In 1968, singer/songwriter John Lennon released the song Imagine, in which he talks about what the world would be like without religion. If you experienced any form of spiritual abuse, you wonder, “What would life be like without religion?” War began in heaven when Satan thought his religion was better than God’s. It continued with Isaac and Ishmael’s lineage, war between the Jews and Arabs. During the Crusades, Christians were determined to destroy non-Christians. The attack from Islamic extremist terrorists on September 11, 2001, was religiously based. When I was growing up, my church was split between liberals and conservatives. Those of us who grew up under the extremes of these groups experienced great pain.
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, and your developmental patterns and worldview are set by those early experiences. Even if you rebel later in life, you usually find yourself with tremendous guilt. Even if you believe that the views are wrong, you can’t break away because it’s the only imprint you know. To denounce these foundational beliefs is to have no self-identity.
The religious group I grew up in and knew as a child was fundamental and conservative. The Word of God was black-and-white with no room for private interpretation. This type of thinking is an earmark of spiritual abuse. My church believed that:
- One must be perfect by obeying all the rules to gain salvation (Matt. 5:48).
- Anything less than perfect obedience to all God’s commands means you don’t love Him (John 14:15).
- No pictures or portraits of people were allowed because they might become idols to be worshiped (Exod. 20:4).
- If you were caught violating the Sabbath as defined by the group, you would lose your membership and, therefore, your salvation (Exod. 20:8).
- No fun games, secular music, or television were allowed on Sabbath (Isa. 58:13).
- On Sabbath you could reheat food but never cook.
- Holidays were suspect, especially Christmas.
- Jewelry, make-up, and fancy clothes were associated with Jezebel.
- Voting was not allowed since your actions might expedite the “end of time.”
Those who grew up under these strict circumstances know that these beliefs are so imbedded that rational thinking does not change our emotional response. Failing to obey the rules was evil. Anyone who attempted to deviate would be verbally abused with phrases such as “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Others endured physical abuse. One family padlocked their refrigerator during the Sabbath hours.
When you experience this type of control as a child, you struggle as an adult. Your spirit has been taken from you in a manner that some have called “soul murder.” Some people who have lived through this still believe these ideas and control their children similarly in order to purify their family. This behavior is related to the “Stockholm syndrome,” so named after the 1973 incident where four people were taken hostage in a bank robbery in Sweden. At the end of their captivity, these hostages resisted rescue and refused to testify against their captors. It only takes about three or four days for the psychological shift to take hold, making you sympathize and follow your tormenter.
When I finally “woke up,” my first response was, “I’ve been lied to!” I questioned God and His existence. Many survivors of childhood spiritual abuse are unable to differentiate truth from lies. Religious interpretations of spiritual things are seen as another twist on the same old lie you have heard all your life.
How do parents develop such power over a child’s life?
It starts with a parent that has developed narcissistic attributes. The word “narcissistic” is derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus. Echo fell in love with Narcissus, but he paid no attention to her. The gods punished his crime of unrequited love by causing him to fall in love with his own reflection. Each time Narcissus reached for his adored image mirrored in a pool of still water, it would dissolve into ripples. People with narcissistic tendencies attempt to cover up their own poor self-esteem and are haunted that they are not all they claim to be. They need to follow every biblical rule and control their families through this oppression.
Mary lived in a middle-class home with her parents. Things looked fine from the outside; her mom stayed home with the children, and they attended church weekly. A closer look at this family revealed that her mom inflicted her religious beliefs on the family. The mother’s course was the only right one. Studying the Bible regularly, she would get up at 4:00 a.m., locking herself in the study. Many times Mary didn’t get breakfast because her mom refused to come out of the room, saying that the “bread of heaven” was more important than the bread of this earth. Even though Mary was hungry, she learned that all love is conditional. Her mom defined Mary’s reality, and Mary saw her mother’s “god” as being more important than herself.
This type of narcissist behavior comes with a sense of entitlement. These people are unable to empathize because they devalue other people. This activity often leads them to verbally attack and demolish the child’s interests. Children have no value. The parent is “god” and should always be obeyed without question.
Susan was diagnosed with rectal cancer. She was upset that her parents arranged for her to be excused from health classes because there was no value in learning about her body; they said that God would always determine the course of her life. Now, as she studied the pictures in the doctor’s office and tried to understand what a colon was, she felt stupid and scared because of the ignorance that her parents had forced upon her in the name of God. Her mind understands differently now, but her emotions can’t seem to match.
Ironically, every narcissist was once a rejected child. The narcissist controls the emotions, thoughts, and feelings, and defines what love is. Any attempt by the child to move away and become a separate person is discouraged, and the child is forced back into submission. Since independent thinking is not allowed; isolation and control are keys to maintaining this process. Any movement toward independence is treated as betrayal. Autonomy is greeted with resentment and leads to punishment for sins. Many in this situation see suicide or homicide as their only way of escape.
Many people don’t want to talk about their experience of religious abuse. They don’t know what to do with the information. Friendships are often frustrating and unfulfilling. Some believe, because of the indoctrination they received, that their parents did the right thing. An example of this was portrayed in the 2003 “Prime Time” special on the children of Waco, ten years later. When the host showed them the film footage of the burning buildings, he had a hard time controlling his emotions because all these children had lost their parents in the fire. But most of the children had no reaction as their parents died because they were programmed to believe that this is what would happen in the “last days.”
There are other effects of childhood spiritual abuse, including the desire to be perfect and consistent, being hypersensitive about being mistreated again, and trying to be invisible. All of these effects that can cause dissociation, nightmares, and altered reality.
How to recover from childhood spiritual abuse
- It will take a commitment to recover and will require investing a lot of energy. Recovery is not easy.
- You will probably need psychological therapy and possibly some medication. Find a good Christian counselor with a knowledge of spiritual abuse from an organization such as Meier Clinic (888-725 4642).
- You will need to wean yourself from the compulsive need to understand your parent’s behavior. Evaluate information and discard what is wrong.
- You must also learn to evaluate your reactions to other people to see if they are magnified by the injuries you suffered as a child.
- It is important for you to discover your own interests rather than simply carrying on in the old patterns.
- You will need to mourn the childhood that you will never have.
- Healing yourself is often facilitated by finding love to share.
- Strength will develop as you learn to cope with the difficulties of your past.
- When you are ready, look ahead and ask God for assistance, even if all you can say is, “Help!”
Golomb. Ph.D. Trapped in the Mirror (New York: William Morrow, 1992). http://www.sniggle.net/stock.php.
Friel, John, Ph.D., and Friel, Linda, M.A., “An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s ‘Normal,’” in Health Communications, Inc., 1990.