Something Real

I wholeheartedly agree that it’s better to be out of church than in the wrong one.

I just finished reading Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Ester. Before I purchased this book, I didn’t have any idea how beneficial and encouraging it would be to me as a survivor of spiritual abuse. I did not know how similar our stories would be. Though Elizabeth grew up in a very legalistic cult called The Assembly in California, and I experienced abuse from a mainline denomination that puts a lot of emphasis on grace and not legalism, the effects of spiritual abuse that I have had are much the same as those Elizabeth experienced coming out of a cult. Her story was a huge comfort to me, and if you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. There is also a Ted Talk Why I Left an Evangelical Cult given by her sister, Dawn Smith, that is very encouraging. I’m amazed by the resilience of these women, and hope that I can one day experience the freedom to share openly about my own spiritually abusive situation without feeling so much fear of rejection. Elizabeth and Dawn have let me know that it is possible to get to the other side of spiritual abuse and offer hope and healing to others. I believe that one day my day will come, but I also know that right now it’s ok to be where I am in the healing process, and blogging anonymously here. No matter where you are in the process of healing, please know it’s ok, too.

Elizabeth describes her struggles in the book with severe anxiety at church. Like us, her and her husband tried attending church not long after they both left the cult. After much mental anguish, Elizabeth was encouraged by her counselor to take a break from attending church to give herself time to heal.

We, too, have struggled so much the past three years with attending church. My husband and I have visited eight different churches since leaving our abusive church, three we stayed at for a significant period of time time, five we visited once and never went back. We stayed out of church for several months and always felt like something was missing from our lives. We’ve consistently listened to podcasts associated with Keylife Network, because of their consistent emphasis on God’s freedom, grace and love. They have been a lifeline to us. But we have continued to feel that there is something missing from our lives, and we have come to realize it’s less about church attendance and more about relationships with people who truly desire to know God.

After Elizabeth leaves The Assembly cult, and begins to attend a Catholic church without her husband, Matt, who also left The Assembly, he is frustrated and declares:

After everything we went through in The Assembly, why would you want to go to a church that regularly makes headlines with scandals by men in authority?… What else is drawing you there? Why are you always looking for something better?”

Elizabeth responds:

I’m not looking for something better, Matt. I just want something real.

Her words ressonate with me in a powerful way. Ever since we left our abusive church three years ago, I’ve been looking for something that has taken us through the doors of one church after another only to come out disillusioned and empty handed. I have been looking for something real and for whatever reason have not been able to find it. Maybe because it hasn’t been there. Or maybe because I’ve been too afraid to find it.

Recently, I had coffee with a friend who shared with me about her own frustrations with the church. She’s worn out with the narcissistic leadership, codependency, and rules based religion taught in the church. She longs for something real, too, but based on our conversation that night she’s given up on finding it inside a church building. She is not alone in her conclusion. Others who have been through similar experiences are leaving the church as well. I would be the last one to tell them they are doing something wrong. My mother-in-law, after being married to an abusive man for over 20 years, came to the conclusion and said it to us regularly, “It’s better to be alone than to be married to some people!”

I wholeheartedly agree that it’s better to be out of church than in the wrong one.

The question is, is there a real one?

Honestly, I’ve almost come to the same conclusion my friend has many times in saying that true fellowship is not found in traditional church. However, when I look back to times spent with good friends who were a part of the church, I realize that this statement is not true of my experiences. I still miss the genuine relationships I had with others in our previous church. Once I began to break away from the suffocating relationship with the abusive pastor, I began to find room in my life and heart for other people. Even though I didn’t find the words to tell them the truth until I exposed the pastor’s abuse, I had very much wanted to tell these few people the truth. And I still miss them very much.

In writing this blog, I have found fellowship and understanding from others who have not judged me. You have been a safe place. You have been my church. Many of you have similar stories. Many of you long for the same thing I do. I so appreciate your support. But I’m still looking for something real in the church.

If you’ve followed much of my blog, you have walked through the doors of these churches with me. You have experienced the hope I have felt as well as the disappointment and disillusionment with the church. I think I have said to myself after every church that this is the last one. I won’t go down this path again and be disappointed yet again.

And here we are into our fifth week at our ninth church in three years. Maybe some of you are thinking we are a living example of the word insanity. Maybe we are crazy. Or maybe we are crazy like a fox as Steve Brown likes to say. No matter what conclusion you come to, this is our story – we have not given up hope.

Recently, I had coffee with a female deacon from our latest church. After the damage I’ve experienced from abusive men, it’s refreshing to talk to a female leader in the church. She listened to my story and shared her own painful one. Ironically, her and her family left the same denomination we did. This past Sunday we learned that the pastor of the same church grew up in The Assembly cult. I was blown away because I’d never even heard of the cult until I watched Dawn’s Ted Talk the day before.

I wonder what God is doing?

Maybe this church is different.

Maybe it’s something real.

“Ask and keep on asking and it will be given to you; seek and keep on seeking and you will find; knock and keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who keeps on asking receives, and he who keeps on seeking finds, and to him who keeps on knocking, it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will [instead] give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will [instead] give him a snake? If you then, evil (sinful by nature) as you are, know how to give good and advantageous gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven [perfect as He is] give what is good and advantageous to those who keep on asking Him.
MATTHEW 7:7‭-‬11 AMP

Don’t give up hope. God knows what we need!

Speaking the Truth 

Speak what you feel, not what you ought to say.

​And pain holds the possibility of returning us back to that ground. When tragedy affects us, there is no more room for pretense. When health is stolen from us, our false selves relax their controlling grip. All of a sudden we’re thrown into a raw, unfiltered space. We’re thrust into the boxing ring , and it feels like God is our greatest enemy. In these times, the fluff has to go. Throw out the self-help book. Refuse the Kleenex meant to clean you up quickly. Avert your eyes when the super-spiritual comforter comes with her encouraging Bible verse. Let your entire being descend into its earthy, rugged ground. “Speak what you feel, not what you ought to say.” 

Chuck DegroatFalling into Goodness 

“Speak what you feel, not what you ought to say.”  

The words sliced into my heart this morning with the precision of a Good and Perfect Physician’s cut. 

How much energy have I spent throughout my life determining what I ought to say to keep others happy and even God happy ?

In the absence of speaking what I really want to say, I have spoken what others need or expect me to say rather than what I need to say, and I have lost myself. 

As a Christian this behavior  seems so sacrificial, so spiritual, well meaning, and kind. It’s been easy to determine this the way God intended for us to live when others who are uncomfortable with our honesty shut down our words with scripture verses.  

And as a Christian, sometimes saying what keeps others happy can even feel like love. 

But it isn’t love; it’s codependency. It isn’t kindness or sacrifice. It’s a rope around the neck of our souls choking the life out of us. If our kindness comes from a place of insincerity it doesn’t do anyone any good, especially ourselves. 

Jesus said He desired mercy, not sacrifice, and worship that comes from an honest heart. A broken prostitute washing Jesus’ feet with her hair is the example He gives of true worship from a heart that received great mercy. 

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.

Luke 7:47 ESV

But there is great mercy for the codependent,too, when we are able to receive it and live it out. I’ve received it in spurts with overwhelming gratitude, allowing it to flow out to others with true mercy at times, but then only to return to my deeply ingrained habits that give me a false sense of control. True mercy gets choked out and sacrifice from my false self trying to keep everyone happy returns.   

Jesus has lived this struggle with me. He’s felt the pain as my stomach has churned with acid and twisted in knots for fear of how someone was going to react to what I said or did. 

He sees the little girl hiding in her room binging on horror movies, wanting to be brave like the characters on the screen facing their fears, but never finding the ability to do anything other than escape her pain momentarily. 

And He prays for me to be set free. 

What a loving and patient Heavenly Father we have. He knows all about our struggles, and we can trust Him to be with us even when we are falling back into our codependent patterns. 

But He’s also in a process of changing us, making us more like Him, setting us more and more free from the lie that tells us it’s not OK to say what our heart needs to speak. 

And here’s what mine needs to say: I’m tired, really tired of keeping others happy. I’m tired of allowing their behavior to control how good or bad my day will be. I’m tired of oppressive, unhappy people placing the responsibility of their happiness on me. If my best isn’t good enough then they can go and suck their thumb in another room! 

I’m also tired of thinking I need to do and say everything right for God to be pleased.It’s a lie from the pit of Hell and it smells like smoke, as Steve Brown likes to say. It’s a lie that keeps me from receiving true mercy and sharing it with others. 

May the truth of His mercy saturate and take root in my codependent heart and give me the courage to speak the truth! If you are struggling with codependency, I pray as you read this you’d have the courage to do the same. 

“Speak what you feel, not what you ought to say.”

Remember, blessed are the broken. On the wilderness journey of life, there is no path around, under, or over –only through. Don’t waste your time trying to figure it all out. Go through it, with boxing gloves on, honest as you can. Maybe, in the end, you’ll be able to surrender with Job. Maybe in the wordless ground of your being, connected again to your creation-dust, you’ll be able to say with Job I’m convinced: 

You can do anything and everything. Nothing and no one can upset your plans. Job 42: 1

 Prayer: 

God, I’d like to enter into a more honest place with you. In the midst of a world that sanitizes suffering, I want to be a person who has nothing to hide between us. Give me the courage to trust you with my whole heart and story. Amen. 

Chuck DegroatFalling into Goodness 

Trapped 

But God has me trapped, too, because I know without Him I have no hope at all.

​Powerlessness, the inability to redirect the family heartache, stop the physical touch of the abuser, or silence the hollow screams inside the heart, is a reality that is endemic to all human-kind, but is faced by few. We are all helpless, but only those who have been radically deprived of the inherent freedom to choose and the legitimate desire to redirect that which is wrong will know how truly powerless we are in every endeavor that matters the most to us. Powerlessness is no gift, but the consequences of facing our helplessness, as victims of abuse and even more as sojourners in a world that is not our own, can open the door to new vistas of power and a radical taste of what it means to be free.

Dan Allender The Wounded Heart 

Last week I experienced the suffocating pain of being trapped. The heaviness of another’s expectations felt like a load of rocks on my back. I put myself under enough pressure, so when another person puts pressure on, it feels like too much for me to bear. 

The worst part of this pressure is feeling like I have no power to change it, like it is somehow my fault. Temporary relief comes in getting away from it and driving through the window of a fast food restaurant stuffing my face with salty fries. At least I can make the choice to bring myself pleasure through food, but afterwards my stomach says this was a mistake! 

To feel weak brings great shame. When I lose my cool with another person because of the pressure that they are applying and then they tell me that I’m wrong to get upset, I feel like it’s all my fault. I feel powerless to change the other person. I feel powerless to change me. I feel trapped in a small cell of circumstances beyond my control. 

I felt like this when I was a little girl and he asked me to come in his room to sleep under the electric blanket to stay warm. I felt powerless to say no. I feared what would happen if I did. So I chose to go with him and keep him happy, because he was my father and I didn’t have a choice.  When the abuse happened, I determined it must be my fault, because I’d made the choice to sleep in the bed with him.  I felt ashamed. 

He told me the consequences of telling the truth would bring us both great harm. I felt the pressure of living a lie every single day. I felt ashamed and he was the only one who brought me relief. I was weak and vulnerable when I asked him for help. He was the pastor and should have known better, but still he chose to cross the line first. And I chose to follow him into the ditch . Once again I felt the shame of making the wrong choice. Once again I felt weak, powerless, and trapped. But this time I was an adult who could get out, yet felt powerless to until ten years in and suffocating under the pressure I could do it no more and finally spoke the truth. 

Last week I had a few things to say to God on my way to work. Why was He allowing this pressure to come on me again? Why was I so uncertain, ashamed and blaming myself still for other people’s choices? Why do I still struggle to know that I am His child? Why am I not able to hear from Him? Why is it so very hard?  Haven’t I been through enough? Still I get silence, and it made me angry and thoughts of just throwing in the towel on my beliefs briefly flashed through my mind. 

But God has me trapped, too, because I know without Him I have no hope at all. 

Finally, the prayers for wisdom are getting answered as I’ve ranted to my counselor, friends and my husband. In their kindness to just listen I’ve heard the words coming out of my own mouth and realized my frustrations go way past my current circumstances. They go all the way back to a little girl who still feels trapped. 

God, why didn’t you rescue me? Why wasn’t there another way to save us other than allowing evil to roam the earth and do so much damage? Why am I unable to change without feeling so much pressure? Why can’t there be an easier way?  Why must we count it all joy?  

Looking in the distance to the hills that He created, I recognize these questions are too big for me to answer. But it still makes me angry, because feeling trapped seems like the most unfair place to be. Gripping the steering wheel my silent scream is heard by only Him. 

And I realize that’s just what He wanted to hear. My anger is not rejected. He loves me just the same. He reassures me that I am His child. I can use my voice and choose what’s best for me and my family in these circumstances and He will be with me when I do. I am not powerless over my choices anymore. 

I am free. 

for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

2 Timothy 1:7 ESV