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5 tips for recovering from spiritual trauma


As a child abuse survivor who grew up in the church, I’ve experienced many different forms of trauma. Of all the wrongs done against me, emotional abuse and spiritual abuse took the longest to recover from. Hurtful manipulations and subtle deceptions attack our very identity in Christ and our value as human beings. God’s Word is twisted to control and exploit us. Acceptance and belonging are turned into rewards we must earn by pleasing our abuser, but the more we try, the more we fail, because the goal posts keep changing and the rules keep bending. We’re made to feel worthless, unwanted, and unloved by God.

There is something particularly devastating about the betrayal of a Christian parent, pastor, church leader, or friend. We believe they love Jesus. We expect them to do God’s will. In our minds, they may have come to model Jesus. We may think of them as representatives of God who are chosen or anointed by his Spirit. Because of this, their rejection feels like being rejected by Jesus himself. Victims of abuse have sometimes shared with me, “If the church doesn’t want me, God must not want me.” Or “I caused my pastor to sin, so God must be angry with me.”

I used to have these same fears and feelings. My abusive father read the Bible and taught Sunday school, but he also beat me and sexually objectified me. When I was 15, a pastor propositioned me. I wondered, why would they do this if God loves me? Multiple pastors and elders knew my dad was abusive but failed to report him or protect me or my siblings. I wondered if God cares about our safety why do none of his people?

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I’m not going to tell you that my recovery was easy. In fact, I think it’s a miracle. Nevertheless, it took a long time and a lot of hard work. So, let’s take a look at five key truths to cling to as you heal from spiritual trauma and church hurt.

1. Know the liars

As a child, I used to wonder why God referred to himself as our Father. Fathers, I thought, were angry, intimidating, unloving, and perverse. My understanding of fatherhood and masculinity was based on my abusive father’s character. I knew nothing else. And so, my perception of God the Father was warped by the sins of a warped man. But my dad does not define God. My dad doesn’t define fatherhood or manliness either.

Similarly, pastors can sometimes come to represent Jesus in our heads. We perceive teachers, church leaders, and other Christians as expressions of God’s own love and character. If a pastor falsely accuses us, we may feel judged by God. If church members blackball and shun us, we may feel rejected by God.

It’s important to remember that people don’t define God. God is love. God is good. God is faithful. If people are unkind, unforgiving, immoral, and unfaithful, we must recognize that their actions are not of God. Don’t let the sins of sinful people get between you and our good Father. Don’t let their ugliness color his beauty, or their darkness overshadow his glory. God will remain true even if every person on earth is a liar (Romans 3:4).

2. Know that God is angry too

One of my favorite Bible verses is Psalm 7:11, “God is angry with the wicked every day.” That probably sounds like an odd choice, but if you’ve ever been really angry — especially angry over sin and betrayal — you’ll know how isolating and crushing it feels. Knowing that God is angry alongside me is an incredible comfort because I know that I’m not alone.

Also, as a human being, I get tired of being angry. Eventually, I must let things go and move on or they’ll wear me down and drive me to despair. God doesn’t get tired, he doesn’t move on, and he doesn’t forget. He remembers every sin ever committed against me. He counts all my tears and keeps a record of my suffering. I can rest knowing he is my witness, my faithful avenger, and my ever-present help in times of trouble. I can be honest about my feelings, process my trauma, and let go of my anger knowing that God is angry for me.

3. Remember that God is justice

We talk a lot about how God is love, and that’s true. God is merciful and kind, slow to anger and abounding in compassion. God forgives those who genuinely repent. But God is also just.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered, “Why does God let bad things happen?” It’s a legitimate question. But I would challenge us to consider that he doesn’t. God does not desire, plan, cause, or enable evil. He withholds his judgment for a time, but that time will not last forever. Someday, you and I and our abusers will meet Jesus face to face. He will return to judge the world and rid the earth of sin and misery. Evil is not allowed. Those who do not repent of their sins will face his eternal justice.

It’s a frightening thought. It’s a sobering and even a sorrowful truth. But if you’ve ever been seriously wronged, and earthly courts have failed you — if the Church, police, juries, or judges have failed to grant you justice — take comfort knowing that God will not fail. Even offenses you’ve forgotten or are unaware of will be judged in his holy court. You will get justice. It’s only a matter of time.

4. Consider changing churches

For a long time, after my dad was publicly exposed and ostracized in our church, my husband and I remained members and faithful attendees. My dad was gone, and we wanted to be with our friends and enjoy the same theology and preaching we believed in and were used to. However, everything about that church was a constant reminder of my dad. The Bibles he had handled, the hymns he had sung, the pews he had sat in, and the people he had lied to.

We tried attending different churches in the same denomination, but it was still the same songs, the same order of worship, and the same theological and cultural environment that had allowed his abuse to continue for decades. All these things reminded me of pain. I had a constant sense of fear and anxiety during worship as if something bad was about to happen.

Eventually, we completely changed things up. We now attend a faithful, Bible-believing church, but the songs are new, the worship style is different, and instead of pews, we have chairs. It’s amazing how little things like this can make a world of difference. I can now attend church without thinking about abuse. I can sing without trepidation, pray without anxiety, and listen to the sermon without my mind wandering into my past. If you suspect that people or things at your church are inhibiting your ability to worship God freely, consider visiting a church that feels fresh. Maybe a new church can help you turn a new page in your story.

5. Take off God’s sandals

It’s not your job to fix other people’s problems. It’s not your role to resurrect dead churches. It’s not your responsibility to save hypocrites or soften hard hearts. Only the Holy Spirit can do these things. Only God can turn darkness into light, breathe life into dead souls, and reveal truth to the spiritually blind. Only God can draw sinners to repentance. Only God can forgive sins.

Often, after I’ve been betrayed, abused, or poorly treated, I wonder, “What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? What did I do to make them act that way? How can I convince them to change? How can I fix this relationship or situation?”

The problem is that I’m not God, and I need to take off God’s sandals. I can’t expect to have powers no human being has, and I’m not responsible for other people’s choices.

When we take the blame for situations other people created, we’re believing the lies of emotional abusers. They falsely accuse, shift blame, and often refuse to take responsibility for their actions. By accepting that guilt and shame for their sins we’re giving them power over us. Don’t permit them any control over your conscience or your feelings. When you repent of your sins, Jesus wholly forgives you, and you are free. If they won’t repent of theirs, that is not your fault.

When we weigh our weary hearts down with impossible tasks and unrealistic expectations, we sink further into sorrow, further into hopelessness, and further into loneliness. We’re clinging to our own abilities, and because of this, we cannot rest on Jesus.

Give to God what is God’s. Pray for those who have wronged you, and ask God to soften their hearts, fix broken situations, and raise the spiritually dead. Ask him to relieve you of whatever burden you may feel, and to free you from shame that is not your own. Ask him to help you let go of relationships that aren’t healthy, role models who are ungodly, and counselors who are foolish. Ask him to lead you in fresh green pastures beside still waters.


You and I have a loving God. The sins of sinners don’t change who He is. The lies of hypocrites don’t make Him less true. We have a Shepherd who loves his sheep. When a wolf invades the pasture, or an ornery sheep bites and kicks, Jesus remains our faithful defender. Whether we walk through the valley of the shadow of death or high upon a mountain where no shadows fall, our God is with us and our Savior is for us. If God is with us, who can stand against us? Surely, no false teacher or liar, no gossip or abuser, not even hell itself can snatch us from the grip of his grace. He who began a good work in you, will heal you, restore you, and wipe away every tear from your eyes.

One day Jesus will return to make all things new. Trauma will come undone. Wrongness will be no more. You and I will be so whole and joyous, so loved and at peace, that it will be as if sin and sorrow had never come near us.

Jennifer Michelle Greenberg has risen to become one of the foremost voices against child abuse in the church. She writes for Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, and the Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention.

Jennifer also develops resources for Christian leaders and counselors to help them identify abusers, respond responsibly to crisis situations, and minister to abuse victims and survivors in a wise and loving manner.

Besides her theological and ministerial work, Jennifer enjoys writing adult fantasy and science fiction novels, singing, and composing music. She and her husband, Jason, live in Texas with their three young children.

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