When many of us think about going to church, we remember dressing in our Sunday best, patent leather shoes, and show-stopping hats. However, what may also hang in the background is our experience of religious trauma and the spiritual wounds yet to heal. Religious trauma is a spiritual experience characterized by constant feelings of guilt, shame and condemnation. In fact, these experiences can manifest into religious trauma syndrome which is a response to a traumatic religious experience.
As a child, I had good experiences in the church, or so I thought. In recent years, I experienced more religious trauma than one would like to think. But, I know I’m one of many who have had a negative experience with religion. So much of our trauma is intermingled with religion that it is tempting to leave the church. Thoughts such as, “maybe church isn’t for me” get louder and louder. Before we know it, we’ve stopped going and don’t feel spiritual anymore.
How do we make sense of religious trauma and spiritual wounds as they relate to our spirituality? Spirituality is a good thing and helps us deal with the unexplainable and uncontrollable in our lives. Hence, it’s important to create a spiritual relationships to distance us from the hurt and pain in connection with the church. Whatever our feelings are towards religion – good or bad – a good place to assess our relationship is to ask ourselves, “what does spirituality mean to me“?
Religious trauma makes going to church feel like Judgment day.
“Come as you are”, is a saying that church leaders use to encourage people to attend service. However, when you go to church, it can feel like Judgement Day. “Am I wearing the right outfit? What do people think about me and my family? Oh no, I haven’t been to church in a long time, what will people think?” Therefore, instead of coming as we are we go the way we feel we should.
I remember feeling judged when a woman on the church Board whom I didn’t know approached me out of the blue. For some reason, she felt she had the right to ask me why my husband wasn’t with me!!! We happened to be in a long distance relationship at the time because I accepted a position in Virginia. I told her to mind her business, but the damage was done. Her abuse of power was the beginning of religious trauma for me at yet another church. To feel judged because I chose to continue my spiritual walk in spite of life changes felt hypocritical. I stopped going to church because I felt unwelcomed if my husband wasn’t in attendance, too. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first spiritual wound that left me jaded.
Part of religious trauma involves persistent emphasis on doing what’s right, and how everything else is a sin. This especially applies to the idea of creating a family and maintaining it. Solo church attendance, or engaging in any relationship activity that isn’t ordained by the church, can create this intimidating atmosphere. It’s difficult for us to continue living our lives fully, because the judgement we felt on Sunday follows us through the rest of the week.
Church puts an emphasis on the family unit and what we should do to find and keep a spouse. It makes the idea of finding a partner and staying together no matter what transpires intimidating. Additionally, solo church attendance can feel like doomsday. This makes it hard to focus on the Word when all eyes are on you.
If you find yourself feeling judged and you don’t want to return to church, know that you are not alone. Your feelings are valid. However, it may benefit you to focus on your relationship with God and less on the people in the church. Also, consider the question, “What does spirituality mean to me?” to remove the feelings of judgement and focus on what you want to receive from religion.
Let’s journal about it.
Writing down your thoughts in journals is a powerful way to put your thoughts in perspective with the following questions:
- Why do I need spirituality?
- What are my spiritual goals?
- Whose opinions truly matter?
- What type of relationship do I want with God?
- What am I looking for in a spiritual community?
When you complete your journaling exercise, use your answers as the foundation for your spirituality. In the future, if you experience religious judgement that makes you question your way of life, or adds to your religious trauma, you have these questions to come back to and solidify your faith. It will also help you determine what you want from your relationship with God, reveal spiritual wounds and drown out the noise of others’ desires for you.
The church commits the worst evils; religious trauma is the aftermath.
Toxicity runs deep in church and contributes to religious trauma. Ironically, for a practice that condemns evilness, the church and evil sometimes go hand in hand, and wonderful souls, like you, are the victims. This can forever change your association with religion and spirituality, and make it hard for to trust individuals in all aspects of your life.
Church toxicity may be hard to spot if you have grew up in the church and religion was an integral part of your childhood. However, if you step back and look at the history of Christianity, especially its misuse by White Christians against Black Slaves, you can see the steep history of toxicity in church leaders to support slavery, racism, white supremacy and their horrific treatment of slaves.
The church also has issues with sexual abuse, especially of children, who learn from a young age that people promise to protect them and then break that promise. Unfortunate situations such as these creates spiritual wounds and can have long-lasting effects on our relationship building and trust.
Additionally, the work and financial demands of churches on their members is troublesome. As long as I worked day and night for the church, I was ‘Sister Tracey’ and ‘Wonderful Sister’ and all other complimentary words one could think of. The moment I stepped back there was a distinct change in treatment. I no longer mattered. My request for support were no longer priority. I did not receive invitations to attend or participate in special events. Community, connection & support is contingent on service. Yet, we are taught that spiritual community is unconditional.
The church is not the people.
If you have found yourself betrayed by individuals in the church or felt ostracized when you could no longer financially or actively serve the church, I urge you to remember this one thing: spirituality is not the people.
Toxic church leaders and judgement church goers can ruin our spiritual experience if we let them. Keep in mind that the ‘church’ is not the building nor those in it. You are the church! Spirituality is your relationship with God and how you tap into the energies of the world. Separating these ideals provides an understanding of how religious trauma occurs and how spiritual wounds are created. As a guided resource to define what spirituality means to you, use my Take Stock and Take Action worksheet.
Religious trauma creates an exclusive sanctuary.
Sometimes when I speak with clients about their spirituality, they tell me that they’re not the church type. This response piques my interest because church is for everyone who chooses to attend. However, in the age of social media, corruption, and individual church experiences, churches can actually feel exclusive. Almost like we are standing outside of a club that everyone is trying to get in, but only certain, “perfect” people are on the list. Pastors and church goers alike have a bad habit of inflicting religious trauma on those who do not walk in a straight line towards God. The words they speak encourage forgiveness and to continue walking, even if one stumbles, but many of us know from experience that it seems like there’s a one strike and you’re out rule.
If you get divorced, commit adultery, lie, have premarital sex, explore your sexuality, or commit any other sin, attending church can feel like you are on stage being poked with pitchforks. The irony is that many pastors lived a life of sin before their awakening. The problem is that that their words don’t always come from a place of ‘we’ve all been there’. Instead, they sound more like, “Everyone who sins is going to hell. End of story”. There’s no grace. It is discouraging considering the pastor is supposed to help church goers push past their hardships.
Religious trauma and spiritual wounds trick you into believing you must perfect to be spiritual.
If you feel that church is exclusive to those who live a ‘perfect’ life, let me remind you of John 8:7: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. In this scripture, everyone – even religious leaders – were unable to throw a stone at the adulterous woman. Why? Because they all were with sin. Regardless of the behaviors and words of spiritual leaders and devout attendees, let’s remember, nobody is perfect, and everyone sins. Those at the top of the church hierarchy just do the best job of hiding it and diverting your attention to your own shortcomings so you don’t hone in on theirs.
Church and spirituality can be for you. However, in order for you to keep moving forward, it’s important that you have grace for yourself and know that if you stumble, it’s okay. If you make a mistake, it’s okay. You are not a bad person, you are human. Regardless of what anyone has to say about your lifestyle choices, if you feel as if you are living your life in a way that is in God’s will, fulfills you and makes you happy, that is what matters. If you’re unfulfilled or unhappy, let’s talk to understand why this is the case.
I prayed but the ‘light’ never came.
The most disheartening part about spirituality can be when it seems to have failed you. We have all experienced times when we prayed for something and it didn’t go our way. Sometimes, awful situations or immense hurt makes us wonder, “If God really loved me, why would He allow me to endure this”?
If you experienced abuse, neglect, trauma, or hurt, it’s easy to lose faith in God because you feel that He didn’t come through. That’s the tricky part about religious trauma and unhealed spiritual wounds. They make you believe that you have done something to deserve the hardship. This is why having a clear understanding of how religious trauma shows up in your life, what spiritual wounds are still raw, and the choices and decisions you made to know the root cause of the difficulties and hurt in your life. Perhaps spirituality hasn’t failed you and you need to look at it through a different lens.
I urge you to think about the unhealed spiritual wounds and the following things as you assess the situation where you feel God wasn’t there for you and .
Diamonds are made under pressure.
Diamonds are made up of carbon atoms placed under high temperatures and pressure deep below the earth. The end product is beautiful, but they begin as a dark, dusty material. Sometimes, that is what life does to us. It puts us in really hard positions under extreme pressure and we are able to come out of it stronger and capable of so much more. Some of the greatest leaders we know went through really tough situations before coming out and being able to impact the world. If you are in the thick of things and need support overcoming a hill to a better version of you, please set up a meeting with me and we can talk about your path to diamond status.
Learning to walk your spiritual path.
Sometimes we choose the wrong path and it prevents us from being able to overcome hardships. If we take the time to stop and listen, we realize we have the solution to our troubles inside. However, discomfort deters us from that path, or something may seem too hard, so we choose another route.
Leaving that abusive person is difficult. However, staying causes you immense pain. Going back to school and putting yourself in a position to potentially fail is scary and uncomfortable. Yet, it’s necessary to open other doors for us. Self-medication and numbing our awareness and emotions feels good in the moment; but what happens when we come back and the problems are still there? We go through the fire and learn how to handle hardships as we find the path for us. The beauty of it all is that our spirituality is there when we aren’t strong enough to do it alone.
We can manifest our heart’s desires if what we desire is in God’s will; here’s a great resource to help you understand how. In addition to this short workbook, if you need guidance or community, don’t hesitate to reach out to me!!