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On Church Hurt–and Letting God Speak for Himself: Alison Cook

with Alison Cook | July 21, 2023
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Cut off at the knees by church hurt? Bad imitations of God don't necessarily mean God's the bad actor. Dr. Alison Cook gets real about church hurt in all its avatars—and how each hits your own relationship with God. Learn how to sort out tacky misrepresentations of God from His bona fide character, take baby steps toward healing, and rebuild the trust that got flushed. Don't let church hurt get the last word.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Show Notes

  • Shelby Abbott

    Shelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. Abbott is the author of Jacked and I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life), Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress and DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

Cut off at the knees by church hurt? Dr. Alison Cook gets real about church hurt in all its avatars—and how to rebuild the trust that got flushed.

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On Church Hurt–and Letting God Speak for Himself: Alison Cook

With Alison Cook
July 21, 2023
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Season 1, Episode 46: On Church Hurt--and Letting God Speak for Himself

Guest: Alison Cook
Air Date: July 22, 2023

Alison: When it comes to church hurt, number one, you have to name it for what it is -as a church, hurt as a wound, maybe as a form of spiritual abuse. I would say you need to process it in a safe community, whether with a Christian counselor, with a group of friends, with family members who really love you and are for you. And then I would say number three, it is so important that we separate the God you are shown from the crummy representations of Him, and that can be a journey.

Shelby: Somewhat anxious, always authentic. This is Real Life Loading.

I'm your host, Shelby Abbott, and I just want to say you are not the crazy one if you've experienced church hurt. I know so many people who have been burned by experiences or other people within the context of a Christian environment. And today we're going to talk about that with Dr. Allison Cook. Dr. Cook is a Christian Therapist, a writer and podcast host who says that there are ways to heal from church hurt and keep your faith in the true Jesus, not one that's been twisted by bad experiences or acts of other people who claim the Christian faith yet simultaneously hurt others.

Today Allison and I are going to talk about how she actually defines church hurt and why she's passionate about helping people heal from it. Then we're going to dive into how church hurt can distort our view of God Himself. I hope this is a really helpful conversation for you to heal as I talk with Dr. Allison Cook.

Can you give me a few examples of what you might diagnose as the term church hurt so that we could all be on the same page before we keep going?

Alison: Yes, it's a great question because it's sort of this broad term, and I work with a lot of young people frankly on this issue. When it comes to church hurt, I see it coming out in a couple of ways. One very literally through the church where someone's come through a church where there's been wounds either by the way things were taught. I've worked with folks who maybe had some really kind of toxic ways of being taught about things like hell or God's wrath as a very young child where there's been some trauma and there's been some real pain, trying to figure out what is this God. Does this God also love me? Those kinds of things where it's very literal and maybe the church didn't even mean to do something, but there was just a way in which certain concepts were taught that was confusing; all the way to where there's been real abuse, where someone has been mistreated, harmed physically, sexually, mentally, emotionally, all sorts of ways. Where religious ideas, whether it be Scripture, whether it be the way things are conveyed, are twisted in such a way as to do harm.

I also see it come through families, frankly, where parents, who are not healthy, rely on religious language in such a way that does harm to a child. The best example I can think of is - I tell this story in my book about a client I had who there was some unacknowledged mental illness and the dad would sit her down and show her how her being a normal kid was the reason for the fact that her mom had left. The fact that her mom had developed terrible things. It was like, no, no, this wasn't your fault.

Shelby: Blame on her. Yes. Mm-hmm.

Alison: and [he] used Scripture to underscore that in a really terrible way. You know, if you were more obedient, this other person, this adult wouldn't be doing this. And it's like, no, no, no. It's not a child's responsibility to take responsibility for a parent's misbehavior.

So, I see church, I would call that church hurt. Because they're using the language of God, they're using the language of Scripture to essentially there's an abusive element there to speak untruth over a child and the child doesn't know how to make sense of that.

Shelby: Right.

Alison: So, you know, all the way to youth group stuff. Church hurt could be a consolation being part of a youth group where there's a lot of bullying and there's a lot of gossiping and you get hurt. And there aren't leaders who are really minding that and dealing with that, and you get hurt and nobody's really helping you through that. So, there's a wound. There's a wound as a result of the body of Christ. It's a broad term, but there are lots of ways it can show up.

Shelby: Yes, that's very good. So as a psychologist and more importantly as a Christian, why does this bother you so much? Have you personally experienced church hurt?

Alison: I have in small degrees. I've also experienced wonderful church communities. I've experienced both. I think it really comes as a therapist, as someone who has bumped up against so many people, even before I was a therapist, where that experience of hurt, that experience of somebody misusing their authority really takes somebody away from God.

That is the thing that probably breaks my heart the most, because it makes sense, especially when you're a kid, you don't know, right? God is this very abstract concept. When we say God is love as a child, that's a little abstract where our first experience of that is the people around us.

Shelby: Mm-hmm.

Alison: Whether it's our parents, whether it's our church community, like how did they treat us? How did they treat other people? They can be saying the words, “we love you,” but really what are they doing? What are their actions? And as kids you are taking that all in without the ability to think critically about it without the ability to process it.

And so, if someone at church is twisting that or manipulating that, you are going to as an adult, either find yourself in a really toxic relationship or you are going to potentially want to leave the church.

Shelby: Yes.

Alison: It's understandable. I get it. But it bothers me, because I think of Jesus's words about, you know, “better to tie, you know. - the millstone around your neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” [Paraphrased] And that's, I tend to see those seeds way back - I can't tell how many people will say, “Well, I was interested but then I went to church and this happened.”

I'm like, Ugh, gosh. Yes, I get it. That's tragic. I know. We need to work through that and it doesn't mean that every church - I always say to people, church is a family. Families are complicated. We need our families; we love our families. And man, can our families really hurt us.

Shelby: Mm-hmm.

Alison: And we just don't have the skills to know how to navigate that as kids.

Shelby: Seeing it so much as a psychologist, as a counselor, you said, “I've gotta talk about this, I've gotta write about this, I've gotta address this.”

Alison: Correct, yes.

Shelby: But, when I was in college in my early twenties, we just didn't talk about it very much. Just wasn't spoken about. Do you feel like there's been more on trend to at least address this kind of stuff?

Alison: Oh, I absolutely do. You know it, you're right. When I was in college, I had an experience. I had a wonderful experience of a faith community in my college. I also had a really problematic one, and in hindsight I would probably call it church hurt. And it was hard for me for several years because it wasn't really talked about. So I felt like there was something wrong with me. It was a Christian camp and the leader of the camp. There was just again, there was this incongruence between what was being taught and the behaviors I saw behind the scenes.

Shelby: Yes.

Alison: We were being taught that God is loving. We were being taught great Scriptural truths. Behind the scenes people were cruel; people were mean; people were gossiping; people were cliquey. It was just a very kind of toxic environment - that those same leaders who were preaching one way, were not doing anything to address - and in fact, kind of joining in with [it].

Shelby: Yes.

Alison: And I had a pretty healthy faith in God. I'd been well taught; I grew up in a Christian home and it was jarring to me.

Shelby: Yes, sure.

Alison: It was jarring, what do I do with this? How do I process this? How can people who are saying all the things I believe to be true out of one side of their lips and then just be fine with being cruel and arrogant, and mean, and toxic to other humans?

I can't reconcile that and that took me a good year, and I remember processing with some of my Christian friends. And I thought, “Am I just oversensitive?” You know what's, what's right?

Shelby: Am I the problem?

Alison: Yes, am I the problem? Was it right? And that's where, again I had a healthy enough group of people to come around me and I had a healthy enough, you know, I think this isn't God. I think this is a man thing, not a God thing that I didn't lose my faith.

But I had a couple incidents where I was like - gosh, I can see. I understand why when that happens folks are like, “I'm out.” And then you look at the Gospels and you're like, that's kind of why Jesus was so hard on religious teachers.

Shelby: Yes.

Alison: It's jarring to the soul. Yes, I think the more we're talking about this, the more we name it, and I think it's so great that you're doing this. We're empowering young people who've maybe lived through this, or maybe are in the process to have a name for it. To go, “Oh, this is wrong, this is church hurt, this is not of God.”

I can now name that. I'm not the crazy one, and then figure out how to heal and restore faith in a healthy way. Because even the healthiest of church communities are going to be complicated, but we can equip ourselves to move toward health.

Shelby: Yes. That's so good. And I want to hear more about those ways we can move towards health in just a minute. But before we get to that, can you talk about another aspect that's so terrible about church hurt? And that's the fact that, it can give us a wrong view of ourselves, of other people, and even of God, if we can't separate who He is from the hurt that's been done to us.

Alison: Yes, I would say exactly what you just said, which we have to separate out the God of the universe from the crummy representations of Him, and just name that, and that can be a journey. That can be a journey.

Shelby: Mm-hmm.

Alison: Because sometimes those crummy representations were folks we cared about and folks we thought cared about us. And that's why it's so confusing. You know that youth pastor or that pastor who led us to the Lord, then is the one who mistreated us, who lured us down some road that was toxic. That is so confusing.

Shelby: Sure.

Alison: And to name that as hurt or abuse means I have to come to how do I go back to that moment of the parts of that person that I experienced as good, that had helped me along the way? That can be a really complicated process inside the soul, when we've been hurt. There are parts of us that want to feel responsible for the hurt, it's almost easier to blame ourselves.

Shelby: Oh really?

Alison: Yes. It's part of the problem with shame. It's, we get stuck in this - well, if I'm the problem, there's a way in which I feel like I have control. Right? If I'm the problem, if I could have done this, this, and this and this, we feel like we're in control of it. Whereas, if we have to face the reality of I was vulnerable, and this person hurt me, that's terrifying, because then I didn't have control. It's more vulnerable. So for a lot of folks, it's a journey to really, if you've been hurt in any sort of abusive situation, any sort of toxic situation to really face with God's help.

Because then you have to go to God, let that happen. God let that happen. I trusted you, God. And so, it's almost easier to hang onto, it was my fault. I don't want to blame God or the other person, because if I let it be known that man, somebody who had authority and who had power hurt me, God let that happen and then there's a different sort of pain.

Shelby: Yes.

Alison: -That we have to heal and it's such holy ground, it's such tender ground of, you know, God doesn't protect us from everything. And I tell my kids this, you know, I'm like, there are so many wonderful people out there, especially in the church, and you're going to bump into some toxicity. It's just part of life and God doesn't always protect us. from it.

Shelby: man. I know that's a little bit scary to hear, and we're going to process that more in just a second. But now it's time for a Shelby Sidebar on Real Life Loading.

Have you ever walked into someone's house and immediately realized that they were cooking or baking something delicious? Of course you have. Well, the wonderful smells of chocolate chip cookies or bacon or fresh bread, homemade pasta sauce, or cinnamon rolls or whatever. They all have the ability to saturate the entirety of a home and fill it with the mouthwatering aroma of amazing food.

You know, it doesn't matter what part of the house you might be in, if it's open air to the kitchen, you're going to know that something delightful is cooking or baking. Great food smells permeate a house. Even when you're behind a closed door, they have the ability to capture attention and powerfully draw you in because your hungry stomach longs to find the source of all that all that goodness.

You know, I found that much like a home filled with that amazing aroma of captivating food. God's love and pursuit of us as His children infuses every part of our lives. There's no place that we can go to get away from it because His pursuit is in the very air we breathe.

There's this place in Psalm 19 that uses the metaphor of the sun to describe God's pursuit because nothing is hidden from its heat. And it goes on to conclude with, “let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight.” [Paraphrased] Super famous part of Psalm 19.

So why communicate this with such specificity in the Psalm? Because the words we speak and even the pondering of our hearts are fully visible to God. His love comes after us in not only what can be heard via spoken word, but what is thought about in the privacy of our inward dialogue in our minds. He sees and hears it all and the Bible says that God still pursues us. That's incredible.

The very fact that God relentlessly pursues his children communicates how He feels about us. While it can feel somewhat intimidating that the Lord knows everything about me, even my anxious heart and thoughts. His knowledgeable pursuit of me should provide nothing but comfort.
The poetry of Psalm 19 helps us to see clearly the kind of God we worship, a personal God who cares deeply about us, and naturally is very much up in our business as a result of that love.

You know, despite the sinful attitudes of our hearts, God's pursuit never lets up. He is the smell of the baked goods infiltrating the home. He is the heat of the sun on a bright scorching summer day. He is the pursuer of our souls and because of His great love, there is nowhere we can hide from Him chasing after us. Praise God for His loving, relentless hunt for our sin-soaked souls.

This has been a Shelby Sidebar on Real Life Loading. Now back to my time with Dr. Allison Cook.

So you say, “It can be hard to disentangle the God who loves you from the misrepresentation of God by an unhealthy leader.” That's your quote. So what are some things that a young person can process so they don't “throw the baby out with the bath water?” When or if they've been hurt by an unhealthy leader?

Let's say they actually have been hurt. You would categorize that as church hurt or abuse. How could they not throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to that kind of stuff?

Alison: Yes, I would say, number one, you have to name it for what it is. Don't bypass it, don't minimize it. Name it for what it is as a church hurt, as a wound, maybe as a form of spiritual abuse.

I would say you need to process it in a safe community, whether with a Christian counselor, with a group of friends, with family members who really love you and are for you. Give yourself the opportunity to name [it]. We don't heal in isolation. We need to be witnessed. We need other people to come alongside of us and say, “Yes, I see that with you. That is true. That was wrong. There was no excuse for that. That was not your fault.”

Shelby: Mm-hmm.

Alison: We need to hear that from humans, who stand in for God – right? We are Christ's hands and feet in those moments. Then I would say number three - it is so important that we separate the God you are shown from the character of God that we know to be true found in Scripture.

God loves - let me just give you some ideas of what I mean by that.

Shelby: Yes, please.

Alison: We know that God loves justice, mercy, and humility - that's Micah 6:8. Humility is such a Fruit of the Spirit. We know that is evidence of God. That is someone who is willing to say, “I was wrong.” It's not someone who is powering over, who is trying to get you to manipulate you to do their way.

God comforts the grief stricken and the brokenhearted - that's Matthew 5:4. God stands against the proud and helps the humble. Again, God is not on the side of arrogance. You know, He's just not. God is for the broken hearted, for the humble, and that is from James 4:6. God is love, we know from 1 John 4:7. God's presence - we look at the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. It shows up as love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, self-control, faithfulness. It is powerful, those words. And you know that fruit by those words and by those spirits, that's when you're testing; that's what you're looking for. Is there humility? Is there kindness? Is there gentleness? These are bedrock characteristics of God.

Shelby: Yes, for sure. That's great. Well, on a similar note, let's say someone stopped going to church after being hurt. Maybe now they're thinking about finding a new church, but they're hesitant and not really sure how to approach it. What should they do? Because you talk about this a little bit in your book, and you talk about building trust.

Alison: Yes, it's such a great question and trust is earned. So you take small steps toward trust. You don't just rush right back in necessarily depending on how deep the wound is. Maybe you say, “Okay, I've had this really painful experience with the church. I want to try a different church.”

So you start going and you know, just literally - I'm going to just go and I'm going to sit in the pack pew. And I'm not going to participate for a while and I'm going to listen. And it's almost like touching an old bruise. You know, you just kind of pay attention to what's going on in your body and you give yourself a minute to trust yourself, maybe you even test a little bit.

For example, If you do decide to join a small group or join a worship team or become a part of the church, you wade in slowly and you might even say, “Hey, I've been hurt.” And maybe you don't even tell them the whole story, right, because you're still kind of testing it a little bit.

You're like, I've been hurt in the past, I'm new here, and you just see how they respond. Can they say, “Great, we're glad you're here. Come on in.” Or are they like, well, what happened? We need to know all of the details you know. You start to walk through some of the red flags. You notice you are valuable. You get to let people earn your trust. You don't have to just lay it all out again. And really healthy people are so happy to do that. Really healthy people are so happy to be like, “Hey, you just come join in. You don't have to say a word. You can share what you want. We're just glad you're here.” You know?

Shelby: Yes.

Alison: Then you might notice, you know, maybe the first time a friction comes up, maybe you do speak up for yourself. You know, maybe you notice, oh, that's making me uncomfortable. They're starting to do that thing again. That feels manipulative to me or feels like they're kind of trying to coerce me in a way that doesn't feel right.

And you name that. It takes courage. You say, “Hey, I don't love that.” And you test it, and you see it's like building a relationship with a new friend. Can that person say, “Oh man, I am so sorry. I was kind of being a jerk there. You know what, thanks for pointing that out.” Okay, that's a pretty safe place.

Or is that person going to just stick the knife in further? Whoa. Whoa. Because the difference is you went into a consciously and awareness with awareness going, I haven't just given that person all my pearls. I'm testing it first and this is a process of remembering that you get to - you're wise now - trust is earned.

So I just say that to folks when you're going into a church, just test the waters a little bit. You don't want to be skeptical; you don't want to pivot toward I don't trust anybody. It's more of a, I've been hurt and I'm going to be cautious. I'm going to proceed slowly, and I'm going to see how these folks respond to that. Can they take me as I am?

Shelby: So, let's talk about another part of the process when you're healing from church hurt that you say is vital, and that's community. Why is community such an important element?

Alison: Shame is the main thing I would say.

Shelby: Okay. Wait, what do you mean?

Alison: When we have been hurt or wounded by someone else, shame almost always is lurking nearby. I think shame is the biggest tool of the enemy. He wants us to hate ourselves. He wants us to blame ourselves. He wants us to stay as victims. He wants us to stay angry, resentful, and bitter. And shame is the best way to do that. It's just this whole body experience. And you know, the cliche thing to say is saying shame is saying I am someone bad. Guilt is saying I did something bad. That's a little abstract.

Shame is just sort of this feeling of, I want the earth to swallow me up. It's a visceral cocktail of sort of self-hatred and self-blame, and it festers in isolation.

Shelby: Okay. Yes.

Alison: It's that voice in our head, you know, that says that what's wrong with me that this happened? Why am I the problem? Why can't I just be normal? Why can't I just get it right? But then side by side of that is this really bad thing happening and I'm really angry about it. Shame just keeps it all balled-up inside of you. The answer to shame is vulnerability, which has to happen in community.

And so, when you go, and it's so fascinating to me that folks who have been hurt, that vulnerability of coming in and saying, “I've been hurt and I'm confused and I'm struggling,” which is the path toward freedom is also so delicate when you've been hurt because again, who do I trust? Who do I trust with that vulnerability?

Shelby: Mm-hmm.

Alison: We just keep that in and muscle our way through. I'll just be fine. I'll just shine it up on the outside. Let's just get over it. And so, when we are able to with a couple of safe people, name what's really happening inside of us, “I'm hurting. This was hard. I'm ashamed of what happened, even though I know it wasn't my fault.” I'm ashamed that my parents eviscerated me with Bible verses blaming me for their hard marriage. I feel like I'm at fault.

Shelby: Yes. Mm-hmm.

Alison: And that knot starts to untie and it's like, oh my. You hear yourself and you hear, and through the lens of loving people go – “That was not your fault.” And consciously and rationally, you kind of know it wasn't your fault, but that ball of shame is in there – like, yes, but I was there. I was there. I walked into that situation. I didn't leave whatever it is.

It takes other people who love us and who stand in as that mirror of God, that mirror of truth and say, “This wasn't your fault. This was awful. We are so sorry this happened to you.” And that's what starts to untie that shame ball and allows you to have some freedom and that leads to strength and that leads to resilience, and that leads to that upward spiral of - okay, I think, I feel like I can give it a shot again. I can learn to trust again.

Shelby: Yes. I think this is so prevalent in particular with people who have experienced specifically sexual abuse, women experiencing sexual abuse, because they feel like, “Oh, it was my fault if I wouldn't have done this, if I wouldn't have acted this way, if I wouldn't have dressed this way, if I wouldn't have gone to that situation, maybe this wouldn't have happened - it is my fault.”

Now that can happen in the context of a church body obviously, and people do sadly take advantage of that sometimes. How would you respond to that young woman who is thinking that if that person in the church abused me or assaulted me or whatever, and I feel ashamed, it's my fault. Is there anything unique that you would say that would maybe be different from how you just answered the previous question?

Alison: It's very nuanced because it isn't your fault. It's never your fault, especially when you're a child. Especially when someone has power over you, it's just not your fault.

Shelby: Mm-hmm.

Alison: You will feel as if it is for various reasons. It is such human nature and there are different schools of thought about how to heal from that. Some folks will say they finally have that freedom of realizing it just, it wasn't my fault.

Some folks will kind of feel like it's helpful to them to name the – “yes - but I kind of wanted the attention” and even though it wasn't my fault and it never justified what that person did, and it was never - because a lot of us walk into situations with mixed motives. It is still never a justification for what that other person did in that moment. Right?

So, there's different schools of thought. Some folks are like, it's actually helpful to me to at least name, you know? Yes, I kind of had mixed motives. I wanted their attention, whoever it is. It's still never your fault in those situations. So, and again, this is where shame settles in, and that's why you have to have someone come alongside of you constantly, every step of the way, even when you need to say, “You know, yes – but, but I wanted to walk into that room alone with that person even though I didn't feel safe.” It's still not your fault.

Shelby: Good, yes.

Alison: It's still not your fault. Yes, even in a world where maybe you would've listened to your gut and said, “Oh, I shouldn't walk into that room,” it is still not your fault what that person did to you.

Shelby: Agreed. Yes, I totally agree with you.

Now I want to leave it open for you here in our last couple of minutes. Is there anything else that you would want to say to someone listening, who's experiencing church hurt or spiritual abuse? You've addressed quite a bit already, but I want to leave it open for you to address anything else that you may feel like we may have missed that you want to make sure that you highlight.

Alison: I don’t think anything new, but just, I'm so sorry. Again, it's so hard and especially when you're younger, it will take a lot out of you that isn't fair in a way. You know, and it's not fair. You know what, we all could have bumped up against it and why do some more than others? And so, it's not fair that now you have to go through this journey and put an extra time and extra effort to heal. That's not fair and I'm sorry that that happened.

At the same time as you embark on that journey that isn't fair and that you shouldn't have had to go down, you are going to be someone who will bring so much life to others as a result of that. That doesn't make it right and that doesn't mean I wish - I don't want you to have had gone down that road. But I just am so cheering for you and grateful for your courage and bravery to go down that road.

Shelby: Yes, I love that you framed it that way, and I too have found that the areas of deepest wounding and deepest pain in my life have been the primary areas that God has used, not only to help heal me, but to help heal others as well.

If this episode was one that resonated with you, I hope it can be the beginning of some really important healing in your life. I know Dr. Cook really helped me as we talked, and I pray that by the power of God's Spirit in your life, you can be healed too. Remember, Jesus is the one we look to for true help and hope in life. Others will hurt and disappoint us, but Christ never will.

If you like this episode of Real Life Loading with Dr. Allison Cook, or thought it was helpful, I'd love for you to share today's podcast with a friend. And wherever you get your podcast, it could really advance what we're doing with Real Life Loading if you'd rate and review us, and it's clearly easy to find us on our social channels. Just search for Real Life Loading or look for our link tree in the show notes.

I want to thank everyone who's on the Real Life Loading team Jarrett, Chloe, Josh, and Kaytlynn. I'm Shelby Abbott. I'll see you back next time on Real Life Loading.

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