Previously I wrote about how many from a Fundamentalist Christian tradition struggle with pain, anger, and alienation due to the results of what is called “Bible abuse,” the lifting of select Scriptural verses out of their God-given context to use them as tools of discrimination or oppression against minorities. I explained the painful emotional, spiritual, and at times physical consequences in the lives of those who have Bible verses misused to oppress and marginalize them. Finally, I gave some basic pointers for how to identify when a minister or religious group is engaging in Bible abuse in order to oppress or marginalize. Beginning with this article, I would like to discuss how to overcome the ongoing effects of Bible abuse in your life.
How do we begin to heal from the deep emotional and spiritual wounds we have faced from the mis-application of Biblical passages in order to condemn and marginalize us for our sexual orientation, race, gender, gender identity, or other unique qualities?
The Twelve Steps
Dr. Rembert Truluck, perhaps the most well known and respected advocate for confronting and overcoming the painful results of Bible abuse, lists twelve steps which an individual can go through to begin the process of healing from the damage misuse of Scripture has caused in their life. The twelve steps, as he defines them, are:
1. Admit You Have Been Hurt By Religion
2. Turn to God As Your Guide to Recovery
3. Examine Your Faith
4. Face and Deal With Your Anger
5. Avoid Negative People And Churches
6. Face The Scripture Used Against You
7. Find Positive Supportive Scripture
8. Read And Study The Gospels
9. Come Out And Accept Yourself
10. Develop Your Personal Support System
11. Learn To Share Your Faith With Others
12. Become A Freedom Missionary
It is important, for your own healing, to admit to yourself and to others that you have been marginalized and abused by religious leaders and to admit the role Bible abuse has had in the abuse you have faced. This may sound like an easy step, but realistically for many this is difficult. Years of Bible abuse can lead some people to internalize the prejudice and bigotry that has been heaped upon them so much that they cannot admit their status as a victim of prejudice. This may lead them into a lifestyle where they are afraid of being found out for who they truly are, where they espouse the traditional claims of their religious upbringing, all the while looking at themselves with self-hatred and shame. At times, individuals will be “found out” or “confess,” allowing themselves yet again to be marginalized and at times forced into patterns of life which they know, deep down, don’t work for them, all in order to save their place in their religious community and its doctrinal system. It takes a great deal of courage and a big step of faith to admit who you are and the ways your religious background and tradition have scarred your soul.
Why are some people so willing to endure so much for beliefs that they know, deep down, simply don’t work in their lives? In many ways, it is because people fear being isolated and having to go it alone. A religious community can give a sense of belonging and of security. It can provide a network of relationships, which many folks don’t want to risk losing. The religious traditions we are brought up in also give us the self-assurance that, by following the rules they give us, we can be counted as “safe” and “secure”, certain we are on the inside and not the outside of God’s good graces. Many times, the religious leaders in a community will present themselves as more well-informed than us “regular folks” and closer to God than other people, leaving members of that faith community with the sense it is better to blindly give up control of their relationship with God to intermediaries like them than to think for themselves and study Scriptures on their own. Many people of faith fear a loss of friendships, loss of community support, and public reprisals by these religious leaders. Most of all, people fear a loss of their connection with God. After all, they have been told God certainly will abandon them if they are truly honest about how the Bible abuse in their life, heaped on them by their religious leaders and communities, has damaged their life.
This is why Dr. Truluck’s second step of reaching out to God for help and healing is so important and, for many, part and parcel of effectively taking that first step of admitting they have been abused and need healing. Fearing the loss of both a community and a relationship with God holds many people back from admitting their woundedness and seeking healing. For many, the only concept of God they have is the image of God given them by their religious upbringing and tradition, which includes false images of God that are the result of Bible abuse. If we let them, these false images of God can wrench control of our spiritual lives out of our hands, leading us to place control of our relationship with God into the hands of people who may be misusing Scripture to marginalize us, to oppress us, and to abuse us. These false images of God can have such a strong hold on some of us that it can make it seem that the only options before us are abandoning the concept of God altogether or giving into religious systems that marginalize us and really believing we are abandoned by God and destined to an eternity of fiery torment.
A key way to combat this common result of Bible abuse in your own life is to refuse to accept other’s depictions of God as who God really is and instead to embark on a personal relationship with God for yourself, letting the image of God you hold to be one defined not by what others say, but by the relationship you develop for yourself with the Divine. Think of it in your own case. Countless people encounter you throughout your life — parents, co-workers, teachers, friends, neighbors, creditors, bullies on the bus growing up. Suppose that someone’s image of you was entirely colored by merely one of these people. Would what your teacher or co-worker (let alone the elementary school bully) had to say about you give that person a complete picture of you? Probably not. In fact, depending on who someone spoke to, the image of you another person could paint could misrepresent you to them. The best way for someone to get to know you is to come to you themselves and develop a relationships with you — and to let their perception of you be based on what they learn of you through personal contact, not hearsay.
The same is true of your spiritual life and your perception of God. Sadly, much of what many of us have heard about God is a misrepresentation based on individuals who are misusing religion to condemn and exclude, to oppress and discriminate against others. Just as in the example above, this is a case of letting another’s word become the basis of our perception and ideas. Yet just as you cannot be boxed into being merely another’s perception of you, neither can God. This also fits the Bible’s portrayal of God. In Scripture God is depicted both as the Spirit who is the force at the center of the universe, holding all things together — “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27) — and as a personal being who is best defined on His or Her own terms — “I am Who I am” (Ex. 3:14). As such, God is best understood in light of what God shows you personally in your relationship with God, not whom others tell you God is. As you do this, you will find God not fitting the destructive and abusive images of God given to you in your religious upbringing. You also will be taking the control of your spiritual life out of the hands of your abusers and putting it back into your own hands.
What sort of God will you find as you admit your pain and reach out to God as a guide and healer of the Bible abuse in your life? I cannot fully answer this for you. After all, you don’t want to trade one man’s word for another, but to let your own relationship with God be what you use to define God for you. But I can tell you a few things the Bible promises.
The Biblical image of God given us in the New Testament and elsewhere is not the same image of God many of us have had handed us by those who have misused Scripture as their own personal tool of discrimination. Because of that, the Bible promises a different experience than your religious tradition has given you.
Instead of finding that God values certain types of people (gay or straight, able-bodied or disabled, male or female or trans-gendered) over others, Scripture promises us that we will find God to be no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). Scripture assures that, though some may claim otherwise for God, God does not judge by externals like outward appearance, sexuality, and gender, but by who we are in our heart of hearts (1 Samuel 16:7). The Biblical image of God, as opposed to the image of most Bible-abusers, is that a God who doesn’t play favorites or discriminate based on outward qualities that don’t define your character, your spirituality, or your faith.
Also, the God Scripture promises you will find if you seek God out personally as your Guide and Help in healing from Bible abuse is not a God who is simply looking for you to fail, an image many of us who have experienced Bible abuse are all to familiar with. Instead, God is slow to anger and quick to forgive (Exodus 34:6). Jesus depicts God in his teachings as One who is striving to help us succeed in our spiritual lives, instead of waiting to see us fail so God can toss us into fiery perdition. Thus, Jesus describes God as the housewife in search of the lost coin, the sheep-herder in search of a stray ewe, and the father who welcomes home his runaway boy without berating him (Luke 15). God is love personified according to the New Testament, the source of all real and lasting love — not hate, fear, and judgment (1 John 4:8, 17-18). In fact in those same verses from 1 John, we are told that God is a love in whose presence all need of fear for one’s eternal fate is removed.
According to Scriptures, this is because we are accounted worthy in God’s sight not based on being in a particular category or class (like straight or white or male or able-bodied) or for perfectly adhering to some moral code like the 10 Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. No instead, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). We are counted worthy by God’s grace or unmerited favor.
What the Scripture says is that each of us are counted worthy not because of being in a particular class, not because of our sexuality or race, not because of how well or poorly we have lived, but because God already views us as having infinite worth, regardless of these things. It is like how a mother views her newborn baby — she values it limitlessly before it has a chance to do anything simply because it is her little boy or little girl. So it is with God for us — God values us limitlessly already. All we have to do is trust God enough to welcome God as our God, letting God begin a new relationship with us. It isn’t being a particular gender or having a certain sexual orientation. It isn’t living a perfect life that God requires of us. It is merely accepting the worth God already sees in you because God loves you and beginning to let God be central in your life in your own stumbling, bumbling way. That is what leads you to be counted “worthy” before God, according to Scripture.
This representation of God is probably very different from what those who have come into your life misusing the Bible to marginalize you for being gay or female or disabled or whatever. Yet this is what Scripture promises God is like, this is whom it promises you will find when you put aside the images of God that have been pushed upon you and you experience God on God’s own terms, not boxing God in by religious tradition.
So, begin again today. Admit the areas in your life where the Bible has been misused in ways that have hurt, alienated, and oppressed you. Abandon the false images of God that have been fed to you and reach up to the God who is. Trust that you are of infinite worth to the One who counts and let God begin to show you that, in God’s eyes, you are not junk, that He or She loves and accepts you no matter what, as long as you will just let God be central in your life. Quit letting the abusers in your life take the wheel, controlling your perception of yourself, of God, and of faith. Begin the journey today.
Rev. Micah Royal serves as Pastor of Life’s Journey UCC in Burlington, N.C. Having earned his Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Campbell Divinity School, he has served in ordained ministry in various contexts throughout the Carolinas and southern California, including on the board of the Eastern NC Association of the United Church of Christ.