A spiritual abuse survivor shares her personal story
A long-time reader recovering from spiritual abuse recently shared her story with me and has given me permission to share it with you. She is choosing to remain anonymous. It is very well written. I’m going to issue a trigger warning for content related to: spiritual abuse, spanking. This story is intense, so make sure you are exercise caution if you are easily triggered.
I am a Spiritual Abuse Survivor
I am a spiritual abuse survivor.
I am a spiritual abuse survivor.
I am a spiritual abuse survivor.
That six-word sentence is very hard for me to say. When my therapist asked me to write that down on my paper, I didn’t know the wave of emotions those six words would have on me. Am I really, truly a spiritual abuse survivor? That sounds so serious. So big. I struggle to grasp it. Sure, abuse can be physical, emotional, and verbal. I get that. But spiritual? Come on, that sounds pathetic.
Yet, here I am. Four short months from turning 30 years old. I can hardly sit through a church service without breaking down crying. My shoulders and neck often ache when I leave the service because I have sat so tense. In almost every service, I get a strong feeling to run. Run outside to get some fresh air because I can’t breathe. Run and just sit in the van. But I will myself to stay in my seat. My hands tremble and I squeeze them so tight my fingers hurt. My heart pounds and my emotions come in waves. I can’t stop it.
I know it’s ridiculous and I tell myself to stop – that I’m being over dramatic and stupid.
But I can’t stop.
No matter how hard I try.
I leave the service feeling exhausted.
Is this church ok? How can they be when they are not the traditional setting I’m used to? I’ve been warned my entire life about churches like this. I think of the pastors and leaders on the platform. What are they hiding? If I give them my heart and support their ministry, when will I get hurt again? Not if, but when. I don’t think I can take another rejection. I don’t think I can pour my all into a church and people, only to have them throw me away when I have questions. To disown me like I’ve never existed. I contemplate whether I even want to go to church anymore. I am so tired.
Four months from 30.
I have spent nearly 30 years of my life in church.
Nearly three decades. 1,549 weeks.
I have served in every way you can imagine, I have served my entire life.
Cleaning church buildings, doing church laundry, teaching many Sunday Schools, door knocking every weekend, decorating rooms, running and serving in VBS, singing with praise teams and choirs, playing musical instruments, being in church productions, helping plan services, using my artistic abilities, being a Children’s Director, working in the nursery, being a director in AWANA, and more. And what do I have to show for it? After three decades, I have been rejected by almost everyone I’ve known in church. I can count on one hand the church people, outside of family, who have stayed in contact with me on a regular basis. Less than 5 church people after 30 years. Sound devastating? You’re absolutely right.
You need to understand that church is all I’ve had most of my life. Growing up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist family, I was homeschooled and sheltered from the world.
There were no close, outside friends.
No play dates.
I was either at home or at church.
My church consisted of 20 people (my family of 4 included). I can still see the pastor up at his wooden pulpit. His black suit, white shirt and thin tie. I can still see his beady blue eyes, pointed nose and thin lips. The comb lines in his greasy, parted hair. This man reeked hatred. I can see him screaming at us with his veins bulging in his neck, face beat red and spit foaming at his mouth. I watch as the foam falls out of his mouth and onto the floor. I can see him pounding the pulpit, finger-pointing as he threw his tantrums like a toddler. I remember the time he completely lost it and cursed from the pulpit. I remember him walking on the backs of the pews just to intimidate. I can also remember him in the kitchen with my dad talking about my habit of biting my nails until they sometimes bled. His advice? I need more spankings. Like I hadn’t got enough already.
This man believed in breaking the child’s will. You spank until the child is completely conquered. He would say that when the child opens their mouth to cry and just air comes out – you got through. Horrific. I can remember sitting on pillows the next morning during school because my behind hurt so bad. I remember seeing the bruises after I got out of the shower. Blue, green and yellow. I remember getting the paddle broken on me and feeling relieved until the pastor supplied us with a new one. A piece of molding about 2 feet long. I remember getting spanked by my mom and waiting until my dad got home to get spanked again. I was told that I was spanked because I was loved. I hate those memories.
This man formed my first 12 years of life. His beliefs, ideology, standards and convictions were shoved and pushed into my brain. According to him, I was a worthless sinner who didn’t deserve anything from God. He would remind us how we were like “menstrual pads” in God’s eyes. Disgusting and worthless. God was just waiting for me to mess up, and then He would strike. Maybe it would be the death of my family. Maybe a house fire. Maybe a car accident. God would use whatever it took to get my attention, and it would be all my fault.
My pastor would scream about hell and about us missing the rapture because we had a head knowledge of salvation and not a heart knowledge. “What a shame to miss heaven by 18 inches.” he would say.
I would be terrified.
I would go to the altar and silently beg God to forgive me.
To please not leave me after the rapture.
I would wake up some nights and think that I was left behind.
That God took my family to heaven and not me.
He would show us movies of people being left behind and getting beheaded by the antichrist. Christians who were burned alive and tortured for their faith. “God doesn’t play around,” he’d say. “You’re either all in or all out.” I reverenced this man. I thought of him and his family so highly that I honestly couldn’t imagine that they would ever have to go to the bathroom. How could people so perfect and close to God have such vile things come out of their bodies? Brainwashed? You betcha.
This mentality stayed with me into the next churches over my teenage years and adulthood. They were all Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) churches. I still didn’t have friends and my life still consisted of homeschool and church. I remember at 14 going to the altar and repenting over my Frank Sinatra tapes. Throw in Barbra Streisand, too. Why wasn’t I happy with just hymns? Patch the Pirate? It was my flesh. The flesh liked that music, but no more!
So I got rid of my tapes for the first of a several times. Fundamentalism ruled my life. My 14th birthday present was a book called Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie. I memorized huge portions of scripture for church. I went to fundamentalist summer camps where they pounded you with their standards from morning until night. No matter how far you came in your spiritual life, you were still so far from where they said you needed to be. It was never enough. The rules list was so long. It’s sad to think that the more they yelled, belittled and guilt tripped me, the better I thought the church was.
I met my husband in these types of churches. The rules list for courtship applied here too. The pain of our courtship was very sad. I hate talking about it even 10 years later. 2 years into our marriage, we decided to leave. We lost every one of our friendships and relationships, except one. I was told I couldn’t be around their kids because I wore pants. I was asked how a woman wearing pants could even be saved. We were told we were blinded by Satan. We would lose our kids, marriage, and God’s blessing. The threats and warnings seemed endless.
The church we decided to go was still IFB, still traditional, but much more lenient. After spending 6 years there and serving in every capacity we could, we recently left. Why? Because even though it was much less strict than we were used to, it became very abusive.
No matter how much we did, it was never enough.
Never enough serving.
Never enough money given.
I was called awful names.
We were shunned.
I was a Children’s and AWANA Director with 130+ volunteers under me. They all deserted me. Like I’d never existed. People who I did life with. People who I babysat for. People who I visited in the hospital and bought gifts for. People I comforted and cried with. People who I had given my whole heart to. When we left, one of the pastors looked us square in the eyes and told us that the church would be able to see how spiritually mature we were if they heard we told anyone why we left.
The church has always been my identity – and I’ve lost it.
So here I am.
4 months from turning 30.
Standing with broken pieces of my heart scattered around me.
I am a stay-at-home, home-schooling mom (that changes next year), and I have no church home.
My family has no church home.
For the first time in my life, I am not serving in a church and I feel so guilty. I’m wonder if God’s going to punish me. I hurt. The church has left me with gaping wounds. Huge, horrific, deadly wounds. I am sometimes amazed that I still go to church. “The church is a hospital for the wounded,” I’ve heard. I disagree with that. In my experience, the church shoots their wounded. They beat you to a bloody pulp with their expectations, demands of service and unspoken rules, and as you lay there bleeding, they kick you and tell you to get up and keep going. They say, “Real Christians serve even when it hurts. Who are you serving – people or God? You need to give your all.”
Right now, I don’t have anything more to give.
Right now, the only I can do is will myself to stay in my seat and not run out of the door on Sunday morning.
Yes, I am a spiritual abuse survivor.