Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance and Bible Study Following Spiritual Abuse: An Unplanned Addendum to Part IV!

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

I’ve received a surprising amount of feedback about these posts, and I have concerns (as I stated in the first Bible study post) that it may come across that I am encouraging people not to read the Bible or that I was avoiding the sorting out of my own understanding of doctrine. Actually, I did little else. At this time in life, while waiting for the babies to come that never did, I worked doing temp jobs in nursing in Texas (where we lived at the time). I could make much better money, it was generally part-time work, and I felt that it would not require me to ever choose between a job and a baby. When I was not busy with this, I was basically working through these doctrines. I would like to take this opportunity to explain this a bit more, as I seem to improperly given some the impression that I may have avoided this work, when I was actually consumed by it.

How I Dealt with the Aberrant Doctrine:
More Clarification

I received this note today:
“I have read through your latest series and am just amazed. Our experiences were just the opposite! Because there was so little bible study [in my church], there was more proof texting and topical stuff which is so easy to twist that I went into deep study to find out what a Christian was supposed to look like from the Word. I had no idea...because my paradigm had been warped based on what I saw supposedly godly people in power do…

I look back and realize I was a zombie. But a zombie that just immersed myself in the Word. What it did was clean out the wrong teaching and replace it with truth.”

I would argue that I was absolutely not doing the opposite but that I was doing it in a different setting. For me, as one who was already immersed in the Word, this context became unsafe. I had to go to a different setting and context. I did that from within the safety of understanding the behavioral aspects of what happened to me because of my own intense self-doubt. (Here follows the bulk of the response that I wrote to her, though I've filled in some details.)

I guess I failed to explain myself well in the post then… My daily study habits were limited, but I was also dealing with the doctrinal things as these issues came up all the time as a consequence of discussions at church (after our break from regular attendance for a year), or just matters that came up in discussions with Christian loved ones. I guess that I did a poor job of explaining that in these previous posts in this series.

I didn't "hide" from correcting my thoughts in terms of these doctrines. Those things presented themselves CONSTANTLY, and I did deal with them by going to the Word, but I often went to the anti-cult and some of the counter-cult literature first. (I am somewhat ashamed to admit that, but this is the truth and it demonstrates how unsafe I felt as a result of this abuse.) I felt terrible grief and embarrassment and sometimes panic when I did go to the Bible, but it was much worse when I picked it up for the sake of reading for reading's sake.

Who wants to confront the bitter reality that the Word of life became the club someone used beat you with, and that you failed to see it as a club? And if you thought that you knew more about the nature of clubs than most people?

This affected how I connected with the Lord every day. I felt as if I couldn't SAFELY do that through the Word anymore in the way that I had.

For example, I grew up with the shepherding twisted out-of-context meanings of "Touch not mine anointed" as an instruction that one could never criticize or challenge "an anointed 'Man of God'" because "the gifts and callings of God are without revocation." This is what my mother taught me through application of these Scriptures to guide her conduct when she became painfully aware that her pastor was committing adultery with the young, married, male assistant pastor. She was a new believer, and she relied on the instruction given to her by those more mature in the faith. God had called this man to be a pastor, gave him a special anointing to be a fantastic pastor, and that anointing would never go away, even if he sinned. (Maybe this was her own way or someone else's of explaining how he could be so good at what he did and be actively guilty of this very provocative sin? Something to help them get around their own black-and-white thought?) If I challenged that anointing by pointing out some blatant sin that disqualified them from leadership, I was in direct violation of condemning an anointed prophet of God. (Note that in my real life, this “anointed prophet” sodomized little boys and young men over a period of at least 30 years. He was in ministry for another 15 years or so after he left our area, so it may have continued after he left, for all I know.)

This kind of thing happened constantly as a result of issues that came up in daily life. So I discussed these doctrines all of the time and went through many of these aberrant doctrines with my husband, with trusted friends (which seemed few), and sometimes with my exit counselor if I was stuck. I didn't have to go look for doctrine to recapitulate: it reared its ugly head very often. But turning to Bible study in the way that I had studied the Bible before was not my first choice as an aid to resolve these issues. I found reading the Bible, my old familiar preferred study Bible, to be very painful and disturbing. I only looked to answer specific questions for several years, and it was not my daily bread as it had been. For the daily bread, I am still embarrassed somewhat to say that I relied upon those one verse devotional books from Minirth Meier and the like. I also liked "Streams in the Desert," but aspects of that seemed a little "cultic" to me at times (because of the theme of suffering), so I did not stick with this one either.

The truth about the interpretation of these verses did not come from a knowledgeable person "in the Church" or in a church setting. I would be remiss if I did not say that my husband didn't challenge this when I first brought this up as a matter of discussion when our church became notably abusive of women during the last half of our experience there. But I really learned the true and proper exegesis of these verses from the exit counselor (!), the book recommended by the exit counselor ("The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse"), and through the second pastoral counselor that I sought out because my depression was so deep. I found comfort in the Word eventually, but I learned about these matters in the context and "safe place environment" of social psychology through the anti-cult literature. The most helpful and practical book in this respect was the secular "Captive Hearts, Captive Minds" (now revised as "Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships"), not "The Subtle Power" book which was written by a Christian author.

Every person will do this differently, because every person will have to seek out their own safe place. (It all depends how you were bludgeoned with the Bible, where, and by whom.) I'd loved my clinical experiences in college when I studied addictions, and I quite liked the statistically validated psychology literature. (It took subjective behavior and tested it with objective statistics in order to understand and help the afflicted, rather than just throwing someone's flawd subjective personal ideas at it like Freud did, for instance.) When I was 19, I sat in on a group session with many teens who were in detox. I listened to their stories and realized that the only difference between them and me was the fact that they turned to drugs to help them with their emotions. I felt the same things and the same way about myself (shame, self-loathing, and futility), but I just didn't turn to drugs. I threw myself into schoolwork and worked extra shifts, somatized emotions that were not allowed, and felt constant anxiety instead. I found that the literature that dealt with the addict's core issues of shame applied well to my own life, offering something that I never heard addressed in the church. So this professional area provided a very safe framework for me to process things. I went to the safest place that I could find.

This whole discussion also brought up anxiety related to my own growth and development. Wrapped all around my religious experience was my own problems with epistemology, how I knew what was real. So I had that to contend with as well. The unresolved issues related to my mother's post-partum depression, our lack of bonding which resulted in the anxious attachment disorder features that I had, and my school phobia all surfaced for me. So did my emotions related to my experience of being molested while a school age child, something never reported and something for which I'd never sought therapy. All of this cult experience brought up these serious problems for me, and I've found the Church in general to be profoundly ill-equipped to deal with this highly unpleasant “messiness.” Please also note that I found healing for all of these unhealed wounds as a result of recovery from spiritual abuse. (My best hope in context of the church was always in desperately hoping and waiting for my pastor to get a word of knowledge about what I was going through so that I could have "deliverance" to magically cast all of these problems out of me. And that never happened.) It wasn’t until many years into my recovery from spiritual abuse that I finally found a very competent Christian counselor who was well-prepared to help me deal with some of the remaining aspects of all of this very unpleasant and disturbing history, and this came after long and diligent pursuit.

Most people who do not have a history of some of these things will not find the church to be so unsafe, but I do have concern for those who are raised in these very high demand religious systems. I think that I experienced many of the same features that are demanded by young girls in patriarchy as part of the religious system, though I experienced some of these features outside of a religious context. (They didn't come to me because my parents employed elements of family dysfunction or as spousal abuse in marriage like those in patriarchy and some extreme complementarian marriages. But the end results are much the same, I think.)

Still more to come...