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.”
Life 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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I’ve read a few of your posts while on this agonizing journey. We left our abusive church a year and 8 months ago. We tried one church a year ago and I got scared, backedout of all churchy stuff and decided to be done with it. We started up a home church with some friends but our gatherings are hit and miss so it’s been called off for the summer. I have been feeling so disconnected and upset at my walk with God. It’s not that I think church will save me, but I wonder about my stance on church–is it really what God wants for me? To not go to church? Because it feels rather lonely.
I have arguments upon arguments about the church system and I call pull out my arsenal any time it’s needed to defend my stance against going to church. For the most part, I know most of it is pretty accurate. Systems often fail. Church is no exception.
My son was invited to VBS this past week. I went, half heartedly. Dropped him off and left. But then on Friday they invited the VBS kids back on Sunday to sing. He wanted to go and I didn’t want to disappoint him. Everything was ok. The music. The pastor. But I don’t trust anyone. I don’t trust church. I don’t trust programs. I don’t trust myself either.
This church seems real–not phony, nor religious, not putting the pastor on a pedestal. I got a good vibe overall. But I’m still not sure about returning. It’s hard saying yes to scary things. And I know I’d have to set those boundaries until I could fully trust again.
One thing that impressed me a lot about this church was the pastor. Every day at VBS, he was there doing the work–setting up, tearing down, teaching kids, serving food. It wasn’t beneath him to serve. I have never seen a pastor do that and it was the thing that drew me to the church. It’s small and not without its problems but at least the leadership has something right. Anyway…we are thinking it through. Maybe we’ll try again next week too. My arsenal is still there but God is changing my heart too.
You are exercising courage and faith, Elle. God does not “expect” you to do a certain thing right now, apart from healing. My experience is that all churches are flawed but that some have much more grace than others. Some are much safer than others. And some are downright healthy 🙂 I like the portrayal of the pastor at that church you mentioned.
Your family may find it helpful to experiment with attending that church on and off for a bit, with your own boundaries clearly drawn. Sometimes it can help to let the pastor know what your wounded church background is, when it seems safe to do so. A good shepherd will really empathize with you and be very respectful of your boundaries. A bad shepherd will start making demands or excuses. I shared with one of my current pastors (our church has several) about my background, and he was so respectful and kind. He has never pushed me to get more involved than I felt comfortable.
There’s a book coming out in September which I think answers a lot of your questions and helps provide a guide to the healing journey from spiritual abuse. It’s by Remy Diederich and is called “Broken Trust.” It is due out on Amazon on September 18th. I read an advanced copy and found it so helpful. Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/Broken-Trust-practical-spiritual-Overcoming-ebook/dp/B073491BLN/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
Remy left a broken church and stayed outside the church for five years. When he tried to go back to church, he just kept getting triggered so he started a home church. But the home church didn’t seem to meet the needs of the members. Eventually, he started a new church which operated along the principles of grace and safety. He has a lot of wisdom to share in a very graceful way.
Grace and peace to you and your family as you continue your healing journey.
Thank you so much for the insights here! We tried the church on sunday and it was ok. People were kind. The sermon was good. It was a smaller church, but a welcoming one. Of course, first times are like that. At least I didn’t feel triggered or upset. But my daughter did. She kept saying it reminded her of our last church. I asked her if she was ok if we went back and she said yeah, but I have to keep my finger to the pulse on that one. When we were at our last church, she started cutting herself…so I am always trying to keep my eye out on that one.
We will see how it goes. I personally would just like to go for the routine of it, but not to commit, at least not until I’m ready. And I would like to see if it helps our family or we start to feel drained again. If so, that would be my cue it’s bad. The good thing about all of this happening is that I’m now very aware of what to look for and what is a red flag. Going into our last church, I had some bad feelings and I ignored them. This time around, I’m not doing that. I’m not willing to sacrifice myself to go to church somewhere.
I’ll go check that link out. Thank you!!
I was also going to say, I read a comment a long time ago when this all first started for me after leaving and the person said “my healing didn’t come full circle until I went back to church. The thing that hurt me was the thing that also healed me”. While I don’t always agree that you *have to* be in a church, I can really understand this comment. It has stayed with me all this time. It is my hope that God can heal me more fully. I feel like he has done so much already. But there’s still a little ache and a bit of bitterness that I try to overcome. It’s still very hard for me to not be cynical. So maybe what she said is true…maybe what hurts you can also heal you. Just a totally different church though. The one I left is still completely in denial of being abusive.
I was wondering if this book would be a good gift for someone I know has suffered abusive religion and is still suffering, or if this is something they must seek on their own? I would like to think that getting him away from the abuse would be as easy as saying “Here read this!”, but something tells me it might make him pull away from me instead.
Boy, that’s a great question. It really depends on the situation and the mentality of your friend. When I was in a cult I didn’t read anything about cults because I was certain that my church wasn’t a cult. Relatives gave my family a “Warning Signs of a Cult” checklist which we ended up sharing with our controlling pastor. He spent several Sunday evenings walking through that checklist point-by-point to explain why our church wasn’t a cult or why the questions themselves were flawed. Instead of helping us, that checklist solidified our sense of persecution and righteousness indignation.
All that to say, I would be very careful about giving such a book to a friend in a cult. The better course of action might be for you to purchase the book, read it through, then incorporate some of the strategies or arguments into your conversations with your friend. That would be less threatening and would better equip you to walk with your friend on this journey of turning away from an abusive religious experience.
Just my two cents.
I am a pastor leaving a church that was abusive to me. I know, it’s usually the other way around, but I’m struggling with the things you wrote about in this blog. Any resources for pastors who were abused?
Recently I watched a episode of ” I survived” solely based on 3 people who had left cults. Hearing their story I thought that’s no different than how I grew up. Nothing that they said seemed shocking to me, just normal.
I stayed in the fundamental independent Baptist church until I was in my late 20’s. I remember the day I decided to leave. It was said from the pulpit when I gave notice that I was relinquishing my Sunday school class and bus route that God would remove me from this world probably by a car accident. Until the other day after watching that tv show I had never considered my church to be a cult. I googled cult and fundamental baptist churches, I was shocked to see so many articles on it. Many of the signatures in my Bible are from the same men that these articles are about.
We were just so isolated, approved reading only and not allowed to be around anyone who didn’t believe the same way. We weren’t allowed to have a meal with our extended family that didn’t believe like we did etc. It completely messes with your mind. Anything bad that happens you wonder if it is God punishing you for leaving. We too had a series on identifying cults. People had to be re baptized even if they came from other Baptist churches as other churches weren’t really churches if they didn’t believe exactly as we did. Only people who had our exact beliefs were the bride of Christ.
It’s hard to explain, I’ve tried a couple of times but unless you grow up like this it seems hard to understand. From what I’ve read on your site you give hope that I can get past this. I find now I don’t even try to make friends at church and would never in a million years confide in a pastor. I would be horrified if he preached about me by name from the pulpit. People perceive me as unfriendly in church, I think, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve been away from it several years but seems like my past indoctrination rears its ugly head and biblical truth is sometimes difficult to discern. Sharing your story has really been helpful to me. Thank you.