Sometimes I wonder how I sound to the rest of the evangelical world, to those who weren’t subjected to fringe patriarchal teachings from grace-forgetting complementarians, those who never fought the fear that comes with legalism from your pulpit, those who don’t have to shake the guilt hangover from their childhood churches or Christian communities. Those from idyllic, happy homes, where brothers and sisters didn’t have to be guilt-tripped into showing compassion, where you were always accepted and loved, no matter what.

I try not to sound angry when I write. I try not to sound bitter. Sometimes I am a firecracker when talking about these things in person, but those emotions shouldn’t really bleed through here, where I seek to analyze, to process, to examine the larger trends which ended up creating or influencing my experience in homeschooling communities, in churches, in my family and others. I don’t tell my story to point fingers or to throw a pity party on the internet. I write because I have found that I’m not alone in my experiences, and we’re all processing very similar things, and it’s easier if we can do that together. If we can talk about it and name the things that hurt us, it becomes smaller and we don’t walk around holding our pain close to our chests, burning us up in silence. I write because I believe wholeness is possible. Because I know that grace is real. Because those in authority over us weren’t malicious and didn’t understand the fallout from their teachings.

But it must look strange and be somewhat perplexing to those who haven’t grown old early as the oldest child in a big family, who didn’t have to question God’s goodness because of a church twisting the scriptures, who love freely because it’s easy and 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 your church bad? Don’t neglect the fellowship of the believers! Christianity can’t be lived out alone!), “I just want to have a good relationship with my parents, but it’s so hard when we disagree on these issues” (Wait, can’t you just agree to disagree? or They’ve hurt you a lot! Just step back from them–it’s a toxic relationship.), etc. And it must be very perplexing when you say any number of these or similar things . . . and we react by clamming up, or tell you long and upsetting stories, or get defensive and angry. It’s exhausting and frustrating for both of us.

So, how can you love someone who is recovering from spiritual abuse? How can you show us Jesus and love and understanding, without making us feel afraid or pressured into an emotional wholeness we don’t yet possess?

Be patient with us. Chances are, this is going to be a long process. It’s likely we could be “recovering” or “deconstructing” or “processing” (whatever word we happen to use for this healing process) for years. We may not ever be whole again. Church will be hard. Family events may also be hard. Don’t get impatient if it takes a long time.

Allow us the freedom to set boundaries. Don’t pressure us into things we aren’t able to do–you never know when you might accidentally “trigger” a flashback or that voice inside our heads that wants to keep us trapped in fear, guilt, or self-loathing. Most of us never knew to say no to things we weren’t comfortable with or weren’t sure we liked. Often we’re trying to build healthy relational boundaries from the ground up, and it’s a huge deal for us to be affirmed in choices that fly in the face of our past fears or guilt-trips. Examples: saying no to over-committing to serving at church or community volunteer stuff; saying no to things we were taught to be guilty about for no good reason (those burned by modesty and courtship teachings, especially); trying out new things that were socially frowned upon (short hair! piercings! tattoos! dancing! normal alcohol consumption! TV shows!); doing drastic relational overhauls to cut out negative or triggering relationships. It may be weird or hard to understand, but it’s a fundamental part of recovery. Read up on codependent relationships to understand some of what we’re reacting against and why boundary setting is so vital.

Listen. Therapy is great and we probably all need it, but we need our friends, too. We need what I like to call “a normal radar”–someone who will listen to us rehash where we’ve been and tell us “no, that’s not normal/healthy” or “yes, most people feel that way! You’re not alone. It’s not wrong.” Sometimes we’ll talk and talk and it won’t make a ton of sense, but just having someone willing to listen and be kind to us is a really healing thing. It tells us we’re not crazy and we’re worth caring about. We need that.

Don’t judge us/correct us/freak out if we’re angry. This goes along with boundary setting. Basically, most of us were in situations where unhealthy boundaries were practiced and we let a lot of people manipulate us. We didn’t know better then, but we’re starting to realize how wrong it was, and it’s normal for us to have a lot of retroactive anger, at ourselves, at the pain we have to work through now as a result, at those who taught us the things that damaged us.

Let us experience healthy familiesIf we’re estranged from our families because of disagreements over the past/our church experiences (a lot of parents feel personally rejected or attacked if their adult kids start making life decisions based on different interpretations of scripture or personal values) and you have a particularly healthy, happy family, include us! But don’t make us a “project,” because we can see through that and it makes us feel patronized. On the other hand, happy families may be too hard for us to interact with, because of the personal contrast. If we want to stay away and create some space, it’s probably because we’re not ready to go there yet.

Buy us books. Recommended books for those coming out of spiritual abuse are:

I’ll take reader recommendations for other books like these in the comments section!

Don’t lecture. Kind questions to make us think things through more deeply will be helpful, but please don’t try to talk us into conforming. Not yet. If we’re in this recovery process, it’s likely we’ve been worn out with well-meant lectures from parents and pastors, and we need some space to figure out what we believe, independent of authorities telling us how to think. As part of the boundary-setting process, we’ll probably end up rethinking what we believe about issues like homosexuality/gay marriage, abortion/pro-life movement, inerrancy of scripture, etc. We have to learn to believe things for ourselves. Give us the grace to ask hard questions, to doubt God and faith, to investigate the terms of our moral compass, to change our minds.

Go with us to visit other churches. We may want to visit different types of churches, but we’ll probably be too self-conscious to go alone. Offer to be a church-shopping buddy, and be the best friend who gives us a call to rescue us from a date gone bad–be confident and help us leave if the service is upsetting.

Watch your lingo. Christians often have some form of dialect, riddled with clichés and catch-phrases from our church culture. We say “blessed” and “hedge of protection” and “joy” and “thankful” and other similar things, and it’s pretty normal inside of Christian groups, but it sounds weird to the rest of the world. When we’re recovering from spiritual abuse, these phrases can carry emotional connections to bad experiences, guilt trips, or just a suffocating environment. Say that you’re happy, not joyful. Wish them good luck instead of blessings. Tell them you’re glad, not thankful. All those things may be true, but you’re not really compromising anything by making your language slightly more neutral. And you’re probably going to become aware (in a healthy way) of ways you’ve become lazy in your speech and relied on clichés rather than descriptive phrases.

Distract us. Sometimes we’ll get so wrapped up in sorting through memories and experiences that we’ll forget how to relax and have fun. Help us loosen up and find balance, not allowing the past to dominate our emotions today.

Encourage us to write. For some of us, journaling and writing can help us get things out and think things through. It can be very cathartic.

Readers! What else has helped you? What do you wish your “normal” friends understood about this process and how to relate to you?


I often struggle with jealousy. I go to a wedding where the couple is wholeheartedly celebrated by their parents on both sides, and I feel small and petty watching them from the sidelines as they make toasts and can’t say enough positive things about their children. I would hear friends talk about how restful their mid-semester breaks were at home and how much their family went out of their way to make them feel welcome, and I fight resentment. I see newlywed couples who glow idiotically and have no financial woes or inconveniences, and I wish them well and bite my tongue. I feel like these people haven’t earned their blessings, and I resent that no matter how hard I worked to keep everyone happy and do the right things, I never had what they have.

Yesterday I was plunged into this lonely place again (which is never about the other person, just about the contrast they provide)  during a sermon on baptism, when the pastor started talking about unconditional love in families.  He was saying, how in the kingdom of God, you are unconditionally loved once you’ve entered in (he was alluding to entering the “family of God” by being baptized as infants, and how there’s nothing the baby does to earn this welcome and this family and this unconditional love), and it’s never, ever about performance. The relationship with God is to be a safe place where you are loved by the Father without regard to how you’re performing or pleasing him. Whether or not you are agreeing with him. Whether or not you’re “good.”

Then he commented that this is how it is in healthy families–the parents love their kids by the merit of being their kids, not by merit of obedience, or agreeing with the parents’ viewpoints, or performing or behaving a certain way. The love doesn’t change, because the relationship between parents and child can’t be affected by any of these other things.

And I shriveled up inside, tuning out the rest of the sermon in my effort to not cry, there in the choir stalls. I have never known that kind of love in my family, in general. My mom understands it and gives it, but she is spread so thin that it cannot change the the overall tone of interactions in my family, which is (and has almost always been, for generations) marked by a tone of “what have you done for me lately?” and “why should I help you?” and “you don’t meet my standards, so I don’t have to care.”

The first time I saw real, unconditional love was in Kevin’s family. When I met him, the way he talked about them was just so exuberantly positive that I wasn’t sure it could  be genuine. As I got to know him a little better, I learned that he felt that he was sort of the “bad kid” (comparatively–they are such well-mannered people. I think this just happened because he was louder than the rest of them), and then when I met them all, and saw how they gushed over him and held him in such high regard, I was floored. Even if he wasn’t just exactly the way they hoped he might be, they still adored him and were so pleased to be his kin.

And being there with them was like a balm to me, though I did fight jealousy when I saw the contrast. Unconditional love can exist in families. It’s not a myth. You can disagree with each other over serious ideological issues, and still have a deeply loving, nuturing family.  It’s possible. I kept arranging my breaks from school, and later my weekends so I could spend more time with them, soaking up the healing atmosphere there.

I ache, wishing that I had that in my own family. Maybe it’ll happen one day, but probably not for years. And until then, I’m reminding myself again and again: Kevin and I can do it differently. We can be like his family.

But I’m still not whole, and sermons about unconditional love make me ache. I have to unlearn so much. My jealousy is a holdout of both my own pain and my still-twisted mindset of needing to earn good things, of needing to perform a certain way to get love. I’m hurting my marriage with this mindset, and I’m realizing I’ve damaged a lot of friendships because I loved conditionally and never realized how ugly it was because I didn’t know anything else.

Conditional love is a damning thing.


I started following Micha Boyett’s blog after I discovered her series on St. Benedict. Her writing has a gentle, incisive graciousness which I find beautiful. This morning I opened my feed reader and found this post on “Marriage and the Easy  Yoke.” I love this bit toward the end:

I can’t pretend to know much about marriage. Eight years is only 2nd grade in the education of married life. We’re only just now learning cursive and multiplication. We have a long way to go. But what I’m learning is that … Only grace oils the bitter places so the machine can run, so you can smooth each other out.

Her post is in response to this one on Her.meneutics, and in light of these two other responses to it. Reading those after Micha’s post, I’m bothered by how easily the author of the first post assumes that marriage is easy (without any discussion of hardships she’s walked through to back this up) and we should stop worrying about how hard the first year is supposed to be, etc. Like the first response by Kristin Tennant notes, it’s a bad idea to assume that your story or experience in marriage is the true one and read your experiences into other people’s lives. That said, I feel a little more kinship with the author  (Grace) of the second response: who are you to tell me that a good marriage is an easy one?

Kevin and I haven’t had a particularly hard marriage so far, and we’re not very far in yet, so I shouldn’t speak too loudly. We have a lot of time ahead of us before we stop being babies and earn the title of “seasoned.” But that said, in just the last 17 months, we’ve faced unemployment x2, frustrating jobs, evening shift work hours, depression, a move, debt, not having a church home, serious family tensions, a car accident, and more. It’s been intense. Not impossible, but difficult. These external factors have in turn exacerbated various issues in our relationship with each other, and the strain has been really exhausting at times.

We were talking about this yesterday, reflecting on our Saturday bike ride and how, while we had a good time, there were moments of tension based on ongoing issues, and by the end of our ride we were very emotionally worn out. But a little patience with each other’s weariness helped a lot, and we ended up having a quiet evening together, just being together and not asking much of each other.

Kevin commented that, for us, loving each other doesn’t always look like happy feelings and tender romantic moments. We’re both broken people with issues that make us hard to love and be loved. Sometimes, all we have to offer is insecurity, or anxiousness, or frustration. Sometimes we’re just too raw to make much of an effort to do “sweet” and “thoughtful” things. But there’s no one else we’d rather do this marriage thing with. Kevin concluded, “we can worship God with whatever emotion we bring in the door. He accepts us as we are–we don’t need to always put on a mask of happiness in order to be in a relationship with him. And it’s the same way with each other: we should be patient with each other, of course. But we don’t need to only bring the correct and proper emotions to each other. We can bring whatever we are at the moment.”

It’s been true. There is grace to be patient with each other’s broken places, even if I’m not always as tender as I should be when he’s weak (or vice versa). Marriage is the hardest thing either of us has ever attempted, and I want to be careful not to make it sound like it’s been all that awful. It hasn’t–but it hasn’t been hearts and flowers and Disney moments, either. But we’re best friends and I know he is a good-hearted man trying to love me the best he knows how. And I think he knows the same of me.

I doubt that our experience is universal, but I think it’s a pretty common one, too. I am really thankful that I have a good man to work this marriage thing out with and who makes the rough spots worth it all.

If you’re a newlywed, just enjoy your first year. If it’s sweet, don’t borrow trouble by worrying about what-if-it-gets-hard? and just savor the season. If it’s really rough, don’t feel alone. Plunge into community and get counseling, and let yourself enjoy the glowy moments when they come.


This week has been full of fantastic blog posts. Better writers than me are saying things that I have been thinking for months or years, and it’s delightful to read their clear, succinct essays on these subjects. I’m not Emerson, so I don’t have a problem with hearing my thoughts in another’s words.  Happy reading!

Why the kill-your-lust and modesty culture is just as bad as slut-shaming: Beauty vs. Sexuality, by Hugo Schwyzer

“. . . we shame men by insisting they’re fundamentally weak, constantly vulnerable to being overwhelmed by sexual impulses. We shame women for not being better stewards of that supposed weakness. That shame doesn’t just lead to unhealthy sexual relationships (including between husbands and wives); it leaves too many men feeling like potential predators and too many women feeling as if they’re vain, shallow temptresses.”

An incisive argument for true compassion in Christianity: Dear Me and You and You and You, We’re All Screwed Up, Forever and Ever, Amen, by Max Dubinsky

“Why are we as Christians so obsessed with nailing the perfect relationship? . . .  Every single example of a relationship we have in the Bible is totally jacked up. They all deal with infidelity, same-sex attractions, multiple sexual partners, lying, cheating, and stealing. Not to mention the very first couple in the history of couples is responsible for the fall of the human race. And we think we’re going to get it right? All I know is there is no absolute instruction manual for dating and abstaining, and what to do with your pulsating libido if your 40 and single. We are all going to screw it up, one way or another.

Wasn’t I supposed to be building orphanages in Africa, or choking the life out of Kony with my girlishly-soft and moisturized bare hands? Shouldn’t I have been starting underground churches in China? Or was I called to just give generously to those specifically called to start underground churches in China? If these are the things Christians are to be doing, why were we sitting around like a college study group discussing theology and dating as if it was the key to saving the human race? Because that’s also what Christians do. I played it safe within my community because the world out there was a scary place and hated me. If I could create the illusion of doing what Jesus had supposedly called me to do, and surround myself with likeminded individuals equally afraid of the world, I knew I’d be just fine.”

Why we should believe in the harrowing of hell: More Creed Tinkering? by “Chaplain Mike” [an apologetic for understanding how Christ’s humanity makes this part of the Creed valuable]

“Among the errors feeding rejection of this creedal affirmation are an insufficient doctrine of Christ’s humanity, an opposite error that Christ actually completed his suffering in hell, and an insufficient appreciation for the Beatific Vision and how it applies to Christ. In Marshall’s article, he gives eight verses from the Bible on the descent into hell and concludes by challenging evangelicals who want to excise this point from the Creed . . . “

When a psychologist does a study of Christians who say that God talks to them:  “When God Talks Back” To the Evangelical Community, by NPR.

[This hits on some of my carefully-guarded skepticism about people who say that they feel that God tells them to do thus and so, or to have some sort of special insight into God’s plan for my life. Like that one time when two different guys told me that God gave them each a vision/word that they were supposed to marry me. I told them that I’d talk to them about it if God ever gave me the same message. He didn’t. I married someone else.]

In these classes, congregants were taught to discern thoughts coming from their imagination with thoughts that were coming directly from God, says Luhrmann.

“What I was fascinated by, was that when people would enter the church, they’d say, ‘I don’t know what people are talking about. God doesn’t talk to me,’ ” she says. “And then they would try praying in this interactive, free-form imagination-rich kind of way, and after six months, they would start to say that they recognize God’s voice the way they recognize their mom’s voice on the phone.”

Congregants in the prayer classes at The Vineyard are taught that they are unconditionally loved by God. Luhrmann says she saw prayer groups in which a group would pray over someone who felt inadequate in some respect and remind that person that God loved him or her unconditionally.

“People practice experiencing God as a therapist,” she says. “They have a sense of God being wise and good and loving, and they talk to God in their minds and talk about their problems, and then they are seeking to experience themselves as seeing it from the perspective of a loving God who then reflects back on their anxieties and interprets them differently.”

The terrifying future of self-publishing: Birth Control is Sinful in the Christian Marriages and also Robbing God of Priesthood Children!! is now available on Amazon.com for only $132.48!