When you undergo deep inner transformation, you begin to awake to the reality of the Good News of Jesus Christ. You begin to sense and see unconditional love of the Father toward humankind, and you begin to flow in his divine power to bring about genuine transformative changes in people, places, and situations. You begin to feel like you’ve finally found the pearl of great price, and you can’t wait to share your findings with those around you.
And here comes the reality check. There might be an array of unexpected reactions coming from those who are supposed to have all the right answers. If that wasn’t your situation, and you had seasoned, mature, secure mentors around who saw you through the process – that is truly wonderful! That’s how its supposed to work. But not all of us were as fortunate.
It’s not at all uncommon to get the kind of advice from spiritual leaders which would actually arrest your transformation, or even roll it back. The worst of it may come when your new insights actually begin to really work for you. Many people are afraid to admit that these types of problems are endemic for a fairly sizable sliver of institutional Christianity for fear of appearing “divisive”. But in my opinion, this is the same as CDC not admitting known facts about serious epidemics for fear of appearing alarmist. This is nothing but “cover my own butt and let everyone else repeat my errors” kind of fearful mentality.
The simple fact of the matter is that people assuming the role of religious gatekeepers are never happy when you begin doing what they are preaching about. I suspect that it’s because many of them don’t really believe that their sermon material would work out in real life, for whatever reason – and I am not at all being facetious when I say this, by the way. It’s a very sad reality that’s often times instead of being exposed is simply swept under the rug, which to me indicates utter disregard for someone else down the line who might fall into the same trap.
One common type of religious response that may be particularly difficult to deal with is passive-aggressive and covert-aggressive set of attitudes. One tell-tale sign of them is when someone’s words and perhaps some of the superficial body language say one thing, but the much more vast totality of verbal and especially non-verbal communication communicate something entirely different.
This may be very confusing to process, and often times the cumulative psychological and emotional damage from this strategy is worse than what results from outright abuse. The reason for that is that you know that something is wrong, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. None of the Individual offenses is indictable by itself. You always doubt yourself, and you are never too sure that what actually happened did happen they way you think it did. And so you might allow the abuse to continue for a long time. You are typically not aware of the cumulative damage being done over time until it’s quite late in the game.
Unfortunately, this relationship style is often time the very grease lubricating the social cogwheels of many Christian fundamentalist gatherings. Usually, the more isolated such groups are from the larger community, the higher the potential for such abuse. If you are in a culture like that – when Jesus really gets hold of your heart and your life begins to take on a different direction – that’s when those types of people begin to blow their head gaskets and generally go all batty on you.
Here is a sampling of real-life examples which you may encounter in passive-aggressive church cultures:
– Strategically punctuated silence and indifference in connection with you. An effective corollary strategy is publicly and pointedly lavishing effusive praise upon someone for the very things for which you are persistently not recognized and not even mentioned. Eventually everyone gets the unspoken message that you are “the one who must not be named”. The message is simple: you aren’t significant as a person.
– Instead of receiving thoughtful feedback, your input gets deflected with boilerplate utterances like “praise the Lord” or “glory to God”, which are spoken in such a way that they more or less really sound more like “shut up” or “piss off”. The message is: you aren’t valuable or fully capable as a person.
– Your testimonies of your successes with God which go outside the formally sanctioned “norms” are met with utterances like “God will not share his glory with anyone”. This is another go-to favorite of passive-aggressives, which seems to really mean “we will not share our glory with you” and “who the hell do you think you are?”. The message is: God would never do anything worthwhile through someone like you.
– In pulpit sermons, there are times when you can tell that you are being preached at without being called out by name. A few other people around you may recognize that connection, too. The tactical part of the sermon is structured in such a way as to make your character look a complete loser. Again, a perfectly good cover is provided by the official format, along with plausible deniability (it’s “just a sermon illustration”, after all). If you do take it personally – you “prove” that you are a “bitter” and “wounded” person, prone to “baselessly” accusing “God’s anointed”.
– Prayer requests get requested for you, supposedly to help you cope with “the devil” who is tempting you to be “bitter”, “wounded”, “insubordinate”, “backsliding”, or even “lost”. The message is that the author of your growth, maturity, and of your newfound independent voice as a new creature in Christ is the devil, rather than God.
– Your family members get targeted with various emotional manipulation tactics. The official reason is communal concern for your very “soul salvation”, and two H-words (heresy and hell) begin to pop up in conversations about you fairly liberally.
Adjudicating one’s afterlife verdict, in general, is a favorite go-to tactic of passive-aggressives. The thinking goes like this: if we can’t make you hurt in real life without incurring consequences to ourselves, we will at least do it vicariously, through manipulating the concept of God and his divine justice. It’s like putting a picture of someone’s face on a wooden board and blowing holes in it with a 12-gauge shotgun for soul therapy.
To be sure, if you are in the middle of dealing with this – maintaining your integrity, staying the course, while at the same time keeping your heart in a good place is not easy at all. And that’s why I am writing this post – not to air any personal grievances, but simply to raise awareness that stuff like this does happen more often that we like to acknowledge. And if you are dealing with this – you are definitely not alone. And – no, it’s not your fault. That’s simply how those systems work.
At some point though, you will have to make a decision to withdraw your trust and your presence from people operating in this way, and simply learn to lean on God and others on the same path. You don’t need to get personal and demonize the abusers in return. You can simply choose to not assign much significance to such views, and not give them much of of your ear.
If you know someone in that situation – please don’t let your own fears override your ability to help your brother or sister in Christ. Spend a little time with people like that, validate their concerns, and help them see the way forward. Just an ounce of time, compassion, understanding, and support goes a long way.
Here’s a very simple fact to be aware of: such behaviors have everything to do with someone’s ego, someone’s tribal identity, and someone’s private little fiefdom – and Jesus didn’t go to the cross for any of those things. This has absolutely nothing to do with God, or his kingdom, or his Gospel, no matter what formal organizational shell you build around it, or what religious language you use to cover over these dysfunctional mechanisms. And therefore, you should feel completely free to disengage and walk away.
To be sure – it’s not about you, anyway. It’s about Christ who is getting unveiled in you through a painful, messy, and yet beautiful process of new birth. Don’t let him get snuffed out by the same spirit which already did it once. You can do much better, and your destiny with God is very much worth fighting for. There are way more Godly and capable groups of Christians out there, and there are many more Godly leaders who would want to really help you grow into everything God called you to be.