Fear, Compulsion and Religious Abuse
This world is broken and ruined. We come into it broken, and then we just get broken more. Fear is part of that brokenness, and it’s in our spiritual DNA. We all have, at the core of our beings, fear of the outer darkness, fear of God’s judgment, fear of many other lesser evils that all echo the terrible, primal, unbearable fear of eternity. But you and I know that’s not the end of the story. Christ came into the world to conquer fear and all other forms of brokenness and restore us to the security we were created in. “Perfect love casts out fear.” Religion, properly taught and properly practiced, teaches us the security we have in Christ and teaches us not to fear any longer. He faced the darkness on our behalf and broke it into smithereens, broke open the eternal tomb, and shed His light on everything. He looked under the bed and into the closet, shone flashlights behind the dresser and showed us that there’s nothing there to hurt us. He made everything ok. He turned on the nightlight and the hallway light and left our doors open, and left His door open, too. This is wonderful! It emboldens us to do amazing, daring things, to go into lions’ dens and confront principalities and pull down idols and rush into burning buildings to save the innocent and do deeds of daring for Christ’s kingdom, because we know He’s with us and has it all under control. No fear of judgment, no fear of damnation to trip us up and keep us from doing our work in the world.
Bad religion turns this good thing upside down and inside out. Instead of speaking comfort to us and echoing the Angels’ admonition to fear not, it plays up our primal fear and uses it to shackle us. Spiritually unwell people, who themselves have not received the healing and freedom from fear that Christ offers, are not content to see others live in security without fear. They believe that God’s judgment is hanging over their heads by a thin thread and will fall on them if they breathe too deeply. Religion for them becomes an obsession, an addiction, a thing to turn to compulsively again and again in order to get quick little shots of relief from their fear.
You know what I’m talking about. In order to quell the fear that you’ll be judged by God, or that you maybe aren’t genuinely saved, you surround yourself with external security blankets. You keep the rules. You go to church as often as it’s offered. You talk Christianese so the people around you will look at you approvingly. You give your testimony publicly so people will tell you it’s genuine. You put religious identifiers on your car bumpers and the walls in your house. You talk about all the false teachings of all those other churches. You hold to more and more strict ideas of morality in order to feel that you are clearly and obviously different from the lost sinners of the world. You display your religiousness in whatever way gives you the most assurance.
It’s never enough, though. These artifices aren’t once and done—they have to be returned to again and again, and in larger doses. You will find yourself drawn to the more legalistic churches. You will feel that if rigid, ‘righteous’ Pharisaical people who are so quick to judge others and so hard to satisfy and who seem to have such strict ideas of what it takes to please God can give you their stamp of approval, then you might be able to believe you are secure. But what you don’t see is that the more power you give the Pharisees to dole out security and approval to you, the more they will use that power to jerk your strings for the pleasure of watching you dance. You see, they are compulsively attempting to quell their own fears, too, and their chosen addiction is the power to lord if over other peoples’ consciences. It can be argued that their fear is so much greater than yours, so the drug they need to subdue that fear is so much stronger—it’s not enough for them to keep the rules and surround themselves with showy religion; they have to control the spiritual lives of the people around them. If they can do that, they feel more secure. If they can dole out judgment and forgiveness, they can believe that they might have the power to escape judgment themselves.
It is extremely difficult to break this compulsive, addictive cycle. As long as you are among legalistic people, I fear to say you may not be able to be free of it at all. The best place to be is among people whose attitudes are a mixture of reverence for Christ, love of serving and helping their neighbors, a desire to comfort and support one another, and a very low opinion of their own righteousness and their right to tell other people how to live. The Pharisee that you have sitting on your shoulder (we all have one) will probably tell you that this sounds like loosey-goosey religion, liberalism, anything goes, that you have to confront peoples’ sin, not gloss it over, if you’re going to be a genuine church. I can say a lot about this, but I also know from experience that any change of attitude is difficult to accept until you’ve made your break with the Pharisees entirely.
But I do not despair. Christ is saving us all, and I have great hope for you and me and for our abusers alike. Blessings to you all.