On Community: When Iron Doesn’t Sharpen Iron

(this was originally published on May 13, 2013 at carameredith.com)

Three years ago, I left a church community that had become spiritually abusive.

(There. I said it. Whew.)

To preface, I found out afterward that the types of things I experienced are common ways that spiritual abuse works: an escalating series of power plays that leave you feeling guilt, shame, and fear. It causes you to lose your bearings and confidence in your own thoughts — a confidence I haven’t quite gotten fully back. Because of that, I’m afraid of over-sharing and making it a bigger deal than what it was. I’m also afraid of under-sharing and not making it as big of a deal as it needs to be. I’ve privately shared my story over the past few years with enough people who love me, believe me, and have stood by me, that I’m no longer allowing that shame keep me from speaking about it.

Here’s what I’ve decided to tell at this point, so you know the basics of what I experienced:

I was told it was my fault when another family left our community. I set boundaries with others that were crossed. I was pressured to talk about and process things, especially about myself, that I had made clear were not open for discussion. I was expected to be transparent and vulnerable about my life in ways that those asking this of me wouldn’t reciprocate. When I was transparent about areas in which I struggled, I had those struggles thrown back in my face. I was told I was being emotionally manipulated by outside forces. It was even insinuated that I was abusing my children. When my husband and I tried to bring up some of these issues, they were ignored.

It was absolutely devastating. I was left crushed, mangled.

I’m a strong, confident, outspoken person, but by the time I left this community, I didn’t believe any of those things about myself. I didn’t believe that anyone loved me or even could love me, and that I had absolutely no value. I felt God himself had turned his back on me because I was obviously such a broken human being not worthy of fixing. I didn’t recognize my own self — all of the truths I knew about myself had been chipped away. It has taken, and will continue to take, years to get that back.

That’s messed up.

I’m also afraid — afraid that the people who perpetuated my abuse will deny it outright and say it never happened, or that my story will be dismissed as inaccurate, one-sided, or a “misinterpretation of the facts.” If so, I’m scared that people will believe them and not me, because I don’t have a platform and they do. But one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t need a platform in order to have credibility over your own life. You don’t have to give away the power for your own story. You get to keep it; don’t let anyone take it from you.

Now, I know that how I feel and how I respond to situations is entirely my responsibility — I played my role in the systematic dysfunction — but I also know that we don’t live in vacuums. I’m not painting myself as the sole innocent in the situation, and I never have. When it happened, I didn’t handle it well, which is something I acknowledged at the time.

For example, I struggle with forgiveness. As in, I don’t do it very well (I’m a grudge-holder; it’s not pretty.). But if iron sharpens iron, then iron can cleave iron and leave it on the floor, too. I’m not going to let the fact that I didn’t handle things perfectly prevent me from talking about being spiritually abused.

People hear “spiritual abuse” and think “cult,” but it doesn’t always mean that. Sometimes it means someone or some group can have power over your spiritual life in ways that are damaging and not God-honoring. They may not take the power from you in obvious ways, but you may find yourself handing it over, piece by piece, completely unaware that you’ve done so. Then one day, you look up, and you wonder what the hell is going on.

Talking about spiritual abuse is also taboo. After all, we’re not supposed to talk bad about each other; we’re supposed to be “nice.” We’re not supposed to judge, or call people out on their bad behavior. But as I read recently, “…we Christians aren’t supposed to say things like ‘total dick move’ — no matter how totally dickish someone is behaving.” Staying silent means the abuse someone else did still gets to control me. And just, no.

The most important thing I want to say is this:

If you find yourself in a situation where other people’s words or actions have led you to believe lies about yourself, lies that you have to follow God on their terms, or lies that make you think God doesn’t love you, then you’re being spiritually abused. The first thing you should know is that it is not your fault. The second thing you should know is that you should get out. Now.

Run.

Run fast.

Run far.

Run hard.

And don’t look back.

Don’t let people manipulate you into believing that you are making a wrong decision in leaving, or that you should “pray about it more,” or that you should go back and work it out in the name of reconciliation or closure or something. Seek out people who will love you for who you are, not who they want you to be, people who will be there for you, people with whom you can set and keep healthy boundaries. Get counseling — not because your abusers are right about you, but because you deserve to heal. Speak truths that matter to your heart, even if you don’t quite buy what you’re selling yourself.

Some may say that I’m not extending the other people in my situation enough grace. That’s fair, I suppose. But the thing about grace is that I have to believe that it’s allowed to be extended to me as well. If grace is a pie, I desperately need a crumb from the edge.Sometimes, it’s all I can do to remember that and cling to it. And if grace for myself is all I can muster, then I’m OK with that being enough. Because the God I believe in loves me. He just does.