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
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!