Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Controlling With Fear

Fear. To the person who has been abused or bullied, the very word can cause a tightening in the stomach. When you say the word ‘bully,’ most people think of the neighborhood bully who was always picking on the kids littler than him (or her). This kind of bullying is what I call overt bullying. It is blatant, in-your-face threatening. This can be verbal and/or physical. It is usually recognized the world over for what it is. Although this kind of bullying includes emotional abuse and intimidation, because of its blatant nature, it is easy to spot.

There is  another kind of emotional bullying that is far harder to spot and identify. It happens in the home and in the church. It begins with someone - a parent or a pastor - establishing themselves as your benefactor. It begins with you ‘knowing’ that they are the source of ‘good’ things in you life and that without them in your life, you will be in a dangerous place - vulnerable and easy prey. Once this is established in your mind, you are open for manipulation that will let them ‘put the fear of God’ in you to keep you in line. For someone who has been the victim of this form of abuse, the word ‘fear’ can even, years later, cause a drifting sense of anxiety - a chill up the spine.

I will start with how this happens in the home because if you were the victim of it from a parent, you will be far more susceptible to it as an adult in a church. As a child, you naturally look to you parents as benefactor and the source of all that is good in your life. This is normal. Normal parents aim for this. Children have every right to expect this. The problem arises when a parent has another agenda.

In my case, I was raised by a narcissistic mother and an emotionally distant father. Actually, he was only distant in showing affection. His periodic eruptions of disproportionate anger were anything but distant. When I was growing up, my parents were devoutly religious. My father was a deacon and my mother a Sunday school teacher and pianist. Pillars of the church community. My mother was also an expert on the Bible and loved to get in theological debates with people. She has read the Bible through many times. She knows what it says and can come up with a passage of Scripture for almost any issue. To the young mind of a child growing up, this WAS the voice of God Himself. If my mother said it, it was fact. Period.

The way the mind manipulation works is like this. The child knows that good and pleasant things come from mom and dad and that punishment comes from mom and dad. Children also naturally look up to their parents - believe that their parents know everything and can do anything. As a child, I was not taught to apologize for doing ‘fill in the blank.’ I was taught that I would “stay in the bedroom until I was prepared to come out and tell mommy I was sorry for what I did to mommy.” What was the main lesson learned? Don’t hurt mommy’s feelings. 

As you grow, anything you say or do that is outside of what they want you to say or do is ridiculed. I’m not talking about normal ‘this is good, and ‘this is bad’ behavior. They operate this form of intimidation on what clothes you like, what TV shows you like, what music you like, the hobbies you’re interested in, etc. They don’t come right out and say that you shouldn’t watch or listen to or like these things. The mock the things themselves - pick them apart with no room for argument and laugh at them. The implication is, that anyone who likes these things is foolish. Thus, without ever saying anything directly about the child, they have very effectively ridiculed the child for her tastes - her preferences. This has a huge impact on a child’s willingness to trust their own ability to choose good things.

It is difficult to even articulate the way that this fear was first instilled. Imagine, at the age of 2 1/2 years, in the midst of the potty training experience, being told, when you have an accident, that you are being lazy or stubborn and getting whipped with a belt. This kind of punishment was always preceded by ‘the look.’ Over time, the actually whipping was not necessary. Just getting the belt out and ‘popping’ it was enough. Then, all that was really necessary was ‘the look,’ to know you were in dangerous waters and better back up quick. Couple this with the constant ‘loving’ correction of any mistakes made even when pursuing the ‘approved’ things.

This doesn’t even begin to describe the atmosphere and feeling in the home. Couple this with the belief the my mother was ‘tight with God,’ and any step toward independence felt like a step away from God. Result? Controlled by fear of being out of line with God - the feeling that God is watching over your shoulder and if you doing something your mother wouldn’t like, He will tell her. It creates a sense of never being good enough and an almost desperate desire to do things ‘right.’ Instead of the normal process of being allowed to make mistakes and learn, it sets up a fear of making mistakes that paralyzes - a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and being punished. In fact, it sets up a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and getting ‘out of God’s commandments’ and going to hell. This fear can last well into adulthood - in fact, I think it will last until it is recognized for what it is. For some, that may be all their lives. You can probably see how this would set someone up to be used by an unscrupulous pastor.

Which brings us to how this works in a church setting. Obviously, someone abused in the ways described above would be more vulnerable to this than someone who was not abused. But not being abused as a child does not exempt you from being vulnerable. It starts with things like I have already talked about in previous posts: Us Against Them and Never Quite Enough and things along these lines. Once a pastor or leader has established that ‘he has the keys to the kingdom’ and if you want in, you better follow them, they will begin to talk about the revelation that they have being higher or deeper than the revelation at the church down the street. Then they say things like, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to slide into heaven with a D-. I want to burst through the gates like I own the place and walk up to King David and start swapping stories.” Ugh. It becomes a competition with other churches - doctrines - whose got the best revelation.

There was a lot of time spent on talking about how to “prepare for the glory.” The implication was that if we did everything ‘just right,’ God would manifest His glory in OUR church, proving we were the BEST. Of course, when the glory clouds did not roll in, the fault lay within us. We were not in unity. If we were in unity, God would ‘shake the building.’ After a while, if your mind drifted for a second, you felt guilty because maybe you broke the unity of the body and if God didn’t show up, it would be your fault. I actually reached the place where I felt like I was being unfaithful if I visited another church or meeting, even if it was at a time when our church was not meeting. At the time that I walked away, I had been a leader in the church for about 14 months and had been volunteering in the office for about 3 1/2 years. After I became a leader, I was actually called into the office and reprimanded for going to an extraneous meeting. These were dangerous, you see. You might actually find out they were full of it. 

The final example of this I will share is what happened when I told them I was leaving. First, he tried to tell me I wasn’t. When that didn’t work, one of the things he asked me was if I believed all the prophecies that had been spoken over the church. This, by the way, is another form of control - speak lots and lots of prophecies from the pulpit about what great things God is going to do in this ministry and intersperse it with ‘warnings’ from God to get yourself “squeaky clean” and in line so you don’t mess things up for everyone else and also so that you don’t end up getting a D-, or maybe even being disqualified. From what? From heaven was my assumption. When that didn’t bring me back in line, he asked me if I was unconcerned about how my leaving might “hurt the sheep.” Never mind that what he was doing was already devouring the sheep. When that didn’t work, he told me that I needed to be careful and make sure I was under a pastoral covering or I would be easily deceived. I supposed he thinks that I am now deceived, or would if he read this. Which reminds me of another form of manipulation he used especially on the women in the congregation. He said, from the pulpit, several times that “Eve was deceived, but Adam knew exactly what he was doing.” Then he would go on and expound on how women are easily deceived and men are not and that women who refuse to be under a man’s covering are opening themselves up to be deceived. Yikes!

Throughout this 2 1/2 hour meeting where I told them I was leaving and they tried to talk me out of it, God’s grace was on me so that I was not afraid and was calm and firm. When I left the building, though, I freaked out a little. It has been a tough go this last year or so. Second guessing whether I did the right thing. The more time goes on, the more absolutely sure I am that it was the right thing and that this church is a cult.

I think the most important things for Christians to remember as they leave an abusive church are 1) God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), and 2) God is not the one who sends fear (2 Timothy 1:7).


Anonymous said...

Only someone who has been through this could describe it so cogently. Absolutely great post, you captured so many things. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I can hardly believe that you and I aren't the same person.....that maybe I wrote this last night in my sleep!

Thank you....perfect description...perfect. This WAS my life. This IS the 'aftermath' of what I suffer now....I still 'kneejerk' over many things but am learning to discern REAL 'conscience' from God....and the 'conscience' that was imposed on me. Wow.

Katherine Gunn said...

I am glad this helped. I understand learning to separate real conscience from the guilt-tripping I was taught. It is a process. It isn't something that goes away overnight. Hang in there and know that God is not 'mad' at you, He loves you. Healing takes time, but it does happen.

James said...

Katherine Gunn,

Reading and reviewing your blogs is being very helpful to me in a more spiritual way. Which I am very grateful for. Being a person who loves both science and theology I try hard to share myself between these two loves. Again your topics have been extremely helpful in this matter concerning my spiritual growth. I do encourage you to continue to share more on this blog site and hope you will do so. Discovering one thing is that we never know who might read our blogs and how it might help someone we will never know. But I also know how others will dislike what I do and acknowledge the risks that comes with sharing and blogging. But I feel that through my sharing if I can help just one person, then the site has done it’s job. It reminds me about the part in the bible where the shepherd leave his flock to look for that one lost sheep. Our personal blogging is doing just that.. Looking for that one lost sheep.

Finding such encouragement and insight in these writing it’s taken me time to absorb and read all that posts. Reading and understanding those entries I have read so far is showing me just how much you have endured and how very far you have traveled. All which is of great encouragement for myself..


Katherine Gunn said...

James, thank you. :-)

I am glad my story brings you encouragement. If they are helping, then (like you said) it is worth it.