Everybody sins in life and if you don’t, you’re not doing it right!
While everyone is imperfect, this doesn’t mean a person should never work on their flaws. A spouse or partner, close friend, or family member might help someone improve; however, one person using another person’s failings and weaknesses to their own advantage is unhealthy and downright abusive, and a sign of a cult!
Consider what it means to use a person’s sins or weaknesses against them and you can then see how high-control cults do this to their members, and why.
Many high-control religions and even unhealthy relationships “dangle a carrot” in front of another person, or offer someone something they want or need.
Consider a personal relationship. “John” might offer “Mary” financial support, a home, and the potential for children. Mary desperately wants all those things so she stays with John, not just because she has feelings for him as a person, but because she also wants those “carrots,” or rewards.
This can also happen with professional relationships. Mary wants personal success and a rewarding career, so she follows a self-help coach. A dance or sports coach tells Mary that she will be the best performer out there if she follows his or her instructions. Mary wants more than just a good job or to enjoy dancing and playing sports; she wants an ultimate reward that, in her mind, she can only get by following the advice of that professional.
Cults are similar; offering more than just nice church services and a few social groups or charitable works, they often dangle the “carrot” of eternal salvation, spiritual cleanliness, god stepping in solve their problems, and similar rewards in front of members. A congregant’s desire for such a promise might be so strong that any threat to it becomes downright catastrophic, including sins that make them feel unworthy.
This type of thinking is common in cult members, and often used against them. How so? A cult’s leaders might say that someone will lose out on salvation or god’s approval, will experience spiritual ruin, fall prey to Satan’s traps, and so on if they dare commit a “sin” or give in to a supposed weakness.
Because the congregant wants that reward of salvation or god’s approval so desperately, this threat is devastating to them. Yet, those “sins” are often determined and dictated by the cult’s leaders alone! Cult leaders will often have a laundry list of supposed sins and weaknesses to avoid and demands to be met, all of which are tied to that reward and any of which can make a congregant unworthy of receiving it.
This treatment, of making a list of demands and threatening to withhold a reward if the congregant doesn’t follow along, uses that potential “sinful” behavior to the advantage of cult leaders. A congregant might never think twice about those demands, question if certain behaviors are so “sinful,” if the cult leader has the right to make those demands in the first place or judge anyone’s spiritual condition, and so on. They want that reward, desperately, so any threat of it being withheld is enough for them to fall in line and obey.
Punishment is another way that cults use a person’s weaknesses against them. Public announcements, isolation, loss of privileges, or loss of business ties because of supposed “sins” are common punishments in a cult. A congregant may also be told that, unless they make things right between them and the church, they now face fiery torment in the afterlife, eternal death, execution at Armageddon, or something similar.
Cult members or congregants may be so afraid of these punishments that they strive to keep the approval of the cult leaders no matter what’s asked of them. A congregant will work hard to maintain impossible standards of conduct or even overlook abuses in the religion for fear of being punished for “not enduring,” “bringing reproach” on the church, etc.
These punishments can also be a way of keeping the rest of the congregation “in line.” The “sinner” and their punishment are held up as an example of the bad things that await those who fail, slip up, don’t meet various demands, or otherwise disappoint church leaders.
The cult leaders meting out these punishments may say that these practices ensure the congregation is “clean,” or other similar claims. However, in truth, this treatment is often doled out for no other reason than to ensure that cult leaders continue to have an unabated stranglehold over their followers, and that congregants obey unquestionably.
needs and weaknesses
Cult leaders will also often use a person’s weaknesses and needs against them in a similar fashion to how they use perceived sins against them. This often happens when someone joins a cult or religion for a quick fix to their problems.
For instance, if Mary had an abusive childhood, she now needs to work to get past that abuse and learn how to live a healthy, happy life. However, a cult or church may promise that god, their prophet or supreme leader or even church elders themselves, can and will solve those problems for Mary so that she doesn’t need to invest time and effort into emotional healing. Mary wants that quick fix, so this weakness is now used against her; if she were to do anything that displeases cult leaders, she would no longer have the promise of getting her needs fulfilled.
recognizing “sins” and weaknesses
To break free from this abuse, you need to recognize it in the first place!
First, ask yourself why your church leaders get to determine when something is a gross sin, deserving of harsh punishment. Obviously adultery, stealing, child abuse, and other such behaviors are serious and need to be addressed, but because of how they affect other people and not simply because a church elder or spiritual leader says so!
Harsh and controlling religions and cults often have a long list of supposed sinful behavior to be avoided, but which adults should decide for themselves! For example, some religions might demand congregants avoid certain genres of movies or music, always have a chaperone when dating, and never miss certain financial demands from the church. Ask yourself why these things are considered sinful in the first place!
It’s also good to note how many supposed “sinful” behaviors hurt no one but the cult itself. For example, a church might excommunicate a congregant for disagreeing with certain policies, for talking to former members, or for questioning specific practices. A congregant would do well to ask, are these really sinful behaviors or is the cult trying to avoid rightful criticism?
Consider, too, that in a healthy church or religion, true sins that go against a certain holy book or beliefs are addressed privately, with respect. Healthy religious leaders will also recognize that they are imperfect, and in no position to demean or disrespect others!
It’s also good for persons to be aware of their needs and how these can become weaknesses, to be used against them by a cult or other abuser. Wanting a solution to your problems, to belong to a group, or to feel as if you’re making some contribution to society is all well and good, but when you want these so desperately that you allow someone to use them as a means to control or abuse you, then your needs have become weaknesses, or vulnerabilities.
Finding healthier and more positive outlets for these needs, or getting professional counseling if necessary, are wise choices. Setting high standards for followers, helping people create lofty goals for themselves; those types of leadership traits are acceptable, but using faults and failings of anyone as a means of controlling or abusing them should never be acceptable, and should be seen as a warning sign of a cult.