small children, if they witness verbal/emotional/physical abuse (or all of the above), their own internal sense of justice is offended. To never see this sinful behavior addressed, repentance lived out and forgiveness of sins demonstrated in a way that is clean and honest, they grow confused and embittered. When Christianity is mixed in with this, it is a witch’s brew served up.

My friend posted these definitions today about the differences between helping and enabling.

HELPING is doing something for someone that he is not capable of doing himself.

ENABLING is doing for someone what he could and should be doing for himself.

An enabler is a person who recognizes that a negative circumstance is occurring on a regular basis and yet continues to enable the person with the problem to persist in his detrimental behaviors.

We are called to help family members. We are not called to enable someone who does not want help and who continues to destroy his own family with his choices. The problem is, the behavior of enablers is usually established in the earliest stages of a relationship. If a couple dates and one of the individuals is prepared to stuff their true feelings in order to keep the peace, they’re off to a bad start immediately. This is the tragic reality in some marriages. Where one individual is handed all power to emotionally rule and reign without concern about consequences for sinful choices, he/she is granted a blank check for abuse. The old saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely is not just true in political or business circles. It is true in families.

The wake of destruction that is left by this arrangement can be generational. Family members who speak up, object to this arrangement and who sometimes have to walk away, are scapegoated* as being the source of the problem. In reality, those who, by God’s grace, see the damage and its causes, are the only ones who have real hope for healing and forging ahead in the freedom God intended.

It’s important to ask if our conduct is helping someone or enabling them. Not only our well-being, but the well-being of the other individual’s soul is at stake.

*Scapegoating is the common term used to describe treatment of the member(s) of a family who sees the messed up relationships and attempts change. They are vilified by both abuser and enabler(s) and blamed for being the cause of the problem instead of the sin of the toxic individual. 

Here’s an update to this post that I wrote some time ago.

The trial of child molester Jerry Sandusky gave the public a glimpse of how desperately evil enablers can be. Jerry’s wife, Dottie is Exhibit A. Despite cold, hard evidence of her husband’s brutal sexual abuse of children, some of which took place in her own home, Dottie stood by “Jer.” She stood by him even when it meant throwing their own son, Matt, under the bus. Matt had the temerity to testify about his own father’s abuse. This, to an enabler of a toxic spouse, is unacceptable. Truth telling children must be abandoned and demonized. “Jer” was more important to this pathetic excuse for a woman than the fact that her man had destroyed the lives of countless children to satisfy his depraved lust.

When a father or mother turns on adult children and behaves in reprehensible ways towards them, and the spouse and sometimes adult siblings hunker down in silence, refusing to stand by the victim, they are part of the team of destruction. For professing Christians to behave in this way beggars belief.

A number of times, I have seen pastors or Christian leaders go under for behavior like gambling, adultery, porn or other kinds of abuse, with their enabling spouses clinging to their arms. These women, nearly always, were aware that things were going on, but rather than stand boldly and firmly for truth and for the victims, clung to their “Jers” and watched innocent people go down instead.

The Scriptures record the story of Abigail. If you haven’t read that story, please do. There was a strong women who knew that obeying God’s Law was more important than a wicked husband. She was blessed for her stand. She was no cowardly enabler, waving the flag of submission when her evil spouse was in sin. That excuse is too often a cover for character weakness. Submission to a spouse ends when that spouse asks you to do something that violates God’s Word. If your spouse, for example, engages in abusive activity towards your own children, or tells you to cut them off (along with the grandchildren), the biblical response to that is, “No, I will not do that. You claim to be a Christian, and what you are demanding is in gross violation of God’s Word. You may stay here and harbor hatred and bitterness, I will love, as Christ commanded.”

That is the only right response of a spouse to a toxic person. Failure to do this is to become complicit with the Destroyer. It really is that simple. Evil triumphs when Christian spouses enable sin instead of taking a principled, godly stand. Standing for what is right is never easy, but if we really follow Jesus, we have no other choice.

Toxic People Part 4: Narcissists in Ministry

The most read Hope Blog posts in the last four years have been the the series addressing toxic people and how to deal with those in your life who are unrepentant human destruction machines. These posts have received tens of thousands of hits over the last few years as those searching have come across the articles.

The earlier three posts addressed the issue of toxic friends and family, but this post will briefly cover the devastation created by such individuals in ministry leadership. The spiritual and emotional damage done by these narcissists cannot be overstated.

There is much writing on this subject available, and even a cursory glance at the sheer number of articles written on the subject is an indication of how serious the problem is. Toxic spiritual leaders destroy faith and lives, simply put. Even more tragically, they often do it with impunity, behind the scenes, where the victims are unseen.

Jack Watts specializes in writing on the subject of spiritual abuse by evangelical leaders. His recent post following the latest NRB convention is a crystal clear description of  how such purportedly humble and committed Christian leaders are allowed to run roughshod over those they employ. These paragraphs are starkly accurate.

The concept of “self-deprecating narcissism” may seem like an oxymoron, but I can assure you, it is not. It does, however, require defining. As a caveat, let me acknowledge that not all of the stars of electric Christianity have this character flaw, but a substantial number do. There are a few exceptions — precious few.

Like others who have a narcissistic personality disorder, the lords of the electric church are self-centered but, unlike their secular counterparts, the leaders of the electric church are never outwardly boastful. People may be forgiving of narcissism in movie stars, beauty queens and exceptional athletes, but certainly not of Christian leaders. This is where they differ from the classic model of narcissism. Because Christ was humble, these leaders are expected to behave similarly. Outwardly, they do, especially by the message they convey to their followers. Their demeanor is always that of a humble servant, eager to follow God’s will. They have taken self-deprecating humility and made it an art form, cleverly masking their compulsive craving for attention, approbation and admiration.

Many who recognize their behavior for what it is believe these leaders are conning their followers, but that’s not accurate. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. A con knows what he or she is doing but chooses to do it anyway, despite the harm it causes. The electronic lords genuinely believe that what they are doing is right, which makes them far more dangerous. In their minds, they have a higher calling than others — a closer relationship with God — making whatever they do seem justifiable to them.

If someone gets in their way, especially someone employed by them, that person is perceived as thwarting God’s will and fully deserving of the retribution they receive from the narcissistic leader. Because these leaders genuinely believe themselves to be better than others, they insist that each of their employees fall in line, regardless of how outrageous or bizarre the superstar’s demands become.

To make matters worse, nearly all of the electronic lords are hypersensitive to criticism. For insulation from disapproval, the lords surround themselves with weak-willed sycophants who wouldn’t dream of disagreeing with them. Instead, these non-entities consistently validate perceptions and behavior that deviate substantially from biblical standards. Within ministries like these, which dominate the electric church, there are two sets of rules: those for the narcissist and those for everyone else.

Within these ministries, a tacit “no-talk” rule is maintained, which keeps the eccentricities of the leader a secret from the rest of the world. And this rule is aggressively enforced. Whenever an underling balks, that person is shamed, castigated and humiliated, while — at the same time — being told that their “bad attitude” is being prayed for. If that doesn’t shame the person into submission, the verbal abuse is intensified and the person is eventually terminated. Wounded, the discarded person often abandons his or her beliefs, while blaming God for what happened, saying, “God should have done something to stop it.”

Undeterred by hurting others in the process of building God’s Kingdom on Earth, which just happens to be their kingdom as well, these narcissists regularly take advantage of others, routinely abusing those they are “called to serve.” Reasoning that the ends justify the means, they use God’s name to wound others. Whenever someone gets in their way, they misuse God’s authority to enforce their will, which certainly takes His name in vain. Believing that they have a higher calling, the evangelical lords are certain that God condones their behavior and methods, which the sycophants who surround them eagerly affirm.

The emotional carnage of wrecked lives left behind by these narcissists has become so extensive that it threatens to outnumber those blessed by their ministry efforts. At the same time, few are willing to call them to task, exposing their behavior to the light, reasoning that such whistle blowing would harm God’s work.

Obviously, I disagree with that conclusion and have no problem exposing them. In my quarter century of working for Christian ministries, I have witnessed the shattering of many lives, which has led me to write about this subject extensively. It’s a role I will continue to pursue. (from Jack Watts, “Self-Deprecating Narcissists”, Emphasis added.)

What these leaders all have in common is a lack of proper biblical accountability. They are skilled at manipulating leadership structures to appear to have accountability while at the same time assuring they have a blank check to do what they want. Supporters of these kinds of ministries often have no idea of the shambolic state of the “boards” that stand back of such leaders. Supporters are also unaware that few of these men belong to a church where spiritual issues can be addressed in a biblical manner.

Only when these organizations begin to crumble from the cumulative destruction caused by their leaders does the donating public see what lay behind the facade.

Narcissistic leaders all share certain qualities that are crucial to understand.

Sandy Hotchkiss in her book, Why is It Always About You: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcisissm, lays out the traits of all narcissists this way. (Emphasis is mine.)

Shamelessness – Shame is the feeling that lurks beneath all unhealthy narcissism, and the inability to process shame in healthy ways.

Magical thinking – Narcissists see themselves as perfect using distortion and illusion known as magical thinking. They also use projection to dump shame onto others.

Arrogance – A narcissist who is feeling deflated may reinflate by diminishing, debasing, or degrading somebody else.

Envy – A narcissist may secure a sense of superiority in the face of another person’s ability by using contempt to minimize the other person.

Entitlement – Narcissists hold unreasonable expectations of particularly favorable treatment and automatic compliance because they consider themselves special. Failure to comply is considered an attack on their superiority, and the perpetrator is considered an “awkward” or “difficult” person. Defiance of their will is a narcissistic injury that can trigger narcissistic rage.

Exploitation – can take many forms but always involves the exploitation of others without regard for their feelings or interests. Often the other is in a subservient position where resistance would be difficult or even impossible. Sometimes the subservience is not so much real as assumed.

Bad Boundaries – narcissists do not recognize that they have boundaries and that others are separate and are not extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who provide narcissistic supply to the narcissist are treated as if they are part of the narcissist and be expected to live up to those expectations. In the mind of a narcissist, there is no boundary between self and other.

The last point about bad boundaries explains the willingness of toxic spiritual leaders to invade privacy, and degrade and violate others in their quest for control. Because others are seen as an extension of themselves, it seems perfectly natural for them to listen in to private phone calls, read phone records, call friends of the “enemy” who has crossed them, demanding knowledge of private conversations, keep dossiers on those who have fallen out of favor and engage in an incremental plan for their destruction, all of which is cloaked in a spiritual rationale. A climate of fear dominating in such ministries prevents anyone from speaking out. Christian love disappears as the desire for self-preservation drives the behavior of terrified colleagues.

While in churches such narcissistic leaders face more scrutiny from congregations with which they must interact, such scrutiny is often missing in parachurch ministries. As long as a ministry function goes forward to the donating public, what happens to those behind the scenes can remain invisible to all but those closest to the situation.

The only way out of the control and spiritually abusive dynamics can be found when those affected are willing to walk (or run) away from it. As one author put it, narcissists, unfettered by conscience or any accountability structure in an organization, will take your dignity, your sanity and your soul if you allow it. Those last four words need to be remembered by all of those facing pastors or ministry leaders who destroy quietly in the name of Christ. Spiritual abuse and control continue ultimately because of cowardice, which is a lack of faith.

Most are afraid to step out in faith and let the Lord direct them out of a spiritually unhealthy environment into the freedom the Lord intended us to have. Job security, false guilt or loyalty to a church family/ministry can become idols that prevent healthy change.

The power of destructive spiritual leaders is broken when Christians have the faith to say no. Boundaries matter. Truth matters. Victims matter. This is wrong, no matter who you think you are.

Yes. Victims matter very much in the eyes of a just God. They should matter to us also.

Dealing With Toxic People

For some reason I will never fully understand, I have had more experience with toxic people than most. Let me explain what I mean by “toxic.” We all have our sinful traits that we have to wrestle with, seek forgiveness for and continually try to eliminate in our lives. I am not referring to normal humans who give in to the flesh for a time, seek forgiveness and restoration with those they have hurt and stop their sinful conduct. By toxic people, I refer to those who are not wrestling at all against their sin.

For reasons known only to them, they are under the full sway of their sinful and harmful impulses towards others. These are angry, abusive and unhappy people who feel compelled to take out their anger and unhappiness on those around them.

Toxic people are defined and ruled by their Luciferian pride. They will never humble themselves and admit wrong because, in their own minds, they have no problems. The problem is always, always with everyone around them who fails to meet their expectations and insatiable desires.

Toxic people are known by the turmoil they create around them. Whether it is a family member, spouse, co-worker, fellow church member, neighbor or someone else, these people are able to inflict considerable pain in the people they hurt. They are not happy unless there is drama and intrigue and strife in progress. They seem to take pleasure in creating chaos where there is peace, and in hurting those who are otherwise happy by finding their weakest, most vulnerable area. In my experience, there is sometimes almost a supernatural ability to sniff out an area of insecurity and to put the knife into that tender spot with glee.

Toxic people drain the life out of those around them. Their egos tend to fill the room when they enter and the oxygen, metaphorically speaking, gets sucked out for everyone else. One woman I once knew controlled everyone around her with the sound of her voice. The grating, penetrating, ceaseless sound of her talking shut down conversation for everyone in the room. I literally felt myself drooping from mental and spiritual exhaustion in her presence. Her powerful voice was her weapon, and it was used to fill every nook and cranny in a room. Nobody else existed. It was a terrible thing to witness.

Because of our Christian teaching on humility, self-sacrifice and kindness, we sometimes get the impression that to set boundaries of any kind with these people is wrong, and that we must take whatever they dish out. I do not believe this is so.

When we give abusive and vicious people permission to repeatedly sin against us without consequence, we enable them to sin. There are some times when the best thing we can do for that openly sinning person is to part company with them. When we do this, we deny the person the further opportunity to sin against us. This helps us to forgive them and cut off further chances for the enemy to take advantage of the situation.

Obviously, when the toxic person is in our home, it can be difficult to do this.  For example, toxic teenagers in open rebellion and defiance can turn a quiet home into a hellish scene faster than almost anyone.  With years of experience in raising teenagers, I can tell you that my husband and I believe strongly that love must be tough enough to do hard things for the best interest of the child and the home. No teenager has the right to turn a family home into a war zone because of his own spiritual rebellion. That is another post which I will write at a different time, but the principles are the same. Those who are unrepentant and in open sin need to face the break of fellowship this produces. If we continue to make excuses for them, coddle them and give limitless “second” chances, we are sending the message that abusive and disrespectful behavior has no serious consequences. These young people will take that same belief into their marriage relationships some day.

When toxic spouses break their wedding vows and abuse those they swore to love and cherish as their own bodies, it also requires a response. I wrote about this last summer in detail in a series of posts I intend to republish at a later date. One professing Christian man I know verbally berates and attacks his godly Christian wife repeatedly, reducing her to a trembling, crying mess. I asked her once why she stays in the room to listen to it. The answer to that is that she had trained him through the years that he could deliver whatever Satanic lies he felt like coming up with, and she would be willing to receive it. After granting tacit permission for this abusive behavior for years, changing this pattern was too difficult for this woman. The boundaries that should have been drawn years earlier were never established, and she has paid a horrendous price for it.

Those Christian women who believe they are being biblical by letting their spouses batter them are enabling their husbands to break the laws of the land, not just God’s laws. Boundaries can be biblical. In fact, there are times when refusing to draw boundaries for our own protection is actually the more sinful act.

I am not espousing a self-centered philosophy of “taking care of # 1.” What I am saying is that when we are told that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, we are obligated to take care that they are not destroyed by others who are only too happy to do so. When someone is deliberately causing massive stress, turmoil and chaos, they are acting as a tool of the devil. We are fully on solid ground to do what we can to limit the enemy’s access to our hearts and minds. That means sometimes saying no to relationships that are harming us. It sometimes means having to find an alternative living situation for a rebellious young person. It sometimes means having to honestly tell someone that you can’t always take their phone calls when they call and demand hours of your time every week to share the latest installment of their life’s drama. When we approach these situations prayerfully, God will grant wisdom as to how to best handle our situation.

The good news is that God can change toxic people. It does not, despite our most sincere prayers, always happen. But by His grace, we can handle these people and situations as wisely as possible and keep the devil from causing sinful people to perpetually do damage in our lives.