It hit me recently that the “God” I worshipped my whole life was an abuser. No wonder I had a crisis of faith. It turned out to be a crisis of faith in an abuser god, and I ultimately walked away from him in order to follow Jesus.
Let me walk you through the ways the god I grew up with was an abuser. I’m going to take the characteristic behaviors of emotional and spiritual abusers found in my book, Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage, and I’ll show how the god I grew up with had those same characteristics.
It’s been said that we become like the god we worship. If that’s true, we have to ask ourselves why abuse is prevalent in some church denominations. Jesus is not abusive, so who are they worshipping? I believe that when we worship this abuser god, we become like him. This abuser god is the devil. Satan. The enemy. Evil. The dark side. Whatever you want to call him. But he represents his pack of wolves, and he models how to hide in the soft, white wool of a sheep so most people won’t recognize him. He teaches his followers how to do the same thing.
He is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. And I worshiped him because I was told he was the one true god.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s under the white wooly exterior of this god, but before we do let me make something clear. This god I worshipped was the god I was taught to worship in my religious circles. I don’t believe the god they taught me about exists. I don’t believe the Bible teaches all the things they told me it teaches. I discovered that anyone can twist the Bible to say whatever they want it to say. The devil did this when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness and in the garden before His death.
Also, I don’t believe everyone in those religious circles is abusive. Not by a long shot. I believe they are deceived just like I was. They are held captive in a prison, but there is no lock on the door. They can walk out at any time, but they don’t. Why not? Because they believe it’s good in that prison. They believe their god when he says they should stay there.
They believe lies. No locks necessary.
Speaking of lies – that’s where we’ll start.
An abuser is dishonest.
He leaves out information with the intent to mislead or hide something from you.
The god I was taught about didn’t tell me exactly what I needed to do to be sure, for sure, for SURE, for sure that I was saved. He gave mixed messages—sometimes saying that His love and grace saved me, and sometimes saying my good behavior saved me, or at least kept me saved. And if I got it wrong or missed something by ignorance or blindness or stubbornness, I was out of luck.
For example, when I decided to divorce my earthly abuser, one of the elders at my church told me I didn’t know god. It turned out he was right. I didn’t know his god anymore. I left the abuser god when I left my abuser husband.
People have worshipped this god all throughout history. They call him by different names, but they never know for sure what they need to do to get good crops or healthy babies. Cut themselves? Sacrifice their oldest son? Burn incense? Bow down a certain number of times each day and say a chant? The rules are different in all the religions, but the point is, this god is abusive. And I worshipped him in my church in hopes of appeasing him and giving him glory.
An abuser says he will do something, but he doesn’t always follow through on those commitments.
The god I knew about told me if I grew my kids his way, they would become mighty men and women in his kingdom. So I fed them on a schedule and let them cry when they were sad. I spanked them and home-schooled them and isolated them from the world.
But that god didn’t come through for me. My kids grew up with problems, like everyone else. They grew up confused about what love meant. They grew up insecure and full of fear and shame. I loved those kids more than my life. I followed all. the. rules. And we are mopping up messes just like most families.
An abuser inflates his own good deeds while disrespecting and dismissing your efforts.
He wants you to notice and praise him for normal adult behavior while at the same time criticizing your hard work to hold everything together.
I was told my god created me for one reason only. To talk about how awesome he was and how ugly and stupid and diseased with sin I was. It didn’t matter how hard I tried to make my family happy, to make my church happy, to make my friends happy, to make my neighbors happy, to make my husband happy, to make my god happy, to make the world a better place to be. My work was as filthy rags before him, and I lived in a perpetual state of failure and shame before a holy god who despised me/loved me – no wait – he could not look at me – no, he could because of Jesus, but wait – only if I was obeying, but only the right rules, and hold on, they were changing again…
Sigh. Life was exhausting with that god. And hopeless.
An abuser shames you for your preferences.
You aren’t allowed to be you. You aren’t allowed to show up.
The god I knew about wanted me to shrink to nothing. To disappear and die. To lay down my life–not to live it. And if I did show up, that god would call me a Jezebel. If only I could be the apple of His eye – like David. If only I wasn’t a woman.
An abuser turns a discussion into an argument and blames you for intentionally starting that argument.
I was taught that god was represented by authority figures who loved to engage in theological arguments. They were always right, of course. If I had a different idea, I was shot down as a stupid, rebellious idiot. This god was pleased if I just sat quietly with my mouth shut. But also – please smile and look like all is well no matter what.
An abuser ignores your efforts to connect unless he feels like it.
He avoids eye contact when you are talking to him. He may sigh or scoff and use facial and body language that indicate his disinterest and annoyance toward you.
It was the oddest thing, but I could only be close to my god when I had made everyone around me happy. Then, and only then, was he pleased with me. Anything I might say was suspicious and certainly not of value. My god wouldn’t let me preach a sermon or even teach a Sunday School class if it had men in it. I was only a woman. Less than. My god didn’t give value to my intellect, my ability, my gifts, my passion, my vision, my education, or my words. My god loved men and himself and wanted me to give glory to both. I was just a bit better than a dog because I could make my family PBJ’s.
An abuser blames you for the things he himself needs to take responsibility for.
I was taught my god created human beings knowing full well they would sin, and then he picked and chose which ones he wanted to save while blaming those he didn’t pick and sending them all to hell to burn forever. I was terrified that I hadn’t been picked. Maybe I was a Christian wannabe? How could I know for certain? And what about my children? That was even more terrifying. Did I just bring nine kids into the world to burn in hell if my god didn’t choose to save them? What could I do to convince this terrifying god to save my children? The nightmares I had while worshipping this god almost put hair on my chin. Actually it did. No, wait. That’s just menopause.
An abuser puts his own interests above yours.
I was taught my god was only interested in his glory. Not in the suffering of the world. If I was suffering, it was for his glory. I should be glad to suffer and even hope to experience more suffering so as to bring him more glory. The more I suffered, the happier my god was. I loved a psychopath deity.
An abuser is critical of your interests, hobbies, choice of clothing, personal style, friendships, fears, hopes, and dreams.
The god I knew didn’t want me to sing (that was trying to get attention), do drama, dance, speak, or put myself “out there” in any way. First, I was only a woman. Second, if I did that, I was an attention-seeking, glory-robbing, self-centered opportunist. So I stayed home and raised nine children hoping to make a difference in the world through them. Maybe my god would want them to put themselves out there. I hoped so. But what if he didn’t choose them? My brain went around in endless circles of anxiety.
Abusers are unavailable when you need them most, such as during pregnancy or following the birth of a baby or the death of a family member or friend.
The god I believed in seemed to disappear when things went south. I learned it was because I hadn’t pleased him somehow. I allowed my exhaustion to get the best of me. I let people down so I could nurse my baby in the back room. My god expected me to rise to every occasion. To be strong, long-suffering, patient in tribulation, and always singing with joy. To bring the right pie on Thanksgiving. And sometimes I didn’t do those things. I failed. And he disappeared.
An abuser controls your time, your resources, your energy, your friendships, and your choices.
I was told my god demanded that I do whatever my authority told me to do with my life. (My authority faithfully taught me this.) My choice was stripped from me. Instead of doing what I felt deep inside resonated with who I was created to be, I was required to do what my authority dictated if I wanted to please god.
An abuser disrespects your boundaries.
You are not allowed to say “stop” or “no” without suffering emotional and verbal consequences.
My god didn’t seem to care if I just had a baby or was ill in bed. Folks told me god wanted me to serve my family. My god required me to allow my husband to do whatever he wanted when he wanted, and if I said “no,” I was displeasing my god and refusing to give him the glory. I didn’t have my own space. He had bought my life with his blood, and I was his slave now.
An abuser expects you to sweep conflict under the rug, never to be resolved.
I was taught my god said “forgive and forget. Forgive 70 times infinity and let others walk all over you. You are a dirty rotten sinner and deserve to burn forever in hell, so what’s the big deal if people walk all over you and treat you like the dirty rotten sinner you are? And if you try to argue with me, you’re also unteachable and full of pride and the sin of witchcraft.”
When you are with an abuser, you become obsessed with managing his emotions.
You have to try to give him honor while putting up with his nastiness. You need to solve the cognitive dissonance between what he says about himself and how he actually behaves. You must figure out what in the world is wrong with you that you can’t ever get anything right for this person.
Solving the confusion in that relationship becomes the center of your painful world.
In my relationship with my god, I was obsessed with trying to please him. Trying to win his love and favor. Trying to figure out how he could possibly love me while also treating me like rubbish. Was that love? Deep down inside, I knew it wasn’t.
But that was the only kind of love I had ever known my entire life.
So I left my abusers, and I left my abuser god. When I left they all snarled and gnashed their teeth (and what big teeth they had) and told a bunch of lies about me. But I was free.
Free to worship God. The real God. Jesus Christ, who is nothing like the abuser god. Nothing like an abuser.
The real God is the opposite of an abuser. I got to know the real God by simply reading the gospel of John over and over again. Like – over twenty times in a few months. Try it. It’s pretty life-changing. Here are some things I found.
The real God is honest.
He rejoices with the TRUTH. He takes pleasure when we shine light into dark places. He is forthright and up front. He says it like it is. He sees all the perspectives of humanity, and He understands and accurately assesses all of it. You can trust a God like this.
The real God keeps His promises.
Jesus doesn’t promise to give all of humanity a cushy life here on planet earth. He promises to be with us in the struggle, and He promises to give us power to be His kind and loving hands and feet in this world IF WE WILL LET HIM. But He refuses to force Himself on anyone. He only invites. You can trust a God like this.
The real God gives us freedom and love with no strings attached.
Read the story of the prodigal son. (Luke 15:11-32)
Pretty audacious love. That father is the real God. And we are either the older, religious son who thinks he’s better than everyone else, or we are the prodigal son who lives in debauchery for a while. Either way, our father loves us with an everlasting love, and that love isn’t dependent on which son we are. Period. You can trust a God like this.
The real God rejoices over His creation and calls it GOOD.
God created us to be human. Not demi-gods. He rejoices over our humanity. The classic sin is to try to be like Him – to try to rule over others and gain glory for ourselves and take power and control in this world. To know what is best for everyone else.
Hogwash. We are human. Embrace it. We are like children with our father. We will fall down. We will make mistakes. We will screw up. We will laugh when we should cry. We will neglect our responsibilities. But we are safe with Him. You be human and let God be God. You can trust a God like this.
The real God stays connected to us regardless of whether or not we stay or feel connected to Him.
Again, think of the story of the prodigal. Our God waits for us to return. He doesn’t chase us down or hunt us or control our choices. He waits and loves. Waits and loves. And when we are ready, we come to Him, and HE RUNS TOWARD US. You can trust a God like this.
The real God gave us gifts and talents and passions and purpose and meaning and individuality and uniqueness – and takes pleasure in watching His children come into their own and fulfill all they were created to do and be.
He is our Creator, after all. Why would God create you to be totally unique and put you in this specific time and place and then shame you for living the life He gave to you? Read the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. It takes faith to exercise the full scope of all you were created to be and do, and it turns out that faith is how we please God! So run toward all that you are. Embrace yourself and be grateful for this life God gave to you. For the opportunities you have to make choices and decisions. To move forward and live and breathe and make a difference in this world. BE. That’s what this God loves. And you can trust a God like this.
The real God invites questions and doubts and discussion and exploration.
He’s way bigger than all that. Think of it like this. A parent isn’t flummoxed by the questions, doubts, and explorations of her three-year-old. She can handle it. She has awareness and understanding of the bigger picture. When one of my daughters swore she would never want to learn how to drive, I was fine with that. “That’s okay. You don’t have to.” Now, several years later, she is looking forward to getting her permit. Do you wonder if God even exists? That’s okay. You can be an atheist, even. And I trust a God like this.
The real God honors our bodies and minds and spirits and souls, and He honors our space and our brokenness and our shame. He is patient and gentle.
He never crushes a bruised reed. He respects all of our parts, and He loves them with tenderness. He sits with us in our sorrows and never pressures us to “get better.” He knows every cell in our brain and the issues it faces. And He cares about that cell. You can trust a God like this.
The real God is in relationship with Himself in the Trinity, and He doesn’t need our glory to feel glorified. He is glorified regardless of what humanity does or thinks in our fallen state.
God is not co-dependent. He doesn’t need you to give Him glory. He is all glorious with or without your support. Think again about the father in the parable of the prodigal. That father was pretty amazing, right? Did the prodigal grasp how amazing his dad was? Not really. But that didn’t change the FACT that the dad was an incredible human being. Same with God. He is incredible and awesome and righteous without our drawing any attention to it. And, in fact, when we live like Jesus did, we will draw attention to His glory naturally and organically. No lofty words necessary. You can trust a God like this.
The real God is big enough to handle our arguments and different views.
There are thousands of different denominations just within the Christian religion. Why? And what does the real God think about that? I don’t know, but I do know this. He can handle it. Again, we are all just kids playing house down here. Having arguments about things we don’t understand yet. Wasting energy on ridiculousness. Exchanging precious relationships for little cartoon hills upon which we will happily spill our blood. But God loves all of us kids, regardless. And you can trust a God like this.
The real God doesn’t need us to manage His emotions. He doesn’t hold us responsible for them. He is capable of handling them on His own. The real God is a pretty big God.
We can’t make God mad. We can’t make God sad. We can’t make God ANYTHING. God will feel what He feels based on reality. Not based on our childishness. We can’t project ourselves onto God. He’s too big. He’s way out of our league. And I think we can trust a God like this.
So I am thankful I had a crisis of faith. I am forever grateful I walked away from the abuser god. I still have a lot to learn about the real God. But I feel at peace. I feel deep inside that I have a long time to learn.
And I’m looking forward to it.