Spiritual Abuse Stunts You Emotionally

19 Jul
Gitarrenverstärker JC 120

Gitarrenverstärker JC 120 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve mentioned it before, but I have a family member who has struggled with alcoholism for over 2 decades.  Of the many things I’ve learned about alcohol and drug abuse, one is that it stunts a person’s ability to grow and mature mentally.

So if someone began abusing alcohol at age 16, many times, their mental and social skills will not progress until they emerge from their substance abuse.  Even though Uncle Johnny is 42 years old, emotionally he’s still equivalent to the insecure, fearful teenager he was when he started drinking.  That’s why so many who have abused drugs struggle to reconnect socially after years wasted in the twilight zone.

Spiritual Abuse is No Different

While I never abused drugs or alcohol, I was in a spiritually abusive church for over a decade.  After finally realizing I was in a bad place, it took at least 10 years to come to any sense of normalcy for me, my family, and my career.

Along the way, I’ve often been frustrated at my lack of ability to connect socially.  Sometimes I am too quick to assume a personal relationship and I bowl people over by being too blunt or over-sharing personal experiences without really sensing whether someone really wants to hear them.

I’ve been frustrated at how I’ve lost almost two decades denying myself the chance to develop skills or careers.  In the past, I was too busy trying to “build the church”, or “reach out to the lost” and felt selfish about taking time to continue my Classical Guitar studies.  I have a lot of talent, but I’m really no better a musician than I was 20 years ago.

I sold so many belongings that I should have kept.  At the time, I assumed God would see my sacrifice and be there as I gave time and money to causes I thought were spiritual and everlasting.  Now I wish I still had my Roland Jazz Chorus amp to make the music that I love.  I wish I hadn’t sold off all my valuable baseball cards to pay for a missions trip with Campus Crusade.  The many hours of free labor I gave to church and para-church ministries while my own family struggled.

The time I let my boss (at the Christian bookstore) bully me and demand I quit my second job, because he worried that other businesses in the area would think he didn’t pay his employees enough money (he didn’t).   The time I let a pastor guilt me into leading worship for many more months than my schedule allowed…all the while hoping and praying that God would see my sacrifices and have mercy on me and my family.

Hoping that I was building an eternal reward, by denying myself in this life.

Right Back Where I Started

At times I’m angry at the years lost.  Other times I’m just sad that I passed up so many great opportunities, both professionally and personally, because I thought I was serving a greater spiritual purpose.

At the time I thought I was running the race to be embraced and rewarded by The Father.  But in reality, I was serving other people and their dreams while mine got pushed to the back of the line.

I find myself exactly where I was 20 years ago, unsure of how to navigate middle age, because I never got much of a chance to live life and grow through my experiences without someone telling me to question my heart and lay down my desires to some higher purpose.

But that’s what abuse does to you, it freezes you.  It stifles and chokes you and tries to convince you that you’re moving forward when all you are doing is sinking,  sinking into a hole that is harder and harder to climb out of the longer you’ve stayed.

30 Responses to “Spiritual Abuse Stunts You Emotionally”

  1. Debra Baker July 19, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    Oh, how I can relate to that.

    The years and years and years that I served my family and my church for what?

    Thank God me kids turned out ok with the normal struggles that are part of growing up (and not their sin nature, how either one of us could write a book on the destructiveness of that theology.)

    You (tongue in cheek) call me the future mad scientist but, truth be told, I am a 52 year old woman finally in school. How pathetic is that.

    Or is it? I get to have a unique experience, I am working on getting into a PhD program and who the hell cares if I don’t make it through a post doc. I get to do research and get published. When I got my first paper published last year, I felt something I never felt before namely respect, as soon as word got around the Biology department, there was a palpable shift that I finally figured out was respect.

    I like that and it is reward in itself.

    But I’m a tad apprehensive that someone sometime (like during an interview) might ask me what the hell happened to that 30ish years between the time you were 18 and 45 and I’m not quite sure how I’m going to respond.

    • christianagnostic July 19, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

      I admire your tenacity to not give up on your passion. Your story gives me hope, that I can still acquire the skills that most twenty somethings have seemed to master at my workplace .

      When I got my first paper published last year, I felt something I never felt before namely respect, as soon as word got around the Biology department, there was a palpable shift that I finally figured out was respect.

      Doesn’t respect without guilt feel great!

  2. Ahab July 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

    “At times I’m angry at the years lost. Other times I’m just sad that I passed up so many great opportunities, both professionally and personally, because I thought I was serving a greater spiritual purpose.”

    I encourage you to make up for lost time by seizing life with both hands. Life life to the absolute fullest now, however you define it. Pour yourself into all the learning opportunities, new experiences, and fun stuff that you didn’t get to enjoy before. Life is short, so we have to seize the day!

    • christianagnostic July 19, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

      Thanks Ahab…this blog is part of attempt to do just that. I’ve always wanted to write, hence the reason I started blogging.

      Your always very encouraging….thanks for reading and for the kind comments.

  3. Freedom July 19, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    Wow… I can relate. I was lucky enough to get out of the evangelical wasteland and abusive church (Good Ol PDI back then…….) in my early 20’s. I did have to go through years of personal detox to come to a place of normalcy. I agree 100% that the “race to be embraced and rewarded by The Father” is just serving the cult (church).

    Great post BTW

    • christianagnostic July 19, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

      Thanks Freedom….I’m always glad to hear when someone was able to break free from the cult while they were still young.

      I’m curious, do you still have any friends who are still in the church (cult)?

      • Freedom July 19, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

        Nope, no friends that are still in the cult. I have one or two that are FB friends but that’s about it. No one that I talk to or hang out with on a regular basis. And I am perfectly fine with that – I learned long ago that REAL friends don’t shun you because you are no longer part of their cult, i mean church.

        I actually have a lot more ex-SGMer’s as friends on FB (and in real life), including many I didn’t know at the time (a few from the same church and other across the cult network, i mean denomination)

  4. M July 19, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    Hey, at least you came out of the wasteland with a family. I’m still single in my mid-30s and not sure how to break out of that. I should have gotten hitched last decade when I was much stupider, but it didn’t happen….

    • christianagnostic July 19, 2012 at 6:17 pm #


      I feel your pain…I had some very good friends who shipwrecked their romantic life because they always let a pastor tell them what they should do.

      In one case, I tried to get together with a friend who was about to let the girl of his dreams marry someone else….I knew for a fact that she still has strong feelings for him. But he wouldn’t even speak to me because I was no longer a part of the church (cult). So sad….

      Hopefully you meet someone great that understands where you’ve come from-best of luck.

  5. Debra Baker July 19, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

    Hey, I told my advisor what your nickname was for me “future mad scientist.” and he had a good laugh.

  6. acme July 22, 2012 at 12:01 am #

    There’s still time for a family. In some ways, it’s more challenging to start fresh when you already have a family.

  7. jonnyscaramanga July 24, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    I’m a bit late to the party, but I think you’ve captured perfectly the biggest struggle about leaving faith. And also the reason why many Christians get hostile when challenged. In effect, a challenge is saying, “I invite you to consider the possibility that you’ve wasted your life.”

    The other thing I experience sometimes is absolute paralysis at the time I’ve wasted. I’ll start work on a project, and then think, “If I hadn’t been in church, I would have completed this five years ago!” It makes me feel like giving up entirely, like it’s just too late.

    It isn’t too late. But it’s hard to remember sometimes.

    • christianagnostic July 24, 2012 at 3:10 pm #


      Yes, yes! The paralysis IS an emotional drain. One that I’m able to overcome most days…but it is very much a part of the grieving that one does when you realize that time has slipped through your hands. Time that will never return.

      you said

      “And also the reason why many Christians get hostile when challenged. In effect, a challenge is saying, “I invite you to consider the possibility that you’ve wasted your life.””

      I think this quote is excellent and may be the springboard for my next post. I just experienced this very thing the other day, with a family member. The irony, is that they have always been very bold to proclaim that Jesus is the truth, and at times with forceful conviction.

      Now that I’ve come to disagree with the truth claims of the Christian faith, they have avoided talking at all ( to the point of awkwardness) and stated that they don’t really want to discuss matters of faith. Frustrating, to say the least…I thought they would be willing to examine and discuss their faith, given the past confidence that it was entirely true.

    • graceone July 29, 2012 at 10:07 pm #

      I don’t feel that any experience in life is ever wasted. We can learn and grow as much through our failures and mistakes as through resounding success, sometimes more so.

  8. argumentsagainstreligion July 28, 2012 at 2:42 am #

    My family had a pastor father with 4 kids who all ended up with substance abuse problems – 3 of which are now in AA and NA. Not to mention dealing with acute psychological and emotional issues. Thanks for the post – it is comforting for others to know they are not the only ones who experienced an unhealthy religious environment.

    • christianagnostic July 28, 2012 at 5:21 pm #


      Thanks for the comment. I am sorry to hear that so many of the kids in your family turned to substance abuse.

      Do you mind sharing a little of how your family’s religious environment added to the abuse problems and emotional issues?

      Totally cool if you don’t want to….


      • argumentsagainstreligion July 28, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

        My opinion is the overbearing shame, guilt, and overwhelming fear imposed in us added to lack of self-esteem, self-confidence, and the inability to develop properly. Also, we spent so much time focusing on religion etc. that we now have trouble functioning in the real world. I think my siblings and I all have emotional baggage from religion. Substance abuse is a way of escaping the discomfort we feel in our own skin. I personally would rather be someone else most of the time. Many times I try to be someone else (personality traits and behaviors) and when I inevitably fail, I feel even worse and the cycle continues. It would take a lot of space to elaborate, and I plan to do so on my blog at some point. right now, I am trying to keep the blog as objective as possible because I feel like that is the best way to argue against religion at this point. I also think it is important for me to get into blogging and “come out” as an atheist so I can start to become comfortable with the real me. I hope this made a little bit of sense.

      • christianagnostic July 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

        It totally makes sense.

        Also, we spent so much time focusing on religion etc. that we now have trouble functioning in the real world.

        I think that most who have spent years, even decades focused on religion, find themselves struggling in different areas of the real world.

        Thanks again, for sharing a bit of your story.

  9. graceone July 29, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

    But, isn’t the Christian faith about freedom from shame, guilt, and fear? It is to me anyway. Arguments against is it possible there is some genetic predisposition involved here to mental health and substance abuse issues, if the whole family is involved?

    I can understand how abusive religion could play a part in this, but I wonder if this is really getting to the root causes of it all. I don’t know, but am raising this question for consideration.

    There are many people who find a healthy spirituality to actually be healing and uplifting in their lives. I think there is no division between the secular and the sacred. When I am focusing on my whole life, making a living, supporting my kids, caring for my neighbor, taking joy and being mindful of everyday, that is a huge part of what it means to serve and love God.

    • christianagnostic July 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm #


      But, isn’t the Christian faith about freedom from shame, guilt, and fear? It is to me anyway.

      I’m glad to hear that your faith is not based on guilt and fear. But so much of the Christian faith, as defined by the Bible, is based on guilt and fear.

      Wisdom, according to Proverbs is based on learning to fear God. Hebrews talks about Moses approaching the mountain with fear and trembling. Jesus said to not fear those who kill the body, but fear him (God) who can cast your soul into hell.

      Again, I appreciate where you are coming from in your own spirituality, but I find the Bible to be the root of most of the unhealthy outlooks that many Christians adopt.

      • argumentsagainstreligion July 31, 2012 at 1:24 am #

        The problem is that you said “it is to me, anyway.” I grew up in a Bible-based church. There is much in the Bible – including the New Testament – about fear, guilt, and damnation. Since there is such a heavy focus on this in the Bible, our church, and thus our parents, focused on that. I agree there could be a genetic predisposition to drug use in my family, but years of Biblical intimidation sure didn’t help. Both of my brothers and myself cite this as a source of the issue. Not sure about my sister, though.

        I think you need to go back a re-read the barbaric first five books of the Old Testament, which Jesus promotes as God’s law (see Matthew 5:17). Jesus’ teaching were also very troubling. See Matthew 3:10, 12 – no mercy – Matthew 7:13-14 – he will send most people to hell – Matthew 10:34-37 – Jesus has come not to send peace, but a sword. These are just a few of thousands.

        You seem like a nice person, and I feel that you look at the Bible through the lens of your own morality. When you see verses that agree with that morality, you connect with it and see it as instructive. However, the barbaric nature of especially the Old Testament and much of the New Testament cannot be overlooked. Imagine what life would be like if we followed the letter of God’s law found in the Bible – especially for women. Imagine the immorality and injustice of a God who punishes someone infinitely for a finite “sin” of disbelief.

        Lastly, just because people find comfort in religion does not make it true. I am still debating with myself about whether or not a comfortable delusion is good for someone or not…You might look at your charitable and responsible acts as serving God, but I see it as you being a good person watching out for others. We are all in it together, and that’s all we have. The question is this – would you stop caring for your kids and your neighbor if you stopped believing in God tomorrow? I think you would continue caring for them anyway because you feel it is the right thing to do, not because you believe in superstition.

    • argumentsagainstreligion July 31, 2012 at 1:37 am #

      I replied to you, but under christianagnostic’s reply. Oops.

      • graceone July 31, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

        Hi arguments,

        I will try to respond in the best way I can. You have raised alot of issues. I just am not sure either what makes this difference in people. I certainly would not stop caring for people if I became an atheist tomorrow. That’s true. But, as a young person I was agnostic. And, I can honestly share that through the years my faith and experience of God in Christ has made me a more caring and less judgmental person.

        All the Christian churches have the same Bible. And, yet some are imaging God as a loving and kind Father who motivates them to acts of mercy and charity, while others see Him as this hateful and punitive judge. There are people on the net who absolutely are rejoicing at the lose of their Christian faith, and feel they are more free and happier as atheists. I think I would feel a tremendous lose of God, and would grieve HIs absence in my life.

        I think part of this has to do with the grounding of our faith, and how this impacts one’s interpretation of Scripture. I have to reason that if the incarnation is true, if God loves us much to fully enter into human life and suffering, to become one of us, so to speak, so that we could be healed, forgiven, and share in HIs life, what could there be to fear.

        To cite the Scripture, if God be for us, who can be against us? What can separate us from His love?

        I could not last two minutes in some of these churches who feel that everyone who does not agree with their interpretation of Scripture is heading to Hell in a hand basket. To me this teaching is a terrible heresy. And, yet I recognize that these folks are probably sincere, and can find justification for some of this teaching in their particular interpretation of Scripture.

        I’ve also found that there is little to be gained in getting into the “dueling of the Bible verses” with folks.
        We are just not operating within the same paradigm, and have a very different hermaneutic when interpreting the Scripture, and how this applies to our lives.

        I can certainly see where you are coming from Arguments, and wish you and your siblings the absolute best. Prayers for joy in your life, and continued healing from addictions.


      • argumentsagainstreligion July 31, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

        I can see the benefits of believing, and I did go through a grieving period when I realized it will never happen for me. Now I am content and happy with my conclusions. However, I couldn’t continue fooling myself and trying to be someone who I am not, believing something that was so obviously “wishful thinking” and pretending. I think most believers have a faith first, then they look at scripture and interpret. Many people believe because they can’t imagine not believing – life would seem depressing for them.
        I just can’t believe what is in the Bible. If there is a God, maybe he made me that way and I am one of the unfortunate souls he has already mercifully and lovingly pre-selected to populate hell for disbelief – see John 6:44 and John 6:65. I have sincerely tried for about 13 years to truly believe, because I never did as a kid – I was always skeptical and raising questions because it didn’t seem logical to me.
        Anyway – thanks for the engaging conversation.

  10. argumentsagainstreligion July 31, 2012 at 1:25 am #

    Sorry – that last reply was to graceone.

    • graceone July 31, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

      Arguments, to my mind there is nothing wrong with questioning, and expressing honest doubt. I was the same way as a young person. God gave us a mind and expects us to use it. In my case, my questioning over time led to a deepening Christian faith.

      I don’t think people can force themselves to believe. Faith has to come from a deep conviction of truth. It just can’t be something based in wishful thinking or ignorance.

      Thanks also for the great conversation. I think we should just remain open to each other. Perhaps there will be other opportunities for dialogue. One thing I would share is that many Christian people do not have a literalist, inerrant view of the Scripture. I personally think that while we should take the Bible seriously as God’s Word to us, many things in the Scripture are not written to be interpreted literally, but metaphorically. I also think it important to consider the context and culture of the time in evaluating certain Bible verses, their meaning and application.

      I suppose some might see this as “cherry picking,” but I would consider it as exercising wisdom and good discernment.

      I’ve said this before, but one thing I appreciate about this blog is that I think real and respectful conversation is happening rather than simply personal attack or the unfortunate assumption that everyone who disagrees and expresses another perspective is an enemy or being intellectually dishonest.

  11. billiesue1 March 25, 2013 at 11:29 pm #

    First of all CA…thank you so much for starting this site. As you can tell by my various comments over the past few days, I have much to say. For me since I was raised in a family where my father was a YL leader and everyone that my family associated with was part of YL, I never knew of any other type of existence. Since I was taught that everyone else needed to be “saved” in order for me to be friends with them, I always felt so guilty for having fun with my friends who were not Christians. I was a inquisitive, athletic child and I had many friends who had varying beliefs…but I knew in the back of my head I couldn’t be true friends with them because they were non- believers. Even though I choose to leave the Christian faith in my early twenties..(.I was a way to fun loving young adult) I do see how unconsciously I have been drawn to cult like atmospheres my entire life. I have just left a long career in corporate America, which in itself has cult qualities. Whenever an organization begins talking how we are a “family”, I get chills up my spine. Parts of my personality have defintely been emotionally stunted by my YL upbringing, something I continue to work on. It seems I left YL with some basic instincts intact that allowed me to marry outside of the faith and raise an amazing daughter, who came to me in middle school and said , “Mom, what does the word sin mean”. God, did that put a smile on my face that she had no idea what the word even meant. When asked by people now what my religion is, my answer is nature That is where I have found my greatest peace.

    • christianagnostic March 27, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

      You’re welcome…I’m always pleased when someone finds this site helpful.

      you said

      “Whenever an organization begins talking how we are a “family”, I get chills up my spine.”

      I agree with this one hundred percent! Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this type of talk (both professionally and personally)….it creeps me out as well.

      I love the fact your daughter had to ask you what sin meant.

  12. arealrattlesnake July 25, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

    thank you for your story…I can hear echoes of myself in your words. I’ve written about my own spiritual abuse (it actually involved campus crusade) if you’re interested.


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