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 reformed 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.”