Spiritual Abuse

When I was young my mom made dill flavored pretzels and bought a cheese cake. Not with the intention of eating them together but they were both in the house one night and one of my childhood sins was gluttony. I sat down that night and devoured three quarters of the cheese cake and the entire bag of dill flavored pretzels. That night I woke up with one of the worst stomach pains I had ever had. I threw up three or four times (a rare occurrence for me). For the next ten years just the smell of dill made me nauseous. Twenty years later I still have no desire to eat cheesecake. It is a strange phenomenon, but if I force myself to take a bite of the cheesecake, I enjoy the taste and can eat the rest of the slice in pleasure, but I actually have to force myself to take the first bite. No matter how many times I have had the positive cheesecake experience it has not been able to erase my initial aversion to it. It often helps when it is a different kind of cheesecake, something like a chocolate chip cheesecake, but it doesn’t make me desire it, I only find I can push through to take the first bite a little easier. My mind says that should be good, but my stomach and tastebuds initially rebel and shut down. There is no visceral desire for the first bite.

Many people have been abused in the church. Unfortunately most of those churches have done so in ignorance, much like many parents who deeply wound their children with some of the best intentions. Some of what has gone on in churches today has turned my stomach. I see so many individuals who have been crippled and pushed from God due to the practices of church leadership. There has been a push to reach out to the “overchurched” and the “underchurched” but I don’t think many understand those who have been abused by church. It is a segment of the population that is continually misunderstood and further abused. Often, these people do not even realize that they have been abused. Much like an individual in an abusive relationship, they make exuses for the church leadership or blame themselves, but a careful eye and sensitive ear can begin to perceive the scars and the whithering spirit of the spiritually abused.

Many times the church and things associated with it become like my cheesecake. There has been so much pain and emotional damage connected with “spiritual” things that there is an aversion to them. Often our intervention is “you should like cheesecake!” Let me tell you right now, you can tell me that as often as you like and feed me cheesecake every week and it’s not going to change my experience. Well, telling some of these individuals that they need to just go back to church, pray, or read their bible, is in effect saying the same thing. Often, these experiences are re-traumatizing as well. Many of these people react strongly to a particular message or the way leadership does something. They get marked as the “trouble-makers” or the “difficult ones.” And there are those people in every organization and group, but be careful because some of them are actually responding out of deep pain not selfishness, grandiosity, or entitlement. Like a soldier who traumatized by the backfire of a car, these individuals may be having deep reactions to very subtle cues that even they are unaware of.

For those of you that identify as abused, I encourage you to have compassion for yourself. You will likely not have a traditional view of church or spirituality. The cheesecake may never have the same appeal, but spirituality has many different kinds of desserts to offer and there may come a time when you can force one bite and find it more desirable than you originally thought. One of the great things about some of these emergent churches and contemporary services is that it may be different enough from one’s initial experiences that it is palpable. For others, their abuse has occurred in a more contemporary setting and a more traditional church is more acceptable. For some it will take a home church or something completely unconventional. But lets face it, the early church was a clear and utter departure from traditional Jewish worship, so it is likely that we will see significant changes in how Christians gather and it may be exactly what many people need. Worship itself is broadening in its definition and needs to in order to accommodate those who cannot worship in the traditional sense of the word. It is those individuals who demand a certain kind of worship that will find themselves under the same condemnation that John the Baptist proclaimed of the Pharasees and God’s own condemnation in the book of Isaiah against the religious leaders who failed to care for the weak and wounded. Demanding that a person with a broken leg walk is simply torture, carry her or get him a wheel chair. Let me eat my apple pie while you eat your cheesecake, we both can enjoy our desserts together. God is bigger than a set of directives. I write this to those who struggle and those who know people that struggle. Too often religious commandments and church have kept people from God rather than inviting them to him.

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