It was an honor to be a part of this book launch team. I highly recommend Dr. Langberg’s book.
“Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them(Ezek. 34:4 NASB). Because the shepherds misused their God-given power, failed to care for wounded sheep, and allowed the flock of Israel to become prey, God removed the flock from their care.” Diane Langberg, PhD In Redeeming Power, Dr. Langberg is giving those who of us who say we are Christ followers another opportunity to examine ourselves. We are not called to look at our performance or perfection. God is not concerned so much with our perfect church attendance or how many people we converted to our “little corner” of Christianity. God cares about how we treat one another, especially those who “are under our care.” All of us have power, whether it be a mother nursing her newborn baby, the pastor of a big or small church, or a leader of an entire nation. In all of these situations, others look up to those who are in a higher position to provide for them what they really need. Throughout history, humans have chosen to bless or curse those who are vulnerable to them by serving themselves or serving others. With power comes great responsibility, and none of us really understand this power until we are faced with the choice of how to use it. In Redeeming Power, Dr. Langberg gives many examples of how power has been abused, the systems that enable it, and the desperation of our hearts that deceives us into believing that we are not abusing but doing good by protecting the broken systems of this world. She calls us to follow the One who had every opportunity to abuse power, because He had all the power, yet He chose to use His power to save us. I highly recommend this book for every person who wants to truly follow in Christ’s steps.
Even though words are woefully inadequate to express the depth of damage from trauma, they must be spoken. To remain silent is to fail to honor the event and memory. By honoring the memory I mean speaking the truth about it, saying it really happened, saying it was really evil and saying that it really did damage.
I am sharing my story as a resource for others who have suffered in similar ways, or for those who want to provide support to others who have suffered in this way. I am not writing to bring further suffering to anyone else, therefore I will not name any names or give specific details. This post will focus on my perspective alone.
When I first came to the realization that I was a survivor of spiritual abuse, one of the first places I went to for support was the internet. At the time, there were not nearly as many resources as there are now. Thankfully movements like #MeToo, #silenceisnotspiritual, and #ChurchToo have brought an awareness to these issues, and I am so grateful.
I grew up in the deep south where attending church was just what most people did. However, my family was not consistent attending church. I have some memories of going to church and Sunday school as a little girl, but only for a short period of time. As a teenager, I carried a lot of guilt for not going, especially when a group of church kids in my ninth grade class labeled me a heathen for not going. For most of that school year, I listened to them chant the word heathen over and over again in the classrooms and halls.
I met my husband when I was nineteen. He had been attending and serving in church for most of his life. I began going regularly for the first time after meeting him.
While attending church did relieve a lot of cultural shame I felt, it did little to relieve the shame I carried inside of me. I did not understand at the time that I suffered from complex PTSD as a result of the environment I grew up in. Pete Walker has written an excellent book about complex trauma in his book Complex PTSD From Surviving to Thriving. If you have suffered as a result of childhood trauma, it is a great resource.
Trauma entered my life early right after I was born when I was given up for adoption by my biological parents. I was placed in the home of my adopted parents when I was three months old. Our home appeared safe and healthy to the social workers who approved my adoption, however in the years following I experienced sexual abuse, alcoholism, financial distress, manipulation, and emotional abandonment. Looking back on my life now, it is clear to me that I suffered greatly, but I was not aware of it. I had learned to rely on myself in order to survive.
When I began attending church, I really did think that eventually the sense of shame I carried around with me would get better. I became a Christian in my 20’s and was baptized twice. I even attended church multiple times during the week. There was not any issue that I did not believe that asking Jesus to help me with would not be overcome. When I was afraid, I thought it was the devil. When I was tempted, I believed it was my evil flesh. When I sinned, all I had to do was ask Jesus to forgive me. I shamed myself over and over again for not getting better. I truly believed it was because there was something wrong with me.
There was something very wrong, but it was not what I thought it was. I am currently enrolled in a trauma coaching program which has given me tremendous insight. I am learning what I experienced was actually normal for those who suffer from complex trauma. Many children who grow up in abusive homes have a deep sense of shame and carry these core beliefs about themselves:
I am bad.
I am to blame.
I am unlovable.
I am powerless.
Adults who have experienced early childhood trauma also have lasting changes to three areas of the brain; an enlarged amygdala, a smaller hippocampus, and decreased function of the prefrontal cortex when exposed to traumatic reminders. The amygdala is the part of our brains responsible for our fear responses. The hippocampus primary function is learning and memory. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our highest level learning and reasoning.
It has been an important part of my own healing work to understand how trauma has effected my brain. Understanding the neuroscience behind my behaviors, relieves me of much shame and enables me to practice self-compassion. It also helps me to understand why I have certain emotional reactions to trauma, so that I can respond in healthy rather than self-destructive ways.
After my adopted father passed away, I had dark and troubling memories and nightmares about him. I was confused and anxious, and went to my doctor who prescribed medication for my anxiety. The anxiety got better, but I still carried a lot of unresolved grief and unanswered questions concerning my childhood. I was not aware that I had been sexually abused by my adopted father. Several years later, we began attending a new church when family conflicts caused us to leave a church we had been a part of for a while. A religious leader from the new church visited us at our home soon after we began attending. We opened up to him about our previous church experiences. He listened patiently and offered caring words. We felt supported and continued to go to church there. I was still struggling with anxiety, self-condemnation, and troubling memories, and began emailing this leader for support. Since he was old enough to be my father, he quickly became a parental figure in my life. When I met with him the first time and opened up to him about my childhood abuse, he told me God was going to deliver me from it, and I believed him. Adults who have suffered as a result of childhood abuse from their parents often have a deep desire for relationships with others in their lives who will be a parental figure to them. It is not uncommon for a counselor to re-parent a client who has this need, with appropriate boundaries set in place. In my case, my need for a parent felt like desperation as suppressed memories of sexual abuse continued to resurface and traumatize me.
The more desperate people are, the more eager they will be for a champion to ride in on a white horse and make everything better. People in these circumstances are vulnerable to control and manipulation.
I still think that early on meeting with this leader started a process of healing for me. He was the first person I trusted enough to talk to about my childhood sexual abuse. I developed an attachment to him that may have even brought parts of my brain back online. I believed he cared about me, and it caused me to feel that I was someone worthy of being cared for. Since he was a leader in the church, his care also communicated to me that God cared. The lies I believed about myself began to loosen their grip on my mind. I felt more alive as a result.
Our greatest desire is to feel alive. Meaninglessness, depression, and many other symptoms are reflections of our disconnection from our core vitality. When we feel alive, we feel connected, and when we feel connected, we feel alive. Although it brings mental clarity, aliveness is not primarily a mental state; nor is it only sensory pleasure. It is a state of energetic flow and coherency in all systems of the body, brain, and mind. Human beings respond to shock and developmental/relational trauma by dissociating and disconnecting. The result is a dimming down of the life force that leaves a person, to varying degrees, exiled from life.
Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship by Laurence Heller Phd, Aline Psyd Lapierre
Had this previous church leader kept appropriate boundaries and not attempted to meet his own personal needs though me, things could have turned out differently. Sadly, this was not the case and what resulted was a spiritually abusive relationship that would continue for years. For almost a decade, my faith, feelings and family were caught in an unhealthy web of deception. It has taken years of therapy and education about trauma and abuse to untangle this tightly woven web. I made many choices during that time that I will always regret. Choices that brought irreversible damage to myself and to others. However, I want to be clear as well that even though I made bad choices, the abuse was never my fault. If you were abused in this way, I want you to know it was not your fault either.
One of the most important things I learned in therapy is the meaning of the word responsibility. Responsibility, my therapist told me, is the ability to respond. Part of my personal healing journey for the past six years has been learning how to respond in a better way to the effects of trauma in my life. It is always the responsibility of those who are in a leadership position to respond in such a way that brings healing to those placed under their care. If they do not know how to do this, then they do not need to be in a leadership position.
Abuse of power is a cancer in the body of Christ. How Christendom uses terminology regarding gender is sometimes an aspect of the disease. We need to let the light of a holy God expose us and our systems. A man named Jesus had nothing to do with these ways.
As I write this, I am currently on the book launch team for Dr. Langberg’s new book Redeeming Power, Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. This book is a highly valuable resource for every church. Dr. Langberg has played a huge role in my own healing journey by providing me with rich resources based on her experiences and expertise around childhood sexual abuse as well as abuse of power. I have learned through reading her books that what happened to me happens all too often in churches and other religious environments to children and vulnerable adults.
Dr. Langberg is right, Jesus has nothing to do with abuse of power. My faith took the biggest blow when I was spiritually abused. Untangling the lies from the truth has been a most overwhelming task. When abuse is intertwined with our faith, separating the two can feel impossible at times. The price of abuse in the church is just too high. With all the resources coming out now, churches have no excuse not to educate themselves. If a church is truly doing the work of the kingdom of God they will want to do everything they can to protect the innocent and the vulnerable, because this is where we always find Jesus. It is a church’s responsibility.
If you are an abuse survivor, I am so very sorry that you suffered this way. Please know that you are not alone and there are places you can receive help. I have listed several resources on this blog, and will continue to update them.
Another great resource that has helped me understand the impact of childhood trauma is the ACES study (Adverse Childhood Experiences). You can find out more information here.
“…the problem with reservoirs is that they take a very long time to fill but they can be drained by one hole in the dam. The actions of one person can destroy what took hundreds of people years to build.”
James Comey, A Higher Loyalty
Recently, I watched The Comey Rule on Showtime. I initially thought this miniseries was going to be centered around the presidency of Donald Trump. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was actually about the former FBI director James Comey, who was fired shortly after Donald Trump became president. The quotation above is one Mr. Comey spoke to a group of prosecutors who were beginning new careers. He wanted them to know how important their jobs were in keeping the confidence and trust of the American people in the values of the criminal justice system. Theirs would be a job built on years of work that others before them had been building. It was their responsibility to make choices that would continue to protect and not harm this reservoir of trust. No matter what you may or may not believe about James Comey, there are a lot of different opinions about him since Trump fired him from his position, what he said is still true. Trust takes much time to gain, but can be lost in only a moment.
While I do not have anything in common with James Comey, reading his biography has been a healing balm to my soul. His words resonate deeply with me, and I am sure with others who believed in any system that left them feeling hopeless when the reservoir drained.
When we lose faith in the systems we once believed were good, truth can become very elusive and so can hope. This can be true of any kind of system, whether it is the criminal justice system, a religious system, or even our family systems.
Lately, in a trauma coaching program I enrolled in, I have been studying about the effects of a dysfunctional family system on the individuals who are a part of it. Just as reservoirs of trust can be built and strengthened through generations, so can unhealthy systems of denial that place loyalty to the system above anything else. This was the kind of system that I grew up in. I felt a responsibility in it to keep it’s secrets safe. This pattern continued into adulthood and later resulted in me becoming a part of another dysfunctional system in a church.
The sober reality is that unstable systems continue until individuals in them are able to recognize the faulty system and find the courage to bring about their own individual change.
Making those individual changes is the work that I have been engaged in for the past several years through therapy and education. It has been a long and difficult journey, and one that I could not have survived without the support of safe people who were trustworthy.
Learning how to trust again can be a most difficult task after having been a part of a system that proved to be untrustworthy, especially if this system was your family or your church.
If you spend much time watching the news or scrolling through social media these days, it can seem almost impossible to find even a trustworthy source of information that isn’t skewed towards one political side or the other. This can be a re-traumatizing reminder that people are more loyal to a faulty system than they are to what is most important.
Finding trustworthy people is a process that begins by asking ourselves what is most important to us.
These are some of the questions that I have asked myself on my personal healing journey:
What did you really want from your parents that you never got? What did you long to hear from the abusive church leader who you initially believed was good? What did you hope to accomplish when you decided to join the church?
I think if we all could sit in a group together and talk we would discover that most of us want the same things; love, acceptance, validation, belonging, truth and safety are just a few things that come to my mind.
This is why James Comey’s book has meant so much to me. He refused to compromise the value system built by many faithful members before him for the sake of loyalty to a broken political system. He knew that any system not held together by the integrity of it’s members was sure to eventually fall and crush everyone who was a part of it.
I have discovered the journey of learning how to trust begins with learning how to trust myself again. I have been able to do this by honoring my own values inside of myself first through self-compassion.
People like James Comey have taught me that there are others who are committed to a value system higher than the broken ones we see. This gives me the courage to continue to believe that a better way is possible.
Jesus was another one Who believed a better way was possible, too. Despite the abuse I have seen in His name, I still believe that the truth will set us free and that love will be the force that will change the world. He is the only who promises a full reservoir that will never be drained.
I didn’t know what to expect and was a little nervous when I walked in a restaurant yesterday to meet with four strangers that I had met online. Recently, we all joined an online book launch team for Chuck Degroat’s latest book When Narcissism Comes to the Church. These four strangers began to feel like long time friends as I listened to them share their own painful stories of abuse suffered in a place where they had believed they would find hope.
Though each of our stories are different, we all have one thing in common, none of our lives will be the same after having experienced narcissism in the church. The fallout of our experiences has brought each of us tremendous loss. For some of us it has brought loss of jobs, fear of the unknown and fear of saying too much. Others of us have had to leave our homes and friends to start over in a new community.
To see what others do not see, is an isolating experience. Those unaware of the narcissistic patterns are on the outside looking in and only seeing the results of a magnetic personality that is able to get things done. Their abusive tendencies are often well hidden until someone goes against what he or she wants to do. As long as we are going along with their plans, we are an extension of themselves. We are made to feel needed and special. But once we go against them, we experience their wrath and the wrath of others who are still in their circles.
Another fallout from narcissism in the church, is many who have been effected by this leave the church and do not come back. There are too many reminders of the abusive cycles that we do not want to be a part of again. Others have continued to stay in the church and work diligently to bring awareness to the issue and attempt to bring change.
What I appreciate most about Chuck’s book is he offers the opportunity for the hope and healing from the system of narcissism that is in so many ministries today if there is a willingness to look at the problem, seek professional help, and be honest.
I am thankful to have met four strangers that I can now call friends. I am also thankful to know that I am not alone.
If you are in ministry, I cannot recommend Chuck’s book enough to you. If you are a survivor of narcissism in the church, this book will bring clarity, compassion, and healing.
Reviewed in the United States on March 18, 2020
“The title of this book may initially draw one’s attention and cause them to think it is another attack on the church. The title is fitting, because this is the reaction many of us have received when we have recognized this sickness in a religious environment and brought attention to it. This book is not intended to bring harm to the church, just as survivors of this type abuse do not intend to bring harm to the church when they expose it. They are sick of the secrets, the confusion and pain and long for the freedom Jesus promised when we know the truth. That’s what this book is about, too. When narcissism comes to the church and the truth is brought into light many times those in a position to make decisions on the church’s behalf are ill equipped to deal with the problem. As a result, the fallout of abuse exposures can even be more painful than the actual abuse. This book is a book of hope and healing for the church and other ministries. It is a book for survivors of narcissism and for those who struggle with narcissistic behavior. It is really a book for all of us. It is a book that helps us recognize the signs and safeguard ourselves and others from disaster. It is a book for true shepherds. It is also a book that brings the darkness to light in the church and in our own hearts. I take great comfort in Chuck’s words that God is not afraid of the darkness inside of us. Our willingness to invite Him into it promises healing and transformation. It is a book of tremendous hope. I can’t recommend this book highly enough!!”
I recently finished the book Snake Oil and the Art of Healing and Truth Telling by Becca Stevens. Since I moved to the Nashville area this past year, I have been hearing about Thistle Farms, but I knew little about it other than it was another well known nonprofit in the area. When a coworker mentioned Becca in a conversation about St. Augustine’s Chapel where Becca is a priest, I got curious and did what I do best and Googled her!Read More
The blinking cursor summons me. There are words that I long to put down, but they are in the depths of my heart, longing to get past all the fear of saying the wrong thing.
One is wise these days to be careful what they say. Words can be misunderstood. Words can be twisted and used as a weapon. Words can not be taken back. Words can also bring life to the reader. But most of all, words can unlock the secrets in the writer’s heart of what he or she really wants.
Once upon a time I wrote a letter to someone, and they heard what my heart said. They offered me acceptance, kindness, and the connection I was starving for. But like Hansel and Gretel, I didn’t know at the time I was in the presence of a hungry witch.
Is it any wonder that I write anonymously most of the time?
Today, as I write this I wonder if writing my words honestly will be an invitation for another hungry soul to see my weakness and take advantage. How does one protect their hearts from further harm?
Our souls long for connection. Given up for adoption at birth, I imagine that even as an infant I longed for the mother who felt she had no choice except to place me in a better home. I don’t blame her for giving me up. I know that she was doing the best that she knew how, but being separated from my biological family caused me to feel disconnected from an early age.
Like Hansel and Gretel, I stood outside looking inside at the witch’s table, smelling the sweet aroma of delightful desserts and sticky sweets that caused me to realize I was starving to death.
The wisdom of the story of Hansel and Gretel, is that when things seem too good to be true, they usually are. But when we are hungry, sometimes our brains go offline and our appetite takes over. Evil uses our desperation and weakness to set a trap for our hearts which are easily led astray.
As I write this, I can’t help but think about the witch. Was she a victim of her own hunger? Did she believe if she did not eat the innocent that she herself would die of starvation? Or was she just born evil? The question causes me to remember the choices I made when I was hungry.
God have mercy on all of our souls.
I think the most important thing I can ask myself as I write in an attempt to dig deep into the motivations of my heart, is what am I hungry for? And what am I feeding that hunger with?
I was hungry for such a long time and I didn’t even know it. The desires of our hearts can hide themselves so well. But our appetite is always there waiting for the smell of the witch’s baked goods.
I have learned to pay attention to the things that make me hungry and question if they seem too good to be true. Sometimes it takes a while to see if what is being offered is really rotten fruit.
I believe that there is a lot of rotten fruit being offered in our world today. Some of it is being disguised as hope. Jesus warned us that there would be strong delusions that if it were possible would deceive even the elect.
Once one has tasted rotten fruit, the taste never leaves. We cannot unsee what we have seen. Scorched ground does not burn as easily. Sometimes it feels very lonely being able to see things that others cannot see.
My heart still longs for understanding and connection. But I never want to taste rotten fruit again. I long for the fruit that nourishes and satisfies and produces good things.
Good things take time and patience to grow. Sometimes we have to smell the manure and trust that God will bring good out of out of evil’s rotten plan.
Sometimes we have to learn how to be hungry and let it remind us that there is nothing in this world that will satisfy us completely.
I have walked in and out of more churches these past six years than I ever believed I would. As I write this, I realize I might be searching for something that is impossible to find. The home my hungry heart longs for isn’t present fully in this world. We can only catch glimpses of it’s light through our broken souls here and there.
True Christianity is taking care of widows and orphans, those hungry souls just like me needing to be fed by those who do not expect anything in return.
True Christianity is taking care of one another and feeding each other’s souls with the truth that God has given us of how much he loves us.
I had a dream last night that I was consumed by the love of God. I was totally accepted, totally understood and totally loved. My heart had finally made it home. But then I woke up. And I am here in this world for another day. And I have a lot of choices to make about what I will do with my hunger today.
God, help us to truly love one another and feed one another so that evil will not take advantage of our hunger and cause us to feed off of one another.
Image from the movie Gretal and Hansel. https://m.imdb.com/title/tt9086228/
When I was a little girl, my earliest belief was that I was in the way of my family and what it was they were trying to accomplish. What did my parents want? Peace, stability, happiness. But they didn’t seem to be able to attain these things. And somehow I believed it was my fault.
When I was in the first grade, I remember sitting in our fancy living room, surrounded by my mother’s china and crystal dishes, flipping through the pages of a book on the coffee table about adoption. I was adopted when I was three months old. My parents loved to tell the story about how they brought me home and showed me off to their friends. I was a beautiful baby they said. I was what they had wanted for so long. But like the beautiful dishes on the tables in the living room, I felt like it was my job to stay out of the way in a room that was rarely used gathering dust until they wanted to use me.
I don’t know how I came to believe such a bleak story about my life. There were certainly good times. Christmas morning standing at the top of the stairs glancing down to see beneath the glittering Christmas tree, all the things I had asked for; Barbie car, Barbie house, Barbie dolls and Barbie clothes. I would spend the next few days fantasizing with Barbie. She lived in a nice house with a nice car. She was beautiful. She was loved. She was wanted. She made others happy. She was happy. Her plastic face always held a perfect smile with the perfect color lipstick that never smeared while I was having accidents and causing my mother to have to clean up the urine soaked furniture in my room.
I’m not sure when my father’s sexual abuse started. I wonder if it didn’t begin before my earliest memories of it, but I do know my first beliefs about myself were those that communicated that I was a big disappointment.
This past week I have been been reading Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Learning to Walk in the Dark. In one of the final chapters, she talks about how the meaning of the word belief has changed over the centuries. She says:
In the sixteenth century, “to believe” meant “to set the heart upon,” or “to give the heart to,” as in, “I believe in love.” But in the centuries following the Enlightenment, secular use of the words “belief” and “believe” began to change until they said less about the disposition of one’s heart than about the furniture in one’s mind.
The sixteenth century writers were right about belief. Beliefs take root in our heart and direct the choices that we make. Our beliefs determine our choices which can ultimately result in life or death.
For a long time my religious beliefs were the furniture in my mind that I was able to move around and put in just the right places to block the closet to my heart. This gave me a false sense that I was in control. I told myself that I was a new person in Christ and that my past did not matter anymore. But the more life and circumstances happened the more full the closet became and no matter how much I moved the furniture in my mind around I could not keep my heart from breaking through. It wasn’t long before my mind was flooded with bits and pieces of the past mixed in with a present that was out of my control. I was drowning in things I didn’t understand. Then a man entered into my life. He showed me how to find other spaces in my mind where I could put away the things that I didn’t have control over. He helped me clean up my cluttered mind and gave me a new belief system that made it’s way to my heart. For a time, I believed good things about myself and God. But then I realized it was all a lie. I was for this man the same thing I was to my father, something to be used. And it was spiritual abuse.
I do not want abuse to shape my beliefs anymore. But I need something more than beliefs that simply occupy space in my mind. I need beliefs that will uproot the lies in my heart and give me new ones about myself. The most influential men in my life used me. I need someone who is more influential than they are to change my beliefs. Lately, I’ve been catching glimpses of Him around me in the things I read, in the people I encounter, in the beauty of nature and even within my own heart that cares about others. Only a God who is named love can uproot the bad beliefs about myself and give me good ones. I am valuable to Him and so are you, no matter how badly someone else has treated you.
My prayer today:
God reveal your love and goodness to all humanity. Help us to see the promised hope of our Messiah this time of the year. Remind us that you came to bring good news of peace and joy to ALL mankind. Let your love uproot the lies about ourselves and replace them with the truth of who You created us to be. May your perfect love cast out all of our fears and give us the grace to love ourselves and one another.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
This morning I was writing a long time email friend about my ongoing struggle with attending church on Sunday. She stopped attending church years before. She has not stopped being the church, however. She has had a long and faithful walk with Jesus, and His love flows through the caring words that she writes to me. Even though we have never met, she encourages me on a regular basis. Our communication is true fellowship filled with weeping and rejoicing about our day to day lives. Even though we don’t meet together weekly, I believe that our relationship is church, and I am very grateful for her. Thank you, Nancy!
We talked about recently how our own upbringing and life experiences effect the way we view God, what we communicate about God and even the church we attend. As I have thought about it, I realize that trauma and abuse have caused me to view God, the church and other Christians through a different lens than I did before I was abused. My therapist once told me that what we see we do not unsee. How true it is that abuse brings about an awareness that others do not have. Abuse in the church has enabled me to recognize group thinking and what it leads to. For our family it led to minimizing the damage of abuse and feelings of abandonment from the people we thought would be in our lives long-term. It has helped me to recognize more easily unhealthy codependent patterns in relationships and narcissistic tendencies in church leadership. I am grateful for what we have learned. I believe it will protect us from getting caught in the same trap again. However, I also recognize that seeing these truths is a double edged sword that not only heals but harms, because it has also made it very difficult for our family to trust any church.
Daily my husband and I pray for wisdom and God’s direction on my commute to work in the morning. We honestly admit to one another and God that we don’t know what to do about our spiritual lives. We long to experience closeness and connection to God, but for us religious services can actually get in the way of this. Our long and painful history with the church casts a dark shadow over what many people view as a ray of hope.
I did not grow up regularly attending church. Our family attended a Methodist church on and off, but I remember very little about my experiences there. I saw glimpses of God in the books and movies that I read to escape an abusive childhood. I prayed for His help when I was lonely and afraid and overwhelmed. When I was nineteen God brought my husband into my life, and we started attending the conservative and reformed church he served as an elder in. After attending this church a few years, the congregation decided to get rid of a pastor we cared about over different political views. In the heat of the election year, true opinions came out, division happened and we left that church and to attend a traditional evangelical church in the community. My husband eventually became a deacon in this church and we started a small Sunday school group together. But after serving in this church a few years, a couple of members of my husband’s family got involved in some very messy scenarios involving this congregation. My husband being in leadership made things more difficult. He felt forced to make decisions concerning his family, and it became an even bigger mess. Once again we were uprooted from a church we had invested time and energy into. It was when we were exhausted, hurting and our wounds still fresh that we made the decision to leave that church and go to different church. And this was the church where our family was spiritually abused by the pastor for ten years.
When I think back about the church experiences that I have had since I started attending church, they cast a long dark shadow indeed. It’s no surprise that we struggle to feel a part of another church. We’ve tried so hard to start fresh, but even after five years it is still difficult.
A therapist I work with recently spoke about one of Dan Siegel’s methods of dealing with overwhelming emotions. He encourages people to use the SIFT method to understand the why behind our painful emotions in an effort to help us deal with them more effectively. SIFT: S, sensations; I, images; F, feelings; and T, thoughts.
Using Siegel’s SIFT method, it becomes clear to me that I am continuing to view church through a traumatic lens.
Sensation: Unable to relax. Tightened stomach. Tightened neck. Inability to focus.
Images: Previous similar experiences in church that resulted in being harmed.
Feelings: Fear. Shame. Guilt. Anger. Disconnected from God. Judged. Grief. Sadness. Remorse. Unloved. Unaccepted. Rejected.
Thoughts: This is not safe. You have messed up and are too messed up to ever be accepted by others or God. God is done with you. You can’t do anything right. Your life will never get better.
Sometimes I am able to see these thoughts for what they are and tell myself that they are not true, focus on something else and not be so negatively effected by them. But sometimes the thoughts get in like a virus and overwhelm my psychological system and the mental misery can last for days. I think most of us fight similar mental battles depending on our own past hurts, and we all have to learn what triggers us, when we are most susceptible to these triggers, and find effective ways to dealing when they do come, however most people do not experience them around church unless they have experienced a similar trauma.
The lack of understanding in the church over psychological suffering that comes from trauma in the church makes church even that much more difficult to attend at times. Even the most loving people in the church who have so patiently listened to my hurt, I think struggle to know how to really help. I think I fear as well that my struggles are just too much for them, because I certainly feel at times that they are too much for me. The reality is that most people are not equipped to deal with spiritual abuse in the church, and I don’t need to expect that they are. When I am not triggered by a negative experience, I see people in the church more clearly … People who are fighting their own difficult battles the best way they know how. The reality is no one person will ever be able to give us everything we need. No one church will ever be able to say all the right things. As my email friend has reminded me more than once, people are a mixed bag of good and bad. We are broken. We are beautiful. From our mouths can flow blessings of encouragement to one another and curses that can crush each other’s spirits. As Steve Brown has said about church, we are “porcupines huddled together in a storm. If you don’t want to get hurt, you need to leave.” With all this being said, it is clear to me that ultimately in order to learn how to deal with our own internal struggles, it is important that we understand ourselves well, what brings up negative emotions for us, when are we most susceptible to them, and what can we do to help us deal with them more effectively. What is it that we really need?
As I process all I have written here, it is clear to me that I need a good understanding of who God is and how much He loves, accepts and values me. I need to know He is with me even when He feels a million miles away. I need to that no matter how many times I haven’t listened to Him, He never gives up on me.
I have a mental image that occasionally comes to my mind of Jesus smiling at me. His eyes are full of empathy. He is pleased with me. He wants me to know it and live in that knowledge. He wants to take away the heavy chains of shame and guilt, sorrow, regret and remorse. He wants me to feel light as a feather free from all of it. He wants to carry me in His arms and take me to rest beside still waters where He rejoices over me with singing. This is the The Jesus who came to me when I was in my 20s and my anxiety was so bad I couldn’t sit still and told me He had seen my suffering throughout my life, and He had been there through it all praying for me. This is The Jesus who whispered to me after ten years of abuse to come out into the light and be set free. This is the Jesus who weeps over sheep who have been stripped bare by a wolf. This is The Jesus whom I love. This is The Jesus I worship when I see another beautiful sunrise or sunset. This is The Jesus I see in the deer walking peacefully across our property or the little silver fish flipping on their sides and shimmering like jewels in our flowing creek. This is The Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End. This is the Creator of all things Good. This is the One promising to bring restoration, healing, and peace to a world that sometimes feels as if it has gone mad. This is The same Jesus who hated the pain we are in so much that He got on a cross willingly to take it upon Himself to save us from ourselves. This is The Same Jesus loving those inside and outside the institutional church. He knows our forms. He remembers that we are dust.
Father, forgive them for they know not what they do…
My husband and I will keep looking for This Jesus not only inside our broken churches, but in our day to day lives. It all matters to Him. We matter to Him. This is the only lens that we can truly see Him through.
“I am what you are most afraid of: your deepest, most wounded, and naked self. I am what you do to what you could love. I am your deepest goodness and your deepest beauty, which you deny and disfigure. Your only badness consists in what you do to goodness—your own and anybody else’s. You run away from, and you even attack, the only thing that will really transform you. But there is nothing to hate or to attack. If you try, you will become a mirror image of the same. Embrace it all in me. I am yourself. I am all of creation. I am everybody and every thing.”