Monday, March 18, 2013

religious glasses - spiritual abuse awareness week

I'm linking this up with other stories of spiritual abuse over at Wine and Marble. Go. Read. 

[trigger warning: self-harm, spiritual abuse, brainwashing, etc]

I remember every detail of that moment. My parents speaking, the cadence of their voices. Single lamp shining in the corner. The worn fabric underneath my fingers. My foot falling asleep where it was tucked under my leg. Most vivid, though, is the strength of the longing. I could see the knife in my mind. I could imagine myself walking to the kitchen, grasping it tightly. I wanted a little pain, a little blood. I wanted an external, physical manifestation of the hurt I felt inside. I wanted someone to see, really see. I wanted my parents to see. 

But I didn’t take those few steps. I stayed in my chair, gently rocking. Silent. Still.

I stopped myself because I knew it wouldn’t do any good. I knew they would pray for me.  I would be told depression is a sin, hurting yourself is a sin. I would be confronted, possibly repeatedly, my parents hoping for a change so I could be the person God required. The religious glasses would not come off. Not to see me. Not for any reason.

“God, you see my pain already. You said you would help me. Why, why, why can’t you do something?”


I grew up as a True Believer. I wore the religious glasses. I believed what I was told.

I was told that if you trusted God you would trust Him to give you the children you were supposed to have, therefore birth control was sinful. And I believed. Creation apologetics were woven through my day-to-day and I heard that if they were not trustworthy, nothing else could be true. Inevitably, I believed they were true. I was told that to glorify God I had to give all my rights to Him. So, as a feisty pre-teen, I prayed over all my books, toys, clothes. I prayed that God would take away my selfish desire to control my own life. And body. And future. I was told that rebellious older siblings would bring a demonic spirit of rebellion into the house and into the younger children. So I fought the devil. True Believers saved their heart - they didn’t have crushes or give away their emotions. That made them damaged and of less use to the Kingdom and unable to honor God. Therefore, when I fell in love I made every effort to force the poor boy to be The One. Because if he wasn’t, I was screwed.

Spiritual abuse is insidious. It accumulates deep in your soul and slowly leeches out, poisoning your heart, body and mind. It leaves you wondering if you truly hurt or if you are just living in unrepentant sin, have a demonic presence in your life, or perhaps are in rebellion. 

So I began to doubt this week that what I experienced even was spiritually abusive. Until someone from my past said to me, I said, you won’t submit yourselves to the authority of God and so will not accept this.”  I saw clearly, again, the fruit that spiritual abuse breeds.

Essentially, in that environment, the only reason someone would not accept the “clear truth of God’s Word” was if they refused to submit. Maybe children were refusing to submit to parents, parents to God or wives to husbands. Maybe someone just had a “Spirit of rebellion.” Whatever the situation, submission was the answer.

It was the perfect catch-all. Someone doesn’t agree? Well, obviously they haven’t (as was also said to me) “let Jesus have every area of their life” and they just needed to repent. When you've been raised to doubt yourself, that tactic is a powerful bit of mind-buggery.

My parents, naturally attachment parenting before it was popular, were convinced by evangelical and fundamentalist leaders that their natural inclinations were wrong. So they believed and trusted. They were, after all, True Believers. They weren't about to go against the clear truth of Scripture!

My parents were my authorities, and they were taught that their authority was absolute. They were told they had the Truth, they were told that children should “obey right away with a happy attitude” or else they were in rebellion and their souls were in danger. Christian leaders were promising God’s blessings if they lived God’s way, but authoritarianism and perfectionism and demand for purity was not a recipe for blessings.

It was a recipe for self hatred, self harm.

My solution was to stay busy. I read voraciously and did the extracurricular activities that were allowed. My senior year I would leave the house by 6am and not return til 10pm most days. While I could not escape from 19 years of scripture memory, when I left home for the relative freedom of a conservative Bible college it was a welcome respite. 

And it brought me my husband. We had only known each other 20 months when I walked down the aisle on our wedding day.

When my family cornered me (twice) to confront me with my sinful decision to use birth control, when my Mom cried for the grandchildren I was “killing” and my Dad sat there, silent, and I felt the bile rise in my throat and my arms clench around my stomach, my man told them firmly to back off. That their place now was to pray for us, and that was all.

I once cried, expressing to him how frightened I was that maybe he would think I wasn’t good enough, pretty enough, quiet enough, submissive enough, godly enough. And, oh, the relief when he looked me straight in the eye and said “the thought never entered my mind.”

And at that time I thought I was safe. I felt so safe. I thought I was safe from the hurts and I thought I was safe from the god I had once known. I thought I had found a God who only told me I was loved. I was okay. I could rest.

When our first child was born, I found the pace of my life had slowed down for the first time since I was 16. For once I had hours on my plate - empty hours. I would bake, I would clean, I would watch Heroes. Because I could

I would research. And connect. I found a community online unlike anything I had ever had before. People who had been through the same things I had, people who had come out stronger and found a loving and grace-filled God.

Because of them and their varied opinions, I learned like never before. I found myself becoming a liberal, social justice, peace-loving almost-pacifist who refused to spank her children and couldn’t help but be a feminist who supported women in all areas of ministry and mutual submission in marriage and marriage equality for all!

Why? Because Jesus. Because grace. Because my faith was suddenly my own.

So I started sharing. And discussing. And questioning.

But a conservative seminary is not the best place to have a Jesus-only revolution.

And by the time I really took the time to look up from my learning frenzy, it had already happened. 

I was no longer a christian. 

At least that was what was said. Many friends and acquaintances who had reveled with me in my Jesus-only joy, quickly turned when they saw the results. The gossip was so furious that I was warned about it by someone new on campus. Warned the very first time I met them.

I looked up from my learning frenzy and found that the people who claimed their overriding principle was that of free and living congregations, were perpetuating the same thought reform that I believed I had escaped. It was one person after another determining the salvation or rightness of someone else’s faith.

Being aware of spiritual abuse does not insulate you from the hurt when you find you are experiencing it all over again. Instead it means listening to a Pastor share a personal voicemail, then proceed to ridicule the person and denomination behind the call while a room full of leaders nod on in approval. It means sitting through a series on how to divide Christians up into levels, based on their actions.  It means physical trauma and PTSD-like reactions to spiritually abusive tactics. It means sleepless nights crying after you realize that your new safe place is becoming more and more like a spiritually abusive brainwashing center. It means leaving a room shaking after a group of women agrees again that “women are more easily deceived” and the real problem with our society is that men are not lifted to their “place of honor” and those who disagree were “destroying society.” It means being on the outside of those loaded language conversations. It means gossip, and people treating you as though someone has died.

It means watching a former friend preach about how, without his version of God, there is no goodness, no justice, no purpose for us. And other “christians,” those who support homosexuality, need to hear the gospel because they have no goodness, no justice, no purpose either. They are in darkness, just like unbelievers.

As a child I was taught that if some of Scripture is wrong, then none of it can be trustworthy. And that was (unintentionally, I believe) applied this way: If what I believe about Scripture is wrong, then none of it can be trustworthy.

As an adult I saw the lengths authorities and pastors will go to preserve that kind of faith. Placing doctrine over people is a part of spiritual abuse, but for fundamentalist authorities it is so much more. It’s the thing that will save their faith when it is on the edge. It is the thing that justifies hurting others for the sake of “Truth.” It is the religious glasses that turn depression into a sin requiring repentance.

I thought I could make it through the last year of seminary, for my husband’s sake.

But I heard “we are the only church in town with the TRUTH,” and I lost it.

So we left. 

We made the worst possible financial and career decision and the best decision for our family and left the Church in which we had spent a combined 40 years, the church that trained us both, the one we planned to travel with to the mission field.

Now I have, with the help and love of my husband, begun a new mission. 

I am trying to do what my parents could not do for me years ago.

I am taking off my religious glasses. I am trying to see, truly see, other people.

Beginning with the girl I used to be.


  1. "Why? Because Jesus."

    That is the only thing left I can purely, honestly cling to. No matter what happens, no matter what I hear, or am told, no matter if something I believed turns out to be a lie... Jesus.

  2. May the road rise to meet you as you walk this journey with Jesus: for he IS walking with you. Grace and peace to you.