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Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Learning to Risk

I, like many survivors of spiritually abusive churches or cults, experience trust issues and am generally risk-averse. I have become so good at saying “no” to people and opportunities that I have almost forgotten what it is like to say “yes.” It is easier to hunker down in my tightly-controlled routine than to risk getting hurt by people or my own inadequacy.

This is a very normal response to betrayal by leaders who claimed to speak for God. “I trusted that pastor with the most intimate details of my life,” we might say. “I’ll never trust anyone like that again. I gave him control and he crushed me. Now I’ll be the one in control.”

The problem with living in this state of damage-control is that we cut ourselves off from the zest of life: relationships, intimacy, and a willingness to risk for a greater good. We live a cramped, gray life, hobbled by our own fear of pain.

The challenge for cult survivors is to develop a newfound sense of trust and faith which applies wise boundaries while also opening ourselves to unexpected opportunities, and yes, is willing again to suffer pain or loss. Because love, as the cross demonstrates, always involves risk.

How We Got Here

Every cult or spiritually abusive church demands that its followers have great faith: faith in the leader, faith in the program, faith in its god. The sad truth for members of these groups is that the “faith” demanded by their leaders is actually fear:

  • Fear of punishment.
  • Fear of not measuring up.
  • Fear of failure.
  • Fear of losing their salvation.
  • Fear of God.

When a person leaves a cult, they bring this distorted worldview with them and add another layer to it: fear of being hurt again.

That’s a lot of fear for anyone to carry.

How We Heal

It can take a long time to realize that the faith we once had was actually fear. It’s like the baby monkey at the zoo who learns one day that his “mother” is really just a sock puppet with a handler’s arm inside. Such a discovery could crush a little monkey, if monkeys felt as we feel.

So how do we heal?

Step 1: Acceptance— The first step to healing is to accept that what we always called “faith” is just a sock puppet filled with fear, and that actual faith is something different. This can make us feel disoriented, hopeless, and depressed, but it is critical to moving to step 2.

Step 2: Knowledge—The second step is to learn what faith actually is. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Heb. 11:1). But the key to true faith—unlike our sock puppet—is to put our faith in the correct object, namely God. In our cult or abusive church we actually put our faith in the cult leader or pastor who said that they stood in the place of God. Or at least they claimed to speak for God or mediate our interaction with God. But only Jesus can mediate between God and people (1 Tim. 2:5). The object of our faith needs to be God and what he did on the cross, not our own ability to please him or to muster up enough faith to impress him. When we see who God really is and what he has actually done—as proven by his self-sacrifice on the cross and his active seeking of the lost—our fear of not measuring up, of failing, of being punished, or of God himself, can start to evaporate. This is no simple task and it can take a lot of time and a lot of reminding, but it can happen. The Bible talks about taking every thought captive and conforming our minds to the mind of Christ. This takes conscientious effort and will involve some ups and downs. But genuine progress can happen, albeit slowly.

Step 3: Practice— The third step is to act on our newfound faith. Instead of praying long, agonizing prayers in which we hope to manipulate God by our piety, we simply pray like a child and then thank God for answering our prayer. Instead of assuming that God loves us more because we read our Bible this morning or went to church this Sunday, we remember that God cannot possibly love us more than he already does, and we remember him with gratitude and affection, rather than in cringing fear or with a burden of guilt. Instead of saying “no” to that opportunity at work, to that invitation for dinner, to that cross-country move, or to that person who is so unlike us, maybe God wants us to say “yes.”

Conclusion

baby_jesusLife is full of risk because it is full of sinful people in a fallen world. We are one of them. Surprise! God loves us anyway. He loves us so much that he died for us before we could do anything whether good or bad. Nothing we can do can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Indeed, Jesus came as a little baby to “rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75).

The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is fear.

So today I said “yes” to two producers who wanted to ask me questions about cults, though I generally distrust such people. I said “yes” to renegotiating a contract at a rate I think I deserve but which scares the heck out of me. I said “yes” to dreaming about a future business that I want to start, and am taking steps to make it a reality. And I said “yes” to seeing a counselor for the first time since I left my cult, because I’d rather know my problems and start to deal with them than have my junk impact my wife and children. I’m taking some risks, and it’s likely that I’ll experience some pain or failure. But you know what? I feel more full of faith and joy than I have in a long, long time. I feel, for lack of a better term, alive. And that’s what Jesus came to bring: abundant life.

Do you want to feel more alive? Then you’re going to have to risk. What might God have you say “yes” to today?

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Truth Without Grace Is Dead

Yesterday I read a bristling article by a Christian blogger/journalist/news figure who proclaimed himself a “professional truth-teller.” He gleefully excoriated another Christian writer as likes and loves poured into his site.

Listen. If a Twitter handle or author bio includes the phrase “professional truth-teller” there is a good chance they are not.

When truth–and we’re talking spiritual truth, here–is detached from grace, the soul of truth dies in the same way that a corpse looks like a human body but is no longer a person. The thing that made it living, active, true, has left, and what remains is an empty husk fit only for the grave.

The same hubris that gives a self-professed truth expert chills when they think of their ice-cold discernment is the very same trait that prevents them from listening well to varying views or offering grace to the broken reed and flickering candle. Their massive platform doesn’t mean they have lots of discernment; it just means their followers have little. Their “truth” has lost its soul of grace. It is dead. Just as faith without works is dead. And because it is dead, it is not really true. Jesus came with both truth and grace. Truth without grace is dead.

A word of advice to Christian leaders: avoid calling yourself a “professional truth sayer.” Actual truth tellers are too busy gaining wisdom from the painful experiences of a gray world and opening their hearts and homes to people outside their caste to bother with such self-congratulatory dairy whip. I suffered for 25 years under a self-proclaimed master of discernment and can count my scars like stars. The world is a beautiful and terrible place, full of paradoxes and mysteries. It calls for wisdom and a great deal of humility.

Truth without grace is dead.

truth_without_grace

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Breaking the Chains of Legalistic Parenting

Parenting proves challenging in the best of circumstances. Even the healthiest, most well-adjusted parent faces crises of doubt, exhaustion, and failure.

breaking_chains

via Brian Smithson, Creative Commons

But most of us aren’t completely healthy, are we? Most of us carry baggage from our own imperfect childhoods, adolescent traumas, and adult heartaches. And for those of us who grew up in rule-based churches or families, the roots of legalism can run deeper than we imagine. Unaddressed, they can wrap around our children and their children to the third or fourth generation.

The Rule of Law

We all want to believe that we would never do anything terrible in this world, nothing to hurt the ones we love, nothing to be ashamed of when we sit wrinkled and rheumy in our rocking chairs with our lives spread out behind us. We all wish for our lives to go unendingly from strength to strength.

We don’t all get what we wish for.

I spent most of my life in a Bible cult. When that church fell apart six year ago, I had to come to grips with my own distorted view of God, my legalistic worldview, and a brittle sense of self which relied heavily on rule-following to feel secure.

Though outwardly I appeared normal, inwardly I was wrapped in chains.

I also had to live with the pain I had caused family members and friends as a result of shunning them in our church’s misguided belief that all who were not part of our tiny fellowship were guilty of apostasy. I vowed that I would never hurt anyone like that again.

Progress, though slow, seemed steady. Over time, I laid aside many of the most destructive beliefs from my former church. But one area remained deep-rooted and surprisingly resistant to change. It was the idea that God is fundamentally a rule-maker and that his love is conditioned primarily on my ability to do what is right. I felt like a child always cowering beneath the upraised hand of an angry parent. This conception of God expresses itself through a worldview of legalism.

When Legalists Become Parents

I thought marriage and family would provide a sanctuary from my own legalistic past. I wanted to believe that my own hurtful church background would soften me as a parent. In some ways it has. But I also found that parenting seemed to catalyze my inner legalist. Small children—besides being cute—are messy, needy, and brilliant at provoking adult areas of weakness.

Here are some of the legalistic chains which can make me feel locked-up in my parenting:

  1. Overreaction to disobedient or defiant behavior, evidencing a deeper well of hurt and insecurity in my own life.
  2. Expectation that my children should behave as tiny adults, rather than in developmentally appropriate ways.
  3. Ascribing moral significance to accidents or disorder, which results in intolerance for messiness, noise, or chaos.
  4. Paranoia which expresses itself in an unreasonable fear that my children will get hurt and results in a visceral need to control my surroundings.
  5. Easily scandalized by mistakes, accidents, or spills, with the understanding that someone is always at fault and it is important to ascribe blame to balance the moral ledger.
  6. Believing that there is only one right way to do something. This results in me being inflexible and feeling defensive when my wife suggests alternative ways to parent.
  7. Focusing on efficiency rather than on quality of time spent together.
  8. Task-oriented approach to each day, rather than a joyful focus on relationships.
  9. Feeling guilty, incompetent, and ashamed of my abilities as a parent.
  10. Expecting my children to obey unwritten rules, then disciplining them when they transgress these unstated expectations.
  11. Lecturing young children at a theological and psychological level far beyond their ability to comprehend.
  12. Using spiritual terms to justify harsh behavior.
  13. Believing that obedience is the most important job of children, rather than learning and growing.
  14. Believing that creating moral, obedient children is the most important job of a parent, rather than modeling Christ-like behavior and providing a safe place for children to feel loved, to learn, and to grow.

It’s a pretty miserable list, isn’t it? When you read it, does it make you feel safe, loved, and accepted? Or does it make you feel fearful, hesitant, and driven to perform?

Breaking the Chains of Legalistic Parenting

My own parenting is a work in progress. I don’t have all the answers. But as a recovering legalist, certain truths have helped me start to break the chains which once bound me.

  1. Understand that my parenting is a mirror of my relationship with God. I will treat my children largely in the same way I feel God treats me. Do I understand that I am fully loved and accepted  by God through Jesus Christ and his finished work on the cross? Or do I feel I have to earn his approval every minute of the day?
  2. Nothing comes out of me which isn’t already inside of me. When I overreact or have fits of rage, it is not an anomaly. It is rooted in fundamental misconceptions I have about God and about my place in the world.
  3. Transforming my worldview takes time and regular attention. Worldview is a muscle which can be exercised or atrophied. What I read, what I watch, who I talk with, and my own self-talk provide the background noise to my life. Are these channels based on grace and truth, or lies?
  4. Listen to my spouse. Parenting is a partnership, not a dictatorship.
  5. Apologize to my children when I sin against them. Admit that I was wrong. Tell them why I was wrong, and why I need Jesus to help me. Ask for their forgiveness. Do it as many times as I sin against them, even if it feels humiliating. Even if I cry. Tears are the most honest apology.
  6. Write down the behaviors or circumstances which trigger my internal legalist. Identify them clearly, then look for them in real life and come up with alternative ways to act. This preparation allows me to respond to situations rather than reacting with my legalistic defaults.
  7. Realize that my primary job as a parent is to keep my children safe and to model Christ to them. Love covers over a multitude of sins.
  8. Seek out resources which can help me understand developmentally appropriate activities, tasks, and disciplines for my children. Look at both Christian and non-Christian resources.
  9. Consider what my child’s primary perception of me must be. Is it of a father or mother full of the joy of the Holy Spirit, fun-loving, consistent, self-disciplined, and humble? Or is it of a brittle dictator, prone to fits of rage, rigid adherence to rules, and an unsmiling view of life?
  10. Accept God’s grace for me. I am learning to parent just as my child is learning to be a child. We all make mistakes. God planned to put my children in my home. He wanted them to have me as their parent. With Christ’s help, I am the best parent for God’s purpose in my child’s life.

Conclusion

Legalism is a joyless worldview whose roots run deep. It is a spiritual stronghold which we can overcome only with God’s help. But there is hope for legalistic people who become parents. Our faulty worldview does not have to curse our own children or their children after them.

By recognizing our problem, seeking God’s help, rehabilitating our thinking, and humbling ourselves before our spouse and our children, we can break the chains of legalism and live the free and joyful life that God intended for our blessing.

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The Gift of Ordinary Things

When I was young I read books that made missionary life look sexy. I read spiritual biographies of well-known Christian martyrs which made them seem six inches taller and without body odor. Like popular kids at school, these saints inhabited my dreams and haunted my ambitions. I affected their manner of speech and read books about exotic countries where I would heroically lay down my life for Christ. I would do it all for Jesus, I thought, without fanfare or applause. Secretly, I hoped that someone might write a book about my extraordinary life.

gift_of_ordinary_thingsNow, as I look at my surroundings, past the piles of unfolded laundry on the floor, the Cheerios crunching underfoot, and the screen door lying on its side against the house, I wonder if I missed something. Wouldn’t I be holier if I lived in a jungle somewhere? If I were a missionary, could I grow six inches taller and stop using Old Spice?

The grass can seem so much greener in the pages of a well-written story, edited for length and with anecdotes selected for their impact.

What I didn’t realize as a young man was that the people who wrote and lived those stories were no different from me. They failed and farted and probably had a few salacious stories that never made the final edit. They were ordinary people doing extraordinary things, made to look slimmer and shinier because we all want heroes.

Look around at your life. At the ordinariness. The messiness. The calendar chock-full of mundane activities. The gray line around the tub. It is here–here!–where Christ meets you. Your family–not someone else’s–is the place of your refinement. Your life–not someone else’s–is your place of blessing. And your home–not some far-off jungle–is where God walks with you each day.

Today is a great day to be you. With God’s help, make the most of it.

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Five Lessons from The Village Church and Karen Hinkley

Several readers have asked me to comment on the recent situation involving The Village Church in Dallas and how it has placed Karen Hinkley under church discipline.

the_village_church

The Village Church

Karen’s husband, Jordan Root, admitted to viewing child pornography over ten years, most recently as a missionary with SIM. Karen took steps to annul her marriage to Jordan and also publicized Jordan’s sin out of concern for possible child victims after their sending church, The Village Church, refrained from explaining the allegations to members. Karen terminated her membership and the church elders placed her under church discipline for failing to follow the church bylaws.

Normally I wouldn’t write about a specific church or situation, but this incident has gained so much attention—and I’ve seen so much chatter on Facebook threads with dissenting opinions—that it seemed like a public matter at this point with lessons applicable for all of us.

Full disclosure: as a Dallas Seminary student, I was classmates with Jordan Root and friends with Richard and Erin Brindley. I write as a Christian first, in hope that this situation will turn out for some good.

1.) Manmade rules – Large churches operate with layers of manmade laws called bylaws. This may seem necessary for churches which are larger than, say, a village, but it can make dealing with difficult situations like this clunky, complex, and sometimes unbiblical. I read through The Village Church (hereafter TVC) bylaws—all 22 pages—and they seemed similar to those of other organizations I’ve worked for, whether schools, businesses, or Christian nonprofits. Bylaws help organizations run effectively. The trouble comes when the leaders of a church confuse bylaws with scripture. By taking manmade rules—no matter how practical or seemingly wise—and elevating them to the place of scripture, churches are in danger of committing spiritual abuse. TVC, to its credit, in ARTICLE IX 9.1, says that, “Though the various theological statements of the Church reflect succinct summaries of biblical boundaries, it is the Bible itself to which we are in ultimate submission.” In this case I believe TVC has acted unbiblically. See point 2.

2.) Misuse of Church Discipline – The Bible says that church discipline should only be enacted against an unrepentant sinner who is in egregious sin (Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5.) The goal is always restoration. In this case, TVC has placed Karen Hinkley under what they describe as “church discipline” because they say she has failed to follow the church bylaws. This is an abuse of church discipline, since Karen has not sinned. For what it’s worth, the TVC bylaws themselves (ARTICLE XIII) say that church discipline can only be enacted against someone who has sinned. I sincerely hope that the elders at TVC will follow scripture first and not just their bylaws in this situation.

3.) Covenant Membership – TVC requires members to sign a covenant in which they agree to submit to the elders in the interpretation of the Bible and in a number of other areas. There are two types of covenants: unilateral and bilateral. Unilateral covenants are one-way. Only one person’s behavior impacts the covenant stipulations. God made a unilateral covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, where it was God’s faithfulness alone that guaranteed the covenant stipulations. In bilateral covenants, the covenant is conditioned on the behavior of both parties. It sounds like TVC is treating Karen’s signing of the Covenant Membership document as a unilateral covenant which Karen must abide by no matter what. I disagree. I would consider it a bilateral covenant in which the church elders must act truthfully and in a trustworthy manner as the Bible requires. If the elders act in a manner apart from God’s truth, or in a way that seems untrustworthy to a member, that member has the right and obligation to consider the covenant voided. TVC states that its elders are held at least to the standard of New Testament elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, which require biblical truth and trustworthiness. Karen Hinkley decided that the men she interacted with were not acting in a trustworthy manner in regard to her well-being and the well-being of potential child victims of Jordan. Her termination of “covenant” membership thus seems perfectly legitimate.

4.) Human Depravity and God’s Grace – I am concerned with how TVC views Jordan Root and also by what that says about the elders’ understanding of human depravity and God’s grace. TVC has taken certain measures to monitor Jordan in light of his addiction to child pornography. Jordan confessed to viewing child porn and to being stimulated by the thought of pre-pubescent girls for the last ten years. Karen says that he has admitted only to things in which he has been caught. She says that Jordan put himself in many situations where he could be alone with children over the last ten years. To warn potential victims, she wanted to publicize Jordan’s sin just as SIM did to the Root supporters. TVC took a different approach and tried to protect Jordan’s reputation while quietly taking measures to limit his contact with children. They have said that Jordan is walking in repentance and is getting counseling. That is good, but anyone who has dealt with pedophiles understands the potential depth, deceit, and damage a pedophile can cause over ten years. It seems simplistic to claim that Jordan has repented of his sin and is on the fast track to recovery. TVC should recognize that Jordan may have committed crimes or sins to which he has not admitted, and should exercise an abundance of caution to protect and notify children and parents. God’s grace covers repented sin, but it does not blind our eyes to human depravity and to the cunning of sinners who have lived a lifestyle of deceit. Anything less is cheap grace.

5.) Where are the Women Leaders? In the documentation about this situation, all of the leaders interacting with Karen from TVC were men. I understand that many churches believe that church elders must be males, but in a church the size of a village there must be some women leaders—call them pastors, directors, whatever—who can interact with a missionary wife whose husband has been caught in child pornography. TVC—and every church—would be wise to empower women leaders and ensure that women who are victimized can interact with other women and not just men.

Conclusion

I believe that Karen Hinkley is a courageous woman who has stood up to protect herself and potential child victims. I believe that The Village Church has unfortunately mishandled this situation and—despite the sincerity of its leaders—in some respects has acted unbiblically by abusing church discipline and revictimizing a victim while taking a simplistic approach to a pedophile. It is my sincere hope that TVC will recognize its error of exalting its bylaws to the place of scripture and will publicly apologize while taking steps to ensure that this never happens again.

Update, 6/11/15: Yesterday, The Wartburg Watch posted an apology from Matt Chandler and the Village Church elders to Karen Hinkley, and a statement of forgiveness from Karen Hinkley. I am so thankful to see how God has worked to bring healing and reconciliation in this matter, and how the TVC elders have humbled themselves and admitted their mistakes, sin, and mistreatment of Karen. Such an apology–and such forgiveness–is so rare in these days of image control, celebrity pastors, and mega churches. It is a beautiful thing to see reconciliation in the body of Christ. This is news that makes me smile.

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30 Signs of Legalism: A Checklist

The average legalist does not know that he or she is legalistic. I didn’t. I thought I was just following God’s Word. I didn’t think I was a Pharisee; I thought I was righteous.

pharisee

“Pharisee.” Emil Nolde, Creative Commons.

Legalism is rightly considered a disease in the church, but most of its sufferers mistake its symptoms for holiness. They think they have the mind of Christ and that everyone else is carnal. Legalism, for all its damage, can actually manifest in very subtle ways.

Is there a practical way to discern if you have legalistic tendencies? If legalism is a type of spiritual disease, is there a way to quickly distinguish its symptoms?

Definitions of Legalism

We can start with a couple of helpful definitions:

“Legalism: Strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious moral code.” – The Tenth Edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

“Legalists are people who add personal preference to accepted doctrinal teaching, accept these additions as having equal weight with doctrinal teaching, and apply these additions in the judging of others.” – David Miller, Breaking Free: Rescuing Families from the Clutches of Legalism

“Legalism is the reduction of life to mere technicalities. It substitutes code for conscience, ritual for worship, rectitude for holiness, morality for purity.” – Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God

But I’m No Pharisee

In Matthew 23 and Luke 11 Jesus confronts the legalism and hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Most churchgoers are familiar with both passages—the symptoms appear obvious. Perhaps you, like me, can wonder how the Pharisees overlooked their own legalism. And how did their followers not see them for what they were?

The reason that both the Pharisees and their disciples failed to spot legalism was because their religious practices were a close counterfeit of genuine worship. The same is true for today’s legalists. Few see themselves as modern day Pharisees. Instead, they believe that they are particularly observant Christians.

Checklist of 30 Legalistic Tendencies

Are there modern examples of lifestyle patterns or habits which might indicate that someone has legalistic tendencies? Below are some suggestions.

  1. I am continually scandalized by the driving habits of others. Yes or No.
  2. I believe that God loves me more when I behave. Yes or No.
  3. When I write a check to my church, I tithe to the penny. Yes or No.
  4. I entirely avoid alcohol, makeup, or jewelry out of fear of contamination. Yes or No.
  5. I usually stand out from the crowd because of my formal or conservative attire. Yes or No.
  6. When I encounter another professing Christian, I find myself judging their appearance. Yes or No.
  7. My good friends are all from one church or denomination. Yes or No.
  8. When I miss a Sunday service, I feel guilty. Yes or No.
  9. When I miss any church activity, I feel guilty. Yes or No.
  10. There are only a few Bible teachers who truly teach God’s Word. Yes or No.
  11. When I sin, I feel guilty even after I ask God to forgive me. Yes or No.
  12. I believe that small children should behave like miniature adults. Yes or No.
  13. In a snow-covered parking lot, I feel anxious because I can’t see the parking lines. Yes or No.
  14. When someone gives me a gift or does something kind for me, I feel unsettled until I can reciprocate. Yes or No.
  15. I always clean my house thoroughly before anyone visits—even if they’re just popping by. Yes or No.
  16. I want my children to avoid contact with sinful people. Yes or No.
  17. I prefer to do things myself rather than accept help from people who are sloppy or less conscientious than I am. Yes or No.
  18. There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything. Yes or No.
  19. I believe that God is most glorified through my preferred style of music. Yes or No.
  20. I believe that all scripture is equally applicable to my life. Yes or No.
  21. I have had several conversion experiences but still doubt my salvation. Yes or No.
  22. I have a sneaking suspicion that if Jesus returned while I was sinning, I would go to hell. Yes or No.
  23. I take pleasure in reporting or punishing people who commit minor infractions. Yes or No.
  24. I like to make an example out of wrongdoers. Yes or No.
  25. I feel guilty when I exceed the speed limit by even a few miles per hour. Yes or No.
  26. I avoid certain behaviors primarily because they are wrong, rather than because they are harmful. Yes or No.
  27. I feel morally obligated to finish every book I start. Yes or No.
  28. Others could describe me as bitter and depressed rather than joyful and kind. Yes or No.
  29. I feel unlucky or cursed if I skip Bible reading or prayer. Yes or No.
  30. I believe that God is more like a policeman and less like a fireman. Yes or No.

Some of these are more crucial than others, but if you circled “yes” to a fair number, it’s likely that you struggle with a distorted view of God and his Word. It’s likely that you are legalistic.

Conclusion

Legalists, whatever they may say, are miserable people. Life is a ledger and they are always trying to measure up. They feel better only through their own perceived performance or by judging the bad behavior of others. It is a zero-sum game which never ends; you can never rest.

In Jesus Christ, God has crucified the law and fulfilled its requirements for perfection. If you have placed your faith in Christ, then when God looks at you he sees Jesus. God has saved you to a joyful, abundant life and to obedience lived out of gratitude; not to a cramped, fearful, nit-picky existence that chews lemons and keeps score and measures everyone against an impossible standard.

God, through grace, has something better.

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When Your Abusive Pastor Dies

When you hear that your abusive former pastor is dead, the news will not bring you peace and it is unlikely to bring you joy.

I am unhappy to say this but it’s true nevertheless and so there it is. What was broken in life cannot be mended by death. Death has no power to heal, to restore, to resurrect. You cannot unbend your twisted life on another person’s casket. A gravestone is no anvil.

I could take you to the exact spot where I learned that my former pastor was dying. Out walking at a local park, halfway between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, with brick dust rising in slow clouds around my feet and August sun pressing down hot and hard. I flicked through my Facebook newsfeed and there it was: the man was about to die. His son asked for prayers as he made the long journey to the hospital bed in another state, not knowing what he’d find except confusion and pain. His father had remained unrepentant to the end.

I stopped and read the paragraph over and over and then I put my phone in my pocket and looked up at the trees and felt the sun and then looked down and shuffled my feet in the dust.

Four years had passed since my church fell apart and my former pastor was removed from his tarnished office. I’d done a lot of healing in those years. I’d sent a letter of forgiveness to the man and received an unapologetic voicemail in reply. So I set up boundaries to avoid more hurt. I married. I started a blog about spiritual abuse. Had a son. But I was wrong to think that my pastor’s death would bring me peace.

Another’s death will not bring you peace because only one man’s death can bring peace and he died already long, long ago. No other death has that currency or that power and God will not make an exception for the person you most hate or the person who most harmed you. Peace and joy come only through one death. And though your abusive pastor thought he was a type of Messiah he was not, and so his death cannot save you. To think it could only gives him undue power over you and repeats the lies that he taught.

Does that make sense?

I was saddened to learn this with brick dust rising in slow clouds around my sneakers. I had cherished a secret notion that when the man who had abused me for 25 years was dead it would feel like a party and a burden would be lifted and I would put on a dance anthem and buy an ice cream and then push a quarter century of trauma into the nearest 50-gallon trash can.

It was unlike that. Moreover, good people who’d gone through much worse had already told me it couldn’t be like that, but you know we all have to figure these things out for ourselves.

No, your abusive former pastor’s death cannot give you peace and joy. But here’s what it can do for you: it can make you sad with a sincere sadness that wishes no harm on its tormenter.

It can also make you grateful that you were the one wronged and not the wronger.

And it can bring life if you let it. If you have the courage to remember. If you have the courage to die a little bit in order to forgive. Because when you say, “I forgive you” and commit yourself to him who judges justly, you take into yourself a small piece of the death of the One who said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

It’s crazy and it’s not safe. You have only to look at Jesus to see how much it can hurt.

But by partaking in that death, you also participate in a life that mocks the grave. That bares its unflinching flesh to an eternity without sting. That considers every trauma a travel stain on a journey that ends in heaven.

I’d like to say that I had this all worked out in the brick dust on that ball field. But I’m not that good and anyway, I like nursing my grudges as much as anyone. About all I came to that August afternoon was an awkward prayer that someday I’d see my former pastor in heaven and not in hell.

It’s not that much, I know. But then again, maybe it is.

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An Update

Dear friends,

For several months I have taken a hiatus from blogging in order to spend concerted effort writing the first draft of a book. The draft is taking shape and I hope to have it done by Christmas. It will then go through several revisions before I send it to an agent (hopefully) next summer. I expect to start blogging again early in the new year. While book writing has its own rewards, it is a lonelier process than I imagined. I look forward to returning to this online community soon.

Grace and peace, Steve

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Recovering from Spiritual Abuse: Fearing the Good

“What would you do if you had no fear? Sometimes we think we are driven by our wants — when too often we are driven by our fears.” – Ann Voskamp

I started flossing again.

fearing_the_good

via Gilbert Dental Care

For the last couple of years it’s been hit or miss, mostly because I had a visceral reaction to the exercise as a result of my former pastor making flossing a cause celebre of the spiritual life. Flossing, he said, was a sign that you were disciplined and spiritually mature. There were demons who would try to keep you from flossing, and if you failed to floss you were giving in to the Devil.

I am not making this up.

He said it so often, and in the context of so much spiritual abuse, that I associated the activity of flossing with my pastor’s voice and his rigid outlook on life. So when my cult fell apart and I suddenly found freedom, regular flossing was one of the first things I jettisoned. I just couldn’t do it.

But after several visits to the dentist and some mild tooth pain, I realized what everyone else already knows: flossing is not a spiritual discipline, it is a healthy habit. My pastor may have twisted the meaning of flossing for his own abusive purposes, but I can’t deny one thing: It’s actually good for me.

Fearing Good Things

Spiritual abuse is subtle because it counterfeits or twists good things and turns them into abusive tools. Because of this, recovering from spiritual abuse can be an exercise in subtlety, too. How can you distinguish between what was truly awful and what was just misunderstood? How can you discern between healthy discipline and abusive legalism?

Tim Keller offers a helpful bit of wisdom: “Legalism is doing something to earn your salvation. Discipline is doing something because it’s good in and of itself.”

As I look over the past four years, I see some major ways I have overcompensated for spiritually abusive practices that occurred when I was part of a Bible cult. Each of these over-reactive behaviors stems from fear that I am making myself vulnerable again to abuse. When I give in to these fear-based reactions, I keep myself from some of the good things that God has for me.

Perhaps you, like me, wrestle with some of these fears:

  1. Fear of Commitment – Because I was trapped in my cult, I fear commitment, which makes me run from relationships and responsibilities which I feel I can’t control.
  2. Fear of Serving – Because I was taken advantage of by my former pastor and forced to serve in exhausting ways, I fear serving in my current church which makes me ignore legitimate needs.
  3. Fear of Rules – Because I was forced to obey endless commands with obsessive devotion, I fear rules and sometimes act like a scofflaw.
  4. Fear of Openness – Because my former pastor used shame to control my behavior, I fear openness and become self-protective.
  5. Fear of Sensitivity – Because my former pastor exploited my vulnerabilities to make me dependent on himself, I fear sensitivity which I redefine as weakness and instead try to make myself tough through weight-lifting, athletics, and hard language.
  6. Fear of Community – Because in my cult we were forced to spend enormous amounts of time with other members, I fear community and often isolate myself.
  7. Fear of Discipline – Because my church practiced legalism, I fear discipline and am often indulgent.
  8. Fear of Authority – Because I was spiritually abused, I fear authority and make many important decisions without consulting spiritual leaders.
  9. Fear of Modesty – Because my church had a dress code, I fear modesty and “crispness” and sometimes dress slovenly or to draw attention to myself.
  10. Fear of Hunger – Because my church practiced asceticism, I fear deprivation and am often impulsive and acquisitive.
  11. Fear of Sacrifice – Because people in my church were dehumanized and forced to sacrifice their dreams and desires, I fear loss of personhood and so throw myself into personal hobbies and self-actualization at the expense of other responsibilities.
  12. Fear of People – Because I was flattered by my pastor, I fear deception and question intentions and therefore distrust most people.
  13. Fear of Structure – Because my former church had unwritten rules and endless expectations for behavior, I fear structure and prefer casual activities.
  14. Fear of Accountability – Because my former pastor meddled in the details of my life while other parishioners spied on me, I fear accountability and dislike making myself vulnerable in front of other people.
  15. Fear of Risk – Because my former pastor considered mistakes catastrophic and because he only rewarded perfect behavior, I fear failure which prevents me from taking risks or trying new things.

Conclusion

Floss is probably not on your list of fears.

But I suspect you have your own triggers which make you avoid certain habits or behaviors which are actually good for you. They are natural pendulum swings which overcompensate for abuse you suffered. Try to identify those over-reactions and see if you can get to the root of them.

God has so much more for us than to be driven by our fears.

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12 Things God Doesn’t Do

The most devastating consequence of spiritual abuse is a marred image of God.

If your church or pastor practices spiritual abuse, chances are that your view of God is filtered through twisted scriptures and an untrue characterization of what God is like. In these situations, your view of God probably looks a lot like how your pastor relates to you.

reflection_of_god

via Richard Taylor, Creative Commons

When I was in my Bible cult, I thought God loved to shame people, to publicly humiliate them, and to steal their joy. That was how my former pastor acted, and since my pastor claimed special wisdom from God and close relationship with him, I assumed that this was how God related to me as well. But it was just my pastor’s sin. It was a broken reflection.

While God is complex and balances justice with mercy, wrath with love, there are certain things he just doesn’t do. With that in mind, here is a list of 12 things that God doesn’t do or isn’t like:

1.) God Doesn’t Control – God is all-powerful but he gives human beings the freedom to make choices which genuinely make them responsible for their own behavior. God doesn’t create robots or zombies, he creates people who can think, choose, love, and believe or refuse to believe. God respects the decisions of his creatures by refusing to coerce them to do what he wants. This is freedom.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by a need to control?

2.) God Doesn’t Fear – God does not spend his time in heaven chewing his nails about the state of the world or whether or not you’ll follow him. Nor is he hiding under his throne. He is unafraid of the world and entered into it experientially through the person of Christ. Your mistakes, sins, and errors do not catch him off guard. God has a plan of salvation and nothing can thwart it: Everything dark he will either judge or redeem. He does not fear.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by fear of the world?

3.) God Does Not Promote Uniformity – God loves diversity as evidenced by the fantastic variety of creation, by the diversity of believers in the church, and by the future kingdom which God will fill with people from all peoples, tongues, and nations. At all times and in all places God promotes the beauty of diversity.

Question: Is your church or pastor obsessed with uniformity?

4.) God Is Not Legalistic – While orderly, God is never obsessive. Even in matters of the Old Testament Law, God always had three primary things in mind: justice, mercy, and humble faith. He boils down the entire Old Testament into two commands: Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus affirms this.

Question: Is your church or pastor defined by legalism rather than love?

6.) God Does Not Manipulate – God states his commands clearly and lets people decide whether or not they want to obey. He doesn’t give contradictory commands, and he doesn’t guilt people into following him. He does not deviously influence you to do something for his own gain against your best interest.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by manipulation?

7.) God Is Not a Workaholic – He needs no rest, yet he ordained an entire day of rest in order to set us an example of balance in life and work. He praises the contemplative life and brings his children into seasons of peace and quiet. He is okay with people saying ‘no’ to good things in order to pursue what is best and lasting (Luke 10:42).

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by frenetic activity, poor boundaries, and excessive demands for commitment and involvement, regardless of your need for rest?

8.) God Does Not Punish His Children – He doesn’t. He disciplines. Punishment has to do with retribution. Since Christ has already taken our punishment upon himself, God never punishes us retributively. He never brings us harm. Instead, God uses the pain or suffering that come into our lives as discipline which effects change, shapes our character, and results in our ultimate blessing.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by retributive punishment or shunning?

9.) God Is Not Rigid – While God is immutable—which means he can never change in his God-like qualities—he is a model of wise flexibility when it comes to relating to people. Look at the Old Testament and see how many times God dealt with people in surprising ways. Look at the New Testament and see how often Jesus surprised his contemporaries. A study on the surprising flexibility of God will fill you with delight.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by moralistic or interpersonal rigidity?

10.) God Is Not Proud – If anyone has a right to be proud, it is God. But he makes no claims which cannot be backed up, he draws attention to himself only as is his due as God, and he shows remarkable interest and care in the lives of his creatures. God is not a narcissist. He lovingly engages in the lives of his creatures, loves the lowly, and reaches out to the marginalized and oppressed. These are not the actions of arrogance.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by pride?

11.) God Is Not a Hypocrite – His character is consistent with his actions. What he says, he does. He asks his children to do nothing that he himself has not already done.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by hypocrisy?

12.) God Is Not Exclusive – By this, I mean that God has made his salvation available to the whole world and loves the whole world and each individual in it. His kingdom, which is coming and will someday be complete, will contain people from every tongue, race, and nation. While the means of salvation are specific (by grace through faith in Christ), the opportunity extends to all.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by exclusivity?

Conclusion

We become like what we worship.

If you are in a spiritually abusive church and find yourself worshiping a God who appears controlling, fearful, uniform, legalistic, manipulative, driven, punishing, rigid, proud, hypocritical, and exclusive, stop.

Just stop.

That being is not God—you are just worshipping a cosmic version of your pastor.

Instead, worship God for who he is in all of his marvelous freedom, confidence, diversity, love, clarity, balance, flexibility, humility, truth, and open-armed welcome.

You can dare to love a God like that.