My dad was the son of a preacher who abused his family. He was asthmatic and small — a full head shorter than his twin sister. With abuse at home and bullying at school, fear was his life-long companion. He compensated with control. Mom wasn’t prepared for marriage to such a man, and her coping mechanism was yelling at me.
Spiritual abuse was woven into the fabric of our family.
The fundamentalist church I grew up in justified the abuse my parents were enduring and perpetrating and solidified in me that I was unworthy and disappointing. I was a lonely, scared little girl who received regular “spankings” from my father that left deep bruises from my hips to my knees. When mom tried to intervene, dad threatened her and accused her of being “unsubmissive.”
Fourteen years of Christian school thoroughly indoctrinated me in fundamentalism. Naturally, I followed my father’s and grandfather’s advice (as I had learned from countless Bill Gothard seminars) and “chose” Pensacola Christian College.
PCC was a big lake to my small-pond upbringing, and I had no idea how to navigate. The culture was permeated with fear – fear of failure, fear of the administration’s power, fear of being known, fear of God. Naïve, lonely, and afraid, I was in no way prepared for what lay ahead.
Rita (not her real name) asked for help with a class assignment. She made me feel smart, important, even loved. She told me no one loved me like she did. Though time would prove her a user of the worst kind, I believed her. When the principal from a Christian school in her home town across the country offered me a job, I accepted.
Monday through Friday, we taught fundamentalist children. On the weekends we went across the bay to party with our lesbian friends in anonymity. To my surprise, these friends seemed more genuine than the hyper-religious community of my childhood.
I began to question everything I had ever known, even God. No God, no consequences, I thought. Then Rita slept with one of our friends, and then a stranger, and then another teacher from her school with 6 children of her own. Our secret got out and we lost our jobs.
I was amazed when my parents embraced me and let me move back home to pick up the pieces of my life. The scared little girl was back in her small pond, but not for long.
Three years later, I jumped into the biggest sea of people on the planet – China. It was a chance for a new beginning. At the time, I was “going to the mission field.” In retrospect, I’m sure I was trying to regain the favor of God I was sure I’d lost. That was probably also the reason I had left fundamentalism for charismatic circles. The charismatic church offered energy and hope, until I discovered it was even more fraught with abuse than the church of my youth.
I taught English, fighting illness and injury for a year and a half. I prayed. I talked to people about Jesus, and some put their faith in Him. Then, a newbie supervisor more hungry for power than truth grilled me for an hour about my relationships with school officials. I had no idea what he was driving at until he finally told me they had not invited me back and that he would not recommend me for language school. He assumed I knew something. I didn’t. He treated me like a criminal.
“Don’t speak to anyone about this,” he ended.
I was crushed and confused when I returned to my school for my final semester. I had not regained God’s favor; I believed I had lost it forever. People kept asking what was wrong. I kept quiet as I had been told.
Three months later, I was suicidal. I called our Hong Kong office and begged them to let me out of the rest of my contract. Within days I found myself on a plane to America.
I was completely shut down and would probably never have gotten help if my hair hadn’t started falling out. A doctor from my church prescribed medication. I went into three years of church-supported counseling at the charismatic church.
Ten years after China, and after a year teaching in Japan and what seemed like interminable singleness, I met my husband. We married within six months. Dad reminded me to be a submissive wife. My pastor’s wife advised me against marrying someone who wasn’t “Spirit-filled.”
I chose not to listen to her.
Something changed the day we got married. He was now my husband, my spiritual leader, my head. He would provide, and I would have babies. I would homeschool and keep a perfect house and be everything my husband always hoped for in a wife. I had yet another chance at a new beginning.
But I was still depressed and broken on the inside. I found myself unable to keep house or be the wife I wanted to be. We lost three babies. My father died. We decided to adopt. Five months after we returned from China with our first daughter, I gave birth to another. Our already-strained marriage began to crumble. For years we were in and out of marriage and family counseling.
As my husband and I began to embrace the Hebrew roots of our faith, I began to see God in a new light. I took a class on listening prayer and began to hear him. Through everything, God had been there — unseen, unknown, but always there.
One morning, I woke up with the words “spiritual abuse’ repeating in my mind. Spiritual abuse? I thought. What’s that? I ended up on Soulation watching videos of a fellow PCC alum I’d never heard of talk about experiences that struck a chord in my soul. I wept through the videos about his PCC experience and began to see the true source of my lifetime depression – spiritual abuse.
I immersed myself in articles, videos, and books on fundamentalism and abuse. I listened to podcasts and talked with old friends who had begun to emerge from spiritual prison. I heard God say He was reaching down and gently pulling me out of the deep, dark hole where I had lived so long.
At first, the light was so bright I could barely stand to look at it. The world began to open up, and I saw truth in the most unexpected places. I found God’s voice not condemning, but consistently encouraging and loving and good. And deep inside of me, where no one but he could see, a very old, festering wound began to heal.
My husband noticed the difference first. As I shared what I was learning, his eyes began to open too. We defied our church tradition and embraced egalitarian marriage. The shackles I had been laboring under fell off. I found out my husband had more grace for me than I did for myself. Together, we are pursuing a brand new way of loving each other and parenting our children.
I don’t know what the future holds, but for once I’m not looking for a fresh start. I’m beginning to see my life and myself as wholly valuable. God continues to show me how He is weaving the threads of my life, even the dark ones that were not part of His original plan, into something truly beautiful. The fear and shame and abuse that has thrived in my heart for so long is being crowded out by God’s unconditional, unfathomable, and unending love.
Photo Credit: Rajesh_India, https://www.flickr.com/photos/74821492@N00/sets/72157625463625584/