This article discusses the painful truth of spiritual abuse—a topic I’m passionate about because all too often it wrongly serves as an undercurrent to physical violations against women and children. So many who have sought restoration in a church were either betrayed and injured or the abuses they suffered were made deeper by how the church ignored the pain. Read Christy’s story and see why she wants others to be spared her story with the church.
I recently returned from a trip to California deeply grieving that my opportunity to be interviewed on a large, popular podcast—which focused on mental health and healing—was cancelled last minute for a seemingly trivial reason. My topic was on spiritual abuse, something that is not often spoken about in public. This sent me into a triggered tailspin, which included lots of crying on a public beach where I happened to take his call. (Not my best beach experience by a long shot.)
While my recent cancelled interview was not abusive, it brought up all the old deep-down, gut-wrenching triggers and familiar—but unfriendly—feelings of being unimportant, unheard, and cast aside. It’s these feelings that are connected to spiritual abuse for me specifically. At this point in my life, crying in public is not an issue, but finding safe ways through my triggers from a spiritually abusive past is an ongoing challenge. It’s taken me many years of personal work and therapy to understand and to validate my own experiences.
Spiritual abuse can be defined as abuse committed under the guise of religion, or harm inflicted in God’s/religion’s name. Some psychologists are now focusing on this as specifically one of the most insidious forms of damage, the result being Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I grew up in The Jesus Movement, a subset of the Evangelical movement, in which I was taught, as a small child, about Satan, demons, being in a spiritual war, end-times apocalypse, and that all unbelievers would burn in hell for eternity.
The Jesus Movement was organized around communities (communes), which worked together to help addicts, the mentally ill and others who struggled to function. As a result of community living, our family lived with a cast of characters who were either safe and respectful or who were quite dangerous.
The message I primarily and unconsciously absorbed as a “ministry kid” was that I needed to be “a healer,” “a helper” and at all costs. Boundaries and God didn’t coincide. Pleasing God was about having no limits, no gut instinct, and no voice that contradicted their belief.
Thus, my personal safety, my need for consistency or predictability “washed up on the shore” after years of being storm tossed in the ocean. Trusting God meant being in a turbulent sea with no rutter, no sails, and no compass. Subsequently, I felt terrified by how none of this felt safe and by how God allegedly judged me for being afraid, angry, doubtful, or frustrated in any way that would reflect badly on our faith, community, or mission. My childhood needs didn’t matter. In fact, I didn’t matter. Does this sound abusive so far?
Because I was also taught to fear unbelievers, fear “the world,” as well as the supernatural, there were no outside resources from which to objectively seek new truth. My well-intentioned parents didn’t understand or notice the stress, anxiety, and the nightmares I lived with constantly.
As I struck out on my own as a young adult, I joined ministries and mission organizations, and Bible Schools. I finally got a degree in social work and counseling and became a mental health therapist. During those early adult years, I experienced silencing and disparity based on my gender. This also took form in the way of sexual and emotional abuse, and in ministry contexts. Sadly, my internal formation and past fears did not allow me to fully process or speak out against abuses, because if I did, it meant I was speaking out against God or leadership. In effect, my speaking out would have meant I would have lost my community, and/or be labeled as “bitter,” “fallen” or “deceived.”
I understand now that these old, haunting messages played a large part in my story of staying quiet. I had lived with fear and anxiety for so long that it had become the norm for me. Internalizing it had sadly cost me my health. I also understand now that whenever your gut instinct is dismantled, your body can sometimes react through auto immune disorders, headaches, digestive pain and so on. I have had to relearn how to “trust my gut” in my own spiritual journey, and as a safeguard, validate my intense resistance to being controlled and manipulated. It can still be difficult sometimes to know who and what to trust.
So, even after all my years of intentional healing work, I still found myself crying on the beach last week feeling unheard, and with so much I wanted to say to others who had experienced what I had. In cases like this, I allow myself to grieve and I remember that deeply lonely feeling of having to “shut up and shut down.” I know that shutting up helped me survive my early years, but it’s no longer tolerable to my body or my soul.
Plus, it’s not my personality to be quiet about injustice or healing. I knew my tears last week still honored the younger me who did the best she could to be quiet, and survive what seemed to be a terrifying, no-win existence.
If you find yourself experiencing some of these themes or feelings, I encourage you to find a safe place, or person to explore them. Find a therapist, a support group or a mentor who can listen to you without judging your story. You may need to find a new church or spiritual leader that allows you to question things, or share your harmful religious experiences, or abuse stories. Some of you may need to step away from the faith system in order to do some healing work without the triggers. Whatever you need to do, know that your validation, healing and safety are important to God. Healing work can be hard, but working toward your freedom is always worth it.