Eight months after my former pastors were removed because of spiritual abuse, I left that church. In fact, I moved countries. I realized I needed separation in order to gain clarity. After over seven years of living in South Korea, I returned to the States, hoping to leave my traumatic experiences behind me. But I found that healing wasn’t that simple. I was now carrying trauma in my body, mind, heart, and spirit.
My journey of healing from spiritual abuse is still ongoing. It has been long, slow, and winding. Part of healing has been untangling unhealthy, corrupted theology. However, a large part of healing has not been theological in nature. Understanding what happened in my mind has only been part of the journey. In addition, because the abuse was relational and spiritual in nature, many spiritual and/or relational practices that used to be grounding and refreshing (like prayer, reading the Bible, going to church, and confiding in other Christians) are now often triggering for me. This has made healing more complex.
There are so many things I could discuss in this post. The power of relationships and safe people. The relief of writing stream-of-consciousness poems and psalm-like laments in which I let myself be brutally honest. The ability of worship to shift me, mind, body, and soul. The satisfaction of expressing my emotions through music. The power of rest and being out in nature. The pressure yet healing I experienced getting a Master’s of Divinity at an interdenominational seminary (which is where I was encouraged to write the brutally honest laments). In this post, however, I have chosen to focus on two avenues of healing that have been particularly vital for me these past few years, two avenues of healing that for me, have been new: self-compassion and engaging my body.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.
Now remain in my love.”
Healing Pathway 1: Learning Self-Compassion
During a therapy session back in 2020, my therapist drew me back into a painful childhood memory, a time when I felt incredibly alone. She asked me what I wanted to say to my hurting child-self, to the little girl crying by herself. To my surprise, I said, “Stop crying and get up.” I was shaken by my own harshness, but my therapist wasn’t surprised. She had been telling me to be kinder to myself for months. It wasn’t until that moment I realized I needed listen.
All along my journey of healing from spiritual abuse, I have battled the weight of my own self-condemnation. I should have done this. I should have realized that. I should have left sooner. I should have spoken up. I should be stronger now. I should bounce back more quickly. I should be helping others instead of wallowing in introspection.
It took me awhile to realize that I didn’t just have to forgive my abusive pastors, I had to forgive myself. It took me awhile to understand that it’s not only important what God thinks of me, but also what I think of myself.
Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. As yourself. We often skip over that part or assume that we already do it. Self-love is not something I thought about growing up. I was too busy trying not to be selfish. Growing up, I was taught to receive God’s love, to love God in return, and to let that love overflow into my relationships with others.
But what about loving ourselves?
One of the most important ways I have grown the past four years is in learning how to care for myself, how to be good to myself, how to show myself the same kindness I show others. I have realized that loving myself is distinct from believing that God loves me or receiving God’s love. God’s love is powerful. But loving myself is also powerful. Choosing to actively love myself has been life-changing.
“Love is patient, love is kind.
It keeps no record of wrongs.”
1 Corinthians 13:4a,5b
At church we often talk about how God loves us unconditionally. God loves us just as we are (but also calls us higher). And yet throughout my life, I have often beat myself up for not being the kind of daughter or disciple that God deserves. What does it look like to humbly acknowledge our failings and yet fully embrace God’s love and grace? It’s a question I still wrestle with, because it’s not as easy as it might sound. It’s far easier to fall into self-righteousness or self-condemnation than to walk in humble confidence, knowing you are deeply flawed yet deeply loved.
When I returned to the States, I wanted my healing to be instant. I felt that it should be. If my faith were strong enough, it would be. If I were a better person, I wouldn’t have so many moments of feeling helpless and overwhelmed, wondering why I was alive and why God had abandoned me. The way I tried to shake myself out of these moments was harshness. “Just get up!”
But God would always bring me back to love.
God was so tender with me. So patient. But being gentle and patient with myself did not feel natural. I could receive love from God––because if God were being kind, it couldn’t be wrong––but I couldn’t remain in that love. I couldn’t be kind to myself. It felt like I was spoiling myself. It seemed wrong.
Back in 2020, my therapist had me write a kind, compassionate letter to my hurting 10-year-old self, and it felt incredibly awkward. But since then, I’ve slowly realized that loving myself is a practical way of living into God’s love for me. Speaking to myself kindly has slowly grown into a habit. Validating my emotions. Checking in with myself. Choosing curiosity about why I’m feeling what I’m feeling. Giving myself permission to rest when I’m tired or overwhelmed. Assuring myself that I will love myself no matter what. It might sound corny, but these practices have been powerful. Choosing to not only advocate for myself, but to embrace myself has been transformational.
No matter what happens in life, no matter who rejects me or mistreats me, no matter how others may judge me or measure my life, I now know two things: Jesus still loves me and I will still embrace myself.
“When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.
Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.“
Healing Pathway 2: Engaging My Body
The second vital avenue of healing was even more radical for me than the first. At the churches and Christian spaces I grew up in, the focus was on the mind. Beliefs and thoughts were paramount. Believe the right things and you were saved. Think correctly and everything else would fall in line.
Beliefs and thoughts are powerful. Processing trauma in therapy or with other safe people is important. However, many of the significant healing practices in my journey have primarily involved my body, not my mind.
Reading books about trauma* has been incredibly helpful during my healing journey. One of the most significant things I have learned from these books is that trauma is stored in our bodies. Thus, our bodies both give us clues to our trauma and are also an avenue through which healing can occur. Processing our experiences in our minds is important. In fact, making sense of our trauma as part of the larger narrative of our lives is vital to moving forward. But when we have been through trauma, our ability to process our experiences is short-circuited by the intensity of our emotions (the fight/flight/freeze response). This is when it is especially helpful to engage our bodies first.
In November 2019, eleven months after I left my church and moved back to the States, I started experiencing chronic body aches. They were accompanied by fatigue and almost constant cold/flu symptoms. I had just moved to LA and started seminary and a part-time job, so I thought I was just overworking myself. But when the COVID pandemic hit and I had plenty of time to rest and still didn’t get better (even having persistent cold symptoms while quarantining), I started getting worried. I started feeling out of control. Maybe I was gluten intolerant. Maybe I had an autoimmune disease. (A doctor thought I had lupus, but thankfully that wasn’t the case.) Was this chronic fatigue? Was there a way to fix this?
A friend who had read Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score suggested that perhaps this sickness had started because my body had been triggered by something related to my spiritual trauma. As I reflected, I realized this theory made a lot of sense. I knew the exact day the aches had started. It was the first day of a church retreat I attended in LA. The retreat was a positive experience for me spiritually, but physically I hadn’t been the same since.
Church retreats were a big deal at my spiritually abusive church. There was a lot of pressure to have breakthroughs, to have the Holy Spirit accomplish everything needed. They were intense affairs where we were pushed to our limits physically and received impassioned exhortations. Though my mind and body had experienced the LA church retreat as positive, my body remembered something different. My body was reacting to something that my mind and heart were not fully aware of.
After this realization, I started taking my body more seriously in my healing. Over the past few years, I have been shocked how powerful simple breathing exercises, yoga, long walks, EMDR, sports, and lighting candles as prayers have been. Doing has helped lead me into peace and clarity.
Thankfully my body aches settled down in the fall of 2020 when I began hiking a lot and resting less (ironically). But they still return whenever I am triggered. Or really tired. I used to feel defeated when this would happen. It could send me into a downward emotional spiral, because it felt like the spiritual abuse I experienced would have power over me for the rest of my life. Now, however, I choose to pay attention to what my body is trying to tell me. I recognize that my body is sending me important signals, and that I have the ability to do something with them.
Rather than ignoring or pushing through the discomfort, I now pause and take a breath. I ask myself what is wrong and treat whatever information arises compassionately. “You feel unsafe because you’re in a church? That’s okay. That makes sense. But you’re not at that other church anymore. You are safe. And it’s also okay to let go of this feeling of panic.”
Sometimes, simply acknowledging those underlying emotions causes the body aches to dissipate. Sometimes not. But the practice of listening to my body has not only been another significant way I show care for myself, it has been empowering. In overwhelming moments, I may not be able to convince myself to believe the truth or to have hope, but I can always take a deep breath. I can almost always (depending on where I am) do some stretches, light a candle, or put on some EMDR music (I highly recommend looking into EMDR if you’ve been through trauma). Those small steps of physical agency open up pathways toward stability, processing, connection, and hope.
A Continuing Journey
It has been four years since I left my spiritual abusive church, but I carry wounds from that seven-year experience with me daily. I may never be “fully healed” in this life. And that’s okay. It has taken a long time for me to be able to say that, but it’s true: It is okay. God’s grace is sufficient. And who I am is enough.
In dark moments, I have told God that my pain feels endless, like I’m falling down a deep, bottomless well. But God reassures me that it’s not a bottomless well, but a dark valley. I am walking through to the other side.
Slowly, my view of my life is changing. My wonder at my own resilience is growing. While I feel a passion to expose injustice and abuse in every corner, not least in the church, I am also compelled by the reality that healing is possible after people have experienced the most horrendous of evils (even evils much worse than I’ve personally experienced). Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the darkness, but other times I find myself searching for the light. What is possible in the midst of my brokenness, in the midst of our collective brokenness? What is God doing here and now?
When I graduated seminary a few months ago, I wanted to hit the ground running and jump into ministry. But my body told me otherwise, and God said it was okay. God showed me a vision of Him removing the heavy burdens from my shoulders so that I am free to bloom. Fragile, but beautiful. Loved just as I am with nothing to prove. I am flower replanted in new soil, slowly growing new petals. It is a quiet, delicate process. And it can’t be rushed.
To all of us who have been through difficulties we never imagined or planned: May we know how proud God is of our resilience. May we recognize the strength it took to survive. And may we be able to unlearn the survival strategies that are no longer serving us. Out of the ground where hope and dreams have died, may God bring new life. New faith. New vision. Deeper compassion for ourselves and others. And a deeper comprehension of the love that never lets go.
*Along with Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, I have found the books Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World by Serena Jones and Judith Herman’s Trauma and Healing very helpful.
One thought on “Spiritual Abuse: My Healing Journey”