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Christian Living

Emotional Blackmail and Self-Absorption

Recognizing Emotional Blackmail and the Self-Absorption of the Wounded

to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. Isaiah 61:3

Woundedness, Blackmail, and Justice

John Piper’s observation was the first I found that named and articulated a problem I had seen often. Whether in marriage, leadership teams, or other places where Christians come in conflict, something was off but I couldn’t describe it–until I read these words by Piper. He calls it emotional blackmail. Ray Ortlund includes Piper’s quotation in his book, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ:

I have seen so much emotional blackmail in my ministry. I am jealous to warn against it.

Emotional blackmail happens when a person equates his or her emotional pain with another person’s failure to love. They aren’t the same.

A person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt, and use the hurt to blackmail the lover into admitting guilt he or she does not have. Emotional blackmail says, “If I feel hurt by you, you are guilty.” There is no defense. The hurt person has become God. His emotion has become judge and jury. Truth does not matter. All that matters is the sovereign suffering of the aggrieved. It is above question.

This emotional device is a great evil. I have seen it often in my three decades of ministry and I am eager to defend people who are being wrongly indicted by it. (p. 101).

Read that passage again. Slowly. Absorbing every word. It is solid gold from a wise pastor. I, too, have seen emotional blackmail often in my three decades of ministry. It was present in the early days of our church plant and 25 years later. It was present in visitors, individual believers, marriages, and even in leadership.

In that moment, logic and truth have fled. The suffering is paramount. And the leader (or Christianity) has been judged guilty. There is no discussion about whether the hurting person had correct expectations, perceptions, or even contributed to the situation. All the accused can do is be quiet, apologize, and give in to the hurting. In Piper’s words, “All that matters is the sovereign suffering of the aggrieved.” I can look back on numerous personal situations that are described by this paragraph. It is a real experience of a leader.

Though the pain of the aggrieved may be real, it does not necessarily mean that the accused is guilty. In the fog of accusation and pain, the truth of justice can be lost.

Woundedness and Power

How do we get to a point where the expectations and ethics of the Bible can be discarded and the perceived injury rules? What causes two people who might say they are following Jesus and the Bible to misunderstand each other so much? Paul Tripp writes in Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands:

It does not take long to learn that suffering gives you power. As you cry in pain, people run to help you. They offer you physical comforts, say nice things, and release you from your duties.” (p. 153).

He goes on to write of observing a young boy who fell off his bike several houses away from his home. The boy started to cry but quickly stopped. He picked up his bike and walked in silence to his house. When he had stepped on his porch he began to wail in pain. Clearly, he had concluded that crying half a block from home was a waste of tears.

Current or past suffering gives the hurting person power. Christians will run to help, make time in their schedule, and release the person from expectations that everyone else has. Truly hurting people do need time in a spiritual hospital. But hospitals know that their goal is to get the patient back on their feet as soon as possible, not to create a permanently dependent person.

Woundedness and Self-Absorption

Tim Keller goes the deepest into this issue when dealing with self-centeredness and marriage. But his comments in The Meaning of Marriage could be applied to all wounded people.

There are many reasons that we cannot see our own self-centeredness. One of the main factors that hides it from us is our own history of mistreatment. Many people come to marriage having been seriously hurt by parents, lovers, or former spouses…

And when the inevitable conflicts occur, our memories can sabotage us. They can prevent us from doing the normal, day-to-day work of repentance and forgiveness and extending grace that is so crucial to making progress in our marriages. The reason is that our woundedness makes us self-absorbed.

This is not hard to see in others, of course. When you begin to talk to wounded people, it is not long before they begin talking about themselves. They’re so engrossed with their own pain and problems that they don’t realize what they look like to others.

When you point out selfish behavior to a wounded person, he or she will say, “Well maybe so, but you don’t understand what it is like.” The wounds justify the behavior.

The Christian approach begins with a different analysis of the situation. We believe that, as badly wounded as persons may be, the resulting self-absorption of the human heart was not caused by the mistreatment. It was only magnified and shaped by it. Their mistreatment poured gasoline on the fire, and the flame and smoke now choke them, but their self-centeredness already existed prior to their woundedness…This is not to say that wounded people don’t need great gentleness, tender treatment, affirmation, and patience. It is just to say that this is not the whole story. (p. 60-62)

Keller counsels dealing gently, with affirmation, all the while helping people understand that there is more to the story. The self-absorption is preventing the repentance and forgiveness that is so crucial to healthy relationships.

Woundedness and Self-Centeredness

Dave Harvey, in Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls describes the same phenomenon in prodigals – those actively walking away from the faith and relationships.

Harvey writes of four different characteristics: personal irresponsibility to appropriate roles and relationships, victim-centeredness, a declaration of independence from any commitments, and the threat of flight or leaving the relationship.

But it is the victim centeredness that is of importance for us. Harvey writes:

They seemed blind and unaware—or unconcerned—about the pain they were causing others. This selfishness was rooted in a story, a narrative they told over and over again where they were the victim, the one who had been hurt. The sisters realized that something truly destructive had taken root. With their loss of personal responsibility, both loved ones had become consummate victims. The story they told themselves and other people was about how they had been sinned against, how they were the victims of injustice. They had not been loved. They had not been cared for. Their concerns had been ignored…they twisted any attempt to speak truth and used it as further evidence of how misunderstood they were. (p. 38)

The purpose of this post is not at all to discount the real mistreatment at the hands of others. But it is to warn that caring for the wounded requires unpacking how self-centeredness distorts self-perception. And it is to warn those tender-hearted individuals within the church of this danger.

Practical Applications

All four of these pastors observe this phenomenon in different contexts and state it in different ways. Yet all are describing a common virus that has numerous manifestations.

If these things are true, what are some action points for pastors and parents? Let me suggest several.

1. Create Private Awareness – The church needs to weep with those weep but with discernment. As a leader understands this dynamic he will be more aware of what is happening and speak to it. Both the helper and hurting need to understand the subtle self-absorption that can occur. Whether in a leadership meeting, marriage counseling, or receiving a hurting person, a shepherd will have awareness of situations that can occur.

2. Create Public Awareness through Proclamation and Inoculation – The church needs to set a contrast between the world’s woundedness wildcard and truthful care.  Just as important as private conversations are helping the whole church understand the dynamic. A pastor can speak encouraging words from the pulpit. These instructions set the tone of the church culture.

3. Use the Concept of Self-Absorption – There are many biblical words that just slide over our conscience because we they are not in our everyday language. “Me? I would never qualify as a person who is a ‘lover of themselves’ (2 Tim 3:2). That’s someone else.” But being self-absorbed resonates with the current language and is certainly biblical.

Given the understanding of sin as causing us to curve in on ourselves, then church and family leaders need to introduce that terminology. And we can introduce the opposite concept of self-forgetfulness. Tim Keller’s little book by the same name is helpful with this subject. The gospel should move people from self-absorption to self-forgetfulness.

4. Warn the Tender-Hearted – We all see the world through our personality. Those gifted in mercy will be drawn to the hurting. But they cannot nor should not let the wounds overpower truth and turn them away from God.

I have seen this manifest itself in two ways. In the church I pastored, tender-hearted people started a ministry to help a self-absorbed person who was supposed to have cancer. I say supposedly because the symptoms never appeared and no one could talk with her doctor. But the tender-hearted had started a campaign to help her that had the momentum of a locomotive.

In addition, I have watched some young people who have grown up in a believing and loving church turn their back on the faith. One common thread in many of these cases was a tender heart. This caring individual was willing to be taken in by the stories of suffering, especially by suffering at the hands of “Christians.” These victims have responded to their mistreatment (whether real or imagined) with bitterness. But their self-absorbed response has also attracted and deceived others who were tender-hearted. As a result these secondary parties drift and align themselves in solidarity with the victims even though they have not experienced any of what the primary victim is claiming. They, rightly, desire to help true victims. But they are naïve to the power and deceiving nature “victims” present. In self-righteousness these advocates turn their back on the hope for victims – the gospel. Youth leaders and parents need to warn of this temptation and trap.


Our country is awash in an ocean of victimhood. As long as there is sin there will be wounds The church can and should care for wounded people. But a good desire to help the hurting can morph into empowering the self-absorbed.

This is a subtle temptation in the church. Awareness and education are key. As the Spirit of God works in a person, they move from self-absorption to self-forgetfulness, from ashes to beauty, from mourning to joy, to become an oak of righteousness that glorifies the Lord.