Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance and Bible Study Following Spiritual Abuse: Part III of V

How Do You Study the Bible After Someone Has Bludgeoned You With It?

Grieving, Mourning and Sifting Through the Rubble to Pick Up My Scattered Pearls

Before I walked out of my cultic church for the last time, my daily study started either with translation of three verses of the NT from the Greek Majority Text. I then usually had something that I wanted to look up in the OT. (I varied my reading habits, and this is what I was doing at this particular time when I left the cultic church.) I incorporated music and prayer into this time, too. Well… Everything but prayer became difficult in a way that I’d never experienced before. I tried to replace this lack of study with sermons on tape, but I quickly realized that this was part of why I was in so much trouble. I’d meditated on someone else’s teaching of the Word, hearing their twists on it before going before the Lord myself. So much of my problem involved my past acquiescence to someone else. Rather than putting the Word myself into my heart and mouth, I’d allowed so many others to go up into heaven to bring it down for me. This became instantly unsafe.

Though very difficult, I started singing a chorus from the cultic church that echoed the words of David’s Psalm every time I tried to study:

I find that this is a problem for others as well. Some of the leaders in the patriarchy movement boast excellent credentials and demonstrate excellent skill in expository teaching. If someone with a couple of PhDs cannot properly exegete the Word, and if these well-trained and knowledgeable leaders had fallen into error, teaching falsehood, what chance did I stand? How could I discern anything if I’d failed to discern the falsehoods in their teachings before? Here was a wolf that I couldn’t spot to save my own life, and I was fairly good at spotting them, I thought. For all of my diligence and study, I felt as if I knew nothing. Everything felt altogether unsafe, and it hurt right down through into my bones. If I had been beguiled by these teachings, how could I trust anything?

I don’t know how to communicate to you how deeply devastated I was. As I think back on it and having moved through this old pain, I cannot even really connect with the terrible pain anymore myself, a good thing. I mourned as if someone had died, but I wasn’t sure who had died. I think that a huge chunk of my carnal nature died, but a fantasy died too – one I’d lived in for most of my life. I can give you some pictures of my grief. Because I couldn’t study and connect with God, I would lay in bed, avoiding the choice of what to do for study that day. One such day when I didn’t have to do home visits for the local hospice (where I’d cut back my part time work to the bare minimum), the phone rang. When I got out of bed to answer, I was completely shocked to discover that it was 4 PM. My pillow was drenched with tears, and the corners of my eyes and cheeks were sore. About six months later when I’d had some little healing, after an enjoyable day trip we took together, my husband said that he was glad to have me “back from the dead.”

I was also felt very isolated and abandoned by all people. My pastor friend who recommended the Book of James and my family did not understand. The people who left the cultic church when I did never followed my course but jumped right back into other cults. They didn’t “break the addiction,” they just picked a “new drug of choice.” They did not go through what I went through, and they avoided the depression. It took several more years for some of these friends to “get it” about leaving the whole system because it was the system and not just abusive leadership that was flawed. Very few people who left our church network would even take my calls, and I’d been very tight-lipped about matters. (People sensed that they should not talk to those who left – partly because of fear of getting caught in someone else’s fray of the punishment one expected when one left the “umbrella of protection.” Even my husband did not understand what I was going through in many ways, as he did not process the grief in the same way – and his grief was very different. He was also deeply uncomfortable because he didn’t know how to help me, particularly while he was in distress himself. It would take him several more years to peel the lid off of his emotions, most of which came through as misdirected anger. Save for my exit counselor and the literature, I felt entirely isolated.
The exit counselor, a Catholic, told me that most people need 2 years to process what happened to them. One must look back and sift through the rubble that remains, a mixture of good and bad teachings, healthy love and codependency in the name of paternalism, mystical manipulation that I believed was the Holy Spirit. But I’d been so conditioned to think in black and white for most of my life, and the all-or-nothing that I’d come to embrace in this system of extremism made going through the rubble very difficult. I’d been taught to be radical, leaving home to be an adult in the days of Operation Rescue and Hands Across America. The Pentecostals were praying to take cities for Christ, and it was open war. There is something so enticing about all of that – and it feels good to have one’s blood boil with passion and determination. It meant that I was making a lasting difference in the world. Life was not about happy mediums, consistency, and balance. Life was all about passion and extremes. Everything was better if it was a crisis, as something about it all proved how special I was to God. The ongoing crises proved this to me.

So what could I salvage? How would I salvage it? I continued to have panic when I sat down to read the Word, and I did it under duress with great stress. I spoke to an old pastor of mine who suggested that I translate the Book of James from the Greek. I believed that he thought the “count it all joy” message would minister deeply to me, as he could see from afar at that time that God was using all of this to perfect me. But James’ Greek is the hardest and most advanced language in the NT which makes John’s gospel and epistles look like “Jack and Jill ran up the hill…” I did not last long with this study. The harder language magnified my stress, as did the subject matter. What was joy? Had I ever really known joy? I found that the intense stress related to my particular experience of self-trust and self-doubt in childhood also made this study very difficult, and I would weep. Even the panic wore down into a type of futile hopelessness. Eventually, I ceased this study, giving up on it after a month. I could find a million reasons not to study.

I tried reading the book of John from my majority text, something I absolutely loved doing in seminary. This unexpectedly triggered much grief, because I remembered the joy that I had as I did this, and I felt entirely alienated from it now. A man who later became an elder at the OPC where we attended taught a Sunday school class on "joy," and I remember very flatly talking to my husband about how I didn’t remember what joy was and wondered if I’d ever really knew what it was at all in the past. Had I ever known joy? The day my husband and I married was the happiest day of my life, and I remember how my cheeks hurt from smiling at the end of the long day. But that was a distant memory where I remember being full of joy, but I couldn’t feel the happiness anymore.

I prayed and prayed, and I finally gave in to reading an old devotional book that I’d purchased years ago – one of the Serenity Mediation Series books from Minirth Meier that I’d bought in the early nineties. (I also now recommend the NACR emails and devotional book, and I use them myself in addition to my now expanded study.) It was nothing intellectual, for certain. It had one simple verse for each day, and sometimes only a part of a verse. I’d been taught never to read out of context, but I still found reading my familiar Bible to be a point of grief and stress if not panic. I could get through a Sunday with my Bible in hand, but I found reading it too stressful during the week. I was ashamed. And I did this for a couple of years. I found it easier to connect with the Word by reading just one verse, and if I could wrap my mind around only one verse, it seemed better and wiser than reading two or three chapters and getting nothing out of it, unable to remember what I’d just read. This also helped me connect with the love of Jesus again, but this did not come easily either.

When people come out of patriarchy or any of these spiritually abusive settings, many people encourage the person in recovery to go through and read the Gospels again, starting with the Gospel of John. I think that this is excellent advice, but personally, I could not do this for a couple of years. I could not trust myself or any meaning I ascribed to the text. It was too intimidating. For me, save for Sunday church, I could handle little more than those small devotionals which helped me reconnect with Jesus, the Lover of my Soul. They were gentle and honest, and they were not too involved. They were sweet milk while the meat was too strong for my stomach. This lasted far longer than I would have liked, and I found it very frustrating. It crushed my pride, actually a very good thing in retrospect. I am ashamed that I could not do more, yet it is what it is. It is the truth.

I was grieving and healing. I often thought of films I’d seen of baby deer and baby horses that the mother must nudge to get that new baby on their feet for the first time. Their legs shake and their knees wobble until they stand firm and straight. It took me so much longer than it did those animals! I wobbled like that for years and years. I kept thinking of those paintings of Jesus with a baby lamb with its legs draped astride His neck, too weak and injured to walk. I drank wee sips of milk until I healed, remembering how much I loved biting into good steak and roast.

Eventually I learned that I was going through the Word again to find the pearls that I’d dropped and thought that I had lost. It took longer than I wished and longer than I thought it should.