In 1971, singer and songwriter John Lennon released a song called "Imagine" in which he muses about a world without religion. If you have experienced any form of spiritual abuse, you wonder the same thing. I know, because I did. Let me start with a disclaimer.
This article may seem negative toward the church—but I am a committed Seventh-day Adventist. My husband works at the local conference level and we raised our children in the church and its school system. My intent is to bring awareness to the issue of childhood spiritual abuse and to encourage those who have lived through such abuse to find hope and rebirth in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.1
My church, while I was growing up, was split between liberals and conservatives. I know, not much has changed today. Friction between opposing groups is not new. In heaven, Satan thought his brand of religion was better than God’s. It continued with Isaac and Ishmael’s lineage, leading to war between the Jews and Arabs. In the Crusades, Christians determined to destroy the non-Christians. The attack from Islamic extremist terrorists on September 11, 2001, had religious motivations. Religious divides result in deep anguish.
What is childhood spiritual abuse?
Childhood spiritual abuse differs greatly from adult spiritual abuse. As a child, you are religiously indoctrinated with no real choice on your part, and those early experiences shape your developmental patterns and worldview. Those of us who experienced the split between the strict/uncompromising faction of our church on the one hand and the lenient/tolerant faction on the other, suffered great pain during our childhood years. This tremendously affected our relationship with God. Understanding this may help identify whether or not spiritual abuse may be a factor your church.
The religious environment I knew as a child was very fundamentalist and rigid. The Word of God was black and white. With no room for open discussion, my opinions and feelings seemed not to matter. To denounce such foundational beliefs is to have overwhelming guilt. As a teenager, I became unsure of my identity. I found myself constantly searching for “the right way.” I applied to a self-supporting church school, thinking that would make me holier. My application was denied. Now I felt rejected at home and abroad. That rejection sent me down a dark hole of despondency.
We were given biblical ratification for every prohibitive injunction:
- One must be perfect by obeying all the rules to gain salvation (Matthew 5:48).
- Anything less than that perfect obedience to all God’s commands means one does not love Him (John 14:15).
- No pictures or portraits of people are allowed because they might be an idol to be worshiped (Exodus 20:4).
- If found violating the Sabbath (as defined by the group or local church), one would lose church membership and, therefore, salvation (Exodus 20:8).
- No fun games, secular music, or any television programs were allowed on Sabbath (Isaiah 58:13).
- On Sabbath, one could reheat food, but never cook it (Exodus 16:23).
- Holidays were suspect—usually pagan—especially Christmas (Jeremiah 10:3).
- Makeup, “fancy clothes,” and jewelry were associated with Jezebel (2 Kings 9:30).
- Voting was not allowed because such actions might expedite the “end of time” (Titus 3:1, 2). (My parents had a large, framed wall-size chart of the last day events portrayed prominently in our house. I didn’t vote on anything until I was 25 years old. My husband had to instruct me.)
Anything look familiar? The subject matter was not so much of a problem as much as the rigid manner in which it was delivered. Those who have grown up under strict circumstances realize that such beliefs have become so embedded in the mind that rational thinking does not change the emotional response when triggered. Failing to obey the rules was considered to be evil. “Rule breakers” were typically shunned. Anyone who attempted to deviate would find themselves verbally abused.
My parents were both vegan. (My father is now deceased and, sadly, my mother has dementia and is blind.) When I suggested getting a pizza, I was reprimanded with phrases such as, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” It felt like they were calling me the devil! To this day, I cannot read Mark 8:33 without some mental or emotional relapse. I attended nursing school in Loma Linda, California, an hour and a half away from our home. My parents would never come to visit me on Sabbath because it was more than an hour’s travel.
To be fair, there are degrees of childhood spiritual abuse. Some have endured added physical abuse. One family padlocked their refrigerator during Sabbath hours so that their children could not eat during that time. Other forms of spiritual abuse are less extreme but no less impactful. Passionate, enthusiastic preaching is difficult for me to listen to. I believe this arises from the ridgid demanding nature of the verbal abuse in our home. There seemed to be a desire to “scare religion into them.” My ears start ringing, my heart starts pounding, and I usually find myself leaving the room.
Failing to obey the rules was considered to be evil. “Rule breakers” were typically shunned. Anyone who attempted to deviate would find themselves verbally abused.
I think it is important to know that such experiences are not restricted to any one religious group. Susan was raised in a religious non-SDA Christian home affiliated with another denomination. I met her in home care where I worked as a registered nurse. Susan was diagnosed with rectal cancer. She was upset that her parents arranged for her to be excused from health classes in high school on the grounds that there was no value in learning about her body.
They told her that God would always determine the course of her life. Now, as an adult, she would study pictures on the door of the doctor’s office to learn what a colon is. She felt stupid and scared because of the ignorance that her parents forced upon her in the name of God. Her mind understands differently now but her emotions can’t seem to match.
This type of control as a child can leave you struggling as an adult. Yet some who have lived through this type of dominance, perpetuate the same ideas on their children, controlling them in order to keep their family “pure in the eyes of God.” Such behavior is akin to “Stockholm syndrome,” so named after the 1973 incident that involved four hostages seized during a bank robbery in Sweden. At the end of their captivity, the hostages resisted rescue and refused to testify against their captors. Such a psychological shift to sympathize with and follow your tormenter can take hold within just three to four days.2
A 2003 Prime Time special on the 10th anniversary of the tragic conflagration in Waco, Texas, portrayed children of the victims. When the host played film footage of the burning buildings, he had a hard time controlling his emotions because these children had lost their parents in that fire. Most of the children, however, had no reaction at all. Their parents died and they had been programmed to believe this is what would happen in the “last days.”
It should be understood that not all strict/uncompromising people are bad, evil and legalistic. Also, not all lenient/ tolerant people are bad, evil and subscribe to cheap grace. As a survivor of childhood spiritual abuse, it was difficult to differentiate between truth and lies. Religious interpretations of spiritual things were seen as another twist on the same old lie I have heard all my life.
This type of control in childhood leaves you struggling as an adult. It rips your spirit from you. Many adults abused as children prefer not to talk about their experience. I myself did not know how to give voice to it. I was afraid that if I tried, I would be subjected to more judgment and embarrassment. Friendships were often frustrating and unfulfilling. Relationships were difficult at times because I was not always clear on how to have any kind of relationship. Interestingly some survivors believe that their parents did the right thing because of the indoctrination they received. Some see suicide or homicide as the only way of escape.
The following steps to recovery are what really helped me. The triggers have not completely disappeared, but they are certainly less intense.
Steps to recovery3
- Commit to recovering and investing the necessary energy. It took commitment on my part to invest energy. Recovery was not easy.
- Find a counselor with knowledge of spiritual abuse. You will probably need psychological therapy and possibly medication. I found a good Christian counselor with knowledge of spiritual abuse from the Meier Clinics.
- Discover your own interests rather than simply carrying on in the old patterns. It takes direction and practice as you learn to evaluate things and discard what is wrong. I felt like an emotional damaged or lost child inside. But even damaged children can come to Jesus (Luke 18:16).
- Wean yourself from the compulsive need to understand your parent’s behavior. I re-read the Bible starting with the gospels. I discovered Jesus anew. The Spirit now told me what was true. I learned to press forward (John 14:6; 16:13; Phil. 3:13, 14).
- Learn to evaluate your reactions to other people to see whether the injuries you suffered as a child magnify them in some way. Beware of triggers that spark negative memories. If I hear the hymn "Trust and Obey", I still can’t handle the phrase “Obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus.”4 It sets off a trigger for me and I become very anxious. I usually get up and go to the lobby to do some deep breathing exercises until the song is over.
- Mourn the childhood that you will never have. I had to tell myself, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here” (2 Cor. 5:17, NIV).
- Share love to help heal yourself. Healing often comes by facilitating love to others (1 John 4:16, 18; John 15:9, 12; 1 Corinthians 13).
- When you are ready, attempt to look ahead and ask God for assistance, even if all you can say is, “Help.” Somedays, that’s all I could do.
- Grow stronger as you learn to cope with the difficulties of your past. While we are still on this earth, we must always live with hope (Rev. 21:4-5).
Childhood spiritual abuse is alive and active in our churches today. When I finally “woke up,” my first response was, “I’ve been lied to!” I questioned God and His existence. I became so sensitive to the subject that when I would visit a church, not only could I sense which child is currently living it, but I could detect which adult has experienced it. As a survivor, it’s not hard to recognize these people. Generally, these adults are loners, withdrawn, self-loathing, or inappropriately angry. They may even be the hurting troublemakers in your church.
I no longer imagine a world without God. Mahalia Jackson sang, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.”5 May you extend that Balm to all those who hurt—His name is Jesus.
- A version of this article appeared as Anne Fargusson, “Recovery From Childhood Spiritual Abuse,” The Journal 25, no. 3 (Third Quarter 2008): 6.
- Elan Golomb, Trapped in the Mirror (New York: William Morrow 1992); “Stockholm Syndrome,” https://sniggle.net/stock.php.
- Adapted from John and Linda Friel, An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s “Normal” (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 1990).
- J. H. Sammis, "Trust and Obey."
- American Negro Spiritual, "Balm in Gilead."