Spiritual Abuse and
Coping, Finding, Counting, Peeking
This article will look at some basic areas that individuals need to work through as they process the aftershock of spiritual abuse. The topics covered in this article will include: Coping, Emotions Felt, Finding People Who Listen, Counting Your Blessings, and Peeking Around the Corner.
Finding coping strategies pretty much describes the state that people who have just suffered spiritual abuse in their home church find themselves in. After the initial shock of what has hit them begins to settle, then their next steps are coping with the results of the emotional pain that comes with this unnerving church situation.
How people cope with distress can depend a lot on how they are wired, that is, their personality type. Some people are just more optimistic than others and that will influence how they manage this new situation. How one copes is also influenced by social resources.
It helps to have a look at a definition of ‘coping’:
“Coping is defined as the process of managing external and/ or internal demands that tax or exceed the resources of the person. It is a complex and multidimensional process that is sensitive to both the environment and the personality of the individual. . . .
During any stressful period of time, focusing on positive emotionsmay provide a psychological break or respite, support continued coping efforts, and replenish resources that have been depleted by stress. Positive emotions may help to build social, intellectual and psychical resources that can become depleted under chronically stressful conditions.”[i]
For a while, coping may be the only way to survive emotional stress directly related to spiritual abuse. Coping will involve the many emotions felt at this crucial time.
There are a variety of emotions that will come tumbling in at this time. The following are some excerpts from how the original participants in my study described their many conflicting emotions after experiencing spiritual abuse in their home church.
The question that they were responding to was:
How did you cope after making the decision to leave?
“I felt lost, abandoned, angry, lonely, hurt, misunderstood and just plain tired.”
“My wife and I agreed that we would try to fade out quietly, and to say nothing negative about the church we were leaving. We spent a lot of time talking to each other about what we were feeling and what we thought God might be saying to us.”
“Spent a great deal of time alone with God and in Scripture, as well as among strong Christians. Started serving others more than I had my church . . .”
“Was questioning all I had been taught during my time at that church.”
“It was VERY difficult… our life was SO intertwined with everyone in that church, it felt like we lost all our friends and family in one day.”
“I should point out that a year after I left the abusive church, I was still plagued by inordinate feelings of worthlessness, unresolved anger, rejection, and insecurity.”
“Sought legal, professional Christian counseling, and advice of mature respected Christians.”
“At first we talked, prayed and cried a lot. There were a few of us family members and friends who were going through this time of separation together, so we were able to express our frustrations and fears within our small group.”
“Initially, I didn’t cope very well at all and I was just barely surviving. That had to be the darkest moment of my life. I remember thinking “what have I done?” These were some of my closest friends in the world and their ministry was flourishing, so I really struggled with trying to figure out who was right.”
“On the positive side, I’ve never regretted my decision to leave. Christian Counseling did help me to:
1. Recognize I was angry “I’d like to lock him up and throw away the key.” “I think you are quite angry.” “What me, angry, whatever gave you that idea?” “Well, that was quite an angry statement.” “Nah !” “Let’s make another appointment for a couple of weeks’ time . . .”
2. Allowed myself permission to be angry. I didn’t want to give them another stick to beat me with. I’d left, but they were still condemning me in my head. I think I figured the rest out on my own (with God).”
“One thing I think was very beneficial was to give myself all the time I needed. Another was to separate God and the church. God was not the problem; the problem was the church. I believed God had answers; I just had to walk out relationship with Him to find them.”
Finding People Who Listen!
This is someone’s comment post on a pal’s blog that keyed into the necessity to encourage people to just listen to others in need. For those who seek to help others, this is good advice. For those who need a listening ear, this can be a guide for the type of person, listener, that you should be looking for:
“Just be and LISTEN to the person in the place they are at. Let God do the work, you be the presence of his love and grace.
We do not change people, heal people, save people, HE does. HE is the way, the truth and the life, NOT ME, not the church, BUT JESUS. Let’s get the first commandment down, first: love God, love man.”
The following is from a participant who found a caring church in their area and found that these Christians were there for them emotionally. This is the kind of church that the wounded need to be able to find in their time of need.
“We went to another church and poured our hearts out about the problem that we experienced.”
Other people found help through counseling, family, and friends:
“I sought counseling. I kept to a very small group of friends who understood what had happened and who were able to be sympathetic. I kept a very low profile in our small town.”
“We spoke to various people who we trusted. My brother was a massive help through it all providing vital support. He even risked his own job supporting us, with a warning from the leadership that he may be compromising his job by standing by us. We also spoke to a local vicar who gently listened–massive help to have someone listen!”
On Matthew Paul Turner’s Blog, Feb. 4/12, there was a good comment from someone pen-named “Been There.”
Been There’s comments covered many areas that relate to how people cope after the untimely experience of spiritual abuse.
I have bolded the comments that resonated with me. I have added more paragraph breaks for ease in reading. Here is the excerpt:
Been There…says: February 4, 2012 at 10:38 am
“During this post in particular, I was thinking of some of my friends with whom friendships ended and what they would think after reading this. The post would be tagged as something “from another complainer” and forgotten–or talked about during “prayer.”
What I’ve come to is this: unless a human being is unbelievably gifted and sensitive, the majority will not understand something or want to, until they have experienced it themselves. Example: Before losing a parent, I was not understanding of the grief process. When someone experienced a death, I sent a card and flowers and wished them well.
Now that I know the way that undoes a life and what navigating through grief looks like, I respond SO differently when someone experiences a death. I am in it with them. I open myself to them. I’m not trying to rush their grief because it makes me uncomfortable. In fact, I am far more sensitive to any type of hurt or being misunderstood–because I’ve had to swim through it myself.
I think the same is true for this topic– being hurt by the church. Or any other topic that brings pain. While I don’t love that I’ve been navigating painful waters for six years, it has been a time to take people off of the pedestals I put them and seek God himself.
While I still believe in the need for a “church family,” I don’t know exactly what that looks like. It’s nice to be at a place where things are spoon-fed to us and opportunities to serve are there for the taking. It’s also been a journey to be Jesus to those in my neighborhood, my workplace or those I run into randomly. Just because I’m not part of a huge cog that spins big programs and organized efforts, it doesn’t make my Christianity non-existent.
. . .
I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing I have control over, is myself. Not an earth shattering truth, I know. Life hurts. I am going to get hurt again– maybe at the hands of well-meaning Christians outside the four walls of a church. Then what? I don’t feel that denouncing Christianity is the answer. I deeply believe in God, his Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit–beyond a shadow of a doubt. If I’m looking for more ammo to substantiate my wound, I don’t have to look very far to find it. That’s not how I want to live.
My goal is to stay soft to God’s voice, to use the hurt I’ve experienced and remember to listen when someone shares their deepest pain with me, even if I can’t understand it . . .
Count Your Blessings
Though difficult at first, it is very therapeutic to find many things to thank God for when your heart and mind are in default depressed mode.
From what can be learned from others who have recovered is the fact that eventually there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is a chance to reflect on all that has happened and to begin to realize that the new place that you find yourself in has many unexpected benefits. This is where thanksgiving can begin.
Here are some recent thoughts I put in an email to someone who I have been having some good email chats with after their muddy tunnel church experience:
“Another thought while you process things—probably you have figured this out many times, but it doesn’t hurt for someone to remind you occasionally: Start counting your blessings as to why you are GLAD that you are no longer there, at that church.
Think of the freedom that you have now as well as the insights that you have gained in no other way.
You can also imagine that you are five or even ten years away from some of these losses and see how you would perceive them from that vantage point of time.
Though there are losses, ultimately, in so many experiences, there are just some plain gains as well.”
To the question: “Do you feel that God has used this negative experience to mature you in your faith?” the Participants in my study said it this way:
“Oh yes. I have grown leaps and bounds. My family has had little or no income in the last 2-4 years since being kicked out of the church. I have had to truly rely on God and have faith. The miracles and testimonies are too numerous to mention.”
“So in some way I am pleased with the scars, of the battles fought, and the experienced gained. Do I wish there was a simpler and less painful way, absolutely!”
“Yes. I have gained a confidence that I never used to have. I used to look for affirmation from others to feel secure in God’s love. I have since learned that God’s love for me is total and unwavering, even though I am certainly not special in any way. In my case, it was necessary to leave other (false) forms of security to learn this for myself.”
“Absolutely. I have a broad range of experience I might not have known. I am able to “comfort” those who have been similarly afflicted. I have a greater respect for the pastoral office when I see it done right.”
“It took this experience to help me trust God that I can approach Him through His Word and that He can speak to me. It also taught me that though man can and will fail that He is unchangeable and that in himI am to trust. Not a pastor or a denomination. Finally, He allowed me to understand that I have the right to challenge those who abuse their power in love.”
Peeking Around the Corner
Remember when you were a little kid and you were curious about something, but you just weren’t all that sure that you wanted to go around the next corner without peeking first in case there was something that might scare you? That feeling of uncertainty is there, but being curious about what is around the next corner, like a little kid, is often what gets adults going again.
No one likes uncertainly and there is definitely enough of that to go around some days. The drive to jump into things with reckless abandon has somehow vanished after an experience like this and the long dreary road ahead seems to be all that is in view.
Instead of rushing into anything, the habit of peeking around the corner might be just what needs to be done first. Taking some first steps in a new direction can be therapeutic. Taking a different path can cause one to see many different flowers and trees along the way that wouldn’t have been discovered any other way.
Working it through in a small town:
“Getting out of town really helped to clear my mind of the overburdening worthlessness I felt while in town.
I read books on toxic churches, coping with toxic people, and dealing with spiritual dryness, etc.
I tried to learn about and attend other non-church related activity groups in town in order to meet new people and try to make new friends (this was hardest, as this is a small town without a lot of resources and not many people here are involved in hobbies which I enjoy).”
“I joined a spiritual abuse group on the internet.”
“It wasn’t until we got plugged into another church and had the pastoral team counsel us through everything and show us that what was done to us was completely unscriptural and that everything that this church did, resembled a cult.”
“I wrote a lot. I blogged about it. I talked with friends and family till they grew tired of me. I searched the Scriptures to make sure that what I was believing was in line with how I read Scripture. I studied almost non-stop for 3 months.”
“I believe that God also showed me very clearly that it was not my job to change the system or the mindset of those in it. I was also able to see that even the leaders were victims who were trapped worse than we were. By the grace of God alone, I was able to start having compassion for them.”
I started my own home-church centric blog. There I began to plot out new plans and chart new courses to possible redemption for the church. That was a very healing and very corrective thing for me to do. It gave me reason, purpose, and hope again.”
“Yes, I think I have a greater confidence that God is way bigger than I ever imagined. I also am learning it’s okay to say I don’t know. God is bigger than my doubts and my doubting doesn’t threaten him.”
This article looked at how people coped after their negative church experience. There were insights into how others dealt with a flood of negative feelings. There were insights into some of the positive feelings that helped people to be thankful for the situation that they now found themselves in. Finding someone to listen to one’s painful story is supremely important for people in order to move forward in processing their emotional setback.
Getting a grip on what has happened, finding ways to cope, dealing with painful emotions, and trusting God to help bring them to a point of new ground, are ways that people who have experienced spiritual abuse have found has worked for them.
People arrive at a point that they feel confident enough to take small faith steps by peeking around the corner. With new insights, there seems to be opportunities that present themselves. Though difficult at first, taking faith steps and continuing to reflect on all that has happened helps to pave the way for healing and recovery.
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For Further Reflection
The parallel article in this series is: “Spiritual Abuse and The Road to Recovery.” This is one of the topics on this website.
So often fear and doubt lead us away from you, yet still you seek us, calling our name.
O steadfast One, rather than shamefully hide, may we come forth and meet you, who loves us just as we are! Amen.
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[i] Cornell Research Program, http://www.crpsib.com/userfiles/File/Coping%20Lit%20Review.pdf.
© 2012 Barb Orlowski, D.Min.