Church hurt…well, it hurts. And I am no stranger to the ways in which bad theology, abuses of power, misguided politics and bigotry can manifest within a community and influence the ways church folks and religious bullies perpetuate damage to vulnerable, human souls. In Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting With A Loving God After Experiencing A Hurtful Church, minister and author, Carol Howard Merritt weaves into just over two hundred pages personal narrative and years of professional ministry experience, providing a compelling case for finding wholeness in God despite experiencing pain at the hands of God’s people.
Oftentimes, hurtful church experiences are the result of those who have “taken sexism, homophobia, racism, greed, and violence and dressed them up so they appear as piety.”[i] From accounts of clergy sexual misconduct and parents who disown their LGBT children to stories of those who use their religious beliefs to support their own bigotry, readers are reminded of the ways in which mainstream religion can be harmful and oppressive.
At the heart of this book, Carol Howard Merritt shares her own chilling personal story of living with an abusive father who often used biblical references to legitimize his actions. She deconstructs the family system and church culture that reinforced her father’s abusive behavior and invites readers to separate God from the people, the systems, and the circumstances of our own lives so that we might come to know God independently. “The reason religious wounds can cut so deeply is that they carry the weight of God with them”[ii] but what happens when we separate God from people? What happens when we view our parents, pastors, and church community as people?
The author makes the claim that many of us are conditioned to equate church leaders and religious people with God, and that to find healing we need to make a distinction between God and the imperfect, oftentimes fractured people who make up God’s church. Leaving the church or atheism are the chosen actions of many who have been hurt by the church. Some of us, however, “have a spiritual or theological orientation,”[iii] and healing from church hurt and spiritual wounding makes it possible to be in relationship with a loving God who “suffers in solidarity right alongside us.”[iv]
“The denigrating images our religious traditions can inflict on people can move us to imagine ourselves as lowly creatures, undeserving of God’s love”[v] and “one of the challenges of religious healing is to identify those messages that affect our emotions and behavior and to learn new thoughts.”[vi] Readers are encouraged “to do the work of healing”[vii] and in addition to tending to and caring for the mind and body, the author suggests that all those who seek healing set aside time for guided spiritual exercises that appear at the end of each chapter.
Those of us who have been wounded by church people were powerless when the wounding occurred, and holding on to the pain or the memories of the pain is sometimes the only thing we can do to overcome feeling powerless. While it may be true that our pain connects us to our stories, holding on to our pain also binds us up and prevents Love from healing our wounds. Healing is a process, and “it will take some time, discipline, and practice to relearn faith.”[viii] Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting With A Loving God After Experiencing A Hurtful Church is a timely resource given all the pain religious extremism perpetuates in our world and in our society today, and it is a reminder that there is indeed a difference between God and the Church.
[i] Pg. 22
[ii] Pg. 42
[iii] Pg. 26
[iv] Pg. 59
[v] Pg. 110
[vi] Pg. 111
[vii] Pg. 14
[viii] Pg. 13