Please note this article is not about church bashing nor is it about Christian bashing. It is an exploration of a very painful, difficult, and for some people, an exceedingly touchy subject. It’s a subject which has caused me, and many other abuse survivors enormous anguish.
When speaking about this subject I have the same feelings I have when writing about the abuse and torture I endured. Spiritual abuse is a massive issue. It’s one nobody wants to talk about or admit exists because of issues of disloyalty and all the crap feelings that go with that. Just the same as twenty/thirty years ago no one wanted to talk about child abuse or admit it happened, but it did. Same with spiritual abuse, it happens more than anyone wants to admit or accept and no one really wants to acknowledge it or address it on a meaningful level. In writing about this topic I struggle with the issues that one shouldn't speak 'ill' or badly about the Christian family, same as one shouldn't speak 'ill' or bad about one's own biological family. There is just as much shame and guilt when exploring this issue.
That shows that spiritual abuse is still abuse - which in turn underlines the real nature of abuse.
Abuse is abuse whether it is spiritual, physical, sexual, emotional or psychological.
Abuse is about control and manipulation. Whether is controlling your behaviour and belief system, manipulating your emotions; manipulating you to do and be what you are are expected to; brainwashing you to believe only certain things or just keeping you in a place where you are not free to be who and what you really are.
Abuse is abuse is abuse! Abuse of any kind is damaging and evil, whichever guise it takes.
Church was part of the fabric of my childhood; as much a fabric of it as the witchcraft, satanic rituals, superstitious belief system, the abuse and the torture. Life without church was for much of my life an utterly unthinkable concept. As a family we were in church twice every Sunday. We were at every important ‘religious’ event in the calendar and all church social occasions and meetings too. We played the ‘happy family’ deception every single time.
If that wasn’t enough religion I went to a church school which was half Protestant/half Roman Catholic. There was a physical barrier in the school which separated off the two religions and the two did not meet. Within that school I witnessed abuse being used to separate people. I also witnessed physical punishment for the most minor offences in the name of religion. This taught me that God was “the big man in the sky who saw all, heard all and knew all, who had a very big stick and was ready to pounce on you at the slightest misdemeanour and beat you with it”. You had to keep his rules and regulations and do good things but even then you could never be sure if you really pleased the big man in the sky with the big stick. The notion of a loving God was totally absent from my childhood and adulthood up until around my thirties.
I was abused with the bible. By saying that I mean I was beaten with passages from the bible as much as I was by my abusers’ fists, feet and mouths. My abusers used passages from the bible as they beat me to explain/excuse why they had to treat me like that. I deserved it because the bible said so... because the bible tells parents to hit their children... spare not the rod! My abusers also made me learn parts of the bible. If I could not recite them word for word on request a beating followed. I had a bit of a love hate relationship with the bible but still thought there was something in some of the stuff I read.
You’d think after a childhood so filled with religion I’d reject religion altogether. Well, yes and no. I was always a questioning child – something my mother detested and tried to beat and belittle out of me.
But deep inside that child always felt there was something in Christianity beyond what she’d experienced. Inside she was seeking answers. Inside as she began to go through her teen years into young adulthood she had friends at church who were not ‘religious’ but talked about God loving them and of being in a relationship with God. This was new and a huge departure from the rules, regulations and good ‘works’ kind of religion I’d grown up with.
In the end I decided to give God a try and remember 3 days before my 15th birthday, 15th Feb 1981, lying in bed after being abused saying to God in the total blackness that was my life “if you’re out there and if you love me and aren’t out just to punish and beat me, I could use a friend, so come and be my friend – oh and please stop the abuse.”
Something changed inside me that day, I knew I’d found what I’d been searching for. BUT the abuse continued for another 5 years. That was so hard. God has spoken with me over the last couple of years about how HE gives people free will and cannot over-ride that free will. My abusers chose to abuse me instead of love and accept me as HE wanted them to. Many times God pleaded with my abusers to change their attitudes and actions towards me and stop the mistreatment but they ignored HIM and carried on. I still struggle with the issue of free will, but it is true we all make choices for good or evil and we all reap the consequences of those choices.
I tried to tell the leaders of the church things weren’t right at home, all was not as it seemed with my parents. I was dismissively told to “not speak bad about them, they were upstanding members of the church and pillars of the community and I should respect them, not speak ill about them” and was told “if I had nothing good to say about my parents they didn’t want to hear it and to keep my mouth shut, be a good Christian, do what the bible says, respect your parents”. The church and church leaders failed me and blamed me for being bad for speaking evil about my parents/family.
After being forcibly ejected from the family home, left for dead and disowned I was left alone with only God for company. During the following three years HE gave me some friends from work and church who put me up and helped me get places to live when I found myself in tight spots.
For my own safety at the age of 23 I left my hometown and moved to the other end of the country. Once there I found a Baptist church which was similar to the Anglican church I’d known up north. People were very accepting but again I found a diet of religion and religious solutions which didn’t satisfy the longings in my heart and the searching of my heart. People were accepting of me but didn’t really know what to do with someone who was so damaged, so relationally impaired. Simplistic answers didn’t cut with me nor did ‘religious’ solutions, there was still something missing. They talked about healing of the memories, laid hands on me and prayed for me several times, but nothing happened.
After 6 years I went to help out at a Christian event called “Spring Harvest” and had a very powerful encounter with God there. The encounter was so powerful that it changed my entire concept and understanding of God, Christianity and the bible. I returned from that very different inside.
I was so different in fact that I found myself clashing with ‘religious’ platitudes and religious way of doing things which didn’t really address the deep issues of the heart and the deep questions inside. I could no longer tolerate those things. I could no longer tolerate religion or religious Christians. That was the beginning of me turning my back on religion, the traditional ‘church’, but not on God.
At the same time I went to see the Pastor of the church because I knew of two people in the church who worked for an organisation I did voluntary work for who were embezzling finances from that organisation. I was told to stop my lies. There was no way those people would be doing anything like that. As a result I had to leave the church. It was several years later that the dealings of those people were revealed in the local papers and one of them did jail time. I was vindicated but it still left a bad taste in my mouth. Again the church, or leadership in the church, had failed to listen to me, had failed to deal with bad goings on within and I’d been the ‘fall guy’ again.
Throughout all this I was getting to know God through Jesus and discovering that HIS heart is full of love which I could not accept or receive because surely HE could not accept someone as bad and as wounded as me.
I moved on from the Baptist church to another much smaller ‘Pentecostal’ church. By then I was having serious depression and mental health problems.
At first I was accepted with open arms by people in the church. People in this church appeared to be very loving and everyone hugged one another. That was new to me and very scary. I don’t like touch although I crave it too. No one asked me if I wanted a hug just inflicted hugs on me. I got used to that over time. Sometimes I enjoyed the hugs and they were quite healing, depending on the person hugging of course, but sometimes the hugs were shallow. I’m very good at recognising the difference between the genuine and the false. Those were the hugs I disliked the most. Initially the church and some people in it seemed to have what I was looking for - hope and a relationship with Jesus that brought real healing and acceptance.
But again, once people got to know me and realised I was actually extremely depressed, badly relationally impaired and needed a lot of help and healing things changed. The pastor’s wife informed me that “I couldn’t possibly be a really Christian and be so depressed; I had to repent of my sin for being depressed; I had to repent of not accepting the healing Jesus had got for me at the cross; I had to tell those bad feelings/thoughts to go away. I was making a choice to be depressed. If I was a Christian I was a new creation so all the bad from the past had been dealt with at the cross... I had to forgive those who’d hurt me, forget and move on... I had read my bible more... pray more... do this... do that...”
But none of that worked for me. None of it helped with the trauma, fear and damage in the depths of me. I left that church feeling a failure, feeling I hadn’t been good enough, feeling that the huggy lovey dovey style of the church was a false front. In reality they had no theology or acceptance for people who were real Christians but had real damage in their lives which needed real answers and real healing not platitudes, finger pointing and blame shifting. I had enough of that in the abusive home I grew up in and didn’t need it from ‘the church’.
So I left and went to another church and another and another. In each one I was initially welcomed but a pattern emerged of being initially welcomed until my brokenness became apparent. When it became obvious how damaged and relationally impaired I was I heard the same “new creation stuff over and over... forgive and forget over and over”. I found some people within these churches who knew Jesus like I did and were genuine in their love for HIM but no one had any real answers for me. I just heard the same old superficial religious answers and platitudes which didn’t help. In the end I could never conform to their image of what a Christian should say, be or do.
The penultimate church I tried was a really big church. My administrative abilities were recognised and after being there a few months I found myself working voluntarily for over 2 years as PA to the head of the pastoral team. But after a while I was informed that the leadership had stated that although I wore a pastoral team badge at services on Sunday mornings “I was not allowed to pray with anyone because I was such a mess.” That hurt me more than anyone will know. When the person decided to stop heading up the pastoral team I had meetings with the church leadership.
They wanted to use my administrative abilities but only if I could meet their demands on how I spoke, behaved etc. They could not accept the ‘ME’ that I was. They were not offering me any kind of support or help with healing, just the same old unhelpful, patronising, simplistic platitudes which didn’t satisfy, help or encourage. All they did was tear me down and blame me for being the mess I was. They could not accept the package that was ‘ME’. They wanted my abilities as an administrator but not the person who came with them. I decided that was an intolerable and unsustainable situation and walked away from that church with a broken heart.
I tried another after that and came across some really genuine Christians but again very simplistic solutions and platitudes which didn’t really help. In the end I had to completely walk away from ‘the church’.
I could not conform. I could and can only be me. The real ‘me’ is damaged and needs accepting, help and healing.
I never found that in any church I tried. So many Christians when they realised how wounded and damaged, totally relationally impaired and untrusting I was and yet I purported to be a Christian and to love Jesus – fingers pointed, the ’should’ words began to be spoken and it was turned on me that it was my fault I was so screwed up. That caused so much hurt and added to my confusion and left me with so many questions.
But whatever happened, I could never give up on God. I could never give up on Jesus because what I had with them was real. What I had with them was healing. What I had with them was so special.
In the end I walked away from ‘the church’. I stopped looking to ‘the church’. I stopped looking to people and walked straight into the arms of Jesus. I have ‘Christian’ friends who’ve raised their eyebrows at the fact that I’ve not been in church for nearly three years. Some even suggested I’m falling away or backsliding or even rebelling against God and the bible and have quoted the parts of the bible that tell you not to stop meeting together with other Christians.
The hardest thing for me has been that the so called ‘church family’ rejected me, blamed me and abused me and rejected me just as much as my biological family.
I’ve had to redefine ‘church’. ‘Church’ is actually about the gathering of people together in the name of Jesus. That can happen anywhere, including in the home and on the internet. Two Christians having coffee together and discussing what God’s been doing in their lives is actually ‘church’ in its most basic form.
Although I’ve not physically been inside a ‘church’ building for nearly 3 years except for several funerals I’ve actually connected with many Christians across the world over the internet, through a Christian chat room and more generally. My ‘church family’ is in my laptop. In some ways this is really good for someone so relationally impaired. I find it much easier to have relationships with people through the anonymity of a computer screen, over distance, where there are not the same trust issues than in physical relationships. There are still trust issues but at a different level.
My experience of ‘church’ and religious abuse has left me with many questions.
Why is it that so many Christians don’t get that you can be a Christian and be in such a mess. Why is that?
Instead of coming alongside me, giving me space to tell my story and helping, it was oh just forgive, forget, move on, it happened so long ago, stop harping on about it, stop dragging it up from the past. WHY IS THAT? How can I ever forget 20 years of abuse and torture? It may have happened a long time ago, but I live with it every minute I’m awake and then in my nightmares when I do sleep. For me it’s not in the past but very much in the present.
How can I forgive when my abusers deny anything ever happened? How can I forgive when my abusers say anything bad that ‘might’ have happened was because I such a bad person, they did nothing wrong?
Why are churches and so many Christians so closed minded about the realities of living with past sexual abuse? Why are churches and so many Christians so closed minded about the realities of the deep damage of childhood abuse and the complexities of the healing processes? Why do so many churches have systems in place to prevent abuse happening, but provide little or no support to REALLY help victims heal? Why is it that so many Christians tell you that as you are a Christian, you are a new person so your past is gone, so all the stuff from your past abuse should be gone too?
Why is it that so many Christians tell you that you are doing something wrong if you aren’t healing from the damage of the abuse or if you don’t have joy etc? Why do so many Christians tell you that if you read your bible enough and pray enough you should be fine? Thereby implying that you cannot be reading your bible or praying enough because you are a screwed up mess!
Why is it that so many Christians think you don’t need counselling or anything; you just need to get over it, forgive your abusers and forget it? WHY IS THAT?”
One of the hardest things I found in church was the use of language. Calling God ‘Father’ is a huge trigger for me. It’s taken me a long time to be able to relate to God as my Safe Daddy. Talking about having secret places is bad for me too. I understand about the secret place of time alone with God, but talking about secrets and secret places are huge triggers for me. There is so much language used in church which can be triggers.
Many times over the years I heard so much talk about being family but noticed over and over that Christians are no different to people outside the church – they look after their own – all the talk about being family I saw over and over was very shallow. Rarely was I invited to lunch after church. At important times of the year such as Easter, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day etc, again very rare invites to lunch or meals. All the talk about being ‘family’ was so superficial. In reality I was very alone.
Going home from church, seeing so many of the rest of my friends at church going home to be with friends and family, and hearing them talk about their plans to do so increased my sense of isolation of having none to eat Sunday lunch with. It was hard to fight the feelings of jealousy I felt too. So often I left church feeling isolated and suicidal because of all those memories and all that pain. In the end I stopped going to church to avoid going through that pain each week.
I had another issue with going to church, or rather leaving church. The hardest thing in going to church for me was leaving church afterwards and heading home. That always sent me into a depression. I couldn’t handle it because deep inside I was reminded that as child going home from church meant walking back into hell. It meant going home to punishment beatings. It meant going home to the isolation of being in that hell hole of a home with none to come to my rescue.
Why is it that all these years later going home from church should trigger so much painful stuff, that now I cannot face going to church because I just cannot face that pain of going home from church alone anymore? Why is it that church is full of so many Christians who are simply not honest about the real struggles so many of us face in our attempts to survive and deal with the damage caused by our past abuse?
Why is it that church is the one place I avoid because I know I don’t fit people’s ideals as to what being a Christian should be?
Why is it that church is the one place that I avoid simply because I cannot face the questions and the ‘should’ statements anymore?
The truth is that over and over I've been accepted up to a point. That point is always when I could no longer dodge the questions about who are you? where are you from? who are your family? where do they live? Etc. That's when people started to get to know 'ME' and discovered I don't fit into their neat little box of 'how a Christian should be'. I don't have a nice. I am seriously relationally impaired and don't let people close, I cannot trust easily, it takes a lot for me to trust someone and let me get to know and see the real me.
Why is it that so many Christians are blind to the work that God is doing in my life because I’m not healing in the way or at the pace that they think I ‘should’ be? Why is it that I walk so closely with Jesus because I have to, I would not be alive if I didn’t, and yet feel such a misfit when I do summon up the courage to go to church?
I hate religion, hypocrisy and pretension, my childhood was full of that. I am real and really want to engage on a deep level with the issues which really matter. I realise many Christians I've met haven’t had to wrestle with the real deep gut wrenching issues of life and have an unrealistic simplistic theology which doesn’t give much acceptance or room for those of us who belong to Jesus but have huge mental health issues.
Most have been very simplistic about the abuse in my childhood saying you should just forgive, forget and move on which is totally unrealistic. I’m seriously allergic to religious and simplistic Christians.
My life has been devastated by the trauma and sustained terror I endured during the first 20 years of my life. I was so violated that I feel tainted to the core by those violations. It is because of these things and the deep need inside me to find real answers, real hope, real healing that has driven me to keep seeking and not quit until I found the answers. The damage is so deep and so complex that there are no simple answers and no simple solutions. The wonderful thing is that God has now brought some wonderful professional experienced amazing women into my life who are all giving me hope and walking alongside me, believing in me.
My heart was broken twice over, once by my birth family and second by the “church family”.
Thankfully I now have a small handful of Christian friends who see the real me who underneath that fake smile so desperately wants to heal. Thank you to all of you who are supporting me in my journey. Thank you for walking alongside me and praying for me, even though you may not always understand what is going on. You are slowly and surely restoring my trust and showing me the love and compassion of my SAFE DADDY.
It’s wonderful I have a voice now through my blogs. I love how God is connecting me with so many survivors over the internet and through the wonderful community which is the “Emerging From Broken” blog.
I discovered the 'churches' I went to and the ‘leaders’ in them wanted my abilities but didn't want me unless I conformed to their image of how to be, how to speak, how to act, even what to believe. They couldn’t accept the package that I was, that I am. Some wouldn’t even accept I could possibly be a ‘real’ Christian because of what the package looked like.
Now I have about a dozen Christian friends as well as other online ones who are supportive of me, understanding where I've come from and where I'm going and who can see Jesus in me and the work that HE is doing. I had coffee with one such friend recently. She said something to me which blew me away - she said "I was excited about seeing you and being with you because spiritually you carry something very special." It's good to remind myself of what she said!!
Sometimes there are no words beyond those that build someone up. Sometimes all that is required is for people to walk alongside someone, observe and pray and see the real “ME” beneath my fake smile. That friend is one of those people and I value her immensely, thank you for saying that to me.
That comment was very special because as I mentioned earlier some ‘Christian’ friends/acquaintances‘ have raised their eyebrows that I’ve not been inside a church for nearly three years now, apart from weddings and funerals. Some would call me a nominal Christian, even a backslider for that. Others have suggested I’m disobeying the bible by not going to church. But they are not the people who really know me.
I felt that point needed repeating because it is so easy to judge without having all the facts and being blind to what God is doing in someone’s life because their walk with God is unconventional and does not meet with your theology or understanding of how a Christian should be thus disapproval is felt or even communicated and causes more damage.
Those who do know the real ‘ME’ know that I have a very deep and close personal relationship with Jesus, my BIG BRUVVER and God, my SAFE DADDY. They are the people who can see and sense HIS work in my life, HIS hand on my life and HIS leading and supporting of me. The frank truth is that for many reasons going to church and dealing with church life is just too difficult and too painful.
That statement is a very sad indictment of the state of ‘the church’ that I, and many others like me who’ve survived horrific abuse, have not found real answers in ‘the church’ and been rejected and treated the same way.
It saddens me deeply to make such a statement but it is the truth as I have experienced it.
There are some good churches. I know of survivors who’ve had great experiences with churches and Christians, but sadly there are many more who haven’t.
This article is written to encourage those survivors whose experiences of ‘church’, ‘Christians’ and ‘Christianity’ have been negative, painful and in many cases downright abusive. I want you to know you are not alone although you may feel very isolated and misunderstood.
This article is also written to bring this painful subject out into the open because it needs to be. I mean no one any harm with this article. There is no malice in my writing. I write with immense sadness in my heart.
It deeply saddens me that many have given up on God because of their experiences because I know HIS love for you is undiminished and it grieves HIM even more than it grieves me or anyone else who’s been rejected by ‘the church and ‘Christians.’
I’ve written this article because I choose to bring this subject out into the open.
I’ve brought this subject into the open because I choose to speak the truth and to live in the truth.
The truth is the spiritual abuse I’ve experienced has damaged and confused me at very deep levels, and there are many other survivors around the world who have had similar experiences.
I am a survivor of extremely severe ritualistic childhood abuse and sadistic systematic torture. Without God's intervention in my life I wouldn't be here - NOW is the time for me to tell MY story by speaking the TRUTH about MY life. I will be silenced no more! On this blog I share MY life, MY healing journey; helpful quotes/stuff I come across and MY thoughts along the way. The more I speak out the more liberated I am from the shame and trauma of the abuse. My broken wings are gradually being restored. This blog has helped me begin to get my voice back and documents the journey God is taking me on to heal me from the trauma and damage caused by that most appalling abuse.