Pastor David Johnson and counselor Jeff VanVonderen define spiritual abuse as “the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.”

All abuse and oppression is about power, domination and control — allegiance to a story of scarcity where goodness and life for one person or group depends on taking it from someone else. It is in the language of our groans and sighs, our racing minds and pounding hearts, and our nightmares and knotted stomachs that our bodies speak the truth that communities and people who are supposed to build us up are tearing us down instead.

At its core, abuse is about using a person rather than encountering them as someone to love. Philosopher Martin Buber describes the heart of human relationships as an encounter between an I and a Thou. We were made for mutual reverence. But in our churches and families, we often replace encounter with effectiveness. We reduce relationships to transactions. We, as Buber writes, subtly come to each other as though we are an I meeting an It. Our time, effort, vulnerability, tithes and stories can be packed down into blocks to build someone else’s kingdom, leaving us with less joy, internal safety and hope than before we ever walked through the church’s doors. 

When people are not encountered, they are exploited. Our belonging in the Body of Christ becomes bound to our utility. But God doesn’t love you to use you. God loves you because you are you. You are not a product to use. You are a person to love. 

Like the bullies in elementary school, when we don’t tend to our pain, anxiety and stress, we end up protecting it by projecting it onto others and shoving them around. It’s not just shepherds shoving around sheep. It’s also sheep shoving other sheep that often makes us feel like there isn’t a Shepherd with whom we belong. We can’t lie down in green pastures when we’re constantly trying to guard our spot on the ground. 

Every flock has sheep that try to shove others around. Make no mistake: Scripture says God will judge between us. And Scripture makes it clear: God sides with those who have been shoved around. In Ezekiel 34:21–22, God declares, “Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.” 

In the same passage, God denounces shepherds who devour their sheep’s gifts instead of caring for their needs. We need to listen soberly to God’s words in Ezekiel 34. Leaders who rule harshly will be held accountable for their presence. “Building the kingdom of God” is no excuse for bullying. 

Our anxiety about doing great things for God ends up keeping us from seeing that God is for us and with us. When our attention is occupied by looking at the Good Shepherd, we don’t have to spend it on guarding our turf, enlarging our territory, controlling others, or constantly protecting ourselves from harm. 

When he worked as a shepherd, Phillip Keller noticed that when his sheep became aware of his presence, their infighting in his flock would stop. He writes, “Whenever I came into view and my presence attracted their attention, the sheep quickly forgot their foolish rivalries and stopped their fighting. The shepherd’s presence made all the difference in their behavior.” When we see that we have a Good Shepherd, we don’t have to shove our way to significance. 

In Jesus’ flock, you do not have to be shiny to be seen. He seeks out the struggling, not the strong. This is a flock where you do not have to fight to be found. 

Jesus put himself in the place of battered lambs. He was judged, critiqued and spit on by the shepherds of his day — all the way to the cross. They feared losing their precious power to his uncommon presence too. Jesus let them shove him all the way out — out of life itself — so that we shoved-around sheep might see: 

There is no imperfection in you
that can you keep you from being included in Christ’s flock.
There is no brokenness in your story
that can revoke your belonging.
There is no bruise on your body
that is not seen by our Shepherd.
Because he chose to be rejected, you always belong.

No one can steal your belovedness
as a sheep bought by Christ’s own blood.
No fear can take away your place.
No one can shove you out of the Good Shepherd’s sight.

Only in the light of his face can you see the grace of your place.
This green ground is where you already belong. 


In The Lord Is My Courage, therapist and author K.J. Ramsey walks through Psalm 23 phrase by phrase and explores the landscape of our fear, trauma and faith. This article has been excerpted and adapted from The Lord Is My Courage © 2022 by K.J. Ramsey and is used with permission of Zondervan. Order at