Recovery Journal: Learned Helplessness and the Theology of the Abused (Part 2)

Recap: In my first post of this very very long blog I talked about learned helplessness.  To recap what I said…

Abused people often experience trauma they have absolutely no control over.  The pain, trauma and abuses they experience lead them to a fatalistic view of life and disempowers them; they think that life will always be bad, and that they can do nothing about it.  They believe this even when they can make changes to their life.  Even good times are robbed of their joy as these moments are interpreted as “the calm before the store,” a ephemereal happiness that will soon be a distant memory when the other shoe drops, which it always does.  This is a truly horrible situation and it is natural that people in this situation question God’s loving nature that scripture and other Christians declare.

From here I realized that my exploration of learned helplessness helps explains the fundamental disconnect I have experienced between myself and the vast majority of Christians I have encountered and how unhelpful the Church has been to me.  In this post I want to briefly explore why I feel so disconnected from most Christians and how the Church has been unhelpful to me and people like me.

To the first point, I believe there are Christians that did have “good enough” parents or are more naturally resilient persons. For the purposes of this post I will refer to such people as “Normies.”  Most Christians I have met are Normies or are pretending to be Normies. Generally speaking such people experienced stable upbringings and a benevolent God.  Their experience of tragedy and trauma was limited and/or they recovered from such things healthily and rapidly. For such persons the teachings of the Church and many scriptures simply ring true. As such, statements about God’s goodness, His protection on their lives or concern for their plight require no explanation, thought or faith to be accepted. “God is love,” the scriptures say, and such persons have no trouble believing this statement. Their experiences of God in this life have drawn them to the same conclusions declared in scripture.  Faith is easy for such persons and their childlike faith is even celebrated in scripture.

Let me be clear that I believe that having stable homes and avoiding major trauma and tragedy are good things.  It should be the aim of every parent to raise their children in a stable home. I am grateful for some reason God has protected some Christians from major tragedy (at least so far). It is not my wish that everyone was abused so that everyone would “get” me or struggle with faith like my peers and I do. If I am honest, I am even somewhat jealous of Normies. They seem to innately known how to navigate this world in successful ways.  Everything they touch appears to flourish and they relish in life.  Men and women my age are full-engaged in life-giving relationships and careers and I feel stuck in a perpetual ash-heap that is my life.  Do we even serve the same God?

However, I find it difficult if not impossible to connect with such people. Don’t get me wrong, we can share hobbies, play games together and even share a laugh or a friendship but I just cannot “go there” with Normies.  Normies tend to be at a loss for words and/or freak out when I talk about real stuff that has gone down in my life.  The either have no point of reference or, for those pretending to be Normies, it triggers their own junk they have not dealt with. My sharing has been in vain, goes without a response, or is actively shut down.  I inevitably feel I am not understood, have made myself vulnerable for no reason and probably should not have talked in the first place.

I believe that this lack of connection comes from an inability to connect on deep things, things deeper than theology, dating, food, gossip or the latest Hulu videos. There is an emotional and spiritual depth that comes with navigating real difficulties in this life.  People who have not gone through hard times (I mean really hard times) just don’t get me.  I tend to live in this deep space, even when I would rather not.  I do not think this depth makes me better or more profound, it just is. This does not make Normies “bad” or abused people “good” it just means that the two groups have a hard time understanding each other.

With the majority of Church people being Normies or pretending to be Normies this has meant that I feel like the odd one out nine times out of ten in any Christian setting (Church, worship service, seminary, etc.).

It is no surprise that I feel right at home, understood and cared for in support groups for addicts. I believe this is probably how I should feel in a Christian church but I have had to go to recovery groups to find it. All addicts tend to have gone through hard times.  Beyond the living hell that is addiction in and of itself, the vast majority of addicts are child abuse or trauma survivors. Where Normies will freak when I start talking about my life, my peers at SAA will literally finish my sentences and trains of thought.

Second, as to how the Church has been unhelpful to me over the years, I fear that major problems arise when Normies are put in charge of Christian theology and/or public teaching.  Normies rather naturally and innocently assume their experience is normative for other Christians. Consequently they teach from their positive and victorious experience of faith and life. This rings true and is affirmed by other Normies  in the Church, often verbally with “amens,” with comments after church or with smiles and facial expressions.  This all naturally creates an atmosphere where there is spoken and unspoken pressure to go along with the dominant narrative.  If the pastor, the representative of God himself, is saying something is true and people around you are affirming it, you are far less likely to speak up to question that truth.  You are far less likely to share what has gone on in your life to question the truths everyone around you is obviously on board with.

To explain what I’m talking about here I’ll just use a basic example.

Let us say a Normie pastor on a Father’s Day Sunday service expounds several scriptures.  The goal of the Normie pastor is to focus on how God the Father loves and protects us as a father loves and protects his children.  Verses about family, about how we are God’s children, and God’s love for us may be examined. A Normie pastor may even share a quaint anecdote about how their own father once protected them in a moment of distress and compare that to a time in Israel or the Church’s life where God the Father protected them.  Two hymns and several handshakes later and Church is over.

Normies in the congregation, those with positive experiences of God and of their earthly fathers, may very well be encouraged and reminded about God’s love and providential care.  Maybe even some fathers in the congregation feel appropriately celebrated as well.  But what of people like me?

What would such a rousing and uncritical celebration of God as loving and protective Father mean to a person who had no father, had an abusive father, or who had a father who molested or raped them?  How would one whose Heavenly Father failed to protect them in the time they needed Him the most hear this sermon?  What of those people who have no happy anecdotes about their earthly father being loving and caring?

Furthermore, in this environment, where the pastor teaches something many around me are affirming, am I likely to present a dissenting experience or view?  If, after the service where everyone is smiling, I am asked, “Well how did you like the sermon Kevin?” am I more likely to fake it and say “It was great” or try to get this person to understand my sordid history with both my earthly and heavenly fathers and how this has crippled how I interact with the world? Combine this with my inability to connect or explain my experience of life with Normies, and the answer is almost 100% of the time not surprisingly to fake it.

I hope everyone can see that when Normies assume their experience is normative, and preach from this standpoint, it creates a situation where a victorious experience of God and faith is the only legitimate response to God and faith.  This goes against a large number of texts and passage in scripture where humans question God and ask the same questions abused people often ask.  Just read Psalm 88.  However, by denying this as an at least occasionally appropriate response to God, those who are in fact struggling are made feel they are unique, “bad Christians” or are not praying/surrendering/fasting enough to experience God like apparently everyone else is.

Abused people, like myself, are incredibly marginalized by much of the teaching that goes on in the Church today.  Going to Church I have not found healing; I have been made to feel like a pariah. And I am not alone.  I have not found a Body but a Christian club for nice people. I am thoroughly convinced a lot more people in the Church are really hurting but are not talking about what is really going on because of the victorious ideal we have set up in the Church that everyone is, at all costs, trying to maintain.

Conclusion:I fear that too much Christian theology has been done in sterile vacuums like the seminary I attend or by people who have not experienced much tragedy. I think more theology should be done by people who had the shit beaten out of them by their parents, incest survivors, addicts, prostitutes and rape victims…who somehow came to faith or maintained in it despite what happened in their life. We would not let half of the things that have escaped from the mouths of pastors and Christian leaders slide. We would constantly remind the Church of the real world beyond our doors and the challenges faced by people who experience life that contradicts scripture. I think the Church, like the scriptures, needs to become a safe place to ask hard questions about God and the Bible.  When we lose this, we only allow for a victorious caricature of faith to flourish…and this caricature cannot handle the questions raised by tragedy that has a habit of finding us all eventually.

More than anything I think abused people need healing. While their contributions to the theology and practice of the Church could be profound I do not think abused people primarily need their own theology akin to feminist theology or liberation theology because  theology alone cannot provide healing. Healing, be it found in counseling, a recovery group, inner healing prayer, or whatever means is necessary is what is primarily needed by abused people.  The Church should be a safe place for abused people to to find this healing or at the very least be able to talk about their need for it without being made to feel like a leper our nuisance.

About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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4 Responses to Recovery Journal: Learned Helplessness and the Theology of the Abused (Part 2)

  1. the well says:

    Stumbled upon your blog. My name is Randy Balling. I moved from socal 2 years ago to plant a church in Modesto. Fuller is a great school. I wanted to go there but couldn’t afford it. I ended up getting a Masters in Pastoral counseling from a school closer to my home in Fontana. Anyway, the church I planted is called the Well. we’re at 2500 Claus Rd. on the east side. Things are going great. We’ve been trying to add some fresh ingredients to the “church” soup here in Modesto.

    I have enjoyed your blog. I think you’re a gifted writer. Your transparency is refreshing and I found myself praying that God does place you in leadership of a church one day, be it a house church or other.

    I came from a crappy up bringing too. Music was my escape as well. I didn’t think I was worthy to plant a church but God’s grace, I never totally gave up on the dream. If you ever come back to Modesto, I’d love to meet you. Peace out. – Randy

    • Kevin says:

      Randy, thanks for the kind words. I think I know people who go to your church and I’m fairly certain I’ve driven by it when I’ve been home in Modesto. Best of luck with your endeavors in Modesto and please keep reading and commenting.

  2. Carol says:

    Hi, I just found your while searching for information on catharsis and recovery. EXCELLENT article. you wrote from a very spiritual place and totally resonated with me. I am a 60 year old female and came from a christian home with 8 brothers and sisters. I am the middle child. I, too was the butt of my mother’s ire. I am now in Celebrate Recovery.

  3. inTHElight says:

    Thank you so much for your post – it really resonates with me. For a long time, I was a ‘normie’ (or perhaps a fake ‘normie’!) however over the last five years have begun to recall horrendous abuse that occurred throughout my childhood. Thankfully, both my parents (non-abusive) are committed Christians and have been very supportive of me, however, together with other Christian friends, they often say things, out of ignorance or misunderstanding, that leave me feeling isolated, not understood, and as though I don’t belong. It is such a paradox that, at the very time when I need my Christian friends the most, it feels as though I can hardly relate to them and trying to connect with them often leaves me reeling as I try and process their unhelpful responses. I am therefore trying to find Christian connections and some sense of resonance via forums like this – so thank you for sharing so powerfully.

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