I live daily with a paradox. On the one hand, grace is audacious, extravagant, immediate, and all-embracing. On the other, grace is painful, reconstructive, surgical, and slow. Grace is the deliverance from Egypt and grace is the long, grueling journey through a blistering wilderness.

I live with this paradox because of the work I do. With my multiple hats – professor, pastor, therapist, spiritual director – I become a conduit of God’s lavish grace, a steward of it, a surgeon of the soul in need of it. And because grace refuses simplification, refuses to be reduced to a get-out-of-jail-free card, we must hold the paradox when we work with particularly complex people.

I’m thinking right now of pastors I’ve worked with over the years whose narcissism was so entrenched in their psyche that lavish grace needed to work itself out over years and years. Some time ago I worked with a pastor whose masks of charm, personal fitness, and a keen intellect propelled him into success, but who was utterly disconnected from his true self. Revelations of abuse and sexual infidelity came as a shock to his adoring flock, many who were quick to say, “Who of us is without sin? Let us forgive as he taught us to forgive.” This pastor’s narcissism, now armed with a new mask of repentance, quickly turned the narrative from his sin to his redemption story, one his flock was happy to embrace.

I recall sitting with his wife weeks after as she struggled. “I feel like God calls me to forgive him, but I can’t help but feel like he gets off the hook and I’m left beaten and bruised. I’ve even had people tell me that I was to blame for his infidelity. Was I?” Mired in guilt and shame, she felt like she’d be failing him and failing the church if she didn’t quickly forgive.

As I sat with the pastor, he had many reasons for his actions – many years without a sabbatical, burnout, lack of emotional support from his wife, a ‘weak’ elder board. He was quick to say, “I failed.” But he never got specific. In one session, I asked him for permission to say something hard to him. He agreed. I offered this to him: “What would it be like to say this to your wife: For years, I emotionally abused you by mocking your effort, your appearance, your faithfulness. I played the part of obedient pastor, but in secret I abused and tormented you. When pornography was not enough to anesthetize away my shame, I intentionally and meticulously groomed women who adored me for back-rubs, blowjobs, and sex in my office, on the floor right next to my desk and our family picture.”

He sat silently, head down, as if it was the first time he’d considered something other than a narrative that would preserve his shiny veneer. I suspect he was weighing his options, as he always did, so very fearful of an ultimate confrontation with himself. He looked up at me, steel-eyed: “Chuck, can I say something to you? What would it look like for you to take the Gospel seriously, to help me gain my esteem back and to help my wife forgive me?”

I’ve had some version of this same story play out about a dozen times with pastors and/or ministry leaders of some kind.

This man needed the grace of wilderness. He wanted deliverance from Egypt and a quick flight over the wilderness to the promised land. He ultimately chose the latter. And he used his story as a real, live grace story.

When we treat grace like a bandaid rather than the major surgery it often demands, we trivialize it. Real transformation is a slow-cook process, especially for narcissists and abusers so hidden from their true selves and so prone to re-configure the masks for the sake of a new narrative and to avoid the pain of self-confrontation. The wilderness of grace is the place where the narcissist’s false self is dismantled, but it’s also the place where the systems and structures that buttressed and supported it are confronted and dismantled.

I sometimes wish I knew more about St. Paul’s three years in the wilderness. Once a murderous moralist, he was confronted by the living Christ on Damascus Road. Something new was born in him that day, but we know that he did not immediately take to the streets to evangelize. Some like to imagine these three years as an intense Bible-study training program. I like to think of them as a time of deconstruction – of old narratives, of the masks that served him in his old life, of an ideology of tribalism and abuse. I imagine that leaving his old life behind cost him dearly – relationships, reputation, income, so much more. When he did return, we know that he still had an edge, that he could be oppositional, that his words of reconciliation didn’t always match his relational style, that he wrestled with his inner contradictions. But he was an honest man – honest about his story, the toxicity of his old life, and his need for grace.

Grace is not about saving face. Grace often plunges us into the depths of despair. It requires the loss of everything that buttressed the old self. As much as we’re culturally conditioned to good, old American quick redemption stories, we’ve got to reclaim a biblical imagination for the wilderness of grace. I’m suspicious of those who are quick to return to ministry, quick to write their redemption story, quick to embrace the adoration of their devoted followers. Those who I’ve seen do the real, hard wilderness work of transformation go away for years, and have no expectations for what will happen. All is given to the surgical work of grace under the care of experienced practitioners.

I reconnected with someone like this not long ago. I hadn’t seen him in years. His ministry fell apart when he cultivated a relationship with an old girlfriend on Facebook, and began secretly meeting with her. He resisted the wilderness of grace, at first. He scrambled to save his marriage and ministry. But he had a wise community. They held him firmly, in painful love, and showed him a desert path. They knew this Facebook affair was just a symptom of deeper unhealth. They held his wife, and didn’t allow her to be gaslit in the process. He completely left ministry, quit social media, and gave himself to the work prescribed for him, which included finding a completely new way to make ends meet. His church entered into a hard season of honesty, as well, mindful of its need not just to grieve but to address what allowed this pastor to slowly spin out-of-control.

It’s seven years later and he looks great. His marriage is healthy. He’s decided to start coming back to ecclesial gatherings, ever under the watchful care of his therapist and a few close advisors, with a tempered curiosity about re-entering ministry. Because so much of the old, addicted self is dead, he doesn’t feel the drive he once did to change the world. He wonders what it might look like to serve a small congregation somewhere, but he’s profoundly attuned to his family’s needs and hesitations about this. Seven years into the work, he suspects he has another seven to go. He’s in no rush. In fact, he’s waking up to a life that is so much more beautiful than he knew before, and little matters more than waking up each day whole and healthy, and loving and being loved by those closest to him. He says that for the first time in his life, he feels like Jesus smiles at him.

He’s a man who has experienced an extraordinary Grace.


*all of my stories are an amalgamation of several stories, with details changed.


14 thoughts on “Grace (and the abuse of grace) for narcissists and abusers

  1. How do you respond when the offender treats grace like a bandaid? “Oh, just forgive, just give grace, just take it to the cross.” All the while, they never truly own their offense. How do you handle that scenario?

  2. Hi Chuck. I have difficulty with the use of the word grace in connection with the deliverance from Egypt story. Did God show grace to the babies of the Egyptians? Did God show grace to the babies of the slaves of the Egyptians? God murdered them in their sleep, or so says the story. I love this article, in the whole, but struggle with the escape from Egypt story as a story of grace. I know all the escape clauses that folks have put into this story to defend God, but I don’t buy them. It’s a terrible story, I think. One that puts God is a very bad light. It has an appeal toward justice, I suppose, but even then, we’re talking about babies here. And ironically those who love this story, and stories like this – i.e. the conquest of the promised land – are those who would be all about pro-life, right? I think that the story the “forgive-me-Father-for-I-have-sinned”-people like, is the “… your sins are forgiven, go and sin no more” story. It’s simple, quick and rather cheap, Id say, but then, I know nothing about being a victim like the woman in that story. And that story is about a victim released, and not an abuser being held responsible. Pastors and Priests who misuse their power to prey on the vulnerable are not simply sinners, but criminals, who warrant wilderness, and then grace – slow, costly grace, and nothing less or more. If a pastor or priest went to a nursing home and extorted money from vulnerable elderly people, using his collar or title as a coercive tool, we’d want him in jail. Pastors and Priests who use the same to elicit sexual favors are no different, in my opinion.

    1. Marlin, I am curious what do you do with the bible stories that put God in a very bad light? There are lots of them from our perspective.

      1. I wrestle with them, try to put them in context, perspective, and then decide whether or not I will use them to frame my picture of God – mostly, probably not. Most of these stories were written to lift up one people group – Israelites – over all others. There seems to be little concern about what happens to the nations not Israel. I find that too narrow a perspective for the God of the Universe, not to be in all ways confused with the God of the Bible. To be precise, I think the God of the Universe is bigger, kinder, more inclusive and less tribal than the God of the Bible. I still keep the Bible close at hand. It is our book after all. But it’s not the only tool in our tool box. We have experience, culture, history, archeology, each other, literature, science. In short, a bunch of stuff that helps us figure things out.

      2. Marlin, I appreciate this. Of course, deliverance from Egypt is a paradigmatic story for all of Scripture, and the Passover becomes the story of “God’s grace“ told and retold. I would re-frame by saying that Grace still remains quite small in their imagination, and and of course becomes so much more expansive as consciousness develops. Even in the New Testament, there is still a wrestling with a tribal imagination. My point was more metaphorical or perhaps even allegorical than historical.

  3. Right, I get that. The article is the kind of writing we badly need. Thank you for all the work you do. The tribalism in the Bible affects people still today, and in mostly negative ways. So I’m overly sensitive to how these stories are left untold, meaning that the obvious is ignored, or as I said, left without comment. I realize that in your article you are aiming at a certain target, and you do not need to be distracted with another layer. But I wanted to at least raise the dead bodies so that they could speak a word on behalf on those not chosen. I also agree that the NT is tribal, and would even go so far as to say that Jesus himself had a strong prejudice toward his own people, and against the others – so his surprise that gentiles could have faith. Thank you Jesus for the Holy Spirit! After all the end of tribalism was the Spirit’s idea. For the record, I like Jesus a lot!

  4. How do you deal with being the spouse of such a one, who is careful to not make any “mistakes,” and who touts himself as having the wisdom of God, who will not go to counseling, who consistently downgrades you, but is really “only making observations” of the truth. Living with someone who, you are sure, is twisting the truths, but you can’t prove it? Living with someone who calls you worthless, useless, horrible parent, and backs it all up with “facts.” Facts that you can’t actually refute, but that leave you feeling hopeless and despairing? Fact is, you really aren’t perfect, and everything said is either true or rooted in some sort of truth, but the degrading part is so hurtful. Someone who says “come tell me when I hurt you” but if you do, you end up apologizing?

  5. Thank you for this amazing article. As a victim of Sociopath Narcissistic abuse by someone in the ministry, this rings loudly in so many aspects. Thank you for being awake to this topic and writing so beautifully and clearly how Narcissists operate in these instances. The classic verbal diversion by this pastor to be held accountable needs to be understood by many. In many of your well allocuted sentences you have described my ex-husband. I shared this article on my linked in and my facebook site for the book I wrote about this subject. Thanks for speaking truth and educating. Education is key.

  6. Thanks so much for this post. I am a narcissistic former minister who lost everything, including my wife who is scheduled to marry a good man in a week. Suicide has weighed heavy on my mind. I needed to find a story like this of God extending His grace to someone like me.

  7. Chuck, grace to you brother. I commend your words and admire your life. I say this here not wishing to stir the pot, only to do right. As a therapist/ counselor, I think you break confidentiality here. I can’t be certain but I would take an honest look. If you feel like these details could serve to reveal or imply any certain person, if readers are able to read between the lines based on your choice of words, I urge you to take it down. God bless you friend

    1. As I try to say often, all of my stories are an amalgamation of several stories, with details changed.

  8. I realize much of your ministry in this topic is in terms of pastors, but there are so many relationships where the balance of grace and boundaries is a very fine line. Grace is abused, yes, and boundaries are considered “hateful” and used easily in gaslighting or in terms of the narcissist acting as the victim. I would love to hear more on how the person in a relationship with a narcissist should respond.

Leave a Reply