After Spiritual Abuse
Posts originally appearing on Under Much Grace Blog in January 2010I’ve been reluctant to share my personal experience, as I have concern that many readers will interpret what I did as a standard of sorts. For the Christian, the path to wholeness comes through knowing Jesus, and the primary way we know Him comes through reading His Word. Jesus is the Living Word. I want the reader to read, hear, and know well that I would have done anything to be able to read and study like I had before the crushing blow of realization of spiritual abuse knocked me flat. I had to develop an entirely new relationship with the Word and Bible Study (based upon purer motives), and this did not come easily or quickly for me.
Why the Bible Meant What It Did To Me
Personally, as a very troubled little girl with intense school phobia and other painful issues in childhood, church became my refuge. I learned at a young age that if I wanted to improve my state, the best thing that I could do was study and memorize the Bible so as to best know Jesus and be “rooted and grounded” in Him. So it was easy to study because I loved Jesus so much! I could not get enough, and I started staying upstairs with the adults for the sermon when I was about eight or nine years old (instead of going to “children’s church). I love the Word because I love Jesus, and it is a joy to study. I had no idea how powerfully the realization of the spiritual abuse I’d endured would later challenge my love of Bible study.
When I started to speak in tongues (at home, in my parents’ bed after praying desperately for something to help me with my crushed heart), I became very concerned about the experiential element of the Pentecostal experience. How does one know what is God and what is coming from your own mind? I asked a million questions about how one discerns what is from God and what comes from man or perhaps from something evil or demonic. I was told that all things had to be held up in comparison to the Bible, our objective standard. That Word would never change and never pass away, so it was the standard that had to be studied in all things for all things. I am forever grateful for the age directed and age appropriate training that I had in the Assemblies of God (AoG) and in the four years that I attended Christian School, as well as the relationships that I had there with people who taught me how vital the Word is to the believer. (My father didn’t become a believer until I was a teenager, and my mother became a believer when I was only 4 or 5 years old.)
Okay, there’s my plug for Sunday school and Missionettes, so I guess that the aberrant FIC folk will now say that I was “trained by Socialists?” (Voddie Baucham claims that Sunday school is Social Darwinism and therefore a great moral evil.) Here, I suppose, is the proof that I’m a Communist, feminist, lesbian and in a same-sex marriage with my husband because they consider me like a man because of my behavior! (Doug Phillips, Russell Moore, and others in the hard complementarian camp call their female critics lesbians and variants thereof, both to insult and to terrorize their followers from reading “lesbian material” that will corrupt and infect them.)
In the same way that the patriarchy movement uses legalistic social standards as a means to gain a higher standing in the church and with God, the Word of Faith Movement (WoF) teaches that followers should seek higher “anointings” through several means so that the believer can manifest more signs and wonders which will ultimately make evangelism more effective. Also, they teach that speaking in tongues (the outward manifestation of baptism in the Holy Spirit) gives you more power in the spirit realm (Acts 1:8, 1 Cor 4:20, Matt 10:1, Mark 16:17-18, etc.). You must listen to anointed teachers, you must follow after holiness, you should speak in tongues daily and many times a day, and you must “get into the Word,” a Ken Copeland phrase. (Note that step #1 cites meditation on key Scriptures.) Listening to subliminal tapes of the Bible at night while I slept (speech played @4X normal speed), meditating on the Word, and memorizing it did not do enough for me. (For those interested, please note that the AoG rejects many of these extremes of WoF.)
I was in search of a theophany, andI wasn’t getting one through normal channels. I had this idea that if I learned the original languages of the Bible, I would find what I’d been missing. (What I did find was that rather than narrow down possible interpretations, the original language only opens up more of them, unless one becomes a studied expert in Greek. I didn’t have the money or years of time for this after only a year of Greek classes.) Part of this, I now believe, was also my reaction to the anti-intellectualism that I didn’t want to acknowledge was true of my corner of the church. In this quest to lay hands on the sick and to see them recover, my motives for studying became skewed. The good motive – to know Jesus – remained whole and intact, but I had other motives for study as well. I would have to come to painful terms with this pseudo-selfish motive of healing the sick and healing myself, using the Bible as a catalyst to propel myself into a “higher life.”
Please take note that Bill Gothard loves the Higher Life Movement (Keswick), according to Don Veinot who co-authored “A Matter of Basic Principles.” I’ve also discussed this with Don in private correspondence also. "Gnostic" comes from the Greek word for “knowledge” which is somewhat hidden or mystical. Part of the appeal of the "higher life" comes from the fact that it is something that is not readily available and exclusive, reserved for those who are special. In very general terms, by learning more or by pursuing other works, one can improve one’s spiritual state and prowess. Patriarchy uses performance standards just like Word of Faith uses “getting into the Word” and spiritual practices to enhance the ongoing process of salvation, and the Word of God (along with their twists on what the Bible says) becomes a means to an end in many cases. It is a subtle distortion of motive, yet motive is something very important (Matt 5:27-28, 1 John 3:15).
After studying a year of Greek, I was very disappointed. I found no theophany. A year of Greek taught me how to use the Bible Study tools properly and key terms frequently used in basic doctrine, not much more. This was a disappointment, as it did strip away some of the mystique that I felt about Bible teachers. It introduced a new element of uncertainty, so the outcome of study did the opposite of what I had hoped. I wish that I’d understood something that I failed to grasp then, partly because I was still looking at the Gospel like a formula. (“Do A, B and C and you will get D, the higher life and anointing.” In homeschooling, you get perfect kids and eternal families.) I wish that I understood and appreciated the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer in concert with the study of the Word. The Spirit illuminates our study. But I was still working these things out in my own mind as I shifted from the vicarious faith that my mother gave me into a faith of my own on my own terms with God. Bible study was still, partially, a means to an end for me.
Within a few years, I exited my church, finding myself on the doorstep of my exit counselor. (I address this in more depth in my testimony HERE. I learned that I had not only "snapped" because of a thought reform program that I believed was a healthy church, my Word of Faith (WoF) experience had me primed and ready to accept this manipulation without much scrutiny. As the counselor read straight out of Chapter 22 in Lifton's book about brainwashed Korean POWs, I sat there listening, realizing that she was describing the dynamics of my own church. I won’t say that I didn’t have a clue about the manipulation, because it was the clues that drove me there. I just didn’t understand what the clues were telling me because I didn’t know what they meant. I was forever changed, like Dorothy who’d been to Oz and pulled away the curtain to see the little man standing there, nothing but smoke and mirrors. For Dorothy, there was no return to the awe of Oz, and
I knew that I’d been shaken, but I had no idea how deeply all of this would affect me. I felt like an empty shell of a hypocrite who had started out to worship and serve and know God. My motives and my efforts were good, yet I’d been mixed up in horrible things and with some flawed and dangerous people, serving the church instead of God.
I remember in high school, sitting in Sunday school class, how my teacher and friend said “Men will always fail you. Cindy, I’ve sung this with you in this very room for years. ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus, Stand in His strength alone. The arm of flesh will fail you; ye dare not trust your own.’ Only the Word will not betray you.” I knew this, yet I was also taught to revere the higher and better and more anointed insights of those who knew better than I ever could. I’d been given so many mixed messages, and my pastors had been proven liars to me and were not batting an eye over things like a husband keeping his wife under lock and key in their basement. But I’d listened to them and acted as they heard God’s will for my life and understood the Bible better than I had. My discernment – my radar – failed to work. Some of it failed to work all along. Some of these very wrong ideas had been taught to me from my earliest days.
The next morning, I picked up my Bible and *BAM*! For the first time in my life, those well-worn pages felt foreign and strange. I knew that book and could quote it and find in it what I could not quote by memory. I’d taken what was given to me and made it my own. Or had I? In recent days before I left my cultic church (known well by my exit counselor), I'd heard much about myself under the mighty hand of God” and how “God gives grace to the humble.” So I looked up those Scriptures. I can think back upon that moment now, a dozen years later, and I see how they’d redefined “humbling” into something that differs little from the humiliation of shame. At the time, the trauma was too intense for me to think clearly through the self-doubt. I went into an existential panic, unable to figure out what was really real. I knew those verses and I’d known what they meant.
(But I didn’t always believe this about those particular Scriptures. Hmm.) I can also now say that the cultic church used these verses to enforce doctrine over person, the cult of confession, and the sacred science in Lifton’s language that I had not yet learned. All I knew was that this Bible felt unsafe because I couldn’t trust myself at all. How did I know anything? I broke out into a cold sweat and wanted to vomit. I knew that Word was my best medicine, but if I couldn’t be sure about what it meant, the meaning I ascribed to the words could potentially be as bad as the poison I’d been ladling down my throat for four years in Mumford and Gothard Land. I’d taken it and had no clue that I’d been drinking something tainted. And then I felt anger that was so intense, I did not even understand it as anger.
I thought that I would come back to it tomorrow. I would listen to some good Christian music that was Scriptural, dripping with the Word. “Duhh.” I found the same problem with music. Then there was the choice of what music to listen to. I’d been playing Vineyard music for the past year while leaning on some Vineyard friends to help me through the last very difficult year at my cultic church. But that was unsafe and mind-numbing now. I pulled out an old Amy Grant album, and that made me cry as I remembered how innocent and sweet I remembered myself to be when I first bought it 15 years before. What was I going to do?
Grieving, Mourning and Sifting Through the Rubble to Pick Up My Scattered Pearls
Before I walked out of my cultic church for the last time, my daily study started either with translation of three verses of the NT from the Greek Majority Text. I then usually had something that I wanted to look up in the OT. (I varied my reading habits, and this is what I was doing at this particular time when I left the cultic church.) I incorporated music and prayer into this time, too. Well… Everything but prayer became difficult in a way that I’d never experienced before. I tried to replace this lack of study with sermons on tape, but I quickly realized that this was part of why I was in so much trouble. I’d meditated on someone else’s teaching of the Word, hearing their twists on it before going before the Lord myself. So much of my problem involved my past acquiescence to someone else. Rather than putting the Word myself into my heart and mouth, I’d allowed so many others to go up into heaven to bring it down for me. This became instantly unsafe.
Though very difficult, I started singing a chorus from the cultic church that echoed the words of David’s Psalm every time I tried to study:
I find that this is a problem for others as well. Some of the leaders in the patriarchy movement boast excellent credentials and demonstrate excellent skill in expository teaching. If someone with a couple of PhDs cannot properly exegete the Word, and if these well-trained and knowledgeable leaders had fallen into error, teaching falsehood, what chance did I stand? How could I discern anything if I’d failed to discern the falsehoods in their teachings before? Here was a wolf that I couldn’t spot to save my own life, and I was fairly good at spotting them, I thought. For all of my diligence and study, I felt as if I knew nothing. Everything felt altogether unsafe, and it hurt right down through into my bones. If I had been beguiled by these teachings, how could I trust anything?
I don’t know how to communicate to you how deeply devastated I was. As I think back on it and having moved through this old pain, I cannot even really connect with the terrible pain anymore myself, a good thing. I mourned as if someone had died, but I wasn’t sure who had died. I think that a huge chunk of my carnal nature died, but a fantasy died too – one I’d lived in for most of my life. I can give you some pictures of my grief. Because I couldn’t study and connect with God, I would lay in bed, avoiding the choice of what to do for study that day. One such day when I didn’t have to do home visits for the local hospice (where I’d cut back my part time work to the bare minimum), the phone rang. When I got out of bed to answer, I was completely shocked to discover that it was . My pillow was drenched with tears, and the corners of my eyes and cheeks were sore. About six months later when I’d had some little healing, after an enjoyable day trip we took together, my husband said that he was glad to have me “back from the dead.”
I was also felt very isolated and abandoned by all people. My pastor friend who recommended the Book of James and my family did not understand. The people who left the cultic church when I did never followed my course but jumped right back into other cults. They didn’t “break the addiction,” they just picked a “new drug of choice.” They did not go through what I went through, and they avoided the depression. It took several more years for some of these friends to “get it” about leaving the whole system because it was the system and not just abusive leadership that was flawed. Very few people who left our church network would even take my calls, and I’d been very tight-lipped about matters. (People sensed that they should not talk to those who left – partly because of fear of getting caught in someone else’s fray of the punishment one expected when one left the “umbrella of protection.” Even my husband did not understand what I was going through in many ways, as he did not process the grief in the same way – and his grief was very different. He was also deeply uncomfortable because he didn’t know how to help me, particularly while he was in distress himself. It would take him several more years to peel the lid off of his emotions, most of which came through as misdirected anger. Save for my exit counselor and the literature, I felt entirely isolated.
The exit counselor, a Catholic, told me that most people need 2 years to process what happened to them. One must look back and sift through the rubble that remains, a mixture of good and bad teachings, healthy love and codependency in the name of paternalism, mystical manipulation that I believed was the Holy Spirit. But I’d been so conditioned to think in black and white for most of my life, and the all-or-nothing that I’d come to embrace in this system of extremism made going through the rubble very difficult. I’d been taught to be radical, leaving home to be an adult in the days of Operation Rescue and Hands Across America. The Pentecostals were praying to take cities for Christ, and it was open war. There is something so enticing about all of that – and it feels good to have one’s blood boil with passion and determination. It meant that I was making a lasting difference in the world. Life was not about happy mediums, consistency, and balance. Life was all about passion and extremes. Everything was better if it was a crisis, as something about it all proved how special I was to God. The ongoing crises proved this to me.
So what could I salvage? How would I salvage it? I continued to have panic when I sat down to read the Word, and I did it under duress with great stress. I spoke to an old pastor of mine who suggested that I translate the Book of James from the Greek. I believed that he thought the “count it all joy” message would minister deeply to me, as he could see from afar at that time that God was using all of this to perfect me. But James’ Greek is the hardest and most advanced language in the NT which makes John’s gospel and epistles look like “Jack and Jill ran up the hill…” I did not last long with this study. The harder language magnified my stress, as did the subject matter. What was joy? Had I ever really known joy? I found that the intense stress related to my particular experience of self-trust and self-doubt in childhood also made this study very difficult, and I would weep. Even the panic wore down into a type of futile hopelessness. Eventually, I ceased this study, giving up on it after a month. I could find a million reasons not to study.
I tried reading the book of John from my majority text, something I absolutely loved doing in seminary. This unexpectedly triggered much grief, because I remembered the joy that I had as I did this, and I felt entirely alienated from it now. A man who later became an elder at the OPC where we attended taught a Sunday school class on "joy," and I remember very flatly talking to my husband about how I didn’t remember what joy was and wondered if I’d ever really knew what it was at all in the past. Had I ever known joy? The day my husband and I married was the happiest day of my life, and I remember how my cheeks hurt from smiling at the end of the long day. But that was a distant memory where I remember being full of joy, but I couldn’t feel the happiness anymore.
I prayed and prayed, and I finally gave in to reading an old devotional book that I’d purchased years ago – one of the Serenity Meditation Series books from Minirth Meier that I’d bought in the early nineties. (I also now recommend the NACR emails and devotional book, and I use them myself in addition to my now expanded study.) It was nothing intellectual, for certain. It had one simple verse for each day, and sometimes only a part of a verse. I’d been taught never to read out of context, but I still found reading my familiar Bible to be a point of grief and stress if not panic. I could get through a Sunday with my Bible in hand, but I found reading it too stressful during the week. I was ashamed. And I did this for a couple of years. I found it easier to connect with the Word by reading just one verse, and if I could wrap my mind around only one verse, it seemed better and wiser than reading two or three chapters and getting nothing out of it, unable to remember what I’d just read. This also helped me connect with the love of Jesus again, but this did not come easily either.
When people come out of patriarchy or any of these spiritually abusive settings, many people encourage the person in recovery to go through and read the Gospels again, starting with the Gospel of John. I think that this is excellent advice, but personally, I could not do this for a couple of years. I could not trust myself or any meaning I ascribed to the text. It was too intimidating. For me, save for Sunday church, I could handle little more than those small devotionals which helped me reconnect with Jesus, the Lover of my Soul. They were gentle and honest, and they were not too involved. They were sweet milk while the meat was too strong for my stomach. This lasted far longer than I would have liked, and I found it very frustrating. It crushed my pride, actually a very good thing in retrospect. I am ashamed that I could not do more, yet it is what it is. It is the truth.
I was grieving and healing. I often thought of films I’d seen of baby deer and baby horses that the mother must nudge to get that new baby on their feet for the first time. Their legs shake and their knees wobble until they stand firm and straight. It took me so much longer than it did those animals! I wobbled like that for years and years. I kept thinking of those paintings of Jesus with a baby lamb with its legs draped astride His neck, too weak and injured to walk. I drank wee sips of milk until I healed, remembering how much I loved biting into good steak and roast.
Eventually I learned that I was going through the Word again to find the pearls that I’d dropped and thought that I had lost. It took longer than I wished and longer than I thought it should.
Eight or nine years after I’d left my abusive church, I started to feel comfortable and looked forward to reading and even studying the Bible. I’d kept at it, though I look back and wish that it had been easier much sooner.
Unlike the person who comes out of patriarchy, I found that I could not identify the cultic shepherding church as the single root source of my problems. When I “went back to my roots,” I also found serious flaws and painful problems in this doctrine of Word of Faith as well. Spiritual abuse forced me to come to terms with the anti-intellectualism. I had to come to terms with the doctrines I’d accepted because I was told to accept them.
For those who were in healthy churches with completely sound doctrine, their process will likely be easier.
I also learned that much of my zeal was motivated by my selfish desires to be noticed by those in the church. I was looking for something outside of my own heart to satisfy me.
I desired to find acceptance that I so longed for in my flesh. I’d been looking for something that would heal my very broken heart so that I could be that integrated person and incredibly effective Christian that I’d always dreamed I would become. I had to reject the burning zeal that I thought was coming from my desire for God but was quite often my own willfulness to somehow make God do what I wanted Him to do. I thought that true zeal involved extremes, something that paralleled the drama that I always felt in my home and in my church.
Along with the realization and repentance for my desire to serve the church, a desire that eclipsed my desire to serve Jesus, I had to come to terms with my true motives. The Word does work in our hearts and minds, but it is not the panacea of a magic pill to make me more spiritual. The Word is not part of a static formula, and I had to wait and grow. There was no fast-track to higher living. Maturity in Christ comes about by discipline and perseverance. Jesus was not the “cosmic bellhop.” If I lived my life and never saw divine healing and remained ill the rest of my life myself, I’d have to accept this and rejoice in the Lord, either way. I would have to love the Word all the more, without expectation. I could not go sit on God’s lap like a small child who sits on daddy’s lap only to get the candy that they know is waiting in his pocket.
Why You Can’t “Just Snap Out of It!”
I would later learn something that gave me much comfort. In Bessel Van der Kolk's lecture entitled "The Body Keeps Score" that he presented in 2007, I heard him explain what happens to the brain when a person experiences the ongoing process of PTSD. Through advances in brain imaging that are now available, we have learned that the PTSD brain floods certain areas of the brain with large amounts of blood and increases metabolism there while other areas shut down.
In the PTSD brain, encouragement and exhortation have a very different affect than they do in the normal brain. When the normal person hears encouragement, several different areas become very active. The pre-frontal cortex (the problem solving area) becomes active, and the part of the brain that says “This applies to me; They are talking about me” floods with blood, indicating high metabolism in that area where those processes are located in the brain. In the PTSD brain, something very different happens.
In PTSD and the depression that results, encouragement and praise affect the brain in a very different way. First, the anxiety centers become very active, and the encouragement is not trusted. Rather than feeling more at ease, the brain of the person with PTSD goes into survival mode. For some, areas of the brain that activate during antagonism flood with blood. The depression has already caused a dulled response in the critical thinking area of the pre-frontal cortex. But most interesting, the area of the brain that activates when a person realizes that information applies to them remains completely inactive. Someone could tell a person with PTSD that they are a new creation in Christ, that they are precious to God and are seated in high places with Jesus. But the part of the brain that says “This applies to me!” never activates. The brain cannot realize what is really being said. Physiologically, the brain cannot comprehend personal encouragement when it is stuck in a loop of the survival response.
This indicates that some significant healing must take place before the encouragement can be received. Spiritual healing comes about in stages. They don’t happen quickly or overnight. Physical activity, mindful walking which activates the medial pre-frontal cortex which helps to naturally heal the basal ganglia, and therapies like EMDR all help heal the mind and brain, correcting these metabolic problems without drugs. As Daniel Amen explains it, the brain is the hardware of the soul. Healing the brain helps the mind and the soul physically recover from trauma. Taking this into consideration can help those in recovery and those ministering to them understand that there are physical miracles taking place as well as the healing of the soul and spirit.
Unplanned ADDENDUM to Part VI
I’ve received a surprising amount of feedback about these posts, and I have concerns (as I stated in the first Bible study post) that it may come across that I am encouraging people not to read the Bible or that I was avoiding the sorting out of my own understanding of doctrine. Actually, I did little else. At this time in life, while waiting for the babies to come that never did, I worked doing temp jobs in nursing in Texas (where we lived at the time). I could make much better money, it was generally part-time work, and I felt that it would not require me to ever choose between a job and a baby. When I was not busy with this, I was basically working through these doctrines. I would like to take this opportunity to explain this a bit more, as I seem to improperly given some the impression that I may have avoided this work, when I was actually consumed by it.
How I Dealt with the Aberrant Doctrine:
I received this note today:
“I have read through your latest series and am just amazed. Our experiences were just the opposite! Because there was so little bible study [in my church], there was more proof texting and topical stuff which is so easy to twist that I went into deep study to find out what a Christian was supposed to look like from the Word. I had no idea...because my paradigm had been warped based on what I saw supposedly godly people in power do…
I look back and realize I was a zombie. But a zombie that just immersed myself in the Word. What it did was clean out the wrong teaching and replace it with truth.”
I would argue that I was absolutely not doing the opposite but that I was doing it in a different setting. For me, as one who was already immersed in the Word, this context became unsafe. I had to go to a different setting and context. I did that from within the safety of understanding the behavioral aspects of what happened to me because of my own intense self-doubt. (Here follows the bulk of the response that I wrote to her, though I've filled in some details.)
I guess I failed to explain myself well in the post then… My daily study habits were limited, but I was also dealing with the doctrinal things as these issues came up all the time as a consequence of discussions at church (after our break from regular attendance for a year), or just matters that came up in discussions with Christian loved ones. I guess that I did a poor job of explaining that in these previous posts in this series.
I didn't "hide" from correcting my thoughts in terms of these doctrines. Those things presented themselves CONSTANTLY, and I did deal with them by going to the Word, but I often went to the anti-cult and some of the counter-cult literature first. (I am somewhat ashamed to admit that, but this is the truth and it demonstrates how unsafe I felt as a result of this abuse.) I felt terrible grief and embarrassment and sometimes panic when I did go to the Bible, but it was much worse when I picked it up for the sake of reading for reading's sake.
Who wants to confront the bitter reality that the Word of life became the club someone used beat you with, and that you failed to see it as a club? And if you thought that you knew more about the nature of clubs than most people?
This affected how I connected with the Lord every day. I felt as if I couldn't SAFELY do that through the Word anymore in the way that I had.
For example, I grew up with the shepherding twisted out-of-context meanings of "Touch not mine anointed" as an instruction that one could never criticize or challenge "an anointed 'Man of God'" because "the gifts and callings of God are without revocation." This is what my mother taught me through application of these Scriptures to guide her conduct when she became painfully aware that her pastor was committing adultery with the young, married, male assistant pastor. She was a new believer, and she relied on the instruction given to her by those more mature in the faith. God had called this man to be a pastor, gave him a special anointing to be a fantastic pastor, and that anointing would never go away, even if he sinned. (Maybe this was her own way or someone else's of explaining how he could be so good at what he did and be actively guilty of this very provocative sin? Something to help them get around their own black-and-white thought?) If I challenged that anointing by pointing out some blatant sin that disqualified them from leadership, I was in direct violation of condemning an anointed prophet of God. (Note that in my real life, this “anointed prophet” sodomized little boys and young men over a period of at least 30 years. He was in ministry for another 15 years or so after he left our area, so it may have continued after he left, for all I know.)
This kind of thing happened constantly as a result of issues that came up in daily life. So I discussed these doctrines all of the time and went through many of these aberrant doctrines with my husband, with trusted friends (which seemed few), and sometimes with my exit counselor if I was stuck. I didn't have to go look for doctrine to recapitulate: it reared its ugly head very often. But turning to Bible study in the way that I had studied the Bible before was not my first choice as an aid to resolve these issues. I found reading the Bible, my old familiar preferred study Bible, to be very painful and disturbing. I only looked to answer specific questions for several years, and it was not my daily bread as it had been. For the daily bread, I am still embarrassed somewhat to say that I relied upon those one verse devotional books from Minirth Meier and the like. I also liked "Streams in the Desert," but aspects of that seemed a little "cultic" to me at times (because of the theme of suffering), so I did not stick with this one either.
The truth about the interpretation of these verses did not come from a knowledgeable person "in the Church" or in a church setting. I would be remiss if I did not say that my husband didn't challenge this when I first brought this up as a matter of discussion when our church became notably abusive of women during the last half of our experience there. But I really learned the true and proper exegesis of these verses from the exit counselor (!), the book recommended by the exit counselor ("The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse"), and through the second pastoral counselor that I sought out because my depression was so deep. I found comfort in the Word eventually, but I learned about these matters in the context and "safe place environment" of social psychology through the anti-cult literature. The most helpful and practical book in this respect was the secular "Captive Hearts, Captive Minds" (now revised as "Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships"), not "The Subtle Power" book which was written by a Christian author.
Every person will do this differently, because every person will have to seek out their own safe place. (It all depends how you were bludgeoned with the Bible, where, and by whom.) I'd loved my clinical experiences in college when I studied addictions, and I quite liked the statistically validated psychology literature. (It took subjective behavior and tested it with objective statistics in order to understand and help the afflicted, rather than just throwing someone's flawd subjective personal ideas at it like Freud did, for instance.) When I was 19, I sat in on a group session with many teens who were in detox. I listened to their stories and realized that the only difference between them and me was the fact that they turned to drugs to help them with their emotions. I felt the same things and the same way about myself (shame, self-loathing, and futility), but I just didn't turn to drugs. I threw myself into schoolwork and worked extra shifts, somatized emotions that were not allowed, and felt constant anxiety instead. I found that the literature that dealt with the addict's core issues of shame applied well to my own life, offering something that I never heard addressed in the church. So this professional area provided a very safe framework for me to process things. I went to the safest place that I could find.
This whole discussion also brought up anxiety related to my own growth and development. Wrapped all around my religious experience was my own problems with epistemology, how I knew what was real. So I had that to contend with as well. The unresolved issues related to my mother's post-partum depression, our lack of bonding which resulted in the anxious attachment disorder features that I had, and my school phobia all surfaced for me. So did my emotions related to my experience of being molested while a school age child, something never reported and something for which I'd never sought therapy. All of this cult experience brought up these serious problems for me, and I've found the Church in general to be profoundly ill-equipped to deal with this highly unpleasant “messiness.” Please also note that I found healing for all of these unhealed wounds as a result of recovery from spiritual abuse. (My best hope in context of the church was always in desperately hoping and waiting for my pastor to get a word of knowledge about what I was going through so that I could have "deliverance" to magically cast all of these problems out of me. And that never happened.) It wasn’t until many years into my recovery from spiritual abuse that I finally found a very competent Christian counselor who was well-prepared to help me deal with some of the remaining aspects of all of this very unpleasant and disturbing history, and this came after long and diligent pursuit.
Most people who do not have a history of some of these things will not find the church to be so unsafe, but I do have concern for those who are raised in these very high demand religious systems. I think that I experienced many of the same features that are demanded by young girls in patriarchy as part of the religious system, though I experienced some of these features outside of a religious context. (They didn't come to me because my parents employed elements of family dysfunction or as spousal abuse in marriage like those in patriarchy and some extreme complementarian marriages. But the end results are much the same, I think.)
Summary of Thoughts to Consider Related to Bible Study as You Heal From Spiritual Abuse
- What you’re experiencing is perfectly normal, given your experience. You have been deceived by subtle teachings that you failed to identify as problematic because you were manipulated through a very complex, gradual and subtle process of exploitation. Either by intent or by way of their own earnest belief, teachers passed off false doctrine to you as legitimate doctrine.
- Expecting that knowledge of the Bible, intellect, pure motive, and the Holy Spirit will make you impervious to the social, psychological and spiritual manipulation of a cultic church or thought reform program is naïve. These systems use crafty and subtle needs that exploit human tendencies and emotions, usually by offering a very desirable solution to a complex problem. We are especially vulnerable after major life changes such as a new job, a profound disappointment like the death of a loved one, or a move to a new place which makes access to your previous support systems more difficult.
- This experience shakes your confidence on a very deep level. If you are experiencing doubts about your own ability to discern what Scripture means, remind and encourage yourself that this is a very healthy and very self-protective response. Your brain is doing exactly what God designed it to do: survive and heal. This process of recovery takes time, usually about two years at a minimum. Remind yourself of this.
- Consider that if a trusted spiritually abusive leader has impressive credentials and knowledge of the Bible but taught false doctrine, it is entirely healthy to doubt your own ability to discern doctrine and the meaning of Scripture. We are told in Scripture that the Word is effective and sufficient. We do not need an intercessor to go up into heaven for us because Paul tells us that we don’t. We have the Holy Spirit who helps us and guides us, illuminating the Gospel for us. If someone learned fell prey to false doctrine, it is perfectly healthy to feel intense doubts and insecurity about your own ability. But consider that you were able to see through the deception to some extent, prompting you to doubt your learned teacher. Consider this to be encouraging proof that you can trust yourself, even if it feels as though you can’t. Encourage yourself with this.
- Consider that those teachers who tell you that you must trust them and that they have a higher and better connection with the truth are actually claiming that the Word of God is not equally effective and available to all believers. This directly contradicts the teaching of Word that it is effective, powerful, sufficient, and available to all people equally. The ground at the foot of the Cross is level. So is the floor before the Throne of Grace. If you’re a Protestant, there are no more priests who must intercede for you.
- For those who grew up within a high demand group under the teachings that one realizes are spiritually abusive, anti-cult sources indicate that it may take up to 12 years of recovery to heal. Part of this healing is actually physical, and that healing takes time. Encouragement feels foreign, and this is actually physiologic because of a triggering of survival response. You are fighting for the life of your mind when you leave a spiritually abusive group. Remind yourself that this will heal, and ask God to heal your spirit, your soul, and particularly your brain itself. When healing occurs, it is nothing short of a miracle.
- If you came from a family with poor boundaries or a home where everything that happened involved intensity, this will also affect your rate of recovery. Along with the spiritual abuse issues, it is not uncommon for personal issues to surface, presenting to you for healing and resolution. If your religious experience involved the identity of another, such as the father within patriarchy, your healing will be more complex.
- Connect with your creator in simple and small ways if you find that your previous ways of loving and learning have become difficult. This is also a survival response. Your safe place may involve a retreat from corporate worship or your old habit of study, but this does not have to be a permanent place, even if it feels permanent. This is also quite common. Put yourself in a safe place and learn to think about things for yourself so that you can think through your experience without coercion or condemnation.
- In trauma, we always tend to go back to a place of earlier development. (After not playing the piano for long periods of time, I find that I have to build my confidence by playing simple pieces until I can work back to the level of skill that I once found easy.) Also remember that emotional healing is never “linear,” and this type of healing also seems like you taking steps backward. You might return to an earlier religious experience in order to find safety, or to resolve problems that were never fully dealt with in the past. See this as an opportunity to more fully heal past disappointments on the way to greater wholeness. If you feel cognitive dissonance, this is a good sign. You are changing your mind – “repenting” – of the toxic ideas of your group. Your brain is actually rewiring itself, and this can be stressful. But remind yourself that this is exactly what you desire to happen.
- Just as you will experience emotional “regression,” also consider that your Bible study habits will likely also change. If you feel great discomfort that produces anxiety or grief, seek out counsel. But also consider a simpler mode of study such as a small devotional. If you cannot wrap your mind around a chapter, wrap it around a verse. But determine to reconnect with your Savior as you learn to approach Him in a new way, establishing a new and better relationship with the Word of God. Remember that “This too shall pass” if you want it to pass. Persevere.
- You have the power and should be developing your own power and ability to choose which course you will take. This part of your mind is also healing, right along with a rediscovery of who you are. This will also take time. Be gracious and merciful with yourself, even if others do not understand. Persevere until you find people who will support you in your recovery without prejudice and criticism.
- You will heal, and you will continue to heal.
From the Message Bible:
All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us. We have plenty of hard times that come from following the Messiah, but no more so than the good times of his healing comfort—we get a full measure of that, too.
When we suffer for Jesus, it works out for your healing and salvation. If we are treated well, given a helping hand and encouraging word, that also works to your benefit, spurring you on, face forward, unflinching. Your hard times are also our hard times. When we see that you're just as willing to endure the hard times as to enjoy the good times, we know you're going to make it, no doubt about it.
We don't want you in the dark, friends, about how hard it was when all this came down on us in
Now that the worst is over, we're pleased we can report that we've come out of this with conscience and faith intact, and can face the world—and even more importantly, face you with our heads held high. But it wasn't by any fancy footwork on our part. It was God who kept us focused on him, uncompromised. Don't try to read between the lines or look for hidden meanings in this letter. We're writing plain, unembellished truth, hoping that you'll now see the whole picture as well as you've seen some of the details. We want you to be as proud of us as we are of you when we stand together before our Master Jesus.