Over the weekend, I had a conversation with my oldest son about him finding a church to attend. It was clear to me, and I’m sure to him, that I still struggle with a lot of anger towards religious institutions that bring more harm than good.
The abuse of power.
The taking advantage of the vulnerable.
I had to work hard to offer much encouragement about attending church to my son. Brian Peck, a counselor who started the Religious Trauma Institute, says to survivors of abuse who want to attend church again, to not take it too seriously when they do go. I gave my son this advice. I have not attended church in a couple of years, because I just don’t know how not to take it too seriously.
For the past several years since being abused, I have been processing my personal story of religious trauma and abuse through counseling and writing. I have met many other survivors along the way. Even though our faith and our souls have been severely injured, we have kept going somehow. We are a miracle in and of ourselves.
Last night I had a dream. I was telling the wife of the pastor who abused me that I was sorry for what I had done to her. In the dream, I felt the heavy weight of shame for having decieved and betrayed her. She was so angry with me. The more I agreed with her that I deserved her anger, the more she calmed down, and when I woke up I felt a deep sense of shame.
After having had a cup of coffee and allowing myself to wake up, I was able to see that my subconscious mind was allowing my worst experience to be played out again in my dream.
Initially, after having exposed the former pastor’s abuse, I wrote him and his wife a letter apologizing for harming them.
It is important to say to any survivor of religious abuse reading this, that abuse is never, ever our fault. I understand now that I wrote these letters out of a deep sense of self-loathing shame, and blame, a survival skill I learned as a child.
This is common for those of us who have grown up in abusive homes. We learn how to apologize for our abuser’s behavior, because by taking the responsibility on ourselves we lighten the weight of shame on our abuser. When we say I’m sorry for acting in such a way that caused them to scream at me, hurt me, sexually abuse, etc. they can justify what they did and shift the blame to us. We sometimes get relief when their shame is relieved, because then they stop taking the shame they feel about themselves out on us.
As an adult, I now know that it is never a child’s fault when a caregiver brings them harm. It is also never an adult victim’s fault who is brought harm by those who were in the position to care about them, but rather abused this position whether it be a doctor, a counselor, pastor, etc.
However, even after having spent years of learning that abuse was not my fault, I still struggle with periods of self-loathing, shame, and blame even in my dreams. The question is how can we as survivors learn how to live with these painful tendencies in our lives?
For years I learned in church that if I felt bad about something, that this meant I needed to repent. I learned that I was a sinner in desperate need of grace. While I don’t disagree that I desperately need Jesus to save me from myself, I have come to understand that the repentance and restoration I learned about in church, doesn’t look at all like I once believed it did. My earliest years in church, I spent most of my time singing songs, listening to sermons, going to the front of the church to pray, and confessing to others, because I believed that everything bad that happened around must be my fault. I know now that this all goes back to being raised in a home where the only way I could experience relief was by taking responsibility for the abuse. I recognize now that a lot of what I learned in church kept me in a pattern of self-loathing, shame, and blame. I still believe I need Jesus to save me from myself, but not for the reasons I originally thought. The rescue I most need is from the tendency towards self-loathing, shame and blame.
My husband, who is also a survivor of childhood trauma and abuse asked the question last week, how can I love my neighbor as myself when I don’t even know how to love myself? I don’t ever recall hearing a sermon on this, he said. It made me sad hearing this. While I know we’ve both heard sermons on loving ourselves, it is extremely difficult for those of us who have grown up with complex trauma to believe them. Some of us take what we learn in church way too seriously to our detriment. What survivors desperately need more than sermons are experiences with safe people who reveal Jesus through safe relationships. We need others who are willing to walk with us in our pain without judgment or trying to fix them. We need others who don’t take church so seriously that they pressure us to attend.
Where things get really confusing for me, is the pastor who abused me offered this compassion that I was so desperately looking for. But much like abusers in my life before him, I was his scapegoat. In my mind, I was the needy one who caused him to get too close and abuse me. His love for me he said was his only problem. Sadly, I believed this lie for almost a decade. I took responsibility for his abuse and in my deep shame and self-loathing I just kept going to my abuser for relief. It’s the common pattern most abuse victims get trapped in.
It is what Jesus saved me from, and is still saving me from.
If you are a survivor of religious trauma or abuse, please know:
He sees you.
He hears you.
His desire is for your good.
There is no fear, shame, or blame.
Only compassion and love.
No one who trusts God like this—heart and soul—will ever regret it.” It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help. “Everyone who calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help.” Roman’s 10:11-13 MSG
When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke… Matthew 9:36 MSG
God told them, “I’ve never quit loving you and never will. Expect love, love, and more love! And so now I’ll start over with you and build you up again… Jeremiah 31:3 MSG