Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

Recover from Religious Abuse

  • Whitney Hopler Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • Updated Mar 14, 2011
Recover from Religious Abuse

Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Jack Watts' recent book, Recovering from Religious Abuse: 11 Steps to Spiritual Freedom, (Howard Books, 2011).

A church elder yells rude, condemning words at you. A pastor tries to manipulate you and makes you feel guilty if you don’t comply. A church leader you trust sexually molests you when the two of you are alone.

When you suffer religious abuse, you must deal with the pain of figuring out how to separate the abusive behavior of those who claim to follow God from God Himself. Tragically, your pain may lead you away from God, which will only increase your misery. But if you move closer to God instead, you can discover the healing that He wants to bring into your life.

Here’s how you can recover from religious abuse:

Remember that Jesus was abused by religious leaders, so He understands your pain. Jesus suffered religious abuse during His time on earth, undergoing slander and beatings from religious leaders who then murdered Him. Jesus knows exactly what you’re going through, He cares, and He wants to heal you.

Acknowledge that your life is not where you want it to be. Admit the reality that the abuse you suffered harmed you both spiritually and emotionally. Don’t deny what’s happened to you, but don’t wallow in self-pity, either. Instead, pray for the courage you need to stop trying to rely on your own efforts to get better and submit to God’s will in every area of your life.

Commit to stop living your life in pursuit of self-defeating behavior. Ask God to help you stop dwelling on how badly you were hurt in the past and instead focus on what you need to learn from what you suffered. Pray for God’s forgiveness for the ways that your anger and bitterness have injured your relationship with Him and other people. Ask God to give you the peace and strength you need to move ahead with your life. Pray for the wisdom you need to determine what specific changes you should make with how you spend your time, energy, money, and talents so you’ll be able to fulfill God’s purposes for you.

Accept that the responsibility for getting back on track is yours and no one else’s. Only you can make the decision to get back on track with God; no one else can do it for you. So take stock of where you currently are in life, ask God to give you a vision of where He would like you to be, and develop a plan with specific goals to align every part of your life with God’s plans for you.

Choose to believe what God says about Himself. The Bible reveals that God is good and can be trusted. So recognize that God didn’t cause your abuse; rather, religious leaders who misused their authority are responsible for the abuse you’ve suffered. God cares deeply about what you’ve gone through, and you can count on Him to heal you, so make a determined effort to separate God from the abuse.

Commit to repairing your relationship with God and making amends with everyone you’ve wronged along the way. Confess the sins you’ve committed that have distanced you from God, ask God’s forgiveness for them, and accept the forgiveness He gives you. Then contact each of the people you’ve hurt or offended and apologize to them for what you said and did that was wrong. Try to make amends however you can, such as by repaying a debt or restoring something that was damaged in your relationships. Ask God to help you change your behavior going forward.

Refuse to become like those who have abused you, and abandon your desire to spread malice because of your pain and anger. Stop pursuing vindication and let go of all of your resentment. After purging your soul of toxic emotions, ask the Holy Spirit to fill your soul with love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness.

Write an account of your abusive experiences as well as your subsequent behavior. Take an inventory of what happened to you and how you acted out as a result. Be honest as you record this in writing, and enjoy the freedom you’ll feel when you expose your dark past to God’s light.

Share your experience and your own wrongdoing with a trusted friend. Meet with a friend to discuss your thoughts and feelings about the abuse you’ve suffered and the unhealthy ways you’ve reacted to it. Choose a friend who will accept you just as you are while gently guiding you, encouraging you to heal, and praying for you.

Humbly ask God to change you and help you forgive your abusers. Invite God to change every part of you so you can become the person He intends you to become. Rely on God’s help to forgive the religious leaders who abused you. Remember that God has forgiven you for many sins, and He will bless you with a closer relationship with Him when you obey His command to forgive others as He has forgiven you.

Choose to believe that God still has a good purpose for your life. Trust God’s promises that He has a good purpose and a hopeful future for you. From now on, choose: love over hate, right over wrong, forgiveness over retaliation, reconciliation over alienation, faith over fear, joy over depression, and peace over turmoil.

Nurture your relationship with God, asking Him to reveal His will to you and give you the power to carry it out. Make your relationship with God your top priority, and base all of your decisions on that. Ask God to show you how you can help other people who have gone through religious abuse and act on whatever specific ways God calls you to help others who need to heal.

Adapted from Recovering from Religious Abuse: 11 Steps to Spiritual Freedom, copyright 2011 by Jack Watts. Published by Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Brentwood, Tn., http://christian.simonandschuster.com/howard.
As a young boy and a young man, Jack Watts experienced multiple expressions of religious abuse, which led to self-destructive behaviors that nearly ruined his life. But through programs such as AA and the support of loving Christians, he made much progress toward recovery. However, he found that the particular effects of religious abuse needed a program beyond what he had experienced. Thus began his journey to find the spiritual freedom his heart yearned for and the eventual creation of the 11-step program, Recovering from Religious Abuse. Jack has an A.B., from Georgia State University; an M.A., from Baylor University; and has completed everything except for his dissertation for a Ph.D. from Emory University. He has worked for nearly three decades in marketing, exclusively serving Christian ministries and publishers. You can visit his website at: www.pushingjesus.com.

Whitney Hopler is a full-time freelance writer and editor.  You can visit her website at: http://whitneyhopler.naiwe.com/.

Publication date: March 14, 2011