(I am stepping away from my usual blog topics and usual blog lengths to talk about something that’s been on my heart for a while. Honestly, I hope this blog isn’t for everyone, but I am sharing it on the chance it might be for someone. And if that someone is you… sister [or brother] I’m standing here with you.)
My husband and I have been in counseling.
It started a couple months back when we had a fight. The same fight we’ve had for the past four years.
It would only come up every few months, so we looked like a healthy couple. But it never actually got resolved. So this last time we decided we’d had our fill of this argument, and, since we’d been thus far unable to resolve it ourselves, we probably needed a counselor. I emailed our pastor the next day asking for recommendations. He offered to meet with us himself.
Here’s what I want you to know: we’d been fighting over church. When to go, how often to go, how big of a priority being a part of a church is, and how we wanted to present Christ and the church to our kids. Spiritually, my husband and I had been living on two different pages for a very long time.
I’d chocked up the issue to Mike’s job in law enforcement and tried to give my husband space to work out his faith with God. While the job might have had something to do with it, here’s what I discovered in counseling: we were both traumatized by church.
I mean, I knew we’d faced hurts, I just didn’t realize how long it can take to recover. I didn’t realize how deep pain can penetrate. I didn’t realize all the ways it can affect your life.
Because of what my husband’s experienced in church, without even realizing it, he was trying to protect his family by not prioritizing church. And because of what I’ve experienced, I desperately needed him to be the strong one that wanted to be a part of church so I didn’t have to be.
At our first meeting, our pastor gave us an assignment: write a sort of pros and cons list to our past church experience—all the positives and all the things we needed to forgive.
It was great advice. We started with the pros, and we felt warm and fuzzy inside remembering the good stuff our former pastors had poured into us. We almost wondered why we were having issues with church in the first place. Then we started listing the things we needed to forgive. Once we got going, it just poured out of us. Wrong, after wrong, after wrong. Pages were filling up with hurts—some long buried and almost completely forgotten. We dredged them all up. We left stirred up and angry.
The past couple months, revisiting the trauma, have been hard. I wish moving forward looked like taking the whole lot of it, pushing it under a rug and never looking at it again.
Forgiveness doesn’t look like that though. And that lump sitting underneath the rug? Well, we’ve been tripping over it for a really long time.
I felt like I needed to share this with you. It’s messy, right? This whole church thing?
What my husband and I have experienced is spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is “when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds” (Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse). It’s hard for me to find that line between what we allowed and what was perpetrated—I’ve tried to figure out who is more at fault. Is it the one who misused his/her spiritual authority or the one who misplaced man’s authority above God’s? I’m not sure, I’m just ready to shake off the shame. I’m ready for healing.
I think the modern church might be pretty good at telling us how to connect, but it’s terrible at telling us how to recover. It’s like the church is afraid to talk about the real mess of living out our salvation alongside our brothers and sisters.
I wish someone had sat down with me a few years ago and validated the pain and frustration I felt. Maybe it’s the shame culture that surrounds abuse that keeps us quiet, I don’t know. But I know the enemy hangs out in the dark, so I am going to bring this into the light. I am going to start the conversation I wish someone would have started with me years ago. I haven’t arrived, friends, but I learned some things along the way.
Five Ways Forward after Spiritual Abuse:
I love that Jesus told Peter to forgive 490 times (seventy times seven). (Matt. 18:22) Not that Jesus was being literal about the number, but I think He was making a point. We forgive in layers, the deeper the hurt the more layers you have to get through. Forgiveness is a form of surrender—a letting go. Sometimes it takes laying something down 490 times before we stop picking it back up again.
Real forgiveness first recognizes what it needs to forgive—it can name the wrong. It’s sort of like a nasty splinter, you have to first recognize that there is a splinter in your skin and that it needs to come out. You can ignore it, sure, but it will make itself known. It will fester and ooze. It will come out in ugly words and anger, and you might not even realize the true source. In my case, it got my husband and me at odds with each other even though the pain didn’t come from either one of us. Satan is sneaky like that.
For years I kept excusing and rationalizing the behavior of those who were misusing their spiritual authority, as if it would be easier to forgive if I could produce their reasons for them. But really, all I was doing was denying the real pain I felt and the real forgiveness I needed to offer. No matter how you color it, rationalizing and excusing other’s wrongs is classic co-dependent behavior. Their reasons are between them and God. What we have to deal with is the real wound left behind. It means saying, “They were wrong”—and sticking a period at the end of that sentence. When you do that, it’s then that you can finally get a tweezer-tight-grip on the splinter and pull.
You also have to forgive yourself. Forgive what you allowed. Forgive where you didn’t speak up. Forgive where you got caught up fearing a person more than you feared God. We serve a God who can take ashes and make them beautiful. Who can work all things—even our own failings—together for our good. Whose lovingkindness and mercies are new every day. (Amen!)
Imagine someone you love was in an abusive relationship. Maybe it never got physical, but, verbally and emotionally, they were abused. Years after that relationship dissolved, this loved one has no idea how to move forward or how to be close to someone again. What would you tell her? You might recommend counseling, right? It’s the same with church. If you have been spiritually abused by church leadership and cannot move forward, get counseling. Listen: your spiritual-self is your eternal-self—and it’s at least as important (I would argue more important) as your physical and emotional self. Invest in it.
Have you heard the parable of the Good Samaritan? I had become that guy on the side of the road in the story: beat up and hollowed out by the anxiety and depression that came with the performancism I lived under. The ones who should have cared passed by me. But just like in the Bible Parable, my story has a Good Samaritan—Jesus Himself—who bandaged my wounds, who cared for me, and who paid the full-price for my recovery. (Luke 10:25-37).
It wasn’t that I disconnected from church, it was that I needed to disconnect from all the unhealthiness that had gone along with church. I had to recover away from my abusers.
God had me sort of cocooned for almost 2 years. Imagine someone who’s recovering from an illness—weak, fragile, in need of care. I still went to church on Sundays (finding different churches we could hide out in). I felt the call of raising my kids in church and knowing the importance of faithfulness, but I couldn’t get involved. I was healing. Being connected to the body of Christ looked different in that season. It was my dear mom’s group. It was the counsel of an older wiser woman of God. It was phone calls to my mom. It was a small facebook group of praying police officer wives. Sometimes, it was even the smiling faces of strangers on a Sunday morning.
When you are in recovery, Satan would like nothing better than to use your pride to get you to do one of two things. He will either try to get you separated and on your own where he can devour you. Or he will get you to skip the recovery process so that, while you are still weak and in the thick of things, he can easily trample you. Injured people need care. And injured people need to take the time to recover.
The Body of Christ.
Sometime last year, I knew it was time to go about the hard work of being vulnerable again. When trauma hits your life, you now live amongst those keenly aware that it can happen, that it did happen, and that it can happen again. You feel like you have a target on you. But you can start allowing fear to govern your life. Because God is all about restoration, it is often the very thing that hurt you that God uses to heal you. If you have decided that church is wherever you are and you don’t need a building or an institution, could it be that you have real wounds caused by church?—that you are like the abused partner who determines to never be in a relationship again? When I read my Bible cover to cover and look at the whole picture and specific Bible passages, connecting to the body of Christ isn’t optional. It isn’t subject to the state of the western church. It doesn’t look only like walks in nature or conversations with friends. In Paul’s letters to the different churches, I see a vibrant and diverse community, a regularly gathering community, and a sometimes messy community.
Listen to this: A life spent following Christ is never safe. And sometimes the scariest and most vulnerable thing you can do is follow Him straight into the midst of broken people and offer your gifts.
The True Cornerstone.
One of the hardest parts of all this is having to take a hard look at myself and realize I had tried way too hard to please people. The weight I placed on measuring up, on mattering, and on the opinions of others was idolatry. It’s hard to admit that. But it was. So while we are meant to be fitted together as one body of Christ, each with our own function, Christ is our cornerstone. He’s the giant stabilizing brick that gets laid down first. He has to go first, before ministry and ministers and everything else. And He’s the one we all lean upon. Peter puts it like this: “As you come to Him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house… For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame’” (1 Peter 2:4-7).
We’re meant to get cozy right up next to our fellow stones—our brothers and sisters in Christ—and be fitted together into one spiritual house. But Christ is our cornerstone.
As I have been trying to move forward, scared that this is all church is—hurt and pain and betrayal and mess— and that it could happen again. God whispers quietly: “But you aren’t the same woman, Amanda. I’ve used that pain, and produced in you a steadfastness rooted in Me. You’ve learned to lean on me and to fear Me.”
I am moving forward, slowly, with fear and trembling, leaning on my Cornerstone. He is enough. He’s always been enough. I don’t know how Jesus can take messes and ashes and what the enemy meant for our demise and make all of it into something beautiful, but He can. He does. He has.
I’d love to have your voice in this conversation. How do we recover from pain caused by the ones meant to help us?
PS If you would like to read more on spiritual abuse, I came across this article while preparing this one. Mary DeMuth outlines what spiritual abuse is, how to spot it, and offers wisdom on how to deal with it.