When your world feels shaken up because all you thought to be true (about who you are, who God is, and how God works in this world) got twisted up and used to harm you, you may have experienced spiritual trauma. When you realize that somewhere along the way, you were harmed through the teaching and actions of spiritual leaders, it’s disorienting, confusing, and heartbreaking. Control and condemnation are not how God operates, and this is not the end of your story.
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What Is Spiritual Trauma?
Spiritual trauma, or religious trauma, occurs when you’ve experienced coercive control (abuse) or events that threaten the core of your belief system with religious connotations. For example, when a pastor, spouse, priest, or spiritual leader uses their position and authority to control your thoughts, choices, and emotions. Common traits of spiritual abuse/harm include bullying, manipulation, condemnation, excessive demands, and threats to your identity or relationship with God. Trauma may result from experiences within faith-based organizations and relationships where the messages (about you & God) were destructive.
Common experiences for those who’ve endured spiritual trauma include feeling a haze of confusion, doubt, anger, isolation, and sadness. Common questions include: Is what I experienced abuse? Is this really that bad? What’s real? Who is God, really? What’s true? What’s wrong with me?
You may experience hypervigilance around the words people use, spiritual terms, verses, places, and people who remind you of what you endured. What you trusted to be true and good turned out to be false and harmful. A healthy sense of safety has been hijacked.
Spiritual harm worms into the very core of what we believe to be true about ourselves, God, other people, and how the world works. When you start realizing that what you’ve been told, or what was expected of you, was damaging, it can feel like your whole foundation for life has been pummeled apart, like a jackhammer destroying concrete.
If you’ve endured spiritual harm, I’m holding space for you. Healing is possible. You’re not crazy or bad. You’ve been injured. There’s grace for that.
Here are 10 things to know about recovery from spiritual trauma that may be helpful in your journey:
1. Your Experience is Your Experience
One of the most painful things about spiritual abuse is the invalidation of your thoughts, feelings, and choices, or the message that everything about you is bad and must change to be “good” or “right.” Shame and feelings of badness proliferate.
Here’s the thing, what you experienced is what you experienced. Describing and identifying your experience helps you sort through the confusion of what happened and how it affected you. Only you can identify what happened and the repercussions of your experiences so you can move through the damage into living clearly, calmly, and confidently.
2. Questions, Doubt, Uncertainty, and Confusion Are Normal
If you’ve experienced spiritual trauma, it may feel like your world got upended. When you realize the messages you heard and the behavior you endured was damaging, it’s disorienting. There is often a soul-deep ache in the aftermath of manipulation, shame, blame, and condemnation, and it comes with a fog of confusion about what’s real - and truly good.
It is normal to feel confused about what happened, to wonder if there is anyone safe, to question the church and God. Abusive tactics create confusion and chaos, which destroy a peace-filled connection to God. God desires to bring about peace and order from chaos (1 Corinthians 14:33), a principle that first acknowledges chaos in the church as a real event, and God’s desire to bring peace.
3. God Is Who God Is, Not Man’s Distorted Interpretations
A hallmark of spiritual abuse is using a position of power and authority to control another person’s thoughts and actions. In spiritual abuse, the very nature of God is distorted to meet the view of the abuser. May you find comfort in knowing we are each given access to the heart of God, who wants to reveal the truth of his love and care for you (Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 4:16).
No distorted message can reshape who God truly is. He is who he is (John 8:58). No ruler, authority, or power in the spiritual or earthly realm ever changed the reality of who God is. He is not out to get you. He’s interested in restoring you to a more fully alive LIFE (John 10:10).
4. It Takes Time to Reorient and Recalibrate Yourself
When your world changes as you recover from spiritual trauma, confusion can feel all-consuming. The beliefs you held dearly, the relationships you valued, the patterns of behavior you engaged in, they’ve changed. Sometimes drastically.
May you experience grace for yourself and the process of undoing harm. You’re in the process of reorienting yourself to a world without abuse, which means your heart, mind, nervous system, and spirit are recalibrating to life without what you’ve known. It’s not easy or comfortable initially, but I believe your nervous system and confused heart will settle down over time as you heal.
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5. God Feels with You
Healing from trauma inevitably includes feeling a whole lot of emotions. If your feelings were frequently discounted, dismissed, denied, and criticized, it can feel shameful to feel angry or sad. Maybe you were told to “pick up your cross,” “stop playing the victim,” or “remember you’re victorious,” when what you needed was to feel - and have others feel with you.
God is not mad at you for feeling angry or sad. Even if you’re not ready to feel the true emotions you have, God opposes the oppression you endured and all attempts to destroy your soul (Psalm 34:18; Psalm 9:9; Malachi 3:5). May you receive God’s comfort for the broken-hearted and know he feels with you.
6. You Get to Choose How You Move Forward
Time and time again, church leaders have circumvented an individual’s direct line to the heart of God. The way they teach, and the meanings applied to their distortions of God’s good design, lead others to believe they cannot know God’s will, plan, or purposes without following a specific set of rules set forth by the one in power.
We are each responsible for our journey of healing. We are individually in a relationship with God. As a result, we get to receive God’s truth & love so we can move into living from a loved position instead of performing for an unobtainable “good” position.
7. You Get to Decide What Is Helpful
God gave each of us wisdom (Proverbs 2:6). We all have access to his heart for us, to his Holy Spirit, to his unending love, to courage, and to the myriad of things God offers his beloved. You get to decide when you’re ready to trust again. You get to decide what kind of help is helpful for each stage of your new season.
We are each responsible for stewarding the gifts God gave us, including our lives. Have the space you need to reflect, reconsider, and respond as you find new spaces where healing can thrive.
8. Mistakes Are Not the End
If you’ve been told you’ll experience dire consequences for not doing something the way someone else says it has to be done as a person of faith, you may experience feelings of badness when you do things differently. Different does not necessarily equate to bad or wrong. Mistakes do not equal immediate punishment.
God is not waiting to destroy you if you don’t do things perfectly. Getting your next steps “wrong” is not the end. In fact, it may be part of the process that helps you heal. Some things we see as mistakes are not sins but attempts to explore new ways of living and being - as God designed.
9. Trauma Responses Are Normal
Trauma is not about an event or even a series of events. Trauma is the emotional and psychological wound left within us after events that negatively alter how we see the world and our sense of safety. Threats to safety include an emotional & spiritual sense of being OK as a human being designed and loved by God. Feeling trapped, without personal choice & autonomy, or forced to go against your moral values creates a situation ripe for trauma wounding.
Signs of trauma include hypervigilance, heightened sensitivities, difficulties feeling safe, exhaustion, and difficulties with emotional regulation. Sometimes this looks like quick responses of anger or sadness, fear of others and church settings, and feeling jumpy or exhausted. Trauma responses are normal and will shift over time as you heal.
10. There’s Grace for Growth After Trauma
What was used against you can become the catalyst for beautiful changes ahead of you (Genesis 50:20). God’s desire for his beloved creation, including you, is not to condemn you but to redeem what’s been distorted. What feels empty, lost, or stolen now is not how things will be in the future.
Recovery takes time, and it may require naps because what you’ve been through has exhausted you. While you heal, may you know there is hope for growth - one layer at a time. There is grace for growth after trauma.
This list is far from exhaustive or conclusive. There is so much more I would share with you, like steps toward healing and what it looks like to grow slowly. For today, I hope the points made here are helpful and promote healing paths. More than anything, I pray that you have the space you need to heal and that you find refreshment for your soul as you recover from spiritual trauma.
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Originally published Thursday, 18 May 2023.