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9 Christian Responses to Religious Trauma

9 Christian Responses to Religious Trauma

Some people walk away from religions because of bad experiences, emotional pain, or even severe abuse. This occurs in every faith on earth, including cults, polytheistic religions, and the Abrahamic religions. The Christian Church is certainly not immune from inflicting negative experience on people.

While some bad encounters with faith can be shaken off, some are so severe it creates a trauma that can have lasting impacts that are disturbing to a person’s life. While people who know the healing power of the love of Jesus want someone to just accept Him, people who experienced religious trauma – both in and out of the church – may be reluctant to see the appeal.

Christians, and the church at large, should be cautious in how they approach someone coming from religious trauma. We must respect their experience. Jesus is the great Healer, and His example provides guidance for how to respond to religious trauma.

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Dark church steeple against a stormy sky

What Is Religious Trauma?

According to a paper published in the Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry (SHERM), “Religious trauma results from an event, series of events, relationships, or circumstances within or connected to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that is experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive and has lasting adverse effects on a person’s physical, mental, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

This definition gives a broad but appropriate framework for understanding what constitutes actual trauma inflicted in a religious context, and not just a sad, frustrating, or uncomfortable experience. It is not enough for an experience to be bad, it must fall within the bounds of something that is truly disruptive, and have long-lasting and pervasive results.

In religion, trauma can be inflicted by an abuse of power, by the proper application of bad doctrine, or the inappropriate application of good doctrine. It can be a one-time event, or it can be on-going. Because it is intertwined with religion, which constitutes a framework through which each person sees the world, it can shatter the way someone understands the very fabric of their existence, re-writing the universe around them. Most people who experience religious trauma wrestle with its ramifications for the rest of their lives. In the United States, it is estimated between 27-33% of individuals have experienced some kind of religious trauma.

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Illustration of different world religions

How Should Christians Respond to People Leaving Another Religion?

There are millions of testimonies around the world from believers who left their religion to put their faith in Jesus Christ and join the church. They find hope and freedom in walking with the one true God as He intended, and find fellowship with other believers. There are people who testify that encountering Jesus and getting saved healed them from the traumatic experiences they had in their previous spiritual journey.

However, it is not always the case. Even if they are saved, they may be reluctant to participate in church. Some people will leave a different faith due to trauma, but will not make a decision to follow Christ.

When someone is walking away from a group that treated them aggressively, or perhaps they were in a cult-like environment, having a Christian come and try to push something can just feel like more trauma or indoctrination.

For someone leaving another religion because of trauma, whether they are saved and reluctant to come to church, or yet to come to Christ, it is important to:

- Be patient. Don’t get pushy. They may be coming from a pushing background, and don’t want to find themselves in their previous situation.

- Demonstrate the love of Christ through actions. There is an old saying that actions speak louder than words. When words aren’t enough, doing something is important. Living out the love of Jesus for someone can be just as powerful as telling them, and can also help them heal.

- Make resources available to them if it is relevant or helpful. Particularly for people leaving a cult environment, there are resources that can make a difference in someone’s healing process outside of a religious context. They may need financial, emotional, or material assistance to re-build their lives or heal.

- Pray for them. The Holy Spirit can move powerfully, especially when there are people praying. Asking God to work in someone’s life so they can heal from false religion and get saved or join a local church may be the most important thing we can do.

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A cross on a wooden background

How Should Christians Respond to Abuse from within Christianity?

It is easy to point at other religions and the abuse people can suffer within them, but it is important to step back and recognize that many people have walked away from God because of the actions of Christians, or people calling themselves Christians. If someone was in a cult that claimed to be Christian, then being available to help untangle the lies from the truth, patiently, is important.

When abuse comes from another Christian – because all people are capable of evil and sin – it creates division between the abused and the church, and even between them and the Lord. In order to help someone who experienced religious trauma because of other Christians, some things to do include:

- Be willing to believe them. While it is always important to make sure the facts are right and to engage in due process, if someone steps forward with an accusation of abuse, it is important not to dismiss them. Be open to hearing something that may be difficult to accept, but temper that willingness with sound judgment. Don’t believe blindly, but don’t disbelieve just because it may be hard to accept, or because the accused is well-liked or prominent.

- Pray. Just like when someone is leaving a cult or another religion, prayer is a good way to sustain someone from afar. If they are struggling with doubt, the Holy Spirit can lift them up, and fill them with comfort and faith.

- Give them some space. If someone is leaving an abusive church situation, they may need a period of time out of church to spend time alone with God, and re-orient themselves. Allow them to have that time and space, but monitor it. If they are falling away from faith, or hardening themselves, reach out. 

- Don’t argue with them. There is a difference between healthy debate, or helping someone talk through difficulties, and arguing. Getting combative isn’t going to help the abused move forward. It can also be tempting to defend God, the church, or Christianity, but if they aren’t ready to hear it, then it will just be aggressive arguing. 

- Don’t say cliché things like “that person wasn’t a real Christian” or “a real church wouldn’t allow that.” It doesn’t provide comfort to the victim most of the time.

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Two people holding hands on the couch, offering comfort and support

Bible Verses about Jesus’ Love

Appropriate therapy, support from friends and family, and time and distance can help someone heal. But true healing though comes from a real, healthy, saving relationship with Jesus Christ. The Bible is full of verses that remind us that Jesus is always reaching out, and can heal people from all their wounds and hurts.

Bible verses about Jesus’ love include:

John 10:10 - “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

John 15:12-15 - “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

Romans 5:8 - “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Ephesians 5:2 - “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

1 John 3:16 - “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”

Revelation 3:20 - “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

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Women praying together

Prayer for Someone Who Experienced Religious Trauma

Holy Father,

Thank you for being with us, even through the most difficult and painful circumstances. Lord, I lift up those who have experienced pain and trauma at the hands of others. For the people who had it while they were following false gods, I pray that You will reach them to be saved, through people, through media, or some other way. I ask that You would heal them, and bring them to true salvation, and an eternal relationship with You.

For the brothers and sisters in Christ who have been abused in the church or by other Christians, I ask for them to be able to forgive and to have peace. I pray You will heal their wounds, and make them whole again. I ask that You restore their faith in other Christians, and that they will not depart from You because of the sins of others. Lord, please help people who have been abused and experienced religious trauma, as only You can.

In the name of Jesus Christ,

Amen.

As brothers and sisters in the family of God, it is important we strive to always treat one another with the love of Jesus, and not to hurt one another. When people inflict pain on one another – and they will – the church needs to be respectful, and a place for people to heal. Patience and love is important. God wants to heal them, and is reaching out to do so.

“[The Lord] heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3).

Sources

Demuth, Mary. We Too  How the Church can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis. Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2019.  

Gingrich, Heather and Fred. Treating Trauma in Christian Counselling. Westmont: InterVarsity Press, 2017. 

Hambrick, Brad et al. Becoming a Church the Cares Well for the Abused. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2019. 

Slade, Darren M., Adrianna Smell, Elizabeth Wilson, and Rebekah Drumsta. "Percentage of U.S. Adults Suffering From Religious Trauma: A Sociological Study." Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry 5, no. 1 (2023): 1–28.

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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.

9 Christian Responses to Religious Trauma