Leaving My Faith Community
I never dreamed I'd stop going to church. Ever since I began to grow in my relationship with Jesus I wanted to know the truth and I couldn't get enough of church. I couldn't understand why people didn't come to church or it seemed as though church was not as important to them and that meant they were backsliding. Because that's what I'd been taught was the reason people would slack off about church. I loved to sit near the front because it was equated to being on fire for God and I couldn't understand why people chose to sit on the back seat when there was room in the front and that meant that they were lukewarm. Because that's what I was taught.
I don't think it ever crossed my mind that I would stop going to church. Just the thought of it produced so much fear and anxiety. Fear of what people would say. Anxiety about the pressure I expected from their words to try to get me to return to church.
It's been a long time coming. I didn't want to stop going to church but I also knew it was a miracle I still went to church after all the emotional and spiritual abuse I've been through. (I've wrote about it in other blog posts.)
I first began to be aware that instead of wholeheartedly listening to the sermon while sitting in a church service I would spend the majority of the time on my phone. I began to realize that I'm distracting myself after a few times things were said that were so triggering that I almost left the room. So I tried to figure out what exactly were the things triggering to me but I guess it took too much mental energy as after a few weeks I was back on my phone again. It all came to a head after I offered to sit with another person so that they don't have to sit alone. As I sat next to them in a place out of my comfort zone and noticing the person next to me kept glancing over I felt like I was being a distraction for scrolling on my phone which made me sad because I didn't want to be a distraction. So l at least tried to stop scrolling and watch as my pastor preached but as I did fear, guilt and shame washed over me and I understood why I keep scrolling on my phone. I've felt fear, guilt and shame most of my life and I was tired of it. They're negative emotions that drain me. Fear because of things being talked mentioned about the end of the world. Shame because I found myself unable to do the religious activities that seemed to be required to be a good Christian like reading the Bible and spending more time praying and evangelizing and helping with ministries and activities. Guilt for not being able to live up to the standards. Fear that if people knew they wouldn't want to be my friends anymore.
Just the thought of "quitting" church produced so much anxiety that it was hard to function but I knew that it had just become a religious activity that was not feeding me and my needs were not getting met. (Just like Bible reading. I realized I was doing it because that's what I'd been taught a good Christian does. But I wasn't getting fed. And since I'm done with religion and doing things that I get nothing out of or doesn't meet my needs, I stopped reading the Bible. It took awhile to get past the guilt of it but in talking to God about it, I learned to be ok with where I was at spiritually because He understood and accepted me right where I was at. He didn't condemn me or criticize me or scold me for not reading the Bible. That only came from people. )Then realizing that church services were draining me and I realized that the only reason I went to church was for connection because it seemed that that was the only time my friends were able to hang out and chat with me for the most part and I felt that if I disappeared nobody would notice. (I know that's not true as I've had several people say something already.) But if nobody has time to hang out other than church then I guess I will just drop out of their lives. I'm not trying to cut anyone off. It just takes me a long time to actually trust people and there's only very few people I feel safe with from church so it makes it even harder to connect at church and therefore I've been trying to find ways to connect with these few people outside of church but it appears that most are too busy to maintain a relationship outside of church which makes it feel even worse. I guess because I don't have a family I have more free time than those with young children but it still hurts. I'm also realizing that my needs weren't being met in my faith community. At this point I'm not ready to take part in ministry efforts or help in Sunday school. Sometimes when the announcements are read the comment is made that if you've been a wallflower for a while maybe now it's time to step up and help with something in the church. Comments and suggestions like these only produce guilt and shame because it translates as pressure to perform and that I'm not living up to what's expected of me. That I'm a disappointment. That I'm not worth anything and I'm only filling up space in the room.
About a month ago I started a new job which I would say is going well on the surface. But the workplace is not a safe place for me after the spiritual and emotional abuse caused by a former employer who overstepped his boundaries. Thus the spiritual things that should be life giving when hearing or reading about them they instead cause confusion, guilt and shame. They squash the life out of me and leave me crumbled on the ground emotionally and spiritually. Which is the bottom line reason why I find myself extremely uncomfortable and sensitive to spiritual topics in any form.
At this point I basically have to disassociate so I can do my work and learn new things at my job. Now that I've been out of church for several weeks I am aware that I also had to disassociate in order to go to church and connect with people. I probably disassociate much more than I realize just so I can function in everyday life. In case you don't know what disassociate means, here's a description:
Dissociation is a break in how your mind handles information. You may feel disconnected from your thoughts, feelings, memories, and surroundings. It can affect your sense of identity and your perception of time.
It has been an extremely painful decision. I didn't want to stop going to church. It has caused me so much stress and anxiety that my body has been physically aching and showing other physical symptoms that I know are because the mental and emotional stress pressure is so high. It is scientifically and medically known that when your emotional and mental stress becomes too much to handle your body will have physical symptoms which may cause you to end up in the hospital in some cases.
As I've been trying to process and heal from the spiritual and emotional abuse and trauma from that event with my former employer and dealing with my emotions and beliefs surrounding not going to a religious institution like I've been taught all my life, I feel a load lifted off of me. Here's some of the things I'm noticing and becoming aware of:
Sometimes stepping away from something that is draining you will help you see clearer and help you separate yourself as an individual who has your own set of needs and dreams and goals. Sometimes we get so enmeshed with a certain group or organization or person that we lose our individuality and uniqueness that God has created us with. When enmeshed we also will find it harder to see red flags and lose touch with our own needs and gifts because we are so busy supporting someone or something else. Or we are too busy keeping all the programs running that we aren't able to focus on building deeper sustaining relationships because there's so much to keep us busy.
This is something I've been noticing for some time but have had a hard time putting into words and have gotten flack for. It seems that the general Christian population is so focused on the spiritual aspect of life(which is definitely important) but we neglect the other elements of life: the physical, mental, and emotional aspects. Scripture becomes a bandaid we slap on anything and everything and expect it to be healed. When someone shares a hurt or a struggle we are so quick to remind the person to trust God more or have more faith or that God works all things together for good. Or we remind ourselves that after what Jesus suffered what I'm going through isn't bad at all. How often has doing so actually worked for you? How did it work for you? Maybe it works for normal people but it doesn't work with trauma and abuse survivors. Rather it only intensifies the pain and struggle and only heaps more shame and guilt on a person who has already more on their plate than they know what to do with. In my experience it only worked for a time till my emotional and mental parts couldn't handle the pain anymore. What I have found to help me is when someone listens with judgement, criticism, or suggestions but rather that they actively listen by listening with their full attention, repeating what I say in their own words and asking questions. Those have been the most healing interactions that I've experienced and there's been very few of them. And those kinds of listeners are pretty much the ones who have gone through abuse and trauma themselves because they understand how much harm or good that words can do to an abuse survivor. As being immersed in a religious atmosphere my whole life, it seems that lately though it's not from God He uses the harmful things from people(their words and actions and choices of saying /doing them) to help me understand how harmful some of these things are that I've done/said over the years. And I think back and wonder how much pain I caused those individuals. But like one of my friends mentioned yesterday: you can't change what was. But you can start from here.
Comparing our sufferings to others who went through what we consider harder things such as some of the persecution that people went through in the Reformation is invalidating. God is an emotional being. He created us with feelings. When we ignore or suppress them we are doing ourselves a disservice. All our parts: emotional, mental, physical, spiritual are intricately intertwined and to dismiss one or the other is to not be the whole person God created us to be. The things we go through cause us to at times feel negative emotions and a LOT of them. If we suppress them or try to slap a spiritual bandaid on it it will only cause problems later on down the road. I find it fascinating how a lot of physical illnesses/symptoms come from suppressed emotions. I also find it interesting that the more I get in touch with my emotions the more I'm aware of my physical body and the symptoms I have that if I don't try to take care of and support my physical health it could cause major issues down the road which is a not a little bit scary but this is where I can take responsibility and be proactive. I've only in the last few days become aware of a certain issue and am trying to make a few more changes to my diet to try to heal the issue in question.
From what I've observed and experienced when slaps a spiritual bandaid on your wound it hinders deeper connections. It translates to me as that your pain is too uncomfortable for me to bear therefore I will tell you _____... Its also appears that when people express negative emotions it makes others uncomfortable, mainly those who have never fully dealt with their own pain to the deepest level. Therefore abuse survivors who are trying to heal will make deeper connections with those who are also working on finding healing for their own pain whether it is within or outside of a religous institution. They are the ones that will listen better and know how to comfort better.
Yesterday when I was shopping I found this sign:
It reminded me of this: the other day I explained to a friend why I haven't been in church and at first they agreed that it was fine to take a break from church. It would have been fine if the conversation had stopped there but a little while later they came back with the suggestion to make sure that it's not the devil that's keeping me out of church. To me that was a scare tactic and manipulative. Our conversation continued a little longer in which it seemed that they were implying that fellowship can only happen at a religious institution and that I was isolating myself by not going to church. ( I have more awe and worship towards God when I am on a hike and fellowship is more meaningful to me by hanging out with my friends outside of a religious institution)
After a day or two it got the best of me and I decided that I'm going to make myself sit down and study what the Bible says about fellowship and going to a religious institution. As I sat down and opened my Bible it was as though I hit a wall and I began to weep. As I tried to tell God what I wanted to do He impressed in my spirit that this is too much for me and I can't handle this right now. It calmed me and reassured me and just confirmed even more to me that God understands and accepts me right where I am and that all the pressure I feel and expect comes from the religious community. Not only has my choice to stop going to church reminded me of my past bad experiences in leaving a religious institution but also is causing me to expect it all over again because it seems that the Christian community as a whole believes that leaving your faith community means that you are backsliding. My question is : how in the world can a person forget God after so much redemptive power has been woven into the fabric of their life? It has been my relationship with Jesus that's kept me going to a religious institution but I see now that what I am really hungry for was relationship. Caring, supportive, non judgemental relationships. The sad part is that after 1¾ years I have experienced very little of that in my faith community. I am now realizing that I need to find another place to get my needs filled before I am able to get back into church. Otherwise I will not be able to find healing for the wounds caused by the spiritual and emotional abuse and trauma that I had to endure.
Also I'm not trying to isolate myself. There are many things that I am terrified to do on my own. There are things I try to do only to not be able to enjoy them because my anxiety levels are so high. It is not something I can just snap out of even though I've tried. Hard. I've been in too many situations that were unsafe and abusive and my body remembers therefore even if I know in my head that I am safe my body reacts physically and emotionally which again is so fascinating. And another reminder of how intricately all our parts are intertwined. Having someone to join me and participate builds my confidence and one day I hope to have enough confidence to do things on my own such as take a long hike in the woods. There are things I have been already been able to go forward in and for that I am proud of myself for and builds my confidence for trying the next new thing.
I have dreams. A lot of them. Most of them are because of Gods redemptive and healing work in my life. I trust god to provide for me. I'm learning the things I enjoy doing and taking steps to becoming prosperous financially in those areas while reminding myself that it is God's job to take care of me. I also am trying to connect with other lonely people and somehow connect everyone so that none of us have to feel alone and so that we have a place where our needs can be met since there seems to be a lack of resources in this area. Especially for abuse survivors outside of therapy and group appointments. And especially for spiritual abuse survivors. One of my daily questions for God is to help me be a vessel He can use and to direct my steps and guide my dreams so that they can develop into something that brings honor and glory to Him because I realize that pretty much all my dreams and desires and goals came about because of my relationship with Him and learning who He is and how He cares for me.
2 Corinthians 1:4 talks about God comforting us so that we can comfort others. If we suppress our emotions or slap on a spiritual bandaid how are we going to experience the depth of our emotions and experience God's comfort? Just experiencing God's comfort several days ago has been an example to me of how I can then extend the same comfort to another.
I don't know what lies ahead for me. I am definitely aiming for more healing and taking steps towards my goals and dreams. In the middle of all that I am also resting in God's comfort and acceptance while bracing myself for the next person who will ask me why I'm not coming to church anymore.
It has been implied to me over the years that a good Christian will give an explanation to those who ask even if you know that they won't understand or it may turn into gossip. It's just how a Christian is supposed to do I assumed. And also the very real desire to be understood and heard. But I've recently been told by both my therapist and my counselor that it's nobody's business and if I need to for my own mental health I am allowed to block individuals. That it's ok to not give an explanation to everyone except for those who are safe people and those we trust. Now I don't plan to go cut everyone off. Not at all. I don't want to either. But if people will try to manipulate me into doing something they think I should do and I'm not comfortable with then they can expect themselves to be deleted or blocked not because I want to lose the relationship but because the way they are responding to me is not helping the situation and may be making the situation worse, not to mention also undermining what little trust I may have had in them. And so if you happen to be reading these rambles of mine and it arouses you to judge and criticize and condemn instead of causing you to feel compassion and care for the hurting then perhaps before you reply or comment perhaps it would be best to take a step back and investigate your own life to discover why such emotions are triggered by my words. Have you been comforted by God? Then why not try to extend that comfort to another rather than trying to point out their wrongs or bad choices? And maybe a good reminder to yourself would also be that there's been a process that brought them to this place and perhaps you would be willing to try to figure out how you can best be a supportive friend and help them along their healing journey. Which, by the way, would be much more productive than trying to tell them they should get back into a faith community or whatever else, given the situation, you may think was a bad choice on their part.
When you see someone struggling or hurting which can be disguised in myriads of ways, do your best to support rather than criticize. Ask them if there's a need you can meet. Ask them what kind of support they would like. Ask them how you can best support them. In my experience, oftentimes what helps the most is a listening ear and someone to go with me on a hike or whatever else I may want to do but am too scared to do on my own. You will probably never know how much your listening ear and accepting presence can mean to the other individual. These are things that help me and I'm sure many others but each individual is unique and has unique needs and as I much as I want and try to do these things I often find it draining and triggering because my own needs are neglected and unmet. And most of the time I'm not sure how to get them met.
Here's another thing I want to add while I'm thinking about it...a friend and I were discussing about not reading the Bible and she told me this illustration: Its kinda like your best friend has a journal and gives it to you. Then you spend time reading it and studying it while your best friend stands aside waiting for your relationship... You may say but prayer and Bible reading go together. You can't neglect one or the other. That may be true. In my experience it has been implied that the best way to have a relationship with God is to read His Word. That may help but isn't God a relational Person? Aren't there three Persons in the Trinity so united that they are as one because they need each other to be who they are as one? Aren't we also relational beings? Don't we also need each other? Didn't humans have a perfect relationship with God until they made a wrong choice? Doesn't God want to have a perfect relationship with Him today even though it is now married by evil to a certain extent? Didn't Jesus say that the Spirit will bring all things to remembrance? Are we trusting Him to do that? Even though I haven't read the Bible for quite sometime I found that the Spirit knows how to bring verses to mind in a non triggering manner so that it can be productive rather than harmful. I believe the Bible is necessary to understand the Gospel but it is also full of history. A person who has the Holy Spirit living in them will know in their spirit if they've done something displeasing to God. They will also be comforted in their Spirit by the Spirit and because of how entwined all our parts are it will have an effect on our whole being physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
Sometimes I see ads on social media about the people in China wanting Bibles even if it's just one page I said to my counselor one day that perhaps it's good that the people in China don't have Bibles. I don't say that because I want to invalidate their desires and hunger. Not at all. It is a very real hunger. There was a time when the Bible was incredibly important to me as I was sorting out all the things I was taught. Jesus said that the truth sets man free and it does. I know from experience. It set me free and keeps setting me free to be the individual God created me to be. (But there's also more truth than just spiritual truth. There's also things that are true in the mental, emotional and physical realm. There needs to be a balance in all things. If any part is neglected the other part of truth may do more harm than good. For example, telling an abuse survivor that they need to trust God more instead of being so afraid when they know that in their head but their body remembers the abuse. I know this probably sounds foreign to some folks but like I said earlier all our parts are intricately entwined and we cannot neglect one for the other.) For the last several hundred years the United States has been one of the leading nations in sending out missionaries and giving the Bible to those who had none. But out of it also comes much false teachers. In my observation I wonder perhaps if we would perhaps be better off without a Bible and instead focus on our relationship with God. Adam and Eve didn't have a Bible. They walked and talked with God in the garden. It has been implied to me through sermons that the way to have a relationship with God is to read the Bible and pray and perhaps have a prayer list and go to church. Almost as though it's a checklist with boxes to check off. As an abuse survivor who is learning what the components of a healthy relationship looks like with other humans, I find that the same things apply to my relationship with God. If I find it hard to trust any human I also find myself struggling in my trust with God. When I experience comfort from God I find that I grow in my relationship with Him and so it is the same with people. There's a description of the differences between how God and Satan go about in their relationships ...
And I find it to be the same with people. If people treat me in the ways under Satan's column it will dry out my relationship with them fast but if they relate the way God is said do I find myself healing and blossoming as well as my relationship with those people. But so often people respond in the negative ways that kill relationships rather than cultivate growth. I want to be a person that exudes life and fosters growth. Perhaps those other people are not aware of their negative ways. Perhaps they don't realize that their way of rationing is squashing relationships or keeping themselves stagnant. Or perhaps they are too scared to be vulnerable. I don't know. That's only something that they have to learn to become aware of and work on. I might be able to point it out but unless they are willing to change it won't go anywhere. That's their choice. I'm learning to be aware and to make better choices. I'm learning and growing and I want others to grow too.
Maybe I'm boring you and necessarily I don't want to do that. These things are all things I'm learning and processing and observing and I'm sharing them because I hope they can help someone else to learn and grow too. Thank you for reading and please be kind and respectful if you choose to leave a comment...