I was in my church office. A woman, sitting in the chair across from me, was crying. My heart was breaking for her.
She had just confessed to me—apparently embarrassed and ashamed—that she felt enormous anger about the Bible. There were parts she couldn’t even bring herself to read!
Hearing her story, I wondered how she had hung in with the church for so long. She said it was because she loved Jesus; she was so moved by who Jesus is, and what He had meant in her life. But Paul! That was another thing. So many stories. So many verses, Paul’s verses mostly, that had been used to shut down conversation with her, to put her in her place, to explain her story away, to cut her out of community.
She wasn’t arguing with Paul or suggesting his ideas were culturally bound. This wasn’t an intellectual disagreement. This was pain! People had used these words to exclude and demean her. Whole sections of the Bible were clouded over in the fog of these experiences. Something meant to be life-giving has been used to harm, to limit, to silence and exclude.
She had experienced spiritual abuse. The words of the Bible have been used over and over again by people wanting to exclude, to shut down or control. The book becomes a bludgeon. Some people wielding the bludgeon even think they are helping, doing something in love. But instead of these words giving life, they do damage.
For some of us, the roadblock standing between us and the Bible isn’t the Bible at all. It’s emotional pain, wounds caused by people using the Bible as a weapon — against us or against people we love.
This is the highest, hardest hurdle of all.
If you have pain because the Bible was used to harm you, first I want to apologize to you.
The Bible contains the words of life (Technically, it’s JESUS that has the words of life (See John 6:68), but, we do learn of Jesus in the Bible.) These words are meant to bring us hope, to make us wise about the things that matter most, to revive our souls. Above all, these words are meant to show us Jesus.
It’s true that some of these words are hard, even confrontational and yet, when scripture leads us into hard truth, the process must still reflect the character of Jesus.
In Matthew 12:18-20, an Old Testament passage is applied to Jesus that tells us specifically about his methodology. He will not argue. He will not shout. He will not break a bruised reed or put out a smouldering wick. This was Jesus’ way. Jesus brought us God’s truth, but Jesus brought that truth in a way that never hurt the already-wounded.
So, if someone tried to deliver truth into your life in a way that was hurtful, whether their intention was to help or not, they blew it.
If scripture has been used by people to exclude you, to shame you, to silence you, then you have not experienced the hope I believe God intends these words to bring you. What you experienced should never have happened.
So, how can you move forward?
Steps toward healing.
Some people move forward by abandoning the Bible, even the Christian community, entirely. I can’t say I blame them. Churchs can be abusive, controlling, toxic places. Far too many are. When healing starts, the natural intuition is to run But it doesn’t have to be that way. How can you move forward?
1. Tell God Your honest truth.
Start with honesty. Acknowledge to yourself and to God what has happened for you. God’s able to take it. Yelling at God, saying that you’re angry at the Apostle Paul, that you were hurt by people who wear the label Christian, that you just want to run — if these are your truth, then tell God.
God’s not offended by any of this. Certain religious gate-keepers might be, but this is not about them. Telling your truth isn’t going to evaporate God in a puff of green smoke, or cause God to huff with wounded pride.
A meaningful relationship with God always begins in honestly. Any kind of relationship with the Bible can only make sense inside of an honest relationship wtih God. If you’re going to experience healing around your wounds, you must start with honestly about what happened and how it impacted you.
Quick aside: None of this is to discount any work that those who victimized you need to do. I’m not assuming they are free to go their own way, without accountability, justice or process of some kind. That’s a different conversation. I’m just talking with you about your personal process.
2. Face your pain and deal with it.
Too many of us, out of self-protection, have turned our pain inward allowing it to birth bitterness, cynacism, and greater isolation. As time passes, the wound hurts less. We think we’re over it. But then an unexpected news story or comment from a friend triggers that wound, and it’s as livid and painful as ever. We were not healed.
The only way forward is through. Face and deal with your emotional pain. What you need to do here will depend on the severity of your experience.
For some people, simply studying the texts that were used hurtfully is enough to help them move on. When you study those passages yourself, learning their context and historical background, it often brings a new perspective. You’ll likely discover that those very passages are understood differently by a variety of scholars. It is not uncommon to learn that the way the verse was used in your life has little connection with the context of the verse.
This brings something clearly into focus: Some Christians wield scripture as a way to justify their own authority. Some use scripture as a means of control and manipulation. When this becomes clear–especially if you learn the verses were used out of context, or without concern for the nuance of the text–you can hold the perpetrators responsible, instead of the text that was misused against you.
Never forget this: The Bible doesn’t belong to the Christians who hurt you.
Their interpretation of it is not the final word. If those people claim to be Christians, then they are accountable to a large community, presently and across time, that lives in submission to the Bible and in tension with it. Even Jesus challenged judgemental religious people who used scripture to justify themselves and condemn others.
Your experience may have been much more deeply wounding. Spiritual abuse, justified with the words of scripture, can be crushing to the spirit, punishing you for expressing one of God’s greatest gifts, spiritual autonomy. If this is your experience, you need emotional support and encouragement, likely even counseling. If you experienced spiritual abuse, there is help available. I’ve included links to some resources to get you started in the notes below.
3. Start where you are able.
It may help you to know that the Bible isn’t really a single book. It’s a library of books, written by a range of people across time and cultures. If one part of the Bible was used to hurt you, and you’ve not finished processing that wound, don’t give up. There’s plenty of Biblical material left.
Find a place that doesn’t trigger you, and start there. If the only thing you can do is read the 23rd Psalm over and over again, then just do that. Or maybe stick to the Gospel of Mark for a while. God is big. The Holy Spirit is present. Ask God to work through this with you. Slowly through grace and healing, expand your comfort zone.
4. Walk forward with friends.
You are not alone. Spiritual abuse is all too common. You can process your anger, your sadness, your grief with others who know the same story, even with people who have found healing and freedom.
There are Christian churches committed to healthy community and spiritual autonomy. They won’t tell you to pray harder to solve the problem. They won’t make you sign a contract where you give away your spiritual autonomy. They will listen, and cry with you. They will walk with you, and at your request, help you discern useful next steps. They won’t require you to be well when you’re not well yet.
Jesus made another promise that’s incredibly important to you at this time. Jesus promised that God would be present to us in the form of the Holy Spirit. Jesus didn’t promise the Holy Spirit only to people who successfully sit in a church pew four weekends a month, or to people who promise to read 25 verses of the Bible every day. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to all who receive Him.
The Holy Spirit is the One with the job of comforting, healing, and leading into truth. The Holy Spirit, like a gardener, is incredibly patient and mindful of the season. Trust God’s work in your life.
The Bible is a vital tool in coming to know God’s heart for you. When someone chose to use the words of scripture to wound you, they committed a grievous sin. They made it more difficult for you to access the very God-given tool meant to lead you to hope and life.
It’s tragic. It’s angering. It’s a painful loss. But it’s not the end. God is committed to You. So, don’t quit. Even if your steps are hesitant and unsure, keep walking forward.
This post is part of a series about ways we get in the way of our experience of scripture. The series is called Jumping the Hurdles.
- Maybe you need to ignore the rules in the Bible.
- Is the Bible human or divine? The problem is in your either/or question.
- 2 Reasons why using the Bible to prove your point is often wrong.
- Has familiarity with the Bible left you bored and jaded?
- New to the Bible? Wandering around confused?
- Why reading the Bible straight through is usually a bad idea.
- When the Bible has been used to bash, clobber or hurt you.
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are Affiliate Links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an infinitesimal affiliate commission, which I solemnly swear to spend on important boks and trivial electronics. Regardless, I only recommend products, services, or books that I have personal experience with and that I believe will add value to my readers. More information here.