Heather Plett is a gifted writer and thinker. If you don’t subscribe to her blog, I hope this guest post by her will inspire you to do so. I wrote to her asking to republish this particular piece because, her description of emotional colonization, is a description of what the church often calls discipleship. It isn’t. It is far more insipid. It is spiritual abuse.
I hope you will read her timely, and horrifically beautiful description of emotional colonization below.
During an interview for a podcast recently, I was asked, “what’s the opposite of holding space?” Though I’ve done many interviews on the subject of holding space since the original post went viral, that’s the first time I’ve been asked that question. As is typically the case for me, the right question can crack open months worth of thought, and this one did just that.
As I contemplated, I searched for a term or word that might describe the opposite of holding space, but I didn’t find one that fully satisfied me. Finally, I came up with this:
The opposite of holding space is emotional colonization.
Wikipedia describes colonization as “an ongoing process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components (people).” Colonization involves overpowering, dominating, and taking away the autonomy and sovereignty of other people. Normally we think of colonization… (for more click here)
Authors: Note: This is not what I planned on writing at this point. I had no peace in my soul and that stopped me from posting what I planned. I sat on what I wrote for over two weeks and only just now deleted it all. And for reason that is beyond me, this takes its place. This is a continuation of my story, as best asI can remember it. However, it is not a linear and chronological history. I pray that the posts I write become “our story.” By that, I mean that you recognize parts of your story as you read mine. My story is not wholly unique. Others share it — or, at least, parts of it. And countless others deny sharing it, but do anyway. Maybe we’ll meet in the middle of the narrative.
If CPR is a picture of renewed life, then coughing up water to breathe is a picture of the act of forgiveness. That sounds backward. It feels backward. I need forgiveness. I don’t need to forgive. I am the guilty party. I betrayed my Ex, my kids, my supporters, friends, family, staff, and parishioners. Yes, I did. And still I need to forgive.
Alcoholics Anonymous gets this right. Alcoholics make amends in steps eight and nine:
Step 8: Made a list of all we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Made amends to those we had harmed, except when to do so would harm them or others.
Long before they get to those steps, they spend time figuring out who they need to forgive. They do that in steps four and five:
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory.
Step 5: Admitted to ourselves, to God, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Recovering alcoholics discover that the exact nature of their wrongs is holding grudges and withholding forgiveness. They correctly believe that God forgives us the way we forgive others. So, we need to learn to forgive to experience being forgiven. This is consistent with how Jesus taught us to pray, “And forgive our sins as we forgive the sins of those who sin against us.”
I am amazed that the evangelical church that birthed and grew me never spent much time teaching this principle. To know forgiveness, I need to forgive.
When I did my fourth step, I wrote pages and pages of resentments. For instance, I acknowledged resenting the country of France and the French. It is almost funny that France is part of my fourth step. But France isn’t alone on the list. There are many other deep and dark resentments that I didn’t / I don’t want to admit: I have Polaroid images of my mother fingering my pre-pubescent genitalia in inappropriate ways… And, I remember my Dad leaving me with her for weeks on end while he traveled to serve God, who evidently needed him more than I did. I remember my angry, depressed mother who seemed to hate my brother and me for stopping her from enjoying the life she loved — traveling and ministering beside Dad — beating me with a belt. I remember my brother brutally beating me up every day, throwing me into walls and never getting caught. I remember the betrayal of a first love and then having to listen to her friend’s cutting explanation, “She broke up with you because you were afraid to kiss her.” I remember that same girl writing me a letter whilst I was in exile in England to get away from her, asking me if I heard Journey’s new song, “Separate Ways.” I remember the betrayal of my college fiancee and my brother, as we drove away from her house for the last time, stopping the car so I could throw up because I couldn’t handle the pain …
There are so many more vivid resentments I could name. Alongside them, I have 70 mm Dolby surround sound, 3-D film of every shameful thing I’ve ever done. I remember with too much clarity the things I did that made me want to crawl into a hole and die; the times there was no place to escape. I can remember all the times I let people down, disappointing them. I remember telling lies to appear bigger, smarter, faster, stronger, more, and more lovable than I knew myself to be. I remember getting caught in those lies and shrinking down smaller than I wa before they left my mouth. I remember shrinking as small as I could get and realizing that it wasn’t small enough.
I need to forgive the Country of France, and a bunch of others. But most of all, I needed to forgive myself. There are a few reasons for that:
1. I convinced myself that I was so bad I deserved the bad things that others did to me.
2. The feelings that accompany my shame are more powerful than feelings surrounding wrongs done to me. Though I feel both. Historically, I feel shame more viscerally.
3, As hard as I try, I can’t forgive myself. There is a spiritual power that needs to be broken down for me to forgive myself.
4. Until I forgive myself, I don’t know what it looks like to forgive others.
Forgiveness is a process. It is not a linear event that I pass through and then complete. It keeps circling back like Bill Murray’s character in GroundHog Day. As I go through life, I uncover more that I need to forgive. Like taking up my cross daily, true freedom requires daily forgiving myself and my world.
There is a downside to forgiving yourself, at least there was for me. As I began to forgive myself, I started to get pissed off. When I thought I was a P.O.S. I could excuse people for treating me badly. I didn’t deserve any better than I got. After being forgiven, I started getting angry.
Now, you have to understand, my parents didn’t allow me to feel anger. The only person who could be angry in our house was Mom. The only exception was that Dad would occasionally get mad at her to hold her in line. Mom and Dad proudly boasted that they had “beaten the anger right out of me.” I don’t remember that. I don’t remember anger. I still don’t do it well. My friends told stories about throwing things or having a tantrum, and I’d get jealous because I didn’t know how to do it. My anger came out as passive aggression. While I smiled sweetly at you, I’d stab you in the back and watch you bleed out without you ever knowing it was me who got you. Or, I’d escape into my double life because it was the safest place I could find.
But, now, after learning I could forgive myself, I was feeling it. In the furrow of my sin, people felt free to wrong me. My Bishop lied to cover his butt with his wife after my Ex retold the story to them. He said he hadn’t realized in ’97 that I’d had intercourse with prostitutes, even though I went specifically to him and others to confess that sin. He knew his lie wasn’t important. My sin superceded it. So he got away with telling it.
The leadership of the church in which I grew up decided it was wholly appropriate to not only read a list of my sins from the pulpit to shame me but to demand I write an explicit letter to my prayer and financial supporters outlining those same sins to them as well. Conveniently forgetting the rest of the New Testament, they intentionally shamed me because of their interpretation of the pastoral epistles. Later, they performed an exorcism on my brother and sister-in-law’s home because I stayed there a month. When it became clear that if there were demons in the home, they undoubtedly came from my brother, no apology was ever offered or considered. The pastor discovered he could get away with saying pretty much whatever he wanted to say to and about me, and so he did. It was reported to me that he made sure a local seminary refused me admission to their counseling program. I no longer had any grounds to disagree with or stand up to him. People in the church started and repeated fantastic rumors. A missionary friend saw me in Costco and asked if I really made my Dad move out of his house so that I could live there.
The leadership of my house church community thought they knew what they were doing, and in their arrogance demanded that everything be done their way. They chose my counselor and then didn’t like things he said and so demanded that I stop seeing him and find a Christian counselor (assuming he’d agree with them). Finally, when they disagreed with both my sponsor and new Christian therapist and discovered that I would not obey them, they asked me to leave the church altogether. So I did. I became an Episcopalian.
I knew that I needed to forgive these men and women for my sake rather than theirs. I didn’t want to, though. My hatred of them felt deserved. It felt good, and it held me captive. I was unwilling to give up my right to revenge. Judging them gave me solace in my despair. Even when you are at the bottom of the barrel it helps to have people that are easy marks for contempt.
Finally, after years (and that is not an exaggeration) of prayer for willingness to take action I asked my former Bishop to meet. We had coffee, and I told him that I forgave him. He asked me what he had done, and I said it was unimportant and bringing it to light again would probably create further damage between us. I knew I needed to let it go. I needed to give up any fantasy of revenge. I had to give up the right to judge he and his wife in the same way I had given up the right to judge myself.
However, I was still unwilling to forgive the pastor who read out my sins, blocked my admission to the seminary, didn’t stop rumors, and said hateful things about and to me that were untrue. Then one day, I walked into a pastors’ prayer meeting, and he was the only one there. As I walked across the room and sat down next to him, praying as I walked. I found that I held no ill will for him. I didn’t need to harm him. He was an old man, and God had my back. I didn’t need to judge him at all.
I wish I could tell you that once I gave up the right to revenge or to judge him –or anyone else, for that matter — all my hatred went away. It didn’t. There are still moments when I want revenge on that old pastor. I have to pray them away. There are still moments that I judge the hell out of the old bishop and his wife. That fact isn’t helped by her ongoing judgment of me and continued belief that she was correct in her assessments and actions, so I continually return to my knees and ask for willingness to forgive, and then I pray a simple prayer of surrender:
“Lord, I surrender my right to be angry with ________. Save me from being angry with them. Please give them _________ (whatever I want for myself right now). May I find in you, whatever my anger is giving me. Your will not mine be done.”
I pray that prayer until I mean it, which means I repeat it a lot. Some folk aren’t easy to love! But by praying, I take the Lord seriously, seeking the welfare of my enemies. And as I obey, the Holy Spirit slowly transforms and resurrects my heart.
“Listening” to the energy in my body as I wrote these words, I am very aware that I have more work to do. Though my resentments’ power weakens the more I pray to forgive, my resentments can still keep me awake. Their power and my powerlessness require me to rely on the Holy Spirit. He has to be actively involved because my resentments are too much for me. The good news is that he is willing to get his hands dirty with me.
Just so you know, because this post brought back a lot of emotion, I will be praying the above-cited prayer a lot in the next few days. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to join me in it — for your resentments, not mine.
Johnson & VanVonderen defines spiritual abuse as, “Using God as a carrot or a stick to get people to behave the way you’d like them to.”* Spiritual Abuse came naturally to me. As a junior in college, Campus Crusade for Christ tried to ask me to come on staff with them, and I did not allow them to get very far. At the “Senior Panic” I attended, I did not even know it was a recruitment event, and after I discovered what it was, it was too late. I went to my interview time in shorts and a ripped tee shirt and informed the three people who were there to interview me that they were wasting everyone’s time and that I was not going to go on staff with them. When they asked, “Why not?” I said, “Because it
I said, “Because it isn’t God’s will…” knowing that the answer would leave them nowhere to go. I was right. My college staff worker came to me soon after that, and we agreed that my ongoing involvement with Crusade would be a distraction rather than a help to them or me. So I joined InterVarsity.
In those days, IV held “Bible & Life” weekend conferences. I attended my first event as a senior. Costs were kept down by meeting at a local church, and attendees stayed with families in the community. I was placed in the Bible Studies method course — and I discovered that this old guy named Tom (he must have been in his mid-40s) was at my table. I was blown away when, on Sunday, he was the speaker for the event and man, could he preach! I discovered that he was the Area Director for Central Michigan, and he was there to “vet” me. As we left the conference, he asked for a moment of my time, “Steve, I’d like to ask you to pray about the possibility of considering joining InterVarsity staff.” I tried to formulate the word, “No,” but couldn’t. How could I possibly say no to praying about the possibility of anything.
In my unknown woundedness, I latched onto Tom as a surrogate father to me. He was more of a mentor to me. I wanted to be him. Later in my career with IV, I realized I demanded way too much of him, and though we remained close; he was the preacher at my first wedding, and I named my son after him, he felt betrayed by my move back to Oregon and we drifted apart. Though I don’t know entirely why, since I fell, he became unreachable. Sadly, and to my detriment our relationship, which I valued above nearly every other was a casualty of my sin.
I began using the phrase, “I’d like you to pray about the possibility of considering…” I discovered when I “twinned” his expression with the story of how he used it with me; students could not say no to me. If I really wanted to twist the knife, I would add, “If as you pray, God says no to you. I will not argue with him. Arguing with God is not smart.” I was developing into a great salesman for Jesus. I do not know how many people I manipulated this way. To my shame, the number is too high for me to count.
It was the fall after the Church publicly vomited my sin for the world to see; as I read Johnson & VanVonderen’s book that I saw more of the fulness of my abusiveness and recognized more fully the abusive nature of the Church system I had been raised. What killed me was that I realized that so much of what I thought was good was really evil and had driven people away from Jesus.
I use Johnson and VanVonderen’s definition of Spiritual abuse. And, I am convinced that we spiritually abuse people whenever we use God, or his written word as instruments of shame. There is no shame in the Kingdom of God.
Since nothing the church tried was working, and since I couldn’t get clean and because my wife had filed papers for divorce and asked me to move out of our house, the pastors agreed I needed more than they could offer. Perhaps, the therapists and my sponsor were right. Maybe I needed rehab. I still remember my friend Tom saying to me, “Even David had to learn through the rods of the Philistines. Perhaps that is what needs to happen with you. I don’t know, Steve. I don’t know.” Finally, the Church was acknowledging that it was in over its head.As I flew back to Philadelphia for rehab at Keystone, I listened to Mozart’s Requiem on my walkman. I put it on repeat. I checked into the facility — a giant house in Chester. Across the street, all the people in drug and alcohol rehab looked down their noses at us. Sex addicts are the scum of the earth. That house in Chester was a cocoon for me, though. It was the safest place on the planet.
When I arrived, I was shown around the three-story house, given a room, and introduced to my housemates. There was a giant white board in the kitchen with all of the resident’s names. They wrote my name at the bottom. I moved up the board as people left and others arrived. Once at the top, a decision was made about when it was best to graduate. I stayed 35 days.
Sex addiction is not limited to pastors though there were two of us there during my stay. There was also a mobster (I kid you not), a nineteen-year-old kid who also struggled with heroin, a banker, and an artist. Most of us were educated and at some level had a level of success. There was a jew, a Wiccan, and assorted Christians, as well as an atheist and agnostic. There were gays and straights and even a couple of “tri-sexuals” (“We’ll try anything”). There were people in trouble with the law, with their partners, and with their workplaces. And though, while I was there everyone was male; that is not always true.
We had group and individual therapy sessions in Art therapy, psycho-dramas, family therapy (for those whose partners participated — mine did not), and talk therapy. We faced our predatory selves. It didn’t matter what we had done. Even my friend who never “acted out” with another human being, acknowledged that he was a predator — though most the world would not understand how. In the evenings, we attended 12-step 12-tradition meetings, and eventually we were all allowed to use and talk on the payphone when it was available.
Next week we’ll go further into the details…
*D. Johnson & J. VanVonderen (1991) The subtle power of spiritual abuse. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.
Whenever I showed anger growing up, my parents reminded me that they had beat the tantrums out of me when I was still a toddler; effectively bringing to an end to my “emotional terrorism.” Toddlers can be emotional terrorists; holding their parents hostage through angry outbursts, crying, screaming, and demanding their way. Apparently, I was no different, and according to my parents — worse. And so, after returning to our house on Peppercomb Rd in Eastbourne, Sussex, England; after weeks of staying in other peoples’ homes where Mom and Dad felt humiliated because of the ruckus my brother, and I made; they used a belt and “beat the tantrums out of me.”
My brother and I quickly learned that it wasn’t OK to feel or demonstrate anger in our family unless you were a woman. They taught us by beating us until we didn’t feel anymore. And so I learned to stuff my anger. Later, through hard work with a counselor, I relearned how to feel it, To this day, it doesn’t come easily; my anger is constipated.
Many of my friends in recovery told stories of losing their tempers, throwing things, breaking things, yelling and screaming. I was so jealous and simultaneously felt so superior. I stuffed my anger down, denying its existence, not realizing that it always came out sideways in horrific and costly ways that didn’t resemble violence but did so much more damage.
My wife found Steven Delugach, Portland’s leading sex addiction therapist, and told me that I was going to see him. So I went. I saw him every week and joined one of his men’s small groups. He is damn good at what he does, and he knows what he is doing. His practical, no-nonsense approach rubs some people the wrong way, but his care for his clients is evident, and he gets results. His track record speaks for itself.
I was also going to at least one (and often two) sex addiction meetings each day. In these early days of recovery, I had fantasies of beating my addiction, writing a book, and hitting the national speaking circuit. I poured my heart into recovery for all the wrong reasons — but I poured it, nevertheless.
It didn’t take very long for the things that my sponsor and my therapist suggested or asked me to directly contradict things that the leadership in the church demanded of me. At one point, my Bishop’s wife and my wife demanded to see my therapist, because they thought I was lying to them about things he was teaching me. Since I wasn’t lying, they said I needed to find a new “Christian therapist” who would agree with them. (OK, the last bit was never stated. It was, however, made more than clear.)
A counselor who attended the pastors’ prayer group with me suggested that I find a therapist who trained other therapists. If I didn’t, he feared that I would walk on whoever tried to work with me. So I started seeing Dr. Richard Shaw, the head of the Marriage & Family Program at George Fox University. Ultimately, I credit him with saving my life.
It was bound to happen; I didn’t do my recovery work perfectly. Sometimes I screwed it up pretty badly, and in one instance — knowing that my actions could be considered flirtatious (and enjoying the accompanying fantasy) — I chose to be honest with one of my former students, letting her know that she had been one of the very few triggers for me at work. On one level, the conversation was wholly appropriate, and on another sinisterly manipulative. The conversation freaked out the young lady. She ended up expressing her discomfort to either my Bishop or his wife, and they, in turn, came to me and told me that I needed to talk to my wife and confess my actions.
Recovery taught me that it wasn’t safe for me to make any significant decisions. After all, my best thinking made me an addict. So, I talked to both my sponsor and my therapist. Both stated that I should not follow the church’s demands. Knowledge of my foolish conversation would unnecessarily rip scabs off my wife’s already significant wounds. When I repeatedly refused their demands to submit, my Bishop asked me to leave. I never went back.
About this time, I started cruising again. Dr. Shaw asked me to read Jeff Vanvonderen’s book, Tired of Trying to Measure Up. I devoured it, and I saw on the fly leaf that Van Vonderen, also wrote, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. I was stuffing rapidly rising anger toward the church that was unaware of how unaware they were, and my wife, who was almost grateful for my sexual infidelity because it gave her the long wanted excuse she needed to divorce me.
As I read The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, I was looking for weapons and ordinance to aim at church leadership for its blatant spiritual abuse of me. God had other plans because the more I read, the more I realized, “I was the abuser.” Every time I raised my gaze, the fingers I wanted to point at the church pointed at me instead. The realization that I drove people away from Jesus, and his Kingdom, just about killed me. It came close because it sent me scuttling back to my addiction — to cruising and prostitutes. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I wouldn’t find any lasting freedom for nearly another year. The day America woke up to planes flying into the Twin Towers, I was too hung over and haunted from having acted out with two prostitutes the day before to care. For the next six months, I would act out once a month, every month. Those actions led me to decide that I had to get further help.
The story picks up during Easter, 2001.
The next weeks were a blur. Certain things stand out. Knowing what I know now about the physiology of the brain and the nature of God, it is easy to say that none of the events that I remember “should” have occurred. The reason is that in times of shock or severe trauma the prefrontal cortex of the brain shuts down, and the amygdala –sometimes called the “reptilian brain” takes over. Mine works very well. I am grateful for it even though it is incapable of understanding or making complex choices, only understanding three options: “fight, flight or freeze.” My amygdala took over the minute my wife asked me about infidelity and didn’t cede total control back until August.
All I wanted to do was survive. I had no capacity or ability to think. Had church leaders the slightest idea about the information above, I’d like to believe that they would have made better choices. What the leaders assigned to oversee my recovery passed off as expertise was, in fact a few ministerial experiences that had destroyed relationships and apparently taught them very little. There is nearly nothing as dangerous as an elder who thinks they know more than they do and believe that they act in the name of God. Narrow theological understanding, derived from a few Scriptural “proof texts,” controlled the events of the next few months. Pastors employed God vindictively as an abusive weapon to exact punitive rather than restorative measures. Church leaders who had virtually no training or understanding of sexual addiction or recovery from addiction made choices from ignorance. As a result, any hope that my marriage might survive was stolen. It took me hours of pray and years of work to be able to forgive them. Had I known then what I know now, I might have been able to forgive them more quickly. For I didn’t need to forgive them for what they did or didn’t do. I needed to forgive them for what I remembered that they did and didn’t do.
Because my prefrontal cortex virtually shut down from April to August 2001, my memory can in no way be trusted. I have Polaroid snap shots and fragments of memory that I remember. I swear that those memories are accurate. I remember them, and, if I’m honest, they may have happened differently than I remember.
Last year, I met with my former Bishop to let him know that I forgave him. It was easier than I imagined because I’m not sure if they did what I remember them doing, I forgave them for what I remember them doing, and my memories may have very little to do with what they did. They alone are responsible for sorting through their actions and choices with their Creator.
Having said all that, here is a partial list of what I remember happened:
These are the clear memories that stand out. The church leadership in Portland had theologically correct reasons to do everything they did, and everything they did was not wrong or hurtful. These were good men. I was part of an influential pastors’ prayer meeting. That group appointed a small group of pastors to shepherd me through upcoming events. My bishop, who was also a part of that group and his wife were assigned to pastor us. He took me under his wing. She took my wife under her’s. They thought they knew what they were doing, and so they acted confidently, doing a lot of damage.
Together with my wife they chose the leading sex addiction therapist in Portland for me to see. I was “required” to give my wife and the bishop’s wife access to the therapist for consultations. Also, I began attending a 12-step group for sex addicts, found a sponsor, and developed new friends in recovery.
That summer I found a recovery job, working for a small contracting company that waterproofed decks. Toward the end of the summer, I walked off the job, never to return, tired of an abusive boss. Finding a new job was terrible. I wasn’t directly qualified to do anything. Eventually, after month’s of unemployment, and much to my wife’s dismay, I chose to employ Notus Career Management to help me get back on my feet. While the initial financial investment was high, they helped me discover transferable skills and strengths, along with jobs that wanted them. They taught me how to interview, and negotiate. Hiring them to help me was one of the first and best decisions I made for myself once things blew up and I eventually found the strength to make decisions for myself. My 12-step group helped me locate the courage to make such decisions.
I started 12-step recovery in April 2001. Doing so saved my life. I arrived in the fellowship with about ten months of “sexual sobriety” and maintained sobriety easily through the summer months. And then the shock began to wear off. I began to realize the harm perpetrated against me, and the role my wife played in the events. My anger grew. I was furious. Things were about to go from bad to worse.