Category Archives: Cults

Is @MarsHill church a cult? What IS a cult, anyway???

Unknown-1This past week, a 16-year, devoted member of Mars Hills Church (the group of churches founded by Mark Driscoll) wrote a blog post repenting of his complicity to and participation in spiritual abuse . He writes:

We were grieved by our own sins of complicity to systems and structures we could not in good conscience support anymore. The overall philosophical idea we could not support anymore was an “ends justifies the means” mentality.…I admit I would get passionate about these things thinking it was the Gospel. I then would manipulate more. I was so blind to this form of Spiritual abuse I would even get upset with people who disagreed…Everything became pragmatic tyranny. I truly believed that if this “Gospel” was moving forward I was justified in my actions. (emphasis mine)

I know a little something about cults. I grew up in one. What this former member so bravely exposes are the “systems and structures” that perpetuate spiritual abuse and create cultic groups.

What this former member is telling us is that Mars Hills Church OPERATES in a harmful manner; uses abusive METHODS and justifies it by saying the Gospel is moving forward.

This is terribly wrong and should raise huge red-flags to anyone involved with Mars Hills Churches.

Is Mars Hill Church a cult? Well, let’s talk about that.

In Chapter One of my book, “Girl at The End of the World,” I explain why I call MY childhood church a cult:

…when people ask me why I call The Assembly a cult, I say it’s because we operated like one. Cults aren’t so much about beliefs as they are about methods and behavior. According to cult researchers, it is the emotional seizing of people’s trust, thoughts and choices that identifies a cult. The Assembly wins on all counts. (p.9)

When talking about cults, Christians have often focused on theology. I don’t find this very helpful.

Identifying a cult based on What Beliefs Are Believed is far too subjective a standard of measurement. Beliefs vary widely–even among Christians who hold generally similar beliefs about foundational doctrines like the Bible, the Trinity, the Person of Christ, etc.

What is far more useful and easily identifiable is looking at the WAY a church operates. I mean, any two groups may disagree about whether Jesus IS God but if one group beats its children into submission while the other group doesn’t, I’m gonna say the violent group is a cult–even if its beliefs are considered orthodox.

Now, just a caveat, here: often, harmful beliefs DO lead to cult-like behavior. For example, my childhood church beat children so harshly because it BELIEVED children were inherently wicked sinners who NEEDED to be spanked in order to be saved from Hell. Obviously, I don’t believe that belief anymore. So, yes, sometimes beliefs feed the cultish behavior.

People have told me that I need to “be careful” about labeling churches as cults. I absolutely disagree. If a group ACTS like a cult and OPERATES like a cult and HURTS people like a cult–then let’s call it what is is: a cult.

There’s a huge reason for this: calling a cult a cult is empowering for the victims inside it. Yes, it was initially VERY difficult for me to call my childhood church a cult, if only because the cult was also my family. There was a lot of personal shame involved. But, in the end, I found it absolutely liberating to call my church what it was: a cult.

Naming the cult for what it was helped me UNDERSTAND my experience and place it into context. I was so grateful to know that cults exist outside The Assembly and that my story wasn’t so super-extreme-unique that nobody could understand what had happened to me.

In fact, it wasn’t UNTIL I started calling my childhood church a cult that outsiders understood what I was trying to tell them. When I said: “I grew up in a cult” they were like: “Oh, OK, I get it.” But if I said: “I grew up in a strict church” they were like: “Didn’t we all? Isn’t ‘strict’ the very definition of church?”

Um. Nope. After this happened a bunch of times I knew I needed a better descriptor. Yes, the word “cult” is heavy. But so is spiritual abuse. Maybe it’s time we started taking spiritual abuse seriously.

I understand why fellow Christians might feel confused or reticent about calling Mars Hill Church a cult, or even a “cultic” group. They’ll probably say something like: “But Mark Driscoll loves Jesus and is passionate about making disciples!” All I have to say to that is: the ends don’t justify the means. The noblest and holiest goals NEVER excuse abusive means.

Another excuse we might hear: “I attend a branch of Mars Hill Church and that stuff doesn’t happen here.” Well, if this were the first time we were hearing troubling news out of MHC, then this might be true. But the truth is that the stories have been slowly eking out over several years.

I think it’s time Christians took a serious look at what is happening inside Mars Hill Church; paying special attention to the SYSTEMS and STRUCTURES and METHODS of operation.

At the very least, the Gospel deserves THAT.


A helpful resource for identifying cultic groups and relationships can be found in “Take Back Your Life: recovering from cults and abusive relationships.” In this book, the authors describe the Top 15 Characteristics of Cultic Groups. This list is BY FAR the best compilation of cultic characteristics I’ve ever seen. I’ll mention a few, here, as they pertain to faith-based cults, specifically:

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-altering practices such as speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions or debilitating work routines are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader (s).
  • The leadership dictates–sometimes in great detail–how members should think, act and feel (ie. members must get permission to date, change jobs, or marry…leaders prescribe what to wear, where to live, whether to have children, how to discipline children…)
  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities
  • ..requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • Members are required to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

–from Appendix A, Take Back Your Life, pages 327 & 328

And to read about my real-life experience inside a Christian cult, here’s my book:

The Girl at the End of the World 

When God was my drug

Source: ADiamondFellFromTheSky; Flickr

Source: ADiamondFellFromTheSky; Flickr


It’s 11:23pm and I’ve been driving the same freeway over and over–past the exit closest to my parents’ house, U-turn, back again. Earlier this evening, I was brave enough to take the exit. But I whipped into a parking lot and hunched down in my truck, chewing my nails. I watched shoppers go in and out of the TJMaxx. They all seemed so normal, happy even. Nobody–not one person!–was glancing over their shoulder convinced the Rapture was about to happen and maybe they’d get left behind. I stare across the street: a mattress store, Adams Music, a bank. All normal things. All absurd to me.


Text Messages:

Friend: You need to go home. Take your medication. It will be better in the morning, promise. 

Me: I don’t want to be this person, a person who needs medication to function. I feel ashamed!

Friend: I understand. But if you had diabetes, would you feel ashamed about needing insulin?


I jam the keys back in the ignition and roar off. Hours pass. I drive. I cry. Near midnight, I take my parents’ exit and cruise down their street. I slow to a stop in front of their home. Lights off. Silence. I try to imagine how I’d break the news. Hi, Pastor. Hi, Pastor’s Wife. I’m your daughter–the one with such weak faith she used PRESCRIPTION DRUGS instead of prayer to help her with anxiety. Yes, she was a bad example, your daughter. A very poor Christian witness. But wait, Mom and Dad. I have some good news! I wanted to be a strong Christian. I wanted to be pleasing to you and God. So, I quit the meds. I don’t need them anymore, see? God saved me, God delivered me from all my fears and now, look! I’m all better!

And then I laugh.

Because that was the kind of crazy I used to call normal. It’s the kind of madness I called ecstasy–a strange, religious high from my former life–back when God was my drug. Back then, I thought I could just “pray away” my anxiety. But I’m not living that life anymore. I’ve made a new life for myself. I just need to go home to it.

Dancer Gertrud Frith in Medea, Rolf Winquist 1957

Dancer Gertrud Frith in Medea, Rolf Winquist 1957


Text Message:

Elizabeth, are you home yet? Please go home. You are loved.
You are precious. You are whole. Text me when you get home. Then call me tomorrow morning.


This is what surrender looks like: a glass of water and two white pills in the palm of my hand. I stare at them, these little pills that keep me sane. I’ve gone three days without them. My mind is a howling, jagged whirlwind. I slug down the pills and bang the cup down on the counter. I’m still upset about this–that I need these pills, that I can’t just CONTROL my anxiety myself. I wish–I wish to GOD–that I’d had a different past, hadn’t been raised in a cult, wasn’t such an anxiety freak all the time and—I hear the click of little nails on tile and my dog scampers into the kitchen, tail wagging. She loves me. Anxious, sensitive, often triggered soul that I am–to this dog, I am lovable and perfect. I scoop her up in my arms and carry her to bed with me.


Morning: the howling in my mind has quieted but my brain feels bruised and fragile, wobbly like half-set Jell-O. I pick up the phone and make the call–because I need help.

“Of course I can get the twins from school,” my Dad says, kindly. “You OK?”

“I–I was at your house last night,” I say, suddenly. “I–I drove away because I was ashamed. I just don’t want to disappoint you. I didn’t want to be…The Daughter With Emotional Problems, ya know?”

I cover my mouth, shocked. I’d spilled it all out.

Dad is quiet and then he chuckles. “Oh, Liz, I love ya. And thanks for bein’ honest with me! I want you to know I’ve learned a few things in the past few years. I’m not disappointed in you, I’m glad you’re getting the help you need.”

“Oh—. Thank you, Dad.”

“And you can come to our house anytime. Anytime, ya hear? All you gotta do is knock on the door. Sittin’ out in in the dark isn’t gonna do ya any good!”

He’s right. I’m tired of sitting in the dark. I have nothing to be ashamed of–I’m a survivor. Yes, I have scars. Deep ones. But I’m getting the help I need. And I love the person I’m becoming….

Source: a la gracie; tumblr

Source: a la gracie; tumblr

“I’m depressed and living hurts too much…”

The following is a “deleted scene” from my book (available March, 2014). It is the story of my two-week stay at a retreat center specializing in emotional healing and codependency issues. I am sharing this story in the hopes that those who have suffered similarly will know they are not alone and those in positions of religious authority will understand the devastating, long-term impact of spiritual abuse. Comments are open. Be kind.



I’ve been out of an abusive church for years but I’m still making the same mistake: I still don’t take care of myself. I keep burning out. I survive on caffeine and adrenaline.

By all measures my life is far better than it used to be. I should feel healed.

But my skin is on fire, elbows and feet flaring with psoriasis scales. I want to unzip my skin and crawl out of it. My hands shake, full of fear and trembling.

I’m going to a two week retreat center because I’m depressed as hell and living hurts too much. There. That’s the honest truth.

I grip my boarding pass tightly, so tightly my knuckles might start sweating blood. I stare at the bar-code as if I can somehow decipher the meaning behind the lines, trace the trajectory that led me here—trembling in an airport, blindsided by one glaring, uncomfortable truth: fundamentalism worked; it successfully broke me.

In the very core of who I am, I still believe I’m not good enough. No matter how successfully we’ve rebuilt our lives, no matter how recovered we look—deep down, I’m still a frightened little girl.

Something is missing.

I get in line to board my flight because I need help, because I am serious about my recovery. I now understand that there is no quick-fix that will permanently cure me. Extricating myself from what I experienced is like sorting the wheat from the chaff—the good is sown in with the bad.

I am going into treatment because I am determined to get better.



“We don’t break our horses, we invite them into a partnership with us,” Alyssa says, her bright eyes sparkling beneath the broad brim of her cowboy hat.

It’s my third day at the retreat center. We’ve been standing on this windswept hill for what seems like an eternity doing nothing but watch horses. Horses standing. Horses grazing. Horses doing absolutely nothing. Alyssa tells us that being still and simply watching horses is an exercise in developing our inner observer.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to be observing, here, other than my raging boredom.

Being still is damn uncomfortable.

“You’re on horse-time now,” Alyssa says. “For those of us accustomed to rushing around, being on horse-time is really difficult. When I first started working with horses I couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes.

I shift my weight from foot to foot, ball my hands into fists and push them into the pockets of my windbreaker. I don’t understand how you’re supposed to control a horse without breaking her and I certainly don’t understand how being on horse-time will improve my relationship with myself and with God.

Still, there is something about Alyssa’s way of being that intrigues me. She is loose and easeful. She walks gently, slowly and intentionally. She talks casually and easily to her horses as if they’re native English speakers. I have no idea how this is working but it’s obvious the horses understand her because they gently respond.

I am utterly baffled. This is a language I don’t understand. I am not accustomed to gentleness, partnership and relationships between equals. I am accustomed to harshness, black-and-white hierarchies and mutually destructive relationships. The language Alyssa shares with her horses is utterly foreign but I can clearly see the results: mutual respect and implicit trust. This is love.

Quite unexpectedly, I see the connection to my own life and it takes my breath away.

I learned to relate to God through punishment.

My first experience of God happened beneath a paddle. I was spanked until my will was broken.

I was spanked until the deepest belief I held was that love is punishment.


In the treatment center, I have homework.

My program director has instructed me to create a timeline of my life, listing all major events and relationships in chronological order. “The point of this exercise,” she tells me, “is to discover your own, unique relational pattern.”

It takes me a several pages to complete the time line. Then, working from a list of signs and characteristics, I color-code each relationship with my most common behaviors.

When I’m done, an obvious pattern has emerged.

It is uncomfortably, devastatingly true: I have unrealistic expectations of others in relationships, I seek to avoid rejection and abandonment at any cost, I mistake intensity for intimacy and most of all, I feel a deep sense of worthlessness and therefore use relationships to relieve emotional pain.

I’ve attached to friendships, correspondences, Facebook “friends,” blogging “friends,” attended conferences in hopes of finding that Perfect Best Friend, bounced around churches hoping to find The Perfect Church, emailed bloggers I adored, texted, weaseled and grasped for relationships to fill, fill, fill—fill what? A bottomless chasm of aching need.

I don’t have a drinking problem. I don’t have a substance abuse problem. I am hooked on relationships.

I stare at my timeline and I see the source of my relational pattern: lack of nurturing and attention while young triggered feelings of shame and inherent worthlessness. If I am ever to fully recover, I will need daily connection with a higher power Who loves me unconditionally. The key to my emotional healing and my spiritual future is letting God love me.

And there it is, the missing piece: I don’t know how to receive God’s love. I don’t know how to receive grace. The core of my spiritual struggle is with self-loathing.



This is what I understand: there will never be one, final cure for my religiously wounded heart. I will always bear the scars. And there will even be times when I feel the pain anew. But each day, I can choose to take care of myself. I can choose to let God love me.

This is what I know: I can’t save the world from fundamentalism, but I can save myself. There are things I cannot change, but I ask God for the courage to help me change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

This is my story: God has given me a future and a hope.

This is my song: I am not afraid.


How to help someone inside a cult/abusive church {hint: interventions don’t work}

EE @ 36, EE @ 5.

I get quite a few emails from parents or concerned friends asking how to help their children get out of cultish churches or abusive relationships. They ask things like: “Should we stage an intervention?” Or: “How can we convince her that she’s gotten involved with a harmful group?” My answer is simple and sad. You can’t do much of anything.

Until a person is READY to leave, nothing will work. The person inside the group is experiencing a positive payoff. There is a probably a very strong sense of belonging and community. There is a higher purpose to life. Their lives have MEANING. Unless there is greater benefit to leaving than staying, most people will stay.

People will sacrifice their own personal rights and freedoms to receive the emotional and spiritual “high” of the cult experience. Frankly, a parent’s concern can’t hold a candle to the kind of emotional fireworks their child is experiencing inside the group.

In fact, I would suggest that interventions often have the opposite desired effect causing resentment and loss of trust on the part of the child and frustration for the parents.

All a parent or concerned friend can do is provide a NON-JUDGMENTAL PRESENCE and be READY TO HELP when the child is ready to leave.

Once things start going badly inside the cult (and they always do), the child will remember their non-judgmental friends and family who love them no matter what. If parents and friends can maintain a steady, non-judgmental presence, then their child will have somewhere to go when he/she finally decides to leave.

I would also like to caution that sometimes people need to leave over and over and over again. I tried to escape my fundamentalist cult at least five different times. I always went back. But it’s the TRYING to leave that’s important and is what outside friends and family should support. Don’t berate your child for returning and don’t cut off the friendship just because the cult-member isn’t ready to leave yet. Just keep providing support.

The point is, don’t lose hope if your child or friend leaves and goes back several times. Everyone has a different exit process and you must respect their unique journey. I was always looking for someone who would respect ME as an individual person (because in the cult all individual choice and freedom is completely eroded) and wouldn’t just say something like: DUH. Just LEAVE your church already, isn’t it obvious you’re in a cult?????

I know this might sound weird but I actually NEEDED some kind of control and ownership over how and when I left.  I needed freedom to choose how and when I exited the church. I had no freewill in the cult so making the choice to leave needed to be MY choice. It needed to be about me taking back some personal dignity and sense of self for MYSELF.

I didn’t need th gawking and super-curious questions of people on the outside. I just needed somewhere to go.I needed people who were non-judgmental. I’d experienced so much judgment and condemnation inside the cult that I was very sensitive to it—even from well-meaning people who were trying to help me.

I didn’t WANT allies who were just a leeeetle too eager to “rescue” me, who would make a big scene, embarrass me or ask all kinds of questions and try to get the juicy details.

Lastly, when a cult-member finally DOES leave for good, they will probably experience quite a bit of withdrawal and shame. They will wonder how and why they got involved in such a harmful group. They will need quiet and anonymity. They will probably need help with basic things like housing, a job and maybe even driver’s Ed. Depending on how strict and reclusive their cult was, a newly escaped member will need at least two years of ongoing support.

It’s never ever easy to leave a cult or abusive relationship but with when there is outside support, it is POSSIBLE.

Not all wire hangers are misogynists. Apparently.

A few months ago, I had an embarrassing incident with some wire hangers in my closet. I had set out to organize! cleanse! make all things new!

But the wire hangers, they were acting all privileged. Hogging too much room. Patriarchal, really. Wire hangers, as we all know, are EFFING MISOGYNISTS, AM I RIGHT????

Ahem. Forgive me, this will all make sense momentarily.

The Wire Hanger Meltdown was followed by The Pool Chair Incident. Because, obviously, Pool Chair is just another way of saying Cult Leader–especially when it refuses to properly recline and instead crashes down, landing your ass on the cement pool deck.

“Mommy, why are you crying?”


“You mean the pool chair?”


And that is what we call “My Rock Bottom Moment.” Clearly, I needed help. Probably this came as no surprise to anyone but myself.

: :

I’d been getting emails. Messages. Tweets.

I don’t like your tone, Elizabeth. You sound different. You sound angry. Not all churches are cults, Elizabeth. Not all men are cult leaders. You’re being unfair, unkind, preposterous. Sometimes you have good things to say, Elizabeth, but your tone is so harsh. Why are you so bitter? Why can’t you just move on? Stop being such a victim, Elizabeth. Maybe you should write a disclaimer before you share your experiences because your abuse is not the norm. –Signed, A Caring Reader.

I mean, enough people tell you the same thing and you finally gotta check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Which I did. I checked myself right into an Online Timeout. I’ve been quiet lately.

: :

Back to the story. I was angry. Very angry. Mostly, at God. And pastors. And churches. And apparently, pool chairs. Little League. Citibank. Wire hangers. Cult leaders. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with the anger.

Anger is exhausting. I think I read that in the book of Revelation. Which is to say, when you’re angry, you view all of life through an angry filter. It was like I put on my angry glasses each morning and went hunting for Bad Pastors, Bad Churches and Bad Theology.

This is an exhausting way to live.

I don’t know whether my rock bottom was burnout, anxiety or generalized hysteria but I’m pretty sure it was a combination of all three. The Interwebz can you make you batshit cray, this we know.

Point is, I put my ass in timeout—oh, wait. I’ve already said this. This, you see, is what happens when you’re angry: you forget you’ve already said things and then you start repeating yourself over and over until people are like: yeah, yeah, we GET IT. YOU WERE ABUUUUSED.

: :

I’ve been working a 12 step program. This is uncomfortable. Mainly, because at some point you have to stop talking about All The Ways You’ve Been Hurt and start taking responsibility for the ways you hurt others.

This is annoying. Also, profoundly difficult. I would really rather skip this part.

But I won’t. I’m gonna work it.

: :

I’ve been wrestling with questions:

At what point does the victim become the abuser?

At what point does my anger no longer serve me?

: :

I read this article about survivors of the Holocaust. The researcher was trying to find out why certain survivors went on to live meaningful, productive lives after all they’d endured? I can’t remember the details, but basically, it was that the survivors who lived long, meaningful lives maintained a deep faith and an optimistic spirit. They didn’t just define themselves by their awful experience, they proactively sought ways to make the world a better place for others–even if it was just their families.

: :

A whole person cannot be solely defined by what she stands against. A whole person must stand for something, too.

: :

I have lashed out, criticized, deconstructed, questioned and chided the religious powers that be. This was an important part of my journey and I honor it. But I made mistakes along the way and despite my good intentions, I have hurt people. I hurt myself.

I set out to organize! set right! cleanse! make all things new!

But I got entangled somehow. The weapons that were used against me I used against others.

The problem was not so-and-so-pastor or so-and-so-church. My mistake was playing whack-a-mole with every suspicious church or pastor that came across my radar. Sure, I can react, react, react all day. But then what?

In other words, what am I doing to build up the Church? What am I doing to edify and create new, healthy culture within the Church?

Criticism is necessary but it’s not enough.
I can’t build a culture of love and peace using weapons of hate and warfare. 

: :

I don’t have all the answers, here. But I want you to know I’m taking time to examine myself, to check my motives and sincerely seek to understand how I can use my words to effect positive change. Thank you for being patient with me…..

In Repair

It takes courage to be willing to stand still and feel what we must feel.

Sometimes, we have what seems like endless layers of pain inside us.

It will only hurt for a little while, no longer than necessary, to heal us. We can trust that if we must feel pain, it is part of healing, and it is good. We can become willing to surrender to and accept the inevitable painful feelings that are a good part of recovery.

Go with the flow, even when the flow takes us through uncomfortable feelings. Release, freedom, healing and good feelings are on the other side.

I am willing to feel what I need to feel to be healed, healthy and whole.

–Melody Beattie, Language of Letting Go, reading for September 8.

When God is your abuser

I was being abused and I asked Jesus to help me. I was a little girl–the age of my own twin daughters–and I was away at Bible Camp. I asked Jesus to help me. I prayed over and over. I asked Him to make it stop. But Jesus didn’t make it stop.

This has been–and continues to be–a huge struggle for me. I do not trust God. And why should I? The God I knew was wrathful and harsh. The God I knew didn’t protect me from my abusers. The God I knew was stone silent in the face of my desperate supplications.

Over time, I transferred my abusers’ traits to my concept of God. I lived in constant fear of punishment and yet, I also believed that punishment was love. They love me and this is why they hit me.

I began to believe that I was unlovable and inherently bad. I certainly didn’t deserve love and I always had to earn it. Love was given or withheld based on my level of obedience. My father told me God’s love was conditional. If I disobey I will be disowned by God and my parents.

As a female being raised in a highly-patriarchal culture, I never developed my own understanding of God because God’s will would be made known to me through my father and husband. My father was God for me and later, my husband was God for me.

This is probably one of the most dangerous lies of patriarchy: a human being (aka, father, husband, pastor) is God for you. It is the most dangerous lie because if someone controls your concept of God, they control everything.

The result for me was that I cast away my childhood and tried to become a little adult, always trying harder to be good and perfect and without spot or blemish. I lived a scrupulously rigid life but I never measured up. They hit me because they love me.

My survival skills included: controlling every little detail of my life, numbing/abandoning my feelings, avoidance and indirect communication.

I rarely spoke directly or asked for what I needed and wanted. I hinted, suggested or spoke in a baby voice. Like this? Maybe? Pwetty pwease? All kinds of hedging and equivocation. As I grew older I used my words to lash out, to criticize and to question. I whiplashed between passive-aggressive language and harsh, attacking words.

When someone treated me abusively, I adopted coping mechanisms like avoidance. I never confronted their abusive treatment and I even avoided my own feelings about it. It was better to look away, pretend it never happened, everything is fine! la-la-la-la.

I controlled every aspect of my life by following a rigid schedule, becoming scrupulous and harshly critical about my personal appearance, my body, my daily schedule and my confession lists.

But all the control and scrupulosity didn’t take away my deep, real need for love. I turned my focus to relationships: seeking friendships and romantic love which would fulfill, heal and make me whole. My emotional intensity enabled me to become deeply intimate with people very quickly. But when someone got too close, I pulled away.

When I left the abusive church environment, I still found the abusive God everywhere I went. It seemed so many Christians believed in a harsh, judgmental concept of God because they were harsh with themselves and others. But I desperately wanted fellowship and I agreed to the terms they set in order to belong. If you want to be part of our fellowship, you must accept our concept of God.

I was willing, once again, to sacrifice my freedom for the feeling of belonging–even if that love and belonging was a substitute for real love.

I never took the time to develop my own understanding of God. I just kept accepting everyone else’s version of God. I kept trying make their interpretation of God my own.

I discounted the few times I’d sensed a kind, benevolent God gently guiding my life because I didn’t trust myself. So-and-so pastor says God doesn’t work that way so I must be wrong.

I hit rock bottom after realizing that even though I was no longer a helpless child, I continued to re-victimize myself by recreating the dysfunctional environment of my childhood.

Numbing myself was a coping mechanism necessary for surviving my dysfunctional childhood but it no longer helps me, it hinders my recovery.

I slowly came to God through the back door, indirectly. I made a connection with Mary. She was safe. She was maternal. She was gentle. I could hide myself in her skirts instead of looking directly at God.

That was a necessary step in my recovery and it was what I needed at the time. But Mary wasn’t God and she couldn’t effect the full recovery I needed. It has become clear to me that a full recovery means facing my root issue: my unhealthy view of God.

I am learning to listen to the wordless language of feelings. Where words have often destroyed and damaged my concept of God, feeling the feelings God gave me is leading me back to myself. God gave me my feelings and I’m allowed to feel them. I don’t need to repress, avoid, manipulate, deny or shame my feelings.

I am learning a new way of living.

I am taking care of myself. I am learning to listen to my gut instinct. As I have begun coming back to myself and taking care of myself, I am being led into a healthy relationship with God that is gentle, trusting and loving.

I don’t have to use all the same words as everyone else in order to still have a relationship with God. I can use words that are helpful and put aside the ones that are triggering.

Whenever I feel a tightening sensation in my chest or stomach, I know I’m reverting back to old, abusive concepts of God. But whenever I feel a warmth, looseness and easiness in my chest and stomach, I feel myself relaxing into God as I understand God.

I am learning the paradoxical truth: loving myself leads to loving God and others.

I have a long way to go, but slowly, my understanding of God is separating from the traits of my abusers.


A former religious extremist explains how radicalization happens {plus, a theory of how suspected Boston Marathon bombers were radicalized}

How do two sons of a political asylum refugee grow up to be terrorists? Their father loved America. Their uncle and aunt and everyone that knew them–including their neighbors and school mates–were shocked to hear these young men were suspected terrorists. In fact, it was so shocking, that the aunt and father quickly began saying the boys were “framed.”

The suspects in the Boston Marathon were brothers. Their father, by a neighbor’s account, was brutually beaten by KGB and fled to the United States. He loved America.

So, how did they become suspected terrorists?

A neighbor described the boys as helpful, the family as hospitable. She said when she saw their picture on TV, she fell on the floor. Her only thought? Somehow they were “poisoned along the way.”

The suspects’ uncle, in a brief appearance on CNN, said his guess was that “somebody radicalized them.” He said this had nothing to do with Chechnya. And historian Charles King agrees, citing reports from journalists interviewing family members in Dagestan:

In other words, the focus now should be on the Tsarnaevs as homegrown terrorists, not on the ethnic or regional origins of their family. Journalists’ initial conversations with family members in Dagestan amplify that point: a sense of shock that two nice boys who had gone to America for their education could have been involved in such a brutal act.

So, how did these young men become terrorists?

The best article I’ve read is from a Reuters journalist who spent seven months in captivity in Pakistan. And although the radicalization process he saw happened in Pakistan, the underlying conclusions are, in my opinion, spot-on: 

militants had created a sophisticated system of schools, training camps and indoctrination videos that slowly severed young men’s bonds with their families.

The only relationship that mattered, recruits were told, was their relationship to God. The only cause that mattered, clerics preached, was stopping a vast – and nonexistent – Christian-Jewish-Hindu conspiracy to obliterate Islam from the face of the earth.

No matter how long I spent talking with him, I could not alter his attitudes. Radicalism gave him a cause, a community and an identity.

My own extremist religious past resonates with this. Here’s how radicalization happens:

  1. Cut off from family. New recruits to my childhood cult found our extremist way of life attractive because they had never made a genuine connection with the “dead” Christianity of their childhood. It was easy to persuade new members to cut off their families because outsiders were “worldly, hypocritical and compromised.” Outsiders didn’t appreciate the HIGHER CALLING that our TRUE religion offered. Effective radicalization requires a rejection of the outside world which many times includes family members.
  2. Relationship with God is the only thing that matters. Extremist religion is narrowly focused. It elevates one thing; ie. “relationship with God” above all else. The trick, here, is that what ACTUALLY matters is the group. The group becomes God for the new recruit. Whatever the group leader says and believes is what the new recruit says and believes. Effective radicalization requires a rejection of previously held values; ie. the American dream is no longer valuable but martyrdom for God IS valuable.
  3. Radicalism gives identity, cause and community. For those disaffected by the disappointments of modern life or crushed by poverty or suffering a heartbreaking loss, extremist religion provides a nearly irresistible solution. Identity, cause and community are a POWERFUL trifecta–especially for young recruits.

Now, here’s my theory about how the two young terrorist suspects experienced their self-radicalization:

My guess is that the older brother was disaffected first. His father had returned to Chechnya. The older brother had a criminal record–beating an ex-girlfriend. Perhaps he’d become disillusioned with the American dream, with American values. Perhaps it felt like no matter how hard he worked or no matter how good an education he had, he was not going to Make It in America.

There was a vacuum in his soul. Moderate, peaceful Islam was no longer attractive–or perhaps, he had never truly connected with his Muslim faith.

Slowly, religious extremism began providing answers. He began watching terrorist YouTube videos. He was looking for something purposeful, some kind of higher calling.

The only relationship that mattered, recruits were told, was their relationship to God.

My guess is that the older brother’s values began shifting. A good education, a nice house and a car, a good job–these things no longer held value for him.

Radicalism gave him a cause, a community and an identity.

Slowly, martyrdom and/or jihadist insurgency became increasingly attractive to the older brother. He started talking to his younger brother about it. They didn’t want to die, necessarily, but they wanted to inflict righteous judgment on the Great Oppressors–the United States.

Whether or not the older brother had real connections to terrorist groups remains unknown. I agree with David Rhode, the Reuters journalist who spent seven months in Pakistani captivity. The enemy is not religion. The enemy is extremism.

And let’s be clear, extremism isn’t just happening in Islam. It happens in all religions. In fact, what has disturbed me the MOST since leaving my childhood cult is that Christian fundamentalism is growing in popularity. My cult used to be considered “fringe” and “weird.” But now, fundamentalism is hip.

Contemplative, mystic, “moderate” Christianity is derided and dismissed just as contemplative Sufism is dismissed and derided among fundamentalist Muslims.

The enemy is fundamentalism because fundamentalism is very attractive to people looking for Definitive Answers. Extremist religion provides a rigid, black-and-white framework for understanding the world.

For those disaffected by the disappointments of modern life, extremist religion provides a nearly irresistible solution.

**DISCLAIMER: although my childhood cult didn’t promote violence toward outsiders (we just beat up each other, ugh), it’s not a huge leap of logic to see the similarities between hard-line religious groups. Also, these are just my opinions and theories based my experience in extremist religion. When new information comes to light, I’ll probably change my theories and opinions. WHICH IS TO SAY, no need to get all crazy up in da combox, k? Good. Thanks.**

Precious and Free

I took the children to a park we haven’t been to in a long time. When they were little, we went almost every day.

The park looks different now: old, weathered, worn-out. Two of the slides had been torn out, the holes boarded up with plywood. There was graffiti on two benches. So many weeds–a missing drinking fountain.

I used to go to that park when I was a lost, floundering young mom desperately trying to rebuild a new life after the cult. I was 25 with 3 kids under 3. I felt so alien in mainstream America. Everyone seemed so normal and I felt like such a freak show. I mean, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to be friends with a woman who grew up in a cult.

So, I poured everything into my husband and children. I gave all. I clung to the remaining pieces of my disintegrating faith.

T.S. Eliot once wrote: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

That’s what I was doing. I was shoring up fragments, desperately trying to cobble together a life–a way of being–after everything had been destroyed.

One spring, butterflies came to the park. They fluttered over us, dozens of them in the spring sunshine. There were daisies growing in wild abundance that year. And sometimes, while the children played, I just sat quietly under the trees and listened to the sound of wind in the branches above me.

I was so different then, so blindly optimistic, so sure willpower alone could save us and restore us to sanity. We took family pictures in that park. We picnicked there. I was so certain that if I just kept doing the right things, kept praying, kept reading my Bible, kept trying to build a new, religious scaffolding upon which to hang my worldview–things would get better.

I had such dreams then. Such hopes. I kept my focus on outward things, on doing and working and trying. But sometimes, during those quiet moments under the trees I sensed something was amiss inside me—that the cult wasn’t external. The cult was within. 

But I didn’t let myself go there. I didn’t want to see that. I wanted to live in denial. Just before the twins arrived I was reaching this point where I couldn’t ignore the darkness anymore. I was keenly feeling the loss of myself. I was beginning to think God had abandoned me…but then, twins!

Suddenly, I had new purpose! I was busy again! Nothing mattered but the new babies. Once again I could stop feeling that deep discomfort about the problem within me. Once again, I gave all. I gave every last bit.

But this time, my body couldn’t keep up. I had been placing these kinds of demands on myself since childhood. Cults keep people so busy and frantic that you are living blindly–rushing from one thing to the next without ever slowing down long enough to realize: something is terribly wrong, here. You sense something is wrong but you tell yourself it’s OK because you’re burning out for God.

Without knowing it, I had simply recreated the chaotic, frantically busy environment of my childhood. I was no longer burning out for God, I was burning out for Little League and PTA and enriching activities for my children! I was also recreating toxic relationships. I became enmeshed and entangled in other people’s problems. I tried to fix and solve and rescue people from All the Problems. And then, when they didn’t take my advice I became resentful, angry, obsessive and would lash out.

I filled up my life with more things–good things!–but always more things. I didn’t know that frantic urgency was unhealthy. All the other good Americans seemed to be doing it! No matter how much I did, I never felt good enough.

What I learned the hard way was that either I’d stop the crazy or my body would stop it for me.

Two years after the twins were born, I broke down. I was depressed and constantly sick. I was chronically sleep deprived and so totally exhausted that it took my doctor commanding me to TAKE A REST for me to finally realize that it was possible to die of “natural causes/burnout” by age 32.

Slowly, I began prioritizing taking care of myself.

The answer to my recovery was not a new religious system and it was not going back to the old one, either. The answer to a healthy life and healthy relationships was not in attending church, volunteering in the PTA or doing more for others.

The answer was to start taking care of myself. The answer was to love myself.

I began with a small step: getting enough sleep at night. Then I began exercising. Then I started eating a little healthier each day. I went back to therapy. I began a 12-step recovery program.

I now understand there are no shortcuts to living a healthy life and having healthy, equal-partnered relationships. I am learning to detach with love from people and relationships that are toxic and unhealthy. I am learning to develop relationships slowly, taking as much time as I need to discover whether I like this new person and how to create healthy, appropriate boundaries for them. I am learning that I can’t be everyone’s best friend.

I am learning to feel my uncomfortable feelings, the ones that come from building new, healthy habits and patterns of behavior. Like running, building a healthy life feels painful and uncomfortable at first. But there is a difference between healthy, healing pain and unhealthy, damaging pain. Before I started getting healthy, I tolerated unhealthy discomfort: high-levels of drama, spiritual abuse and becoming ensnared in other people’s problems.

I’m no longer trying to escape my past or run away from it. I’m no longer trying to escape my present moment. I’m learning to recognize the things I can change and the things I cannot change. I am learning to live less frantically.

I now understand that God never abandoned me. I abandoned myself.

I found God again by taking care of myself. I am learning to trust God again because God loves me unconditionally.

I accept that things will never be perfect. There will be weeds, broken playgrounds and missing water fountains.

But there will also be patches of daisies growing in wild, unexpected abundance, precious and free.