Spiritual Abuse


Loved it! 😍

A timely book exposing the shocking--and at times, dangerous--choices of a church through the eyes of one who lived it.


Churches are supposed to be safe places. What happens when they're not? Even churches that start well can become almost cult-like when certain ethical principles are violated. Spiritual Abuse is both a personal journey and guide designed to help people identify whether they belong to a church with problems or a problem church. The book comes with a free online audio course and additional questions to help you process through the next steps to take.

As an avid churchgoer, this book caught my attention right away and, unfortunately, some of these thoughts shared throughout have been my worst fears. With attendance going down everywhere and young people not going to church as opposed to the previous generations, it sometimes feels like a church will do anything to keep membership--and the finances--coming in.

Sabella's personal account is not only relevant, but troubling. Also, I hope serves as a cautionary tale for any church who feels desperate to keep afloat when things are in the red. This book is definitely targeted to former and current church members, but I believe an argument can be made for churches to also sit down and analyze this text for themselves.

Over the past couple of years, we've seen various stories in the news about pastors flying on their own luxury jets with money congregants gave to their churches, various abuses by members being brought to the forefront and other controversies named. Sabella's account may not be cultish by nature, but it comes pretty close to being depicted as such. As he said in the text, I too questioned why one would stay in such an environment when they knew what was being said or done was wrong. Sabella shows that the problems go deeper than what they may seem on the surface. Also, that these issues don't happen overnight but are a gradual, frightening transformation leaving you trapped and unsure what to do.

Sabella leaves it all on the table throughout this short book and his honesty, storytelling and concrete examples of what Scripture tells us shine through. This is also a quick read easy to understand without fancy word jargon and backed up through careful research, personal account and more. I wish more of the story focused on what to do rather than Sabella's story. However, we do have a few chapters dedicated to what one should look out for and do if they find themselves in a similar situation. Another useful tool are questions for readers to download from each chapter so they can explore what may potentially be going on in their own churches.

Overall, this is a relevant book to be studied carefully and not pushed to the side. Great work by Sabella on his candidness and sharing his truth. Let's hope it helps others and avoid future pitfalls churches don't need right now.

Reviewed by

I am an avid reader and enjoy writing of any kind. I have been a blogger for 4 years, writing book reviews since 2016 and reviewing books for Hallmark Publishing since 2018. Books and words inspire me and I want to share those thoughts and stories with others.


Churches are supposed to be safe places. What happens when they're not? Even churches that start well can become almost cult-like when certain ethical principles are violated. Spiritual Abuse is both a personal journey and guide designed to help people identify whether they belong to a church with problems or a problem church. The book comes with a free online audio course and additional questions to help you process through the next steps to take.

My Journey of Faith

The third son of five boys and one girl, I grew up in a good home. My mother was Irish Catholic. My father was a mix of Italian, Irish, and German. Discussions around the dinner table tended to be lively!

My dad clawed his way up from poverty to achieve executive status in a national company. We lived in a large suburban home, and my parents’ dream of wealth gradually came true.

I will never forget the day dad came home with a shiny new Buick Electra 225. The car had a phone and electric windows. That was beyond cool to a kid in the 1960’s. I mean, a real phone in a car? Wow.

The neighborhood kids and I spent hours playing with the new electric windows. It is wonder the battery did not wear out.

My two older brothers had red hair; no doubt the Irish genes came through. I was the first in our family to be born with black hair. This feature made me the odd man out when my younger brother also turned up with red on top.

Speaking of that younger brother, he was a major problem for me.

Mom gave birth about every two years. When she was about to deliver, my parents thought it would be a good idea to ship me off to my father’s parents to take care of me for a few days.

In retrospect, this did not turn out to be their wisest decision.

At just two yrs., I did not know my paternal grandparents very well. My father dropped me off at their home in another state. In an unfamiliar house far away from home, I could not comprehend why I'd been abandoned and given to strangers.

What had I done wrong?

I cried a lot. My grandpa’s solution was to take me places to show off one of his grandsons. He took me to Brooklyn to introduce me to his buddies at the barbershop.

They were delighted to see me. I cannot say the feeling was mutual. Old men pinched my cheeks, communicating in those funny voices adults typically make to toddlers.

I say this like I remembered it because I do. At barely two years old, the images are still lucid even though I was so young.

My hair was a little too long and curly to suit my grandpa’s taste. He decided to make me look more like a boy by granting me my first haircut. Strapped to a barber chair, a strange man used electric cutters to change my appearance.

Good times.

Finally, my little brother was born, and I returned home. My grandparents and I came into our large kitchen. The new baby lay in his bassinet. Everyone crowded around him, anxious to see the new arrival. Even at two years old, this new reality did not escape my attention.

Finally, my mom bent down to welcome me into her arms. I did not move. She motioned for me to come, but I did not move. As she drew near to hug me, I put both hands up to her face and pushed her away.

I share this heartwarming little story not to cast aspersions on my brother or parents. I do so because this event became a significant moment in my development.

Somewhere deep in my consciousness, I made up my mind to survive, even if that meant going it alone. This perception governed how I viewed the world from then on.

Something else also occurred. I decided my younger brother was public enemy number one. From this moment, I disconnected from both of my parents on a certain level. The enemy of my soul planned this event to shape and twist my future for his purposes.

From an early age, I remember hating my parents. Almost daily, I would get stomach aches from the tension inside. My view screen of the world made me a difficult kid to raise. If the way was white, then I went black; if the plan was order, I went for chaos.

By contrast, my younger brother was calm and easy to get along with. That fact only added to my contempt for him. Though he tried to hang around with me as any younger brother would, I hated being “stuck” with him.

Over time, my younger brother developed a severe stuttering problem. I have little doubt I was the direct cause. He never finished a sentence without my cutting him off in some way.

While attending public school, my temperament did not make me amenable to making lots of friends. I possessed almost no social skills, which is understandable, given my worldview. As a result, I tended to be a loner.

Revenge of the Sixties

During this time, the culture of our society was in turmoil and about to explode. I will never forget that November day in third grade. Our teacher, Mrs. English reported through fresh tears that President Kennedy had died from an assassin’s bullet. The world we knew was about to go through a cataclysmic transformation.

In a few years, the Beatles era gained momentum, and the Vietnam War started to ramp up. Thousands of young man left for war but came home in coffins draped with the American flag. The new President, LBJ faced turbulent times ahead.

Young people questioned social mores. Marijuana and LSD became the new ways to check out of the “establishment.” Rebellion against authority especially the police -became commonplace.

A month before my thirteenth birthday, the culture rocked with the announcement that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Two months later, candidate Robert Kennedy, brother to former President Kennedy experienced the same fate. Civil unrest and violence in the streets erupted on every television screen.

Most cities needed extra police to manage protests against the war. United States culture was in upheaval, and no one knew what would happen next.

The music reflected the culture and called for radical change. The Rolling Stones were young. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix introduced the world to unique, psychedelic music styles encouraging drug experimentation. Young people turned on to drugs, choosing lifestyles that rejected societal norms.

My eldest brother, a talented musician in his own right, was swept up into this dawn of the Woodstock generation. "Free love," "Give peace a chance" and “Who’s to say what’s normal?” became the most oft-repeated phrases from the lips of college students.

Communes sprung up on the West Coast of the U.S. as “hippies" lived and farmed together. They grew their own food to get back to a more “natural” lifestyle while practicing various eastern philosophies.

In the midst of all of this chaos and upheaval, something unique also happened: the birth of the Jesus Movement.

It arrived quite unexpectedly, and churches were thoroughly unprepared to meet the challenges it created. Sovereignly overnight, thousands of dropouts, hippies, and radicals heard the gospel, dropped their anger against society and obeyed the call to follow Jesus.

Trying to Find My Way Home

By age fifteen, I was already devoted to the study and practice of eastern mysticism. While studying under a yoga instructor, I embraced the occult and Kung-Fu Karate.

At home, things could not have been much worse.

Due to many explosive arguments with my parents, I left home at 16 years old to live at the dojo. My goal was to devote myself to Kung-Fu and eastern philosophies entirely.

This move only lasted a few weeks. I ran out of money! However, my pursuit of this lifestyle intensified.

As my seventeenth birthday approached, I was a hot mess. Conflicted by anger, blinders started to fall from my eyes. At the dojo, I saw broken relationships, selfishness and even rage on display from each of my mentors. I joined to gain inner peace and answers to my question, but they did not practice what they preached.

My vegan yogi abandoned his life of celibacy and self-control to eat hamburgers and sleep with several of his students. My King-Fu master's top students were arrested for violence - one for manslaughter!

I believed eastern philosophies led to tranquility and world peace. Instead, I saw that my teachers were just flawed humans like everyone else.

On a personal level, two dating relationships ended in ugly breakups, primarily due to my self-centeredness. My friends could be counted on ½ of my right hand.

I continued to carry an enormous amount of hatred for my parents and many others for various reasons. Trained in Kung-Fu, I became a fighter looking for a fight, verbally or otherwise.

My father and I argued constantly. I despised him and looked for any opportunity to be absent from the house.

One day, my parents received a phone call from my eldest brother, in college out in Portland, OR. He called to tell our family that he had become a Christian.


My parents did not know how to respond. As Catholics, we were already Christian from our religious perspective. What did he mean?

He went on to explain that he had given his life to Jesus Christ. Explaining that he repented of his sins, my brother asked my parents to forgive him.

I think my parents were embarrassed, not knowing what to think. Finally, they concluded that their first-born son needed this change. The music culture to which he belonged gave his life no structure or purpose. Christianity perhaps would change that. For my part, I thought he’d gone off the deep end.

Meanwhile, turmoil accelerated in my personal life. Nothing meant anything to me anymore. My workouts at the dojo slowed to a halt.

As summer approached, I thought I would find a job and earn lots of cash.

Around that time, this same brother called to invite me to join him on the West Coast for a month. The invitation seemed odd. Why would I want to do that?

My father, overhearing the conversation asked me who it was. When I told him about my brother’s invitation, he immediately offered to pay for the flight.

Having no other commitments, I said “yes,” and wondered what I was getting myself into.

Shortly after that, I landed in South Portland, OR and met some of the "Jesus People.” My brother called them his “brothers and sisters.” Very weird. As I arrived, they were playing music in the park. I sat in the crowd, realizing I had no place to go!

Since my brother was the only person I knew, I followed him wherever he went. That night, we set off to attend a local Pentecostal church where approximately five hundred young people gathered to worship. Things got weird for me when I saw the vast majority lifting their hands in praise to God. Stranger still was that they seemed to be enjoying it!.

My religious upbringing was more like a mausoleum than a circus, so all this baffled me. My idea of a church service involved a quiet cave-like atmosphere where no one spoke unless repeating prayers at the behest of the minister.

This Pentecostal church was multi-ethnic, multi-generational and dynamic. People sang and clapped to the live music as if they truly enjoyed themselves. Several raised their hands with eyes closed, lost in prayer. Truthfully, it freaked me out.

Afterward, we stopped at Denny’s restaurant to eat. I asked my brother and his friends lots of questions. Their answers all seemed to focus on knowing Christ personally which seemed foreign to me. In the end, I told them they could believe whatever they wanted, but that their beliefs weren’t for me.

The Jesus I Never Knew

While in Oregon, I stayed with my brother in a large two family house. Several men shared expenses and accommodations. Some were students at the university; others held jobs, and some would sleep there for one night before moving on.

The men prayed together, beginning each day with devotions from the King James Bible. A church elder took responsibility for the management of the house. This gave me a front row seat to watch how Christian men lived.

On my second day, we went to a church member’s home that needed construction work. We all pitched in to help pour concrete for a walkway. It was hard work. Our pay was a great lunch and the thankfulness of our host.

When we arrived back at the apartment, dinner was waiting for us. A few of the women from the church volunteered to make a meal for us. The humility and kindness of that act affected me. I took note that they did not wait around for compliments - just served and left.

The man whose home we repaired led us in grace before the meal. I was familiar with grace. As a Catholic family, the nightly blessing before a meal was easy. “Bless us, O Lord, and these your gifts, which we are about to receive from your bounty. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.” We could recite this sentence at the speed of light without understanding a single word!

He did not pray that way. Instead, he acted like he was talking to God. I opened my eyes to see if anyone else was in the room! His words were heartfelt, reasonable, and without religious wording.

A few days later, my brother's church hosted a potluck dinner. I had no interest in attending, so I asked about my meal. My brother informed me that “dinner” was available only at church.

Could I attend the potluck, but not go to service? No problem.

After dinner, several church members invited me to the service. I did not want to go. I also had no other plans, so why not?

The music was contemporary, which was good. I don’t think I could have tolerated old hymns. After the announcements, the preacher stood up to speak. He spoke intensely as he quoted one scripture after another.

I do not recall a word he said. Not a lick of it made sense to me, as he quoted various scripture verses. Since it was a Pentecostal-type church, he tended to move around a lot while he preached. All I could think about was getting home to bed!

When he finished, he gave what I learned was an “altar call,” inviting people up front to give their lives to Jesus. Within this framework, he uttered these words: “If there is a mountain in your life and you’re a Christian, God can move it.”

To this day I cannot explain why those words affected me that night. I could not perceive a mountain in my mind, yet I knew it was there. When he said those words, I thought to myself, “Well, this does not apply to me, because I am not a Christian.”

At that moment, he spoke again. “Even if you’re not a Christian here tonight, and there is a mountain in your life, God can move it.” Suddenly, I felt like God shined his spotlight on me!

The preacher called people to the front for prayer. No one moved. Internally, conflict raged. There was no chance that I would go forward!

He finally gave up pleading with the congregation, and we closed in song. In Pentecostal churches at that time, members raised their hands while singing in worship. I joined them by raising my hand for just a brief moment.

I prayed to God: “If you’re real, and you can show me, I will follow you.” At that moment, something changed.

The hate that dominated my life vanished. I mean it was gone. Furthermore, I knew that Jesus was God, but could not tell you how. This was unique.

My brother spotted me raising a hand and came around me with other members, excited that I had become a Christian. I was even more bewildered. Had I? Had I become a follower of Christ? Was it that simple?

I went back to the men's house scratching my head. This was great and all, but I wanted more evidence that God was real.

Over the next few days, I prayed. I asked God for wisdom, understanding, and answers to various questions. It would take much too long to recount, but prayers started getting answered in extraordinary ways.

The only bibles in the house were the King James Version, translated in the 1600s. Strangely enough, though an average student and poor reader, I did not struggle to understand it. Thees, thous, and thithers helped me remember scripture better.

Like someone lost in a desert, I couldn’t drink in enough scripture or to be satisfied. The sheer practicality of Christ’s teaching astounded me. I felt like someone turned my brain to “on” after being “off” my whole life.

Returning home a month later, my father looked confounded. His third son forsook Karate and eastern mysticism to confess Christ as his Lord and Savior.

My brother’s conversion made sense in his mind. Dad equated drug use and the music scene as disorder and chaos. My brother’s conversion offered structure and moral clarity.

When I sat in front of him for the first time as a believer, he was dumbfounded. How did his argumentative, hateful son become transformed into a Christian? Since it did not fit his prescribed ideas about religion, he was unsure what to think.

Once I got resettled, my brother set about finding a place for me to go church before he returned to Oregon. After several possibilities, he found a Christian coffee house 45 minutes from my home.

This new place, Good News Chapel would become my new spiritual family.

About the author

I am a full-time pastor, author, podcaster and conference speaker who has served in ministry over forty years. Together with my wife and married children, our passion is to help people connect with God, grow together and serve the community. My books all focus on leadership in some capacity. view profile

Published on October 19, 2019

Published by

20000 words

Genre: Christian

Reviewed by

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