Terrific People Taught Me Terrible Things: Why That Place of Worship Didn’t Have to Mean It to Hurt You

Hey there, everyone! Hope your 2016’s been warm and furthering this far. It’s been a busy, draining start for me, hence why this article is out a little later than usual.

In the weeks since I last posted, I’ve been wrestling with a near-accusatory thought: maybe I shouldn’t be blogging about my ex-Christian experiences (experiences?) if my church leadership wasn’t deliberately abusive. If the people there are… mostly wonderful. If they didn’t mean to teach me things that would hurt me so much, nearly two decades later.

What happens when a loving church (/temple/mosque/etc.) teaches you abusive things?

I don’t really… know how I feel about the people of my ex-church. I’ve come to associate them, I think, with the traumatic things that happened to me in their midst because I was forced to be in their midst. With the ideas, which I now believe to be screwed up and abusive, that they taught or learned with me. With the ways we brought those ideas to life.

But I also see, when I look at them, laughter. I see almost two decades of running jokes, soccer games, playdates, New Year’s Eve parties, summer camps, Friday nights. I see vulnerability, trust, and joy. I don’t see the categorical control that other ex-Christian bloggers talk about. I don’t see organized abuse. I see, for the most part, truly good intentions.

I see a roomful of nice people steeping me in abusive thought for eighteen years and traumatizing me for three months without ever knowing it.

What if they didn’t mean it?

There aren’t many people talking about this (that I know of.) About whether it’s still abuse if your abusers didn’t mean it. If they didn’t know. And however many bloggers or advocates there are talking about unintentional abuse, there are way fewer talking about what happens when a loving community teaches you abusive ideas.

Because what if my church leaders weren’t charismatic authorities who controlled my every move? What if my church family wasn’t a crowd of homophobic hatefuls steeped in vitriol and prejudice?

What if they’re nice people? What if they’d be shocked if they knew what belief in their god did to me?  What if they loved me, the whole way through?

If it’s hurting you, it’s bullshit

The road to hell, as you’ve probably heard by now, is paved with good intentions. For me, it was also paved with evangelical pamphlets, a campground ban on different-sex frontal hugs, Mommy, Why Don’t We Celebrate Halloween?, purity workbooks, and a horde of remarkably messed up ideas about self-worth.

As an ex-Christian escaping indoctrination, one of the biggest obstacles I face is reality confusion. A big chunk of that is doubt – not of the church or its ideas, but of myself. If I sincerely believed all that for fifteen years, with every confidence imaginable, who’s to say that what I believe now isn’t bullshit as well? What if the whole secular world got it all catastrophically wrong too? 

Truth is? I don’t. I don’t know if social justice perspectives or my therapist’s thoughts are true. But what I can do is look at how and why I realized that Christianity was full of it. It was because of how many ways it hurt me. Maybe my new worldview… isn’t correct either. Maybe there isn’t such a thing as a correct worldview. Maybe it only matters if it’s limiting me – or abusing me.

Because even though my parents wanted to protect me from disease and heartbreak when they had me poke water balloons to demonstrate the effect of sex on my purity, I still developed crushing terror and embarrassing cluelessness around the act. 

Because even though elders and youth leaders was sincere when they taught us about the emptiness and futility of a secular life,  I am still discovering that daring to live without God is one thousand times freer.

Because even though my Sunday School teachers genuinely believed what they said when I learned that I was totally depraved and a worthless rag (but also precious and created in God’s image) growing up, facts remain that “you’re nothing without me” is a tactic that abusers often use on their victims, and it created a toxic, splintered view of my young self.

It doesn’t matter if they meant it, it happened

What I’m coming to realize is that it’s okay if my church wasn’t abusive. It’s okay if they don’t preach against same-sex marriage with fiery malice. It’s okay if they didn’t manipulate, control, or deliberately alienate.

Maybe sometimes with abuse, intentions are not the deciding factor. Maybe the consequences are. If someone hurts you, they hurt you, and your being hurt does not make you “too sensitive,” and it does not make it your fault.

How much you forgive and how you choose to move forward is up to you, and however you do, you are not a bad person or survivor. This is what I’m learning. This is what I believe.

What do you believe? I want to hear your stories, your scorn and self-doubt, your anger and forgiveness. If you want to share (no matter your situation or religion), comment – I’d love to hear ya.

2 thoughts on “Terrific People Taught Me Terrible Things: Why That Place of Worship Didn’t Have to Mean It to Hurt You

  1. Hey there, Max. I’m in the process of [possibly ] deconverting as well. I don’t feel bravery to “come out ” as non Christian just yet, but I have expressed some of my doubts and I’m exploring my views in an account on Tumblr that for now is separate from my facebook. I don’t wish to be identified.

    I’m actually just now experiencing being a part of the church social life and I quite like it. I was raised in a very closeted environment- homeschool, Bible study everyday, social isolation. I’m in therapy too, working through the wreckage.

    Strangely enough, I had nothing going on in my life specifically to make me want to “turn from God” just a pervasive sense of futility at life and reoccurring doubts. I was never given any option but a narrow mindset of Christianity to go through.

    There is a saying I like, “We know us by our intentions; they know us by our actions “. In the end if actions cause harm, intentions are secondary.

    I hope you find what you’re looking for!


    1. Hey A Woman Apart – sorry for such a late reply! I just saw this comment, and I’m glad you made it. “Working through the wreckage” is so spot on, by the way. I feel that.

      Yeah, church social life can definitely have its pluses. I loved my church community; there’s something special there that I haven’t found anywhere else, and I don’t think I ever will.

      I think that’s what makes “working through the wreckage” even harder – knowing that intentions were best, and execution was… worst. I love what you said about intentions being secondary to actions; it’s so true, and in light of the “You Must Forgive or You’re Selfish” narrative always pressed on us, it’s still hard to accept.


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