Whenever I share my story with others, I’m inevitably asked how I’ve managed to persevere in spite of the many difficulties I’ve experienced, especially in my faith. I was raised in an abusive home, by a silent mother who never wanted me and an angry father who struggled with mental health issues. I bear the scars of physical, emotional and verbal abuse, as well as what I refer to as “religious abuse.” While salvation in itself is a miracle for each human soul, it is by an extra measure of God’s grace that I am a follower of Jesus Christ today.
Fire & brimstone
The churches my family visited were of the hellfire and damnation variety, charismatic in nature and hyper-legalistic. Sunday night services consisted of a lot of yelling, sweating and running around the sanctuary. When the preacher would pound the pulpit and demand that sinners get right with God, my dad forced me to go to the altar – over and over and over. My parents also had a habit of waking me up after I’d gone to bed, making me sit in the dark in our living room, and telling me all of the reasons I was a terrible daughter. One night, when I was twelve years old, they took it a step further by making me stand for what seemed like an eternity while they held up my arms and prayed for me to receive the gift of tongues. Alas, tongues did not fall like fire in our trailer, and there was yet another reason that I did not measure up to their standards – or God’s. Unfortunately, my parent’s inexplicable treatment of me continued into adulthood. One Saturday afternoon, in the middle of the meat department of my hometown’s largest grocery store, they yelled at me that I was “full of the devil” and going to hell for how I treated them – in front of everyone. It wasn’t long afterward that I made the choice to sever ties with them for the sake of my emotional, mental and spiritual health. That was almost twenty years ago.
I married at the age of nineteen in an attempt to regain some semblance of family. I desperately longed for that. Surprisingly, I did not turn my back on the church, and my husband and I attended on a fairly regular basis. I’m embarrassed to admit now that I actually taught Sunday school and sang in the worship ensemble as an unbeliever. I had called myself a Christian since I was five years old, but that really was not the case. After almost eleven years of marriage, I got a phone call in the middle of the night from a woman at church who told me that my husband was involved with her sixteen year-old step-daughter. He and I were both thirty at the time. It was also later revealed that a few people I served with in the worship ministry had helped cover it up. I remember writhing in pain on my bed, crying out that all I’d ever wanted was to be loved. Divorce presented the very real possibility that I’d spend the rest of my life alone. It was in the midst of this mess that God saved me.
Legalism of a different kind
I’d like to say that, after coming to true faith in Christ, my experiences with the church immediately improved, but they did not. As a fairly new believer, I developed a strong desire to attend seminary. I wanted to know God more intimately, and believed that would come through a deeper, systematic study of his Word. I was accepted, enrolled in classes, and sold everything that would not fit in my Honda Accord in order to make the move.
I gave up that dream in order to pursue marriage to a man who had become the love of my life. Sadly, our engagement was broken after interference and hurtful actions by the pastor of the church we attended. While doctrinally geared toward the opposite end of the spectrum than what I grew up with, this church was equally — if not more so — legalistic, almost puritanical. Although I had made the transition from so-called holy roller to frozen chosen, the same struggle with not feeling loved or accepted by God because of what I did or did not do filled me with a constant sense of condemnation. I naively believed that my feelings of guilt and shame would diminish if I confessed a sin issue to members of leadership and asked for help. Instead, I was ultimately paraded in front of a group of male elders like a modern day Hester Prynne minus the scarlet “A,” forced to disclose details, and basically asked to prove that I was repentant – my salvation was even called into question. The consequences of the entire situation were devastating, triggering a spiral into a period of deep depression. I’ve struggled with occasional bouts ever since.
Holding on tight
After all of this, why have I not forsaken Christ? And why have I not forsaken his church? I often make reference to the words of Corrie Ten Boom in response: “You can never learn that Christ is all you need until Christ is all you have.” In my life, this has been and still is literally the case. Tears sting my eyes each time I read John 6:68, feeling the weight of Peter’s reply, “Lord, to whom would we go?” Family or no family, he alone has the words that give life. What’s more, after almost forty years of living under the yoke of works-based religion, my eyes are being opened to the realities of the gospel by men of God who are teaching and preaching the same good news proclaimed by the apostle Paul. Why people throughout history, of all denominations, have forfeited this message of freedom for man-made rules that create and perpetuate spiritual bondage is beyond me. What I do know now, in my head and in my heart, is who I truly am because of what Christ did on my behalf. I am not those words spoken in the dark, or in the elder boardroom, or in my own negative self-talk. I am loved, chosen, holy and without fault; I am adopted, purchased, free and forgiven; I am united with Christ, an heir, and sealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1). These are words of life—abundant life.