Day 1 (March 18): Your story & language/culture of spiritual abuse, hosted at Wine & Marble.
What is your story? Share your experience — showing the details without going into specifics about places or people involved. What made the environment spiritually abusive? Was it language, unspoken social codes, beliefs, assumptions, expectations? How did these factors enable the abuse? How did you eventually leave, and why?
This is a significantly revised version of an earlier post. For more details on the revision, please see this post.
In her blog post for this synchroblog, Caris Adel ends by saying, “I don’t know if my story qualifies as spiritual abuse. But I do know it doesn’t qualify as safe.” I’m in a similar place. I wrestled with sharing these things at all, let alone categorizing it as spiritually abusive. But I hope and pray that sharing the story I do have will be of help even if it doesn’t exactly fit.
I am clinically depressed, which (among other things) means I pretty much always hear the worst possible interpretation of what people say to me. My inner voice is forever twisting and transforming the actual words. And sometimes that inner voice gets it right – sometimes my pessimistic interpretation turns out to be reality. But not always.
I was in church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and any other time the doors were open (as well as sometimes when the doors weren’t open because both of my parents had keys). There were people there who loved me dearly and those whom I loved. And yet it didn’t feel safe to me as a teenager.
Being a teenager is weird anyhow. There are hormones making you say crazy stuff and do truly bizarre things that you think make sense, pimples and hair everywhere all of a sudden, new freedom but not nearly enough as far as you’re concerned, having to decide what you want to do when you grow up, and then school keeps interfering with your social life.
Add depression into the mix (as it turns out) and you get me.
We had three, maybe four different youth pastors (who can remember anymore?), all of whom reiterated many, many times that they’d be around until we graduated high school. Being the sort of person who takes responsibility for things that are not my fault, I figured I had done something wrong when each of them left: every single one without warning. Things were said and done over those years that pierced me to the core. Things were not said and not done in that time that cut me to the quick.
And I looked back over all that had happened and started to wonder, and to sink deeper and deeper into the muck and mire that surrounds toxic faith.
Was I too young to hear God’s voice? When would I be old enough to understand God?
Would that pastor have stayed if I had invited more friends?
What if I had prayed more, or had more faith?
What if I had gone to Russia on that missions trip?
Was God punishing me for knowing all the words to the new Weezer album but not to the new Michael W. Smith one?
Why was I so sad when nothing was wrong?
If I wasn’t “bearing fruit” by converting people to Christianity, was my faith worthless?
Was I really a Christian, or did I need to recommit my life again this year at youth camp?
What would all these people think of me if they knew what I was really like on the inside?
Why can’t I stop being anxious and afraid?
If I would have read my Bible late at night instead of staying up to read Fight Club, would I be better able to communicate the love of Christ to my friends?
Did Jesus ever wonder why he had been willing to die for my sin, which was way worse than so many other people’s but not as bad as some?
Why does prayer seem to be often the nice version of a gossip circle?
Did I actually believe all of this?
Why doesn’t my faith line up with some of the things that I’m being told in church?
Was I a heretic for finding Christ in the story of The Matrix?
Was I only ever going to have enough spiritual insight to teach it to adults as well as children?
Why can’t I say any of these things aloud?
Why doesn’t anyone else have questions about what they believe?
When will I have all of this figured out?
Going to church made me feel bad about myself, because of the guilt and shame about my internal mess, disappointing God, and disappointing all these people who loved me. But not going to church made me feel bad about myself too, because not being there would contribute to my mess and would disappoint God and disappoint all these people who loved me. Toxic faith created a lose-lose situation for me.
So where did I go? I found a community of people who could be trusted to tell me the truth about myself, not because God had told them to, but just because they cared about me; who believed me and believed in me; who loved me as I was. And they weren’t Christians. They were Wiccans, atheists, Satanists, and agnostics. I had more honest conversations about life and faith with them than I ever did with anyone in the church. They didn’t have answers and didn’t try to do anything except meet me where I was. No one mocked my questions. They encouraged me to read the Bible more: some even told me to look into commentaries by theologians and philosophers. Unsaved people showed me what salvation looks like. These unlikely priests and priestesses nurtured me when all I had left was one solitary leaf: they watered me, cared for me, brought me back to life. They showed me the love of Christ without even trying. With them, I found where I belonged – chief among sinners. I found Jesus where he would have been if he had been born when I was.
I went to a Christian college because I wanted desperately to be in a safe environment but then stopped going to church regularly. I didn’t start back up again until writing my senior thesis about the relationship between violence and grace in the work of Flannery O’Connor. Her letters figured heavily into my paper and, as it turns out, into my life. A friend of O’Connor’s wrote to her saying that he was planning to leave the church after he experienced significant disappointment and heartbreak therein. Her response?
I distinctly remember exactly where I was in the library when I read these words. I realized that I had a responsibility to look ultimately to Christ and not solely to Peter’s successors for truth. The people who caused my scars – including me, who inflicted quite a few scars upon myself – didn’t have the faith to walk on water. But there were people who could show me how to tread water long enough to be able to grab frantically at Jesus’ hand.
Over the next year I was a dorm mom at a Catholic all-girls’ boarding school, and – oh! – the lessons about God, forgiveness, love, faith, grace, that I learned from those girls and my colleagues. I attended a church with over a century of history that allowed me to be anonymous and to hide out until I got my bearings back. And now I belong to the people of Artisan Church, who remind me that I am dear to a God who is good and who loves me even when I’m not on speaking terms with him (and maybe even loves me more at those times because he values honesty). They also play Pearl Jam and the Rolling Stones during worship services, which means they get me and I love them for it.
I was hurt by other people, for the most part unintentionally. I have hurt other people myself, also for the most part unintentionally. And I have hurt myself, usually – and sadly – intentionally. It happened. It is hard and ugly and painful, and it happened. It’s also going to happen again, probably before the day is out. This is why I must tell my story: because we are all hurting ourselves, being hurt by others, and hurting other people. Now is not the time to be silent.