"Grace Is the Best Thing in the World"

Sociologists look for patterns in human behavior. In this book I have tried to present an "insider perspective" by using a life-history approach to illustrate patterns of spiritual and emotional abuse. The case histories are retrospective accounts presented through interviews that concern a significant phase of these people's lives, namely, the experience of leaving a church or religious group that abuses and the process of recovering from that group's hurtful effects.

   Social scientists have long used the life-history approach to probe the subjective meaning of any given situation or series of events in the life of a person. Helen Ebaugh writes, "The basic assumption behind the life-history method is that every person defines the world differently. In order to explain these definitions and relate them to social behavior, sociologists must understand what events mean to the people experiencing

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them. The subject's definition of the situation takes precedence over the objective situation since, as Thomas and Znaniecki (1927) have argued, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.' This means, in essence, that the way an individual perceives an event or situation impacts his or her behavior."1

   Although I have tried to communicate the emotional pain and spiritual confusion of former members, the reader cannot feel the intensity of the emotions of the people who speak in these pages. Their stories would be all the more powerful if you could hear the quiet sobbing or the painful pause as their interviews brought back memories almost too sensitive to share.

   I recognize that some readers believe that "abuse" is too strong a term to use in connection with unhealthy churches and Christian organizations. But I do not know a more adequate concept to describe the constellation of traits that I have identified in this book and elsewhere: the practice of surrendering personal autonomy to an authoritarian group or pastor-leader; the loss of identity and self-worth that accompanies that submission; the temporary and sometimes sustained spiritual paralysis; the recurrent nightmares and flashbacks; the relational disruptions and the fear and confusion caused by a performance-based faith. David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen also call this abuse:

There is no test to diagnose spiritual abuse. There are only spiritual clues: lack of joy in the Christian life; tiredness from trying hard to measure up; disillusionment about God and spiritual things; uneasiness, lack of trust, or even fear of those who care about "God" things, even legitimately; a profound sense of missing your best Friend; cynicism or grief

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over good news that turned out to be too good to be true.2

   Whatever label we apply, spiritual abuse is an issue the Christian community must acknowledge and confront. It is far more prevalent and much closer to the evangelical mainstream that many are willing to admit. I received a letter from a woman in the midwestern United States who described her experience as a new believer, attending an evangelical church that she had every reason to believe was "mainstream."

   "I could not believe what we had found after our first visit," she wrote. "The genuine love and concern for us, the dynamic preaching of the Word; we just knew we were 'home' to stay."

   This woman soon learned that she was in a legalistic, controlling church. "My Christian life became very unsettling. Of special concern was my lack of joy in Christ. I felt that it had been snuffed out. I no longer read my Bible because it thrilled me, but because I was supposed to. Bible study was three times weekly. If anyone missed, they were thought to be 'carnal.' No one was to move away from the church. To do so was to walk away from God, since there was no other church that was preaching the 'truth' like ours. Our daily walk became one of trying to be on top of every sin so that God would not break fellowship with us. One beautiful young girl killed herself because she so desperately wanted to be pleasing to God, but only found failure."

   The writer states that she became physically ill with panic attacks and stomach problems. "This church left victims scattered and confused. The good news is that the Lord slowly and gently picked me up from such despair. I now have a church where the pastor leads us

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to Christ, not to himself. There is a balance that I've never known before, and I'm mending. I have a great hope in my Lord and have experienced his love and provision."


   The message of this book is that "mending" is possible! There is hope. You can trust again. However, it is important to understand that although there are some common aspects to the process of recovery and healing, the route is different and can be more tortuous for some than for others according to their personalities and the special problems they encountered in the church.

   Here are some suggestions, briefly stated, that may help smooth the road to recovery.

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   A man who escaped an abusive group with his wife experienced most of the phenomena I had suggested. "Waves of bitterness and hurt would come up occasionally, but the waves of love and new life were stronger. My wife and I grew closer, as we sorted out the bad and good in our experience. There was a lot of good; we needed to learn not to focus on the negative, but to rejoice in our new freedom. Eventually we even began to laugh at some of the things that occurred in the old church. This did serve as medicine as we recovered from the pain of abuse. Talking to other former members and sorting out the hidden lessons of the experience we shared were especially healing."

  It is difficult to forgive those who abuse us. Lewis Smedes writes about forgiveness in his book Shame and Grace:

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"Forgiving is a journey, sometimes a long one, and we may need some time before we get to the station of complete healing, but the nice thing is that we are being healed en route. When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free was us."3

   In rebuilding your life you will no doubt benefit from professional assistance, in the form of either pastoral counseling (with someone familiar with authoritarian groups) or therapy. Therapists are trained in a variety of disciplines including psychology, social work, and psychiatry. If possible, select a therapist with a Christian world view who is able to integrate his or her professional practice with a biblical faith. You may want to consider more extended therapy at a rehabilitation center such as Wellspring or New Life Treatment Centers.


   I conclude with some insights offered by Tami Tucker, a graduate of Wheaton College who formerly directed the Crisis Pregnancy Center operated by JPUSA. Her comments can be applied widely and encompass much that I have said in the book.

   "I see the topic of recovery from spiritual abuse in much the same light as I do recovery from parent-to-child sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. All the generalizations I am making are, of course, directly a result of what I see at JPUSA, but I believe these are principles which can be generalized to some degree to spiritual abuse within the church at large.

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   "You will often hear JPUSA leadership refer to themselves as surrogate parents — probably a residual of the 'shepherding' philosophy which influenced them greatly in the early years and which they still reflect in many ways. What happens is that emotionally damaged young people move from dysfunctional natural families right into dysfunctional church 'families,' and feel completely at home because it is a 'cleaned-up' form of what they've experienced all their lives. It does not violate their sense of order or what I believe are false foundational premises upon which they have built that life. Many of those false premises have to do with the role of authority and the notion of 'submission' as well as the idea that sin is primarily some form of behavior rather than the underlying condition of fallen humanity.

  "In the case of JPUSA, the real destructiveness of these false premises and their relation to spiritual abuse can be seen in ways different from a traditional church setting because of the intimacy of the community environment and the group dynamics of a 'damaged' population interacting in that context. This may be one reason why it may be difficult and confusing for someone who has never lived communally to fully understand the implications of dysfunctional community life on an emotionally damaged individual.

   "On a more general level, I think the most confusing aspect of religious abuse in our society is that it does not usually occur as an isolated event in a person's life. Emotionally healthy people generally are not pulled into abusive religious cycles and are not paralyzed by the rejection they experience when they recognize problems which exist and leave the church. On the other

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hand, emotionally unhealthy people will first welcome salvation with open arms because of the deep sense of emptiness and pain in their lives. For these people, fear of rejection, fear of authority figures, and personal insecurities prevent them from leaving a problematic church or even recognizing the problematic elements.

   "When some do gather the strength to leave the unhealthy situation, the rejection they receive — especially if their personal relationship with God has become distant or displaced — can cause them to reject or question their original salvation experience and God himself. Marriages crumble under the pressure, and individuals who have a history of substance abuse often go back to the same abusive behavior, or worse.

   "My husband and I have seen a number of things contribute toward wholeness, both in our own recovery and in that of others:

    1. Twelve Step groups

    2. Group or individual counseling

    3. A warm, accepting church or small group setting

    4. Ex-member support groups

   "Recovery from spiritual abuse is similar to other kinds of victim recovery in that deep healing usually occurs within and through relationships with others. People who have been deeply hurt tend to be angry loners, gun-shy, and committed to self-protection. But learning to trust and allowing yourself to become vulnerable to others and to God, by definition, requires relational input."

   People recovering from spiritual abuse have a deep fear of rejection, of not being accepted. Experiencing acceptance, whether in a small group or in a caring

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church, is often the beginning of their healing. It involves, as Tami points out, learning to be vulnerable to others — and to God. In being vulnerable to God we open ourselves to his amazing grace. Lewis Smedes writes, "Grace is the beginning of our healing because it offers the one thing we need most: to be accepted without regard to whether we are acceptable. Grace stands for gift; it is the gift of being accepted before we become acceptable."4

   God is extravagant with his grace. In Ephesians 1:7-8 the apostle Paul reminds us that the riches of God's grace have been "lavished" on us through Jesus Christ. I have seen "amazing grace" at work in the lives of battered believers who have been restored and "re-created" by the grace and power of the living Christ. Smedes puts it succinctly and well: "I believe that grace is the best thing in the world."5

   Recovery means trusting in the God of grace, the God of endless years. Remember the promise made to Israel in Joel 2:25: "I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten."

Go to Epilogue  ||  Table of Contents

1. Helen Ebaugh, Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 31-32.

2. David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1991), 194-95. 

3. Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don't Deserve (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), 141.

4. Ibid., 107-8.

5. Ibid., 168.