For a religion that is supposed to be known “by their love”, it’s ironic how naturally friendship betrayal comes for many Evangelicals.
After being dumped by Christian friends, time and time again, I decided to reach out to some of my Exvangelical communities to see if I was doing something wrong, or if this was a widespread phenomenon. The responses I got were overwhelming. Heartbreaking horror stories rolled in one after another. I came across online forums discussing this very topic and read through paragraph after paragraph of family-like communities turning viciously on anyone who dared to be different. What I have read and witnessed can be described as nothing short of an epidemic within Evangelicalism.
While the situations surrounding each person’s deconstruction journey are different, there is a common thread running through each of them – and that is the soul-searing loss of once-precious relationships.
It makes sense when you think about it. As Evangelicals, we are taught that we are morally superior to “the world”, and logically if your morals are superior, you are a better person all around. And “the world” is anyone you disagree with.
When you go your whole life thinking everyone around you who sees things differently is “lost in darkness”, “living in sin”, “rejecting God’s will” and on their way to God-ordained eternal conscious torment, it’s impossible to treat those people as equally valid peers who have something of value to contribute to your life. When you are convinced that your views are 100% true, believe God is always on your side, and that you are waiting for an eternity of rewards and pleasure for figuring out “the truth” – it’s impossible for there not to be some level of arrogance and an unhealthy power dynamic between you and those you believe are wrong.
In addition, anyone who has spent any length of time in the Evangelical church will clearly remember the intense fear mongering toward being too close to anyone who wasn’t a “mature Christian”. I remember youth leaders standing on chairs and demonstrating how easy it was to be pulled down off the chair by a volunteer. “See?” They said. “This is what happens if you get too close to someone who doesn’t love Jesus. It is easier to pull someone down than to drag someone up.” And of course, by “love Jesus”, they meant someone who wasn’t only a Christian but the right kind of Christian.
Anyone who wasn’t on the inside was a dangerous threat until they were converted. We were led to believe that everyone who didn’t go to church had an agenda to corrupt those who did. “The world hates you”, they told us over and over.
Thus while extremely painful, it isn’t exactly surprising how often Exvangelicals’ closest friends recoil from us the minute they sense anything outside of a strict set of familiar dogmas.
I used to be like that myself. I remember how difficult it was for me as an Evangelical trying to be friends with people whose beliefs were different than mine. I could never relax around them. I always had to be “shining a light” and saying things that might “bring them closer to Jesus”. The relationships always had an agenda. I had to speak up if they said anything that was different than my own religious culture – otherwise, I was condoning it and not doing my job as a witness. I felt nervous around them, always on edge. My nervous system had been conditioned to sense danger around anyone who wasn’t exactly like my church prescribed.
Now I’m on the other side of it. I’ve been through ten or more very close friendship breakups with Christians who didn’t know how to treat me like an equal human being anymore once they noticed changes in my perspectives and choices. Most recently my closest friend of all, my decade-long bestie, my soul sister, my partner in crime – coldly ended our friendship after 4 excruciating years of treating me like her project. Heartbroken, exhausted, and starting to wonder what was wrong with me, I embarked on this journey of collecting stories from others with similar experiences. I found that bitter betrayals and hardhearted cruelty toward the people closest to you is a thriving Evangelical tradition.
For people who base their eternal fate on a belief in unconditional love, they sure do specialize in conditional love, convenient relationships and paper-thin commitment.
I’ve been ditched by every evangelical friend I’ve ever had, except for one, and they lean more liberal.
In high school I was betrayed by my two best friends for the scandalous decision to visit a guy friend with his family. Both girls spread vicious gossip and lies about me. One of them told me she couldn’t be close to me anymore because my reputation would affect hers by association. Reputation is currency in evangelicalism.
This experience was extremely traumatic for me and one of the major causes of my complex PTSD. I vowed I would never call anyone “best friend” again. I would be careful not to trust anyone too much going forward. No one felt safe anymore.
However, one year into college, I became close with a different young woman. I felt compatible and comfortable with her in ways I never had before. I didn’t have to impress her. She saw the real me and respected me for who I was.
We quickly became like soul sisters. We were each other’s safe place. We laughed and cried together. We always had each other’s backs. I started calling her best friend. For the first time, that phrase felt right and safe again.
I told her things I couldn’t tell anyone else. I learned what trust felt like. We listened to each others traumas. We would walk around holding hands and we’d sit in each other’s laps. We would talk for hours late into the night and we got our first place together. We dreamed of each other’s weddings and talked about having kids at the same time someday. We fantasized about growing old together. Time passed, and she was my maid of honor at my wedding. She helped me put on my dress and fetched me water and snacks. And before I had a chance to do the same for her, everything crumbled.
The catalyst? I told her I was bisexual.
I knew it was risky, but I trusted her.
As I had finally made peace with my sexuality, I couldn’t keep it inside any longer. The fullest version of me was bursting at the seams and I had to be fully known and seen for all of me.
Of all the people I could have gone to, I went to her. Of course I did. She was my platonic other half. Of all the people I would want to embrace me fully, it was her.
But after coming out, everything changed. My worst nightmare unfolded. My best friend developed an aloof vibe and conversations turned shallow. She went from being physically affectionate to avoiding my touch. She would act like a friend in private, but distance herself in public. She got more and more suspicious of me and my beliefs. When I asked her about the changes, she sent me a 15-paragraph email attacking my identity and claiming God was calling me to suffer. I told her I understood she didn’t agree, but I hoped she could accept me for who I am and at least be happy that I finally felt the most authentic I ever had. She responded saying “the most authentic version of [myself] was full of sin and brokenness.” I was crushed. So that’s what she thought of me. At my core, the true me was evil and defective.
Finally, after a very painful and uncomfortable 4 years the last straw was being almost completely ignored by her when my partner died, and I needed a friend more than ever. I finally stood up for myself and I sent her an email. I was very forthright and laid out the ways she was being unfair to me; asking if we could please sit down and talk about our friendship; possibly with a mediator present. I was hopeful that an in-person conversation together with someone we both trusted could finally bring healing. But instead, she ignored the email and now over a year later she has yet to talk to me since. I’ve heard through the grapevine that she’s telling people I was the one to end our friendship.
I guess that’s what I get for trusting an Evangelical… again.
Sadly, my story is not that shocking. I’m lucky it wasn’t worse. The fallout experienced by people deconstructing their faith is often catastrophic – filled with calculated attacks and sly manipulation from trusted loved ones.
To help demonstrate how truly pervasive this Evangelical epidemic is, I am highlighting the experiences of people from many different church denominations all over the country.
Below are the stories of more than twenty individuals I’ve talked with who deconstructed in some way and were rejected for it. They gave me permission to share their stories.
Now that I’m not closely involved in the ministry anymore, the only time I ever hear from my old friends is when they want money from me. They contact me now and then about supporting their ministry and that’s it. They never ask about my life or reach out for any other reason.
I’m a pastors wife that deconstructed – I lost every single friend, left the ministry. I still live in the same town, same house – but no one talks to me. My husband didn’t deconstruct with me and it was really hard. Luckily he isn’t super fundamentalist, but our church was. He left ministry and went into sales. Our church was hyper-fundamentalist and he realized that was not a healthy place for our family. Our conversations often got heated, but since we left that church and the pressure of ministry, it takes some of the intensity off since it’s no longer his job.
I was friends with C, S, J, L, B, L, M, C, K, D, and more.
The majority of these people had been in my life since we were toddlers. We were in a nondenominational and yet it was still an insular church community. Most of these folks are related to each other, and my family was not. We merely gave our lives and ministries to the church for 15 years.
There was a rush of drama where (not for the first time) several long-standing and committed families were forced out of the community with direct “do not contact” orders from the pastoral staff.
I was really disturbed by this. I had seen it happen all throughout my childhood to certain families or people who would be there one day and gone the next, but it was the first time I was an (almost) adult watching it happen.
The pastors brought me in for a private meeting where they said in no uncertain terms that I needed to cut contact with one of the families who they knew I was extremely bonded to. I expressed discomfort with that level of control, but I have very little recollection of that meeting.
My brother and I, weary of staff claiming that these were “demonic attacks,” against the pastors, decided that it was a good opportunity to move on. We tried so hard to leave things without damaging any deep and important relationships.
It will surprise no one that as soon as we were no longer Sunday / Wednesday presences we were completely cut off. I started university and moved to a new town. No one I’d known as family for 15 years reached out to check in. Not a single one.
We later found out from D that when we left, despite people being peaceful and “loving,” to our faces, they immediately spread lies and rumors about my family, and drug our names through the mud. He was so bothered by this that he ended up leaving himself.
I felt extremely foolish to think that we could leave and not have this happen to us. I felt even more foolish that I had attempted to maintain relationships with people who secretly thought very ill of me.
Unfortunately I didn’t only lose one friend, I lost my entire community and the only support system I’d ever known.
I was friends with Sarah for five years.
We were roommates and very close. We attended the same church, same Bible study, and volunteered on the same ministry team. I even introduced her to her now-husband and was in their wedding.
I came out as a lesbian and she was enraged. She told me the Bible doesn’t support it. I told her the Bible also doesn’t support forced-celibacy, but she said gay people don’t deserve marriage or intimacy. Then when I got offended and didn’t want to hang out with her as much, she started telling other people how much I had hurt her and created a rift between us.
We did an awkward dance of being sorta friends for a few months until I started dating my now wife. Sarah and her husband completely ignored my girlfriend despite attempts for them to meet and be friends. They even came to my house for dinner with her and didn’t speak to her.
I helped Sarah and her husband pack up their house and move out of state. At the end of the moving day, she took me out for coffee and asked where I would be moving since our lease was up. I told her I was moving in with my girlfriend. She got super angry and started yelling at me in Starbucks, saying how dare I act so sinfully. She said that while I would always be in her and her husband’s life, she said she can’t be friends with someone whose values don’t align with hers – because how could I impart wisdom and hold her accountable if I didn’t believe the same things?
They moved away that day 3 years ago and didn’t speak to me again until a few months ago when we were (unbeknownst to us) invited to the same dinner. She pretended nothing had happened and wanted to talk to me again, while still completely ignoring my wife. We then got into a huge fight with them because they were saying some really horrible things about other people in front of us. Turns out after they moved, they turned to fundamentalism and had gotten even worse.
They never once asked about my wife, our wedding, or our lives despite asking everyone else at the table about their recent weddings / lives. It’s like my entire life was invalid because I was gay and a sinner.
Sarah convinced several of my friends to act similarly and many of them are not friends with me anymore. I could go on forever about how I lost my church of 10 years. How they took my Bible study and community group…all because I asked a few too many questions about God and the Bible and was gay.
I haven’t heard from a single person at my old evangelical church since I left. I kinda figured that would happen after I had surgery a year or so prior, and I had told people in my Sunday School class I would have it, and still nobody checked in with me for the entire month or so that I was gone (and several were friends on FB). And I had done so for a few of them in the past.
We aren’t “Christian enough” for anyone these days. It’s because my wife and I joined a church that has ordained women pastors for over 100 years. We’re so tired of the misogyny in evangelical circles. It absolutely destroyed both of our childhoods and we don’t want to allow such bad theology around our daughters.
After I stopped going to church, I ran into one of my church friends and he totally ignored me. He wouldn’t speak to me or make eye contact.
I had been close friends with a gal since 10th grade through college. She happened to marry a pastor at the church where we both had gone to youth group. I moved back to town after college and attended the same church again for almost three years with my husband. We stopped attending that church, but didn’t make any statements or leave in any dramatic way. (It was a huge church, so no one except friends would ever miss you). I tried to keep in touch, but they always postponed, and never rescheduled. Eventually I stopped asking them to hang out, to see if she would ever think of me. Three years later, she hasn’t spoken to me once.
I was friends with Chet, Darian, Tom and several others.
I left for college and was moved into the “speak to at Christmas when she’s home and otherwise ignore” category, of what I thought was a tight-knit youth ministry group. I kept loose ties with some friends, all of whom were guys. The girls never bothered to carry on a friendship.
I left the faith, it’s been over a decade since all that. Same male friends are at this point married with kids. They no longer are allowed to talk to me because it would upset or anger their wives. For purely the reason that I’m a woman, as far as I can tell.
I met up with one guy friend at Starbucks to talk about potentially partnering on a work related thing and surprise, his wife was there with him and just kind of awkwardly sat there, and barely responded when I tried to include her in the conversation. It made the entire thing weird.
I’ve stopped trying. With all of them. With everyone I knew back then. And here I am, thinking today about how I have about 6 friends: half of whom I’ve met in the past year, 1 of whom is a liberal Christian, and the rest are atheist or Satanist. All of them treat me better than any Christian ever did.
I do have 3 friends I grew up in secular school with. They’re still my friends, even though we live in 4 different states and hardly see each other.
I lost my BFF of 15 years when I deconstructed.
My best friend was Luke, son of the pastor, for 5-6 years while I was attending church.
I started dating a daughter of another pastor, whom I introduced to my church. Her and I had sex (consensual and she had an insane libido) during our relationship.
Eventually she broke up with me, telling me I wasn’t Christian enough for her, and then she told the elders at my church I had abused her and forced her into sex and that’s why she had to leave me.
The whole church kind of shunned me at that point, started whispering behind my back. “Praying” for me. They believed her over me, even though they had known me and my character well for 5-6 years and didn’t know her very well. There were never any conversations to discover the truth, only shunning and judgement.
Then this girl I had dated, started dating my friend Luke. Between that and his father (pastor of the church) not allowing me to go over to their house anymore – Luke never spoke to me again.
Eventually all my church friends either left being evangelical too, or freaked out when I told them I was now atheist and we ended things.
I tried to stay close, but gave up when I realized my best friends of 20+ years could find every excuse in the world to cancel plans.
I haven’t heard from one single Christian friend. Sad, 12 years of “this is more than a church, it’s a family” turned out to be utter horse shit.
I became a Christian at 18, but had known Carlos for four years before that. When I became a Christian, Carlos and I became inseparable, but it wasn’t romantic at all—purely just best friends. Whenever anyone should see one of us without the other, they’d always ask where the other was. It was like that. We were quite the pair. We bonded over our shared belief in Christianity, but also over so much more. We would spend hours together talking and dreaming about our futures. I felt a lot of pressure to get married in order to have sex, but because I wasn’t the kind of girl the Christian guys wanted, I was having a hard time dating in the church. I watched in horror as friends I considered too young to marry settled down with people I didn’t feel they really fit with, just so they could have sex and not be living in sin. It didn’t sit right. After my mom passed away from cancer at 48, I started to pull away from the church. I also erroneously sought comfort in the arms of men, and started to see that I had romantic options outside of the church. Carlos ended up getting married, but his wife didn’t really dig how close we were. One night I was at their house having dinner and chatting, when I told them I thought the church was pressuring young people to settle down too early. His wife did NOT like this opinion, and neither did he. They asked me to leave. I was flabbergasted. A few days later they called me and said they prayed about it and felt Jesus didn’t want them to be friends with me anymore. 13 years of friendship with Carlos, gone, just like that. I am still brokenhearted about it, 13 years later.
I cried when telling my BFF that I was no longer a Christian because I was pretty sure underneath that, soon we would no longer be friends. Things changed instantly and though it took about 4 years for the friendship to die completely, we went from the kind of friends who drop in unexpectedly yet are always welcome, the friends who talk on the phone for hours and hours a week, the friends who know EVERYTHING about each other, to the “shiny happy must-witness it all moments” type of relationship immediately. I still grieve it at times, not gonna lie, especially as I see her from afar following well-worn paths into more and more cultic homeschooling and doing her best to be a robot and have no personality, while abusing / neglecting her kids. All I can say is, it takes a long time to get over such close friendships but it’s absolutely worth taking the loss, because it allows you to find other people who are much much more suited to you and will love you better.
After I left to work overseas, all my church friends vanished; even the ones I’d been living with at the time. It was like I didn’t exist.
But over time, I’ve realized something. I don’t attend church anymore, following a very hard stint in a Christian school. But I do still believe in God.
I think God needed to separate me completely from them in order to have the life I have now. They were going one path; I was going another.
My college friend and I were super close for the last 10ish years. We went through some tough stuff together and were deeply connected. We dreamed of starting a media studio together (me more than he, which played a large part in our distancing). Essentially I was expecting that we’d be tight for life.
I had been distant from church for 4-5 years, but we had gone to a Christian college and he knew a lot about my missionary kid experience. He asked me to help run sound for an event at his new church, to which I hesitantly said yes. One thing led to another and four years later I’m deeply involved in the church, volunteering 7-15 hours a week for free to basically receive zero recognition from anyone – not even my best friend who relied on me in that position. I asked him to request that I be a formal staff member being compensated for my skilled labor – I heard nothing for months. Asked again, nothing.
I sent my best friend a text saying I needed to step back from volunteering. I was burnt out and felt taken advantage of. His response was to bargain with me to offer a little extra time, or to search for someone we could pay to fill my spot. Like are you kidding me? I’ve been asking to be paid for over a year, and this is how you’re going to respond to me being burnt out? There was no friendship, no empathy, whatsoever.
There were a bunch of issues with the church itself, but my friend’s response was the last straw. My wife and I have since completely left the church and I’m back to where I should have never left – deconstructed. Except now I’m just more hurt than last time because I lost a friend to the cult (this church was definitely approaching cult status). It sucks, but I’ve felt so much less stress and pressure since leaving. I don’t feel like I need to perform or hide parts of myself to avoid difficult conversations. I removed their authority in my life and I’m definitely better for it.
Unfortunately I don’t have any friends from my old church anymore. These are people I’ve know for over 20 years and now there’s 0 contact.
I lost my entire church community just because I started dating someone they didn’t like. I hadn’t even given up my faith or changed my beliefs. I got kicked out of the Bible study leadership that brought so much purpose and meaning to my life.
I used to believe God led me to that community and to ministry leadership because it was so healing to me at the time. But people who claimed to speak for God showed me that wasn’t true. They took one of the few good things in my life, and snatched it away from me.
Everyone was talking about me behind my back and saying I was having a crisis of faith when I wasn’t. The only time I heard from anyone directly was when they were lecturing me and trying to change me. Later when my partner got really sick no one reached out to see how we were doing or offer support.
My dating relationship didn’t damage my faith but my Christian friends’ treatment of me did, and it ultimately led to me losing my faith – ironically. Now they are all just gloating over being right and no one talks to me. I lost everything because I loved someone.
At the time I was what some people would call a “baby Christian”. I wasn’t really sure what I believed but I knew that the ministry I was involved in meant the world to me and I really wanted to be able to give back by helping plan events and setting up for our weekly gathering. By joining leadership I could also attend the more intense Bible study classes available to leaders, and I was eager to learn more and figure out what I believed.
However, they told me I had to sign a very strict statement of belief to be involved. It was oddly specific and not something every Christian would believe. I told them I didn’t feel comfortable signing the document but I would be happy to write up a covenant that I could agree to be held by – with things such as having integrity and supporting the community’s goals of following Jesus.
They got upset and said I either had to sign it or I couldn’t be involved. I wanted to be able to sign it but I valued my integrity and I couldn’t lie. Their desire to have such specific control over the spiritual thoughts inside my own head took away my chance to learn more about Christianity at their leadership meetings.
I was treated differently from that point forward – either like a rebel or someone who didn’t exist. My faith slowly unraveled. My eyes had been opened to the hypocrisy and I started noticing all the ways that Christians treated other people really badly.
No one there talks to me now and I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore.
During college I was part of an on-campus student ministry. I found the group when I was going through a really difficult time in my life, so it felt meant to be. I went from being atheist to diving headfirst into Christianity within a few months. All the other ministry members seemed so excited to have me there and for the first time in my life I felt like I was special and included in something. I belonged.
The leaders gave me opportunities to serve, which felt really meaningful to give back to a community that was helping me so much. I grew really close and bonded to one of the pastors who became like the dad I never had. The pastors also started inviting me to their fundraising meetings at local churches where they were soliciting financial support for the ministry. Myself and a few other students were invited to come along and we could talk with church members about our story and the ways the ministry helped us. I felt so incredibly special to be chosen for this.
Everything was great for a while but I eventually started getting disenchanted when I noticed things like how the group was pretty cliquey and while I felt included in some ways, I also often felt misunderstood. I had several mental health diagnoses and no one seems to understand them or try to learn about them. Instead my symptoms were often described as “immaturities”.
I also didn’t seem to receive much help or support in anything that wasn’t strictly spiritual. For instance I was struggling in school but no one seemed to care that much. Instead I was encouraged to be more motivated and organized, as if it was solely my fault, and I was kept from certain leadership activities until I could meet certain goals in school. I felt punished.
I also never really felt like the ministry believed in me with some of my personal goals such as my dream of becoming an artist. It seems like no one thought that was reasonable and instead they talked to me about going into ministry as a career.
Over time I started questioning and rethinking things and once the leaders noticed that, my status immediately changed. I was no longer invited to come to their fundraising meetings and I was not invited into certain leadership positions that I had been working toward for a long time.
I started to realize that when I felt so valued before I might have just been the token example of a “changed life”. My presence in their ministry made them look good. But now my presence was a scourge on their reputation. The more I questioned and doubted the further my relationship drifted away, and the more I was rejected the more I questioned.
The pastor I had been so bonded to, completely stopped talking to me when I graduated. I would email him sometimes and he would either send back a very short reply or not at all. I was crushed. Apparently I was just part of his job.
Also a lot of the things I was taught, such as God always taking care of me and looking out for me, never seemed to be true for me and others who were less privileged. I think a lot of “God’s Blessings” and “God’s Perfect Plan” in people’s lives were economic privilege and able-bodied privilege, so things just always worked out easier for them and they credited God for it. My life was harder and they assumed I wasn’t following God well enough.
God never seemed to come through for me, and God’s people certainly haven’t stepped up in his place, so at this point I’m just exhausted and brokenhearted and don’t identify with being a Christian anymore.
If my own life experiences and the stories of others have taught me anything, it is that Evangelicalism at its core, whether intentionally or not, values principles over people. It cares more about the opinions of others than the pain of others. It loves religion more than relationships, and it will always put tradition before truth. If we want to end religious trauma and church-based complex PTSD, this is the single most important thing that has to change. Love and acceptance for people must come first. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor; he never said we must love our religion.
“I’ll always be your pastor”
When I left my parents’ church to move to a progressive town a few hours away, one of the pastors met up with me to give me some ‘parting wisdom’. Apparently this meant including a 10 minute lecture on how I, as a woman, should not be taking the “theology and pastoral classes” I had briefly mentioned in a group setting a few days prior. That was bad enough, but as we were wrapping up he said “No matter where you go or what you do, I’ll always be your pastor”.
My heartbeat quickened, I bit my lip and glanced at the floor…
His announcement might sound sweet to some, but for me it was a jarring reminder that escaping would be much more difficult than merely moving away. No matter what I believed or how I changed, this man would always view himself as having spiritual authority over me. How I felt about it wasn’t relevant.
One of the most basic human rights is the ability to choose who governs us. This is the foundational principle of democracy. But this man was stripping that right away from me. It didn’t matter if I wanted him to be my pastor or if I wanted a pastor at all. He was declaring himself my pastor and he would insert himself into that role in my life any chance he got.
This communication pattern extends beyond human-to-human relationships:
“God will always love you and pursue you to the ends of the earth. God will never give up on you even when you give up on Him. God will always find you, even in the darkest corner or the deepest pit.”
At first this popular sentiment sounds encouraging; a reminder of faithfulness and loyalty, someone you can count on. But not only does it register low-key stalker vibes, it shouts out blatant disregard for an individual’s personal feelings about their own spirituality. What if I don’t identity as religious anymore? What If I don’t want your God chasing me down?
As a hipster youth pastor might put it: “You can’t block God’s number. He’ll call you on the weekend, he’ll call you in the middle of the night, and he’ll keep ringing until you pick up! Will you answer God’s call?”
This huge emphasis on an omnipotent, omnipresent, morally-demanding God wires our brains to feel vulnerable to divine advances. The idea of God as a force that cannot be stopped means that God can follow us to places people cannot. God can invade our thoughts and feelings any time of day. God can read our minds. God is always watching, always listening, always at work, even inside our own bodies. There is no privacy, no secrets, no actual autonomy. It’s like being haunted, stalked, devoured by a hungry parasite.
One must admit, it’s a brilliant tactic for discouraging people from leaving the church’s control: “Why leave? There’s no point. You can’t ever REALLY leave, anyway. No one can snatch you out of the Father’s hands, not even yourself. Besides, leaving will make you miserable so why not just stay?”
It’s a grand scheme motivating church members to self-police and turn themselves in; all under the guise of confession and following your conscience. The more congregants self-police (and police each other) the easier the leaders’ jobs are in maintaining control.
These manipulation tactics don’t apply only to authority figures and their subjects. It infiltrates peer relationships as well.
A painful memory seared in my mind goes like this:
“Because I’m a true friend and I love you, I promise I will always speak the truth to you, even when it’s hard, or not what you want to hear.”
At first glance, it seems a loyal friend is pledging their allegiance; expressing commitment to their friend’s well-being over their own personal comfort.
However, Evangelicals have been trained to be quite comfortable saying “uncomfortable things”.
The lived-out practical meaning of these words, however, is much more damaging.
In my case, this phrase from my (now former) best friend of 10 years was followed by a 13 page email attacking my core identity and claiming that the “most authentic form of [myself] is full of sin and brokenness”. It’s clear that the following would be a more accurate way of explaining what it means to “speak the truth in love”.
“I will keep voicing my disapproval of your life and your identity over and over, no matter how much pain it causes you. I won’t be quiet even if you ask me to. I will not respect your boundaries. Because I’m claiming love, I can excuse my continued harassment of you as my Christian duty. Since I’ve determined your moral stance is inferior to mine, I will expect you to listen to me while I refuse to listen to you. I’ve decided you could lead me astray so I ignore your perspective all the while pointing to you as the hardhearted one. The only way we can ever have a reciprocal friendship again is if you conform to everything I think and believe.”
Twisting the definition of love as in this example, conditions us to expect overbearing and disrespectful behavior from those who claim to love us. As a result, there’s a huge overlap between those with church backgrounds and those who experience abusive relationships. Calling this spiritual harassment “love” is gaslighting and an attempt at convincing us the unpleasant feelings we experience come from our own guilty consciences instead of unfair treatment.
Perhaps the most surprising “Christian threat” is also the most common.
“I’ll pray for you.”
What could be wrong with that? They just want to help, right?
The motives behind this phrase – as with any of the phrases I’ve mentioned – could be benevolent. But that doesn’t negate the sense of violation and danger many will experience hearing it.
Unsolicited prayer is an attempt to make something happen to someone without the consent of that person it would be happening to.
To many of us, instead of “I’ll pray for you” we hear:
“I will use my buddy-buddy closeness with God – a deity who has been used to terrify and control you – to make things happen to you that you would never ask for yourself. You can’t stop me from making these requests on your behalf, so you’d better stay on my good side. I might pray against the things that make you the most happy. I might pray for God to change the ways your body seems unacceptable to me. I might pray for terrible things to happen to you, but only to break you down to the point that you accept my religion.”
It’s no wonder religious trauma survivors struggle with feeling safe even years after stepping in church for the last time.
Religious abuse uses spirituality – which can’t be contained by the laws of time and space and has no real definition or limit – to harass, shame and terrify.
Once a victim is conditioned to believe that anything is possible and nothing can stop “God’s Will” (which conveniently always matches the abuser’s will) it’s very difficult to ever feel separate from that threat and truly safe.
A good beginning step toward safety and healing, though, is:
“No, you are not my pastor.”
Why was I the one who got away?
Was I somehow special?
Was I just lucky to be exposed to a different viewpoint? No…I’ve seen others presented with the same information and respond differently.
Why did I leave?
Was I different from birth?
Is there something in my genetics that makes me question everything? Something that makes me less likely to follow blindly? No… my sister has the same genetics and she continues to dive deeper in.
Why did I have the epiphanies?
Did an outside force change me along the way?
Did something happen in my childhood that made me realize something wasn’t right? No… My sibling and I shared most of the same childhood experiences and I’m the only black sheep.
Why did I wake up to the inconsistencies, harsh judgments and lies?
Am I more compassionate? Certainly more than some, but no… that’s not it – I know plenty of compassionate, misguided people.
Why did I learn to think for myself when I was trained not to, and the cost was so incredibly high?
Am I wiser? Bestowed upon by the Spirit? No…that doesn’t seem right. I’ve seen many people ask God for wisdom, yet come away with different conclusions.
Why did I rebel when I was always so obedient before?
Was I chosen? By whom? No…I doubt it. Certainly there are others more capable who could have been called out and enlightened. Those with more bravery, charisma, charm…
Why did I escape?
Where did I find the strength to willingly lose everything? How did I gain the resolve to pick apart my entire reality? Perhaps I was equipped by the God I was accused of rejecting. But no…It doesn’t make sense for God to rescue me and not the others.
Why was I given a second chance at life, even while I was so narrow-minded? Where did I learn to start again from scratch?
Am I following my true calling now? No…I’m not doing anything grand – just taking care of myself and my loved ones and trying to be happy.
Why do I now have this life I call my own?
Why do I get to finally say I am safe? Scarred and broken, but free?
Was it just some random happenstance? A meaningless coincidence? No…I feel a sense of purpose deep in my bones, and though my life isn’t impressive somehow it is still enough. Back then, I was never enough.
Am I special?
Am I lucky?
Am I different?
Am I chosen?
Am I called?
I will never know
I will always wonder
The same religion that touts One True God, has created gods everywhere you look.
The man on the pulpit – his beliefs are Gospel Truth. It doesn’t matter what other pastors say – whatever church you happen to be attending at the time is always the right one. The politician your town supports – his platform is unquestionably God’s “heart” for the community. Voting against him is rejecting God’s will. The neighbor who looks over their fence disapprovingly, sneers for God. You shouldn’t have been mowing your lawn on the Lord’s Day – simple as that. Their convictions are strong because they are “in step with the Spirit”. The mother of your friend who has never talked to you but talks to everyone else about you – her viewpoint is God’s. Apparently you have done something wrong and caused upheaval in the community. Fundamentalist religion, specifically Evangelicalism, has created a generation of weary followers serving a million Gods.
As a child raised in religion, you learn to always look outside of yourself for who you should be, how you should act, what you should like and do and eat and wear and feel and think and hear and want. What’s real and true and good is always outside of yourself. From the lectures preached on Sundays to the catchy song lyrics reminding us “there is nothing good in me” to the droning murmurs of gossip keeping us in line, we are always seeking or receiving guidance from “out there”. Self-trust is non-existent.
Those of us unlucky enough to be born into a religion we didn’t choose for ourselves, have from infancy been warned by parents and youth leaders, friends and grandparents, teachers and acquaintances to “be careful to guard your reputation” and “avoid the appearance of evil”. What this means in practice is avoiding anything that anyone else can misconstrue or decide they don’t like. While there are a host of loud rules and thousands more quiet ones, its still impossible to predict every possible way other church folks could potentially judge us or misrepresent us. So we live in fear and walk on glass, afraid to step an inch in the wrong direction. We’ve all seen what happens to those who do venture one step too far. We have all watched with a knot in our stomach as our friend or cousin or classmate or the kid next door is torn to pieces by people we both mutually loved. We look on as the divergent is shunned, harassed, put in their place – at the mercy of a hundred Godly Iron Fists.
I can’t count the number of times throughout my childhood where I was criticized by my own mother for insignificant “flaws” because she was attempting to keep me safe within the small box of acceptable behavior enforced by our church community. Her criticisms were meant to keep me from being ripped apart the way she and so many others already had been, but rather than feeling safe I instead developed extreme anxiety and self-loathing. Unfortunately, my experience is common within high-demand religions.
Childhood and young adulthood for me was a constant losing game with an ever-present referee. I couldn’t get anything right. If my skirt accidentally hiked up even an inch and my slip showed a little underneath, soon Mom’s voice would hiss in my ear “pull your skirt down, you don’t to flash the entire church!” If I didn’t smile enough it was “cheer up! You don’t want anyone thinking you’re grumpy or mean!” If I talked or laughed too loudly “Hush! Be a lady!” One day I wanted to wear my hair in two braids because I thought it was fun, but was met with a disapproving look and “That hairstyle looks too young; you don’t want people thinking you’re immature do you?” – every criticism was yet another proof that I always messed it up, I always got it wrong. I was never enough – out in the community or inside my own home.
Unbeknownst to my mom, she had made the entire church her God – and by default, so had I. It was something everyone did. That’s just how it was. The people around us became our measuring stick for whether or not we were acceptable. Out of necessity of avoiding shunning and retaliation, we bowed to the desires of our fellow congregants. We offered sacrifices at the Altar of Opinions and we appeased the God of Gossip. We drank the wine of People Pleasing and lit the Candles of Hollow Showy Facades. We worshiped the God of Volunteerism and showed up multiple times every week regardless of how we felt. We submitted to the God of Money and wrote checks every week in faith. We sang the Praises of the Pastors and defended the High-Status Church Members. We were servants to the whims of Christian Moods on any particular day and people we thought were our friends filled the role of Merciless and Unpredictable Dictator. And all of them were bound by the same chains we were. No one was free, except maybe the power-holders at the very top of the hierarchy, and maybe the hypocrites who did whatever they wanted behind closed doors. Everyone else was a slave to each other and those at the top. We ratted each other out and turned each other in to gain the leaders’ trust and buy some time before it was our turn at the Chopping Block. Face-to-face it was always polite niceties, and behind backs it was a free-for-all; stepping on others to climb a little higher and feel a little safer. Anything to get ahead was fair game.
The result of living like this for decades, especially during your formative years, is hyper-vigilance toward real or imagined threats mixed with self-doubt and chronic anxiety.
That anxiety is crippling – even around simple decisions like ordering at a restaurant. “What is everybody else ordering?!” You frantically scan the room, eyes darting, brow furrowed. “Is this flavor weird, or is it okay?” Breath is shallow and quick. “What if I want a side? Is that splurging too much? What are other people doing? What do they expect of me?”
Suffocating fear and long-term denial of self manifests as waking up one day and realizing you are completely disconnected from your own opinions, preferences and desires. You don’t know yourself or what you like because the people around you have always been a god-like force perfectly representing God and God’s Complicated Will. Your entire life’s purpose has always been serving and pleasing God and representations of God, and never yourself. This can make day-to-day questions difficult because you honestly don’t know the “right” answer: “What do you want to do tonight?” a friend or partner asks. “Where would you like to eat? Do you want to sit inside or go for a walk?” Stammering, going blank, you desperately search for any clues on what you are supposed to say. “Oh, whatever you like!” you hear yourself saying. “I’m flexible, I’m down for anything!” Phew! You bought yourself some time.
What most church people think of as selflessness, flexibility, a servant’s heart, or being nice, is actually total bewilderment toward the mystery that is your own self. You know hundreds of ways to serve the God of Approval but you don’t even know yourself.
So answering with a knee-jerk “whatever you like” is less about being humble and open-handed and more about slavery to a God who constantly shape-shifts into your friends, your neighbors, church acquaintances and even the unsuspecting waitress at the corner cafe.
After finding the strength to leave, you will make the startling discovery that this living hell isn’t confined by church walls, Christian town limits or Red State borders. It etches itself into our brains and follows us anywhere we go for years, if not for life. It haunts us in our dreams and whispers in our ears sitting in traffic or standing in line at the grocery store. To your dismay, the shape-shifting God even morphs into your boss at the secular job you really like, or transforms into the friendly Buddhist lady next door.
Many of us feel discouraged and confused when religious triggers torment us in neutral settings that have never been dangerous. We often still feel the need to appease non-fundamentalist people we meet. Because I had been monitored and sheltered well into my twenties, it was only as an adult that I made any friends with a different background than mine. I then discovered world events I had technically lived through but never heard of before – learning about them now as historical events. I stared blankly as English conversations turned into pop-culture-reference-gibberish and I awkwardly laughed along, hoping my feigned reactions were contextually appropriate.
This big, bright, busy and beautiful world was so foreign and unfamiliar and scary but it was real. It was the real world I had missed all along. My mind, wired to always serve a God outside of myself, grasped onto what I was observing and concluded, “Ah! This must be the “true” way of doing things. This is what I need to do.” I took in everything I could: “How do normal people dress? How do normal people talk? What do they like? What’s the right kind of music to listen to? Do I need to follow celebrities and understand football?” Suddenly, the God of Church People was replaced, and the accepting, progressive world became my God. But this replacement escaped my conscious awareness. The opinions of other people still mattered more than anything and it dictated my life, regardless of whether they actually cared about my choices at all. Other people’s perspectives were automatically more valid than mine, even on inconsequential things like a coffee order.
It took years to realize that as a recovering Evangelical, my brain was wired to imprint God onto almost anything outside of myself. Like a hatching baby duck “choosing” it’s mother, I was trained to follow after others and learn the right way from them, regardless of whether they actually had any expertise.
This myriad of false Gods kept popping up at unexpected times and places. Typing at my work computer, when my boss looked over my shoulder my heart rate soared as I wondered what mistakes he was catching – even though I was skilled at my job. When I cooked a meal and shared with friends, simple reactions such as “what’s this?” or “oh, this is interesting” sent me spiraling that I must not have made the food to standard. There was no such thing as different but equally valid. It was right or wrong, good or bad. Somewhere “out there” there was a correct way to cook and a correct set of foods that were delicious and healthy and desired and these apparently weren’t it. I had gotten it wrong again.
With my church of origin being unsurprisingly homogeneous I had been exposed to very little variety in personal expression. “Different, but Equally Good” was a foreign concept.
One right way and a million wrong ways is a life spent in church, with the anxiety of a million potential missteps. That is the legacy of the church and the inheritance for children of the church. It’s a powerful curse that afflicts Evangelicals and those who try to leave Evangelicalism far behind. It permeates spheres of life it has no business invading and smashing this curse is a holy calling.
To do that, I look for ways to assert myself and my preferences and put myself in situations where I have to trust my instincts and use my voice. I tell myself and my fellow survivors, “You are good, you are whole, your opinions are just as valid as anyone’s and whatever makes your healthy and happy is right. Your soul is divine and you can trust it. You deserve to be celebrated.”
There’s a certain guilt that comes from being an Exvangelical – a pervasive guilt that’s hard to shake. It’s difficult to forgive ourselves for being different, or for how those differences became a catalyst of upheaval in our families and communities. The guilt and grief over the loss of how things could and should have been, is what this poem struggles through.
I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you wanted
I tried so hard – strained and pretended
I know you wanted someone perfectly obedient
I’m sorry I grew up stubborn and dissident
I know you wanted calm, collected and cool
I’m sorry I was born with a fire in my soul
I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you wanted
you wanted a believer, but I never really bought it
Is that why you mistreat me so?
Because I have a mind of my own?
I can’t help feeling worthy of love
Sometimes I wish I never saw through your cover-up
I’m sorry I couldn’t ever be what you wanted
I can’t just plug my nose and drink the Kool-Aid
I’m sorry I’m so hungry for a truthful answer
It would be easier if I didn’t know I deserved better
I’m sorry I couldn’t be a tool for you to use
I’m sorry I’m such a difficult person to abuse
I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you wanted
If religion is contagious, I guess I never caught it
I’m sorry I’m not easier to manipulate
I’m no good at accepting the reality you create
I’m sorry my existence is so disappointing
I didn’t mean for my healing to be so annoying
I’m sorry I was never able to earn your love
I did everything I knew how, but it wasn’t enough
I’m sorry my happiness makes you so uncomfortable
But I didn’t expect your hatred to be so palpable
I never wanted to be the one to shake things up
I just thought you’d want to fix something so corrupt
I’m sorry I could never be what you wanted
I know what you expect of me, but what if I don’t want it?
I’m sorry my authenticity is so embarrassing
I thought you’d agree my true self is worth cherishing
I’m so sorry – I don’t know what went wrong
I swear my choices have been Spirit-led all along
I’m sorry I wasn’t able to become who you wanted
I don’t know why my opinions make you feel taunted
Sometimes I wonder if I was better off not asking why
I’m sorry I can’t go with the flow, when it means settling for a lie
Why do I have to be different? It’s no easy task
But I think that’s probably also what the prophets asked