CW: spiritual abuse, cults, gaslighting
NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: September has been through a lot as she has searched for God in the wake of years of spiritual abuse. She's the one who wrote our articles on spiritual abuse and gaslighting. Recently, she responded to a questioner with this answer about Christian cults, and I knew we had to make it more widely available as a resource. Please note that the podcasts and FB groups she mentions in this blog post are not associated with 412teens or Got Questions Ministries, and the views and opinions expressed in those resources do not necessarily represent the stance of our ministries. However, they have been helpful to September and may be helpful to someone else struggling with these same challenges. —Cat
Christian cults are definitely a thing, and I am so sorry if you have found yourself in one of those situations. GotQuestions.org defines these kinds of cults as follows: "In a Christian context, the definition of a cult is, specifically, 'a religious group that denies one or more of the fundamentals of biblical truth.' A cult is a group that teaches doctrines that, if believed, will cause a person to remain unsaved. A cult claims to be part of a religion, yet it denies essential truth(s) of that religion. Therefore, a Christian cult will deny one or more of the fundamental truths of Christianity while still claiming to be Christian." [source]
I was in multiple toxic church environments—the last of which I only left about five or six years ago, and which was also basically a cult. Spiritual abuse is not something you just "get over," and recovery from leaving a cult is a long-term process. It can take time to even, intellectually, recognize the differences between truth and the lies that were fed to you. Over time, you will be able to identify the discrepancies between what your brain and heart know and believe—and that will be HUGE.
You are not alone. There is hope. There is healing. And you are already doing amazing by recognizing that you need to heal from being in a toxic church environment. (Like. For reals. Not just saying that to make you feel better. Recognition of abuse is a big first step.)
Each person will have been traumatized in different ways, by different scenarios, and thus will be triggered by different things. Trauma rewires the brain to respond and protect you from emotionally, mentally, and physically dangerous situations. The infuriatingly unfair thing about spiritual abuse is that we can have trauma reactions to things that should be comforting, hopeful, and encouraging. Personally, there are certain Bible verses that were supposed to be encouraging (like Matthew 6:26-34) that were twisted so hard by my past churches that, for years, I'd go into crying fits when I read or heard them.
"For I, the Lord, do not change." —Malachi 3:6a
One of the beautiful, beautiful things about the Christian God is that His faithfulness and love for us never "wears out." In one of my past toxic churches, I was taught that only THEY held the proper interpretations to Scripture, and if you weren't listening to their interpretation/being held accountable to their pastors, then there was a good chance you weren't living the Christian life in a way that reflected a saved life. They taught that "yeah, God loves you, BUT..."
Yet...only GOD knows our hearts (Jeremiah 17:10). And the Bible is an overarching story of God looking for ways to be glorified in our redemption at every turn. God has shown throughout Scripture His deep desire, patience, grace, and love for humanity, for individual souls and people. God has proven that story and motive time and again. And if God doesn't change, then it stands to reason that God will continue to stay true to His character of crafting redemption stories at every turn.
Stripping away all the fancy theology and all the overthinking, faith boils down to John 3:16—how God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, and whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life.
No matter how churches or friends or pastors try to make it more complicated or different. If you've already asked, then salvation was given to you (Matthew 7:7-11). That's all you can do. Jesus is sitting with you in your pain and confusion and heartache and fear. You are not unloved or abandoned. You're not a bad Christian because you don't FEEL secure. Jesus wept (John 11:35), stressed, and feared (Matthew 26:36-46). Jesus understands every emotion you are dealing with and empathizes with it.
Unfortunately, when spiritual abuse is in play, a Scriptural response isn't always the most helpful. So I want to give you some practical things that have helped me a lot in being able to move forward.
I recognize that all of this might be a bit overwhelming. The TL;DR is that you are loved and cherished already. You are doing great in your healing journey already. And there ARE practical steps you can take to keep moving forward.
It's a rough journey but being a survivor of spiritual abuse has imbued you with a much stronger empathy to reach hurting hearts. Surviving spiritual abuse teaches you how to see nuance in situations better. I know it's hard. And I know there will be bad days. But there will be good days too. And one day, the good days will stick with you more than the bad days. You'll begin to see beauty in new places.
Much love to you, friend, and here's to us continuing down the road of grace together.
September is an avid film nerd from growing up on weekend trips to Universal Studios Hollywood. She is passionate about the intersections of Christian spirituality, faith, and storytelling in popular culture. Outside of 412teens and digging up obscure horror flicks from the 2000s, she works as a freelance developmental editor and acquisitions consultant while comforting her clingy feline floof, Faust, from the anxiety of existence.