The Dangers of Manipulation & Harmful Interactions

The Dangers of Manipulation and Harmful Interactions

Can it be unsaid once it is said
 Can you take back that which is done
 Perceptions, conclusions
 Manipulation, inimicality
Like abundant food we eat
 Marks our form...replete

“Because to take away a man’s freedom of choice, even his freedom to make the wrong choice, is to manipulate him as though he were a puppet and not a person.”
Madeline L'Engle

As we walk in our journey of faith, conviction and self-reflection intertwine to reveal a pressing concern—one deeply felt by many leaders and believers. Manipulation and unhealthy interactions have become troubling issues within many Christian communities. This is evidenced by disturbing reports of influential leaders exerting control and prominent examples of infighting that divide faith communities. Such behaviors severely hurt the Church’s witness and erode the trust and unity vital for believers, whom Scripture charges to live in love. Given the Bible’s urgent call for humility, grace, and mutual care, we must carefully examine and confront these destructive relational patterns—both individually and corporately as the Church.

Setting the Scene
Years ago, my husband and I attended a mandatory church leadership retreat. We were only given an address, with no details about planned activities. Most people came straight from work in professional attire. In hindsight, the organizer’s critical comments about the women’s clothing should have been a red flag. As we assembled the next morning, we learned the day’s agenda included muddy obstacle courses, river crossings, rope climbs, and more. Many women voiced concerns, rightly pointing out we lacked suitable clothing and footwear for such activities. Instead of apologizing for the oversight or finding constructive solutions, a leader manipulatively used an analogy. He compared us to toothpaste tubes under pressure, claiming the day would test our “hearts under pressure.” He quoted Proverbs 27:19, “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man.” Feeling coerced into compliance, some were able to change into clothes from the previous day, while others had no choice but to participate in the clothing they wore. We knew we were being manipulated to conform yet felt powerless to resist without judgment for being difficult, unteachable, or lacking leadership potential.
Did that experience truly teach teamwork? Honestly, it did not bring us together as a cohesive group. Instead, it created an “us vs. them” mentality, as women and their husbands banded together across competing teams. Some of us in dark clothing worked together in taking on tasks like carrying others in white shirts across rivers and scaling walls alongside others assisting them with holding closed their dresses and skirts. Our strategy was to preserve modesty and shield them from embarrassment while competing on the obstacle courses. Believe me, we cared little for the actual goals of the challenges or the how, when, and where set before us. Needless to say, our clothing and shoes were ruined by the end of the day.
In hindsight, this retreat highlighted the importance of transparency and consent. Expectations should be clearly communicated to allow proper preparation. Although surprises may appeal to some, the element of surprise and removing choice showed disregard for attendees’ needs. Despite being framed as a growth opportunity, the manipulative tactics left people feeling disempowered. Certainly, as Christians, we should aim to lead by example, not coercion, and to build trust and willingness wherever we find ourselves. With compassion and forethought, we can honor others’ autonomy while pursuing collaborative goals.

The Subtle Bridle of Manipulation
Now, although the above example involved leaders, the fact remains that manipulation is a very real coercive tactic prevalent in society. Manipulation involves any tactics or strategy used to influence or control the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or actions of others, often in a deceptive or underhanded manner. It is a behavior or technique employed by individuals or groups to achieve their goals or objectives, even if those goals may not align with the best interests of the people being manipulated. In the same way, the art of persuasion, when misused, can subtly guide individuals toward desired outcomes, molding their choices like a bridle guides a horse. To navigate these intricacies and avoid manipulating others, we must cultivate discernment, probing beneath even to our most well-intentioned words to uncover the concealed motives that drive possible manipulation in our hearts.
Often, manipulation finds its roots in an unhealthy craving for control and influence over others; a stark contrast to the humility and selflessness exemplified by Christ. Unfortunately, some employ manipulation veiled as “shared responsibility,” skillfully employing guilt as a tool to enforce compliance while conveniently denying any exertion of authority, which results in an implicit pressure carrying with it the subtle undertone of control. Scripture emphatically warns against the abuse of authority, urging us to emulate the example set by Jesus, the Servant King. Our powers of persuasion should never supersede the principles of consent, transparency, and fairness. Instead of coercing others into an intended behavior, we should seek to allow the Holy Spirit to prompt any spiritual changes He deems necessary within those around us. Although we may believe our intentions are pure, it is the Lord who scrutinizes the depths of our motives (Proverbs 16:2).
Moreover, as followers of Jesus, we must also cultivate empathy for those bound by the snares of deception, manipulated through the fear of being seen as unteachable or rebellious if they dare to resist. At the same time, our calling is to resist the allure of manipulation and, instead, fervently seek God’s empowerment to continually examine our motives, ensuring that our words and actions are driven by selfless love. As Galatians 6:3-5 (ESV) wisely encourages, “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.” Let us remember that the journey towards influencing others should always be paved with transparency, sincerity, and the guiding light of self-examination through the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

The Venom of Inimical Interactions
In a world where manipulation often sways hearts, we must also recognize that hostile interactions wound through confrontational and combative words, ultimately eroding the precious unity we seek to preserve. Consider a simple misunderstanding that sparks confusion. It is all too common for our reactions to turn adversarial, fixating on perceived mistakes rather than diffusing tension with composure and empathy. Even in our well-intended efforts to “help” others by pointing out their faults, we must remember that such correction, when delivered harshly, clashes with the teachings of Scripture regarding humility and patience. More often than not, it backfires and serves only to fuel defensiveness, leading to further division.
Proverbs 15:1 reminds us, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (ESV). Thus, we guard against pride, which can escalate conflicts and foster “us versus them” mentalities. Discord sows division, while compassion nurtures unity. Therefore, we must recognize that our words hold tremendous power – the power to harm or to heal. Jesus calls us to a higher path: to confront discord with patience, empathy, and grace. Ephesians 4:29 reinforces this by emphasizing the importance of wholesome speech that builds others up “as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (ESV).
As believers, though we are united in Christ, we must acknowledge that unity remains fragile. Without proper care and restraint in our speech, this unity can unravel through discord. Thus, let us always speak with careful consideration, patience, and empathy, using our words not as weapons but as instruments of grace. Speech rooted in love yields a bountiful harvest of righteousness and peace. Even when we find ourselves in disagreement, particularly on secondary matters, we are all called to extend grace. We must remember that no one possesses perfect knowledge. In Romans 15:7 (NIV), Paul urges us to “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
Let us not forget that Jesus, in His prayer for His followers, emphasized their protection and unity for the sake of the Gospel witness (John 17:20-23). Therefore, in the face of disagreements, with care and humility, we can employ words that build up rather than tear down, thereby honoring the bonds we share in Christ. Empowered by the Spirit, our words and tone should reflect a value for others’ perspectives rather than inflicting shame.

Distinguishing Righteous and Sinful Conflict
Likewise, as followers of Christ, we should carefully differentiate between destructive conflict fueled by foolish anger, and righteous confrontation done in love. Scripture contrasts the two—sinful discord driven by rage versus gently correcting a fellow believer with grace when real wrong has occurred. Jesus taught that self-righteous anger often stems from pride and hypocrisy, warning that “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22, ESV). James urged believers to be, “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20, ESV). Outbursts of insult have no place among Christians.
However, Scripture also instructs wise rebuke when someone is clearly in the wrong, with the goal being restoration. Paul said, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1, ESV). Jesus outlined graciously confronting a brother who has sinned, seeking repentance and reconciliation (Matthew 18:15-17). Such confrontation is not to condemn but to lovingly call them to repentance out of concern for their spiritual well-being. It is exercised with patience, compassion, and humility, aware of our own weaknesses. The goal is always to restore relationships, not vent anger or win arguments. As believers, we must discern whether our confrontation is motivated by selfless concern or simply pride. Do we aim to humbly restore or condemn? By following Christ’s model, we can shine as examples of grace in caring for one another.

A Call to Reflect and Transform
As Christ’s followers, we are called to relate with humility, patience, and grace, building others up through our words and actions (Ephesians 4:29). When we yield to the Spirit’s guidance, He empowers our communities to exemplify mutual care and Christlike love. By turning from destructive behaviors and embracing biblical principles for communication, relationships, and conduct, our churches can shine as beacons of hope, modeling the Gospel’s reconciling power. May God strengthen His Church to display such unity and love!
What does living out these truths look like practically? We must continually pray for the Spirit to search our hearts and reveal any pride, selfishness, judgment, or unresolved anger leading to harm. Confess these before God to experience His forgiveness, healing, and strength to walk in love. Let us take responsibility for how our words and actions impact others. Do we build up or inflict harm? Do we listen well and seek to understand? We can set a guard over our speech and choose to extend the same grace God gives us. Rather than attacking, humbly pursue reconciliation. Value unity over proving a point. Surround yourself with wise counsel to identify relational blind spots. Quickly admit faults and seek forgiveness when causing harm. Study Jesus’ model of correction with compassion. As we grow in practicing such love-motivated principles, our churches become sanctuaries of healing that reveal Christlike love. May the Spirit empower us to pursue right relationships and equip our communities to shine as beacons of grace and truth.

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