BY ROSIE WITTLEDER, GRACE ATTENDER & BLOGGER
I grew up in a cult until age 10. That was 25 years ago. (Now you know how old I am :) You might think, “You’re good now though, right? Since that happened so long ago, when you were just a kid?”
That’s what I believed too, until around age 25. At that time, I realized the trauma of my early years was something I couldn’t outrun. It had impacted my brain and life with lasting effects. The choice was either for me to face the trauma and begin to heal, or to try to cope in ways that were destructive to myself and others.
By the grace of God, I chose the former. And now, after about 10 years of intensively dealing with my “stuff,” I’ve been invited to share my journey more openly with others. It’s scary and something I’ve tried to run away from.
So this idea of writing on a church blog? Laughable. In ways, it still feels like a big joke. Me? Write on a church blog? Of all places? Those closest to me know how comical this is given my struggles and the pain I carry as it relates to the church. Yet, here I am.
One area in which growing up in a cult has impacted me greatly is my lack of being able to trust people. Especially people at church/devout Christians. Church has been a place of much abuse, manipulation, fear, and mistrust in my earliest years. But here’s the problem--I like Jesus. I think he is real. And that he can change lives, as he has my own. I can’t deny that truth no matter how hard I try. And believe me, I have tried.
But when you don’t trust large masses of people who also say they like Jesus, it presents a problem. Going to church is hard. It’s getting easier, but it’s still hard. Grace Church has become a safe place for me, which is why I go. I like Dave. I think he is sane. I like the music. I think it’s a sound place where the leaders aren’t out to manipulate. And they talk about real struggles.
But trying to meet quality people that I can be real with? That feels like a one-in-a-million chance. Over the years, I’ve met what feels like fake person upon fake person who profess to be Christians. It’s enough to make my skin crawl and not return. So, for a lot of years, I would show up to church because of the things I mentioned above. But then I would make a beeline for the door when it was over.
Recently, my husband and I decided that we wanted to try joining a Rooted group. Shortly after, we were invited by this couple who we knew we liked, although we didn’t know them very well. They were one of the few people we were open to joining a small group with. So I knew this was something we had to pursue when they were the exact people who invited us. Even if I felt a little leery heading into it.
We joined the group and started going through Rooted together. We met every week for two hours, for the past ten weeks. People who I’m close to, who don’t go to Grace and knew we had joined a small group, have come up to me and asked, “So how do you like it?” To my surprise, I’ve gotten to respond with, “You won’t believe it, but I love these people!”
When I think about why it is I have come to like them, one resounding answer comes to mind. These people actually tell the truth! They tell the truth about their lives. Their marriages. Their kids. Their relationships. Their real thoughts and feelings about things. There are no fakes or facades.
I have found this extremely difficult to come by in my adolescent and adult years. While those around me would paint a picture of near perfection in their homes, I’m sitting there thinking, “I actually don’t have a nearly perfect life. I have nightmares. I have anxiety. At times, I struggle with depression. So yeah, can you help me with that?”
And typically the reality of my life is too much for them. They don’t engage with my brokenness, and instead slap on a Christianese cliché or a Bible verse that’s supposed to make my problems go away and make me feel better. Except it doesn’t. And I’m lonelier than I was before, and usually I wish I hadn’t shared.
But these people in my Rooted group--they literally tell the truth. One guy said he wasn’t sure if he really believed the material. YES! I love it! I thought to myself, “I want to be this dude’s friend. He’s the real deal.”
We’ve talked about struggles. Marriage, family, finances, areas of ongoing difficulty. We’ve also done a lot of laughing. It’s been a huge breath of fresh air for someone who has been trying to surface and catch some oxygen in a church setting for a long time.
And now that Rooted is over, we’re going to still keep coming to the group. If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.
So, what if you are someone who goes to church, loves it, has little church trauma, and wants to help those around you who may be burned and jaded? What can you do? What should you avoid doing that would bring more harm?
Be a Steady Friend
I know, this doesn’t sound flashy. It’s not a hard and fast quick-fix answer. But I do believe it’s one of the most loving things we can offer our hurting friends. Work on yourself and how you can be a safer person. Those who want to fix, give advice, give pat answers? Not safe. I run for the hills from these people.
Let your friend share. Don’t interrupt. Try to just hold their story and their feelings. This is hard. It’s hard to see a friend struggle, when there is nothing you can do to fix it. But keep this in mind--you are helping to bring healing to this person’s life. It is safe interaction upon safe interaction, over and over and over, that brings those of us who are hurt out of our shells.
If you try to bypass this and offer your two-cents before you have developed a deep and meaningful connection, you will likely do more harm. I know that’s the furthest thing from your intention, to bring more pain to someone who is already in pain. But honestly, that is typically the result.
There have been more times than I can count when someone who truly cares about me couldn’t face their own uncomfortable feelings as I shared my story. They tried to “help” by giving me Scripture verses or other “Christian practices,” and they unintentionally injured me further.
I think this is something that the typical Christian or church-goer has a hard time understanding, most likely because it has not been their personal experience. Yes, I realize you think you have the answer. Jesus. The Bible. Prayer. Going to church. Being with other Christians. But when you try to lead someone who has been abused in a context where these “Christian” things were used, you traumatize them further.
What I’m about to say may might sound crazy, but I think it’s true. Telling a person who has been spiritually abused to go back to church, to start reading their Bible, and to pray to a God who they think severely injured them, is like telling a person who has been physically or sexually abused to go back and try to spend some time with their abuser. Hence why this area of spiritual abuse is so difficult and complicated. What the person may need the most is the very thing that traumatizes them.
This is why we must take another route. Here is what helped me. In January of 2007, my husband Mark and I tried out this “young marrieds” class at a mega church in Orlando. The fact that I showed up to this class was a big deal. I remember thinking, “Yay! I did it! It actually went okay. And now that the group time is over, let’s get the heck out of here!”
To my surprise, this guy charged across the room to Mark and I. “Hey!” he said. “We are going to be friends.”
I thought I was temporarily on another planet. This guy didn’t even know us, yet he declared our future friendship. I was so caught off guard--but also so admired his absurd and brave behavior--that I couldn’t help but engage with him.
Over the next two years, Mark and I hung out with this couple consistently. They became our closest friends in Orlando. They invested in us, listened to my “issues,” and were not afraid of them. We did fun things together. They were simply our friends. No strings attached. And my hang-ups didn’t keep them from pursuing me.
There was no word from them about church, really. No pressure from them that I needed to do this or do that. No checking in to see if I was praying or reading my Bible. They were just people who loved. I didn’t have to do or be someone else for them to love me. I had never experienced anything like that from people who I’d met at church.
Two years in, our friends brought up the dreaded topic: church. Our friend’s dad was becoming the pastor of this local church. I was shocked. I had no clue they were a “pastor’s family.” But because I already loved them, I refused to cut and run.
Our friends asked us to consider going to the local church. I refused immediately. They let me have that answer. Shortly after, they came to me again and asked me if I would just try going for 6 weeks before making a decision. It sounded like a reasonable request, especially given the love they had shown us so freely.
I went. And I actually found community and unconditional love from many church people. Yes, I was triggered from time to time--every Sunday to be exact. But their love for me gave me the strength to stay, to feel my fears, and to try to move through them.
The main point here is this: people are more likely to listen to you, open up to you, and try to engage, if you have first laid the foundation of true friendship. If you try to bypass that step, your efforts are null in void and will likely bring more pain. So, even though the road is long and arduous with a friend who has experienced spiritual abuse, the most impactful thing you can do is to be their friend first. For a long time. Then maybe you can tip-toe into the subject of God and church. Just maybe.
So what if you are someone with similar hang ups to what I’ve had? What things could you do?
Consider Seeing A Therapist
In our culture, we want things solved with a snap of our fingers. But this is not possible with issues like these. It is a process. It takes time, effort, bravery, and support to move through this. There is no shame in getting help. There are professionals out there who specialize in this area. If you want a different result in how you feel, you must take a different course of action. I’ve been in therapy for a long time. It has made a huge impact on my life, although not always as fast as I’d prefer. But it has changed me in significant ways. (See our Resource Center for therapy recommendations.)
Is there someone in your life who you are drawn to? Someone who inspires you, who you want to be like? I know it may feel hard and scary, but consider reaching out to them and asking for help. Consider befriending someone who can walk alongside you, who is safe, and who is further down the road than you.
Over ten years ago, I reached out to a woman who I respected and admired. I liked what I saw in her life and wanted to know how to get that. So I reached out to her, asking her some questions that I was struggling with--things mentioned in the Bible that were like nails on a chalkboard for me.
This was the start of a lasting relationship. She is someone who I have called in my darkest days, who has walked with me through my pain, and who I’ve developed a deep attachment to. And in order to heal we must develop safe attachments to others.
What if you are someone who is now able to go to church, but is a “bolter”?
Consider Taking the Next Step
This could mean a few different things. For me, I knew I wanted to try a group. But I didn’t want to join just any group. So I tried to keep my eyes open for people I would see or run into at church who I got a good vibe from.
Then there was this couple that came to my attention. For months, I would casually say hello. When I finally felt comfortable enough, I decided to engage with her after church one Sunday. It was in that conversation that she invited me to be part of their group. And then we went through Rooted together and had the redemptive experience that I referred to earlier in the post.
Maybe for you, it’s simply finding someone who looks friendly and saying hello to them. Or if you are more service-oriented, you could try volunteering and seeing who you meet. And here’s the deal–if you try and it doesn’t work out, that is okay. You haven’t done anything wrong.
But I would encourage you to try to develop some staying power. Keep trying, as much as you are able to, without injuring yourself. This is a process. It takes time. Be easy on yourself. I’m still in this process and may be for the rest of my life.
If you go to Grace and think you might be ready for a next step, consider joining a Rooted group. You may like it, you may not. But I think it’s a worthy endeavor to attempt. You may surprise yourself with what you experience. If you are not a church attender but want to check out Grace, you might just give it a shot. Learn more here. You always have choices. And if you don’t like it, that’s okay. Sometimes it’s just taking that first step that can help get us unstuck.