[Trigger Warning: This article contains references to child sexual abuse, religious abuse, church discipline, and bad treatment of members of the LGBTQ community which may trigger some readers].
She revealed to her Associate Pastor’s wife she was gay and hoped to find a female life partner. Within days, she was called before a meeting of the Elders. They demanded she repent from her wickedness.
She reminded them that she had just identified/admitted to herself that she was only attracted to women. She had not had sex and had not even kissed a girl.
Yet she was told it was time to repent or face church discipline. She told them she could not in good conscience pretend to be heterosexual. Days later, they informed her that the following would happen:
- She was suspended from membership pending a time when she would publicly repent.
- The Elders would read the notice of her suspension from the pulpit.
- All members of the congregation–including her family members–would be told if they saw her or spoke to her they could only bring up the issue of her sin. They could not be friends with her or talk casually with her.
- If she repented, she would never be allowed to do children’s or teen ministry. This was to prevent her from influencing young children toward lesbianism in the future.
She got angry at the church, God, and her family–who indeed shunned her–and vowed to never go to a church again. That was seven years ago. She has kept part of her bargain. She does not go to any church. She only speaks to her older brother, the only non-Christian in her family.
But after several years of getting angry at God she has changed her mind. She has read several books on alternative understandings of LGBTQ theology. She has talked to many believers who do not feel the same way as her church about these issues, regardless of whether they are Affirming. She now believes God probably doesn’t endorse the way she has been treated.
But after being away from God for seven years, she doesn’t know how to re-establish connection and a relationship with God.
She struggles because she has jettisoned a literal reading of the Bible, a Christian code of ethics and sexuality, evangelical political and cultural norms, and most of her parents’ beliefs on heaven, hell, and authority.
But she still believes in a Creator-God and she still believes Jesus is the savior.
She is one of many who have asked how they can reconnect with God after throwing out evangelicalism and organized church. This is not an easy thing to do, as everyone who has tried it can testify.
Some people walk away from the church because they were abused by a pastor or church leader.
Some run away because when that leader was confronted, the church rallied around the leader and laid more grief on the victim.
Others saw hypocrisy, hatred, alt-right political positions, spousal violence, xenophobia, gun violence, and Complementarianism either taught outright or winked at.
There are also conscientious theologians in churches who see the circular logic of Inerrancy, or who cannot stomach the disconnect between Science and the Bible as their church taught it, or see a permanent distance between a God of love and the God of Eternal Conscious Torment.
People leave church–and people leave Christianity.
The author Anne Rice, a Catholic, wrote this several years ago:
“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”
For whatever reason people leave the Church and/or Christianity, there are some who do not leave God. But because they learned God from Christianity, it is hard to separate God out enough from his proponents to form a meaningful relationship. Some do not.
Some cannot bring themselves to believe in God because their entire church anguish is irrevocably tied up with God.
To help understand that, listen to one victim of child sexual abuse. Though this is not about God, it draws a parallel emotional picture with someone struggling with abuse in church, and whether to believe in God:
“I was dragged weekly down to the basement of our house where I was molested, beaten, and even raped. I have done a lot of work to not hate my Dad. I have done even more work to be able to finally function as a healthy adult. But damn it, don’t tell me I have to have anything to do with my mother who let the whole thing happen.”
For many, God is that parent who let the whole thing happen.
This article is not telling anyone they have to have a relationship with God. But if, after all the struggles, you still believe in God and want to re-connect somehow, what can you do?
This is not a definitive list. But it probably will help get the reader unstuck.
1. Get it all out.
You can’t reconnect with God if you keep pretending you are not angry with God. Spend some time, maybe a lot of time, telling God how you feel. Anger is only part of it. Add your disappointments, your fears, your confusion, your sense of injustice. Perhaps write it down or put it on a recording of some kind. There are some who have used art, poetry, and podcasts to empty out the feelings.
Like Forrest Gump who, after his grief, ran and ran until he was tired, keep getting it all out until you’re tired of doing that. Then you know it is done. It doesn’t matter how long this part takes. Do whatever you want with all of it: Collect it, distribute it, burn it, read it over–it doesn’t matter. It’s yours.
2. Tell someone else as much of your story, or as little as you like.
If you do this step, make sure the person you first tell is as safe as you can find, and that they know ahead of time what is expected. You don’t want them to fix you, agree with you, disagree with you, defend God, attack God, or any other reaction of that type. You want them only to understand what you’re saying. When you do this, find another person with whom to do it again. Then again. And again. Some become writers to do this.
Last year, Jennifer Fox wrote a mini-series called “The Tale” which stars Laura Dern, and has been hailed as a masterpiece of television. It is a story of how when Fox was 13, her equestrian coach and the coach’s boyfriend embroiled her in a bizarre sexual assault.
Fox describes the series as more than just cathartic. It resulted in the ability to get to know her own self better. Even though the television story is a little different than her real story, it is not dissimilar. She was abused by trusted adults.
So why did she write it? In her words, it was to discover her 13-year-old self:
One day, I woke up and realized I actually didn’t know who I was at 13. I lost touch with her and didn’t know what she would say to me today or why she did what she did.
After writing the script, she admits to forming a deeper understanding and appreciation of who she was and what she had endured. This is the key to telling your story. The more your story of church, abuse, discouragement, etc. is told, the less power it has. And the more you will understand about what really happened.
3. Read what others have found.
Once you have written down–or divulged the pain in another creative stream–and told others about this pain, it might be time to let it go. You don’t ever have to. It is your choice. But it is a heavy weight to carry on one’s soul. Some people may have to negotiate with that part of you which never wants to forget what happened. You might start slowly until you feel comfortable letting some elements go. Some of these elements relate to God, so you might need help with that part.
This is the stage I suggest reading the books, blogs, essays, and songs of those who have returned to God after being away awhile. I hesitate to give the titles for you at this juncture. There are many to choose from and I don’t want to completely direct your path. You can ask others on social media who relate to this re-connecting who they found helpful. Take it slowly. Through this stage, you may see what others did to find the God of their youth, the God who wasn’t always scary.
Unfortunately, for some of you, the God you were taught was always scary and you may need to purge that God out of your system before checking out the God of peace, gentleness, and love.
One book I do suggest trying is Kevin Butcher’s book “Choose + Choose Again.” It can be cathartic and releasing, though some have found it to be too triggering.
I also find all the writings of Anne Lamott helpful for the person returning to God. Listen to this wisdom:
“This is the most profound spiritual truth I know; That even when we’re most sure that love cannot conquer all, it seems to anyway.”
4. Back into Spirituality–And God.
I never recommend a particular spiritual discipline at this point, but neither am I that guy who believes that all spiritual disciplines except bible meditation lead to demonization. I think it depends on the state of your soul. If you are seeking God, you are not going to find a snake.
Meditation, yoga, contemplation, tai-chi, mindfulness, grounding, running with spiritual purpose, speaking in tongues, dancing, energy work, and a host of other spiritual disciplines can at least open up the possibility that you can be connected to God the Spirit. John 4:24 says that God is Spirit and those who worship God should worship in spirit and in truth. Romans 8:16 says “The Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are God’s beloved children.” There is a lot going on deep in our spirit-selves that we do not tap into. Before knowing God again, know your own spirit and how it works.
If the path you go down spiritually is leading you away from God, stop going that way. If it is leading you to yearn for more of your Creator’s presence, then keep going. I’m not worried for you. You’ll figure it out.
5. Start talking again–but this time, let it be a conversation.
Jesus told his disciples that he wouldn’t leave them as orphans; he would come to them. By this he meant the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God is the only member of the God-trinity we will ever experience directly in this plane of existence. The Spirit of God talks deeply inside our spirit. So have a conversation. Enjoy questions and answers.
One of my clients was working through the pain of being separated from her mother at age 10. She blamed God for taking her away. As we did the memory work, we found that a part of her had decided she didn’t want to ever be close to anyone again or love anyone again. But that part of her would take over later in life and force her to cut off new people whom she really did want to know and love. She felt stuck.
We went back into this 10-year old memory together. We faced that part of her that wanted to cut off love. This part would not budge. It would not let the core of her be in relationship with anyone other than superficially.
So I asked this question to the part that didn’t want love: “Would you like to see if God’s Spirit has anything to say to you?” Surprisingly, that part really did want to hear what God had to say. Within a short time, God showed this part that even though people would be imperfect and selfish with their love, God promised never to do that. This part didn’t quite believe God, but it was willing to give God a try.
That began a two-month trial period. This “I don’t want love” part would have conversations with God’s Spirit. By the end of two months, it allowed her core to begin receiving love from God.
By the end of that year, she began to receive love from other people too.
Not everyone’s story is that neat and tidy. But talking again to God, as much or as little as you like, can bring a new appreciation for what God sounds like when the voice of the pulpit and the voices of the pew-sitters are not speaking for God.