I’ve been quiet here since I’ve been traveling, driving solo from DC to LA, but the other night I had the happy experience of an evening with Sarah and Micah Murray, and we talked a lot about our stories and processing the conservative Christian world we’ve come out of. And I had a flash of epiphany this morning as I drove away, so you’re getting an Immodesty Rail post instead of a happy-Hannah travelogue post.

***

When I started courting, I was hyper aware of how everyone else I knew had done this thing, what the stories in Josh Harris’s books showed as the “godly” ways to “walk out” their courtship in “good faith,” and what was necessary for having a healthy romantic relationship. Or at least, I knew what I thought a healthy relationship should look like and I had a pretty good idea of how to make mine look like a happy, godly thing for others to later emulate. This wasn’t conscious — this was just SGM culture.

See, the overall focus of everything in SGM (for me) was: be a good example for others. Every piece of my teenage and college years was set up in reaction to either 1) what my elders would think, and 2) what those younger than me would interpret as license to mimic if they watched my behavior.

Welcome to legalism.

And my ex, being who he is, was also really aware of what was and wasn’t socially acceptable in these circles. As a result (because, luckily for me, I was also aware that I was dating a person), I was tuned into this, too.

Given what we saw modeled for us in courtship culture (and, honestly, serious/”mature” Christian dating culture overall), his initial behavior as my boyfriend was much like this:

From xkcd

And it seemed like the reason he did this (well, the primary reason), was because of the culture in our Christian community where everyone assumed responsibility for policing each other (accountability) and thus you had to behave a certain way to assure everyone that you were being “above reproach” and “mature” and “godly” with your relationship choices. It was basically dating as social performance art.

Being uber happy with your new relationship — in a verbal performance sort of way, because physical demonstrations were too risky/sinful — was the best way to keep everyone off your back. I think, maybe, I engaged in this a lot more than he did. I’d be aware of the social expectations and talk up the positive things in our relationship and try to gloss over or tone down the negative elements. I felt compelled to talk about things that were too intimate to appropriately share (swapping dirt with your girl friends is one thing, but it’s entirely another to share that stuff with everyone to try to preemptively keep them from being “concerned” about you), and it drained me a lot. I felt like I was always on the defensive, needing to justify my relationship and my choices.

I’m not actively assigning motives here, but after all of that I tend to wonder a bit about why courting (or newly dating post-fundy life, or even newlyweds from this background!) couples tend to frequently feel the need to spam social media with announcements of how happy they are, how grateful they are for their bf/gf, how blessed and undeserving they are in/of the relationship. And I don’t really care about PDA if it doesn’t seem like a performance to make a statement.

But that all brings me to the problem with this defensive reaction to accountability in a legalistic atmosphere. Your simple motives aren’t good enough, and you are forced to second-guess yourself and over-think things to the point of cultivating insecurity and codependency. Decisions are made by committee — you talk yourself blue in the face telling everyone you know about your decision dilemmas, and ask endless questions about motives and fears, and then take steps based on where you are at the end of the accountability gauntlet. And advice from mentors and peers and parents is great, but this isn’t that. It’s losing yourself and appropriate sense of boundaries and privacy for the sake of fear, and you often forget to enjoy the ride of a new experience because you’re so afraid you’re doing the wrong thing.

I missed a lot of the joy in various “firsts” because I was so busy over-thinking everything and tense and afraid of doing the wrong thing. And that’s just silly. Dating is supposed to be about learning, not getting everything right the first time.

Why are Christians so afraid of making wrong choices and learning through mistakes? If we’re a practicing a faith that’s centered in grace and redemption, we shouldn’t be obsessing over having the Instagram-perfect, thoroughly “accountable” relationships like in the glossy courtship books our parents handed us. We should be enjoying learning about the beautiful things that can be had in community and learning about ourselves and each other, without fear.

***

All that said, I doubt I’ll ever recommend a relationship book to anyone ever again. Instead, I’ll shove a copy of Daring Greatly in their face and grin and say “this will change your life.”


Hi. I’m tardy. But that’s okay, right? We’re all messy here.

You wouldn’t believe this week. But I’m going to rest this weekend. It’s so needed. 

Tonight I offer you my post for SAAW day 2! I’m going to write this SAAW response now, and then write the day 3 response tomorrow, if I can. There might be naps or Buffy in between.

***

Day 2 (March 20) is hosted by Joy Bennett of Joy In This Journey

Day 2: Your journey and consequences of spiritual abuse

How has your experience affected you? What has it done to you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.? What has your journey been like? How have you gotten where you are today? Do you feel you’ve healed? What do you still struggle with?

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

On Wednesday, I was returning to the office after running downstairs to Illy for coffee (it has been such a sleep-deprived week. You have no idea.) and I got into one of the six elevators and pressed the button for the 5th floor like I always do. The elevator creaked and sighed its way up and then hovered and rested softly at the landing. The doors shuddered, then stayed shut. I was trapped. I pushed the “door open” button several times, then the button for the floor, and then I realized it wasn’t going to open.

I paused, sipped my coffee, and eyed the emergency call button. I took another sip. Then I began hitting buttons again, but nothing happened. I wondered about what it would be like if the elevator dropped, and tried one more time before making the emergency call.

The doors slid open, and I stepped out with a deep breath and headed back to my desk. I didn’t feel panicked and I should have called maintenance about it, but I didn’t. It should have been scary, but it wasn’t.

Spiritual abuse combined with my intense childhood years in a big family leaves me a bit odd. I am numb or too okay in situations where I should be experiencing an emotional reaction, yet other things which should be fine and easy are instead crippling and laced with fear.

I won’t freak out in a scary situation where I’m alone or feel like I’m responsible for someone. That has been drummed out of me–I’m the oldest, I’m the responsible one, I fix things, don’t make it worse. But if I’m with a male I subconsciously see as an authority figure? FREAK OUT. I let myself be “weak” out of habit, almost as if I’m trying to manipulate him into taking charge. I may be a functional egalitarian, but my subconscious sometimes won’t let me shake off the hierarchy of complementarian gender roles.

Because I had a particularly bad instance of translation in the NASB used against me in a damaging way, I find myself really struggling to not snark or react strongly to the use of that translation.

When the ESV is used, I hear the voice of the senior pastor at my old church, reading Ephesians, Galatians, Nehemiah, Jeremiah. And I can’t hear the beauty of those books without the layers of legalism and sin-obsessed guilt he laid upon those passages as he preached his way through them, while I took scrupulous notes.

The phrase “do unto others” makes me feel suffocated. It’s a good truth, but we heard it so often in our family that it became a tool to guilt each other into compliance.

“She’s such a/you’re such a blessing,” “by the grace of God,” “thank God,” “I just feel a check in my spirit,” “I felt the Spirit leading me to,” “thank you for serving” — all these phrases make me cringe. I deliberately avoid these phrases (although sometimes, like on Sunday night, I really am led by the Spirit to do something and then my language gets flustered), because these are the things said in SGM to frame discussions, decisions, and limit the scope of reasoning to a simplistic universe. These phrases are stifling, and lack descriptive inspiration, and I refuse their loaded SGM meanings any place in my world.

When I meet a gregarious, smart, thoughtful man in authority, I have to check myself against either completely distrusting him or completely accepting him, because of the pastors I was under and the loyalty they demanded.

When someone is 100% happy with choices and ideologies that would have perpetuated the spiritually abusive patterns I lived under, I have to hold myself back to keep from judging them or feeling like they’re fake. What may have been damaging for me might not be damaging for them, and if it is in fact damaging, they may not be able to recognize that yet, and I can’t fix them or rush them to change. It’s not my place. It’s not my decision.

I get impatient and uncomfortable with “contemporary worship music”–it feels like a performance of “worship” and it drags me back to when how you behaved during the Sunday morning song set in church was a performance for those you hoped would notice and think you humble and godly. And similarly, long sermons with any theologically questionable roots (or a too self-assured pastoral tone) make me really twitchy.

The worst though, are sermons about things like the prodigal son, about God’s unconditional fatherly love for us, his constant love and acceptance and grace. These are the best sermons, but the worst days. If I can’t sit through it, I usually end up crying in the hallway somewhere until I can see straight and go back in time for communion.

These are my scars, the ones most obvious to me. I am healing. I am strong. But these have become part of me, too.

This is part of a series on spiritual abuse. The post from day 1 is here, and the link up for day 2 is here.


When Brian contacted me on Monday offering to guest post, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I was in for a treat and so are you. Brian’s a good storyteller and doesn’t have his own blog, so I’m delighted to be able to share his testimony of surviving spiritual abuse. We need more men willing to speak up, and it’s encouraging to find some who are giving voice to their experiences. 

Also, my apologies for not posting yesterday — I’ll lump the two posts together on Friday, but sometimes shit happens and there’s not much you can do about it. Tomorrow’s link-up will be hosted by Shaney!

What is your story?  Share your experience – showing the details without going into specifics about places or people involved. What made the environment spiritually abusive?  Was it language, unspoken social codes, beliefs, assumptions, expectations? How did these factors enable the abuse? How did you eventually leave, and why?

When I was in college, God saved me in my freshman year on Halloween in 2004 – no joke!  The first church I went to was a great Bible-believing church; but when I attended another church before the end of freshman year, there was something irresistible about it.  I concluded that God was calling me to be a part of that local church to grow, thrive, and disciple.  During college breaks, I would attend another church that took an hour to get to – yes, that was the closest church.  Members admired my sacrifice to attend their church and hear God’s word preached.

Upon arriving back during my sophomore year in college, one of my friends on campus continued to disciple me, and I greatly benefitted from his investment and example.  I continued attending the church I started going to at the end of my freshman year and there was a specific unspoken expectation of having to attend every church service and small group meeting regardless of any legitimate excuse; otherwise you would be in sin.  Because of giving my life to the church, of course other members at the church appreciated that!  I was so drunk on the Kool Aid.  Then I noticed that some of my friends there haven’t been keeping in contact with me; consequently, I would call them out in the name of fellowship and use Hebrews 3:12-13 as a rod and beat them over the head with it.  Since I had to confess my sin, they must do likewise.  It was also a time of when I was personally walking through some times of doubt, but couldn’t mention doubt because it was sinful to doubt.  Regardless, I was holding prominent positions at my pharmacy school’s campus ministry and felt hypocritical because of these doubts.  Eventually, the doubts subsided and God re-established my grounding in Christ.  After graduating from college, I moved up to Altoona, PA for my first post-grad position and I noticed the bad and ugly of churches.

I attended one church there and noticed that the demographics were very polarized – either parents or kids; no college-aged students or young adults.  As a single man desiring to get married, that was a problem!  Additionally, the environment was so inclusive; outsiders were forbidden to enter their circle unless if they would drink the Kool Aid.   In order to compensate, I went to Penn State Altoona’s campus ministry and there met my eventual wife.  Shortly after we met, we started dating without jumping through any of their “courtship hoops” and abiding by their regulations.  The pastor there had a problem with that and specifically hated my girlfriend because she was an independent, rational, educated thinker.  The small group meetings were so awkward; it was the same pastor and we learned nothing from there.

Fast forward a few months into our relationship.  We hit some relational problems, and the pastor wanted me to see him to “discuss some matters”.  I wanted to voice our interest in membership, but he rebuked me for not leading and going through the hoops of how to conduct a courtship.  He also wanted me to pass on some information to her and I was thinking, “Why can’t you tell her directly?”  Oh well…

So the whole “courtship” paradigm presented was (and is!) utterly stupid, controlling; in a word – unhealthy.

My girlfriend and I continued discussing other issues within the church. Besides the environment full of everyone forced into the same mold, the preaching was nearly the exact same every week; something to the effect of a 5 minute presentation of the gospel, and “God’s grace is amazing” peppered throughout the message.  Boring… Also, with their talk about evangelism – there really wasn’t a whole lot of that going on.  I personally had a significant struggle with that, considering that the pastor’s main focus was to concentrate efforts on children’s and youth ministries (considering college ministry wasn’t there besides my girlfriend and me!).  I remember him berating me about a Facebook status I genuinely posted about how to continue investing in a church with skewed demographics but also being able to fellowship with other college-aged/young adult Christians.  It was disturbing and we finally had a last chance to either hop on board with them or leave.  He even said, “You’re free to go!  But be careful out there…”.  Bullshit.  Next morning, we found another Bible-believing church in the area that all age groups were well represented, Christ was exalted, and (gasp again!), they held outreach events and maintained solid partnerships with other solid churches throughout the region!

Shortly after my girlfriend and I got engaged, I landed a position 3 hours east of Altoona, thus requiring me to move to the Hershey region while she finished up her semester at Altoona (while planning a wedding!).  With the recent damage inflicted upon us at Altoona, we were very cautious about joining a specific church in the Hershey area.  Same problem: inclusive environment, little evangelism taking place, everyone was the same (e.g. true statistic from the pastor: 95% of the families homeschool their kids).  Since we were different and not following the prescribed “gender role” marriage (i.e. husbands must lead and wives must submit unconditionally), on the fringes we were.  Months later, the pastor there mentioned that a 40-page document about their organization’s former leader was “long” and twisted the report to “guard” us from uncorrupt speech and relationships.  Again – awkward…

With one of the pastors being forced to step down and other bad experiences we had, we left and joined another church just outside of Harrisburg.  Christ is exalted from this church with members from 22 different countries – a very unique treat and gift from God indeed!

How has your experience affected you? What has it done to you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.? What has your journey been like? How have you gotten where you are today? Do you feel you’ve healed? What do you still struggle with?

I’ve been more raw and brash in my communication.  Spiritually, I sometimes feel burned out.  Disinterested in Christ, no desire to read the Bible, still feel disconnected.  Relationally, I lost some meaningful friendships in the process and struggle with loneliness, even as a married man.  As far as close friends go, I can count with my fingers the numbers of friends I have left.  Simultaneously, our marriage has never been better.  I still struggle with bitterness, anger, and fear, and have been seeking professional biblical counseling for that.  I am still taking medication for depression and anxiety to enable me to better handle my emotions biblically.  Somehow, I know God is using this for good, but am not sure how just yet; heck, I probably won’t find out until after death or Christ’s return.

Why should those who haven’t been hurt care about this issue? What do you wish you could tell those who want to help but weren’t close enough to know or see your situation? What do you wish every pastor knew before starting ministry? What would make the church a safe space for you?

For those who haven’t been hurt, you’re fortunate and I wish I could be in your shoes. Alas, God works in wondrous ways.  Let me address the men and women as individual groups.

Men, don’t be ashamed to share your hurts and struggles.  Sure, it may make you feel more masculine, but there’s a way to take your thoughts and feelings captive to the obedience of Christ.  Example: Psalm 42.  “Why are you downcast?… Hope in God.”  Nothing sinful about acknowledging feeling downcast, but it’s how the psalmist responds to feeling crestfallen.  Hope in God.  If you’re married, you better allow your wife to fully express her perspective on issues.  She’s called a helpmate for obvious reasons; sometimes it’s to deflate your ego as “the leader” and let God control the marriage instead of you.

Women, you’re much more than glorified incubators.  Being a stay-at-home-mom and homeschooling your kids is not all God has for you.  He’s given you a mind to use, analyze, think, and apply.  As a husband, there’s no greater disservice you can do to your husband (if you are married) than to unconditionally support him. Sure, that may boost his ego, but your input is so vital in making sure he guides you both as a team.

For those who want to help, I’m very appreciative.  It’s okay that you haven’t experienced the same hurts we have.  If someone is sharing their story and is still walking through their pain, you don’t even need to say anything initially.  While reading Job, I’ve often wondered how the book of Job would have been written if his friends just sat there with Job and sympathized with him instead of attempting to rationalize the cause of his suffering.  Like in Pilgrim’s Progress, every Christian needs a Faithful and Hopeful.  Point them to who they truly are in the Lord Jesus.  That’s what has been helping me when joining a men’s group.  Nothing else is more efficacious than to realize the worth a human being has in Christ.

 ***

Born in New Jersey, adopted into Virginia, transplanted to Pennsylvania, and am en route to move back to the greater DC region. Majored in Pharmacy, active member of the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association, and patient advocate. God saved me when I was 18 and has been molding me into the image of Christ for the past 8 and a half years. Happily married for the past 15 months and am expecting to adopt a foster dog by the end of this April.

In short, the message I would like to communicate to every believer is from a modern day holy homey, Trip Lee: Trip Lee – Robot – typography (@triplee116 @rapzilla). “The good life is living by faith in a good God.”


I’m glad this happened on my lunch break so I can say something right now while I’m angry.

Yes, angry. 

I was going to do day 3 of FemFest and do a link-up, but I think you’ll forgive me for skipping it because “someone is wrong on the internet!” Seriously, though. This is important. 

Dear Tim Challies, 

You’re using your blog platform today to

1) defend and protect abusers

2) twist the meaning of “loving one another” in a “biblical” way to silence those who have been abused by the church

3) use the SGM lawsuit to boost your traffic.

All of these things are in poor form and you should be ashamed of yourself. You can do better than this, and you know it. 

First off. You say this:

The Bible is clear that a distinguishing characteristic of Christians is to be our love for one another. John 13:35 says it plainly: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love for other Christians is the great test of our commitment to Christ and our likeness to him. This love is put to the test in a unique way in the midst of trouble and disagreement.

This situation is unfolding before a watching world that loves nothing more than to see Christians in disunity, accusing one another, fighting one another, making a mockery of the gospel that brings peace. You and I are responsible to do well here, to be above reproach in our thoughts, words and actions. We are responsible to be marked by love whether evaluating a difficult situation or taking appropriate action. We can make the gospel look great or we can make it look insignificant.

If we’re to know Christian by our love, wouldn’t that mean rushing to protect the helpless, the abused, the hurting, the crippled sheep lagging behind? You’re bringing in a watching world, so I will too: This is why the world dislikes the American church. We’re either playing the Great White Saviors for international social justice issues, or we’re playing the Upright Snob Who Needs Proof of Hurt before you’ll get off your plushy office chair and get your hands and heart engaged in helping the messy people in your church, in your neighborhood, in your homes. You are a foolish man if you think that Jesus is going to applaud you for giving CJ the benefit of the doubt instead of jumping to ask questions and help those who have been damaged. Of course you refuse to learn more about this situation–you don’t want to be involved because it’s messy. You and Piper and Mohler and all the other big name reformed Christian leaders. Whitewashed tombs! I can’t see your love and neither can the watching world. How is this “above reproach”? Even the Gentiles love as you do.

Why that matters: because this is the exact same thinking that questions a rape victim and asks her if she “imagined it” (read that article. the similarities in how abuse is handled are appalling). This is the  same sort of thinking that tells a girl if she was wearing a miniskirt, she was asking for rape. The man who raped her is a model, leading citizen! We should assume the best, right? By participating in this logic you are helping the church be a refuge for abusers.

Secondly. By saying this:

Because I am not a part of SGM I am not forced to take a side and, therefore, will not.

You are picking sides when you say you won’t pick sides and then suggest we assume the best about CJ and SGM. By saying this, you are putting moral pressure on the victims to second-guess their pain and experiences, which is spiritually abusive behavior on your part. By saying you don’t have to get involved because CJ isn’t your pastor and you’re not in SGM, you are saying that when you’re spiritually abused by your pastor, we don’t have to care about you because you’re not in my church.

This contradicts your earlier statements about loving each other and giving a unified front to a watching world. You have to pick sides because abuse happened and SGM looked the other way and now this is on major news outlets and the watching world is talking about this and looking to Christians and thinking, “well, they protect abusers and make uneducated court appeals to get off the hook easily. I don’t want a part in that.” How is that love? How is that intellectually honest? I know you’re smarter than this.

And then, closing with this?

If it is true that I am called to love other Christians, that I am called to believe and hope all things, that I am far outside this situation, then I think I do well to learn less rather than more.

Then why the hell are you blogging about it? If you’re deliberately choosing to be ignorant about it and don’t want to take sides, then sit down and shut up. If this isn’t your story or your fight, stay out of it. Posting about this if you really believe those things is a shallow grab for traffic on your site and that’s just reprehensible.

You are showing yourself for who you are here, and I’m going to take you at your word.

—-

For those interested to learn more about this, check out these sites for good coverage:

The Tolling Bell
SGM Survivors
The Wartburg Watch


So, there’s this lawsuit against the denomination (or in their lingo, the “movement” or “family of churches”) that founded the cult-like church I grew up in, where the leaders are being accused of deliberately obstructing justice and preventing sexual abusers of children to live without consequences while making the children “reconcile” with their abusers.

I wish I was making this up.

Now, Christianity Today is running a piece with a quote from the current SGM spokesperson from back in November, essentially expressing that the leaders are affronted that someone would dare bring this lawsuit against them, because it undermines their authority and reputation.

Here’s the quote:

“SGM believes that allowing courts to second-guess pastoral guidance would represent a blow to the First Amendment that would hinder, not help, families seeking spiritual direction among other resources in dealing with the trauma related to any sin including child sexual abuse,” Tommy Hill, SGM’s director of administration, said in a November 14 statement.

They argue that they didn’t need to report these abusers to the law, because the knowledge they had falls under a protection established to preserve the trust of a parishioner/confessor relationship. The problem is this: the abusers didn’t confess initially to the pastors. The parents of the victims and the victims themselves were the ones bringing the report to the pastors. The pastors then proceeded to take what they considered to be appropriate action: in most of these cases (and any other cases of this nature that I’ve ever heard of in my ten years in SGM) the victim was asked about his/her sinful desires which might have caused this situation to start (translation: did you want it? were you asking for it? your heart is deceitful–you might not have been aware of your secret sinful desires. No exaggeration of content, just tone.), and then eventually attempted to conjure a “reconciliation” between the abuser and the victim. Often this entailed apologies on both sides and the expectation of a hug to show goodwill. And while the perpetrator might be, say, removed from helping in Sunday School, he/she would be allowed free range at their home church, in the community, at Bible studies, and at church conferences. And no one outside of those present for the “reconciliation” would know about what had transpired.

This is fucked up. That’s pretty obvious, from a basic human standpoint, let alone a legal or “biblical” one.

I don’t like writing about SGM stuff often. But I think I need to now, because I was in SGM for 10 years and I get how the system works and why this has happened.

Here’s the thing that most outsiders won’t understand: this sort of interaction is objectively wrong, but when you’re immersed in the all-consuming culture that is your average SGM church, you can’t tell.

Let me walk you through the mindset a bit? It’s hard to understand, and I won’t go so far to say you get brainwashed, but you definitely become numb to certain things: lack of appropriate boundaries, pastoral manipulation, guilt trips, performance-based social approval, etc.

You stop thinking critically, because questioning things is ever-so-subtly frowned upon. It’s welcomed, objectively, but you feel slight displeasure or get sidelined because of suddenly busy schedules (because, obviously, if you have questions, you’re asking your pastor to help you understand things better, not studying on your own, because they have slowly, subtly made you dependent on their approval for your confidence in your discernment and spiritual maturity). You get asked to save your questions for after care group, or referred to Systematic Theology (which will probably not answer your question), or be assured that this is really a common concern, and they plan to address it in a sermon series in the fall. Just wait.

So, the mindset.

You arrive at a SGM church. You’re starving for genuine believers who want to talk deeply about their faith and personal struggles and you’re welcomed to the local church with open arms and dinner invitations and suddenly you’re finding that these are really, really nice people. And they seem so happy.

So you start attending their care group. And the material they are studying is heavy in theological terms and discussions of sin, and God’s glory, and God’s sovereign plan. You feel excited that you have found believers who take their faith so seriously and seem to be growing in the Lord.

And you enjoy the sermons and the Sunday morning music–they have a great band, the songs are meaty and not Jesus-is-my-boyfriend-and-4-chords, and the pastors are funny, self-deprecating, and they talk in-depth about verses and reference commentaries and historical context and you feel excited, because this is intellectual AND heartfelt, and they seem so genuine. The pastor seems so humble and tender. You can see yourself “getting plugged in” here for the long-term.

Then, as your first year or two passes, you learn about other things.

The women’s meetings where there’s a joke/illustration about how the godly mom the speaker admires doesn’t even have a junk drawer, she’s so organized. That’s so hospitable of her, to keep her home welcoming and clean! This honors God!

There might be a care group meeting where you’re asked to look back on the last year–where did you fail? Where did you see God “growing you”? Where do you want to grow in your faith this next year? Who is going to keep you accountable to it? And the idea of accountability groups is introduced: a biweekly meeting of 2 or 3 church members of the same sex, where you ask each other “hard questions” about spiritual disciplines and growth–where have you been “struggling” lately? what do you need to repent of? how can you make it right with person you sinned against (they may not even be aware of it!)? do you have any “observations” for me?

You feel encouraged. Areas of weakness are being exposed and you’re getting support from your friends to try to grow and work on them! You have strong Christian friends who really care!

And other things happen. You are urged to be faithful with your giving, so you splurge and give generously to the building fund. You are compelled by someone’s example to go get involved in Sunday School. You want to grow in the feminine, biblical virtue of hospitality, so you have some friends over for dinner once a week. You help make food for care group. You plan baby showers, surprise birthday parties, trips to the movies (where everything is pre-screened via Rotten Tomatoes to make sure that no one will be made to “stumble” because of temptations in the movie related to their sins they’re currently working on). You get really excited when the senior pastor’s daughter-in-law asks you to babysit for her kids one evening–what an honor! You do it for free. You and your husband are hoping to improve your marriage to grow in ways you see the older couples living out godly marriages, so you study books like The Complete Husband, and urge him to make sure he’s got accountability partners for his struggles with lust (because he’s a guy. Duh, he’s always lusting. We know this.), and you schedule yourselves a weekly date night and you try not to have too many expectations for it, so there’s a chance of a deep conversation.

If you have kids, you ask the older moms for wisdom and so they start giving you input. This input morphs into regular unsolicited critiques, and you realize you have to be really serious about spanking the right way, and not letting disobedience on the first issue of a command slide anymore. Your kids need to learn not to interrupt adults, not to be angry or fussy, because you’ll get an observation from some other mom if they see you struggling to control the tone of your family. Oh, and you’re a stay-at-home mom, because that’s God’s best plan and highest calling for you as a woman.

You offend your friend by snapping at her one day over a nothing when you’re stressed, and she writes you a long email later, offering her concerns for the pride and anger residing in your heart. She cares about you, so she’s going to point it out! But you really need to repent and work on that. Maybe have longer quiet times and do a study on peace and gentleness? You wonder if she’s right, or if it’s just that you were overtired and hungry, and that’s not normal. You ask your husband to keep you accountable, and you show the email to your care group leader’s wife, who urges you to take it seriously and to pray about trying to reconcile with your friend. Later your husbands may meet for lunch, to discuss how to handle this reconciliation. They schedule a double date, where you apologize to her (you’re probably crying, because this is sin and it’s serious and you feel terrible because this sort of thing is what put Jesus on the cross for you. You are such a vile sinner!), and she welcomes the  apology, and then tells you that she spoke with your care group leader and his wife, too. They have some concerns about your pride, because you didn’t seem to be very receptive to the rebuke at first. Maybe you should meet with them as three couples and talk about it? You’re mortified and want to make it right, so you agree. Your husbands probably don’t say much. Your friend hugs you and tells you how she loves you and is praying for you and really wants to help you grow–that’s all!

The three-way meeting with the care group leader will be the end of this, if you are meek and receptive and don’t argue or question their input. This will end with a time of prayer, and much thankfulness will be expressed over your humble, teachable spirit!  Sunday’s sermon is about how you are supposed to make it easy for your pastors to care for you by being teachable and transparent to them, and you feel encouraged. You’re finally on the way to being purified, and man, are you thankful for the cross! Jesus must have suffered a lot to save you. So amazing.

…and then live that way for ten years.

You have the perfect storm for socially quick, manipulative personalities to rise quickly in the ranks of the church leadership, for the depressed and hurting to beat themselves up for their sins and keep accepting any critiques of their attitudes or actions, and the insecure to always, always second-guess their own instincts and instead choose to follow the advice and corrective teachings of those in authority over them.

It’s not brainwashing, but it’s a social immersion into a culture where you lose your sense of self, your boundaries, your privacy, and your ability to reason independently in a slow fade to submissive SGM church member, fiercely loyal to the great people and genuine culture of faith there.

It’s insane.

And so, in that world, your child tells you that so-and-so at care group touched their private parts. You are furious. You confront this person, you tell your care group leader. Your care group leader tells you that he’s going to bring this up with your pastor and get back to you (because no one thinks to call the cops yet), and the pastor wants to meet with you (maybe you’ve never had any one-on-one time with your pastor before, so you feel affirmed and like he’s taking it seriously)…and then you’re angry in the meeting toward your child’s molester, and you get confronted about your anger, and, and, and…

Suddenly, the SGM sin-confrontation system has kicked into high gear, and the child abuse has take a back seat (because, it’s only on the child’s word, and children are so sinful and need to be trained to love Jesus and not walk in their flesh)…

And it never gets reported. And your child is made to hug his/her abuser. And the abuser is seen as repentant and restored, and you think, well, maybe it’ll be okay. That process of rooting out sin is really thorough. And they have so much accountability–from their accountability partner and their care group leader and from the pastor.

And nothing is done about it.

Until now.


[This is one of the promised posts about why I chose the name “Wine & Marble.” Communion has been a huge part of my spiritual life and binds me to Christianity in a way I can’t really understand or explain. I’ll tell my story and perhaps begin to work it out.]

Sometimes I wish I could shut off the part of myself that subconsciously breathes in and out scripture verses memorized long ago, the part of myself that is perpetually mulling over questions of faith, the part of myself that is bound to the idea of Jesus. For some reason, it’s indelibly part of who I am. I can turn most of that part of me and my experience off if I need to (it’s right there next to the “pretend you weren’t homeschooled/aren’t ignorant about pop culture” switch in my head), but the sacrament of communion has made leaving or forgetting my faith complicated and impossible. If it weren’t for this, I think I might have left the Church for good, long ago. But the offering up of the Body and Blood every week for my crooked self’s physical and spiritual renewal is stronger than my apathy and I am transfixed by it.

When I was a small child, my desire to “be right with Jesus” (the idea was vague, but I understood that it was essential to ending nightmares and live without fear) was united and inextricably joined with a craving need to take communion. I wanted to take the cup and eat the bread with a desire that is still the deepest of any I have yet experienced. I was only four or five, but I had a powerful need to be right with Jesus (which is a whole other topic–in the evangelical culture there’s a lot of fear-based pressure on little children to say the sinner’s prayer) which was centered on this assumption: I couldn’t take communion until I understood and could explain to my parents what it meant and had said the sinner’s prayer and accepted Jesus “into my heart.” Conversion and accepting Jesus was a way to get to communion and there was nothing I craved more than to participate in that ceremony.

Every Sunday I watched the communion ritual with awe and desire. I wanted that and everything it seemed to be about.

When I was maybe 5 or 6, I remember visiting my grandmother’s Episcopal church for the first time. The candles, the hush and reverence, the prayers and the kneeling–these were new elements of my church experience, and I felt both delighted and annoyed. I liked the loud praise band and worship dance of our Vineyard church, but this new mood was better suited to communion, and the beauty of it enchanted me. I remember how tender the priest was with the elderly parishioners  bringing the chalice and the wafers to their seats, blessing them right where they were. The body of Christ was brought to his people, and it was fitting.

Shortly thereafter, communion was served at our own church one Sunday. I don’t remember if they did it once a month there, or twice a year, but it was infrequent. And it was a big deal in my mind, though [obviously] not in the minds of those leading that church. I asked my mom if I could take part, and she pulled dad and me out of the service into the foyer. Dad told me that I couldn’t take communion until I could tell him what it’s significance was and why it was part of the church practices. [The thought of this amuses me now.] I told them what I could grasp: it was representing Jesus’s body  and blood after the cross and we took it to eat and drink because it reminded us of how he saved us. This was satisfactory, and I took communion for the first time that Sunday. I was baptized about a year later. [Again, how odd.]

***

A few years later, I was in Awana and was inundated with Baptist guilt-trips that caused me to fear for my salvation over and over again. I told myself that I had first believed that day I took communion for the first time, but fearful of my own anger with my younger siblings and losing my salvation over it, I walked the aisle again. Twice I prayed in fear, ashamed and wondering if God would be angry at me for trying so many times to “get saved.” Once was at a Billy Graham crusade event–my dad was with me.

“Let’s go down,” I said.
“You’ve already been saved!” he said.
“I need to do it again,” I said, and started walking, not looking back to see if he was following me.
“She’s rededicating her life to the Lord,” the older woman whispered to him when he joined us on the football field a few minutes later, as Crystal Lewis began to sing over us.

***

In the middle of these years of fear and shame and walking the aisle again, as I questioned my salvation nearly weekly, I found myself becoming callous to the ceremony of communion. I needed it, and it happened once a month at the church we attended at the time, and I was glad to participate and receive it. But the bread was a sweet, eggy bread made by some dear soul in the church, and I was always stuck late after the service while my family helped take down the sound equipment. My friends and I were all at that rowdy age where you’d catch us sneaking down forbidden hallways, climbing onto roofs, hanging upside down from trees, begging the teenage boys to let us play chicken on their shoulders, etc. And we were hungry after a long 11am service.

So we stole the bread, bit by bit. Nibbled it under the bleachers, giggling in the streams of dust-filtered light. “It’s for us, anyway!” we said. “And we’re hungry–Jesus wouldn’t mind.”

After several weeks of doing this, we got caught and reprimanded by the pastor. He spoke of eating and drinking wrath upon ourselves and told us to ask our parents for snacks, instead. So we stopped.

But maybe we were right, after all. It was for us.

***

Later we moved across the country for a church, and I was 12 and lonely and hungry to understand more about the faith I professed. I wanted to make it my own and I read and talked and asked questions.

At this church, they did little different from the others–communion once a month or less frequently, little cups of white grape juice passed in trays (white to prevent stains in clothing), little pieces of matzo or water crackers, broken in a basket on a napkin.

More organizational structure at this church and fewer spirit-led moments or maybe just the absence of California chill caused me to feel stifled, and communion began to hold no power. It was something that happened, and when it did we were prompted to meditate on the gore of the cross, on the agony of Jesus and his separation from the angry Father. Mood lighting was introduced, synthesizers were played. The first year or so I was truly moved by these things–they were new then. But month after month with no script change and no shift in focus away from the cross the rest of the time, and soon the potency of the moment was drained. The cross, the cross, the cross, the cross. Pull your chairs in circles, meditate on your sin. Pray for forgiveness with each other. Eat the bread. Drink the cup. Raise the lights. Sing about how you love the cross.

There was no resurrection hope, no advent, no saints rejoicing in new life. Only your sin, the cross, his death, your fault. Meditate on your sin.

Not knowing better, I found myself attending a similar sort of church for the first two years at college. Communion was every week there, and while it felt more genuine as we went through a corporate confession and received a pastoral benediction and sang hymns that celebrated new life, I was still numb. My Sin and The Cross were my blinders and I was only moved when I felt particularly filthy or like I had something truly awful to pray about during the confession.

***

And then. And then. 

I found myself caught up in a different church through my social group. It was an Anglican church with communion every week and grace preached from the pulpit like a relentless storm.  The sermons alone were the perfect antidote to the legalistic naval-gazing of SGM teachings, but the communion was really what brought me back every week. I couldn’t resist it. It called to me, I needed it. Like when I was small, this was a source of life and I found myself craving it all week long. It wasn’t particularly remarkable–wine in a chalice, pita bread torn to bits, lining up pew by pew and walking forward to receive it, recessing to a hymn led by some barefoot student playing guitar.

But the mood was set by the fixation on grace, on healing, on acceptance. And I felt little shards of healing tear me to pieces every time I processed and accepted the gifts of Jesus given for me. Grace was being made real by the physical act, and it knew my name.

Shortly thereafter I went to England for a short class trip in January, with the rector of that church and a professor and an armful of books on the Inklings. Our focus was on Epiphany–the season, the writings on it by these authors, and the Anglican church teachings focused on it. Our study took us to an evensong service almost every evening, and we were immersed in the Book of Common Prayer every day. We visited Salisbury, Ely, Canturbury, St. Paul’s, Westminister, St. Mary’s, Christchurch, and Little Gidding. We took communion every day. It was sustaining and beautiful and holy, and I let the rhythm and art of the BoCP prayers become part of me, journaling them, twisting them into my poems every night. And despite the daily ritual of it, I found myself shaken by it every time. The Eucharist was breaking me, healing me, stripping me of old lies and fears and letting me relearn how to open up and welcome the burning love of Jesus.

***

After college, after getting married, I was at a small church. My husband was obligated to attend as part of his job in the church office, and I went with him. But the observation of communion there was as bad as the soulless communion experiences I had in the nondenominational churches I grew up in. They did it infrequently, saying things that seemed like they were trying to remember how the Anglican service went, but not really sure of the right order or phrases. There was a lot of emphasis on the death of Jesus, a lot of emphasis on remembering. But it all turned from harmless to sour for me when the pastor said that communion was a memorial service for Jesus, like a memorial service we might have after the death of a friend. Nothing more. Just: he has died, let us remember him.

That’s when I took my Harry Potter books to read outside in the sunshine during communion Sundays thereafter. Sometimes we squeezed in an early morning service at a friend’s Episcopal church. “So we can have real communion before we go to our church,” my husband said. When he left that job and we were free to find our own church, I was very glad.

Since then, we’ve been at an Episcopal church near home, where the Eucharist is celebrated with reverence and joy. The priests exude tenderness and love for the congregation, and I am again finding myself soothed and healed each week by confession, communion, absolution, and the washing of the Word.

Last Sunday I came to church emotionally drained and fragile. It had been a rough week and painful things were raw and in my face. The words of joy in the hymns (Advent hymns are almost all about promises of hope and joy) were biting, rubbing the hurt. And when I realized that this service was lessons and carols (which doesn’t usually involve the Eucharist), I fell to pieces and had to leave.

Why? I’m not entirely sure. But I know this: a church service should not be about a teacher or a leader (the focus should not be on the sermon, meaty though it may be). The heart of the gospel is fully encapsulated in the Eucharist, and this should be the focal point. It’s about God meeting us in the flesh, healing us where we’re at, sustaining us in his love and self. I need the physicality of it. I need the mystery and the healing of Emmanuel. It’s everything.

[and it won’t let me go]


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?


This is a less documented, more anecdotal post, as a result of my discovery a few days ago that all my books on this subject are in storage. I think I did that deliberately because I was tired of reading things that made me angry. So, this post won’t have a ton of sources, but if you want clarification on anything, I can probably point you to a book or essay explaining it in more depth.

***

I was 15 and that afternoon I was at the local swimming pool with my family. I was wearing a new-to-me swimsuit in an outdated shade of orange, but it was a “modest” one-piece and it fit my angular body well. While Mom was getting the littles slathered up in sunscreen, I stepped out of my shorts and flip flops, and tossed them onto the lounge next to my t-shirt. While I looked around the pool for friends, I untwisted my knot of hair from its ponytail holder and shook it all out in the breeze. Spotting my friends, I started toward them, but then mom called my name. “Hännah! Come here!”

She was beckoning me with a very serious look on her face. I walked toward her, and bent down. “Hm?”

She whispered, “Put your hair back up. You look…” She frowned, looking for the words. “You look too pretty. The young men will notice.”

I was confused. “What?”

“Put your hair back up. It’s long and catching the sun, and that swimsuit is…very striking. It’s too much. Put your hair back up.”

“Okay, okay. I will,” I said, walking away. I took my time with obeying her, dipping my head down and away from the people nearby, letting my hair flop across my face to hide my tears. I didn’t understand, and my stomach felt tight and my face hot. Once my hair was up, I plunged into the diving well, kicking down to sit on the bottom as long as I could before rising to the surface in a burst of cathartic energy.

I spent the rest of the afternoon away from my friends, reading a book by the poolside, wrapped in a damp towel and wearing my hair pulled back tightly. I didn’t want to be noticed.

Modest me shortly after the pool incident.

***

The current church’s concept of modesty is largely reactionary and fear-based.

But I didn’t realize that for a long time after the poolside incident. It was just one of many moments where I was “called out” on some impropriety (sitting cross legged, wearing a blouse with a too-thin back, bra straps peekabooing, twirling without shorts under my skirt at swing club, peekaboo gaps between buttons on a blouse, etc.) or told another girl that she was being immodest and to cover her neckline when she bent down.

In our SGM church, we were taught that modesty was a way we helped men not to lust. In youth group, we had breakout sessions, where the girls sat in one room and listened to talks about not reading romance novels (they make you think impure thoughts and desire a relationship too early!) and about how our responsibility was to not cause the guys to lust. Therefore, we were taught how to be modest.  We were taught that “correcting” each other was the highest form of Christian love, and so if we saw someone being immodest, we should speak to her about our “concern” and help her see how she was hurting the guys by her dress. And if a guy was “struggling”  because of a girl’s outfit, he could talk to her and ask her to cover up. (Meanwhile, the guys were in the next room listening to a talk about the sinfulness of pornography and masturbation.)

We got really good at this. We had the checklist posted up on our bathroom mirrors. We talked in code to each other if we spotted an infraction when we were around boys. We learned to sew well enough to modesty-hack new clothes so they would be “appropriate.” We dressed up in new shopping finds and paraded them for our fathers, asking him to make sure they weren’t inappropriate. If he said something didn’t make the cut, we’d return it and start over. This was “biblical femininity” in action.

Once I was conscious of the male gaze, I was a slave to avoiding it. I became obsessed with obeying the rules as dutifully as I could. I avoided talking with boys—it might be seen as flirting. I avoided looking too stylish or doing my hair and makeup with too much care, because I didn’t want to be dressing for attention. I wore shorts and a t-shirt over my swimsuits or avoided the pool altogether, claiming that I didn’t want to get a bad sunburn. I became a watchdog for my sisters, smugly tattling on them to our dad if I caught them dressing in a way I deemed immodest. I judged my friends for enjoying time hanging out with guys in a group, thinking that this was a perverse desire for male attention.

The effects of this mindset on others (not just in my church, but in the QF/CP movement as a whole) were more personally damaging than my priggishness, but perhaps less obvious. My sister judged classic art for the nudes, “fixing” them with a permanent marker in a textbook. Friends fell into eating disorders, hoping to be less seductive if they were thinner and had less boobs to notice. Some hated themselves for their developing bodies and instead ate too much, silencing their self-consciousness with comfort food. Some took razors to their bodies in secret. Some toed the line, but just barely, attempting to get away with whatever they could without getting “called out” by someone.

This was essentially an assumption that lust is damning, women are both the objects and the cause of lust, and so we were responsible to prevent it. This, I believed, was gospel truth straight from the Bible.

Of course, women were never mentioned as having lust problems. We might have emotional fantasies and imaginary romances, but lust was a male issue. This drove me to loneliness and horrific shame, as I was a teenager with a normal, healthy sex drive. I was horny and I was mortified; this wasn’t supposed to be my problem. The church would announce a men’s meeting to talk about fighting lust and accountability for not using porn, and I would shrivel up, wishing that my secret wasn’t a secret, and that maybe there would be a women’s meeting, too. Or that I could “serve” at the men’s event and eavesdrop, and there learn the secrets for freeing myself from myself.

Later I would learn that I was 1) pretty normal, 2) not “addicted” or damned, 3) loved unconditionally by my husband and by Jesus. The bondage I had been in wasn’t as real as I thought—the mindset I had about lust and modesty fed my obsession and my shame, and once freed from the whole set of lies, I would discover that this was just a minor difficulty, not a paralyzing sin issue.

For the guys growing up in this environment of modesty culture, there was (as I have since learned from my husband, who grew up in a church affiliated with mine) a similar sense of being paralyzed by lust and shame. It was so assumed that he would lust after women that he never questioned it when accountability groups would meet and the guys would almost exclusively talk about their struggles with lust. It was as if they were powerless, animalistic and perpetually obsessed with sex. This is a caricature in Hollywood and the über conservative church—but this is not your average man.

Kevin told me that once he left SGM and he’d been out of the dialect and culture for a while, he found that he wasn’t struggling with lust like he used to–the idea of a woman’s body alone wasn’t a turn-on anymore. He found that his desires naturally were directed at a few specific things and toward whoever he was in a relationship with, and that he could appreciate a woman’s beauty and form without lust. He was no longer being told he was a slave to these things and asked to confess and obsess on them, and when he left that environment he was freed from the mentality it fostered.

As I spent time out of this culture, I found changes as well. I learned that being pretty and enjoying making myself look good weren’t sinful things, and I began to relax a bit. After being married, I have discovered that the idea that modesty is a woman’s responsibility is a very demeaning concept, and really doesn’t share anything in common with the teachings of Jesus, who held individuals responsible for their own sins, and gave grace to the naive and broken and penitent. He never said that women caused lust. Instead, he argued that lust reflects preexisting heart desires. And instead of demeaning women like the culture of his day, he respected them and made them his disciples and close friends, and the first witnesses to his resurrection.

I now realize that most of the assumptions I previously held were false, even anti-Christian:

The assumption that preventing lust is my job is wrong: only the one lusting is responsible for his or her heart. 

The assumption that modesty will prevent lust is false: lust wants what it wants and will see it where it wants.

The assumption that men are ravenous, sex-crazed beings, trapped by their passions: false. Men desire companionship and affirmation and sex and love, just like women. Women experience lust and sexual urges and visual stimulation. These things vary from person to person, but not so much gender to gender. There is great compassion in Jesus for our humanity. 

The Bible verses on modesty we all used as proof texts for the misconceptions and legalism we held so dear? These were largely about compassion for others and humility. True modest is not drawing undue attention to yourself. We wear what fits the occasion and is respectable. Finding the line of what’s appropriate and reverent: this is modesty. It’s a heart attitude, not a set of rules defined by gender stereotypes.

I have learned that my shame over my body was wrong. My body is hallowed because Jesus took on a body. My body is beautiful in the echo of creation and redemption perfection. My body is human and flawed and funky in my fallenness. But I am not to be ashamed of how I was made or loathe myself for it, and I am not guilty for the sins of others who may happen to lust after it. I can dress without fear, because I am not responsible for the worst possible outcome. I am responsible for doing well and living in a manner that reflects the grace I know in Jesus’ unconditional love.

Overcoming lust doesn’t happen by working harder. I tried. Overcoming lust happens by loving Jesus more than loving self-service. Shame over past lust and past sins is inappropriate–grace is active in the lives of the saints, and we are conformed to holiness by Jesus’ love. Not by working hard because we think that’s a what good Christians are supposed to do. We are transformed by taking each day on its own and not being anxious over transgressions that have already been cast away. Perfect love casts out fear.


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.