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