Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Caleigh’s Story, “Cross Obsession”

This is Spiritual Abuse Awareness month and I wanted to share a story by Caleigh, a friend and blogger at The Profligate Truth who attended a church from CJ Mahaney’s family of churches, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM).  Her church was Covenant Life Church (CLC) in Maryland which recently voted to sever ties with SGM amidst a current lawsuit affecting pastors from both CLC and other SGM churches.

Caleigh’s story is fresh.  She attended CLC for 3 years and left only five months ago.  So many times when we discuss spiritual abuse, we talk about the abuse that happened while we were in the church.  The process of working through that abuse after leaving is a challenge.  It, too, is a process of discovery and it is not easy.   Sometimes recalling what happened, what we were taught spiritually, what we dealt with is difficult to untangle.  We might question what we believe in search for the truth.  This kind of spiritual wrestling is painful and takes a lot of work, but it is a necessary part of the healing process.


One common thread I’ve read from people who presently or formerly went to SGM is the overemphasis on the Cross, emphasis on sin, sin-sniffing (pointing out the sin in others), with little to no emphasis on redemption, grace, victory in Jesus, etc.  If grace and redemption are not part of the gospel which is presented, it is not the full gospel message.  This is false teaching.  The overemphasis on sin and sin-sniffing is oppressive and destroys people’s spirit leaving many to question their faith, have a crisis of faith, walk away from church entirely, etc.

Thank you, Caleigh, for sharing a glimpse into your challenging world right now as you sort through this rubble.   Please pray for Caleigh as she goes through this time of transition.   I hope by sharing Caleigh’s story that others will see that they are not alone in their spiritual abuse recovery process.

Caleigh’s Story:  Cross Obsession

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For 10 months, I have been heavily deconstructing, finding my voice, and learning what I stand for. A lot has been taken away from me, and like I have said before, I have lost a good number of people I thought were friends. We have left our old church and found a new community in another church. I have redefined many of my old “convictions” and have found a lot of relief in tossing off the legalism I was under. I have been given those looks of pity as people tell me they are praying for me, most likely telling themselves I am backsliding in my faith.

I have been told that I need to dig into my bible MORE, and stay at the cross, and pray more. I have been told that it’s not wisdom to stop reading my bible, and I have been told that I shouldn’t say anything negative because that’s slander.   As much as I know that these people have come to me without malicious intent as far as I can tell, I have not found a lot of understanding, grace, or care for me. I have not found a lot of people who are willing to hear the difficult things I have to say without jumping on me for being bitter or angry. The number of people who have been understanding, listening without judging, caring for me without telling me I need to fix this or that, and who have let me be angry at what I should be angry at have been precious beyond gold to me.

This past week’s post on courtship was just the start of the rebuilding process for me. There are so many different things that I have torn down and am now rebuilding with a very different mindset than before. One of these areas has been centered on taking apart my assumptions about the definition of the gospel. For all of my life, up to this point, I have never been able to define the gospel, and often found myself stumbling and stammering when asked. The truth was, I couldn’t define it. I had no idea what the gospel meant or what it was. I knew it had something to do with Jesus, and maybe the cross, but beyond that, I just simply nodded my head in agreement whenever anyone “defined” the gospel around me.

I have been told that the gospel can be summed up in five simple words; Jesus Died For My Sins. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with this phrase until recently. My hiatus from bible reading and all things church gave me new eyes to something I like to call Cross Obsession. As I have slowly, ever so slowly, moved back toward talking about my faith and being willing to converse about it, I have noticed something in my experience of SGM/Reformed Christian culture that is a bit concerning to me.

People talk a lot about the cross this, the cross that. They talk about how Jesus came to die for our sins, and it is because of the cross that we are saved. Honestly, I never really noticed it before until I really started listening to it. There is a lot of talk about sin and the cross, but almost NO conversation about how Jesus CONQUERED death, ROSE from the DEAD, [I mean seriously, how is something so awesome as someone rising from the dead passed over?!] and we are now FREE. I have asked several people for their definition of the gospel recently, and without fail, there is no mention of the resurrection, no recognition of the freedom we have in Christ, and their response are all about the cross, sin, and Jesus dying for our sins.

‘kay let me just say something here, there is nothing wrong with talking about the cross, our sin, Jesus dying, or even condemnation [that we no longer face, btw!]. That is a part of the gospel, but I don’t believe that that is a full picture, and I do not believe that we, as Christians, should be obsessed about obsessing over the cross. The cross is one part of Jesus’ amazing life that He lived on this earth. Besides, ordinary people can die on the cross! But no ordinary person can conquer death, take away all of my sin, past, present, and future, and rise from the dead.

It really frustrates me when I see a church more concerned about dealing with their sin, and digging up the root of their sin, staying at the foot of the cross, begging God to forgive them for their sin, and it’s nothing but sin, Sin, sIn, SIN, SIN. Where is the joy of being redeemed?  Where is the freedom that Jesus has been born, died, and raised to give us?  He suffered the infinite wrath of God in OUR place so that we wouldn’t feel the condemnation that we would have faced without Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  I like to use an illustration about why I don’t believe that we as Christians should be so sin focused.  If someone tells you “don’t think about elephants” what are you going to think about?  Obviously, elephants.  It’s just the same with being overly aware of sin in your life.  If you talk about sin, you dig up scriptures about sin, you pray about all this wretched sin you have,  all you are going to think about is sin.  Then you become more and more depressed and feel guilty about all of the sin you have.

So many people forget to see the balance. There is a balance about how much you take a look at sin, and how much you focus on the freedom and grace that is yours.  There is a balance in understanding that the gospel does not just consist of Jesus dying on the cross for your sin. There is so much more to the gospel than that! Our lives as Christians should not be clouded with grasping at joy while being crushed beneath a weighty pile of condemnation.  Our lives as Christians should not be found at the foot of the cross as I’ve heard so many people say.  Why should we stay at the cross when Jesus did not stay at the cross? Jesus rose, folks, He has set us COMPLETELY free, and through that freedom, we are no longer bound by the laws that once bound us.  We are free from sin, but will still sin, but are no longer under condemnation for that sin.

When I suddenly woke up and realized that the gospel is so much more than just the cross and my sin, and that I cognitively recognized that, I breathed a sigh of relief.  I am free to enjoy God, to love being in His presence,  and to no longer know the guilt of past or present sins.  Does this freedom give me freedom to sin all I want?  No, it does.  But when I am more focused on enjoying God, my desire to sin becomes less. When I feel the freedom to be who I am, and to enjoy the life I’ve been given, I am finding myself no longer willing to go back to condemnation and a life centered on the cross.

Focusing on the cross is not a bad thing. It really isn’t, and it is an influential part of the gospel. But please, don’t forget that it isn’t the whole gospel. There is so much to the gospel that it would take posts to thoroughly talk about.

Don’t live a cross centered life. Live a life centered around freedom, joy, laughter, deep breaths, enjoyment. Jesus has given you all of these things, so bask in them!

30 comments on “Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Caleigh’s Story, “Cross Obsession”

  1. Yes, Ang, Ken informed me he posted this article and I’m glad he is sensitive to the plight of people who are spiritually abused. Pastor Ken Silva might be the first pastor outside of SGM to publicly call CJ Mahaney and SGM as spiritually abusive. It’s about time. We’ve been waiting for someone, anyone to do this. Now people like Caleigh can have confirmation from others that what she went through wasn’t her imagination. That is very important in the healing process.

    BTW, I loved this paragraph:
    I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Spiritual Abuse is arguably the one of the most pressing moral, theological, and social issues facing the church (the followers of Jesus) today. Spiritual abuse not only leaves people emotionally and psychologically devastated, it turns them away from faith in the God who could be their source of consolation and encouragement.


  2. I’m so thankful for what you are doing, Julie Anne. I came out of a New Apostolic Reformation church. I’m wondering how long it will take for their shenanigans to come to light. The evil I’ve seen is overwhelming. The cover up is frightening.


  3. Ang, you have come to a good place. Rest knowing that you are not alone and that there is healing. Julie Anne has been a life line to me and many others that have faced Spriitual Abuse. Jesus warned us through his word that we would see times like these. Through the hurt and pain that you are experiencing, take time to thank God that he brought you from where you were. We need to continue to pray for those that are still being deceived.


  4. Charles Spurgeon, said: “Discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between what is right and wrong; rather, it is the difference between right and almost right.”

    Caleigh, I wonder if those who counseled you to read the Bible more read the Bible themselves. If so, they might have come across this: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Therefore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone.” (1 Cor. 15: 17-19) Maybe SGM churches forbid the reading of those verses.

    As false teachers multiply, we need more discernment, but we seem to have less. I’m glad that God has given you enough to separate from these wolves, and that He will continue to give you, and all of us, more.


  5. A book that has totally revolutionized how I understand the gospel is “A Gospel Primer for Christians: Learning to See the Glories of God’s Love” by Milton Vincent.


  6. Caleigh,
    This is such a true observation. My experience with a spiritually abusive church left me with the conclusion that the focus on the cross was a tool to control people. I mean, how can people who are so sinful be entrusted with the freedom to make their own decisions? They must have oversight! (Sheesh!) They used to defend this point of view by saying that two thirds of the gospel message (the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus) were focused on the negative aspect of our sinful nature. But, amazingly, very few except the elite were ever resurrected enough to make their own decisions for their lives and families. I totally get what you’re saying. I’ve only been out of my former church for a year. The emotional trauma is sometimes overwhelming. I say take all the time you need to sort out your faith. You have to “unbelieve” the false teachings you’ve been taught, and replace them with sound beliefs. This can take time.
    Thank you for sharing your story. It helps validate the rest of us who have been through what you have.


  7. @Jeff Brown, if I were to take that verse to the people at CLC, their response would be that they don’t leave out the resurrection, or if I were to question if they are reading their bible as much as they are telling me to read it, I would get backed into a corner no matter which way I spun my question(s). people in sgm, clc, have been programmed to say certain things, and I believe, in a way, don’t even understand what it is that they are actually saying, or how what they are saying affects others. it’s ridiculous and difficult to talk and “gently-challenge” anyone in their way of thinking because they are so darn stuck in what they believe is right.

    @BTDT, thanks for your thoughts. That’s an interesting conclusion, and I would definitely agree with you. there is so much manipulation in peer pressure, it is scary.


  8. Caleigh – You really can’t reason with these kinds of leaders. If you question, you are in sin. You are in sin for not trusting them. You are in sin for thinking they may have things wrong. You are just supposed to sit there like obedient sheep and absorb what they say. I’m glad you are free from that and now on your way to heal. You know you always have a place to share here.


  9. Caleigh, thank you for sharing your story. It will help set other people free. If I had to condense the Gospel (Good News) into one phrase, it would this: Jesus is alive and set me free.

    It is coming up on six years since I walked away from ‘That Church.’ It does get easier. The wrestling with the questions and sorting out what is real and true is work and takes time. God walks us through it at a pace we can handle….Hmmm, I am tearing up thinking about how much he really does care about each of us. He’s got us….

    Ang, I was only on the fringes of the NAR, but now they are one of the groups that get my hackles up instantly. A friend gave me a book a while back and when I read the back and saw that it was endorsed by C Peter Wagner, I gave it back. I am so very glad you are out of there.

    I just read a post by Rachel Held Evans that I think goes right with this subject…



  10. Thanks all. @chapmaned24, thanks, I appreciate that. i feel like I now can actually put into words what I believe the gospel to be. it’s freeing, and gives me much hope in further recovery. 🙂


  11. Pingback: Updates | The Profligate Truth

  12. I have forgiven the people that spiritually abused my family but my husband asks why I don’t leave it alone and move on and the reason why I continue to speak out is because I want others to know that they are not alone, that they are not crazy, and that it is not their fault.


  13. opinemine – – – – Yes! thank you! And that’s why this Spiritual Sounding Board exists, too. One of my Google reviews said something like, “If I could shout it from the rooftop and it prevented one more person from being abused, I would.” I guess SSB is my virtual rooftop.


  14. Great word, Caleigh! Christians need to stand at the foot of an open grave and ponder the majesty of a Risen Lord and Savior! Every time believers join together to remember Jesus’ death during the Lord’s Supper, they are following Christ’s invitation to ponder the full package. Paul reminded the many church communities about the power that they had through the finished work and the supremacy of a Resurrected Christ.

    In Acts 2, in Peter’s first preaching message after the Promised Baptism in the Holy Spirit was poured out, he proclaimed these words:

    “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. . . .” “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” Acts 2:32, 33, 36

    Paul exhorted Christians in Colosse this way: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. . . . Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Col. 3:1-3, 12

    You and others here have highlighted from your own experience this lack in the teaching of the full Gospel message. You might be interested in a couple of articles that I posted on my Church Exiters.com website that address this unfortunate imbalance.

    1. Preaching and What I Need to Hear: Sinner or King’s Kid?
    2. Colossians: What Kind of Gospel Have You Heard?
    3. Spiritual Abuse and the Book of Galatians: Reflections on How Paul Confronted a Corruption of the True Gospel Among the Churches in Galatia

    All the best as you join family members here at various stages in the healing process!


  15. Caleigh, I think your observations are spot on. I read Mahaney’s book, and wondered what happened to the resurrection, Christ’s victory over death and sin, and living by the Spirit. As my former church became more more comfortable with the “cross-centered” this and that, the more uncomfortable I became. It was not a SGM church, but number of the pastoral staff have become enamored with much of what comes out of there.


  16. Right. What she is describing is the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. The cross story verses the glory story. All roads go back to the Heidelberg Disputation which was written 6 months after Luther’s 95 Theses. The 95T declared war, but the HD was the fundamentals of the Reformed gospel. It’s progressive justification: God’s glory and our sin interprets all reality. At its core, it is a humanity-hating Platonist document which is where all of the abuse is coming from in the church today.


  17. I’ve been out of my abusive church for a very, very long time, and I still struggle with the scars and with the teaching. A few years ago, in a small group that is part of the church I now attend, I brought up some of my issues and I was asked, “Do you believe the Bible, yes or no?”

    I got very uneasy with that question, because for me, that’s almost along the lines of, “Have you stopped beating your wife? Answer yes or no.”

    So of course, I answered yes, and I was then told, “You need to get into it and read it and study it.”

    My problem isn’t with the Bible. It’s with the way it has been used and misused. My experiences have left me with the impression that everyone believes that they are right and they can “prove” it by Scripture. So just telling me to “read the Bible” doesn’t really help. In fact, I was just very recently asked by a well-meaning close friend if I was praying and reading my Bible. I have been through a lot of struggles with schooling, and I also have a teenage son with autism. While I appreciated the question, it’s almost as if “prayer and Bible reading” are the panacea that solves everything. I’m afraid that I don’t always find that to be true.


  18. Tina – Boy, I hear you on that one. I did a post a few weeks ago about verses that pastors twist to abuse (https://spiritualsoundingboard.com/2012/12/21/spiritual-abuse-verses-pastors-twist-and-misuse-to-control/). I don’t think friends would be as malicious as that, but if you’ve ever had a Bible study, you can see that there are other ways people interpret verses. Some interpretations shed more light and are helpful, others might be contrary to what you believed and that makes it all the more confusing.


  19. Caleigh, I certainly agree that questioning an SGM leader about his Bible reading would lead to unpleasant results. Concerning the resurrection: I attended CLC for 5-6 months in 2011; left when the scandal started to erupt. Anyway, I got a free copy of Mahaney’s tiny book about the cross, and noticed, as someone else has mentioned, that it was “resurrection-free.” As Mahaney goes, so goes SGM.

    I realize that you may not want to answer this – that’s fine, of course. I have friends who have attended, with their children, CLC for a little over two years. They are very sharp, very aware of its history, quite discerning about false doctrine. Years ago, they attended briefly, and left when they detected its cultishness. They say that there is a big change now, they like Josh, the messages, the activities for the kids. I think they are both in Bible study groups.

    Since you were there until fairly recently, do you have a gut feeling about whether or not they should stay? Mine is that they should leave, but I’ve so far been only indirect about this, though they know my general negativity about the place. (And don’t mind, btw.) I’m glad about CLC’s sort-of separation from SGM, but I know that that is only a start.

    Any feedback would be appreciated, but, again, it’s fine with me if you don’t want to get into it.


  20. Thanks for sharing your story, Caleigh. As a former SGer (CLC and another smaller church), I can relate to everything you said.

    Deconstructing is a good word for it. It’s so strange how once you pull away and re-examine the things you were taught, and start looking at everything with new eyes, you realize just how odd everything is that seemed normal and common place from the inside.

    Amen about FREEDOM!


  21. Thank you for your story. I’m a senior with a 39 yr. old daughter involved in SGM with her family for 10-12 yrs. She has changed, secretive about her family life, she makes phone calls to ( I think an SGM girlfriend) from another room in a whisper & her husband gives their three boys the “rod.” We cannot speak to her about SGM. All my wife & I can do is pray. You have confirmed our suspicions about the legalism in their house.


  22. Gene,

    You’re in such a difficult place as a father/grandfather essentially with your hands tied. I’m so sorry. After all of these years when I look back at what and who helped me the most – – it was those who did not consistently challenge me, but offered me love and grace. That kind of love and grace was what was lacking in my church and I wanted more of it. So, keep doing what you’re doing. God’s love and grace is appealing.


  23. Gene,
    Depending on the state, if the “rod” is leaving marks, welts or bruises, then it is legally child abuse. And reporters are generally not disclosed (again depends on the state; here never unless they are a mandated professional reporter, and then only under very rare circumstances).


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