Updated: Jun 22
In Alex Lang’s Restorative Faith podcast, my story is featured in the first episode. In it, I speak to the stark, black-and-white nature of my religious upbringing, and how that upbringing impacted both my personal life, and my overall worldview.
Intertwined with my early faith formation, was a painful history of childhood sexual abuse that no one else knew about until I was in high school. By the time I was ready to talk about it, those experiences had already begun to unconsciously influence how I made choices in social situations, and how I felt about myself as a person.
The two combined experiences—extreme religious indoctrination and abuse—served as a lighter and a match. And it took decades to rebuild and restore what the fire destroyed.
From middle school through all but my senior year of high school, I attended a small, non-denominational Christian school in Ohio. It’s underpinnings were Evangelical, and it upheld that every word of the Bible was what they called, “God-breathed,” which meant that God literally worked through human beings in sort of a Ouija board kind of way to write down all that God thought we needed to know to succeed in life, and more importantly, to avoid eternal damnation.
The school administration also subscribed to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Rivers were actually turned to blood, parted, and walked upon. The dead were biologically raised to life after days of having no pulse and no oxygen to their brains. Angels and demons influenced the decisions of humankind. We had daily mandatory bible classes, in which we learned all about how God interacted with those who chose to obediently play by the rules…and how God dealt with those who didn’t.
What could you expect if you obeyed all of God’s rules? Prosperity, success, peace in your heart, a long life, safety from war and hunger, a healthy body, and disease-free children. You also would have the opportunity to experience eternity in heaven with God.
Conversely, if you stepped outside the bounds of God’s rules, you could look forward to military annihilation, famine, the deaths of your children, regional plagues, disease, insanity, financial and social ruin, and ultimately, eternal separation from God—in hell.
So, then, how does this kind of belief system play out in daily life? What does it look like when educators in charge of hundreds of kids each year believe that all those stories in the Bible were meant to be interpreted literally? If they subscribe to the “Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people” philosophy, how do they counsel a twelve year old girl who can’t quite seem to pinpoint why she feels so sad all the time?
Well, I can only tell you how my teachers handled it. They told me I must have unconfessed sin in my life. I was encouraged to search my heart and confess all of my wrongdoings. Then, magically, the tears would dissipate, and the sadness inside would go away. To their credit, they didn’t ignore my pain. They just compassionately told me it was my own fault.
I don’t believe they were ill-intentioned. It’s the same messaging they were telling themselves whenever they felt sad or discouraged. It’s how they had been taught to cope by their teachers, their parents, and their pastors. How could they offer me what they did not possess?
So, I tried it. I prayed. I confessed my sins. I believed with all my heart that God could forgive me, and help me feel better.
It didn’t work, of course, because I was clinically depressed. I didn’t need the forgiveness of Jesus, I needed therapy and a good anti-depressant. I needed someone to help me work through all that I had been through, and show me how it was affecting my life choices. I needed to learn effective coping strategies to manage the anxiety and depression that was sucking the life out of me. I needed someone, for a refreshing change, to tell me I was good.
And one day, someone did tell me I was good. I was probably thirteen or fourteen when I learned for the first time that everything I was feeling—all the shame, all the self-loathing, all the sexualized feelings I had for reasons I could not understand—all of this was pretty standard for kids who had been abused.
I wasn’t a terrible person that was doomed to be a constant disappointment to God. I was a person who survived abuse. And there were so many of us out there that our signs and symptoms had been categorized and documented.
This pivotal revelation presented itself to me in the form of afternoon network television…late eighties style. One day, after school, I sat alone on my couch. I turned on the TV and flipped through the channels until I landed on The Oprah Winfrey Show. That particular show happened to be all about childhood sexual abuse.
The subject matter expert put up a bullet point slide listing the signs and symptoms that are common in children of abuse. As I read the words on the screen, a wave of complete relief swept over me. Even though I had almost every single one of the hallmark features of abuse, this stranger on my TV said I didn’t do anything to deserve it. And, better still, none of what I was feeling or thinking as a result of what happened to me was my fault.
So if God was not disappointed with me, and if the abuse wasn’t my fault, then what was true?
My sexuality was activated before I was developmentally able to cope with it. I was six the first time I was sexually assaulted. This scrambled my brain. It scrambled my soul. It robbed me of my childhood and my innocence.
Oprah, that goddess in leopard print high heels, made sure I knew I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t crazy. And I was going to be okay. Thank you, Oprah.
I wish I could say that I immediately went to my parents and told them everything that had happened to me, so they could sign me up for counseling and press charges against my offenders. I didn’t. I was twenty-four years old—about a decade after the Oprah incident—when I finally decided to get professional help. An EAP therapist collected my history, made some notes, and told me I had likely been clinically depressed for most of my life.
A doctor started me on an anti-depressant, and within a couple of weeks, the knot in my stomach disappeared. I could sleep again, my appetite returned, and I stopped missing work, because I was no longer too emotionally exhausted to get out of bed.
I wondered why I waited so long.
During that time, something else happened—an unintended side effect of going to therapy and learning how to take better care of myself. As I went through the process of healing, I became less tolerant of the religious extremes that defined my spirituality. I figured out that those extremes were part of how I ended up feeling so miserable.
Around the same time that I started to feel bad enough to consider getting some help, I was also attending a weekly bible study. There were about eight to ten people who regularly came. And, each week, there was always an opportunity to share our prayer requests.
Basically, in non-religious terms, it’s the time friends use to share what’s going on in their lives, where they struggle, or what they’re happy about. It’s a time to be transparent with others about what’s on your mind.
Curiously though, in this particular group, no one ever revealed anything too personal. They always had someone else they wanted us to pray for. Prayer time usually sounded something like this: “I’m fine, but my friend at work is not. He doesn’t know Jesus. We need to pray for him.”
Everyone in the group was absolutely fine…all the time. Month after month, it was the same routine. Pray for the people who don’t know Jesus so they don’t go to hell. Pray for my brother’s friend who is hooked on cocaine. Pray for my colleague at work who is an atheist. But don’t worry about me. I’m good.
There was, however, one exception that broke up the routine from time to time. This wild card was called the “silent prayer request.” Translation: I’m hurting, and some serious shit is going down in my life right now. But even though I’ve known you for years, and this group is small, I don’t trust you enough to tell you anything about it.
So one night at bible study, when the group leader asked for prayer requests, I decided to be honest. Because sometimes, things are so raw, so exposed, that it takes more energy to fake a smile than it does to just let go. I told the other people in the group that I had just been diagnosed with depression. I told them I didn’t want to eat, I couldn’t sleep, and it was hard to get out of bed each day. I asked them to pray for me—not for my coworker, not my neighbor. Pray for me. I need your prayers.
And in response, no one said a word. After a very long, awkward silence, they picked up where they left off before I started talking. As I watched people laughing and talking, I felt like a ghost. I wondered if I had just imagined baring my soul to them. There were no signs that anyone even heard me.
It was as if I was right back at the Christian school, surrounded by well-meaning people who missed the mark completely when given the opportunity to demonstrate the compassion and caring of Jesus. Only now I was twenty-four. No one was making me go. Now, I was choosing to be there.
That evening at the Bible study was a turning point for me. Within a few months, I not only left that group, I left that church. This decision initiated a long journey where my understanding of God and Christianity would undergo a major renovation.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve slowly come to believe in a very different God from the one I knew as a child. The God I know now does not need to be appeased, and does not expect perfection. The God of wrath and blessing has been replaced with a God who loves unconditionally and liberally. This God does not discriminate against any person or people group. Ever. For any reason.
And if God doesn’t discriminate against anyone, then we are free to concentrate on what matters most: loving every person we meet the way God loves us—without judgement, without prejudice, and with an outpouring of restorative grace.
If you or someone you love has been affected by sexual abuse or assault, please talk to someone who can help. The National Sexual Abuse Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-656-4673.