When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing…”
See Luke 18:22
Religious abuse is real. How can you recognize it? Simple. You have to point out the anti-gospel actions of the abuser. Here are some red flags to be aware of:
- The abuser will attempt to make themselves seem “more holy” than you.
- The abuser cannot stand grace by itself.
- The abuser is focused on your sin.
- The abuser is not focused on their own sin.
- The abuser only praises you for your good behavior when you do things exactly as they say.
- The abuser takes Scripture out of context and tries to make you obey Old Testament laws and commandments as they fail miserably at them themselves.
- The abuser will give you the silent treatment if you don’t shape up according to their liking.
- The abuser will threaten you with hell, as if they have the right to send you there.
- The abuser will claim God is withholding your blessings because you don’t do what they say you should.
- The abuser will claim you are rightfully being punished by God because of your inability to be more like them.
I’ll stop at ten, but I could easily go up to 100 examples of the characteristics of religious abusers. If you still aren’t catching my drift, allow me to add a narrative. Here are some things they say:
“BACKSLIDER! You call yourself a Christian?! You better beg God for forgiveness, STOP SINNING, and get your butt in church! If you don’t, you will be going to hell!”
“How dare you rob God! You refuse to give your tithe to the one who loaned it to you! You will suffer greatly because of that!”
“You didn’t really repent! You didn’t give your whole heart to God! You made Him Savior but not Lord! Had you done this, you wouldn’t be struggling with that! You are showing everyone that you are not saved!”
“The tithe is just the beginning! If you would show your level of faith and give more, you’d finally be financially blessed by God! It’s your fault! You gotta give an offering above the tithe! Where is your faith?!”
“Have you confessed lately? You better! If you don’t, you will be in danger of the fires of hell! Pray to Mary for help!”
I’m going to stop there. Just typing that stuff causes my blood pressure to rise a tad. It’s no wonder you hear people say, “I don’t know what happened to them. They grew up in church, and now they don’t want anything to do with God.”
Well, I do know what happened. They never got to see God from the people who were supposed to be representing Him. All they saw was mean, graceless, conditional-love people. They might be Christians, they might not be. However, I do know that putting a suit on a monkey doesn’t make it a man.
What the abused person had witnessed was a quasi-gospel. They experienced denominational spin-offs, and spin-offs are never as good as the original. The abused witnessed a person yelling at them, or attempting to make them feel like dirt. The abused heard false-teaching from people who wouldn’t be clear about what our Creator has really done for us through Christ. Instead, religious guilt and manipulation was used to control them. They were taught they weren’t good enough, and that they’d never be.
They were taught to believe they were in God’s Army and they had to fight the world, when they should have been taught this: You’ve been adopted into God’s family and the world is thirsty for what you now have. They were taught, “Hurry up and make those sinners repent! Be radical! Stay hungry! Do more! Be more!” When they should have been taught to relax and simply be themselves as they lived their normal, everyday lives.
So for those who have witnessed a “lifelong Christian” heading for the hills after experiencing religious abuse, be happy for them. They could very well be saved, they’ve simply had enough religion to last a lifetime. That person is now free from their abusers and God is still with them in full–that is, if they believed Jesus has forgiven them. Congregations and brick and mortar buildings don’t keep us saved, Jesus does (see Hebrews 7:25, 1 Corinthians 6:19).
The abused don’t want anything to do with their abusers any longer, and I don’t blame them.
Growing up, I too experienced some severe religious abuse. And again, even as a grown man, the cliquey-church impacted my faith negatively. I was taught that church–and the pastors in them–were more important than Jesus Himself. Then, I was taught that Christ was the bouncer at church, and the pastor was the owner of the club. “Be gone. You don’t belong here any longer.”
Rather than being taught how loving and accepting God truly is–because of what Jesus had done for me at the Cross–I was taught the Cross didn’t fully count and I had to add to it. Jesus was not the focus, grace was not the focus, our one-time spiritual perfection was not the focus–my actions were. My obedience to God and the church staff was. Sadly and frustratingly, according to them my actions were never on par. “You ain’t livin’ right!” they’d say.
I’d soon find out that such rejection creates stress and anger. This is a bad combination as well as a deadly formula for a church, leaving them open for retaliation from the shunned. For this reason, Jesus emphasized how important it was to accept all people for who they were.
“Stop sinning! Read your Bible! Don’t skip church! Do exactly what the preacher says because he is man of God!”
“But I have questions. Why won’t he answer me clearly?”
“Who do you think you are, questioning Pastor?! He’s got a seminary degree and knows what he’s talking about! Sit down! Shut up!”
I wasn’t really saved! According to them anyway. I was taught that God had favorites and He was a big, mean, angry bully who was ready to thump me when I made a mistake. The church leaders were called by God to enforce His impossible rules, so I better fall in line, or else.
“You are getting what you deserve because of your sin! God does not put up with sin! You better repent while you still can! If you don’t, you will be thrown in the hottest place of hell because you knew better!”
They made it seem as if the punishment Jesus took on the Cross wasn’t good enough for my sin, as if it was only a partial punishment and God still wanted to punish me on top of Christ’s suffering. Because of this mental abuse, I became afraid of everything. I was even afraid to think. I thought my thoughts were going to revoke my adoption into God’s family, that He would be disgusted with me and say, “Ewwwww…gross. I’m done with you.”
This abuse caused me to believe my salvation was fake. “Boy! You gotta take the whole of Scripture–RIGHTFULLY DIVIDE IT! Then you’ll see how wrong you are!”
Eventually, I shrugged my shoulders and threw my hands up toward this bunch. I was over it. I became extremely aggressive and rebellious against them. Even the ones who had good intentions and understood the gospel, I attacked. I didn’t trust any of them. I was mad and hurt on a very deep level.
“I can never live up to these people’s expectations, so why even try?! If God is really like this, then I’ll do without!” Thankfully, over time, the Holy Spirit taught me He’s nothing like they said. He was actually the opposite.
So how do we know if a person is truly teaching what God wants them to teach? Why not look to Jesus for the answers, crazy idea, right? There are two main characteristics which will organically sprout out from the true teachers of the gospel:
- Love. Jesus said the world will know we belong to Him by our love (see John 13:35). Love is the heart of God (see 1 John 4:8).
- Rest. Jesus said we will find rest for everything that burdens us, through Him (see Matthew 11:28). The true rest which comes from the gospel is understanding that you’re okay with God, and you always will be.
LOVE. REST. These are the two things we should walk away with every Sunday at noon. A sigh of relief is the calling card of Christ–a powerful, loving, restful Person, who wants to live through us.
Why is this so hard for the church to understand? Why has scare tactics, hierarchies, and giving-to-get teaching grasped so many leaders in our congregations? That’s a simple answer: pride. The very same thing which got the most beautiful angel of all time, Satan, kicked out of heaven, is the very same thing that causes religious abuse.
“Matt, I’m not teaching only grace! Grace is just a license to sin!”
No it’s not. Grace is what empowers us to live the lives God longs for us to live as His kids. Just look:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:11-12)
Grace teaches us to be who we really are! Self-controlled, upright, godly people! I’ve never witnessed a person who truly understood God’s grace fall off the deep-end, as a matter of fact, just the opposite! I’ve witnessed a person who was struggling with life to the point of near suicide, completely addicted to “trying harder” and “doing better” and he broke free through grace!…ME!
You will only live like you are spiritually perfect when you believe it! You will only believe it when you understand you became spiritually perfect by way of grace! Are we too prideful to understand that? Can we not stand the fact that everyone gets the same reward, which is Christ in us for good, for free?
“But I’ve gone to school to be able to teach at church! I’ve done more than anyone else I know!”
Friend, that’s pride. Pride pushes God back and says, “I don’t completely believe you.” Pride says, “There’s more to this gospel than grace. I’ll prove it.”
Pride is what causes some supposed Christians to be cut off at heaven’s door and turned away by Jesus:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’’’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
“See Matt! It says it right there! ‘The one who does the will of my Father’! I’m not prideful, I’m doing my part to do God’s will!”
Do you hear how silly that sounds? As if you are assisting the Person who causes this planet to spin? And further, what is God’s will? I can tell you what it’s not: us trying to add to what He’s been handing out to everyone for free since the event of Jesus’ resurrection…freedom (see Galatians 5:1).
God’s will is to believe this truth. His will has always been, “Please, believe me.” Before the Law was given, during the Law’s time in place, and after the Law, God’s will has always been, “Believe.” Jesus tells us so:
“For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:40)
“But that can’t be right! That’s too easy!”
Jesus didn’t think so. He knew it would be the hardest thing ever for many people. He knew that those with prideful hearts wouldn’t be able to just believe. He said it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle to a man who wouldn’t just believe (see Matthew 19:16-23). He said the path of belief in Him alone–with nothing added–is an extremely narrow path. The other path, however, is wide:
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” (Matthew 7:13)
Believe. Believe in His love. Believe in His rest. Believe in His forgiveness. Believe in your spiritual perfection. Believe in nothing else added to this. Believe in grace. Paul calls the gospel, “the gospel of grace” (see Acts 20:24). Grace leads to the truth of the Father’s unconditional love. Grace leads to lush, calm, green pastures of rest. Grace leads to belief. Grace causes pride to fade away like a mist, as Jesus walks through that mist, to reveal Himself in full.
A prayer for you: Dad, thank you for teaching me how to think of my abusers with grace. I made a decision to forgive them–an act of my will–and I have forgiven them. However, you are still helping me with my feelings over this issue, and I’m grateful. Thank you for your patience. The very thing they were against, grace, you are showing me how to give them. Your grace is empowering me to be able to exude my true character of love. Right now, I lift up all who are reading this, directly to you. So many of them have been religiously abused and they are in pain. Help them today. Ease them today. Let them know how much you truly care for them. Teach them the truth of your gospel of grace. Let them know you are not disappointed in them in any way. Reveal in their hearts and minds that you are their Abba Father–Daddy–and you call us to sit on your lap as you embrace us for all we are as your Children. We love you. Heal our pain and counsel us into your wisdom. In Jesus’ name, amen.
This devotional is from 60 Days for Jesus, Volume 3. Get your copy here!