Monday, January 28, 2013

Forgiving God and Making Peace with Faith After Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse can become such a terrible betrayal, depending upon the type of disappointment or harm that a person endures or witnesses. Once we are able to confront our experiences, grieve, and learn how to move on safely from what has happened, for many of us, someone else needs to be forgiven. 

 When we can find no resolution to our situation and suffer deeply, many of us wrestle with God about why we ended up suffering betrayal in the Church at the hands “His representatives.” When we come to terms with the fact that these representatives are fallible men just like we are, we are left with the fact that God permitted the whole experience. We lived to tell the tale, but we are worse the wear for it. Some people end up walking away from Christianity itself, unable to transcend the experience and get on with a meaningful life any other way.

I imagine that the pious reader might think that the suggestion that forgiving God seems arrogant and sacrilegious, words too terrible to utter. But the truth is that many people harbor unresolved pain, and if we we are indeed angry with God, we must confront the issue honestly if we want to heal and grow through and out of those feelings. We must also consider that not everyone has had good experiences in their religious system. They know God as an evil tyrant who demands the impossible of them and exists to punish them, just waiting for the opportunity to “get them.” The thought reminds me of how Susan Grotte told me of how many girls at Hephzibah House could quote chapters and chapters of Scripture, but the only Christianity they saw modeled for them was abject abuse. Many Christians shudder at the thought of “forgiving God,” believing that it sounds too much like Arminianism or Open Theism when one assumes that they are actually on par or greater than God in terms of power and will. But many suffer and have only reason for doubt and disdain. I was lucky. My experience with Christianity presented God as a benevolent God who was full of compassion as opposed to the authoritarian God holding a hammer, seeing nearly everything and everyone as a nail. The process of making peace with God becomes more complicated if your initial experience with religion was negative.

Many books on forgiveness discuss making peace with God and forgiving God, but the one that I found most helpful overall was Gene Edward's Exquisite Agony (formerly titled “Crucified by Christians”). In the blurb, it describes ill treatment by Christians as “one of the most destructive experiences that one can ever know,” honestly noting that many never return to effective Christian living after this kind of betrayal. Having emerged from a high demand group that saw suffering as desirable and a means of meriting God's favor through submission to pain, I appreciated his honest handling of the troubling emotions one wrestles with after such an experience without the maudlin coddling of victimhood. He presented a very balanced view of suffering in the Christian life along with encouragement about how to connect with God's faithfulness and trustworthiness. He even recommends reading Orwell's Animal Farm, so he is honest about the tactics that fellow Christians can use against those whom they are called to minster and love. He does an excellent job of reminding Christians that God's plans are good and full of hope, all without minimizing the pain of the experience.

When I exited the Shepherding Movement church, I was already familiar with the discussion of the problem of evil, and I loved Phillip Yancey's book, Where is God When It Hurts?. Years earlier, it helped me work through my disappointment with the often empty promises of the Word of Faith movement (something different from spiritual gifts in my opinion). I also enjoyed Harold Kushner's writings, too, years before the experience. I recommend all of these types of books, and there are many. They prompt you to ask the hard questions and to consider the answers that will help you make sense of things as you heal. I also gleaned much from Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, now republished as Take Back Your Life, and David Augsburger was helpful as well. Working through the lists of soul searching questions helped give me perspective and provided structure for my endless journaling. But some will take more encouragement in books like The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and titles by Christopher Hitchens and Gillette Penn. As a Christian, I'm disappointed by those who find themselves on the pages of these books, but their recovery is about them, not about me. The first step in healing involves getting away from ongoing religious and spiritual abuse. (I can't believe that I just linked from this blog to a Sue Monk Kidd book! I'd rather see everyone read Gene Edwards instead, much like I've explained HERE and HERE in previous posts.)

My Personal Struggle: The Pharisees We Will Always Have With Us

Some people get out of abusive religion and find themselves laying all of the burden of blame on God. I didn't doubt God's presence or faithfulness at all, but I laid most of the blame on the Church and upon denominations as well as problematic theology. But I was angry, and I had a great deal of difficulty processing that anger. I was taught to deny and suppress anger, so along with my spiritual recovery, I had a great deal of personal recovery to do, backtracking to be able to tolerate negative emotions, anger in particular. I also carried lots of thoughts that were not realistic. I believed that life would be fair and that God would conquer all because of my “faith” which I had to eventually accept as my own willfulness. God didn't bend to accommodate my wishes about how things should play out in my church, and this served as the source of anger and frustration for nearly a decade.

During my last year in my church, I was sure that God would use me as an agent of change to right all of the wrongs I saw. How could it be God's will in a loving, vital, and growing church to allow wives to be beaten while their husbands were not challenged to behave better and love them? How could the system of control through denigrating shame persist? How could any ministry go on in that church, and why had God not written “Ichabod!” above the door (meaning “the glory has departed”)? I'd given my efforts there what felt like my own “last full measure of devotion” because I felt like a big part of me died there when I left. (Much of my sense of false expectations, magical thinking, and willfulness concerning the church and the Church universal did die, and I wasn't sure how to go on living without them.)

I wish I could tell you that after reading a couple of books and reading back through Corrie Ten Boom's writings that I would emerge as one at perfect peace with God. I cannot. I believe that didn't really BEGIN to come to terms with this aspect of things until a decade later. I became even more inflexible and intolerant of imperfection in other churches I attended, though I realized that I was overreacting much of the time. I was brittle and crusty with rigidity, and along with that, I felt like I could not really be at ease again until God started “setting people straight” in ways that I found comfortable. Eventually, I had to recognize and deal with my own willfulness, the seeds of the very same problems from which spiritual abuse results. I became intolerant of the Pharisees, and I “would not rest” until God got rid of them. 

Healing Finds You When You Pursue It

A decade later, I realized that if God got rid of everyone with a Pharisaic tendency, He'd have to get rid of me.  My “cognitive inflexibility” because of my pain produced the same kind of desire for control that resulted in the spiritually abusive programs that I became trapped within. day, it dawned on me that if Jesus had desired to do so, He could have eliminated the Pharisees when he was on the earth, but instead, he largely avoided them.

 I realized that the Pharisee Saul Paulus was permitted to persecute Christians with the aggression of a wild animal before God knocked him off his high horse on the road to Damascus. I remembered the days that I spent defending and pursuing Word of Faith ideals, but a day came when I became convicted about the emptiness and blame of the ideology. And I grew and changed. Was I not a type of Pharisee before that change, just like Paul once was?

Through tracing my own history of growth, I realized that God compassionately tolerates our dark days of Pharisaism because He sees what we will eventually become -- free from our own Pharisaical ways to which we are always blind until he shows us ourselves. He uses these experiences to teach us who He is and what He's really done for us.  He demonstrates His faithfulness to us through the painful experiences. But that epiphany for me only came after pursuing growth and by working through my disappointments. I also reconnected with David's Psalms which ask where God is and why He waits to intervene. I realized that, like David, God would show His faithfulness to me, and that expectation became easy to trust.

Eventually, with much healing, He changed my heart. As Gene Edwards discusses in his book, Exquisite Agony, by analogy, I'd been to Calvary for crucifixion before I'd surrendered my will to God in Gethsemane. I had to go back to that place of accepting the cup of consequences that I didn't want to drink, praying and really meaning "Thy will, and not mine."  So that is what I did, and in time, those old Pharisees stopped bothering me so much. I stopped feeling intimidated by them and accepted that, like the poor, we would always have Pharisees with us. God would have to eliminate humanity to eliminate the hypocrisy of the Pharisee. He'd have to eliminate me, but He chose to transform me instead, ever conforming me to the Image of His Son. I remember that when I found this book, I was sad that it wasn't available for me years earlier. I had to work through frustration the hard way, without the benefit of the sage book. (Honestly, I probably wasn't ready to receive it's message any earlier, anyway.)

There is so much more that could be said on this subject, from many perspectives.  But I'll leave it at that as this series exploring forgiveness draws to a close.  :)

Excerpt from Rooted in God's Love by Dale and Juanita Ryan:

How long, O Lord, must I call for help but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, "Violence!" but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.

Habakkuk 1:2-3,13 

Where were you God? Where were you when I needed you? Didn't you see the violence? The abuse? The injustice? Didn't you care? There are times in recovery when we are full of questions about God. The pain of past trauma can be intensified when we begin to struggle with these hard questions about God.
It is important to acknowledge that these questions about God are not academic questions. No theoretical explanation of the problem of pain will soothe our raging, confused hearts. These are urgent, personal questions about God and about God's involvement in our lives. We want to know that God sees and cares and intervenes in our lives. We need God. We need God's love. We need God's help. 
It is an important source of encouragement to know that we are not the first to ask these hard questions. There is clear biblical precedent for asking difficult questions about God. People of faith have always struggled with questions like these. We can take comfort and courage from knowing that the prophets also asked urgent questions similar to our own.

God, I am afraid.

I don't understand.

Violence and abuse happen and you do not stop it.

You seem absent.

You seem uncaring.

I need to know that you see and care.

I am calling to you for help, God.

Please hear me.
Please respond.
(Read this excerpt HERE in the NACR online archives.)
In times like this, we need many things. But at the top of the list is our need for friends who will accept us even if we turn away from God. We need friends who will not minimize our struggle or discount our feelings. We need people who will not be shocked when we are full of rage at God. We need friends who are able to hear the deep pain behind our words and who know that this, too, is part of our healing. We need people who can see beyond the immediate pain to the healing that can come.

Even when we forsake the fear of God, we need friends who understand, who are committed to us for the long haul, and who plead with God on our behalf.

Sometimes I feel agnostic, Lord, I just don't know anymore...

Continue reading this excerpt online HERE at NACR.

Copyright Dale and Juanita Ryan

Soon to follow, a forgiveness resource list
and sage advice from Corrie Ten Boom