Groomed to Doubt through Spiritual Abuse

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“Are you sure?…”

As children we have a childlike faith. It just is. Faith that our parents are always right and acting in our best interest. Faith that we can take things at face value and learn to operate in this world based on the feedback we get from the prominent people in our lives. In my childhood, I also developed a very simple kind of faith in God. I grew up going to church every Sunday and my experiences there constructed another faulty corner of my belief system. In my last post I shared one of these experiences, and now I want to describe a recurring church experience that fueled the belief that I could not trust myself.

Every Sunday that I went to church, I took with me this simple and childlike faith in God. It was a natural, simple belief that just was. I didn’t try hard to make it happen. I sat in Sunday School and church and took in everything I was taught about what it meant to believe in and love this God and what it meant for him to love me. I believed everything they told me because as a child, I didn’t have much else to compare their teachings to and didn’t learn to question it.

In my early teenage years, a new pastor came to our church. He was charismatic at the pulpit and presented himself very humbly and earnest in person. In his sermons he went into deep detail about all the ins and outs of the Bible.  Our church esteemed him as our all-knowing leader who was very close to God. I pretty much took everything he said as golden truth.

Sunday after Sunday I listened intently to his sermons. By my teenage years, my depression was becoming more uncomfortable for me and I started hungering for comfort. Sitting in those services, I was the epitome of vulnerable… A hungering heart, a simple faith, an obedient listener. Sometimes I found comfort in the sermon. I would grasp at some words or phrase or Bible verse that assured me that I was loved and that I was accepted, that I was good enough. But this doubt about myself and my faith kept growing within me. It was a confusing, gradually consuming “merry-go-round” feeling. I would leave church feeling lighter and assured, but over the week more and more doubts would grow. I didn’t have the perspective at the time to understand why. But now I see the huge twist that was happening.

Every Sunday, at the end of almost every sermon, the pastor would challenge all of us. He would challenge us with this kind of question: “Now, you may have told God that you want to follow him. You may have prayed at various times throughout your life for his forgiveness. But, take some time now to look deep in your heart and ask yourself, are you sure? Have you really made the decision to follow God? You may think you have, but today, why don’t you be sure? Make that commitment anew. Show God, once again, that you are serious and genuine in your belief.”

It seemed like a good admonishment on the surface… It seemed like the pastor wanted us to know God and that’s why he challenged us. It seemed like a good thing when people would go to the front to pray, crying and contrite. It seemed like it was good because, well, of course it would be good to want to be sure that we were following God… Who could argue with that? But how come myself and the other people there weren’t jumping out of our pews joyful and alive every week? How come, for me, my depression grew worse and worse and I grew more and more anxious about my faith? My doubts about the genuineness of my faith grew so strong that at one point I went to talk to the pastor and asked him for help with it… I told him I was so doubtful about whether or not I really did love God. He took out a pamphlet of The Four Spiritual Laws and walked me through it. He assured me that if I had faith and believed, then I was okay. In his office he validated my faith; but from the pulpit he didn’t.

The twist worked away at my soul. It is the same twist at the heart of all kinds of abuse, the twist that teaches us to doubt ourselves through contradicting messages. There I sat in church, with my simple faith, along with hundreds of other people with their faith (why ELSE would they be at church if they didn’t have some level of desire to know God??) and Sunday after Sunday, the pastor shot arrows, challenging us to MAKE SURE that we were serious about following God. Our actions showed we were serious. But the faith that we were already demonstrating was ignored. Instead, we were admonished to be better, to believe better, to decide stronger, to commit more deeply.

The questioning started digging underneath my faith, slowly hollowing out a pit of self doubt and confusion which easily spread to every area of my life too. I was groomed to doubt all of my feelings, all of my “simple faiths” about anything else. It was one of the most powerful, churning lies at the root of my struggle with depression.

My next post, “Spiritual Abuse and Emotional Ravaging” will put a spotlight on the emotional damage that happened to me at church…


66 response to "Groomed to Doubt through Spiritual Abuse"

  1. By: Carla Posted: 9th July 2012

    Hi Gale~ thank you for reading my post and the comments and engaging so much with the heart of what I shared. I love how you describe the truth and how Jesus taught it: “We can see for ourselves and really grasp the point without him telling us directly, what the right things to do were.” What I hear you saying is that the truth speaks for itself, both in what is presented and through the people presenting it. It inspires a certain “alive” feeling… that isn’t found in rule keeping and shame and control and manipulation. I applaud your courage in standing up for your truth in exactly the ways you are. And thank you for contributing so much to my post. ~Carla

  2. By: Gale Posted: 7th July 2012

    People use scripture to suit their own core beliefs and refine or explain their own ideas.I honestly can quote scripture as well, but Jesus used illustrations for a reason, and this also separated him from the letter of the law the pharisees would refer too. We can see for ourselves and really grasp the point without him telling us directly, what the right things to do were. Jesus was shunned for breaking the sabbath… he was shunned for many things deemed by the most holey, as unscriptural… and Jesus gave illustrations why he did what he did, therefore making what he did scriptural. So I dont just listen to the letter of the law either without an illustration to clarify the context. So what I was hearing from this post was a little girls understanding and perspective, then how it effected her personally. I heard truth and no one should be condemned, or corrected for sharing truth. A child sees things and are effected so differently,they are vulnerable. I know… and it gets more confusing as time goes on when what we see and what is being done are different. We internalize, and scripture ourselves into circles trying to do the right things. Some guilt themselves to death for not forgiving themselves or others for mistakes. I remember being told that we shouldn’t say anything that stumbles another, scriptural reasons why we need to make a defense, how we need to keep Gods organization clean, and all the balance or imbalance that came from scripture to get that persons point across. When I got older I could also use scripture to prove my perspective from the same bible and get a better balance, but of course that meant I was not being agreeable and twisting scripture to suit my purposes too, according to them. It was like I was not allowed another perspective, we definitely were not allowed to question but we were told to question too. So I used the same publications, or tapes from the elders to show it was not just from me and then I still was corrected. I realized many things from these peoples posts, and from trying to discuss religion before(if you can call it discussion or opinion). This post is a good example. For me the whole point to this post is how the way we deliver our message effects people and how it came across a little girl, the harm it caused her. To others they got something else out of it, and this is no different than in Jesus time with his illustrations. If you dont like what you hear then you got the message, now the trick is what are you personally going to do with this, and do you see the good as well as the bad? Some share their experiences, some are against it, some defend it, but that is the point of speaking the truth… we learn. When I see scriptures posted with another sermon correcting or reminding us of how we need to please God and why,all I am reminded of are the scribes and preachers who never validated those feelings or accounts. Your not an apostate or against God for being real and telling the truth to help others or even yourself. And yes I can give scriptures to support and also to condemn what I just said! It is that easy, and it is also why scripture is dangerous! All scripture looks good, doesn’t necessarily mean they are used or suited for the good of all. Just one scripture can be illustrated several ways, and just one word can be translated several ways. The delivery is done many ways. The scripture means life or you can hear the scripture means death… so it is easy to manipulate scripture and involve unhealthy fear. But as a child, what I was taught had holes,and what people did was different from what they said,and what I hated was that no one owned or acknowledged what happens to one another. What I am hearing from this original post is just the beginning, the core of an incredible hurtful journey. Along the way I am sure she got many assurances, but she also got many other things that brought her to depression. I see posts with hurt, and for me it is nice to see I am not alone. But to hear another person quote scripture from the true religion when my religion was the truth, and so was his, and so is theirs is not of any help when your down. It does not save a person when they are addressing the abuse. It is like a christian going to a Wicca councilor, and vise versa. You can have all the degrees in the world, scriptures all down pact, know about abuse… but the moment you use your religion as a base for your core method of healing… it shows another person trying to conform. Another person not really listening. Another person who is making it about what they have been conditioned to believe and not what the search is for. So many people ARE abused who cannot reach out because others dont know how to listen, even without the words (or scriptures) being said. Read the book escaped… they tried to protect her too because they loved her. They used scripture. I was brought up a JW, and now shunned because I couldn’t handle the continued actions of others,I am not involved. I never spoke up or against them yet even now could be labeled an apostate for just this much. It is really hard defending oneself, my beliefs and persecution as it is, harder when it is from within your own religion and you speak out about things that are wrong. I understand it is not God but men, I know loving people that are of all faiths, tribes, beliefs and love them yet I am evil for mixing company. Hard to preach scripture when you dont agree with what people are doing. I may die according to scripture, but I am definitely not living when I see something wrong and live with depression because I do nothing about things. Do nothing because i need to trust, need to forgive, leave in elders hands, I have just seen and heard too much. I have been a truly good person, now I am just trying to be good enough because i never felt like i was ever good enough. I totally relate to this post, and I admire the strength and courage it takes for so many people to speak out and show their growth. Not everyone realizes what abuse really is, nor do they dare to look. I think the best thing I read on these posts was by Tracy ” that we need to bring the abuses into the spotlight before they will stop. A body cannot heal until an infection is removed – and so the body of Christ (the church) cannot heal until the abuse is removed.” What is wrong with speaking the truth and how it makes us feel? And if a person wants to vent, even in nasty ways… maybe they are healing or fighting for air too. Carla, your awesome!

  3. By: Becky Posted: 9th July 2010

    Mark,

    Your comments touched me deeply. I have been following this post closely and yours boils everything down to what I believe but have not been able to express. If you don’t mind, I’m going to print this out and carry it around with me to remind myself. Thank you.

  4. By: Carla Posted: 7th July 2010

    Maryanna, I’m sorry that you feel this way. We have described our experience of the nature of abuse many times here in our posts (Darlene’s posts especially.) Our definition of “caring” may also be different (for example, I did not feel that Carrie was really caring about ME- I felt she was more concerned with the reputation of the church and the Bible; I did not feel that my relatives were really caring about me when they challenged the posts about my Dad- I felt they cared more about my Dad’s feelings not getting hurt). The bottom line might be what you have said- “My truth versus your truth will never get us anywhere.”

    If you have such strong disagreements with our cause and how we facilitate our blog, there are many other mental health resources that may fulfill your needs better.

    Respectfully,
    Carla

  5. By: MaryAnna Posted: 7th July 2010

    Hi all,
    I check this blog from time to time and just thought I would put in my two bits. I often enjoy the stories of healing I read about here. I have to say though that I have an issue with the definition of abuse the authors of this blog use, as I have mentioned before, though have never had a reply about it. It seems that by your definition abuse is any form of hurt that another causes you to have, either purposely or inadvertently (what you call passive abuse?) constitutes abuse. Pardon me if I have this confused. I just wanted to point out that I have now seen many controversies come about on this blog, mainly involving people that Carla seems to know from the “real world”. Every time one of these individuals has contradicted something said on this blog it has either been ignored or attacked veraciously by the authors and other readers and labeled as abuse. If we are using your definition of abuse, I think it can easily be said that these posters are being equally abused when they are showing genuine concern about one of the authors and then are repeatedly attacked for sharing their ideas. I can see that it would also be damaging if you were trying to stick up for someone you know personally and were shot down and told you were wrong, wrong, wrong because you did not subscribe to the same “truth” that the authors of this blog tout. Do you not see the hypocrisy and unending circle of blame? My Truth versus Your Truth will never get us anywhere.
    It makes me sad that people who are dedicated to healing are also causing so much hurt. Also, I think out of respect for your readers you probably shouldn’t “put on the kid gloves” as it has been written here, by introducing comments with a warning before they are posted. It makes things so much more divisive right from the start.
    I will say no more, and you can write or think what you want of me as I don’t really know any of you. It is just sad to see so much fighting among people who all genuinely seem to be about caring. Carla, it sounds like there are some fabulous people in your life who want to speak with you. Despite what anyone else says I think it would help you to listen to them before shutting them down. You might just not have everything as figured out as you think.
    MaryAnna

  6. By: Carla Posted: 3rd July 2010

    Mark, thanks so much for contributing your comments, your story, your support! It has been amazing that the light I’m shining has connected with so many here; it is a light of hope! Grace and peace to you as well Mark!

  7. By: Mark Alan Effinger Posted: 2nd July 2010

    Really good to find you here, Carla.

    I know this experience all too well. And most of my pastors have been right-on people. Really good folks.

    My greatest challenge came when I began to really understand the simplicity of the biblical message:
    1) Love your God
    2) Love your neighbor
    3) Love yourself

    In this, it says (in very general paraphrase): you fulfill all the laws and the prophets.

    Simple. Easy. Anyone can do this. It’s not even religion-specific.

    I studied the Greek, Hebrew and Latin to ensure I knew the message and the words. I remember deconstructing the old and new testament. Even (literally) defining how the word “the” was used in a specific sentence in a specific language. We’re talking granular details like nobody’s business.

    Great for understanding cultural nuances. Not so much for getting to the heart of the Gospel.

    A church has a hard time standing on stark simplicity. If the message of the gospel can be defined in 3 very simple bullet points… then what?

    My Dad was a Trappest Monk. He spent 3 years in a monastery in prayer and meditation. No speaking. Gregorian chants sung in Latin at the break of dawn.

    In that isolated, fully committed place he realized that the gospel is both starkly simple, and almost unknowable. As he told me as a child “it’s certainly greater than what we could fit within the vellum pages of a book”.

    Your path, your ability to find the light outside of the church… that’s the real blessing.

    This page? Your ministry.

    In that, you shine, and give hope. What a great blessing.

    Thanks a ton for sharing your heart. This is the good stuff.

    Grace & Peace,
    ME

  8. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 1st July 2010

    Debbie, how you describe your feelings and fears as a child really resonates with me too! I remember those books with the different colors… That black page- wow- yes, how hopeless is that, especially for a child? And they teach the story to children like it’s all a nice little fairytale. I’m so glad that you found the truth and acceptance for your own heart. That is a powerful story and speaks so well of the hope we have for recovery. Thank you for sharing Debbie! Love, Carla

  9. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 1st July 2010

    Andie, a very warm welcome to you! I checked out your site and the clip from your movie. It is SO cool! I hope to spend some more time there. Thank you for sharing your many great points here. Abusive control is a sick game that hurts EVERYBODY. The counselor I worked with was so intentional about not enticing me to be a carbon copy of himself- he nurtured my own individuality as best he could and this was very very empowering for my healing. Thank you for following the blog- it is great that our journeys have crossed paths. ~ Carla

  10. By: Debbie Posted: 1st July 2010

    One thing I carried with me from my childhood experience with church was fear. Fear that I was not saved. Sitting in a church service during an alter call and feeling my heart pound, because maybe I really wasn’t saved and I better go up. Was that the holy spirit? I don’t think so. I think it was my emotions being played upon by the speaker up front. I was supposed to repent…but from what? And how many times does a person need to go up to the alter before they know they are really “saved”?

    I remember DVBS and the little book of hearts cut out of different colors. Each heart represented the different stages of “getting saved”. The black heart was especially frightening. It was full of sin…I believe it was the first one in the stack, which would signify that our heart was basically evil. What a terrible thing to teach children! And then they boast on Sunday morning about how many children were saved at DBVS that week. They report numbers.

    Neither of these tactics gave me the assurance that I was OK with God. What did it for me was hearing words of truth spoken by a loving woman whom I didn’t even know. I was in the home of a friend and they guests over. One woman stood by me and said that I was God’s daughter and that he loved me. She didn’t tell me to repent or remind me that my heart was black with sin. She simply poured out the truth and I was enveloped with the love and acceptance that I so craved. Jesus loved me just as I was. This was life changing for me.

    Carla’s post and all the comments made underline the importance of parents being aware of what their children are being taught in church and sunday school, and how they are being treated by their teachers. Like Carla said, children are so vulnerable and trusting, and what is handed over to them can affect them for a lifetime. Spiritual abuse hits humans at the very soul and causes fear not only for this life, but for eternity. How powerful is that???!!

  11. By: Andie Redwine Posted: 1st July 2010

    Hello friends.

    “In his office he validated my faith; but from the pulpit he didn’t.” That line really shook me. This has been my experience for years with pastors who are genuine in private, but hardliners in public. I’m not sure why the dynamic exists, but it certainly resonates with my experience.

    We’ve been following your amazingly healing blog for some time. Thank you for being so open and honest about your journey.

    As a former coal-raker, I can tell you that I have suffered from PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder, all because of some pretty damaging churches. It’s not Jesus that is the problem, nor the teachings of Jesus. It is this top-down, hierarchical structure that cares more for nickels and noses that actual human souls.

    Shrouded in a cloak of care and concern for our eternal salvation, fundamentalists get really passionate about our decision (or really the lack of decision) to carbon copy them. I believe that this militancy comes from a fear that perhaps their own salvation is in constant jeopardy. I also know that there are some at the top of fundamentalist organizations that use this kind of fear to create and sustain empires, rather than lift a finger to help the ones that they shackle with fear.

    It all sounds really good. We care about you. We love you. But if you don’t think like we do, you are in danger of hell. This isn’t love. If they would live by their book, they would know that love is patient, kind, and longsuffering. Love does not employ marketing strategies to get results. Love cares more about souls than giant church buildings. Love builds relationships. Love doesn’t place burdens on people who are clearly hurting.

    At any rate, many of us eventually see that the self-appointed emperors indeed have no clothes, and that faith is incredibly personal. No one person has all of the answers, and our variety of backgrounds lend to a variety of ways of understanding the world and God.

    I am grateful for the work that you do and the blog posts that you write. They have been incredibly healing for me. If there is anything that our team at Paradise Recovered can do for you, please let us know. You are some of the bravest women we know.

    Take very good care,
    Andie

  12. By: Carla Posted: 1st July 2010

    Mike, I love the points you make in your comment! I love this: “It seems to me that God wouldn’t create humans who are faulty by nature. It seems to me that God would create human beings who are essentially whole and healthy and capable of living lives that are healthy and beneficial to others.” These are life giving words- some rock bottom truth at the heart of recovery. I too believe that we were born without fault but learned to cope in ways that were taught to us, in ways that helped us to survive but really didn’t bring us life. We have the freedom to be able to throw away the ways that don’t work for us and embrace the ways that do.

    I can relate to the story about you and your Mom. When I stopped going to church, my Mom was really concerned for me. But like your’s, she has respected my path too. There is hope in that for relationship and mutual learning from each other.

    Thanks so much for being here Mike!
    Carla

  13. By: Mike Haitch Posted: 1st July 2010

    Wow!

    My mum is an evangelical Christian. She still hopes that I will return to the fold. If anything I’m a Zen Buddhist these days. If you want a label that’s more accurate than nothing.

    This is not ideal from mum’s viewpoint!!!!!

    However, she can see how this is has helped me to heal. She can see how it is that my life is starting to look really healthy. We can easily argue “Through all things God works together for the good of those who are in Christ”. Maybe God created Zen Buddhism for those who didn’t need the props of Christianity? Who knows!

    Mum has been through the trauma with me. She’s been aware of how shit my life has been. She’s sat in the courtroom. She’s seen it. She’s held onto her faith. She’s respected my right to be me.

    The bible tells us that God created Adam and Eve and all of creation.

    Did God make a mistake?

    Was the Old Testament his first crack at correcting his mistake?

    Was Jesus Christ his second attempt?

    “A new commandment I give to you that you love each other as I have loved you”.

    It seems to me that God wouldn’t create humans who are faulty by nature. It seems to me that God would create human beings who are essentially whoe and healthy and capable of living lives that are healthy and beneficial to others.

    It seems to me that a true trust in God would mean trusting God’s work. That means trusting that after giving my heart to God I trust him to work through me. That means learning to trust myself. Learning to recognize when I do things that leads to health for myself and others. Learning to recognize when I do things that lead to harm for myself and others.

    It seems like if I live a life based on love and compassion and respect for myself and others I’m living in a way that honours God’s creation and assumes that humans are not a mistake; that we are born perfect and became faulty through sin. Jesus taught that the sin bit is optional. We can let go of sin. We don’t have to be or feel impure.

    My mum thinks I lead a Christian life. I don’t. We are both right. We are both wrong.

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