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How do I Support Someone Who is Hurting From Religious Abuse?

Whether we are aware of it or not, we all more than likely know someone who has or is experiencing religious harm on one level or another. It could be a close friend, a coworker, or your daily barista. Regardless of who, you probably don't know because this topic is typically kept quiet and under the radar. Why? Because of the shame and hurt that are associated with this type of abuse.

While there has been progress in bringing awareness to this topic, the awareness isn’t as loud as the problem yet. People are still keeping a lot of their hurt quiet and don’t know how to share. Oftentimes this relates to the confusion individuals feel about their experiences (gaslighting, anyone?)–they aren’t even sure what to make of it themselves and this discourages them from talking about it.

However, if you know someone hurting in this way, how do you support and love them well? And how do you do this without getting burned out?

One of beEmboldened’s board members, Teasi Cannon, helps us navigate these tricky waters. Teasi not only has an M.A. in Pastoral Counseling, but she is also a survivor of multiple forms of abuse. In addition to her faith and passion for helping others heal, Teasi is the perfect individual to speak into these matters.

How to Support Someone who is Hurting from Religious Abuse, According to Teasi Cannon:

You may watch Teasi’s entire presentation on YouTube here.

Teasi: Religious abuse is a tragedy, and it seems like stories involving abuses of pastors or Christian organizations are coming our way more and more frequently these days. It’s important for us to be educated and equipped. Not only so that we can identify religious abuse, but so that we can best help the hurting who might come into our lives.

Religious abuse involves the religious authorities using their position to dominate or control another person in the name of God, exploiting the victim’s vulnerabilities in order to gratify his or her own needs, such as the need for power or identity. Religious abuse can come in many forms, from the egregious demands of a controlling and perverse cult to the systematic and perpetual covering up of bullying and abuses of power in a local church.

Add to this that every heart is different, and you can start to understand the complexity of endeavoring to help the hurting. When we sit with a hurting person, we are sitting with a mind, body, and spirit who has experienced a unique life in a broken world.

Realities of Religious Abuse

Consider these realities as we consider how to help people who have experienced religious abuse:

  • Survivors have been wounded in varying degrees at the hands of an imposter or counterfeit spiritual authority

  • Their fear and confusion are real, but the object of the fear and confusion is a religious counterfeit

  • Their fear might be all they’ve ever known

  • They have not been cared for biblically by Christlike leaders

  • The Bible has likely been weaponized against them

  • The wounded may have never gotten the chance to know the true love and grace of Jesus

Helping hurting people who have come out of religious abuse is likely going to take multiple stages and many players:

  • First line of care: Usually a kind-hearted family member, friend, or layperson

    • A loving person who can help acknowledge their trauma, and can encourage them to get additional support

  • Trained professionals: Therapists, counselors, pastors

    • Wise and spiritual professionals who are able to give life-saving truth and insight

  • The Great Physician: The real Jesus, the true Savior and Healer

    • He alone can redeem all that has been lost, understand their pain, and is their ultimate remedy

Guiding Principles to Support Someone

What is a layperson's role? None of us is the Great Physician. None of us can heal the wounded because we are not Jesus. Few of us are trained professionals who are equipped to deal with complex trauma or have Biblical degrees or in-depth training. Most of us are the caring layperson, family member, or friend.

For the majority of us, below are some guiding principles to utilize.

  1. We need to remember that we cannot help broken people with our own strength. We need God's Spirit. The work of healing the wounded, resurrecting dead things, and redeeming broken places is God's work and His alone. But we get the awesome privilege of coming alongside God by working with His Spirit and for His glory.

  2. We need to know, trust, and love the Great Physician. After all, why would anyone we are helping want to have anything to do with Him if we ourselves don't know His love and trust Him? This means that we're going to need to practice a lifestyle that continually seeks Jesus, surrendering to His will and depending on His Spirit along the way.

  3. We must be very wary of our own emotional needs. We must go to the Father to get our needs met so that we aren't tempted to get some of our own emotional needs for affirmation, purpose, or significance met in this broken person (especially since this could further wound them). It’s an old and familiar expression, but we are going to need to have our own oxygen mask on first before we try to help others.

Three Simple Ways to Help

You don’t have to have a special education or any great experiences to do these things, but you will definitely be learning a lot along the way, so remain humble as you seek to do the following:

  1. Sit with them

  2. Listen to them

  3. Care for them

Please note that these are general guidelines and are by no means exhaustive. Every story is unique and will have multiple nuances of its own, so there isn't really a one-size-fits-all set of directions for helping someone who has come out of a spiritually abusive situation.

1) How do I sit with the hurting?

We sit with the hurting by getting low–we must walk in humility. You must acknowledge and accept your role, abilities, and limitations.

We must accept that our role is not going to involve making people feel better. Sometimes that's hard for those of us who want to help things, solve problems, and to see people feeling joy. But we want to be very careful not to oversimplify their reality by saying things like, “It's all going to be okay” and “God’s got a great plan for this. He's going to work it all out.”

Why do we want to avoid that? Well, because we don't know–we're not omniscient. We don't have all the answers, we won't have all the answers, and that's okay. But we want to make sure that we don't act as if we do or even think we do.

We should never act as if we're a trained counselor or therapist when we aren't. Just like we would never want to pretend we were a medic at the scene of an accident if we don't actually have that training.

We also need to be prepared for it to get messy because pain is messy and suffering isn’t polite. Bloody sheep don’t bleed pretty, and pain doesn’t follow a particular schedule.

Another thing to be prepared for is to be prepared to stay put. Remember, healing takes time. We also want to maintain good, healthy boundaries to make sure that we are investing in our own physical health, our family, and our lives. But when we involve ourselves in the story and journey of someone who is wounded, we want to stay flexible because there's just no way to predict how long this journey is going to take. We will need to be prepared to get comfortable sitting with them, and to remember that us sitting there with them is not about us, our comfort, our schedule, or our convenience.

2) How do I listen to the hurting?

The purpose of listening is about seeking to understand them, and remembering it’s not about you. When you listen, resist the urge to assess prematurely. You listening is not a time to process your own feelings and issues, but solely for them to do so. If you need to process your feelings or issues, remember to take those to your own trusted layperson. Being a layperson to someone who is hurting can be heavy on your own heart, so it is important to unpack those feelings with someone other than the person you are supporting.

It is also important to continue in our own studying of spiritual abuse, toxic systems, and even narcissistic personality disorder, so that we can better understand what's being shared with us.

As we listen to the hurting, we're going to want to ask Spirit-led questions, while resisting the urge to give a bunch of answers. Remember the situation with Job's friends? His three friends actually did some really great things like spending time sitting with him in his suffering. But eventually, they started giving these long speeches that included many inaccuracies about why God allows suffering. They even began to blame Job and demand that he repent.

But we see God did not approve of that. In Job 42:7, God says to Eliphaz (one of Job’s friends) “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” We definitely want to avoid being like that as we listen to the hurting.

3) How do I care for the hurting?

We must have compassion.

The Latin root of compassion is pati, which means "suffering". The prefix is com means "with".

Quite literally, having compassion means to "suffer with". When we care for the hurting, we must be willing to suffer with them.

When we care for the hurting, we will want to do what we can to help them define and sort through their experiences and feelings.

Many people who come out of a church community or organization that they love have a very hard time even using the word abuse. They might feel very guilty for using that word, or maybe think they're over-exaggerating. They’re very hesitant to even go there in their minds because of the toxic culture that they've come out of. They have potentially been gaslighted for years and brainwashed. Hurting people tend to minimize what they've been through and they are very apt to take the blame for all that they've gone through.

We don't want to let them do that. In many situations they've been blamed for years for the sins of an abusive leader or authority. Abusers are masters at manipulating the narrative once someone is gone. More specifically, they are masterful at positioning themselves as the victim and the misunderstood one. So we want to do as much as we can to help someone not own someone else's sin and abuse, and we want to help them put that responsibility on the proper person.

Victims of abuse often have gotten into the pattern of hiding their feelings because they feel ashamed of them. Many times when they've tried to express what they feel, the abuse or the shaming that they've experienced is multiplied when they try to be honest. We want to let them know that we are a safe place for them to express whatever they're feeling.

A big part of caring for the hurting is modeling truth. We can always model truth, but need to be Spirit-led on speaking truth, when the time is right.

Dr. Diane Langberg describes this wonderfully in her book, Suffering and the Heart of God:

“You and I become the representative of God to the survivor. Our work is to teach in the seen that which is true and the unseen. Our words, tone of voice, action, body movements, responses to rage, and failure all become ways the survivor learns about God. I believe the reputation of God himself is at stake in our lives. We are called to represent him well.” - Dr. Diane Langberg

We are made to be image bearers, and while there is only one perfect human image bearer, He’s our leader. We are trusting that His Spirit is conforming us into His Image more and more. Reflecting God's nature shows us the importance of continually being in His Word. We cannot reflect an image that we are not facing, and we cannot model truth that we don't know.

Many survivors of religious abuse believe lies about God. This is sometimes due to what was modeled to them by authoritarian abusive leaders, but also from false doctrine that they have been taught. They often believe God is angry with them, just waiting for them to sin. Or that he's distant and uncaring.

All of these lies about God need to be replaced, along with lies hurting people believe about themselves. They will often be carrying a lot of guilt and shame, and it's important for us to recognize the lies so we can speak truth to them.

Most of these lies will center around the character of God or their identity in Christ, so it is important for us to know what the truth is about God's character and what our identity in Christ is.

Finally, We Take Comfort in Being Co-Laborers with Christ

These simple guidelines are simple, but they're not always easy–there is work involved.

But if we remember that we are co-laboring with Christ–and that by entering into the world of someone's suffering we are actually fellowshipping with Christ's sufferings (because He put on Himself every possible suffering that anyone in the world would ever endure)–this awareness will not only keep us dependent on Him, but it will bring a beautiful significance to this hard work and remind us of that as we go along, we're not alone.

Teasi Cannon’s complete discussion (including a time of Q&A and an extended conversation on spiritual healing) can be viewed here.

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