Nausea. Bile rising in my throat. The very thought of church makes me want to vomit. As my friend wrote, “…narcissists using God…[is] almost enough to make you turn atheist.” Damn straight! And yet…and yet…in spite of narcissists creating a hateful, judgmental God-shaped idol in their image, by some miracle, many of us still cling to Him, the Rock of Ages, like a free-climber clinging to a cliff-ace with bruised and bloodied fingernails.
We’ve lost everything and said goodbye to everyone. For many of us, despite everything, He is our last, best hope.
This article has been a long time in coming. I broached the topic a year ago in the very popular article, When a Narcissist “Gets Religion,” You Get Screwed!
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write more about survivors of narcissistic abuse’s troubled relationship with religion, spirituality, church and God. But something said, “Wait. Possess your soul with patience, Lenora. The time is not right.” But last night, all that changed.
As you may recall, my recent studies have convinced me that narcissistic dynamics and cult dynamics are pretty much identical. Scratch a cult and you’ll find a narcissistic leader. My readers corroborate this conclusion and spurred me on to learn even more about cults, as a oblique way to better understand narcissism.
So it was that at 1 a.m. this morning, I tucked myself into bed with a snoring husband, two dogs, buttered toast and the book, Evil Web: A True Story of Cult Abuse and Courage by Mary Rich and Carol Jose. The next three hours were spent reading, crying and physically thrashing back-and-forth in the agonizing tug-of-war between shock (“Holy crap! Some of those mental, emotional and spiritual abuses in Evil Web were done in my home…to me!) and denial (“Naaah. Isn’t that normal!? It sounds normal to me. That’s just a normal Christian family. Isn’t it!?”)
Finally, at 4 a.m. I drifted into a troubled sleep. When I awoke, something clicked in my head and said, “NOW! Write that damn article now.” My apologies for writing about me, me, me in this article and over-using the first-person subjective pronoun, “I, I, I.” My hope is that my story will corroborate, validate and trigger those wonderful “Aha” moments for you, you, you.
I was born into an extremely religious, isolationist, strict Protestant home as you probably already know. I got my first (light) spanking at six months. After all, as they were fond of saying with a snarl, “You were a sinner from birth.”
“It amazes me that sinners cannot please sinners,
yet sinners can please God.”
– U.S. Army Ranger Gary Horton (ret.)
Just like the cult-abused children in Evil Web, by the age of three I was “perfect,” sitting still and quietly in public while other kids ran around, shouted and played. It was also at age three that I prayed to invite Jesus into my heart, whatever the adults meant by that. It’s one of my only early memories.
At six I was enrolled in a strict, corporal punishment inflicting Baptist school. Visiting preachers dripped sweat, pounded the pulpit, screamed and yelled at the student body in weekly Chapel services. Bible class was daily (and boring!) and Bible homework was plentiful (and boring!). Writing out Scripture verses fifty or a hundred times was used as punishment. Chastity was taught while, behind the scenes, the fact that some teachers were raping the students was swiftly brushed under the rug.
At age fourteen, I wondered “why.” Why was the family Protestant Christian instead of Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic or one of the many other religions out there? It was an honest, innocent question. It was also the day that destroyed me saying, “We knew this day would come.” Where I had an innocent question, they introduced doubt. Suddenly, Heaven was unobtainable.
From then on, I felt like Lenora the infidel. Lenora the Hell Bound. They condescended to me because of my euphemistically labeled “spiritual condition,” preaching, lecturing and haranguing me for hours, sometimes with tears, sometimes with anger. “All your good deeds,” they preached, “are as dirty as used menstrual cloths.” (Isaiah 64:6)
They gave me reading assignments during Summer vacation…the Bible and books on apologetics. During the six hours of daily isolated study they called “homeschool,” I was forced to memorized long passages of Scripture and many stanzas of hymns as well as studying Greek and Hebrew. (I loved Greek!) They gave me a two-page list of things I had to believe in order to genuinely pray that salvation prayer to be born-again. It was overwhelming.
From then on, they aggressively tried to save my eternal soul while also accusing me of being obsessed with witches and bringing them under demonic attack. They imagined me guilty of every vice from disrespecting and rebelling against them (never!) to pornography addiction (um, no!) to “buying sex” (what the….?!?) Sunday church always resulted in a splitting tension headache, they refused to alleviate with any medication ’til I was in agony.
And I believed them, feeling myself to be the worst of the worst, knowing I was destined to spend Eternity in Hell.
She Tried, She Tried, She Tried and Then She Died
But I tried. Oh! How I tried! Believing guilt would lead me to repentance for my sins and the pride I was so often accused of, I tortured myself mentally..ruining years of life with mental self-flagellation. It became a mental habit from dawn ’til dusk. Oh, how desperately and unsuccessfully I tried to feel the “godly grief that leads to repentance” and the faith to pray THAT prayer.
And I attended churches, boy! did I attend, participate, serve and even sing in church choirs! Evangelical Free. Baptist (where I was baptized by a creepy minister after another desperate salvation prayer, providing a notch-in her-Bible-cover for a weird red-haired woman.) Catholic (oh! the amazing smell of burning candles!) Pentecostal Messianic Jewish (they had the best music!). I remember running out of an Anglican service and bursting into tears in my car. I read the Bhavagad Gita and the Qu’ran (Koran.)
It was all to no avail. I just couldn’t reach that fever pitch of religiosity to catapult me into the Kingdom. At twenty-five, the same family member who destroyed me at fourteen took me aside and told me, “A Christian would not behave the way you’re behaving.” My crime: Ballroom dancing lessons with an instructor who was a master at copping a feel now and then. My abusers said I was “buying sex.”
That’s when I gave up.
I Give Up
That’s right. I gave up, accepting that a fiery Eternity in Hell was my final destination. Where others, like my family, had succeeded in attaining Heaven, I had failed. My strength was sapped. I couldn’t regret my sin enough. And I damn well couldn’t feel faith enough (or love or joy or much of anything except sadness and fatigue, thanks to PTSD.)
But, I hoped against hope that God hadn’t given up on me. I clung to my belief in Him. I prayed a lot, just talked to Him as if He were a Father…a Father who despised my sinful, unrepentant guts. I’d been told that God hears but doesn’t listen to those who aren’t His children. For all I knew, He was deaf to my cries.
Except for one thing…one funny little thing…
All my prayers were answered…even the silly ones.
I don’t usually weep when I write Narcissism Meets Normalcy, but today I did. Guttural sobs because, suddenly, I saw it! The big picture.
Only a few weeks ago in a moment of agony and candor, I screamed, “God hates my guts!” My spluttering husband retorted, “No, He doesn’t!” But, but, but…they implied, taught, preached and yelled that God hates prideful sinners like me. Surely, He hates me too!
A narcissist who thumps a Bible (or any other religious book) wields it as a weapon to destroy others so he or she can climb on their carcass to elevate themselves. Oh, what could be better!?! Surely the best, the bonniest, the brightest boost to their ego is to be Heaven-bound while convincing and judging all others to be Hell-bound. What could be more ego-boosting than to be the one who speaks for God, who wears His mantle and wields His judgment!?! A nice side-perk is that you can get these downtrodden sinners to do anything and everything for you by citing “God’s will” and being “servant-hearted.”
But wait! Isn’t God supposed to be love? Agape love? Unconditional love? And what about grace?
Creating God in Their Image
Narcissists create God in their image. A hateful God. A vicious God. A cold, calculating God. That’s not who He is! But they create an idol just like them and call it “God.”
But if you take a closer look at the God of the Bible He’s described as loving, gracious. Prostitutes, cheaters, Jews and Gentiles alike flocked to Jesus. He welcomed them with open arms, quickly extending grace and forgiving their sins, not holding them to the excruciating Letter of the Law. The narcissists of His day, the Pharisees, acted just like our narcissists today. Assuming the worst. Making holiness unobtainable for all except themselves.
In the words of U.S. Army Ranger Gary Horton (ret.)…
“It amazes me that sinners cannot please sinners,
yet sinners can please God.”
Sometimes it also occurs that we abuse survivors may not be the sin-riddled, prideful devils the narcs said we were. Any pride we may have had, the narcissists destroyed long ago. And we watch our P’s and Q’s more than most people. Oh, we’re not perfect! But we’re pretty damn humble, good people. Loving, helping, serving and trying to be just as quiet, unpretentious, humble and righteous as we possibly can be! C’mon. You know it’s true.
Heaven Was Made For Us Too
If you, like me, have given up on God, on religion, on Heaven…take heart. Please, take heart. Don’t give up quite yet.
It is narcissists who made salvation and Heaven impossible, not God. We could never, ever, ever attain salvation according to them. They kept moving our cheese. No matter what we did, how we groveled, served, tithed, repented, prayed or crawled the Via Dolorosa on bloody knees, the narcissists would tell us that it wasn’t enough. We were damned (by them) before we ever started to try.
From a Judeo-Christian perspective, ask yourself one thing: Would Jesus submit Himself to torture, flogging and Crucifixion for something unobtainable!?! I mean, as Omniscient God He’d already know what a silly, foolish waste it was going to be if nobody could ever appropriate the salvation He died to bring!
In Matthew 23:130-14 Jesus nailed it when he said, “13-14 “But alas for you, you scribes and Pharisees, play-actors that you are! You lock the door of the kingdom of Heaven in men’s faces; you will not go in yourselves neither will you allow those at the door to go inside.“
Shakespeare couldn’t have said it better.
Why Church Makes Me Retch
In the next article, we’ll explore how narcissism hides in organized religion AND what true religion sans narcisssism might actually look like. (HINT: If you like the writings of C.S. Lewis, including the Chronicles of Narnia, you’ll love my next article, Narcissism in the Church.)
As always, thanks for reading my stuff. I hope it helped. If you liked that you read, please subscribe!