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Recovering from Spiritual Abuse: Fearing the Good

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For the last couple of years it’s been hit or miss, mostly because I had a visceral reaction to the exercise as a result of my former pastor making flossing a cause celebre of the spiritual life. Flossing, he said, was a sign that you were disciplined and spiritually mature. There were demons who would try to keep you from flossing, and if you failed to floss you were giving in to the Devil. I am not making this up. He said it so often, and in the context of so much spiritual abuse, that I associated the activity of flossing with my pastor’s voice and his rigid outlook on life. So when my cult fell apart and I suddenly found freedom, regular flossing was one of the first things I jettisoned. I just couldn’t do it. But after several visits to the dentist and some mild tooth pain, I realized what everyone else already knows: flossing is not a spiritual discipline, it is a healthy habit. My pastor may have twisted the meaning of flossing for his own abusive purposes, but I can’t deny one thing: It’s actually good for me. Fearing Good Things Spiritual abuse is subtle because it counterfeits or twists good things and turns them into abusive tools. Because of this, recovering from spiritual abuse can be an exercise in subtlety, too. How can you distinguish between what was truly awful and what was just misunderstood? How can you discern between healthy discipline and abusive legalism? Tim Keller offers a helpful bit of wisdom: “Legalism is doing something to earn your salvation. Discipline is doing something because it’s good in and of itself.” As I look over the past four years, I see some major ways I have overcompensated for spiritually abusive practices that occurred when I was part of a Bible cult. Each of these over-reactive behaviors stems from fear that I am making myself vulnerable again to abuse. When I give in to these fear-based reactions, I keep myself from some of the good things that God has for me. Perhaps you, like me, wrestle with some of these fears: Fear of Commitment – Because I was trapped in my cult, I fear commitment, which makes me run from relationships and responsibilities which I feel I can’t control. Fear of Serving – Because I was taken advantage of by my former pastor and forced to serve in exhausting ways, I fear serving in my current church which makes me ignore legitimate needs. Fear of Rules – Because I was forced to obey endless commands with obsessive devotion, I fear rules and sometimes act like a scofflaw. Fear of Openness – Because my former pastor used shame to control my behavior, I fear openness and become self-protective. Fear of Sensitivity – Because my former pastor exploited my vulnerabilities to make me dependent on himself, I fear sensitivity which I redefine as weakness and instead try to make myself tough through weight-lifting, athletics, and hard language. Fear of Community – Because in my cult we were forced to spend enormous amounts of time with other members, I fear community and often isolate myself. Fear of Discipline – Because my church practiced legalism, I fear discipline and am often indulgent. Fear of Authority – Because I was spiritually abused, I fear authority and make many important decisions without consulting spiritual leaders. Fear of Modesty – Because my church had a dress code, I fear modesty and “crispness” and sometimes dress slovenly or to draw attention to myself. Fear of Hunger – Because my church practiced asceticism, I fear deprivation and am often impulsive and acquisitive. Fear of Sacrifice – Because people in my church were dehumanized and forced to sacrifice their dreams and desires, I fear loss of personhood and so throw myself into personal hobbies and self-actualization at the expense of other responsibilities. Fear of People – Because I was flattered by my pastor, I fear deception and question intentions and therefore distrust most people. Fear of Structure – Because my former church had unwritten rules and endless expectations for behavior, I fear structure and prefer casual activities. Fear of Accountability – Because my former pastor meddled in the details of my life while other parishioners spied on me, I fear accountability and dislike making myself vulnerable in front of other people. Fear of Risk – Because my former pastor considered mistakes catastrophic and because he only rewarded perfect behavior, I fear failure which prevents me from taking risks or trying new things. Conclusion Floss is probably not on your list of fears. But I suspect you have your own triggers which make you avoid certain habits or behaviors which are actually good for you. They are natural pendulum swings which overcompensate for abuse you suffered. Try to identify those over-reactions and see if you can get to the root of them. God has so much more for us than to be driven by our fears.