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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.”


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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