The Space to Heal

I recently read a Tweet by Hana Wu where she said, "A way to reframe and reflect when you're feeling stuck 💗" as a caption to the following quote, attributed to vlonelylulu on Twitter: "Someone told me 'whenever your life is feeling stagnant or as if nothing is happening, that means you're being given the time & space to heal & release the baggage that you cannot carry to where you're meant to go soon.'"

This sentiment has been dwelling in my mind since I read it for the simple reason that I have been feeling stuck lately. There are a lot of ways I want my life to change, but this quote has gotten me thinking...what baggage do I need to release, what healing do I need?

As I pondered this, something fascinating happened: I began to synthesize things I'd previously processed individually, seeing how they fit together. Put another way, the process of healing feels like a spiral, where I come back to the same ground over and over, but each time is a bit deeper, where I uncover another layer, and sometimes these layers also show connections between things more clearly. In particular, as I come back to a topic, I can begin to see how it connects to things I processed after I first began processing it.

On May 30, 2022 I published an article titled Opening the Doors to Authenticity where I wrote about a number of things that I've since gone on to dig into more deeply. In that article, I talked about my struggles with work and manhood, things I'd later go on to explore further in Seeking Tension's Source and Wrestling With Manhood. However, there was something else in that article that I touched on, and it's now time to begin digging into that. That something else is spiritual trauma.

The Spiritual Abuse

In the summer of 2006 my family moved from a small town in Indiana to the greater Seattle area. This was prompted by my acceptance into college—I've always been a homebody, and, as I like to put it, this gave my parents the excuse they needed to finally move west (Indiana is quite flat, and my dad loves mountains). The year before, I'd gone to a summer workshop for high schoolers put on by the college I later went to, and during that time, my family went to a church near the hotel where we were staying. It left a positive impression on us, so we decided to continue going to that church after our move.

We were initially quite impressed with the pastor and his dedication to preaching through the Bible. We learned a lot from this, and from various small groups we were a part of. At first, everything was in a positive place and going well. For me, that changed once I graduated from college. That's when this pastor began to get on my case about needing to find sufficiently gainful employment. I didn't know it then, but I can now recognize that that was when the spiritual abuse began.

My dad and I are both loyal people. He has a very strong sense of duty, and I inherited something similar (it's why I want to be careful to not promise to deliver more than I'm actually capable of). This nature of ours kept us at this church for a long time: we both ultimately left in 2018, after 12 years. At the time, I was in charge of running tech for the Sunday services and my dad was serving as worship leader (a.k.a. the one on the stage singing and playing music). We both did our best to hand these off to others (for example, I wrote up an extensive manual detailing how to do all of the tech stuff), but by that point, the church had shrunk considerably.

I hesitate to write about this former pastor in detail, but I think it's necessary to share some things for a sense of context. This pastor was very serious about his shepherding role, but in the kind of way where he was overly controlling. He was also a gossip; not in the sort of way where one shares confidential information, but in the way where he shared things that were personal even if not strictly private or secret. He was also arrogant in the sort of subtle way where he thought he knew what was best for everyone. He would wield his gossiping and/or the Scriptures as tools to try to force people onto the path he thought was best for them. He saw himself as humbly submitting as he tried to control others.

I could not see these things for a long time, not until closer to when we left, though my mom, who refuses to be controlled, at least intuited aspects of this not long after my graduation (I'm reasoning this out based on memories of specific details, as I can't remember the exact timing).

My mom was not at all a regular attender of the church by the time my dad and I decided to leave in late 2017. This pastor tried to fight our decision to leave every step of the way. I won't go into too many details here, but both my dad and I believed God told us it was time to leave (in different ways), and this pastor rejected this. I'm not sure who could have held him accountable, quite frankly.

My dad recently sent me an article in USA Today about spiritual narcissists, and we both agree that what is described there reminds us of this former pastor. We're both still processing it, in our own ways. When we had some friends we made at that church over late last year (for the first time since before COVID lockdowns), we still talked about our time at that church.

So that's the story of the abuse, in broad terms. I'm glad to have written about it so bluntly; I feel that helps me see it more clearly. I have forgiven this pastor, but that doesn't erase the resulting trauma or its consequences.

The Trauma & Its Effects

The wounds inflicted by this trauma have been subtle; small fractures that have grown into wide, gaping issues that affect me in serious ways. I've begun the process of identifying these, and while I don't know that this trauma is 100% to blame for any of these issues, I'm certain it is a comorbidity, to somewhat misapply that word. I wouldn't be surprised if I continue to identify wounds that can trace back to this spiritual abuse, too.

As I try to figure out how to talk about this, I'm finding that these wounds tend to fall into two big categories. At least, that's what I've identified thus far. These categories are impacts on relationships, particularly with regards to trust, and my relationship with work and productivity. There is also overlap between these two, which I'll touch on.

The more I think about it, the more clear it becomes to me that my ability to trust myself to others has been fundamentally damaged; this includes entrusting myself to God, which is damaging to my faith. Christian circles often talk about mentorship, but I want no mentor. I am unwilling to have anyone in a position of actual authority over me spiritually. The idea of "Christian accountability" sounds toxic to me. I suppose some amount of this is framing. In fact, I think a lot of it is.

I can't help but think of an incident, the one that was so blatant that it awakened me to this pastor's manipulations. This pastor felt that I wasn't a brave enough driver (the best way to summarize things) and told me that he thought I needed to just go out there and get lost or something. So when I did take a wrong turn when taking my sister back to her dorm from an event and "got lost," I told him about it. He saw my excitement over telling him something that I thought would please him and interpreted it as confirmation that he was right.

Even writing about it now riles me up, and this was a long time ago. The thing is, how many times had he done that exact kind of thing, only it was in a way I didn't notice? This is what he was like: he had a vision of who he thought you should be in his head, and he'd try his darnedest to get you to match that vision, the truth of who you are be damned. That language feels rather harsh, but it's the emotion of it, you know? Because he did make you feel damned for not living according to his vision, like if you weren't who he thought you should be that you weren't right with God.

It's hard for me to know how much harm this has done to me. It has definitely led to "Christian accountability" being a bad phrase to me (as I mentioned), since it sounds like, "let me tell you who I think you should be." The only one who gets that privilege is God, and even there, I can struggle, for fear of getting hurt. And that's the other big thing: the damage to my ability to entrust myself to others. If I reveal aspects of myself, how might the other twist that to their own vision and use it against me? I was harmed by being vulnerable to this pastor, which makes me hesitant to be vulnerable and open to those around me. Interestingly, this doesn't apply to strangers on the Internet.

I honestly feel at times like a little kid, just wanting to feel accepted and loved for who he is—for wanting to feel wanted as he is. I know that God does want me, but knowing and remembering are two different things, as are knowing and feeling. In recent days, I've been meditating on that knowledge, sitting with it as my focus, and that does help.

This brings me to how my understanding of work was impacted. I won't belabor my work history, such as it is; the relevant fact is I didn't (and haven't) ever made enough money to support myself and have thus been financially dependent on my parents. This did not adhere to this pastor's vision for me, and he was constantly on my case about it, including drawing on Scripture (sometimes in nonsensical ways) to try and make his case. I wrote about this in more detail in this article I linked in the introduction.

The consequences of this have been manifold, an outpouring of many waters of which this is the spring. I will name the two great forks of this metaphorical river Only Money Counts and Acceptance Is Based On Wealth. Each of these have their own forks, splitting into various smaller branches.

The Only Money Counts river makes me feel like nothing I do really matters unless it makes me money. It causes me to discount everything else: no benefit I could provide to others really counts for anything unless it made me money, but also, only gifts of money count as generosity. I can recognize how warped this is, but it's very hard to shake. As a positive note, working on this article has forced me to confront these things directly, and God has used that as a launching point for teaching me a more sensible perspective.

The other, Acceptance Is Based On Wealth, has also been damaging. It basically says that you have to have a sufficient amount of either personal wealth or income to be able to be accepted. It's a very worldly value in many regards; at the very least, it isn't a Christian one. It fundamentally makes me feel like I can't be wanted, and thus loved, unless I have a certain amount of money; or perhaps that people will want me in proportion to my money. That combines with the message that women only are attracted to wealthy men (a blatant falsehood, but a commonly spouted one) for a double-whammy. This has impacted my ability to feel loved by anyone, especially God, but thankfully, once again, confronting this thinking head-on, which was instigated by writing about it, has helped, and God has used it to bring me healing (not that the healing is yet completed).

A side effect of the above is that it causes me to hear any talk about me finding other work as a form of rejection. That may not be what the speaker intends, but that's how my trauma causes it to be interpreted. Like, I do want to be financially independent of my parents, but someone telling me I ought to be makes me feel like they won't accept me as a person until I am and like their love is conditional based on my personal wealth or income.

Healing Through Writing

Frankly, finishing this article has been tough, but for a strange reason: organizing my thoughts through writing the bulk of this has put things into perspective in a powerful way, and God has used that to bring a great deal of healing, which is beginning to make things past-tense. Naming things is powerful, because it gives them shape and form and empowers us to grapple with them. That has definitely been the case for me here.

As I worked through how to share about the trauma I've been through, I necessarily had to organize my thoughts well enough to put them into words, and doing that has been immensely helpful in the healing process. It has helped me understand why I feel certain ways, and that has opened the door for change, and that change is healing.

I think the most significant thing I've been working through as part of this is around the idea of love. We can mean many different things by that word, but I've come to understand it, very loosely, as "I find value in this." That value could be (and often is) emotional or relational. For me, I feel loved by feeling valued, and feeling valued comes from feeling wanted.

Most significantly, God has spoken into this new understanding, teaching me just how very much He wants me. One of the big things I struggle with, and I think the trauma I faced contributes to this a great deal, is not feeling like my full, authentic self is desirable, and because the trauma I faced was spiritual in nature, this has made me feel undesirable to God; or, more accurately, fearful that God doesn't actually want me, but wants to turn me into a hollowed-out minion like a Cyberman from Doctor Who. While I know that's not true (the truth is more like the character refinement found in The Lord of the Rings), it has required dealing with the emotional angle of it to actually find healing. That's finally started happening, and the barriers that have blocked me from feeling wanted are coming down.

At the start of this piece, I wrote about reflecting on a quote that if you feel stuck in life, it means you're being given space to heal and release baggage that you need to leave behind for what comes next, and I do think that's happening here. I'm grateful for that, and I look forward to what God will bring, even as I'm learning to be secure and confident in Him and who He has made me to be.

Thank you for reading.

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