A GENTLE ANSWER CALMS FRUSTRATION (Proverbs 15:1)
Mary Ellen Mann is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Denver. Here is her. I recently returned from a trip to California deeply grieving that my opportunity to be interviewed on a large, popular podcast (which focused on mental health and healing) was cancelled last minute for a seemingly trivial reason. My topic was on spiritual abuse, something that is not often spoken about in public. This sent me into a triggered tailspin, which included lots of crying on a public beach where I happened to take his call.
While my recent cancelled interview was not abusive, it brought up all the old deep-down, gut-wrenching triggers and familiar—but unfriendly—feelings of being unimportant, unheard, and cast aside. It’s these feelings that are connected to spiritual abuse for me specifically. At this point in my life, crying in public is not an issue, but finding safe ways through my triggers from a spiritually abusive past is an ongoing challenge. It’s taken me many years of personal work and therapy to understand and to validate my own experiences.
Spiritual abuse can be defined as abuse committed under the guise of religion, or harm inflicted in God’s name. I grew up in the Jesus Movement, a subset of the Evangelical movement, in which I was taught, as a small child, about Satan, demons, being in a spiritual war, end-times apocalypse, and that all unbelievers would burn in hell for eternity.
The Jesus Movement was organized around communities, which worked together to help addicts, the mentally ill and others who struggled to function. As a result of community living, our family lived with a cast of characters who were either safe and respectful or who were quite dangerous.
The message I primarily and unconsciously absorbed as a “ministry kid” was that I needed to be “a healer,” “a helper” and at all costs. God had no boundaries. Nothing was impossible with God. Pleasing God was about having no gut instinct, and no voice that contradicted their belief.
Thus, my personal safety, my need for consistency or predictability “washed up on the shore” after years of being storm tossed in the ocean. Trusting God meant being in a turbulent sea with no rudder, no sails, and no compass. Subsequently, I felt terrified by how none of this felt safe and by how God allegedly judged me for being afraid, angry, doubtful, or frustrated in any way that would reflect badly on our faith, community, or mission. My childhood needs didn’t matter. In fact, I didn’t matter. Does this sound abusive so far?
Because I was also taught to fear unbelievers, fear “the world,” as well as the supernatural, there were no outside resources from which to objectively seek new truth. My well-intentioned parents didn’t understand or notice the stress, anxiety, and the nightmares I lived with constantly.
As I struck out on my own as a young adult, I joined ministries and mission organizations, and Bible Schools. I finally got a degree in social work and counseling and became a mental health therapist. During those early adult years, I experienced silencing and disparity based on my gender. This also took form in the way of sexual and emotional abuse, and in ministry contexts. Sadly, my internal formation and past fears did not allow me to fully process or speak out against abuses, because if I did, it meant I was speaking out against God or leadership. In effect, my speaking out would have meant I would have lost my community, and/or be labeled as “bitter,” “fallen” or “deceived.”
I understand now that these old, haunting messages played a large part in my story of staying quiet. I had lived with fear and anxiety for so long that it had become the norm for me. Internalizing it had sadly cost me my health. I also understand now that whenever your basic instinct is dismantled, your body can sometimes react through auto immune disorders, headaches, digestive pain and so on. I have had to relearn how to “trust my intuition” in my own spiritual journey, and as a safeguard, validate my intense resistance to being controlled and manipulated. It can still be difficult sometimes to know who and what to trust.
So, even after all my years of intentional healing work, I still found myself crying on the beach feeling unheard, and with so much I wanted to say to others who had experienced what I had. In cases like this, I allow myself to grieve and I remember that deeply lonely feeling of having to “shut up and shut down.” I know that shutting up helped me survive my early years, but it’s no longer tolerable to my body or my soul.
Plus, it’s not my personality to be quiet about injustice or healing. I knew my tears honored the younger me who did the best she could to be quiet, and survive what seemed to be a terrifying, no-win existence.
Maybe you did not have the same upbringing as Mary Ellen. You were not part of church or ministry that demanded obedience without questioning what you were told to do or be. But without knowing it, sometimes we put our family and friends through the same grief when they come to us for guidance and instruction. As soon as they express doubt about the way life is treating them, what they get from us is a lecture on how wrong they are in doing things their way instead of God’s way. Parents do this to children and friends do this to their friends and believers to it to other believers. Even some pastors are known to be this way. Maybe that’s why they don’t want to talk to you, all they get is a scolding not tender loving care.
Paul told the Ephesians “Don’t use harsh language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” (Ephesians 4:29) And later Paul tells them, “And now a word to you parents. Don’t keep on admonishing and nagging your children, making them angry and resentful. Rather, bring them up with the loving discipline the Lord Himself approves, with suggestions and godly advice.” (Ephesians 6:4) And the Apostle Peter told his followers “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of mistakes – missed opportunities or expectations.” (1 Peter 4:8).
Keep in mind, those who come to you for advice may have already been told by others how wrong they were and had their mistakes pointed out in detail, somewhat like a person trying to scold a dog or cat for knocking over a plant or peeing on the floor. You might be their last stronghold, the one they trust most to lift them up, not knock them down. As the Apostle Paul said, “Be willing to accept those who have doubts about what believers can or cannot do. And don’t argue with them about their different ideas.” (Romans 14:1) If you have anything to offer, make sure it comes from God’s Word. – Dr. Robert R Seyda