When People Tell You Who They Are…

Brice Laughrey
9 min readJan 6, 2024

When people tell you who they are, believe them.

This phrase started coming up a lot when I started learning about abuse. For many people, it might seem obvious, but one of the things about fundamentalist Christianity is that it loves to protect its leaders by reinterpreting what people say and do in ways that separate a person from their red flags.

One way this is done is by hiding behind the “otherness” of sin. By detaching all of the “evil” from a person, their identity is kept pure and blameless, and we see this all throughout Christian history. We’re taught to see Christian leaders as only good regardless of what they say or do. On the flip side, sin can be attached to laypersons or rivals to tarnish their image and turn people against them.

The Entity of Sin

In many expressions of Christianity, sin isn’t just something someone does. Sin is personified into a vague entity of sorts that has influence over and around people. Or, it’s attached to some other powerful entity, like the Devil, often portrayed as a malicious and ever-present antagonist, eternally at war with God.

One of the biggest problems with this approach to sin is that it creates a gap between people and their actions. It takes the responsibility of our poor choices away from us and places it squarely on the shoulders of someone we can’t directly engage. This Other then becomes the scapegoat for all the evil of humanity and a shield for our fragile identities.

Many fundamentalist leaders use this as a way of maintaining their reputation even when they’re caught dong terrible things. A minister coercing a congregant to provide sexual favors or sexually assaulting a child gets a pass from their peers (and often their congregations), because “that’s not who they are.” It’s presented as a moment of weakness, a temptation, or a spiritual assault from the Devil, but by the grace of God, they’ve repented.

Combine this with a doctrine of infinite forgiveness (i.e. How many times shall I forgive my brother?), and spiritual leaders become virtually untouchable often to the detriment of their victims. This can be compounded further with doctrines like original sin, which present humans as captive to sin from the beginning.

Depending on the tradition, this can be contradictory — how can someone be both subject to fallenness or original sin and still be pure or detached from sin? Again, that’s where forgiveness and repentance often come into play. God’s grace is said to essentially shield the person from condemnation because of their faith and repentance, and the only thing left is for the victim to forgive the offender.

This may sound like some combination of the following (directed toward the victims):

  • Don’t judge others.
  • Focus on the plank in your own eye.
  • Let the one who’s without sin cast the first stone.
  • If you don’t forgive, God won’t forgive you.
  • If God has forgiven someone who are we to condemn?
  • This person was called by the Spirit to the Lord’s work ; God is working through their mistakes.

And so on. While none of these ideas are inherently bad, let’s consider some of the ways they get used to protect abusers and burden victims.

Burdening Victims

Don’t judge others is a favorite of many abusers in Christian circles and it comes in many forms. Don’t Judge, The Plank and the Speck, and The One Without Sin are all possible variations of a defense that essentially says, “Yes, they did what you say they did, but that’s frankly none of your business; its between them and God.”

The thing is, these can all be great tools for self-improvement and personal growth when they’re turned inward, but when they’re thrust upon us by others, they often become tools of control and manipulation. Instead of encouraging someone to take responsibility for their own actions, these ideas deflect from the abuser and attach responsibility to the victim. “It’s your job to forgive. Worry about sin in your own life.”

This gets taken a step further if God is explicitly pitted against the victim. For example: if you don’t forgive, God won’t forgive you. Not only is the burden of forgiveness on the victim’s shoulders, their very salvation may be contingent upon it. To refuse forgiveness, even without any reconciliatory action on the abusers part, is framed as a direct rejection of God’s grace.

This further detracts from the abuser who has basically been removed from the conversation. They’re a side point at best , and the “real” focus becomes the “sin” into which the actual victim is about to fall. “With all urgency, choose forgiveness! Don’t let temptation/bitterness/the Devil cause you to reject God’s open invitation.” Then, after the victim chooses forgiveness, we rejoice, because they have shown how strong their faith is, or whatever narrative the leadership puts forth. No justification, at this point, is really going to make sense, so fill it in however you want. The reality is that the victim’s coerced forgiveness is treated as the abuser’s absolution.

All of this can be taken even further by having God actually side with the abuser. “If God has forgiven…” implies that the abuser is presently absolved by God. Rather than deflecting from the abuser, the image of purity is explicitly presented. Again, part of the reason this works is because the sinful act has been detached from the abuser. This is even more explicit when the person is a religious leader, because there’s often an attached “calling.”

Absolution is one thing, but being called — being chosen — is another thing entirely. It’s like the Crusades or Manifest Destiny; people will rationalize atrocities in the name of divine calling. At this point, the victim faces more than a rejection of personal grace. They risk explicitly opposing the will of God. For many Christians in fundamentalist circles, that possibility is far too weighty to ignore.

Shaming and Gaslighting

Shaming and gaslighting are integral to these sorts of arguments. If you’ve been in abusive relationships or toxic environments, you probably recognized those in the above examples. If not, here’s a quick rundown of what I mean when I’m using those terms.

Shame

Shame, here, is referring specifically to the thought that one is unworthy of love or disconnected from others as a core part of one’s identity. Fundamentalist Christianity leans heavily into shame, especially around language of sin. In fact, many Christian doctrines do this even beyond fundamentalism. I think shame was a common part of the worldviews of Biblical authors, and it comes through in their writing.

Anything that tells a person their core identity — who they are in their deepest self — is inherently broken, worthless, disgusting, unpleasing to God, etc. is shaming that person. Many Christians don’t know how to engage the idea of a divine being without having shame as the foundation of that relationship, and abusive leaders use that as a way of controlling and manipulating congregants.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is basically when someone is led to question their own ability to reason or their perception of events. My understanding is that the term comes from an old play called Gas Light where a husband messes with the literal gas lights in the house to cause the wife to question her perception of reality. For example, if she mentions the lights are flickering, he pretends that they’re not. Over time, she starts to distrust her own perception and think she’s going crazy.

While perhaps not as obvious, many of the examples above of shifting the burden of abuse to the victims can have gaslighting effects. For example, telling a victim that they may be opposing the will of God by not forgiving their abuser can cause victims to question their own motivations. “Maybe I’m being selfish. Maybe I’ve been withholding a part of myself from God. Am I only pretending to love Jesus while in reality part of me is still captive to sin? Is the Devil tempting me to hate this person while God is calling me to forgive them?”

By combining shaming and gaslighting, arguments like the ones above can be quite effective in shifting the narrative away from abusers and onto victims. Many victims in fundamentalist circles don’t trust themselves enough, let alone their communities, to act against their abusers. They would have to overcome their own shame and trust their own perception of events while their religious leaders (and often fellow congregants) are pressuring them to question their stories.

When People Tell You Who They Are…

When people tell you who they are, believe them. It might seem obvious to some, but it can be extremely difficult in practice. I’ve been writing about how we often detach negative events from people in order to preserve their goodness or righteousness, and the narratives we tell both ourselves and others in order to do that muddy the waters of “who they are.”

A person might show you good things but say something different. Or, they might say all the right things but show you something different. Sometimes, it’s subtle on both parts. Add to that thoughts of shame and continual gaslighting; “when they say they love me, I believe them, because I’m often catastrophizing everything and being paranoid.”

Again, for some who have practice discerning these things, it may seem obvious, but for people caught up in abusive or toxic circumstances, discerning between the mask and the face beneath might seem impossible. It’s the paradox of sayings like this. One often has to suffer through something in order to gain the wisdom they could’ve used to avoid it.

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to practice discerning:

  • Do their words and their actions match?
  • Did they do something that harmed someone?
  • Do they validate our experience, or do they always try to convince us that we misunderstood something?

“Telling you who they are” isn’t always literally about what they say. It’s about the entire narrative and the actions of others all working together. When words and actions are consistently mismatched, that’s a red flag. That’s a person “telling us” they can’t be taken at face value. They’re “telling us” there’s a mask being presented, and it’s an indication that we need to discern what’s real, the words or the actions.

That’s where I think questions of harm come in. Regardless of what people say, if their actions consistently result in harm for others, that “tells us” that their overall choices are toxic. This isn’t to say they couldn’t change or grow or repent, etc.; it’s simply to say they’re showing us consistently who they are right now, and we should believe that.

Your Experience Matters

This idea of believing what people tell us gets very nuanced and can become quite complicated. It’s a matter of wisdom and discernment, and as I already said, those take time to develop. My hope isn’t that anyone reading this will suddenly gain some wisdom or deep insight. My hope is quite a bit more limited: I hope someone reading this might realize their experience matters.

When abusers put on masks, it’s supposed to be difficult to see what’s behind those masks. They might not let those masks slip for anyone but their victims. Everyone around you might only see the mask, and you might only get a peak behind when you’re in private. No matter who the abuser is — partners, spouses, church leadership, parents, coworkers, fellow congregants — your experience matters.

If they hurt you in secret, that matters. If they treat you terribly when no one else is watching, that matters. People may gaslight you or disbelieve you. Your abuser may say they’re sorry a thousand times. You may be questioning whether the abuse is real or if it’s just you. But I hope you can here this: in those moments when you’re being harmed, your experience matters. When they harm you, it’s real. When they gaslight you, it’s real. If they refuse to hear it or acknowledge it or accept it, they’re telling you who they are. When they refuse to repent or change or accept responsibility, they’re telling you who they are.

And when they tell you who they are, believe them.

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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on January 6, 2024.

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Brice Laughrey

Owner of Breaking Bread Theology and co-founder of 1310 Ministries. Currently living and worshiping in Las Vegas, NV.