The Institutional Church Is Not God

Our wounds are where His light gets in and out.

Last night there was a post on Facebook reminding me that seven years ago I became friends with my therapist on social media. Words cannot express how grateful I am for the years of work we did together and the relationship of trust we built. I am not sure that I could have survived without her. Thank you, Sharon.

I also want to take this opportunity to say if you have experienced spiritual abuse, you deserve to find relief and experience healing. Going to a therapist does not mean you are weak. It means you are taking care of the valuable person that you are. It means that you want to live and thrive. It means that you are strong and brave. Good therapy is a gift from God, but sometimes that hasn’t been the message I have received from the church.

Many times I have walked away from a church service believing that if I just had enough faith I would not need therapy. It’s not that anyone says it directly. As a matter of fact, most people in church would probably tell me that going to therapy is a good thing to do. Rather, it’s a message I walk away from conversations, prayers and sermons feeling about myself. It’s a feeling that can cause a deep anger to rise up in me against religious things.

I have learned in therapy that the only way to get better is to honor my feelings, acknowledge them and express them in a healthy way. Writing for me is one of the most important tools I have for expression. I am one of those people who carry around emotions inside myself without even realizing it until my stomach starts to hurt and tell me something has to give.

A consistent painful emotion that continues to come out for me is one of anger and frustration towards religion. This time of the year especially brings it back up again. Five years ago during this time of the year, I couldn’t convince the church that abuse took place. The church leaders wanted that word to go away. They embraced half truths and false peace. They chose denial in an effort to protect the reputation of the church.

Even as the anger rises up in me towards my previous church leaders, so do other emotions; shame, guilt, and regret for the lies that I believed when I was being abused and the lies that I told to protect my own reputation. The words, Forgive them Father for they know not what they do resonate deeply inside of me. The shame and guilt begin to subside when I recognize just how broken and needy we all are; when I realize forgiving others is the only way to forgive myself. However, even after recognizing my own need for continual forgiveness, I still experience feelings of anger and frustration towards the institution of the church. Even as I write this, I hear a voice inside my head say that maybe I am angry with God. I have no doubt that hidden within my heart there are still so many emotions God has yet to bring to the surface, one of which is anger towards God. However, in this case I do not think that much of my anger towards the church has anything to do with a hidden anger towards God. I learned early in my healing journey from spiritual abuse that the only way to keep my faith in God was to separate the institutional church from Him. I have had to allow God to reveal Himself to me in other ways, because it has just been too painful to look for Him in the ways I did before in the institutional church.

Before I was spiritually abused, I was committed to the church. I was there almost every Sunday and Wednesday. When I wasn’t there, I was thinking about being there. I realize as I write this that in many ways the church was a home for me. And therein lies where the deep pain of betrayal is. The place I once believed was home let me down in ways I never believed it would. As an adopted child, I had always longed for a place I could belong. For a long time the church felt like that place. As I reflect back on those days, I realize that in my own desperation I made the church a lot more than what it was ever supposed to be. The church was never supposed to be home. The church was only supposed to be the place that reminded me of my real home in Him.

In some ways, the institutional church is like a movie about Jesus. Whenever I have watched a one, (even with Mel Gibson, as amazing as his portrayal was) it registers with me that no human actor will ever be able to portray the picture of who God really is. Our human understanding of Him will always fall short until we are fully transformed into His image.

We see things in a mirror dimly, but one day we will see him face to face. Nothing on earth reveals Him in all of His fullness, not a movie, not a pastor, and not the church.

Creation longs for redemption. Our hearts long for home. The best we humans can do is reveal Him through our flawed and fractured love for one another while we are here on earth. I think where a lot of my anger comes from is that the church sometimes communicates that it is the only way to God. At least that’s what I believed for a long time.

Sometimes when we believe this lie so much we turn to the church for help that they are not equipped to to give and sometimes are too proud to admit it. When this happens, tremendous damage is done. God created doctors and therapists to do His work. One should never look to the church to replace the work that God has gifted others to do. I’m not saying pastors can’t help, they do. But what I am saying is sometimes they are limited in what they can do. I believe every church should work with doctors and therapists and support their work as part of God’s redemptive plan.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the institutional church has all the answers. Don’t let a sermon make you feel like you don’t have enough faith in God because you are struggling with anxiety and depression. Don’t let another’s prayer make you feel guilty, because sometimes the only prayer you know how to pray is, help. Don’t let another’s facade that they have all the answers make you feel like there’s something wrong with you because you do not know what to do. Don’t think that just because you have been spiritually abused in church that it was God that brought you harm.

Broken humanity disguising itself as an angel of light truly does the destroyer’s work. However, humanity that knows and acknowledges that it is broken reveals the true light of Jesus through the cracks of our souls. Our wounds are where His light gets in and out. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. The Institutional church is not God. It’s a place where we can learn about God, worship God, but it was never intended to replace God.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9‭-‬10 ESV

The Power of Love

A few weeks ago, I started to read the book The Power of Attachment. The book by Diane Poole Heller talks about the different ways we connect to one another in relationships, and the importance that our early childhood plays in developing these attachments.

I was born in a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers. My biological mother was raised Catholic. Her parents sent her away to give birth to me. She only held me for a few moments before I was handed over to the State and placed in the home of a foster parent for three months. After three months, I was adopted by my parents. From my baby pictures, I appeared to be a well adjusted and happy child. However, my earliest memories as a child communicate to me that I struggled most of the time with feeling like I belonged. Up until I was in my twenties, I believed that there was something wrong with me. I thought that being adopted and not being a blood relative of my family was what caused me to feel out of place. But then I found both of my biological parents, and realized that I still felt disconnected.

Reading Diane’s book has helped me to see that my lack of connection is about more than being adopted. What it is about is being raised by parents who did not know how to connect with me in a healthy way. Parents who didn’t connect with their parents either. My adopted mother’s mom died when she was just a little girl. She had very few memories of her, and didn’t talk about her father much either. My adopted father’s mother lived until I was in my twenties. He spent a lot of time talking about how she favored his brother over him. His father died when he was a child. His earliest memories were of him shooting up morphine in front of him.

I spent my childhood believing that I was the reason that I couldn’t connect with my parents. Even though they provided for my physical needs, I felt responsible for my own emotional needs and insanely for theirs, too. Sexual abuse taught me that it was my responsibility to meet my father’s emotional needs. It was also up to me to keep this secret from my mother. I had to work really hard to do my part to keep everyone happy. I felt like I lived in a minefield waiting for the next explosion to go off. I thought if I watched my every step I could keep something else bad from happening. Even though it didn’t work, I never stopped trying to make it work. It was the only thing I knew to do to survive.

Diane Heller provides exercises in her book to help people like me who grew up not feeling attached to start a process of feeling more secure. One of the exercises says to imagine having parents who had relationships with others in their lives who met their emotional needs. She said to visualize what it would have been like if our mother had friends she went out with who brought her happiness. As I visualized this, it felt like the knots in my stomach began to relax. Momma did not need me to do everything right to be happy. She was happy all on her own. I wasn’t walking in a mine field where I had to focus on my every step. I could focus on just being myself. I could see clearly through this practice that the reason I felt disconnected as a child was because I never felt the freedom to just be myself.

Other exercises in the book encourage the reader to think about the people in our lives who they felt safe around and remember how these people made them feel. I experienced relief as I thought back to an older couple who were friends with my mom. I stayed with them for a week when my parents went out of town. Their house was in the country. I chased chickens around their back yard. I sat on the porch drinking lemonade and eating homemade goodies. I went to the store and got a brown paper sack full of candy. It felt safe to be myself.

God talks about us coming to Him as little children, but I have so few memories of times when I felt like I could be a little child. I don’t know how to be a child and this has greatly effected my ability to connect with God. I am realizing that I still spend a lot of life feeling like I am walking through a mine field. There has been so much loss in my life that I wonder if I will ever find the freedom to be myself again.

I confess I struggle with feeling angry and cynical about how my life has been. Am I destined to be forever disconnected from God because I do not even know how to come to Him as a little child? I confess it feels impossible to me and with the religious abuse I experienced no where at all feels safe. The only thing I know to do is to continue to be honest about the struggles that I have with God and with others who are safe. In church it has been very challenging to find these people. Too often I hear judgment in their comments or quick fixes that sound more about control than a relationship with God. I cannot continue to sit through conversations like this. I desperately long to connect with God. I want to believe that He is a Father who wants to bring me only good. But these days I’m struggling with this. Even though our relationship with God is based on faith and not by sight, I see how much relationships play a part in revealing the goodness of God to people. Jesus had relationships with people. He didn’t tell them to just believe and walk away. He risked and really cared even though He knew that they would abandon Him when He needed them the most. When I think about this part of the story and Who God is through Jesus, I realize He doesn’t need me to do anything to meet His needs. I can be the kid who chases chickens in the back yard. I can laugh and drink lemonade on the front porch. I can find the relief of just being myself. This is the Gospel. It really is good news. This is the hope that I hold onto even when I feel like I am walking through a mine field. Truly, it’s a miracle that I even believe in Him at all. But faith is a mystery and a gift that we are not responsible for acquiring on our own. I so need God’s help every moment to give me the strength to keep moving forward, but I also need other people who are willing to hang in there in a relationship with me. People who do not need me to meet their emotional needs and keep them happy. People who love me right where I am struggling with all of my doubts and cynicism. I pray that God would help me to be this kind of person to others, too. In a world where half the people do not feel securely attached in their relationships, I believe that this is what Jesus has called us to be to one another. If all we are doing is telling others what to believe and what to do without investing time in relationships, we are missing the life giving portion of the message. I’m tired of cold and empty religion. I’m tired of just surviving. I pray that God would help us to see how desperately we need love and connection to one another. It’s the only way the world can know that we belong to Him. It’s the only way to give each other real hope.

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

Fear

What am I really afraid of? Things not working out at all like I planned. That this new home, new community, and hope that I feel will get dashed away just like so many other good things I’ve had have been. That I’ll still wind up eventually alone and afraid again.

Last night I tossed and turned in fear. Life is changing. Things feel out of control. Like I’m in room with everything strewn out across the floor and not knowing where to put anything. All I can do is sit in the chaos. And I hate it. Once again we are moving. This time a little less than an hour away. Nothing like the move we made four years ago, but with plenty of things to remind us of it. We are moving at the same time of year. Boxes are piled up against the walls. The emails from the mortgage company wanting to know about everything we owe. It’s scary because I worry about if we are spending too much. If our neighbors will be good ones. If our jobs will continue to provide so that we can pay a new mortgage. So many unknowns. So many things that could go wrong.

Fear rises in my chest from a place deep inside. Its strange how I can think I’m doing so well one day, and then fear comes and knocks the breath right out of me when I start to feel like I don’t have control.

Lately, I’ve been reading about attachment disorders and developmental trauma. Being an adopted child, I have been reading to understand more about myself. One thing that has stood out to me in what I’ve read is how much fear children who do not have healthy attachments with their parents live in. Being adopted I can relate to this fear only too well. As I look back over my life, I realize fear has never really left me.

I remember hearing a preacher point out one time how many times God says in the Bible do not be afraid. I don’t know the exact number, but I know its a lot. God knows how desperately we all need to hear it. At the core of our being is the need to be safe.

When I think about what it might have been like as a baby to be born and taken away from my mother at birth I know it must have been terribly frightening. After three months in a foster home things would change again and I’d go to live with my adopted family. A family that was far from stable. Is it any wonder I am still afraid? Is it any wonder I want to feel in control?

Sometimes I’m able to remind myself that God is in control and not let fear take hold, but with so many things out of control right now and the stakes being higher for something to go wrong, I’m finding its a lot more difficult to trust. I want to trust God, I really do, but the fear won’t let go sometimes.

What am I really afraid of? Things not working out at all like I planned. That this new home, new community, and hope that I feel will get dashed away just like so many other good things I’ve had have been. That I’ll still wind up eventually alone and afraid again.

As I look back over my life there have been so many losses. So many times when I’ve believed that things would be ok, but they were not. So many people I thought would be in my life for a lot longer than what they were and now they are gone. Was it my fault? Am I destined to ruin everything good? Fear haunts me with these heavy questions.

I hear regularly at the residential treatment center where I work the importance of being honest with ourselves about our losses and allowing ourselves to acknowledge and feel their pain. Recently, I heard one of the residents weeping over the realization that she’d never have a mom and dad who would love her like God meant for her to be loved. It broke my heart for her. But it also broke my heart for me. Because I want the same thing she does. A place to be safe and belong.

Why is it so hard to love one another the way we should? Why has the love of so many grown cold? Why do we in our worst pain wind up hurting those closest to us? I wish I knew, but I don’t. But like this young girl who was forced to accept the reality that things had not worked out at all like she hoped, I too must accept that reality and keep moving forward to a future that is unknown, grieving the losses along the way. But also believing that there is hope up ahead.

This morning a Bible verse came into my mind after a night of tossing and turning in fear.

Lord , my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I don’t concern myself with matters too great or too awesome for me to grasp. Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk. Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the Lord — now and always.
Psalms 131:1‭-‬3 NLT

God meets us where we are. He never rejects us because of our fear. He reminds us that He is holding us close and that He will never leave. Even when fear is overwhelming us, our souls can rest in this truth.

for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
2 Timothy 1:7 ESV

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
1 John 4:18 ESV

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
Psalms 56:3 ESV

I sought the Lord , and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.
Psalms 34:4 ESV

fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Isaiah 41:10 ESV

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”
Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV