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Recovering from a Christian Cult

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.)

Everyone's recovery journey is different.

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.

That. Doesn't. Change.

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.

Learning to Live Again

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.

  1. Be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to receive grace. You may not be able to read the Bible, pray, or go to church. Or maybe you do all those things. Maybe you're afraid to talk to Christian friends. Maybe you only have Christian friends. There are no boxes you must check for God to deem you worthy of His love or time. You're already loved and cherished. You are not required to do anything to keep that status. Your healing journey may whiplash you all over the place, and that's OK.

    I left evangelical and non-denominational churches, went to Catholic mass for six months, tried a Pentecostal church, tried a Lutheran church, considered joining the Catholic church, and eventually landed Anglican. And you know what? God was there the whole time—even during the times I considered dumping it all and becoming Wiccan. You cannot flail yourself out of God's loving embrace. Believe me. I tried at first.
  2. Support Groups! Support groups are HUGELY helpful. I have a spiritual abuse support group I am part of on Facebook called Christian Koinonia Support Group (Spiritual Abuse Recovery) that is amazing in helping me de-isolate my experience. Hearing others share about their triggers and traumas and culty Christian experiences helps a LOT in retraining your brain on what "good" spiritual health looks like. (This group also runs spiritualabuse.org.)
  3. Therapy. A good counselor is worth their weight in gold, though the real trick is finding one. We've got a link at the end of this post to learn more about choosing a good Christian counselor.
  4. Study Cults. (NOTE: This may or may not be helpful to you personally.) I've found some stellar podcasts on cults that show how common certain methods of spiritual manipulation are. For me, learning about cult-like patterns throughout history and the world has helped me a lot in being able to identify how I was manipulated.

    This knowledge also reminds me that I wasn't dumb, foolish, or "A Bad Person" for being tricked or manipulated. Cults are REALLY common. My spiritual abuse support group likes "Cultish" as a Christian podcast on the topic, but I, personally, have trouble listening to Christians talking about religion right now. Some secular podcasts I like are "Parcast's Cults" and "Let's Talk About Sects" (content warnings with both).
  5. Connect to God in a way that speaks to YOU. Dude. We're all unique individuals created in the image of the Ultimate Artist. There are more ways to meet God and connect to God than we can count. Some people connect to God by walking in the woods and being in awe of His creation. Some connect through Bible studies. Some connect through a worship service. Me? I connected to God after I joined an artists' guild that revitalized in my heart how AMAZING it is that God imbued us with artistic and creative tendencies.

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

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By: September Grace

September Grace is an aspiring novelist, book hoarder collector, and movie watcher. She has a black feline floof named Faust, an assortment of plants that seek global domination, and a distinct lack of awareness for where she is at any given moment.

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