In Which I Talk About Spiritual Abuse


Two years ago I went looking for a way to make sense of my experience growing up in an evangelical church that had some great teaching and absolutely wonderful people, but that also had some weird aspects of fundamentalism woven through it.

I realized, in the process, that I had experienced spiritual abuse — a mild form for sure but nonetheless seismic for how my relationship with God subsequently unfolded. The counterweight was my family of origin — I have two of the best parents ever in the history of parents, and they together with my older brother have kept me grounded in ways that even now leave me breathless. They are the manifest grace of God to me.

My efforts to understand my formative church years led me to a number of online communities where spiritual abuse survivors, among others, process their experiences in a safe, supportive place. I won’t list them all, but my favorite sites where I spent the most searching hours were:

I implore you, if you head to these and other sites out of personal need or the desire to educate yourself, unplug your keyboard. Go first to listen. The discussions can be very difficult and jarring. Sometimes the language is rough and angry, vulgar and insulting. Sometimes it is so wry and clever you’ll laugh so hard you’ll cry. Sometimes there is so much pain and vulnerability that it becomes holy ground and you simply must remove your shoes.

Prepare to be offended. I guarantee you will be at some point along the way. You’ll be OK. We can all survive being offended, and unless you are a spiritual abuse survivor somewhere in the journey of healing, you are a guest in their house and ought to behave as one — respectfully, carefully learning your way around, using your manners.

Not everyone there agrees with each other, not everyone there has experienced spiritual abuse, not everyone there had a bad (or good) church experience, but that is partly the point.

These communities are full of people who were taught that what made them unique was wrong, that God wanted conformity of thought and action and belief, that asking doubt-laden questions and answering them for oneself was sinful.

Part of recovering from this sort of experience — a form of abuse for certain — is owning your own voice, and accepting that having and knowing your own mind and heart is not something that arrives whole or on demand, just because you want it to. The self has to be fought for and protected. Mistakes have to be made and feelings sometimes have to be hurt so you can learn that neither preclude a person from deserving love, acceptance, and respect. For some spiritual abuse survivors such as myself, just using the word “deserve” is fraught with tension and dissonance.

Healing from spiritual abuse is hard, scary work. It requires extensive boundary work. It feels like you are falling off a cliff into total blackness. At times you can feel so alone that even God can’t touch your sense of isolation, because God is actually part of your problem. You feel at times like you are going crazy.

Some of us are healing from spiritual abuse by leaving the church altogether. Others are healing by criticizing the church from within, by insisting the rest of us bear witness to their experiences and refusing to let anyone define their stories for them. Some of us are healing by listening, watching others on their journeys, plodding ahead tentatively. Every journey is different.

As I immersed myself in these communities, at times I lost myself. At times I got too involved with other peoples stories and you know what? I’m glad I did. My brain grew, as did my soul. My capacity to empathize grew. The tension I experience in my relationship with God grew, and God is meeting that challenge head on for me. I wept many tears in those years, not only because of my own story and not only because someone else’s story was sad, but because others’ stories became my story too. Just because all these abuses didn’t happen directly to me doesn’t matter — they happened. They happened to people who bear God’s image. They happened in God’s name, with Bibles and Sacraments and Jesus as their justification. This is an unspeakable horror that must, nevertheless, be spoken.

The people I encountered along the way told their stories and in so doing, changed me for the better. Their voices have shaped my own and I am profoundly grateful. I wish them health and wholeness as I wish for myself, and for those who are able to accept an offer of prayer, know that in my own small way I am praying for you as I pray also for me.

I have to admit that not once did I comment in any of these sites. I didn’t comment because I was afraid. I was still coming to terms with my own story and maybe I still am. But equally important, I didn’t comment because I come out of a tradition where the Bible was sometimes used as a weapon and I didn’t trust myself. I needed to listen, to learn the languid cadence of open discussion rather than relentless drumbeat of apologetics.

I’m not great at it yet, but I’m hopeful.

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