Rethinking Religion

I want to preface this blog by saying, it isn’t written to criticize anyone’s religious belief system or cause anyone to stumble. It is not an invitation to argue. It is a result of my own recovery journey from religious and childhood trauma and abuse. Some of the content may be triggering or upsetting. It’s always good to pay attention and honor what our bodies are telling us about what we should or should not take in. My intention is only to encourage others who may be struggling in similar ways.

Since I was 19 and walked through the doors of a little white church for the first time with the man I would one day marry, a lot has changed about what I believe about the role of the church and religion in my life. I had no idea at the time how my decision to look to the church for the answers I needed about everything important would totally disrupt my life. It’s not to say that I haven’t met some good and caring people in the church, because I have. There are people whom I will never cease being grateful for. Those people who were there when I needed them. Those people who were friends that were closer than a brother.

Our first pastor was that kind of person. He was a middle-aged man who spent hours studying for his sermons on Sunday. If I had to guess, he was a person who had probably been a book worm for most of his life. He wore thick black glasses and dark suits. He didn’t mind sharing his opinions about what he thought about politics, which is what ultimately got him removed from the church. Even though he and I no longer share the same political views, the fact that he showed up for us when my adopted father was dying, will always cause me to have great appreciation for him. I still remember the night he stood with us by my father’s bedside and read the 23rd Psalm. I watched as tears rolled down my dying father’s face and felt hopeful that he would find peace on the other side of death. We left the church where he pastored when he was asked to leave. We were upset over the way church members had treated him about what he believed about politics. It was the year Bill Clinton ran for President and even without social media our society was just as poloarized. Our next two pastors at another church were also kind and caring men. They were sincere, even though today I believe they were sincerly wrong about a lot.

It’s painful to think about how wholeheartedly I believed what I was told and taught it to our children. I am troubled when I hear stories today about young adults, the same age as our children now, who grew up in the church and are carrying around so much fear, guilt and shame as a result of these same teachings. I remember the night my son went to the front of the church after having watched a fear based skit where the devil was dragging screaming people to hell because they lived sinful lives and didn’t trust Jesus. Our son became afraid and went to the front of the church to say the Sinner’s Prayer and be saved from hell. He was a pre-teen when he was exposed to this, and I was one of the adults accompanying the church youth group to these events. I will always regret that I exposed our children to these fear based tactics. As I write this, I realize there are more conversations that need to be had about this with my children. If you are someone who was exposed to this, I am genuinely sorry that I had any part of it.

I am continuing to work through all the trauma, manipulation and fear that our family was exposed to in the church. I have come to the conclusion that the Bible was not problem, but rather how the Bible was interpreted and the fear tactics that were used to convince me to believe what was being taught. I don’t think that any of the good pastors we had were out to harm or brainwash us. I think they believed what they taught, just as I believed it. The one thing we had in common was we wanted to live better lives knowing that we had a God given purpose and believing that one day all of the pain of this world would cease. We wanted to believe there is life after death in a place where Jesus would wipe away all of our tears and give us the keys to our new mansion in Heaven. I still believe this, however I don’t believe much anymore about the way I was taught about how to get there.

If you are a committed member of an evangelical church and are reading this, you may fear that I have crossed over into heresy. Sometimes I worry about that, too. I believed what I believed for so long about God that it is ingrained and any movement away from it feels frightening. My religious beliefs were an anchor for me in the worst storms of my life. Uprooting this anchor in any way, causes me to feel like I will be swept away by the next storm. But then I remember some of the worst storms in my life and recognize that no matter how many times I preached to myself about what I believed, I didn’t feel peace until I experienced the sense that someone else was with me in the storms; someone who cared and would never abandon me even when I doubted what I believed.

As a survivor of significant childhood trauma, my continual recovery process has taught me that what caused the most damage to my health was living the majority of my upbringing in survival mode, because I didn’t think there was anyone who cared enough to protect me from harm. I believed it was up to me to protect myself and this resulted in all kinds of coping mechanisms to keep myself alive. As an adult these coping mechanisms just became a part of who I believed I was.

The church gave me language to understand the struggles that were going on inside of me. When I believed that all of the chaos in my life was a result of sin and the devil, I had a real enemy to fight. And fight I did, with myself and with others about what the real problem was in my life, in other’s lives and in the world. When I fought, I felt like I had control. When I convinced myself that these bloody battles against myself and others were working, I felt a temporary sense of peace that comes with control. But I didn’t have control. I know that now. Sometimes we just need to wait and see what kinds of fruit grows on the trees of the seeds of our beliefs that are planted in our hearts before we decide if we need to keep them or not.

Sometimes we just need to wait and see what kinds of fruit grows on the trees of the seeds of our beliefs that are planted in our hearts before we decide if we need to keep them or not.

We need good seeds and good soil in order for good fruit to grow. In my life, I received a lot bad seeds from people who were supposed to be planting good seeds of love, nurture, affection and protection into my life. But the thorns and thistles of sexual abuse were planted over and over again. These weeds have been so tightly wrapped around my heart that they have almost choked the life out of me.

It took a sexually abusive pastor to reveal to me who my biggest threat was. It wasn’t my parents anymore. It wasn’t sin or the devil. It wasn’t even the pastor. It was me, and what I believed about who I was. It was that I believed that I was worthless and alone and it was up to me to do everything right in order to please God and save myself. The coping mechanisms of my childhood became maladaptive coping mechanisms into adulthood. The pastor saw these coping mechanisms as an opportunity to take advantage and gain power over me.

Please understand, I am not blaming myself or any other survivor for what happened to us. I have no doubt that evil was at work and our abusers made a choice to carry out it’s dark will. After the fact, most abusers refuse to admit that they have a problem. They shift blame to temptation, the devil, and even the victim. They hide behind church doctrines. They cling to the blood of Jesus. They use their brokeness as an opportunity to win more souls. They use anything to take the pressure off of taking responsibility for themselves. They deny the truth that they loved control and power more than they loved the people they were called to care about. They cared more about protecting the institution and their paycheck than the truth that would bring true freedom to mankind. Lovers of themselves and their money.

I’m not sure exactly when the seed was planted in my heart that convinced me that I was worthless. But what I do know, is that this is a common belief for survivors of childhood trauma and abuse. As children, we somehow convince ourselves we are to blame for the bad things that happen to us. I learned in therapy that it is only when we are able to recognize and acknowledge this deep shame that we carry about ourselves and see our dignity and worth, that we can truly begin our healing journey. In order to recover, we need to know that we are valuable and worthy of being seen, heard, and loved.

The church taught me a lot of mixed messages about who I was. Sometimes I believed that I was worthy of God’s love. Other times I was convinced that I was a bad person. While I am sure that my own trauma played a big role in continuing to convince me that I was worthless, the church did not help to deliver me from this lie. I was baptized twice in my efforts to rid myself of all the bad in myself. I confessed all of my sins over and over again hoping to find relief, but the shame at the core of who I was never left.

Relief came when I realized that all of my coping mechanisms no longer worked to suppress the shame. When the pastor who promised deliverance, turned out to be imprisoned by his own lies, my mind was overtaken by the sound of a roaring hurricane that threatened to destroy everything. It was only when the anchor of my shallow beliefs broke loose, that I finally understood that God was on my side.

The essential work of religion is to help us recognize and recover the divine image in ourselves and everything else too. Whatever we call it, this ‘image of God’ is absolute and unchanging. There is nothing we can do to increase or decrease it. It is not ours to decide who has it or does not have it. It is pure and total gift, given equally to all…It is often the mystics who understand that “My deepest me is God!” to paraphrase St. Catherine of Genoa.  Our Original Goodness, Richard Rohr

A book that has recently been very beneficial to me in my recovery journey is No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma and Restoring Wholeness with the Internal Family Systems Model Dr. Richard Schwartz. Dr. Schwartz is the therapist who deleveloped Internal Family Systems (IFS) which has proven to be a very effective treatment for survivors of childhood trauma. Dr. Schwartz recognized early in his career that our relationship with ourselves plays a critical role in our recovery. He discovered in his work with bulimic patients that the human psyche is made up of many parts. Parts that make up an internal system not unlike our external family system. In order to experience peace and healing within ourselves, we need to be curious about our parts and listen to what they have to say with much compassion and without judgement. However, childhood trauma especially brings about conflict and separation between these parts, resulting in a complex internal system of chaos. Religion attempts to bring order to these chaotic systems many times in ineffective ways. Dr. Schwartz gives a good example of this in his book.

One telling example comes from the influential Christian theologian John Calvin: “For our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness, but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle … The whole man, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, is so deluged, as it were, that no part remains exempt from sin, and, therefore, everything which proceeds from him is imputed as sin.”2 This is known as the doctrine of total depravity, which insists that only through the grace of God can we escape our fate of eternal damnation. Mainstream Protestantism and Evangelicalism have carried some version of this doctrine for several hundred years, and the cultural impact has been widespread. With “Original Sin,” Catholicism has its own version.

This kind of religious teaching sealed the core belief that I had about myself that I was bad. Operating out of this belief about myself, I learned ultimately only resulted in more “bad” behaviors. Behaviors that caused me to return to the same religious system that kept me stuck in a self-destructive cycle. Insanity is indeed doing the same things over and over again expecting a different result.

Religion is not supposed to be this way.

The essential work of religion is to help us recognize and recover the divine image in ourselves and everything else too...

Unhealthy religion uses shame and fear to scare us into Heaven.

Healthy religion helps us to understand ourselves and recognize God’s loving presence throughout every part of our being.

If you’d like to share some insights from your recovery journey, feel free to leave a comment below or reach out via email.

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