Coming out of a spiritually abusive situation is incredibly difficult.

The first and biggest step  is seeing the abuse for what it is and allowing yourself name it. Saying, “this isn’t normal; this shouldn’t be this way,” is the watershed moment which allows you to begin see what’s wrong and why.

After my moment, I needed about four years to process it all. And I didn’t realize the effects of it at once – my understanding of the severity of my situation deepened as various life experiences uncovered it more and more.

When I started dating my husband.
When I saw how the courtship model was hurting my friends.
When I saw God at work in churches outside of our church group.
When I went to England with a group of friends and an Anglican priest, who heard my story and exclaimed, “What! That’s so messed up. That’s not normal.”

Emo shot from said England trip. If I was cool, this would be on Instagram.

Emo shot from said England trip. If I was cool, this would be on Instagram.

This affirmation of my experience, of my observations, was the validation I craved. I needed to know I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t dishonoring God by thinking these things, and that the situation I had found myself in was indeed unreasonable. Talking with others coming out of Quiverfull or Christian Patriarchy communities, I’m struck by how much we all need to be told this. We’re not crazy, this is not normal or healthy, and Jesus has more for us than this.

After these things began to unravel for me, I hit a wall with reading my Bible. I couldn’t do it. I was a college sophomore, double majoring in English and “Christian Thought” (theology), and my understanding of how to read was being gutted and scrubbed. I found myself discovering that the meditational,  charismatic methods of interacting with scripture I had grown up with were emotion-driven and tended to make me the center of my study, bastardizing any good-feeling scripture passage to soothe my emotions.

And then I realized that my entire relationship to my faith was centered around a daily feeling of the Word, not a real relationship with God or an understanding of Jesus. With my emotional presets on “GUILT,” I flailed and floundered, distressed that I didn’t know how to read my Bible, agonizing over why I didn’t feel like it anymore.

***

It’s been about four years since I found myself dead to scripture in my daily devotions. Since I stopped reading because I began to hear in my head the voice of the pastor whose teachings so damaged my family every time I opened an ESV. Since my devotions stopped being habitual (for the first time since middle school) and occurred only out of emotional desperation.

It’s hard admitting that. In the circles I grew up in, it was hard to look someone in the eye and confess that I hadn’t read my Bible in a week. To say that I haven’t seriously read my Bible on a daily basis in four years is to have to fight condemnation. I am not a “bad Christian.” I am not a “backslider.” I am not “abandoning my faith.” But believing these truths is hard when I think about the number, the days it represents.

But healing takes time. It’s so slow, and we’re so busy, and the Spirit works at a pace we can stand to bear. I have desperately needed this break. I needed the time to detox, to stop hearing other people’s voices, to find myself craving God’s presence once again, and not being afraid of how I should read his Word.

Just last year, I realized that reading Eugene Peterson’s The Message didn’t set me off. So I savored that as I could. This year, I’m excited to find that the NIV version doesn’t make me feel like that pastor is reading his opinions to me through a proof-text passage. It’s safe. I can read it and think on it with integrity, and not be afraid. As a result, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve actually wanted to read it on almost a weekly basis.

“Baby steps, baby steps.”

It’s a slow process. I’m on the mend. Other things suggest this, too. I find myself using words like thankful and grace again, without grimacing and deleting them to rephrase my sentence without religious jargon.

***

If you’re recovering from spiritual abuse, be patient with yourself. Don’t let the emotional habit of guilt drive you into a premature fix.

The best advice I got last year was from that same Anglican priest. “Follow the pain,” he said. And I was uncomfortable with that, because, really, who wants to do that? But giving myself the time to journal, to talk through, and to ponder the pain I was feeling allowed me the space to begin to heal for the first time.

We are so often rushed, so hurried to be the next iteration of our future selves, to improve, to expedite, to control. Be patient with yourself. Healing takes time.


15 Comments

  1. Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    This was a very refreshing post. I thought for sure I was the only one who had quit reading the Bible for a while…and I felt so guilty about it for years. I never ignored God or abandoned the faith, but I just needed some reprieve. Like you, I’ve jumped around to different translations more recently and have found it so beneficial.

    Just an observation: I think it’s ironic that both of us traveled out of the country and discovered how messed up our church experiences were. I know you aren’t challenging the American church (generally speaking) here in this post, but I do think it is very telling of how American churches can be abusive (though I do recognize that certain denominations/churches might be more prone to abusive situations). On the flip side, I am not arguing that overseas churches are perfect (no church ever is), but it was eye-opening (and in some ways rejuvenating) to experience church in a very different way.

    • Posted October 18, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      Well, for me, it wasn’t the trip abroad that did it–the conversation happened on the trip, and that was a big moment. But we could have had that conversation in Grove City just as well. But yes, I think it’s so important to see the Church in the big picture, and to realize how God is active outside of our bubble here.

    • Posted November 9, 2012 at 5:06 am | Permalink

      I have also found doing church outside the States to be really eye-opening and refreshing. Because in Europe at least on the expat scene, Christian theology and practice is so diverse, yet it’s not fake like it has a tendency to be in America where there are so many “culture Christians.”

  2. Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    OK, now I’m interested in reading the rest of this story. Have you posted it here in the past already?

    • Posted October 18, 2012 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Hi! Not so much. I’ve touched on it here and there, but I haven’t written on the whole story here. Follow along and bits and pieces will show up as I’m ready to write more.

      • Posted October 18, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        Fair enough. Have only followed the blog for a couple months so thought I’d ask.

  3. Posted October 18, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I think your last piece of advice applies to just about any abuse or grief encountered – maybe all. We’re creatures made to rest and feel. Stuffing it breeds bitterness and weariness or an elaborate masquerade where you convince even yourself you’re over it. And when the fix that changed so little under the surface comes off, it’s worse. I found that I didn’t really start to heal from things I’d been through until I let myself “follow it,” as English priest said, no matter how horrible and wearying it was for me and how much I inconvenienced my good friends in talking it through with them/you. 🙂 These things take time.

  4. Haley
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    This is so refreshingly honest. Thank you for being so open, I had my “moment” about a year ago, Luckily, I was only in a spiritually abusive church for about 3 1/2 years…. but that short time was enough to do a world of damage. I’ve been working thru stuff for the past year, but I realize I have a long ways to go. Thanks for being willing to chronicle your journey 🙂

  5. Posted October 18, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate this post. It took me several years to understand that the way I grew up was emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes physically abusive. The farther I get away from it, the more shocked I am by certain things. I don’t read the bible much, though I hope someday I can pick it up again without being overwhelmed with negative feelings…the bible was used a weapon of spiritual abuse in my home. I am just thankful that God is bigger than the bible.

  6. Amanda
    Posted October 22, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    That “Anglican priest” is a God-send for whom I too am very, very grateful!

  7. ally
    Posted October 23, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    just wondering… when you took a break from reading the bible for awhile, how did you get back into reading it? i’ve had difficult reading my bible regularly for the past few years after feeling disillusioned by growing up in sgm and i so want to get back into the word on a regular basis but still lack the motivation. any suggestions?

    • Posted October 23, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Hi Ally,

      As much as I wish I had some good tips for you, the best thing I know to do is wait. Try other versions, read The Message, make sure you’re going to a church where you feel safe and loved and where you can grow, and then just pray about it when you can. It takes time. I suppose some people may feel the need to push themselves more to get back into it, but I couldn’t do that myself without reinforcing all the guilt-mindset issues I was trying to shake off.

      Peace to you as you go through recovery. Jesus is still true.

  8. Elise Pryor-Harden
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    ‎”Simple”
    by William C. Martin
    The Art of Pastoring

    Following the Word is effortless and simple,
    but your people will prefer harder,
    more complicated ways
    because they carry the illusion of productivity.

    You will be able to tell when the balance has shifted.
    There will be an increase in activity
    and a decrease in thoughtfulness.
    There will be an increase in effort
    and a decrease in peace.
    There will be an increase in exciting programs
    and a decrease in wise and simple people.
    There will be an increase in talking
    and a decrease in listening.

    Stay pure and simple
    for this is the way of the Word.

    My former pastor, Julie Pennington-Russell, has been posting this man’s poems on her Facebook. They are directed toward pastors, but I thought this one might speak to you today.

    It occurred to me how we American Christians in the ‘evangelical’ sector like to measure and qualify and evaluate. “I walked and talked with Jesus today.” This we view with skepticism. “I read three chapters in — today and prayed Psalm — during my quiet time. And prayed for 30 minutes again before bed.” This we applaud and admire. Sigh. Jesus is the Word. He is the One to listen for. And what He says to us will not contradict scripture. (As you may tell, I long ago decided against being a Biblian.)

    Happy walking with the Word!

  9. Posted October 25, 2012 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Just stopping by to tell you how much I am blessed by your blog this morning. it is stories and blogs like yours that keep me doing what I am doing….hugs and more hugs.

  10. Posted November 4, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    I want to cry after reading this. I haven’t read my Bible of my own volition in at least two years. Probably more. In the past year or two, I can count the number of times I’ve been to church on my hands. (I used to be a Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and every special meeting kind of girl.) Pulling into a church parking lot sets off a panic attack. Walking into a church makes me disassociative. And I want to say I don’t know why, because surely my church experience growing up wasn’t that bad, I have good memories, don’t I, and I’m not that messed up.

    I, too, hear the voices. With Plymouth Brethren, there is no one pastor. And they are hardcore about exegetical preaching. And there’s no one translation they use – often, they cross-reference different translations in an effort to show that it’s all saying the same thing. Every version is triggering to me, because I was taught to hear the underlying message, not just the words. The Message might not be bad…but I can’t bring myself to read. I’m just now getting to a point in my life where I’m not constantly fighting suicidal ideation, and when I crack open those pages the dozens (perhaps hundreds?) of voices of peers and mentors and preachers and everyone deafens me with condemnation and shame and guilt. I just…can’t. I can’t.

    Frankly, I’m to the point where the idea of the god I was brought up to believe is monstrous to me. Some days I hold on to hope that maybe He really is loving and kind, but most days I waver between believing He exists but wanting nothing to do with Him, or believing that He doesn’t exist at all. It’s such a difficult, lonely place to be. Particularly when I have to hide this struggle from family in fear and trembling. (Wrote about it a little here: http://dani-kelley.tumblr.com/post/34636391174/everything-is-blurry)

    (sigh) Anyway. Thank you. The part of me that is holding out for a God that I can honestly love without fear is clinging to this post for dear life.

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  1. By When you haven’t been hurt on November 14, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    […] safe. And it must be confusing for you to know how to love us, when we say things like “I need to take a break from reading the Bible” (What! Are you abandoning God?), “I need to take some time off from church to detox” (Is […]