HEALING SPIRITUAL WOUNDS: Reconnecting with a Loving Godafter Experiencing a Hurtful Church. By Carol Howard Merritt. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017. 232 pages.
Stories abound of people who have been spiritually wounded. Such wounds come in many forms. We have heard much about clergy sex abuse scandals. LGBTQ folks often discover that churches and religious people can be not only unwelcoming but overtly hostile to them. Religion has been used to justify racism and sexism. There are the preachers who rain down upon their congregations words of anger and abuse, often creating a climate of fear, guilt, and shame. The result of these experiences are spiritual wounds that often lead the wounded person to conclude that religion and God are not worth the trouble. If they're to find healing they conclude that it won't be found in a religious context and likely won't involve God. So, is it possible for someone to experience such realities and reconnect with God?
Carol Howard Merritt believes that it is possible for people who experience wounds to find healing and reconnect with a loving God. Carol is a Presbyterian pastor, speaker, and author (and a friend). She has her own story of spiritual woundedness, which makes this book a memoir as well as an invitation to those who have been wounded to find healing.
Carol grew up in a fundamentalist context, with an abusive father who justified his rage and abuse of her, her siblings, and her mother, with the Bible. Like many who grow up in this kind of situation, the abuse and the narrowness of vision did not keep her from following her family faith. She felt this call to serve God, even if the nature of this God was narrow and permitted abuse. So, she moved from Florida to attend college at Moody Bible Institute, a preeminent conservative evangelical school. She found a narrow spirit at Moody as well, especially as it related to women. Nonetheless, it was during her tenure as a student at Moody that she discerned a different path. She began recognize that she had been wounded, and needed to find healing. She wouldn’t find this at Moody, but it would be in Chicago that she discovered a different pathway. One experience was befriending an older woman needing companionship who was rather liberal in faith and in her political views, opening Carol to a different perspective. She also became uncomfortable with the narrowness of the theology of her teachers. There was also a horrific event, that involved her being sexually assaulted (groped by a man) while standing in the shadow of the college. At first, she felt ashamed because she had been taught that she must be to blame due to her attire. She had been taught that women were temptresses that lead men astray. If she was assaulted, then she must have brought it on herself. As she pondered she had an epiphany that demanded a different theology. She could have walked away from her faith, and many have, but she discovered that not only was theology that justified her guilt and shame was wrong, but that there was another way. Unlike many, she found a pathway to healing. In time that would lead to seminary and ordination in the Presbyterian Church.
Carol's own story forms the foundation of this beautifully written (as one would expect from Carol) book that is part memoir and part guide to spiritual healing. Her story is woven together with stories of others, many of whom she has ministered to, who have been wounded and whom she has helped discover healing and a pathway to the loving God she encountered. The message is in many ways quite simple. As Carol puts it in the opening chapter" "Yes Christianity was and is part of the problem, the cause of much suffering, anxiety, and pain in life; but Christianity has also been my cure, my solace, my center" (p. 8). That is an important message that needs to be shared with all who have experienced spiritual woundedness.
Each chapter of the book includes stories of woundedness and healing. The chapters also include created exercises that can help readers find spiritual healing. She invites people to not only remember their wounds, but take steps to face and deal with those wounds, so that healing can take place. It is an invitation to let go, but not before facing the issues at hand. Her purpose in writing the book is to provide a "safe place where we could speak honestly about all the bitterness caused by the church --- the blatant sexism, physical abuse, sexual harm, and emotional manipulation -- while finding a way to hold on to the sweetness and wholeness and healing the spiritual life can bring" (p. 9). She is clear that she has no interest in providing an apologetic for Christianity. She’s not interested in convincing people to return to the faith. At the same time, she does want to help those who are willing able to reconnect with God, that is the loving God she discovered along her journey to healing.
The pathway she lays out is intended to lead to shalom or wholeness. To get there one often needs to experience a "healing our image of God," replacing the angry God with the loving God. That is because many who are spiritually wounded believe that they have been wounded ultimately by God. As a theologian, I would say this is a theological issue. The pathway also involves recovering one’s emotions. Carol had been taught to hide and suppress her emotions. She survived spiritual abuse by becoming numb, but this numbness is a result of messages designed to produce guilt and shame. Through a series of experiences and encounters, Carol emerged from her numbness, allowing her to move toward healing. In a chapter titled "Redeeming Our Broken Selves," Carol writes about not only learning to love herself, but finding the possibility of loving all humanity. That required her to reenvision how she spoke of God to the world (a new vision of evangelism).
Not only must one reclaim God and one’s emotions, but also bodies need to be reclaimed. This word is especially poignant for women, who have been taught that they must be careful about how they dress and talk lest the lead men astray (and bring upon themselves abuse and assaults). As I read the chapter on reclaiming bodies, I thought about my own spiritual journey, and how different it is from Carols and others who have experience spiritual woundedness. I spent time within conservative evangelicalism. I heard many of the same messages. But my issues that led my out of that context were more intellectual than they were wounds. But then, I’m white, male, straight. I heard different messages, or at least perceived them differently. This realization is important because sometimes we judge the experiences of others based on our own experiences. Because my journey out was gentler doesn’t mean that the stories that Carol recounts are not true or that they are overblown. I’ve not been sexually assaulted and told that I’m to blame. I’m not attracted to persons of the same gender and have been told that such desires are sinful. My own sins and inclinations have been justified as of a different order. Thus, it’s important to take seriously the realities of others, even if they don’t match our own.
In order to lead people to a point of healing, she deals with the way in which scripture is interpreted and applied. Having gone to a college that was marked by a dispensationalist interpretation of scripture, an interpretation that many of us who have encountered it find deficient, Carol reveals its origins, application, and implication. She notes that the ultimate message of this version of Christianity is one of fear rather than hope, but the pathway to healing requires finding an interpretation that offers hope rather than fear. Not only does Carol deal with biblical interpretation, she also deals with finances. You might not expect a chapter like that, but Carol notes how the prosperity gospel has interpreted the faith and turned it into a transactional faith. The result can be devastating to one’s finances. This requires letting go of the idol of money.
Conservative Christianity often emphasizes being born again, and does so often in a transactional way. As with other elements of the faith, she wants to reclaim the idea of being born again, that is being born from above. Thus, she experiences being sexually assaulted and then discovering that she is not to blame. Being born again for meant letting go of the guilt and shame that had been embedded her religious upbringing. It meant a movement away from patriarchal religion. It involved experiencing the fullness of God’s love enveloping her so that she realized that she did not need to lifts up the need to be born again, and often does so in a transactional form. On the way to healing Carol reclaims the idea, and shares her own story of being reborn. That is, being born from above. It is in this chapter that she shares the story of being sexually assaulted, and the final discovery that she was not to blame. As she let go of her guilt and shame, she was spiritually reborn. For her and for many this requires a movement away from patriarchal views of religion. Ultimately it came when she experienced the fullness of God's love enveloping her, so that she realized that she needn't "live in constant fear of losing God's love, or anyone else's love" (p. 212).
I know that Carol initially planned on simply writing a memoir of her experiences at Moody, but it became much more than that. While I might have enjoyed that original concept, I believe that this is a book that will be of great assistance to people who have been wounded, but who want to experience healing by reconnecting to a loving God. It is also a good reminder to the church that it can wound, but also be part of the process of healing. The choice is ours. My prayer is two-fold. I pray that many will take this journey that Carol has laid out. I also pray the church will heed this call and participate in God’s work of shalom. For this we can thank Carol.