What Do Egypt, Abusers and Toxic Churches Have in Common

It is in our DNA as humans to want to go back to what has oppressed us. Evidence and experience are often not enough for us to resist the urge to return to oppression.

For example, on average, abused women return 4 to 5 times to their abusive partner. My tendency to want to “try again to make it work” in unhealthy institutional systems has often proved as toxic to my soul.

I am sure the reasons for living with oppression are as complex and varied as each individual situation, but I think some of the following general human realities also feed this destructive tendency. At least they do in my life.

 Belonging is more powerful than we realize.

One of the deepest needs I can remember identifying at an early age is the urge to belong. The longing to be on the team, in the group, and on the inside, has tugged at my soul from my earliest memories.

I was raised with abusive parents. I was tormented physically and emotionally, but that did not deter my resolve to one day be accepted by them. I would buy gifts, alter my language, and pretend to like things I hated, all to be a part of their family.

It sounds crazy when I say it, but abuse creates a sense of connection. It is an intimate moment to experience abuse, and when that is all you know of intimacy, it fills a void. Even those dying of hunger sometimes eat dirt and clay to fill their stomachs.

To be part of a church that reinforces on a weekly basis that God is perpetually disappointed in us is abusive. In fact, if our instinct were to not share our reality (doubt, sins, regrets, fears, questions) because we believe to do so would put our belonging in jeopardy- we may be part of an abusive church. If your need to be accepted by your church trumps your need to be honest, you are in danger of being a victim of an abusive church. If the message for belonging to your church includes a mandate that you must submit (blindly, without question, constantly) then you are in danger. Like an abused women, you need to find a safe house.

The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:19-20, “After all, you think you are so wise, but you enjoy putting up with fools! You put up with it when someone enslaves you, takes everything you have, takes advantage of you, takes control of everything, and slaps you in the face”.

 New Living Translation

 The illusion of safety can be stronger than the fear of trust.

The Bible tells a few big stories over and over again. Like a panoramic lens, it tells these stories from every angle, reinforcing their universal reality. One of these meta-messages is trust in God. There is always an alternative to trusting God, a more immediate, fast acting remedy to a dilemma or pain that will produce an immediate sense of safety. But it is only an illusion. It takes an enormous amount of courage to trust. And trusting is so often equivalent to leaving. I am often filled with admiration for the men and women who leave the mean spouses, families and churches to courageously find a better way. I know how much easier it is to just exist in familiar.

Numbers 11:5  “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted.” In other words, “If we go back, at least we won’t starve,” we think, and that applies both physically and spiritually.

God has a habit of not giving much at one time. He often does it at the last minute, too, not to be cruel, but to tenderly call us to learn to trust and be amazed at His provision.

When we return to our abusers, hoping against hope that it will be different this time we surrender our dignity. We trade dignity to feel secure. He longs for us to experience the dignity that can only come from Him. We may receive many things from oppression, but it is always at the expense of dignity.

 A nagging sense I am wrong, stupid, and weak

I cannot help but always think my pain is my fault, my weakness, and my stupidity. If only I…

  • Would be more spiritual,
  • Not such a troublemaker,
  • Be quiet,
  • Would conform,
  • Follow the rules

I know I contribute to my pain — I apparently aim best when the gun is pointed at my own foot. It is universally true that an abuser will attempt to convince you that it is your fault you are suffering. In marital abuse it sounds like, “If you did not make me so mad,” and in church it sounds like “Why won’t you submit to God’s ordained authority?”

There is a lie that all abusive systems teach: if you leave, you will be all alone. You are too weak to make it without us/me.

Nostalgia is selective.

My idealized dream of Christmas is as a warm holiday with laughter, presents and good food. My Christmas reality was a drunken mom, cold step-dad, and absent father. Nostalgia is the like the sirens calling Odysseus of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey towards the rocks of destruction. Time minimizes the pain and exaggerates the good.

Here is a constant dilemma: some of us have our spiritual roots in fundamentalism. With good cause we have warmth in our souls for those early, formative moments. My first foray into Christianity in high school was also my first experience of being accepted by a group. I loved keeping the rules, being on the winning team, and fully submitting myself to anything that would give me acceptance in return. I often forget how mean you had to be to those with a different moral code, or especially those who “compromised the truth” (this was the code for someone who did not believe what you believed).

I am a dreamer, an active daydreamer. I can conjure intricate scenarios and conversations, and often I am starring in a scene where some toxic church reminiscent of my adolescence has begged me to come and rescue them. It’s always a church that sees the error of its ways and tells me they love me and they want me.

Only God’s mercy and my friends keep me rooted in reality. Plus, remembering that Egypt totally sucks.

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3 Responses to What Do Egypt, Abusers and Toxic Churches Have in Common

  1. Anonymous says:

    Egypt does SUCK. I hate that I never understood much of your family situation growing up. As an adult, I now understand why you never invited me inside your house! I am so sorry you had to endure a childhood like that. I am so sorry that I only knew the “you” you were trying to become against all odds. I hope you have found a cohesion of truth and hope in your adult reality and in the way you minister to others. Actually, I know you have, and I so affirm what I see these days, even though we have become such different individuals. Even the belonging of best friends is unreal when we are too frightened to show each other any more than our hopes and dreams and ideals. That sure explains a lot. I am enduring an adulthood like that, but not by my husband, it is that “throwing off” of a governmental authority that promised to care for my safety, peace and welfare, but then threw me under the bus. I have anxiety attacks trying to heal up between the cars rolling me over on the pavement and trying to craw to the grassy edge of the road. I find myself trying to prove my “fidelity” to this government and “obedience” to it, while also trying to show how unlawful it is! SO, F.’D UP. My throat hearts. Your post makes me cry.

    • karlw says:

      i am so sorry i am late responding to your sweet and vulnerable comments, computer woes once again.
      it is funny, mentioning that i never had anyone over, that was not a conscious idea, but just for sure when you mention it notice it.
      when we have the world we perceive or at least hope for crumble it rocks our world. often, i think we try and make
      it better by trying to compare “well, at least i am not living in poverty in africa”
      but if we are drowning, six feet feels just 100 feet.
      your experience is so unique, and taps into something much deeper than just an injustice from government. it is part of a bigger story of feeling unprotected when you have done it right, by the book, complied with all that has been asked.
      you have all my love. peace.

  2. Laura Sealey says:

    Wow, this is so transparent Karl. I so remember you growing up. In one way you were so likeable and the next minute, putting up a wall. I see why in my younger years I was so drawn to you, I recognized the fellow child of an alcoholic, abusive home. I also enjoyed the fact that you were a believer too as my family had given that up. I so enjoyed our high school years where some of that awkwardness fell away and we were young, dumb and free in our Campus Life days. I do remember many discussions at Coco’s about faith, the holy spirit and the parameters you and our mutual friend defined his work by. I thank you for being the steel that helped to sharpen me, you both did me a favor by challenging me and cementing in place the foundation on which I have stood. Now granted the house has undergone some renovations to be sure, but you were a part of that whether you realized that or not. Non-conformity and troublemaking seemed to be my companions but in my own way, even if “believers” found me uncomfortable, I always knew God loved me. Thank you for the reminder that God is not disappointed in me, I am still wrestling and trying to love those who seem to have this “dipped in Jesus” countenance, perpetual smile and life is good and so on, I just can’t help but think the veneer is very thick to keep people out of their hurting spaces where they think like the rest of us. You and Kathy have really helped me to see that there is a different way to do things. And keeping with my non conforming troublemaking nature I think I will relax a little and work towards just being a better me without the façade.

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