Cults, Christianity, Toxic Beliefs and Health

by AJ cross posted from her blog I Am Phoenix

I recently separated from a religious cult that I grew up in. During the time I was questioning the beliefs of this cult, I realized that many of these beliefs unfortunately are also foundational beliefs in modern day evangelical Christianity as well. So I ended up leaving not only the cult, but Christianity also.

Growing up in immersed in these beliefs has actually negatively affected my health and emotional well being. I’m receiving beautiful healing in this area even now. And as part of my healing, I’ve decided to dissect the reasons why and how religion turned out to be harmful for me.

Can’t love yourself. Although most churches outwardly preach that it is good to love yourself, some fundamental churches warn that practicing self love is a dangerous road to go down. It is dangerous because it can lead to thinking too highly of yourself. For this reason, it is better to not focus too much on self love.

Some pastors preach that the Bible actually warns against self-love, quoting 2 Timothy 3: 1-2: “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy…”

Pastors teach that the proper way to view self love is to simply love yourself as Christ loves you. Christ tells us that we are nothing without him and his redemption.  Without him and his salvation plan, we are as filthy rags. If we loved ourselves for who we are outside of Christ, then we are nothing, quite un-loveable.

So the key here, dear readers, is to actively draw closer to God and experience him and his love more, so we don’t have to worry about loving ourselves apart from him.

Christian “self love” is not really you loving yourself.

Christian “self love” is really code for “you reflecting back God’s love for you, and not your love for yourself.”

You are allowed to have “self love” only as long as it is a reflection of God’s love for you, not your love for yourself.

This might sound like a beautiful concept. Except for one thing.

What happens when you go through the dark valleys in your Christian walk, as all Christians do? Those times when you don’t feel God’s love?

Well, you won’t be able to feel “self love” either.

This could cause some problems in your life, especially if you want to be able to enjoy feeling good about yourself on a regular basis.

It’s too bad that God and his love isn’t intrinsic and innate inside of us, always available and on  tap. Instead of being outside of us, elusive, and sporadic.

It is frustrating, being temporarily unable to connect to this source outside of you. You never know how long the dry stretch will last, where you feel out of communion. You have to actively commit to Bible reading, prayer, fellowship, worship, study, sin prevention and repentance. But even then, this doesn’t always guarantee that you will feel close to God again. Sometime he “hides his face” for “mysterious reasons” and you don’t know when you will be in communion again.

So, because a Christian won’t always be able to feel God’s love, he also won’t be able to always feel “self love.”

So there we have it. God’s love and “self love” is a sporadic feature of the Christian walk. It is usually attainable to the degree that you fight to stay in communion with God. But even then, you still might feel out of touch, so your perception of his love will be irregular and unpredictable.

And on those days when you aren’t able feel God’s love for you (Christian “self love”)… are you allowed to rely instead temporarily on your backup generator, a love of self that is “worldly” and arises only from yourself? Nope, that is taboo.

So, not only is the Christian walk slightly bare in the self love department, there is also another issue.

There is this dichotomy, where you are told to love yourself as God loves you, but you also know that

-You are a sinner at heart and will continue to sin, and
-God hates sin vehemently.

So the polarity here doesn’t make sense. God loves the sinner, but hates the sin.

But if I’m supposed to hate sin like God does, then at particular times along my Christian walk, I will be loathing my innate, sinful nature with fierce intensity. And yes, pastors tell you all the time you should loathe sin as much as God does. This is how pastors jolt people out of their sinful ways, by reminding them of how much God hates sin.

I don’t know. It is too far of a stretch for me. If I am to hate my innately sinful nature, but love myself as God loves me at the same time, I can’t do that.

Love doesn’t mean hating what is innate to you.

I can not love myself if there is an innate part of me that I hate.

I can not love myself if there is an innate part of me that God tells me to hate.

I don’t think anyone can love themselves as long as God is telling them they have to hate an innate part of themselves.

If you can’t love the innate parts of yourself, you can’t really love yourself. Am I the only one drunk in this room? Or am I the only one speaking a bit of sense here? Am I upsetting the Christian apple cart here?

I have felt this dichotomy for a long time, and that is why as a Christian I didn’t feel free to fully love myself. Being a Christian felt rather forlorn and love-less for me. I don’t know about other’s experiences, but at the barest of levels, this is how it was for me personally.

There is no ‘sin’ in me.

I love myself completely!

Can’t love others. When you don’t love yourself, you can’t love others. No matter how hard you try. This makes friendships and relationships tough.

I am free to love others!

Out of touch with yourself and cutoff from yourself.  You aren’t allowed to trust your heart, emotions, or intuition. These are grey areas that the devil resides in. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9)  As such, this cuts you off from yourself. This is draining and depressing, and actually alienates you from your Creator more than it puts you in harmony with him/her/the universe.

I trust myself now.

I am in tune with my intuition.

Feminine qualities deemed evil or lesser than. Not trusting your heart and intuition doesn’t bode well for the female Christian population, as females are well springs of emotion and natural experts in the heart and intuitive matters. This can lead to male suppression of these female tendencies, cutting females out of matters of decision making and leadership, and unequal rights for women. On the far end of the spectrum, it can sometimes lead to Biblical male superiority, patriarchy, and religious abuse.

I am female.

Hear me roar!

OK to judge and hate in God’s name. You believe in a right and wrong, and believe that it is OK to judge what God says is wrong. God gives you a right and wrong, and allows you to destroy, fight against, and judge what is evil. This attitude creates division, not peace. This creates boundaries instead of unity. This divides people by race, by religion, by moral standing. This attitude is what allowed the Crusades and Holy Wars to occur; Christians killed others in the name of God. This is what the white man did in the name of God to the Native Americans. This is the same attitude that encourages Christians to hate on Muslims, to hate on gays, to hate on prostitutes, to bomb abortion clinics.

To harm another is to harm yourself.

We are all one.

Depression and self hatred. You believe that at the core, you are just a sinner, saved by Grace. This promotes a “whoa is me” attitude, a false humility, a lowered sense of self,  a depressed nature, and a looser mentality. This might also lead to self hatred, even if it is only on a subconscious level. With an attitude like this, you attract and  often unknowingly create for yourself negative life situations that match the vibration of your attitude. I have sat in many church sermons where poverty and lack are extolled. I have lived over 30 years of my life in a depressed state, and didn’t know why. It’s when I let go of my Christian beliefs that the shroud lifted and I rose to my natural level of innate joy.

I deserve and attract good in my life.

I love myself!

Stuck in fight or flight mode. As a Christian, the need to continually examine yourself for any trace of sin could put a conscientious person in fight or flight. And what would this mean for a person who tended towards perfectionism? Well, as a highly conscientious person and a perfectionist, I went into fight or flight and lived in a state of fear for many decades in large part because I was very careful and hyper-vigilant in monitoring my checklist of sins committed, my list of  sins I had asked forgiveness for, the list of sins I was about to commit again, and my ever changing strategies to achieve and maintain remaining in sin prevention mode. Trust me, if I do sin prevention, awareness and repentance, I do it right. I was bound and determined to keep my heart and conscience clear, no matter what it took. Needless to say, with all this fear and worry, I went into fight or flight mode when I was 5, and my adrenals have not been happy campers for oh, quite some time. Until recently when I realized there is no judgment, no “sin” in me, and there never was.

I am safe now.

I can relax.

Separate from others, alone. As Christians, it is dangerous to associate with non-Believers as they may lead you into temptation, especially if you don’t feel strong in the faith, or strong on that particular day. Christians are led to a life of separation, and are encouraged to mingle with those in the same faith, except for the purpose of evangelising. When this belief becomes legalistic, which if often does out of fear and a need to protect oneself from sin at all costs, the Believer sees himself or herself as separate from others. Sometimes out of zealousness, a Christian will even start to restrict himself even from other non-Believers who aren’t strong in the faith. This belief in separation also sometimes leads to a tendency to not want to even help non-Christians when they are in need, as well as hating that non-Believer in the name of God when that person needs help.

We are all one.     <

When I help you, I help myself.     <

Argumentative. Christians feel that it is Godly to be obnoxious and argumentative for Christ, and that if an evangelizing attempt doesn’t stir up someone’s dander, then the witnessing isn’t up to par. Christians use verses like Matthew 10:34-36. “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.”

I love you as you are.

You are free to believe as you want.

Frustration and anger, feeling trapped. The knowledge that you are incapable of not sinning for the rest of your life, no matter how hard you try can be a recipe for frustration and anger. It was for me. Sinning wouldn’t be so awful if there wasn’t a threat of punishment after the sin, but as that threat was there and it would be for the rest of my life, no matter what, this honestly made me depressed. I also did hate myself deeply on a daily basis, and even considered it quite the Godly thing to do, in loathing my mortal body and it’s continual moral failings. Yes, I was very depressed, but didn’t even know it. How can you admit you are depressed as a Christian when there is no alternative to Christianity out there, no alternative that includes a sin-less state. You can’t question the only ‘right’ religion there is out there, unless of course you were brave enough to face God’s wrath.

My natural self is sinless.

I am free to love myself and my life!

Guilt and shame. These just come along with the Christian life, although they are more inherent in fundamental circles. The basic belief is that you are a sinner at your core, which God hates. So you have to work yourself up into a guilty lather, to loathe the sin so much that you are shamed into not doing it anymore. Sometimes pastors use love to motivate you to stop sinning, but more often than not, they use guilt and shame. And this guilt and shame is considered Godly and healthy. A necessary aspect of the Christian walk.

I don’t have to change myself.     <

I love myself as I am!

Fearful. When you believe that you are a sinner, you also believe that you truly don’t deserve good. You only get grace, which is undeserved merit.  You know that on some level, you deserve judgment for the sins you still will commit. Some Christians feel that blessings in their life are rewards due to perseverance in the faith, as well as keeping a lead foot on the brakes in the sin department. This belief makes life a chore, as you are afraid constantly of sinning because you fear punishment and a withholding of blessings. I was always on the lookout when something bad happened in my life, like a flat tire, a hairline fracture in my car windshield, or a headache. I always backtracked to see what sin I had forgotten to ask forgiveness for or was currently still committing. I would continually ask forgiveness so that I would have a clean slate free punishment and judgment. This constant need to look over the shoulder for sins on the horizon promotes fear. Fear is the underlying cause of most illness and disease.

No one’s out to get me.

I can relax.

Powerless. You can’t do anything to get out of the cycle of sinning. You also can’t trust your inner self, which makes you feel less in control. You have to consult a source outside of yourself, the Bible, a pastor, a Christian friend, a Christian friend, a Christian book, and sermon. You don’t have the authority or power to consult yourself, since your heart and emotions are not accurate compasses. The heart is deceitfully wicked, above all things.

Everything I need has always been inside of me.

Depressed. Once you invite God into your life, he is only there to the degree that you work hard enough to keep him there. Once God came in your life, if you didn’t try every day, every minute, he would leave like air escaping out of a balloon. Your life is a constant God leak, with the rate of air escaping to the degree you allowed yourself to sin, and to the degree you kept up with repentance. And since sinning was your normal, innate way of being, you could look forward to a lifetime of sinning, and a lifetime of hard, diligent work replenishing that God air that was always escaping. Talk about an exercise in futility.

Source, God, Love and the Universe is innate to you and always is you.

Exhausted. You can’t just coast along in the Christian life. It’s a fight, a constant battle against evil. You have to be active and alert, for the evil one prowls about, seeking whom he might devour. You have to actively read your Bible, pray, attend church, fellowship, keep sin out of your life, and ask repentance regularly for the sins you did commit. It’s like your faith is a balloon with a constant leak due to your sinful nature, but you have to keep on filling this leaking balloon with the air of your own actions to stay Godly. I don’t know about you, but constantly blowing up a leaky balloon for the rest of your life is exhausting.

I am perfect just as I am.

I can relax.

I do want to point out that there are so many lovely, beautiful people out there who are Christians, who don’t hate on others, and who don’t judge. I do hope that these wonderful people are not internally worn out and exhausted by their beliefs. I also want to point out that not all Christians have an analytical, perfectionist type personality, and as a result many of them probably don’t pay attention to or follow most of the subtle beliefs in their religion. Many of them also attend churches that don’t preach sin and condemnation as much as fundamental churches do. It is the more fundamental churches where these more toxic beliefs are prolific.

And it is the small religious pockets like cults where these beliefs can become not only toxic, but also secret and subtle.

According to the teachings of the cult I grew up in, the biggest transgression a female can commit is getting out from under the chain of command by leaving your father’s house without getting married to an approved man in the cult who would be in authority over you. I committed this major transgression by leaving my parent’s house as a single female and living on my own, unprotected and out from under authority in the world for a full decade, from age 24 to age 34. Yup.

The punishment for this major sin is God sending his demons to destroy your life, attacking my health, finances, career, relationships, and sanity. I am not kidding about this. It is called “getting out from under the umbrella of protection and authority” and it is pretty much what you do as a female only if you have a death wish. Or only if you clearly don’t believe in the cult anymore.

My problem was that although I physically escaped the cult by leaving home, I actually still believed the teachings in my head. Once I was out in the world, I was looking over my shoulder and worrying about my health and well-being constantly. I was alone with no family to have my back, and knew my health was everything.

I knew I would never force myself to go back under cult authority, and because I made this choice, I knew I would have to take punishment from God for the rest of my life. For years on end, I braced myself for punishment.

And when that punishment didn’t come, I repeatedly put myself into harmful situations and relationships again and again that affected my health, stressed me out, and wore me down.  I figured I may as well beat God to the punch and get the punishment going before he sent it, just to get it over with and out of the way.

The stress of living on edge like that affected my health. I was stuck in a fight or flight stage  and living in fear for decades on end. This meant that my body was constantly releasing massive amounts of cortisol, which deregulated my mineral levels, adrenal glands and endocrine system. Over time this led to me getting Myalgic Encephalitis, Fibromyalgia, Adrenal Burnout and Chronic Fatigue. Even though I’m genetically prone to these illnesses, they were unlocked by decades of stress.

Stress in general can lead to and exacerbate many health conditions. Stress is a killer, and it unlocks illnesses that would otherwise lie dormant and  not see the light of day if not activated.

Fear of God is not healthy, it is toxic and stressful!

I don’t believe the cult teachings anymore, I don’t believe in sin anymore, I don’t believe there is any punishment anymore, and I don’t believe I need to be guilty.

I didn’t do anything to deserve getting sick!

I deserve and accept complete health.

The Christian belief that you can love God but you can’t love yourself is toxic as well, especially if you feel like there is more sin in your life than God in your life. This can lead to Godly self hatred and a feeling of powerlessness to change. Self hatred and powerlessness are like a death toll for those already sick. If you feel like its not Godly to love yourself and you feel depressed, you probably don’t have much emotional energy to invest in looking for cures and treatments. I know that I didn’t when I first became ill and was still in the Christian fold.

Because I felt so sinful and guilty for the first several years I was sick, I wasn’t able to love myself. I didn’t think I was worth going to the doctor, and I didn’t think I worth the time and effort to try to get better. It is only when I dropped Christianity that my self-worth rose to its natural levels, and I started to want to seek treatment and health.

I am worth fighting for!

I am worth the effort of looking for treatments!

Also, many Christians feel that physical suffering through illness is Godly, and that it gives God glory. Therefore, to try to improve in health is against the will of God. Many of my close, Christian confidantes tried to tell me that the reason I got ill was so I could shine God’s glory in the middle of pain, and therefore could be a sterling testimony to the unsaved, perhaps nudging them towards the faith and salvation.

I made less and less efforts to try to get better the first several years I was ill because I wanted to glorify God. I didn’t want to erase a perfectly good trial that I could shine in, in order to bring other people to Christ. It’s like I was afraid to get better because I didn’t want to shirk my duty of maintaining the illness that could bring a lot of positive attention to God.

God doesn’t want people to get and stay sick in order to honor his name!

Many of my Christian mentors in the last few years have also expressed a concern that the illness I was going through was a result of secret sin in my life. In other words, God was judging me. One of my friends regularly prayed that I would discover my hidden sin so I could repent of it and get healed. A pastor told me that for the complex and exhaustive list of symptoms and conditions I had, I must have sinned far more than one person could possibly sin in one lifetime.

There is no sin or judgment except what we make for ourselves.

Still another well meaning Christian mentor told me that  I wasn’t healed because I didn’t know enough about the nature of God, but that I could attain this knowledge through  rigorous Bible study. I was being punished with illness because I didn’t know enough about God. I tried her method of intensive Bible study for over a year, but it didn’t work. Mostly, it made me feel insulted, so I stopped trying.

Sin and punishment is an illusion.

It is we who punish ourselves.

Yet another ministry told me I needed to have the demons and evil spirits exorcised out of me. So I went this route, and got ‘them’ exorcised. It was one of the lowest times in my life, and the illness reached it’s lowest stage at this point in time. I felt powerless, dependent on the confidence and abilities of the exorcist, scared of the evil spirits, fearful that he had missed a spirit or two, afraid he hadn’t gotten all of them out, afraid that I was too willful and evil on the inside to relinquish all the spirits, afraid that I hadn’t been sincere enough during the exorcism events which lasted weeks into months. I was afraid that the spirits would come back since I wasn’t able to live a sin-free life. I felt trapped and wretched. During the year or so I worked with this ministry, my health took  nose dive and was the lowest it ever was.

What you believe, you see and experience.

Still yet another ministry told me that I wasn’t being healed because I hadn’t forgiven my father for abusing me as a child. I was instructed to pray, ask forgiveness, and send cards to my dad. Which I did. As my health didn’t improve over time, the pastor shifted blame towards me for not trying hard enough. This pastor wasn’t gifted with compassion, and he didn’t mention that he felt bad for me. But I was told that I wasn’t right, and that the nature of my problem was and always had been me. That a good Christian wouldn’t have been affected by the abuse. That I was to blame for letting it get to me. That I was more at fault than my father.

When I shared that it made me literally sick to get in a car and visit my father, the pastor chided me that I was holding on to unforgiveness. He said that a victorious Christian could stand in the presence of their abuser with no problem, and that if I wasn’t there yet, then I was still sinning and holding on to unforgiveness. So, for a year more I  tried to force myself to ignore the panic attacks, nausea and weakness that popped up every time I attempted a visit. Until eventually I got so sick that I wasn’t able to even leave my house for a year and a half, and I laid on a couch or bed, too ill to move.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean putting yourself in an abuser’s presence so he can abuse you more.

Forgiveness means loving yourself and the abuser to the point that you won’t give that person an     opportunity to hurt you more.

I spent the first several years of the illness contemplating religion and spirituality. Eventually, I let myself became honest enough to admit  that I was exhausted with the negativity I felt listening to these Christian pastors and friends. The hell that Christians are afraid of, the simple burning of the flesh began to sound tame to me after experiencing the various physical and psychological sides of the illness, as well as the cruelty, shunning, and mental torment from being turned down by churches, ministries, family and friends when I asked for for help. I was living hell on earth, and the Biblical hell suddenly dimmed in comparison. I lost my fear of that hell. Without fear of hell, I didn’t fear punishment. Without punishment, sin has no meaning.

So I started questioning the Christian faith, and after a year or so of questioning, I decided that my old beliefs didn’t serve me anymore. So I let them go.

And when I did, I was flooded with relief and joy at finally being awake and free. And most every day since then, I get random these random moments during the day when I remember how free I am, and again I am just flooded with joy.

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AJ was raised in a spiritually abusive cult based on the teachings of ATI’s Bill Gothard. She has five siblings. After enough time AJ developed Chronic Fatigue, Adrenal Burnout and PTSD from the stress of her childhood. Her parents refused to help her in her ongoing health battle. She is married to a man that has recently emerged from spiritually abusive religion and together they are healing and moving towards daily joy! She blogs at I Am Phoenix

The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network

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Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

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