Finding community after leaving a cult

After years or even decades of languishing in a highly controlling religious group, ex-cult survivors are finally able to express themselves freely and investigate whatever they choose.

This can also mean that they can be fairly fiery.  They say what’s on their mind and don’t hold back.  If they see that something is wrong, unjust, unfair or unethical, they want to speak out. 

I include myself in this group.  Sometimes, it does also mean that we can be unintentionally hurtful or even rude.  After repressing our true thoughts and feelings for such a long time, they occasionally all come tumbling out uncontrollably… We don’t intend to be rude trolls, and most of us aren’t, but at times the anger, resentment and hurt that has built up inside us spills out when we are triggered, and we say things we shouldn’t.

When my husband and I came out of the Watchtower, we remained extremely critical of the Institutional Church.  However, our faith in Jesus grew exponentially.  If you leave a cult and then read the Gospel of John, you will see that Jesus was also AGAINST the institutionalized injustices of the religion of his day.  He spoke out bravely against the cruel and hypocritical Pharisees, and as a result, he was silenced, tortured and hung up to die.   He could have done his good deeds quietly or not chosen to heal people on the Sabbath; he could have been a people pleaser, afraid of their reaction and their power.  But He was not!!!

Sometimes, we want to be brave and outspoken like Jesus, but we lack the wisdom or compassion that He had.  We don’t always know exactly what to say, or who to say it to.  And people can see us as a threat.

Coming out of any spiritually abusive environment is bound to affect our identity.  We are not tied to our past, but to a certain extent, it does shape our outlook on the world.  I  am also convinced that experiencing such suffering, rejection and loss has widened our hearts, and made us more compassionate people.  We cannot sit in judgment on others like the Pharisees and cult leaders, because we know how much that hurts, and we could never shun another human being.

It has also made us hyper-vigilant when it comes to identifying hypocrisy and manipulative behaviours in others.  We avoid those people like the plague, and make no attempt to influence or “change” them, as we know it is fruitless.  We can love them from a distance, and keep out of the line of fire.

Although my husband and I do attend a church now, we are still hungry for real, honest and sincere fellowship. At this point in time in my life, I am profoundly grateful for the precious friendships I’ve made online.  People could say that an online contact isn’t a “real” friend, but I have experienced the exact opposite. At the click of a button, I can communicate with others, either in voice or video calls, via chat or in a group setting, and speak with other human beings who know what I’m going through.  I thank God for this precious gift of modern technology, which despite all its downsides, has made it much easier to come out of a cult and find true friendship.  If you haven’t done so already, I invite you to join our online community: Faith after Deception Fellowship.

If you’ve never been in a cult and haven’t experienced spiritual abuse, be prepared for the fire when you meet those who have.  The fire is bright, it is hot, it can burn, but it can also kindle some of the most sincere and genuine friendships you will ever have.  Don’t be afraid of us… we don’t bite!!!

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Is the Bible trustworthy?

Nowadays, very few people would bring up this topic at a dinner party or social gathering.  Believing in the Bible has become something of a taboo, in non-religious environments.  If you were to stand up and say it publicly, many people would immediately assume that you’re some kind of fanatic or fundamentalist freak.

Interestingly, I would actually argue that Fundamentalists have done more to harm the Bible’s reputation than anyone else.  They have told people that the World was created in 6 literal days, or a period of 6,000 years, and that if people don’t accept Jesus, then their “loving” God will send them to burn for eternity.  This viewpoint is not only toxic for obvious reasons, but also because within these circles, nobody is permitted to question or challenge these beliefs, or offer any alternative viewpoint at all.  Fundamentalists squash dissenters and whistle-blowers, branding them as “heretics”, apostates and (perhaps most dangerous of all), “independent thinkers”.

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I know this because I’ve spent a significant amount of time among them, and I shamefully confess that I used to be one.  I know their ways, their fears, their hang-ups and prejudices.  Is it surprising then that “ordinary people” want nothing to do with this hypocritical message?

So I want to start this blog post by stating very clearly that I am no longer a Fundamentalist.  I do believe the Bible is 100% trustworthy and inerrant, but I do not interpret it in the same way as my more closed-minded brothers and sisters in the faith.  Neither is it my desire to ridicule or mock their beliefs or worldview; they have a right to whatever opinion or conclusion they should choose to reach.  However, I do feel that most of them are NOT FREE to reach their own conclusions, or come to their own understanding of any doctrine or religious teaching.  They are taught to submit and obey unquestioningly, and are never given any framework in which they can work through their own doubts and issues.

That’s why so many of them fall away, and even opt for atheism or agnosticism in the end.  Their “faith” was a source of oppression for them, not of freedom, joy or inner fulfillment.

I feel very thankful that from the very beginning, when I came to faith at age 15,  my father encouraged me to explore my faith intellectually: “faith seeking understanding”, as he would say.  I was always open to new interpretations, viewpoints and ideas, and I loved to engage in respectful, face-to-face debates with my friends whose opinions were different to mine.

However, the pull of Fundamentalism can be very strong.  If you’re going through a very difficult time in your life, are lonely or vulnerable in some way, meeting people who have strong, black and white beliefs and seem to have all the answers can be very attractive.  They see you as their target and will stop at nothing to bring you to “conversion”.  Thus, I was drawn into the sticky, toxic spider’s web of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The question is: why and how did I hang on to my trust in the Bible after I left my Fundamentalist beliefs and attitudes behind me?

The most honest answer is that ever since I became a Christian in 1998, the Bible has always been a huge source of strength to me.  I open its pages and find myself refreshed, comforted and inspired.  For example, when I read the Psalms, Jesus’ words in the Gospels, the letters of James, John, Peter and Paul and even the book of Revelation, and my heart leaps… and I truly believe that:

“The word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. (Hebrews 4:12)

This happens when we ask God to give us His Holy Spirit to help me to understand His words.  In fact, if you try reading the Bible without the Spirit, it can be utterly confusing and very hard to understand or follow.  It’s also important to have one that uses modern, up-to-date language and big enough print.  I do have a tiny King James Version and I love its beautiful, poetic old English, but I also use various more modern translations to be sure I can understand the message in its entirety.

For a non-believer, this kind of argument may sound suspect or even unreasonable. I understand that it’s not a good enough reason to say the Bible is trustworthy because of the way I “feel” when I read it, as this is very subjective.  But, I did want to mention it, as that is where I am coming from and I want to be upfront about that.

I’ve personally found that many of those who oppose or discredit the Bible are victims of “spiritual abuse”.

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Perhaps they were in a Cult or another Fundamentalist group, where the Scriptures were used to hurt or control them for many years.  Maybe they still have nightmares about Armageddon, hell or “everlasting torment”.  It is understandable that their natural inclination is not to open a book that caused them such pain, and that they would seek to rebel against it in order to liberate themselves from its influence.

However, it is important to realize that it was not the Bible itself that inflicted the pain, as it is an inanimate object, incapable of “speaking”, or reading itself.  It was cruel and controlling human beings who decided to convert it into a weapon against others.  This is the most tragic thing, as the central message of the whole Scriptures: to love God and our neighbour as ourselves, has been twisted to mean the exact opposite.  How can we love our neighbours, according to spiritually abusive groups or individuals?  By judging, criticizing and gossiping about them ad nauseum, then packing them off to hell or Armageddon if they choose to disagree with the Group.

For people coming out of those environments, it can take a long time to be able to read the Scriptures again, in the light of the gospel of grace and compassion.  One of my friends still finds that when she opens the Bible translation that was used by her cult, it triggers her anxiety and PTSD and she simply can’t carry on.  So, to avoid this she now prefers to listen to an Audio Bible in a more modern translation, so she can hear it with fresh ears.

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You don’t have to leave your rational, thinking brain at the door when you become a Christian – there are plenty of very well founded reasons to trust that the Bible is God’s Word.  However, before going into them, it’s important to discuss what the term “God’s Word” really means, and how we can understand that.  The Bible is full of symbolic language, poems, songs, hymns and prophecies, as well as historical narratives and inspiring teachings.  It is not a “nice” book of fables with a sweet-sounding “moral of the story”.  It is much, much more complex than that, which is why scholars have been wrestling with its deeper meanings  for thousands of years.

In fact, this is the beauty of Christian life: we each have the responsibility of reading and figuring out this incredible book for ourselves, with the help of the Holy Spirit and other Christians.  We may not always agree with other people’s interpretations, but we are on a life-long voyage of discovery and learning.  Well… at least some of us are.  Sadly, many people end up sitting passively in churches and agreeing with everything their leaders tell them, without taking the time to get to know the Bible for themselves.

Come on, give me some “proof”!!

Can I prove to you unequivocally that the Bible is inspired by God?  I must say right now that I cannot.  I can (and will) share several reasons that show that believing in the Bible is a highly reasonable conclusion to reach, but it cannot be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.  That is why we call it “faith”.  To have faith you don’t need to turn off your brain in order to believe in “fairytales” – there are rational and respected arguments, backed up by both archaeology and history, indicating that this book is both trustworthy and reliable.

In contrast, I remember once speaking to a Latter Day Saint, who was trying to persuade me that the book of Mormon was God’s Word.  They believe it contains writings of ancient prophets who lived on the American continent from approximately 2200 BC to AD 421. I asked him: “Why are there horses in it?”  (He didn’t know.)  Horses were present in North America, but became extinct between 8,000 – 12,000 years ago, and were only reestablished in the 16th Century when the Spanish invaders arrived.  Why then, are they in the Book of Mormon?  This is historically and archaeologically inaccurate – simply speaking, an anachronism.

Whereas in the Bible, all the flora and fauna, food, drink, trees, animals and insects mentioned correspond to historical data.  Many of them can be seen to this very day.  What is more, the Bible tells the story of the Jewish people, who are still with us, thousands of years later.  No other ancient people group has survived with its traditions and beliefs intact, despite countless attempts to eradicate them from the face of the earth.

The very fact that Christians survived too is nothing short of a miracle.  Starting with Emperor Nero in the first century up until the present day, followers of Jesus have often been relentlessly and cruelly persecuted. Given the choice between being thrown to the lions, slaughtered in the Roman Circuses or crucified like their Saviour, Christians have repeatedly chosen not to renounce their faith – and to face the consequences.  The biggest question is how Christianity got started in the first place: Jesus was shamefully crucified and his followers scattered, denying they even knew him.  If he didn’t rise up from death on the third day, how do we explain the massive, rapid expansion of the faith, leading to more than 2 billion Christians worldwide in the present day?

On the other hand, when it comes to the Book of Mormon, where are the communities that it describes?  If they were God’s people, why didn’t He protect them?  Where are the archaeological remains of their settlements, tools, campfires and lodgings?

Whereas Biblical archaeology has confirmed, time and time again, that the places mentioned in the Bible actually existed.  Despite the fact that for many years, some critics alleged that the town of Nazareth, (where Jesus was brought up), didn’t exist until after his time, archaeological digs in the vicinity of Nazareth have discovered tombs dating from the first century AD confirming the village was a strongly Jewish settlement. Other discoveries include The Pool of Siloam and even the Apostle Peter’s house, and many other fascinating artifacts that I don’t have time to reference here.  I would definitely recommend doing a brief Google search into Biblical Archaeology to find out more.

Another fascinating thing about the Bible is how it portrays the failings and humiliations of its leading characters so honestly.  If this book was written by humans beings to promote the Jewish and Christian faiths, why didn’t they omit all the mistakes, murders, adulteries and betrayals of their men of God?  Why include these details at all?  This shows that it is not a work of propaganda with a hidden “agenda”; but a record of the events as they occurred.

These are the main reasons why I personally believe that the Bible is God’s inspired Word.  There are many more, and I’m afraid I simply can’t do them all justice here.  If you are interested in continuing to investigate this fascinating topic,  I would highly recommend this article by Wayne Jackson:

“The Holy Bible, Inspired of God: A Look at the Evidence.” 

Whatever your conclusions may be, I hope you can look into it with an open-mind.  At the very least, you will have learned something new. Let’s not fall into Fundamentalism!!

 

Ex-cult activists… Don’t look back in anger

Anger is a very natural human emotion.  The Bible doesn’t condemn it, but rather warns us: “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26a).  Another translation reads: “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” (NLT).

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But what happens if it does control us?  If it’s gotten so out of hand, that we see everything through rage-tinted glasses?  What then?

The following information on the effects of anger on the body is from the “Better Health Channel“, (part of the Australian Government’s Department of Health and Human Services):

“The constant flood of stress chemicals and associated metabolic changes that go with recurrent unmanaged anger can eventually cause harm to many different systems of the body.

Some of the short and long-term health problems that have been linked to unmanaged anger include: 

  • headache
  • digestion problems, such as abdominal pain
  • insomnia
  • increased anxiety
  • depression
  • high blood pressure
  • skin problems, such as eczema
  • heart attack
  • stroke

However, despite the serious risks associated with prolonged, uncontrolled anger, there are some prominent members of the ex-Jehovah’s Witness community who persist on defending their right to be angry, in very aggressive tones.

And of course they do have a valid point.  Anyone who has suffered spiritual, emotional, sexual, physical or psychological abuse at the hands of a toxic cult have every right to be extremely angry about it, and to express that freely and openly.  But when that anger stops us from functioning properly, or starts to affect our health and emotional well-being, it could be time to take a step back and evaluate a better way forward.

Some have likened coming out of a sect with the experience of going through the five stages of grief.  First there is Denial: “that can’t be true!” we exclaim, as we struggle to close our eyes to the truth presented to us about the Organization we’ve been enslaved to for so long.  After that, a period of extreme, uncontrollable Anger can ensue, when we finally face the truth about the lies we were taught.  Next comes Bargaining, when we become obsessed with a maze of “If only…” or “What if…” statements. “If only I had been brave enough to leave earlier!!!”, “What if I had never accepted that free, home Bible study???” We want to go back in time, to erase the past and recover all those precious years we lost.

After these realizations, Depression can follow. Tired of overthinking and overanalyzing everything to death, we can slip into a pit of despair and loneliness.  The final stage, which not everyone reaches, is Acceptance.  This does not mean that we are now “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case at all.  This stage is simply about accepting the reality that we can’t change what happened to us, but we do have the power to determine the course of the rest of our lives and move forward with peace in our hearts.

The mistake that I made was trying to jump to acceptance, without working through the other stages first.  I thought I could turn the page, move on and forget my toxic experience with the Watchtower.  But when you suppress these dark emotions, they have the tendency to come back to haunt you.

The trauma and phobias that I held onto did not go away, but grew in intensity.  I isolated myself socially, found it very difficult to make friends, and felt very alone for a long time.  The problem was that I had no one to talk to about all this, except my husband who was experiencing the same trauma.

Although we understood on some level that speaking with other Watchtower survivors could be very therapeutic and helpful, for a very long time we chose not to do this, because we had the impression that ex-JWs would generally be very bitter, angry people, who hated God and the Bible.  We didn’t want to be “infected” by these kinds of toxic attitudes, so we stayed away from online forums and support groups.

From 2009, when we first woke up, to 2016, we didn’t speak with a single other ex-Jehovah’s Witness, except my sister-in-law, who has never ever spoken to us about her exit from the Organization.  At first, we would watch Youtube videos non-stop, about the dark, humiliating history of the Watchtower, until we felt sick of it all.  Because we live in Chile and always speak Spanish together, we watched videos in this language, and many of them were very disturbing.  Sometimes, red demons, breathing fire, would pop up from behind the screens and share the terrible truths about JW teachings – it gave us nightmares and made us feel even more alone.

However, throughout all this, we did hang onto our faith in God, and in Jesus.  Studying the Bible together and singing praises that my husband composes on the guitar gave us the inner strength we needed to carry on.  We tried hard to find a church to belong to, where we could feel at home and receive spiritual nourishment.  Sadly, this wasn’t an easy quest, and we ended up getting very disappointed several times.

Then, around February 2016, we met a couple of Gilead Missionaries near where we live, and my husband stopped to talk with them.  We didn’t tell them that we were once members ourselves, but we did let them know that we had studied with the Organization previously and had extensive knowledge of its teachings.  Surprisingly, they were fascinated to speak with us, and invited us to “study the Bible” with them.  My husband was very clear, we would love to meet with them and discuss the Bible, but only the Bible. No extra books, videos, brochures or tracts… just the Word of God (and not their translation of it).  We were very taken aback when they agreed!!  So, we started a year-long journey of meeting up and discussing different topics week by week.  Needless to say, we didn’t “wake them up”, but we did learn a lot in the process, and hopefully planted some seeds of doubt in their minds.  They continued with us for around 3 months, then when it got too much for them, they asked another, older JW couple to come and study with us for the rest of the year.

At that time, we had little idea about how to speak to indoctrinated people, although we were always polite, kind and warm towards them.  We didn’t see them as closed-minded, judgmental bigots, but victims of Mind Control.  Since then, I’ve learnt a lot about the best way to help cult members to break free from their indoctrination, although there is no guarantee that this is always possible.

While I was investigating how to communicate effectively with JWs, I began to scroll through videos on Youtube.  One of them caught my eye, although I was reluctant to click on it at first.  I thought: “I don’t want to be traumatized again!” – “I have no interest in listening to someone’s sad, bitter, angry story of self pity…”  So, I decided not to click and to watch something else.  As I was doing that, I saw the same video to the right of the screen, calling out to me.  “Click on it!” I felt something in me say: “Click on it!!”  But I had no desire to do so, and I rebelled against that quiet, inner voice.  Finally, after watching several other videos, I just had to click, mainly out of curiosity.  It was this video, by Candice Lambert.

I can honestly say that watching that video changed the course of my life.  It may sound strange or exaggerated to say that, but it’s true.  That was the day that I discovered that not all ex-JWs are angry, bitter, emotionally stunted people, but some are like diamonds, full of love, compassion, and faith.  Candice’s testimony of her route out of the Watchtower via Jesus gave me HOPE – that there were more people out there like this, who had left the Organization but still clung onto their faith.  In fact, that’s how this blog and ministry were born.

Coming back to the topic of anger, I want to say that we all struggle with anger at times; none of us are immune from this.  Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in one of the 5 stages of grief, and they don’t necessarily occur in the order above.

Sadly, it is my opinion that some ex-JWs are reinforcing the Watchtower’s stereotype of “apostates”, by deliberately cultivating or maintaining an angry, bitter and aggressive mindset.  Imagine if a lonely, semi-indoctrinated cult victim came across a Youtube video of an anti-JW “activist” with an anger management problem, or someone who repeatedly uses bad language. What will the impact be on that person?  Will they continue listening, or close their screen hurriedly, shocked by all the negative emotion?

Of course, I have no right to tell other people how to express themselves, but I am entitled to my opinion. I believe that moving away from anger is positive, although we do need to walk through it in order to leave it behind.

The website I referenced earlier has some excellent tips on how we can deal with anger in more healthy ways, such as:

  • If you feel out of control, walk away from the situation temporarily, until you cool down.
  • Recognise and accept the emotion as normal and part of life.
  • Try to pinpoint the exact reasons why you feel angry.
  • Once you have identified the problem, consider coming up with different strategies on how to remedy the situation.
  • Do something physical, such as going for a run or playing sport.

There are also some long term strategies:

  • Keep a diary of your anger outbursts, to try and understand how and why you get mad.
  • Consider assertiveness training, or learning about techniques of conflict resolution.
  • Learn relaxation techniques, such as meditation or mindfulness.
  • See a counsellor or psychologist if you still feel angry about events that occurred in your past.
  • Exercise regularly.

Sometimes, seeing a properly trained therapist, particularly one who understands cults, can be the best course of action.  If this isn’t possible, then there ae many, excellent resources and videos available online on anger management.

I wish you all the best on your journey.  If you’d like to get in touch, please write in the comments below or feel free to send me an email: faithafterdeception@gmail.com. If you haven’t done so already, I’d also like to invite you to join our Faith after Deception online Fellowship group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/faithafterdeception/

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A “healthy” mistrust of science?

I’ve been realizing lately how many cults and fundamentalist religious groups undermine scientific, analytical thought.  Many of them teach that the world was created in 6 literal days, or a period of 6,000 years, making the dinosaurs and archaeology in general  rather embarrassing and inconvenient.  Pesky things like evidence are swiftly explained away as the devil’s “meddling” – it is obvious to them that these old bones were placed by the evil one to confuse us and test our faith…

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            Coming out of that mindset can take time and is very complex.  The level of fear instilled in us is so great that even considering another point of view or watching a video on a scientific subject can feel “risky”.  Will my faith be subverted?  What if they lead me astray?  How will I know if they’re telling the truth or not?

            In the light of all these overwhelming, unanswerable questions, more and more parents are taking their children out of the school system and deciding to educate them at home.  I personally have no problem with the concept of homeschooling per se, and respect each parent’s right to make decisions for their own families.  However, I also have a right to express my opinion, without seeking to offend or criticize other’s life choices.

            For me, the most important thing is to take an honest look at the motivation which guides our thoughts and actions.  Am I shielding my child (or myself) from other points of view regarding creation, religion, faith, science,  health, medicine and history because I am afraid that they will be contaminated or unduly influenced?   Am I driven by fear, or by a desire to provide the best education possible for my offspring?

            Some could say that I have no right to make such observations, as I am not a mother myself.  But, I am a stepmother, and a teacher.  I like to consider matters deeply, from every point of view.  My opinions are simply opinions, and nothing more.

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            It upsets me that in modern life, so few people are willing to open themselves up to listening to a point of view with which they disagree.  The desire for uniformity, at all costs, is so prevalent that when you open your mouth to express an alternative viewpoint, it’s very tempting to close it again, knowing that your voice will be dismissed or ignored.

            Being in a highly controlling religious sect stripped me of my voice.  I learned to keep my opinions to myself, to remain quiet, and to toe the line.  I knew that any indication of disagreement or derivation from the accepted norms would set me apart as a subversive person, an “independent thinker”, someone who would ultimately be shunned and rejected by the whole group.

            Even after leaving, it has taken me years to get my confidence back in order to express myself freely again, due to people pleasing, a yearning to “fit in” and to be accepted by others.  This is particularly difficult for me as I live in Chile; a small South American country set apart from the rest of the world by the Andes mountain range, the Atacama Desert, the Pacific Ocean and the imposing glaciers of Patagonia to the south.  In this nation, people do not tend to express themselves openly, but seek to “keep the peace”, by taking care to say what other people want and expect to hear.  This is understandable, considering that during Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973 – 1990, anyone who dared speak out risked being silenced, by means of torture, exile – or worse.  Thereby, a whole generation of Chileans had to learn to keep their opinions to themselves.  Books were burned, higher education became unaffordable, and free thinkers were shipped out of the country.

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In fact, the word “no” is rarely used at all in this country; it’s extremely rude to give a negative answer to any kind of offer or invitation, however sincere.  Instead of saying “no”, people almost always say yes.  “Can you come to my house on Saturday evening?”  – “Yes, of course!” says the Chilean, despite knowing full well they probably can’t.  The socially acceptable way around this is simply not to turn up.  You say yes, but then you don’t follow through.  That is politeness in this culture.

            So, as a British woman who has spent over 12 years of her adult life in this culture, learning to speak up and to give voice to my authentic self has been a challenge.  Writing this blog has been the first big step for me, as well as making the audio files that I occasionally upload to Youtube.  Getting to know ex-cult survivors online and hearing their stories has encouraged me to speak my truth boldly, but with love.

            This has spilled over into some of my face-to-face interactions with my Chilean friends here too.  I no longer feel the need to keep quiet, blend in and avoid showing my true nature, although I do still seek to be kind, warm and generous to others.  Just the other day we were invited out to dinner with a couple we have got to know, and I felt emboldened to express my real opinions on a particular subject. I didn’t say very controversial things or reveal any big secrets, I just took the guard rails off my mouth and began to speak more openly, without fear or rejection or shunning.  It felt so good!!  We arrived home that evening with joy and thankfulness in our hearts, glad to have finally made some real friends.

            Of course, this is not always the case with everyone.  Last weekend we were invited to visit with a different family, and unfortunately, the conversation turned to politics towards the end of the evening.  The next day was the first round of presidential elections here in Chile, and it was inevitable that the topic would come up.  When one of our friends asked our opinion on the different candidates, we responded openly, without wanting to start an argument or rub him up the wrong way, explaining that we won’t be voting.  Our friend, who had had a couple of glasses of wine by this point, began to speak aggressively towards us, ridiculing our standpoint and insisting on the virtues of his own candidate.  I tried to step in as a peacemaker, letting him know that we respect his worldview and that each of us should follow our own conscience, rather than seeking to influence or belittle others.  He wouldn’t listen, but carried on and on, until he abruptly announced he was going to bed, signaling that it was time for us to leave.

            I do hate that politics can divide people so cruelly, even if you try to opt out of the debate altogether.  I sincerely wish that others would respect our right to abstain, but sadly it’s become all too common for non-voters to be ridiculed or dismissed as ignorant or apathetic.  We do not seek to judge, influence or suggest to anyone whether they should vote or not, but nonetheless our position is not deemed worthy or respect or consideration.

                        Sometimes I say to my husband (in Spanish): ¡Soy una persona!  – I am a person!  It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate this, as he always does, but that I feel the need to say those words out loud: I am a person!!  It must be that my personhood has been so squashed throughout the years that I feel so strongly about this, and not only in my case, but for every person on this planet.  Sometimes I see someone being put down, discriminated against or pushed aside, and I say: “That is a person!!!”  For example, I recently saw a video of a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses dancing to Kingdom Melodies by a river, somewhere in Latin America.  Rather than laughing at them or sharing the video for others to comment on and jeer, I felt compassion for these individuals: “They are people”, I said to myself.  Whatever their beliefs, opinions or worldview, they deserve my respect as fellow human beings.

            During times past, it was socially acceptable to express racist or chauvinistic opinions, with few consequences whatsoever.  Now, we feel we’ve matured as a people and have learned better, but I say that very tragically, we have not yet come far enough.  As well as the implicit and institutionalized racism that persists in many societies, it’s become common for people to launch verbal attacks on different groups and religions, particularly towards Muslims.  At school in England, I had several moderate Muslim friends who were warm, compassionate and highly intellectual.  After the attacks on 9/11 public opinion towards them changed, as fear and ignorance set in.  Fuelled by a scandal hungry media and people’s desire to express their insecurities and rage, hate crimes towards Muslims have increased exponentially over the last 16 years.

            I recently challenged a friend regarding a blatantly anti-Islamic post she had shared on Facebook, and she completely shut me down. I had expressed myself in polite and friendly tones, but she insisted on painting me as a “divisive” person and said that “I obviously didn’t want to be her friend any more”, and refused to enter into dialogue with me.  Faced with such emotional and intellectual immaturity, I could do nothing but step away and give up: I can’t control others, but I can protect my own sanity.

            Nor do I mean to imply that I have somehow reached a higher level of consciousness, or that everyone who disagrees with me is wrong.  Far from it!!  In fact, I would much prefer it if people who don’t agree with me would tell me so (in polite terms, of course!) and that we could sit and discuss openly, as two human beings on a journey.  Do we have the emotional maturity to engage with others in this way, to really hear their point of view, consider it and respond with love, or do we react impulsively at what we imagine people are saying?

            Are we growing, or are we stagnating?  Are our minds open, or tightly shut?   What is more important, being right – or showing compassion?

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How to help indoctrinated cult victims break free

Cults are fuelled by fear, shame and secrecy. Members are taught to set their sights on a future existence on a paradise earth or in heaven, and forced to give up all hopes of true joy or fulfilment in this life.  They must resign themselves to boredom, drudgery and self-discipline, which is often accompanied by feelings of emptiness and dread.  They are forced to fake a smile and to find the energy to put on a “positive face” in order to prove to outsiders that they are walking the “one, true path” to salvation.

The pressure to conform to external standards of behaviour when feeling dead inside can lead to inner conflict (known as “cognitive dissonance”), stress and depression.  Terrorized by the threat of losing their loved ones and social community, being destroyed at Armageddon or losing their salvation, cult members often behave on “automatic pilot”.  Like brainless robots, they go through the motions of life, trying desperately to ignore the questions and doubts that sometimes pop up into their minds.  They make a massive effort to push them down again, to re-convince themselves that their life is not based on a lie, that all their hard work and sacrifice have not been a useless waste.

I’ve met some active cult members who have literally given up everything for their Group: a decent education, the prospect of having children or following their dreams, a career, retirement fund, or a relationship with their non-cult family members… the list goes on and on. They turned their backs on all this to serve their Organization full time.

               Therefore, when they are faced with someone who challenges their beliefs, the need to justify and defend their life choices is overwhelming.  That is why talking to indoctrinated robots can be like banging your head against a thick, heavy wall…

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       In addition, when we speak to people, they do not generally react to the words we say, but the emotion behind them.  If we express ourselves in anger, frustration, bitterness or with words laced with ridicule and contempt, we alienate our listeners, causing them to shut their ears, turn away, or fight back defensively.  Thus, it’s possible to push them even further from us, and make them more closed to our well-researched arguments.

      That doesn’t mean however that there is nothing we can do to help cult victims from breaking free, or that we are powerless in our quest.  There are tried and tested ways to achieve this, based on intelligent and compassionate efforts by families and friends who want to rescue their loved ones.  If you are interested in learning more about this, I would highly recommend Steven Hassan‘s books, particularly “Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs”.

               Ex-cult members who are keen to expose the Group’s corruption and destructive impact on human lives need to think strategically, using all the means of communication, resources and platforms available.  I know of one ex-Jehovah’s Witness family of seven members who all woke up because the father listened to a radio show on the way to work, which mentioned the Royal Australian Commission into child sexual abuse.  He was so shocked to discover that his beloved Organization was harbouring and protecting paedophiles, that he started to do his own research, and was eventually able to convince his whole family to leave.

               Reading something in a respected newspaper, watching a TV show or listening to a news report on the radio about their cult is one way that could get indoctrinated people thinking critically, but only if they are ready to.  In the FB Group “Faith after Deception Fellowship”, someone recently asked the question: “Why didn’t we wake up sooner?” and the most common answer was: “I wasn’t emotionally or psychologically prepared to do so beforehand”.

               So, the question is: how can we help Cult victims to open their hearts to the ugly truth about the truth of their Organization? Renowned cult expert, Steven Hassan offers a three pronged approach:

  1. Build trust with the person. If they don’t trust you or feel they can confide in you, they will never listen to you.

  1. Ask them searching questions that they can go away and investigate, rather than feeding them answers. If they refuse to respond to you, at least you have planted a small seed of doubt in their minds.

  1. Help them to get better acquainted with other cults. Many people are now becoming aware that they are in a toxic group after watching Leah Rimini’s brave exposé of Scientology. When indoctrinated people see how Mind Control is used in other Groups, they are faced with the uneasy reality that they are being manipulated in the same way.

If you think it would be appropriate, you could even ask the cult member to answer these 25 questions to find out if they are in a cult.

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They also need to know that if they leave, they can count on you.  The fear of loneliness and social isolation means that people inside cults remain there far too long, even after they’ve woken up.  Ex-members and concerned family and friends need to provide strong and lasting friendships with those who are seeking to escape, to support them on their long and difficult journey out.

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When it’s hard to pray

Sometimes, when I share my blog posts (particularly this one), I receive comments that I find heartbreaking, such as “I’ve tried praying, but I can’t feel God’s presence or sense He is answering… I don’t know what I’m doing wrong… I’ve given up”.

               I know that these are sincere, open-hearted, genuine people, but very sadly, some of them have received judgment and even condemnation when they’ve dared to express themselves honestly about this issue.  They fear they’ll be accused of not having enough faith, or of harbouring some secret, unconfessed sin or be told to fast more or “try harder”.  Sometimes, other well-meaning souls will inform them that they shouldn’t try to “feel” God’s presence at all, but to content themselves with an intellectual knowledge of His existence.

               However, none of these responses takes into consideration the context in which these individuals find themselves: each of them has suffered tremendous spiritual abuse at the hands of a toxic Cult or a religious High Control Group.  Imagine if you’re speaking to someone who has been sexually abused; wouldn’t it be understandable if they then go on to struggle with intimacy?

               In a similar way, many victims of spiritual abuse find it incredibly difficult to pray, because so many things that are related to prayer are now emotional and intellectual triggers, leading to confusion, soured memories and great pain…. Initially, we close our hearts in order to protect them, but sometimes we end up shutting them up altogether…

Many cults equate the group with God himself, as they presume to speak for him and dictate every detail of people’s lives.  This means that even things like God’s name or the question of who to pray to can be very difficult for those who have left.  People who have stayed in the group may accuse us of turning our backs on our Creator, and we want to assure them that this is NOT the case, but untangling who God really is can take time and isn’t easy.

               I do not claim to have all the answers to these difficult questions; it’s taken me a long time to pen these words, as I have no solution to offer, no magic words or silver bullet.

               However, what I can say is that after traumatic experiences and great disappointment, our spirituality often changes, maturing and becoming less dogmatic and closed minded. Our heart is stretched to breaking point, now able to stand in compassion alongside other victims of abuse.

               In fact, none of us has the right to stand up like a Pharisee and tell other people how to pray or what they’re doing wrong.  When someone shares with us that they’re having trouble praying, we don’t need to “fix” them; it’s better just to listen with grace and mercy, not “helpful tips”, advice or criticism.

If the opportunity seems right, other people may be encouraged to hear of our own spiritual journey towards Christ.  It’s probable that we’ve all experienced times of dryness in prayer, when we’ve had to press on despite not feeling God’s presence or peace.  As Jesus walked through the desert for 40 days, we also follow a similar path at certain points in our lives.

               Having the courage to say: “I find prayer hard” is an enormous step.  We need to know the encouragement of other people on the same journey in order to stay sane. Christianity is a “team sport”, in that we were not designed to sit alone, struggling in silence.

               The “Faith after Deception Fellowship” FB group is a safe space, where we can all share openly and receive comfort and support.  It is not a place to fight or argue with others about doctrinal issues, but a place for encouragement and compassion.

               If you haven’t already, we’d love you to join us, but if you don’t feel comfortable doing so,  please feel free to send me an email to faithafterdeception@gmail.comYou are not alone! 

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Brother, sister, why are you stumbling me???

The concept of “stumbling” your fellow Christian is not something many sermons or talks tend to discuss.  If it is mentioned at all, it’s usually in the context of not drinking alcohol in front of others with a dependency problem, or something similar.

In fact, very few people really have a good understanding of what it means to be respectful and empathetic towards the phobias, fears and deep seated prejudices of Jehovah’s Witnesses or former members.  Somewhere along the way, it has even become socially acceptable to ridicule these people, minimize their inner chaos and take pot shots at their beliefs and worldview.

I have recently been watching videos of testimonies from the “Witnesses Now for Jesus” Convention.  These accounts are moving and show the power of God in action.  Unfortunately however, some of the speakers appear in front of a large, wooden cross.  Now, if you’ve never been a JW, you will not understand this at all, but the truth is that members of this religion cannot look at a cross without feeling some kind of strong emotion, such as fear, confusion, prejudice or terror.  We could judge these people for these feelings, calling them heretical or anti-Christian, but the fact is that they are not to blame for their reaction; it was the Watchtower Society who planted these fears in their minds.

People don’t choose to hold onto phobias, they get trapped against their will.  If you listen to ex-JW’s accounts of going into churches or attending any building that is adorned with a cross, you will often hear of them experiencing extreme reactions.  Many people simply run away, overwhelmed by the flight or fight instinct.dreamstime_m_25789662

And it’s not just wooden crosses; it could be a Christmas tree or another decoration, an Easter egg, or even a harmless birthday cake.  We need to be gentle and understanding with these people, giving them time to adapt to life outside the Watchtower before expecting them to be ok with all these things.  Similarly, if you have an active Jehovah’s Witness friend or loved one, the respectful and most effective way you can reach out to them is by understanding what will trigger them and cause anguish.

If you insist on pushing things in their face that they feel uncomfortable with, they will  either run away or attack you and your beliefs.  The ensuing conflict will make them feel misunderstood or even persecuted, thereby reinforcing their feeling that they are “God’s special people”.

Often, people who have been influenced by the JW Organization are faced with criticism and contempt when they choose to tell their story.  The reason why so many ex-JWs consider it extremely difficult to find a welcoming, non-judgmental place of worship with other believers is that they feel pushed to believe in things that go against their own Biblical knowledge and conscience.

So, what do you do?  In my experience, many Christian ex-JWs end up hiding their true beliefs from the other members of their church, out of fear of rejection.  People say that F.E.A.R. spells out “False Evidence Appearing Real” but the reality for many of us is that when we have tried to open up about our personal beliefs regarding God and the Bible, we are faced with a barrage of criticism, suspicion and / or debate.  It seems that some Church-going believers feel they can argue us out of our “false” beliefs, just as we used to “reason” with householders on the doors.

All this arguing and debating and proving each other wrong has now become distasteful to me.  I do not consider myself a teacher, and instead trust that each believer will open themselves to the God’s power under the Holy Spirit, to be taught directly from the Source.  That’s why I avoid telling people about my own understanding of things such as God’s nature, our eternal destination or holiday celebrations etc etc.

Nevertheless, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, I would be very happy to speak to others about my convictions and beliefs, but only in a face-to-face conversation or video conference call.   Otherwise, you can risk being attacked by malicious online “trolls”, who have no interest in hearing what you have to say.

In conclusion, the main point I want to make here is RESPECT.  If you’re going to hold an event for ex-JWs, don’t put up a massive cross on the stage and expect everyone to be ok with it, especially if you’re then going to broadcast the videos publicly on Youtube.

The Apostle Paul knew that some believers would be stumbled by seeing other Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols, so he cautioned them to be respectful and empathetic.  He didn’t ridicule or criticize the “weak” members of the body of Christ for their phobias, but showed a more excellent way,  a way of love.

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