The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review


Man's Search For Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl
(Beacon Press, Boston, MA 2006).

Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who suffered in Nazi concentration camps during WWII. Man's Search for Meaning is about finding meaning in life, particularly in difficult times.

The book discusses some of his experiences in the camps, but not for the purpose of documenting the harshness of the conditions. Nonetheless, there are graphic reminders of how terrible the concentration camp experience was for those who survived.

In telling the story, his perspective is mostly of a psychological nature. For example, he discusses the stages people went through when they were imprisoned-- going from shock and fear of making decisions (for fear that a wrong choice would get one killed) to numbness, apathy and acceptance.

While the spiritual abuse experience does not compare in severity or scope to what Jews and other undesirables suffered in these camps, I found strong correlation between the experiences he related with those experienced by myself and others in an abusive church. In particular, the shock about the bad treatment and then the eventual apathy resonated as I read.

But Frankl's lasting contribution to this genre of discussion is the way that he and others found meaning even in rotten circumstances.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms-- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. (p. 66)

It is this pivotal freedom which cannot be taken away that makes life meaningful and purposeful. (p. 67)

Those who have experienced poor treatment, and those who know about such treatment, are right to seek to expose, convict and punish those who perpetrate such atrocities. But no matter how many war criminals are hanged, the individual who survives the situation still needs to find meaning to it. In fact, in the midst of the treatment itself, when none knew if they would survive another day or not-- they had to find meaning every day.

People in abusive or cultic churches can usually just decide to leave. Not to minimize how difficult this is, but it does not compare with having all property confiscated, being captured at gunpoint, being separated from your family and being forced into a slave labor camp. Yet there is a reality here-- we can all choose how we will respond to bad treatment beyond these question of what to do about the perpetrators.

Frankl observed that some fellow prisoners became ruthless themselves as they were exposed to ruthless treatment (p. 90). But others found meaning and exercised kindness in spite of the situation.

Frankl also realized that there were kind Nazis even as there were ruthless fellow prisoners (p. 86). But of course he also recognizes that some of the prison guards were clinically sadistic.

One other interesting group he discusses are the "Capos," fellow prisoners who exercised leadership over a small number of prisoners. They were among the most ruthless people in the entire camp. Those of us from abusive churches recognize that dynamic-- the first level of leadership is often among the harshest. I suppose this is true in both cases because if the first level leader doesn't "get the job done" (in the eyes of the higher leadership), they will be subject to the same or even worse treatment and loss of whatever perks they have as a result of that role. Hence, they don't ever want to be accused of being too easy on anybody.

After liberation, Frankl continued to analyze responses of those from the camps. He noticed that people lost the ability to be pleased as a result of their experiences and had to regain it slowly. He also observed that returning to civil standards of behavior were difficult:

Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, even if wrong has been done to them. (p. 91)

In recovering from spiritual abuse, it is critical to recognize this. There is a tremendous temptation to do wrong when others do wrong to you. But it is a Scriptural admonishment to reject this temptation. Frankl observes that if we give in to the temptation, it degrades us and allows evil to take us "not in the usual way, but through the evil treatment of others." This is a profound observation.

Many years after the experience, Frankl could write:

[The crowing experience of it all ] is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has sufffered, there is nothing he need fear anymore, except his God. (p. 93)

The book concludes with a discussion of what Frankl calls "logotherapy"-- a psychotherapy based upon these premises.

Victims of spiritual abuse will find Frankl's book relatively easy to read and concise for this sort of work. The message speaks to those in the midst of suffering as well as those in the midst of recovery from it.


Copyright © 2009 John Engler. All rights reserved.

Comment via email