Have you ever wondered why, despite the core tenets of Christianity being love and forgiveness, there are so many people who feel hurt by the church? Have you ever watched the very adults who taught you about the love of Jesus turn around and act without love, forgiveness, humility, or compassion? Whether that looks like watching your Christian mom yell at a barista or seeing your church divided because a leader committed abuse or fraud, these experiences can become traumatic.
We talk a lot about different kinds of trauma, how to avoid or leave abusive situations, and how to cope with past trauma. Verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, financial… there are so many kinds of trauma, and often we’re encouraged to lean on our spirituality or religious faith for strength and healing. Studies have shown that faith can be a huge help to some people in struggle, but what if they experienced trauma within their faith community? What if the trauma they’re healing from is, in fact, spiritual trauma?
Ultimately, healing spiritual or religious trauma comes down to recognizing that there is a difference between your personal faith and the religious leaders, teachers, or institutions that may have let you down or even hurt you.
What Is Spiritual Trauma?
The Religious Trauma Institute defines religious trauma, also called spiritual trauma, as “The physical, emotional, or psychological response to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that is experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive and has lasting adverse effects on a person’s physical, mental, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” According to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, it happens not only within toxic church culture but also within intimate relationships. Also called religious trauma, spiritual trauma can have a devastating impact on its victims by separating them from any awareness of their own wants or needs, often due to years of being told to be, do, and think a certain way by spiritual authority figures. It’s almost as difficult to define spiritual trauma as it is to define spirituality itself, because ultimately, it’s different for everyone.
Examples & Red Flags
While spiritual or religious trauma can be difficult to define, it may be more easily recognizable in these specific examples of both abuse and trauma.
1. Being taught to believe that it is your fault when your prayers are not answered immediately and completely. If you are made to feel that you are not praying hard enough or that your faith must be weak when your prayers aren't answered the way people think they should be, that is an unhealthy spiritual environment. Yes, you can and should take everything to God in prayer, but sometimes you also need to take action yourself: tell an adult, report inappropriate behavior, make an escape plan, ask for help, seek therapy, etc.
2. Being instructed by a spiritual authority figure to behave in harmful ways to yourself or others. If you are not allowed to question a religious leader, especially when what they are teaching causes harm, this is an abuse of power giving leaders unchallenged control over others. An extreme instance of this would be the story of Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre. There are also examples of churches instructing congregations to fast excessively, or making it clear that members of the group are to remain quiet about any perceived problems with leadership or doctrine. If you are asked to do something contrary to the Word of God by a church leader without question, this is a definite red flag.
3. Witnessing or experiencing ex-communication or rejection from the faith community because of “misbehavior.”
4. Witnessing or experiencing a refusal by the faith community to see mental health issues as anything other than weakness or spiritual warfare.
5. Attending or being asked to attend in-house “counseling” with a person who has no expertise or licensing in the mental health field.
6. Feeling so pressured that you think you have no other choice but to give money, sex, or control over to someone in spiritual authority over you. If you don’t comply, you’re accused of lacking faith. This is blatant manipulation.
7. Being ignored or silenced when you report instances of abuse to your church leaders.
8. When someone close to you makes fun of your belief, or when someone dismisses you because of your religion.
9. When someone tries to stop you from practicing your religion, just because they don’t like it.
10. When someone tries to force you to learn or practice their religion, even though you already have one or do not agree with theirs.
11. When someone uses religious texts to manipulate you into allowing physical, financial, emotional, or sexual abuse.
Remember, abuse is often sneaky. It can happen inside your church, at school, at home, at work, or just walking down the street. The above list isn’t exhaustive, and some people’s experiences may be completely different.
How Do I Know if I've Experienced Spiritual Trauma?
Just because we have some examples of what spiritual abuse can look like doesn’t mean it’s easy to identify when you’re in the middle of the actual experience. Often a person who is being spiritually abused is so deeply entrenched in their abuser’s teachings, that they don’t believe their church, teachers, or parents are capable of leading them astray. Furthermore, sometimes you can experience spiritual trauma that isn’t necessarily a result of abuse committed by any one person or institution. It’s important, then, to talk about how spiritual trauma makes you feel so that you can get a sense of whether you should investigate your relationship with religion and the beliefs you’ve been taught since childhood. Check out these signs of potential spiritual abuse or trauma. Do any of them sound familiar to you?
1. You feel confused about your beliefs, and you’re too uncomfortable to tell anyone about them or ask any questions.
2. You have been emotionally, sexually or physically abused by someone in spiritual authority over you.
3. You have a deep fear of death, evil, hell, or the end of the world. This could look like having recurring nightmares or being constantly aware of the devil or danger.
4. You have difficulty listening to your body or your “gut” because you’ve been taught that you can’t trust yourself, only your spiritual leaders.
5. Feeling so nervous about your sexual purity that you are scared of any feelings of attraction, let alone entering any kind of intimate relationship. Rather than understanding that sex can be a positive experience in a marriage relationship, you’re only able to process it as a sin.
6. You feel you are sinning if you draw boundaries or say “no,” and you fear being a disappointment to others.
7. You are convinced that anyone outside of your faith may be a distraction from staying on the path that’s been set for you. You may even avoid anything your circle deems “secular.”
8. You feel harshly judged within the church and have been led to believe you are not "good enough" and must earn your way to heaven. You have not experienced how much Jesus loves you or been shown a God who is compassionate, forgiving, loving, slow to anger and full of grace.
9. You’re so focused on NOT upsetting God or your religious mentors and so focused on achieving perfection that you are overly hard on yourself and quick to condemn yourself and others. This may even lead you to shun or mistreat those who don’t share your beliefs.
10. You feel let down by God because, even after all this work to impress Him or follow these teachings, you’re still struggling.
Again, this isn’t a complete list of how spiritual trauma can make you feel. The important thing is: if you’re wondering about spiritual abuse and religious trauma, talk to someone about it. A licensed therapist can be a great deal of help here, as can trusted friends, family, teachers, etc. There are also abundant resources for abuse victims through TheHopeLine that you can check out today.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Spirituality and religion are often so deeply intertwined with our self-perception that when trauma occurs, it can feel like losing your identity. Losing your faith may feel like losing yourself, and feeling betrayed by your own faith community is a deep wound that may shake your beliefs to their core. It’s tricky to give spiritual advice on this topic, since anything remotely spiritual or religious may feel triggering or even retraumatizing, but there is one thing of which you can be certain: Jesus hates religious abuse. In fact, during His life he repeatedly chastised and confronted the current religious leaders in his community because they did not act out their faith in a way that reflected what they claimed to believe. In the Bible in Matthew 23, he rebukes the Religious Leaders over and over again for caring more about rules and appearances than actually caring for the sick, helping the poor, and loving their neighbors. In fact, Jesus loved YOU so much He died for you. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16
If you have experienced spiritual abuse, learning how to separate the abuse you experienced from the God in whose name the abuse occurred could understandably be a challenge. So let us repeat, God did not want this to happen to you. The abuse you experienced was at the hands of sinful people who were NOT following Him and who were NOT acting on God's behalf! These are the words that describe the characteristics of God in the Bible - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. That is who God is!
If you are healing from spiritual trauma, you are not alone, and you don't have to leave your faith behind to do so. Jesus is on your side, not the side of the rules, relationships, or incidents that broke your heart. In Matthew 11, Jesus tells us that we can come to Him if we’re weary. He says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” If you’re feeling heavily burdened by your religion or spirituality, that’s not what Jesus taught or wanted. We’re here to support you if you’re recovering from spiritual abuse or trauma, so reach out to one of our Hope Coaches if you’d like to talk. You are never alone, and there is always hope.