Identifying Legalism & Spiritual Manipulation
Updated: Apr 5
Spiritual manipulation can sometimes be hard to spot. I wasn’t aware that it was happening to me at first. Recently, I was in a situation where I exalted a Godly friend over my Heavenly Father and lived to please that person. It didn’t start out that way and the friendship was positive in the beginning. This person encouraged me to step out in faith to do things that were once hard. This resulted in me walking away from a job I had placed my security in and wait on the Lord for the job He had for me. On top of that, we would evangelize together and do many miraculous works. It was amazing to see God move during that time. Because of the positive influence they had in my life and based on their spiritual gifts, I was convinced that they were God’s mouthpiece and everything they said and did was from Him. Having them in my life seemed like an answered prayer and resulted in me holding them to high regard.
However, as time went on, I began to constantly be under critique. I would feel an immense amount of pressure to do religious works in order to seem righteous and in God’s will. I wanted to have good news to tell them about all the works I did each day, but internally I knew something was off. I was trading out spiritual intimacy with God to have spiritual intimacy with this person. This created an emptiness in my heart and I desired my relationship with God again. I felt His tug to devote less time doing religious works and more time pressing into His presence and developing intimacy. I missed writing and doing the things He first told me to do that didn't feel burdensome. My internal peace was always short-lived and followed with anxiety. There was an inward battle between what this person was saying and what I felt in my spirit was going on. I second-guessed myself most days (struggled with double-mindedness) and no longer could really think for myself. Whenever I would try to establish boundaries and step back, I would be accused of being "selfish" or "hyper-religious" and that it "didn’t take all that". If I wanted to separate myself altogether, it was made out to be that I wasn't being obedient because God had placed them in my life to help me. But the fruit I was producing by having them in my life was anxiety, fear, and worry that I would do something wrong.
Ultimately, what I experienced was a reflection of my internal struggles. I was looking for a mentor and needed deliverance from people-pleasing and the spirit of rejection. The Lord is continuously walking me through deliverance in those areas and finding my worth in Him and not man.
You are utterly secure in me; nothing will be able to separate you from my love in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:39
“And now I make one more appeal, my dear brothers and sisters. Watch out for people who cause divisions and upset people’s faith by teaching things contrary to what you have been taught. Stay away from them. Such people are not serving Christ our Lord; they are serving their own personal interests. By smooth talk and glowing words, they deceive innocent people. But everyone knows that you are obedient to the Lord. This makes me very happy. I want you to be wise in doing right and to stay innocent of any wrong.” Romans 16:17-19 NLT
Here are tactics that can help to identify unhealthy friendships, legalism, or spiritual manipulation:
Emphasis on performance:
If they are pressuring you to do a lot of religious works and make you feel like you are outside of God’s will or displeasing to Him if you don’t, this is legalism. We aren’t saved by works, but we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone. By grace, you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast," Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV) I am not saying that works are irrelevant or unrelated to our faith. Our faith and love for Him will result in works for Him. "We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them," Ephesians 2:10 (ESV)
However, it is important to check your motives. Your will to do good works should be genuine and out of your love for God, not to please others. Also, it is important to note that we are all on different journeys in our walk with Christ. Everyone is on their own spiritual walk and has to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. It is never okay to condemn someone for not evangelizing or doing works a certain way for God's Kingdom.
Guilt or Shame:
If they intentionally, or unintentionally, inflict guilt or shame on you for not meeting their expectations, this is manipulation. Boundaries will always be crossed. A known tactic of a manipulator is to make you feel guilty for not doing what they want you to do. They can even use scripture to accuse you of being selfish or not being “Christ-like". Statements like "If it wasn’t for me being in my life, you wouldn’t have grown spiritually or would have been stagnant," is manipulative and a way to make you submit to their demands.
Check the FRUIT:
Spiritual manipulators will use their gifts and soul-winning as their excuse that they are always right and should be respected. But the gifts are given without repentance. (Romans 11:29) Check their fruit. Fruit according to Galatians 5 is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. "Fruit" is NOT limited to works, spiritual gifts, or soul winning. “Fruit” has never been about gifts and miracles. "Fruit" is a direct result of what controls our hearts and refects outward actions.
I pray this helps anyone who may have been questioning if they're dealing with spiritual manipulation or abuse. Spiritual manipulation and legalism can wound deeply and negatively impact your perception of yourself and God. The most important thing you can do is forgive them and pray for the person to be delivered. Also, forgive yourself if you are suffering from regret and disappointment. I pray that you will see the true nature of God's heart towards you. Let that restore you back to a place of peace and freedom with the Lord.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
“God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church.” Ephesians 1:22 NLT
Amaiya K ♡