Seven years after leaving an abusive church environment, I’m still very much in the process of understanding why it happened and how I can protect myself from it ever happening again.
While I’m sure I’ll never fully understand why I was abused in the church, I have learned a lot reading the stories of other survivors in the past several years.
We are wired for connection. When we experience rejection from others our brains receive it as a traumatic event. It’s just in our DNA to belong.
If you grew up like I did not feeling like you ever really belonged with your family, that longing is that much stronger.
I’ve never been to a church that didn’t promote itself as being a family. This was definitely a big draw to me when I started to attend church. It wasn’t long before the church felt like the family I never had.
Since I didn’t know what a healthy family was like, I grabbed hold of every bit of a sense of belonging that I received from others in the church. When the pastor started to pay me attention, it felt like I’d hit the jackpot.
I read recently that one of the reasons why people who suffer with complex ptsd have a deep sense of shame is their longing for connection that resulted in abuse.
As a child I grew up with a sexually abusive father. It was totally normal for me as his daughter to want to have a connection with him. But when the only connection that happened was abuse, I was faced with a dilemma. Was the man who was supposed to take care of my needs a bad man or was there something wrong with me? It is normal for children to feel like they are bad when they are abused, because if it’s something we believe that we are doing wrong then there is something we think we can do to change it. But what happens when we try to stop it and it doesn’t stop. We feel powerless and even more ashamed.
When the pastor let me know he saw, heard and was interested, I felt like a person who’d wandered in the desert for days without water finally getting a drink. Initially, my conversations with him felt like they would bring healing, but then his toxicity was revealed. It became clear he was interested in more than just being my spiritual father.
Like the little girl who blamed herself for her father’s sexual abuse my default mode was to blame myself for the pastor’s toxic desires. I still remember the day he told me that he was attracted to me in ways that were forbidden and asked me to keep it a secret. The weight of heavy shame suffocated me. Rather than run, I froze. I submitted to him and told myself that this was just the way things were. My abusive father told me when I was a child every one does this but no one tells. Accepting this lie as the truth, helped me to cope.
Ironically, being a part of a family of believers with him made it easier to accept the lies that my relationship with him was “normal. ” I used to believe that being a part of the church had been the only good thing about the years of abuse, but now I am beginning to see things differently. Finally, after seven years I am beginning to understand how the church was an enabler in keeping me unhealthy.
Last week another member in a support group for those deconstructing, mentioned that he was concerned I was struggling with shame and codependency, because I was overconcerned about upsetting someone else. His comment allowed me to see that I was indeed trying to belong rather than be true to myself. I appreciated his honesty, and have spent some time this past week reading about codependency. As I read, it became more clear that being in the church had enabled an environment where I had continued to be stuck in codependent behaviors.
Sunday after Sunday, the teaching I received in church was rooted in being sinners in need of grace. If we agreed with God about our condition, we could be forgiven. When we took communion and accepted the body and blood of Jesus we would be washed clean.
Please understand that I am not disagreeing with what the Bible says. I am not a theologian, nor do I claim to be. But what I am saying is how this doctrine being applied superficially to my life kept me in unhealthy patterns.
As long as I mentioned struggling with sin in church or a Bible study, others were compassionate towards me. I was accepted on the basis of saying what others expected me to. I was the good girl in the family who knew how to behave in such a way that kept my family happy.
Just as in an unhealthy family, when I disagreed about something was when the problems started. When I realized I was being abused, and told leaders in the church I felt like what became the black sheep.
Initially, I saw the pastor’s abuse as consensual sin. It was the only thing that made sense. Two sinners in need of grace who kept messing up without understanding the root cause. And the sovereignty of God tied it all up with a nice bow. Everything happens for a reason. Everything will work together for our good and his glory. Our sin makes us humble and gives us sympathy for other’s who are suffering in similar ways.
Again, I am not throwing out the baby and the bathwater of my Christian beliefs, but what I am doing is examining both to determine what is good and what is not.
I have come to an understanding in my own story that what the Bible teaches is not the problem. How people apply what is taught in the Bible is. The church I was a part of was led by a pastor who was abusive. There were patterns in his life that required much more than the band-aid of confession and repentance. Of course what he taught every week was impacted. After he “sinned,” was when I heard the best sermons from him. They were emotionally charged, and I remember walking away from church feeling so much better, because I was just a sinner who was forgiven just like everyone else. It was the same lie my abusive father told me. Everyone does this, but no one talks about it. It was just understood that we all struggled with secret sins.
I have learned more about the nature of God outside of the church than I ever did in it. While I am thankful for the education I received about the Bible in church, which gave me a foundation to build upon, I am not thankful for the way I was taught how to think about my relationship with God.
I have concluded that God is a lot bigger and not confined to the doctrinal boxes each church has to fit Him in. As long as we keep God small inside what makes us comfortable, we are limiting our ability to truly know Him. It works the same with codependency. If we continue to keep ourselves locked inside boxes of others expectations of us, we will never truly know ourselves.
Jesus said that the truth would set us free. He also said a relationship with him was about lifting burdens and not giving more. What He taught was not intended to keep us locked in unhealthy patterns. His desire for us is for healing and wholeness, and there is a lot more work required than a band-aid of just confession and repentance. He is the good physician. He cuts deep into our souls.
Trauma informed care and therapy has taught me more about the heart of God than church doctrine ever could. Understanding and processing what has brought us harm and having compassion for ourselves in the healing process is where God is actively working in our lives.
If you have suffered in similar patterns of codependency in a religious environment, know that you are not alone. Jesus walks beside you and you set the pace.