God and Trauma

Experiencing God did not take away my pain, nor did it prevent that pain from leading me down more harmful paths.

The word God has become empty of meaning through thousands of years of misuse.

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment Eckhart Tolle.

I started reading Tolle’s book a couple of days ago. I haven’t made it very far. Reading it has caused me to stop and reflect on my spiritual experiences in ways I never have before.

The word God, Tolle says, has been misused for thousands of years and has lost it’s original meaning.

What comes to your mind when you think about God?

It is a simple but profound question I found myself asking reading Tolle’s book this morning.

When I ask myself this question, I realize that even the word God brings up memories of things that I would rather forget.

This realization brings up a lot of feelings for me. Sadness, grief, despair, loss. Shame, guilt, fear, and overwhelming emptiness. These emotions manifest themselves starting in my throat and spreading down into my chest.

The path of healing for trauma survivors is acknowledging the pain of our losses and giving ourselves the time we need to grieve. I acknowledge that one of the biggest losses I have experienced is the relationship I once had with God.

I used to think that this loss was about no longer being able to attend church due to overwhelming triggers. But reading Tolle’s book caused me to understand that my losses go much deeper than that.

Tolle describes the moment he experienced a spiritual awakening that came after tremendous internal suffering when he realized there were two identities inside himself. A false self that he describes as: unhappy and deeply fearful self, which is ultimately a fiction of the mind. And his true self that he describes as: my true nature as the ever-present I am: consciousness in its pure state prior to identification with form.

While I would not describe my own spiritual awakening with the same words as Tolle, our experiences were much the same. I, too, in a moment of intense mental suffering became aware of the divisions inside of myself that kept my soul in chaos.

After my abusive father passed away a few months prior to my experience, I was bombarded with a mixture of overwhelming emotions. I recognize now these emotions were there because my body was holding onto trauma that needed to be released; years of suppressed memories that my mind, in order to protect me, caused me to forget.

Peace came when I realized there were many voices inside of my head motivated by fear and shame. Voices that I understand now became a part of my identity as a result of ongoing childhood abuse.  Voices that I believed were just a part of me. My own spiritual awakening brought relief and release when I finally realized the cacophony of voices inside my head were not telling me the truth about myself.

I experienced God for the first time after months of intense suffering when He awakened my mind to the truth of who I was through the words of a Twila Paris song.

And there are many wondrous voices,
Day and night they fill the air,
But there is one so small and quiet,
I would know it anywhere…

Where He Leads Me Twila Paris

Hearing these words caused something to awaken inside my mind; an awareness that the shame-filled voices were not who I really was. On this day, I believed that God spoke in a peaceful quiet voice telling me that I had never been alone. This voice motivated me to read my Bible. Up until this time, I’d only felt shame reading it. I tended to gravitate towards the ones that only communicated how I had mistreated God’s temple. Deep down I believed there was something evil about me that had caused all the bad things in my life to happen. However, after listening to this song I read verses that communicated something else. And these verses flooded my soul with an unseen hope I had never known before.

For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8:24‭-‬27 NKJV

I read and reread these verses that day. For the first time I truly understood that God was not angry with me. Memories of my childhood began to flash before my mind. I no longer felt shame about who I was. Rather, I felt tremendous sadness over how I had been abused. I felt the deep sense that God had seen how I had been mistreated, and He grieved with and for me.

I experienced God for the first time when I was in my 20’s when some of the most confusing memories brought tremendous suffering. More suffering would come after this.

Experiencing God did not take away my pain, nor did it prevent that pain from leading me down more harmful paths.

But what this experience did, and what it continues to do is reveal to me a loving Creator who holds our pain and never leaves us alone.

I recognize as I read back over what I started to write a few weeks ago that I have let other hurting humans define for way too long who I am and who God is.

One only needs to Google God or church to see how many different opinions there are about God.

One only needs to walk through the doors of a church, and ask a pastor to help them understand God, and be given an answer that totally causes them to doubt everything they ever knew to be true.

One only needs to be abused by a spiritual leader to forget who the real God is.

I can testify that despite whatever paths our pain or others abuse take us down, God never forgets who we are to Him.

I can also testify that one comes the closest to experiencing the true God when we experience our true selves.

One of the things I appreciate the most in the trauma coaching program that I am enrolled in is that a coaching relationship is a peer relationship, and sessions are client led. We are taught that every person has what they need inside themselves to heal. A coaches job is to help a client discover for themselves who they really are. As a spiritual abuse survivor, this has had a huge impact on me.

I realize one must never allow another person to define who they are or who God is for them.

We must discover this for ourselves.

If you are interested in learning more, this is a very helpful article by Robyn Brickel, MA LMFT about how trauma impacts the way we view ourselves:

Why it’s Important to Identify as a Trauma Survivor

Pete Walker’s website is another helpful resource in understanding how complex childhood trauma impacts our lives.

Healing After Spiritual Trauma

Healing takes time.  Healing looks different for all of us. Some of us may heal and return to church. Some of us might not.

In my previous post, I referred to the definition Bessel Van Der Kolk gave for trauma.  

When your reality is not seen or known, that is the trauma.

I am learning in a trauma coaching program I have been taking recently that one of the most important parts of our healing journey from trauma is having people in our lives who will sit with us in our pain. 

Several years ago, I was suffering pain and confusion around a previous spiritual leader’s abuse.  I went to another spiritual leader for help.  This leader thankfully told me that I needed the kind of help he was not able to provide.  He strongly encouraged me to receive counseling from a mental health professional.  This was the best guidance he could have given me.  As a result, I began counseling over the phone with someone who finally was able to understand what had been happening to me and help me to see that it was abusive. However, outside of my relationship with my counselor and my husband, I found few other people who were able to understand what I experienced. 

My counselor told me early on that what we see we do not unsee

However, the process of being able to see the truth about trauma is sometimes multi-layered.  After a decade of spiritual abuse, the layers of my own blindness came off very slowly. Some pealed back when another member of my family was sexually abused, and the spiritual leader minimized it rather than reported it.  Other layers did not begin to loosen until he was no longer my leader.  Only when I was no longer in a relationship with him was I able to fully see the damage that the abusive relationship caused. 

I realize now that it was unrealistic on my part to expect others to understand his abuse, especially those who had been under his leadership. 

Who wants to believe the person who taught them about God was capable of abuse?

Still the responses I received from my religious community in some ways were more damaging than the abuse itself.

God is sovereign.

What I heard was that God ordained the abuse, so that I could be used to accomplish His will.

We forgive you.

What I heard was that I wasn’t abused. I was just a sinner in need of forgiveness.

We just need to forgive him.

What I heard was that I needed to ignore what I had experienced and move on.

When I left this environment and went to other religious communities over the span of several years, the pain of these words never went away. I was reminded of over and over again in other churches when I heard the same phrases being spoken. As a result, I drifted in and out of multiple churches, only becoming more frustrated.

I want to be careful to say that anger plays an important part in the healing process of trauma.  My anger has helped me to understand that I am the way that I am because of something bad that happened to me.  It is crucial to my emotional well being to be able to feel this emotion, not so that I can remain stuck in being a victim(as I’ve heard others in the church say about trauma survivors), but so that I can see the harm that was done to me and offer myself compassion. 

After having stepped away from religious environments for a while, I am starting to see things (more layers) about why it is so difficult for me to be in church.  Sometimes we need to remove ourselves completely to see things more clearly.

Over the past few years, I have heard many wonderful messages in church that reminded me of the love of God.  I have met many caring and good people. A few of these people have helped me to heal by listening and loving me even when they may not have understood what was happening to me.  Even if people do not understand the traumas we experience, they can still see and know and accept us where we are and bring much healing. I learned recently this process is called co-regulation. However, I have also come to realize that the person we need understanding from the most is our own selves.  Until we are able to forgive ourselves for the ways we survived the traumatic events in our lives it is difficult to move forward. We are able to learn through trauma informed care to give ourselves what we long to receive from others. This process is called self-regulation. 

With all that is going on in our world currently, I believe it is more important now than ever that churches seek to be trauma informed and work alongside mental health in bringing healing to the minds, bodies and souls of those who are suffering in this way.  Sadly, I have walked away from church feeling worse about myself, because I believed that I didn’t have enough faith to apply the message that I heard and just trust God with whatever it was I was going through. 

What happens to the soul of a person when we go to church and hear scripture and songs that retrigger us and send our minds reeling back to our painful past? What happens to our faith in God when we are told we will never be forgiven by God, because we can’t just forgive our perpetrator, make amends and move on?  What happens when major parts of the  healing process are skipped over, because everything is over spiritualized?

Did God not ask that we love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength? How can we do this if we have not experienced real healing in all of these areas of of our lives?

Yesterday, I read a post a good friend sent me from a pastor who is trauma informed. His words brought comfort and relief. 

I believe it will be invaluable for the Church of Christ to understand these truths in the months and years ahead. Both the scientific truth of the effects of trauma, but also the truth of Messiah’s redeeming spiritual power, in order to effectively minister to these wounded souls.

I confess that I still struggle with “just believing” that God will bring beauty out of our ashes and that He will work everything out for our good.  Part of the reason for this is my brain is still reminded of how many times I heard this in a church where I was abused. If you struggle in this way, I want you to know that it is OK.  You are not alone.

Healing takes time.  Healing looks different for all of us. Some of us may heal and return to church. Some of us might not.

Through my own experiences, I have come to understand that God sees and knows what we have been through. He knows our suffering better than anyone else, because He has suffered in all the ways that we have. He meets us where we are. He will not abandons us. He believes in us even when our traumatized brains make it difficult to believe in anything again. He is our Perfect Heavenly Father who is able to see past our pain and see His child whom He dearly loves.

His compassion and love for us never fails…

A Stone of Hope

When your reality is not seen or known, that is the trauma. Bessel Van Der Kolk

I recently watched the Netflix Documentary Cracked Up: The Darrell Hammond Story. Darrell starred in Saturday Night Live for 14 seasons. Darrell is probably best known for his hilarious imitation of Bill Clinton. However, while others enjoyed the gift of laughter he gave them, Darrell suffered as an alcoholic who cut himself in an effort to cope with the pain of his childhood trauma.

Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, author of When the Body Keeps the Score, shares his definition of trauma in the show.

When your reality is not seen and known, that is the trauma.

Even though others may not know about the traumas we have suffered in our lives, our bodies never forget. These memories are stored away, sometimes in strange places. They can also resurface at times we least expect them to. Sometimes they return at a time when we feel strong enough to deal with them. Other times they come back when other traumatic events occur.

As a little girl, I don’t remember a lot of details about my childhood. What stands out the most to me, is being inside my head a lot. Escaping in my imagination was one of the few things that I was able to control. In my preteen years, I started writing fiction stories. I will never forget the day I made the decision to start writing. I decided if I could not change my circumstances that I would write myself out of them. I hid these stories under my bed, because they revealed my true self that I was too ashamed for others to see.

Even as an adult, I still struggle to write publicly. The shaming voices from my childhood remind me it is not safe. I am learning that these voices are a result of changes in my brain that happened because of childhood trauma. As an adult with this knowledge, I am able to give myself self-compassion and keep writing, because I know that writing is a part of my own healing journey.

I am currently enrolled in a trauma coaching program through the IAOTRC. I am learning in this course that is common for trauma survivors to believe self-condemning lies about themselves. Darrell Hammond writes about his own experiences with these kinds of beliefs in his book, God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked: Tales of Stand-Up, Saturday Night Live, and Other Mind-Altering Mayhem.

…your brain starts searching for a way to explain it. Most of the time, your brain says, “It’s because of you. That’s why your mother hit you, cut you, slammed your hands in the door. ” You think you’re shit, you think you’re worthless, you think you’re unlovable, you think you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Life is always bad. Your brain has tried to simplify a perfect storm because it’s so confusing.

When the reality of our suffering is not seen or known, the lies we believe about ourselves can become the loudest voices inside our heads. Imagine occupying a house with someone who condemns you all the time. Most of us would be desperate to get away from this person as soon as possible. But when the voice is our own, escape can feel impossible, and we do whatever we can to survive.

Desperation can open us up to even more trauma. Abuse, addiction and self-harm often enter our lives when we are seeking to relieve the pain of our past traumas. But desperation can also open us up to hope when we experience relief through self-compassion and safe relationships.

Bessel Van der Kolk says in Cracked Up:

Trauma is usually about a victim trying to make amends for the perpetrator. The most important thing is forgiveness of yourself for having been as vulnerable, as scared, as angry, as frozen as you were. And forgiving yourself all the ways you have tried to survive. So just take care of that. Just learn to forgive yourself for all the things you have done in order to survive. That’s a big job.”

Darrell went to 23 mental health professionals before he finally found someone who recognized his suffering was a result of childhood trauma. Relief for him finally began to come when he heard a doctor say, You’re a trauma patient. What brought you to this ER again was something that happened to you.

I experienced relief in the first phone conversation I had with my therapist when she helped me to see that I was being abused. I began to understand that day my own attempts to survive childhood trauma had caused me to be vulnerable to an abusive relationship with a spiritual leader.

Forgiving myself for what I did to survive is a continual process. Being seen and known by my therapist enabled me to start it. I believe the work being done in trauma recovery is what our world desperately needs right now.

Darrell’s story is bringing an awareness to how trauma impacts our lives. It is enabling trauma survivors like myself to be seen and heard, and I cannot recommend his book and the documentary highly enough.

If trauma has impacted your life, here are some educational resources that will help you in the recovery process. There is hope and healing. You are not alone.

We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope, as MLK said. Darrell Hammond

https://www.crackedupmovie.com/resource-center

https://www.ted.com/talks/michelle_esrick_through_the_mud_we_rise_jan_2019/up-next

http://www.pete-walker.com/

https://certifiedtraumarecoverycoaching.com/directory-of-coaches

A Full Reservoir

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.

“…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.

Beliefs

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.

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.

A Different Lens

Our long and painful history with the church casts a dark shadow over what many people view as a ray of hope.

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.”

The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe by Richard Rohr