When Abuse Leads to Cynicism

When Abuse Leads to Cynicism March 24, 2015

Watchtheshepherdby Virginia Knowles cross posted from her blog Watch The Shepherd

Do you know anyone whose faith has been turned upside down into cynicism because of hypocrisy or abuse within a church or a family?

I do. I’ve lost count of those I know personally, and I have read about far more who have walked away from the Christian faith or at least wandered to the outer fringe of fellowship

I have been researching abuse and authority issues in families, churches, and religious movements for over seven years.

In the process, I realized that an organization of churches (of which I was a longtime member) had some really grievous problems that were adversely affecting my family and many others. Toward the end of our time there, I felt like I was shriveling up spiritually. And mine was a mild case!

Since then, I’ve read books and blogs about various kinds of abuse, I’ve conversed with countless people who have been afflicted, and I’ve thought back on some of my own troubling experiences.

What have I seen?

  • Legalism in its many forms
  • Controlling and even cult-like behavior
  • Arrogance, greed, and a lust for power
  • Leaders who failed to take appropriate precautions to protect vulnerable people in their care, then failed to properly handle abusive situations after they happened
  • Leaders who actively covered up evidence to protect abusers rather than victims
  • Leaders who were the actual perpetrators of child molestation, adult sexual abuse, violence in the home, embezzlement, and every other manner of aberrant behavior.

Frankly, I am angry at these failures. If you haven’t given much thought to this issue, please don’t look away. Pause and let it sink in. (If you don’t know what “it” is, do your research. You can start with the links at the bottom of this page.)

So I am angry at the hypocrisy and abuse. But I am also angry at the aftermath.

As I have listened (or read) when abuse survivors have shared their stories, I find that so many are hurting beyond belief. And sometimes it really is, because so many of them have either walked away from faith or are at least questioning everything they once held dear. Their faith has been turned upside down.

Then what happens? If they dare to share their doubts, are they met with compassion and genuine understanding? Sometimes. I’m glad when I hear that. Too often, however, they are instead met with sanctimonious condescension and contempt.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment, will you?

Let’s imagine that you have been, by all accounts, a devout Christian for years. You’ve read your Bible, shared the gospel, given tens of thousands of dollars, listened to hundreds of sermons and taken notes, sung all the songs, attended the conferences. You wrapped your entire life around expressing your Christian faith. You were on fire for Jesus. Until you got burned.

Then one day you woke up and realized you had been deceived, manipulated, cheated, belittled, threatened, slandered, battered or molested by someone you trusted most – a pastor, Bible study leader, parent, spouse, or best friend. Maybe they used shame, intimidation or violence to control and silence you. Maybe they appealed to their authority position or twisted the Scriptures to justify their behavior and to coerce you to comply.

And then it was suddenly all your fault because you had the audacity to object or even just to ask questions. After all, you obviously must have a problem with God if you can’t quietly and cheerfully obey those he “placed in authority” over you, right?  You hear accusations that you are: Bitter. Rebellious. Divisive. A slanderer. Ignorant of Scripture. Faithless. Selfish. Too sensitive. Proud. Resisting accountability. Playing the martyr. A backslider, or never a Christian in the first place. A heretic. An infidel.

Here’s a gem I’ve seen so many times, especially in blog comment threads: “Hey, if you don’t like what I said here, that’s your problem. The Bible clearly says “________”, and if you disagree, you’re arguing with God, not me.”

Can you imagine it? Let it sink in again. Put yourself in their shoes again.

Think how confused you are. Certain religious words and phrases which used to be the hallmarks of your faith now trigger anxiety and depression. You are bruised, angry, cynical, devastated. The foundation of your spiritual life has been shaken. Weren’t these people supposed to be the voice and hands of God in your life?

Your trust has been shattered.

Where can you turn? To those who have been your community of faith, perhaps your whole spiritual support system and social world? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s a risk. If you are lucky, you will be heard and loved into wholeness again. If not, you might face further mistreatment, including those accusations I mentioned earlier. Not everyone truly understands the dynamics and destruction of abuse.

To you, your old friends and spiritual comrades are now untrustworthy, hypocritical, gullible fools still following charlatans. Nope, not going there anymore.

There are plenty of other places to turn for comfort and camaraderie. And you think, “I wasn’t planning to ditch the Christian faith entirely, but if no one can handle my questions and my grievances… Sure, I’ve got a problem with God. In fact, I’m done. Done.”

What do you think of this imaginative exercise? For some of you, it was more reality than imagination. Can I be honest? It’s a little too close for comfort for me. I’ve been the legalist, the groupie, the harsh parent, the manipulator, the hypocritical critic, the naive church member, the financial enabler, the quoter of pious crap, the victim/survivor, and the cynic. It’s getting a little hot in here, but I’ve got to own that! And wow, this post is getting so much longer than I intended. Bear with me a few more paragraphs? OK, several more?

I am fortunate that I was able to find a healthier church, and that I was also able to make peace and continue warm relationships with friends and pastors from the church we left behind. However, certain aspects of the Christian experience can still be a struggle for me.

For a survivor of spiritual, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, it is sometimes so difficult to continue in faith as we had known it. It can be such a challenge to trust God or Christians, pray, read the Bible, sit in church, listen to Christian radio, or function in healthy relationships with family and friends.

People who react negatively to abuse in spiritual settings do not need pious platitudes, pointed criticism, or pitiful condescension.
They need to see Christians:

  • extend grace, mercy, compassion
  • listen long and well without deflection or excuse
  • take them seriously when they tell their stories and share their doubts
  • educate themselves about sexual abuse, domestic violence, and cultish practices
  • protect the vulnerable by putting precautions into place
  • embrace the broken, and help them pick up the pieces
  • pursue justice and healing for the abused
  • provide moderated support groups and on-line forums for abuse survivors
  • stop demonizing mental illness and start encouraging professional therapy
  • stop blaming victims for their own abuse
  • stop perpetuating power structures that keep others in bondage
  • humble themselves in true repentance
  • take responsibility for their failures and make restitution for damage
  • hold abusers accountable and make them step down from any positions of supposed authority.

They need to see Christians be more like Jesus.

How about it? When they look at us, what are they going to see?

I know I’ve got a long way to go.


Read everything by Virginia Knowles at No Longer Quivering!

Virginia Knowles blogs about spiritual abuse and recovery at Watch The Shepherd, observations about daily life at Virginia Knowles, and motherhood at Come Weary Moms.


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