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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