Thursday, January 21, 2010

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

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

See Part I HERE.

Feeling Alienated from My Connection to God through the Bible

After studying a year of Greek, I was very disappointed. I found no theophany. A year of Greek taught me how to use the Bible Study tools properly and key terms frequently used in basic doctrine, not much more. This was a disappointment, as it did strip away some of the mystique that I felt about Bible teachers. It introduced a new element of uncertainty, so the outcome of study did the opposite of what I had hoped. I wish that I’d understood something that I failed to grasp then, partly because I was still looking at the Gospel like a formula. (“Do A, B and C and you will get D, the higher life and anointing.” In homeschooling, you get perfect kids and eternal families.) I wish that I understood and appreciated the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer in concert with the study of the Word. The Spirit illuminates our study. But I was still working these things out in my own mind as I shifted from the vicarious faith that my mother gave me into a faith of my own on my own terms with God. Bible study was still, partially, a means to an end for me.

Within a few years, I exited my church, finding myself on the doorstep of my exit counselor. (I address this in more depth in my testimony HERE.) I learned that I had not only “snapped” because of a thought reform program that I believed was a healthy church, my Word of Faith (WoF) experience had me primed and ready to accept this manipulation without much scrutiny. As the counselor read straight out of Chapter 22 in Lifton’s book about brainwashed Korean POWs, I sat there listening, realizing that she was describing the dynamics of my own church. I won’t say that I didn’t have a clue about the manipulation, because it was the clues that drove me there. I just didn’t understand what the clues were telling me because I didn’t know what they meant. I was forever changed, like Dorothy who’d been to Oz and pulled away the curtain to see the little man standing there, nothing but smoke and mirrors. For Dorothy, there was no return to the awe of Oz, and Kansas would not be the same for her anymore either. I was forever changed, in a moment of epiphany.

I knew that I’d been shaken, but I had no idea how deeply all of this would affect me. I felt like an empty shell of a hypocrite who had started out to worship and serve and know God. My motives and my efforts were good, yet I’d been mixed up in horrible things and with some flawed and dangerous people, serving the church instead of God. I remember in high school, sitting in Sunday school class, how my teacher and friend said “Men will always fail you. Cindy, I’ve sung this with you in this very room for years. ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus, Stand in His strength alone. The arm of flesh will fail you; ye dare not trust your own.’ Only the Word will not betray you.” I knew this, yet I was also taught to revere the higher and better and more anointed insights of those who knew better than I ever could. I’d been given so many mixed messages, and my pastors had been proven liars to me and were not batting an eye over things like a husband keeping his wife under lock and key in their basement. But I’d listened to them and acted as they heard God’s will for my life and understood the Bible better than I had. My discernment – my radar – failed to work. Some of it failed to work all along. Some of these very wrong ideas had been taught to me from my earliest days.

Here, black and white thinking affected me quite adversely. I did not learn all of that in the cultic church I’d been
in for four years. They merely built upon elements of ideas that my mother believed and taught to me when I asked questions about how to apply certain Scriptures to life and how I saw her apply them. For all of my diligent study and seeking God, neither my knowledge of the Bible nor the Holy Spirit in me protected me from this terrible harm! It seemed and felt like my whole religious experience had been flawed from the beginning, and I THOUGHT that I WAS standing “in His strength alone!” I’d done everything I knew to do to be wise and true, yet I’d believed a lie. Did I even have any radar? What good had it done me? I’d stumbled, fell, and I’d been hurt. In my black and white thought, it felt like the whole of the journey had been wrong, and it was the foundation for MY EVERYTHING.

The next morning, I picked up my Bible and *BAM*! For the first time in my life, those well-worn pages felt foreign and strange. I knew that book and could quote it and find in it what I could not quote by memory. I’d taken what was given to me and made it my own. Or had I? In recent days before I left my cultic church (known well by my exit counselor), I’d heard much about “humbling myself under the mighty hand of God” and how “God gives grace to the humble.” So I looked up those Scriptures. I can think back upon that moment now, a dozen years later, and I see how they’d redefined “humbling” into something that differs little from the humiliation of shame. At the time, the trauma was too intense for me to think clearly through the self-doubt. I went into an existential panic, unable to figure out what was really real. I knew those verses and I’d known what they meant.

(But I didn’t always believe this about those particular Scriptures. Hmm.) I can also now say that the cultic church used these verses to enforce doctrine over person, the cult of confession and the sacred science, in Lifton’s language that I had not yet learned. All I knew was that this Bible felt unsafe because I couldn’t trust myself at all. How did I know anything? I broke out into a cold sweat and wanted to vomit. I knew that Word was my best medicine, but if I couldn’t be sure about what it meant, the meaning I ascribed to the words could potentially be as bad as the poison I’d been ladling down my throat for four years in Mumford and Gothard Land. I’d taken it and had no clue that I’d been drinking something tainted. And then I felt anger that was so intense, I did not even understand it as anger.

I thought that I would come back to it tomorrow. I would listen to some good Christian music that was Scriptural, dripping with the Word. “Duhh.” I found the same problem with music. Then there was the choice of what music to listen to. I’d been playing Vineyard music for the past year while leaning on some Vineyard friends to help me through the last very difficult year at my cultic church. But that was unsafe and mind-numbing now. I pulled out an old Amy Grant album, and that made me cry as I remembered how innocent and sweet I remembered myself to be when I first bought it 15 years before. What was I going to do?