What NOT to say to someone struggling with their faith

  1. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!” This nice little cliche manages to be both offensive and dismissive all at once. It assumes the listener has abandoned important aspects of their faith and belittles the honest struggle of re-examining once dearly held beliefs.
  2. “When’s the last time you read your Bible?” This question is used as a litmus test; ie. if you haven’t been reading your Bible daily, well, OF COURSE, that’s why you’re having problems. This question exposes a dualistic mindset that seeks easy answers to complex problems. Not only is this question hurtful, it presumes every spiritual struggle can be simply diagnosed and resolved with a few predictable, formulaic steps.
  3. “Are you going to church regularly?” While regular involvement with a body of living, breathing believers is important to spiritual health, for someone who is suffering from ministry burn-out, this question only adds a burden of guilt and shame. Even Jesus took a break from being around people all the time.
  4. “Stop projecting your bad experience on every group of believers!” The worst thing you can say to someone in recovery is that they’re not healing in the RIGHT way. Folks who have survived an abusive experience–whether church related or not–usually have anxiety triggers about situations similar to ones where they were hurt. Recovery is not linear. It’s not rational. It’s full of setbacks, detours and roadblocks. Patience, gentleness and kindness go much further in rehabilitating the wounded ex-church member than frustration or remonstrances for not healing fast enough.
  5. “You need to move on.” Unless you are intimately acquainted with the wounded person, assuming you know how far they’ve come is not only presumptuous, it’s unkind. Everyone moves on in different ways at their own pace. Some people are proactive in their recovery and seek immediate counseling or therapy. Others just need a long break before they start to re-examine what happened. Sure, some people get stuck and perhaps can’t heal past a certain point without help. Still, statements that imply the person isn’t moving on are unhelpful and harmful.
  6. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” I’ve discovered that the closer a person is to the epicenter of the tragedy, the longer it takes for them to recover. In my situation, it was my own family who founded and ran my childhood church. I was right in the very center of the implosion. For years, I kept silent because the pain was so great. When I finally started sharing my journey, I was surprised by how many people thought I was being self-indulgent, self-pitying. It’s important not to let others’ opinions of your recovery determine how you walk your journey,
  7. Don’t you think your experience is hindering your ability to see this situation clearly?” It’s pretty insulting when someone suggests that you don’t see things clearly (ie. their way) because you were hurt in a similar situation. Whenever someone says that pain from my past is negatively coloring my view of the present, I like to say that maybe my experience actually helps me see certain situations more clearly because I’ve been there before and know how that story ends. Sure, I can work on seeing things positively but wisdom has taught me to pay attention to my gut instinct and not ignore it when those red flags pop up.
  8. “Do you have any Scripture to back that up?” People who have been hurt by the church are often viewed as having an axe to grind and are required to back-up their grievances with solid, Biblical arguments. The story of their abuse is not enough to merit action. But the more we dismiss these stories or refuse to listen, the louder the cries become. It’s far more effective to listen and proactively work to help the hurt party rather than accusing them of not handling their grievance in a “Biblical” manner.
  9. “You’re too sensitive!” This statement is a dismissive smackdown. Wounded ex-church members are often told they are over-reacting, being too emotional, irrational and self-righteous. The problem is that no matter how the person states their grievances, it’s never the right way. The person’s case is dismissed on a technicality and justice is never served.
  10. “You should forgive.” While this may be true (I’ve found that forgiving those who hurt me has helped tremendously), it’s not something that can be rushed. It’s also not a one-time thing. I find that I have to re-forgive again and again when new situations arise that trigger old hurt. I’m getting better at forgiving but not because people keep reminding me it’s the right thing to do. I forgive because it’s the most healing thing to do–for myself. And sometimes it takes awhile to get to that first place of forgiveness.

Any other statements you’ve heard that were unhelpful to your recovery?
Next post: what TO say to someone struggling with their faith!

 

  • http://www.pinkdaisyjane.com Heatherly Lane Sylvia

    “Recovery is not linear. It’s not rational. It’s full of setbacks, detours and roadblocks.”
    Yes! Yes! Thank you!

  • http://jennyrain.com JennyRain

    Such a great list Elizabeth and I appreciate your honesty with your struggle and your journey. I loved the point that you made about the fact that it takes longer to heal when you are closer to the epicenter of the tragedy.

    I have had the rare experience of looking back over my life and seeing this very long road of positive experiences with church, which I know is SO rare. That church has always been a safe place. I was not blind to the craziness that happens in church – and have had some crazy things said to me – but somehow the overall experience for me has been one of safety. So your list is VERY helpful to me personally because I have SO many people in my circle to have not had that good experience.   For me I have learned that my role is to listen, affirm, validate, and try to really hear the “heart points” that are coming out.

    Looking forward to your next post about what TO say to someone struggling and thanks again for sharing! :)

  • Red

    Also, saying “You need to forgive” is sometimes used as the lazy way out, to avoid having to deal with the offender’s sins. Let’s just all forget about it so we don’t have to work out the mess.

  • http://www.JanetOberholtzer.com Janet Oberholtzer

    Great post!

  • Kristin Shoemaker

    Too true! I have heard almost all of these during Bible studies over the years.  Although I am a little surprised that you forgot to add, “You should pray more” to this list. Because faith is really boiled down to a series of steps that when completed in just the right order will make faith in G-d easy and natural.

  • HippieGramma

    11. “You should visit my church. We don’t — (fill in the blank).”

    Not offensive the first ten times, maybe, but it gets old after that.  Believe me, I’ve investigated ABC Church; I’ve maybe even attended.  Do you really want me to go into all the reasons I won’t go there, and possibly start making you question YOUR attendance / faith?  I don’t.

    I’ve got a calendar; I know when Sunday comes around every week.  If I haven’t visited your church, leave me alone about it.

  • http://www.downtoearthwomen.blogspot.com/ Tracey

    My disillusionment with church really stems from being an abused spouse. 

    When the pastor’s wife lectured me about how hard marriage is and about how you have to keep working at it  a week AFTER she and her pastor husband visited me in the ER with my head bandaged from my husband assaulting me with a weapon; well suffice it to say that I was [ ] this close to screaming the F-word at her, right in the sanctuary. 

    So, my advice. Don’t lecture. A bad idea is just compounded when you attempt to drive the idea home. 

    • Katie S.

      Oh, Tracey.  I’m so sorry. 

    • Evelyn

      AMEN.  Do not ever, Ever, EVER assume you understand what the other person is going through.  If it’s not safe to share our struggle with you, we probably haven’t shared a number of other things, as well.

  • http://remnantofremnant.blogspot.com/ priest’s wife

    reading this list- I was wondering what TO say to a struggling person….I guess I’ll wait for the next blog post ;)

    Is “I love you” on that list?

    • Anonymous

      The comments I’ve appreciated most were things like:
      I’m sorry that happened.
      That sucks.
      The ugly things you struggle against believing are lies.
      I’m thankful for you.

      I think that often, for people who have grown up in the church or worked in the church, there’s an added layer of guilt because it’s easy to think of yourself as a bad witness.  It’s good to feel valued and wanted, not because of what you’ve done in the past or who you have the potential to be, but who you are in your broken moment, when you don’t (feel like you) have much to offer.

  • Legityeti

    I hope that no one reads one of your articles and thinks that you are an expert, and follows your advice. 

    • Anonymous

      I hope that no one reads one of your comments and thinks you are being kind.

      • http://www.downtoearthwomen.blogspot.com/ Tracey

        **SNAP**

    • http://www.diannaeanderson.net/ Dianna

      Irony is strong in this one.

    • http://leannesmusings.wordpress.com/ Leanne

      Really?  Have you ever been part of a spiritually abusive church?  Because as someone who has been part of two of them, I can say that Elizabeth’s advice is exactly right.  If you have never had this experience, I am truly happy for you, because I wouldn’t wish spiritual abuse on anyone.  But please do not come here and assume in your ignorance that this is bad advice, or invalidate others’ experiences and feelings.  It is possible that you are a troll, and I should probably have ignored you, but this topic is just too close to home for my to be silent.

      • Sarah

        Do you really mean you didn’t get the sarcasm in KatR’s post? That’s astonishingly stupid.

        • Chris

          If you had read to the bottom of Leanne’s post, you would note that it says ‘in reply to Legityeti’. Disqus nests replies in this manner; it can get confusing, I know.

        • http://leannesmusings.wordpress.com/ Leanne

          Yes, Chris is correct – I was responding to the original post by Leityeti.

    • KatR

      Oh I agree. In my experience, people who have been spiritually abused heal much more quickly when those around them act like insensitive douchebags.

    • Tanya E

      I know the perfect church for you………………

    • http://thehomespunlife.com Sisterlisa

      (biting my tongue)

    • http://turquoisegates.blogspot.com Genevieve Thul@Turquoise Gates

      Thanks, Legityeti, for being the bad example of the hour. You just proved Elizabeth’s point!

  • http://rachelheldevans.com Rachel Held Evans

    “God’s ways are higher than our ways.” – True, but when I’m asking serious questions about my faith, this sounds like a cop-out, like it’s Christianese for “I-don’t-want-to-think-about-that-so-I-don’t.”

    • Anonymous

      Yes! So true! I’ve heard that phrase trotted out to basically shut down ANY conversation that questions ANYTHING. Great point, Rach!

      • Tanya E

        Yes, I was hearing this one a lot, too.  I finally started telling people that it was spiritually abusive to use this kind of terminology to shut down the dialog.

      • http://twitter.com/BrookeWrites Brooke McGlothlin

        Hey Rachel and Elizabeth :) I hear what you’re saying here, but don’t you think that there has to come a time in the life of the Believer where we accept, in faith, that this statement is true? I don’t mean that we should use it as a weapon against those searching for truth, or healing from significant hurt (it’s GOOD to question and seek!), but that it really IS the truth and that there is some peace in the realization that we really won’t know everything about His plan and our part in it this side of heaven (if ever). 

        • Rick

          An adventure in missing the point?

  • http://www.throughaglass.net Kari

    I think that the person who is whole and healthy should be very careful about giving advice about forgiving/moving on/letting things go to the person who is emotionally broken.

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net/ Dianna

    I did an entire blog post about this very topic. For me, discussing and airing my views is one of the ways I process pain, and it really hurts when I’m struggling with my thoughts on an issue and people respond with “Well, the Bible is clear on this.” Obviously, I *don’t* think the Bible is clear about that issue; I wouldn’t be having this problem if it WAS. Saying “the Bible is clear” is so dismissive. That’s the thing I’ve found most hurtful, and I cringe every time someone says it.

    • http://www.ontoberlin.blogspot.com/ Hannah

      YES this is one of my biggest bugbears. “The Bible is clear on this” – “Well a plain reading of scripture says-” – “Well if you hold to x position on x, then it’s plain to see”. No it’s not, and it is SO dismissive!

  • Anonymous

    I would add all of the God wanted/planned/desired comments – things like, God must have had a hard lesson to teach you or planned this for your growth, or even that God must have wanted to give you soemthing better.  Sin causes abuse and brokenness, and God can use it for good in our lives, but sending the message that he is the author of our suffering makes it hard to trust him and adds to the isolation.

  • Nancy

    Great stuff here.  Things that are helpful to say might include:  “Anytime you want to talk about it, I’m here.” or “I am so sorry.” or “You must have some reserves of resilience / be a really brave/strong/amazing person to have survived that.”  Or “How can I support you/pray for you/be a good friend through this?” 
     

  • http://www.seeprestonblog.com Preston Yancey

    I have to tell you, every time I come across something like this, my first reaction is, “No. These people do not exist. No one is that dumb.” (Though, I can see how some of these, in the right context and between the closest of friends, could need saying, but that’s not, obviously, your point.) I just want to say that I’m sorry. I’m sorry that there are people who say these things so casually without bothering to even think what it implies. Just … blerg.

  • cara

    This is super helpful! Looking forward to the next post!

  • DDinBD

    Great post.  People do need to listen more and speak less.  Most of us know the answers (from God’s word) and most of us are working on forgiveness (again!), but we need to know that people simply care that we are going through it and that they are committed to still being there when we get to the other side….because we will….someday.

  • Rockylewis

    “You’re thinking about it too much. Let go and let God.” Hate that one. God gave me brain. I like using it.

    • Rushiawallace

      it’s a running joke in my house now b/c i was so hurt by this statement, “Let Go and Let God”. i had to fight punching people in the face when they used it. so now, finally past it (mostly), when something goes wrong (usually something really trivial around here) my husband says in jest, “oh honey, just let go and let god”. and we laugh. :) but still that particular cliche’, when used by (possibly) well-meaning but insensitive people on other conflicted/hurting people, brings up that urge to punch them right in the face. i should probably go read my bible and pray now. ;)

  • http://that-something.com/ Kate

    Oh, I love this. And I wish I could staple it to the face of my cousin’s “helpful” church friend who visited her in the hospital after a suicide attempt, only to berate her with scripture about how depression was selfish and ungodly, and that she would be totally fine if she just came back to church.

  • Elizabeth Koziel

    How is it I want to cry every time I read you?  You bring so much to my mind and my tears are of memories, of things (such as above – having been said to me) and of joy for God working through you (you allowing him) and tears of joy of moving forward in my faith walk.  One wee step at a time.

     I wish to minister to others …compassionately without so much wordiness as others did unto me.  But, I struggle NOT saying anything – questioning my belief that just being there for someone is enough.  May God bless you, Elizabeth Esther!!

    elizabethk

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1451889918 Elizabeth Ana Hardy

    “Just trust God more!” It’s been a while since anyone said that to me, since I’ve gotten over the struggles that prompted that advice, but it still riles me up a bit to think about it. I would always ask, “How?” to which I’d receive answers along the lines of, “read your Bible/pray more” or flat out, “I don’t know…” It was almost as if the advice givers thought that trust was a light switch; I should have been able to just flick it to a higher setting and my problems would dissipate. A lot of the time, when I expressed my frustration, all I wanted was for someone to admit that my struggles were valid, difficult, and worthy of sympathy. I wasn’t really looking for a quick fix; I was looking for someone who would confirm that I wasn’t just overreacting or being a bad Christian.

    • Rushiawallace

      We need someone to bear witness to our pain/struggle/wound/etc. THEN healing can begin.

  • http://stitchinguptheseams.wordpress.com/ Stitching Seams

    “Don’t you think you’re just dwelling on it too much?” was my mother’s response to my confiding in her that I was having panic attacks and nightmares related to sexual assault that happened in 2006.

    “You just need to let it go,” is my dad’s response to me discovering more ways in which my “education” and time spent at BJU were deeply psychologically emotionally spiritually abusive.

    (sigh) It’s hard, because I know they mean well and they love me with all of their hearts.

    I also get the whole “if you went to church regularly / if you read your Bible” tripe from them, too – usually if we’re having a financial difficulty or marriage issues. It’s maddening.

    • http://stitchinguptheseams.wordpress.com/ Stitching Seams

      Oh, I forgot “Don’t let him go too long without it” when she discovered that my panic attacks frequently happen during sex, rendering me incapable of touching my husband (and oftentimes not knowing who he is)…that still makes me cry when I remember her saying that.

      • http://lovingfromtheinsideout.blogspot.com Connie

        Damn. As IF his sexual desires are more important than your pain. I am SO sorry that happened. :-(

  • http://www.ericpazdziora.com/ Eric

    “You know, nobody’s perfect.” And its ugly stepsister, “There’s no such thing as a perfect church.” Yes, I know nobody’s perfect; I also know that imperfection is not an excuse for abuse.

    • marie

      Yes!  I HATE when people–and I include myself here–say “nobody’s perfect,” as though the underlying assumption was that people are indeed perfect.

  • Katie S.

    “Once you are spiritually mature….”  I don’t think it’s helpful for a person to berate another’s maturity in the faith, either.  Or to assume that problems stem from or are perceived wrongly based on one’s spiritual immaturity. 

  • Anonymous

    How’s your prayer life?

    Now, if you are a close friend, you can ask me that question. It is an opening to discussion. But, a stranger…. Thank you for insuring I now feel, no matter the actual current state of my prayer life, that I am not praying enough or in the right way.

    • http://www.downtoearthwomen.blogspot.com/ Tracey

      Feel free to go an ask me about my sex life, thanks. 

    • Nancy

      I think I’d answer that question this way: “Oh, God and me are just fine!  Great, really.  It’s some of His followers that I can’t stand.” 

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com/ Christian H

    Have you read this? I’ve found it helpful.
    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2007/04/summer-and-winter-christians.html

    (That’s not an example of something not to say, but depending on the link, it could be. Pamphlets and other tract literature can be especial noxious to the spiritual sufferers. I’ve found the linked post helpful, but I don’t want to assume you or other readers of this blog will find it as helpful.)

  • KatR

    “You’re bitter”.  For some reason, there is a swath of Christians who feel that being bitter is more horrendous than being an axe murderer, and so this phrase gets used as a weapon to get others to shut up.

    • Amielou31

      This. Exactly. I was going to add “you’re bitter” to the list.

      Along with one I heard in both a spiritual abuse situation and in a situation in which I was being bullied by an employer: “You’re just choosing to see only the negative side of things”.

      Ugh. Because if you ignore the abuse and think happy thoughts, it will all get better. 

    • http://www.downtoearthwomen.blogspot.com/ Tracey

      I have never understood why being bitter about an experience is unacceptable. 

    • http://rawfaithrealworld.wordpress.com/ RawFaith

      or the sister comment to this one… “you’re too cynical.”  I hate that one too.

  • Ashley Anderson

    Your convictions and courage are an anecdote, a dose of enlightenment I am grateful for daily. Thank you for all you do in stepping out for what is right and good and whole–especially in the midst of those who are discourteous, unkind, and/or content enough to linger in complacency or worse, disbelief. 

    * Your voice is urging me to be a different, better person. Thank you.

  • http://faithandfood.morizot.net/ Scott Morizot

    Forgiveness is extremely hard, even if it is essential for your own well-being. Some things you never really get over. (Or if you do it takes more than the ‘half my life’ I’ve lived so far.) But if you’re still breathing, then you are moving on as best you can.

     As far as many of the rest go, I don’t think my cultural formation was sufficiently ‘whatever something’ for them to have much impact on me — though I have heard them. Or maybe I just don’t care enough about what people think of me — except for those times when I care intensely. ;-)

    Good list.

  • Anonymous

    I think the way  a person responds i a reflection of their spiritual life.  If they believe, or have been taught to believe, their faith is the only way to heaven they will question your right to question.  If they give you permission to struggle with they hold, or have been told to hold sacred, then what does that say about their right to struggle?

  • http://www.blogspot.com/sheilascribbles SheilaScribbles

    Well said. Having been raised in the church, being a preacher’s kid, and now looking back – this was timely to read. Thank you.

  • Maggie

    My favorite is “If you were doing the will of God, then you wouldn’t be suffering from x, y, z”.  Really?  Really?!

    I just wish that there was as much compassion for spiritual brokenness as there is for the physical.  I mean we would never say to someone in a body cast, “Well if you would just forgive, read your bible, and pray more, you could take off that cast and get out of the hospital bed right now”….Wait a minute!  Yes, there are some who would say that and then berate the person for not having enough faith for healing.  Never mind!  Sigh.

    • http://www.downtoearthwomen.blogspot.com/ Tracey

      Um, actually, there are people who believe that, better yet, there are those who believe that illness is a direct result of sin and that if a person was not full of sin, they wouldn’t get sick…..or they wouldn’t have children with afflictions.

      As the mom of a child who was born (and died) with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome and one who was born (and lived) with a Sacrococygeal teratoma, ( you can look them up) I’ve had a few people tell me that their ailments were direct results of the sin of divorcing my first husband and marrying a second. 

      Fortunately for me, neither person’s comments were taken to heart by me because I already knew what idiots they were. 

  • Tanya E

    Oh. My.  This is so spot-on for me, I linked it on Facebook.  Every one of these things has been said to me in the last 3 years.  Some multiple times.  The only things missing form this list is “Bitterness is the seed of rebellion” and “God hates a man that stirs dissension”. 

  • http://thehomespunlife.com Sisterlisa

    The idea that a wounded person needs to have scripture to back up their view of what abuse is, is ridiculous on so many levels. It shows that the “listener” can’t think without a scripture battle and even if the wounded did provide passages from the bible, the “listener” usually dismisses them anyway. Just read Ezekiel 34.

  • Foley_theresa

    I have been subject to all the comments Elizabeth lists and many offered by the readers.  Here is another example “There is sin in the world”.  This is the Christian version of “stuff happens”.  This comment is very dismissive and callous. If you are the victim of a robbery, would you just sigh and say this phrase?  No, you would file a police report and do whatever else is necessary.  But if you were not personally affected, then it is very easy to dismiss the victim’s pain with this phrase.

  • Tanya E

    Holy cow! I had forgotten about the two worst ones until someone just reminded me.  “You have an Absalom spirit” and “You have a Jezabel spirit”.

    Hey! Maybe it is a sign of healing that I had forgotten!?! ;)

    • http://www.downtoearthwomen.blogspot.com/ Tracey

      Is it a bad thing that I am so Bible illiterate that I would say, “Who?”

      • Tanya E

        LOL! Join the club!  Jezabel I knew, but Absalom was new to me.  However, I became well acquainted with him (rebellion and disloyalty) in a sermon series that was pretty much made up special for us right before we left. :rolleyes:

  • Alexandra

    I come here and read your posts because they make me so uncomfortable.  It would be so much nicer to pretend that life is a simple “pray some more… read some more… fix yourself” kind of deal, but it isn’t.  It is hard to read about the way that you are hurt by statements made in church from the pulpit or by other misguided Christians; it would be more comfortable for me to point a finger at you and say “you’re the problem” (as so many of these statements imply).  I would like to believe that no one would do such awful things in God’s name, but I would be deceiving myself.  The Bible itself has plenty to say about false teachers and none of it is pleasant.  It doesn’t say that “they’re human after all” or that “nobody’s perfect”.  False teachers are warned that they will be harshly judged.  As someone who has been in ministry and is preparing for further ministry in Soul Care, I read your blog to gain the insights of someone who has been deeply hurt and yet has the courage to point out lies and seek truth.  I don’t always agree with your conclusions, but I am always challenged to think about what I truly believe, and how I can share that with others in a way that is faithful to a God of love, grace and mercy.

    • Anonymous

      This.

      Thank you.

      More than you know…..thank you.

  • http://turquoisegates.blogspot.com Genevieve Thul@Turquoise Gates

    “You’re only listening to people who agree with you.” It is natural for someone in recovery to seek solace in people who’ve had a similar experience. Sometimes the doubting period, when faith has been demolished to the cornerstone of Christ, we are too fragile for harsh criticism and rhetoric. In those times, it is to be expected that we will try to seek out people who agree with us, or who have shared our struggles. This is one of my top “don’t” phrases following my year of difficulty.

  • Evelyn

    Have you talked with x, y, and z, yet?  Because you’re accountable to them, you know.

    X, y, and z already told me that I am in great danger of apostasizing, thank you.

  • Pmpope68

    With the “you should forgive” advice, what people need to realize is that some of us find it helpful to talk through the hurts that we’ve experienced.  However, if people are unwilling to do that, how do we prevent future hurts from occurring?  For instance, if a congregation is not aware that they are being culturally insensitive, what’s to prevent it from continuing?  Part of what would have helped me is to have those conversations with people willing to listen and learn.  Oh, I’m sure I’ll move through to forgiveness, but it would be nice to have conversations about the actual issue(s) rather than feeling as though people just want to smooth over the offense and move on without directly addressing and remedying the problem.

  • http://leftcheek.blogspot.com Jas-nDye

    I find a lot of correlations b/t this list and my own experience talking to some about my separation/divorce.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve got this crease in my forehead wondering why going back to a faith that doesn’t welcome the honest doubt and the tentative holding of various beliefs and troubling truth claims is any kind of ‘recovery’ at all. It seems pretty obvious that giving up the faith altogether makes much more sense for one’s mental and emotional well-being even if the idea to do so is shocking in its candour. It at least has the virtue of being a reasonable option, but after some 75 comments I’ve yet to come across it.

  • michele

    Thanks for this.

  • Martha

    How about “if your relationship with God has changed, then who moved?” theoretically, my relationship with God should be constantly changing…Growth is change! And change can be hard.