Spiritual abuse is so heartbreaking to me for so many reasons. It cuts us off from life-changing realities that free us. It makes us focused on ourselves and our shortcomings rather than celebrating and protecting the communal, collective body. But worst of all, in my opinion, spiritual abuse distorts our very view of who God is.
Through many years of therapy, consuming spiritual resources, and just spending time with God outside in the sun, I have the healthiest, most loving view of God I’ve ever had. And he’s only getting sweeter to me.
But it took untangling these five corrupted views of God to get here, and they still rear their ugly heads at times. But let’s heal them together.
1. God Is Angry or Disappointed with Me All of the Time
The church environment that I grew up in tried its best to communicate a God of love. We sang songs about God’s love, we read each other psalms to comfort each other, and we shared our faith with our neighbors because we wanted to believe that God loves us all so desperately.
But because the messaging of God’s love was so mixed up with fear, control, manipulation, and outright abuse, even if I intellectually thought God loved me, I did not believe it on a heart level. And I’m sure that I’m not the only one.
Do this simple exercise borrowed from Surrender to Love. It will enlighten you to where you are at on your spiritual journey. Just take a moment and answer this honestly: “Imagine God thinking about you. What do you assume God feels when you come to mind?”
The author of this exercise says that so many people answer that they either feel that God is angry with them or disappointed in them. Maybe you did too. That was certainly my answer at first.
But now, my base level assumption of what comes to mind when God thinks about me is that He is so proud of me. I know that He wants to partner with me to make my wildest dreams come true because they are rooted in Him. He wants to dance with me and go to the grocery store with me, and He is guiding me all the time.
What helped me the most with this is realizing that God’s heart towards me is one of a Father’s. And any good father lives from a place of delight, not anger.
2. God Only Blesses Me if I Am “Doing Well Spiritually”
I couldn’t say precisely where this fear came from, but I know it was instilled early on in my discipleship as a college student when I was part of a results-focused campus ministry.
A friend would sit down after a discouraging Bible study with someone she was hoping to convert and would wonder out loud that maybe if she had read her Bible that morning, it would have gone differently. I was told by my women’s leader that because I was proud, God was not going to bless my small group. And it was implied, over and over, that God rewards great faith, and if I wasn’t compliant to their version of what great faith looked like, then God was not pleased with me and would therefore withhold his blessings, like the blessing of a good job or a romantic relationship.
To be honest, I still struggle with this notion in my dating relationship. I am in a healthy, pure, godly relationship, and I question all of the time if I deserve it or if I’m doing “enough” good things to be allowed to keep it. But something my boyfriend and I tell each other all the time is, “God wants us to have good things.”
Again, what helped me with this was the experience of God as a good Father. Matthew 7:9-10 records Jesus telling us, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? So if you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!”
Although it is true that our sin can block us from blessings, it is not because God doesn’t want to give them to us. And existing in a vague sense of dread due to spiritual abuse is a much different situation than legitimately being in conscious sin. So I have had to learn the difference.
3. God Doesn’t Want Me to Have Fun
I know this one sounds kind of silly. I laugh when I tell people this is how I’m feeling. But it’s coming from such a deep place!
When I was in my campus ministry, I was told to essentially get permission before going on a trip just for fun, and the answer would often be no. The reasoning for this was something along the lines of “If you’re not at church, who will encourage the visitors?” or “If you’re going on a trip just for fun, is it really the best for you spiritually? Who are you going to share your faith with if you’re just going for fun?”
Because I had a view of God that was distant and disappointed, all of my time was spent trying to do the right thing to earn his approval. In that paradigm, there was no room for fun, no room for lightness or wasting time or doing things just for me.
This all changed when I listened to the Bema podcast, and one of the hosts pointed out how in Genesis 3, when God was walking in the cool of the day, He could relate to that because He also enjoyed walking in the cool of the day. That simple concept unlocked a truth for me: that God enjoys things. And therefore, I am being like God when I am enjoying things too!
4. God Is a Taskmaster
Because my church leaders and campus ministers were constantly telling me to do more or do better, I just assumed that God was this way, too. I felt like I had to earn rest by completely wearing myself out “for the kingdom,” to the point where I would subconsciously make myself sick just so that I’d have a legitimate reason to get the rest I needed.
Of course, no one would tell me to do this outright. But it was modeled for me by the leaders around me, and that kind of work-yourself-to-the-bone work ethic was applauded.
I did not believe Jesus the first, second, or hundredth time that I read Matthew 11:29-30 “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”
Eventually, though, I did. Everything changed for me in this area when I learned that Sabbath rest is not just a nice idea or something you do sometimes, but much bigger than that is a way of life and how God wants me to exist in his world.
If you need more convincing that God is a Father and not a taskmaster, I encourage you to read the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and pay close attention to how the Father refuses to let His son be treated like a servant.
5. If God Feels Distant, It's Because I'm in Sin
Last but not least, this lie about God took so much inner healing to undo. As a young Christian, I wanted so desperately to feel God. I wanted to feel His love and comfort. I wanted to experience Him the way I knew was possible. But because of my imperfect upbringing, anxiety disorder and distorted view of God, I very seldom “felt” Him this way. And, being the way that God made me, this was a very distressing thing.
However, the advice I would sometimes get was to check my heart because maybe it was my sin that was blocking God from me (vaguely based on Isaiah 59:1). Instead of the big hug I needed when I expressed that disconnect, I received doubt and shame.
It’s true that God is near to us whether we feel Him or not. But our heart’s actual experience of this closeness matters a great deal to God. The psalms are full of prayers that cry out to God not just for protection and provision, but to the revelation of his comforting presence (Psalm 10, Psalm 22, Psalm 80).
Jesus left so that the Holy Spirit could walk with us every moment of every day because He cares so much. What was blocking me from believing that was trauma, not sin.
I hope that if you can relate to these lies about God, it is validating to know that you are not alone. But there is so much hope. God wants to be known!
Isaiah 52:6 “Therefore My people will know My name; therefore they will know on that day that I am He who speaks. Here I am!”
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo courtesy: ©Priscilla du Preez/Unsplash
Kelly-Jayne McGlynn is a former editor at Crosswalk.com. She sees the act of expression, whether through writing or art, as a way to co-create with God and experience him deeper. Check out her handmade earring Instagram and Etsy for more of her thoughts on connecting with God through creative endeavors.