A spiritual wound is a type of wound that disrupts your relationship with God or your spiritual practices. Spiritual wounds typically occur when a parent, authority figure, or religious leader use the name of God for self-centered purposes or twist God’s word to cause harm.
All childhood wounds cause you to question your worth. But spiritual wounds add the terrorizing layer that God might question your worth too. Why is this type of wound so awful? There are two primary reasons:
- You are being shamed and hurt, which is hard enough.
- You are being shamed and hurt by someone who claims the authority of the most powerful being in the universe.
There are countless ways that childhood wounds can affect the way you see God. For instance, if your parents talked about God’s love while never making time for you, a part of you may have picked up the idea that God is distant. Or if a parent’s love was based on performance, you will likely think God’s love is performance based too.
Another complicating factor is that faith-based interactions may reignite the pain. Specific words and spiritual practices that seem normal to everyone else, might bring up painful feelings within you. For example, if someone betrayed your trust while claiming to “pray” for you, their actions could make the practice of group prayer feel uncomfortable to you. Likewise, certain Bible verses may have been used to manipulate you, which might bring up painful feelings when you hear those passages, even when they are not being misused.
It can be incredibly hard to disentangle the spiritual messages you received from the reality of what is true about God. Rationally, you might know that God is good and cares for you. But parts of you don’t really trust God—and you certainly don’t trust yourself.
Toxic shame enters your mind, and you might start wondering:
- How could my parents or spiritual leaders be wrong?
- What if I’m the problem?
- What if I deserved what I got?
Your relationship with God—and with yourself—is completely disrupted.
Please hear me say: it’s not your fault.
Steps to Heal from Spiritual Wounds
If you’re struggling with the pain of a spiritual wound, you’re not alone. If someone misrepresented God to you through toxic actions or words, you are in the center of God’s love and God’s justice—whether you feel that or not. God hates injustice with you.
You can start the healing process by taking these steps.
Step 1. Name spiritual wounds as a trauma.
Religious trauma is not often discussed, but it’s incredibly important to name. When a parent or authority figure abuses his or her power in the name of God, it has terrible effects:
- Feelings of anger, confusion, and bitterness toward God
- Toxic shame, self-denial and self-hatred
- Unholy fear of God’s wrath or punishment
- Anxiety or disassociation when it comes to spiritual practices
These reactions don’t necessarily mean that you’re far from God. In fact, it’s the opposite! These reactions mean your body is working to protect you in the only way it knows how. Such responses require your compassionate attention, a loving witness, and a healing process. Once you understand that you’re dealing with a trauma response, you can set out on a path toward healing.
Step 2. Get curious about what you feel.
The experience of wanting to participate in faith practices but feeling anxious or guarded is important to notice. The solution isn’t to muscle your way through the disparity. Nor is it to beat yourself up. Instead, get curious about what you notice in your body and soul. Hurting parts of you are giving you valuable information about ways you were harmed in the past. This inner tension is the beckoning voice of a wound in need of healing. There’s a story inside you in need of a loving witness.
Extend compassion toward these parts of you that feel skeptical, fearful, and guarded. They’re protecting you from the ways other people have misconstrued what God represents. Those feelings deserve your appreciation. God honors those parts of you too.
For example, if you get anxious at church, notice that feeling without judgment. Parts of you might long to feel close to God. But other parts of you don’t know who the real God is. Is he angry or absent like your parents were? Is he cruel and shaming like a former church leader? It’s hard to sense the love of a good, trustworthy God, when all you’ve known is loneliness, judgment or blame. The disparity between what you have experienced from authority figures versus what you long to experience from God can create deep internal tension.
These conflicting feelings don’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong. In fact, they are often evidence of a spiritual wound. As you honor these feelings with compassion, these parts of you will soften a bit. You’ll experience a glimpse of what it’s like to create safety within yourself.
Step 3. Rebuild your sense of safety.
The work of healing a spiritual wound means establishing a sense of safety. The tender parts of you that carry painful memories need to sense your understanding and compassion. They need to know you will work to protect yourself from harm going forward.
It’s incredibly important to be tender with the part of you that feels confused or abandoned by God. If church or spiritual practices are activating anxiety, you may need to take some time away to heal. It’s painful to step away from church attendance and other faith practices. And, yes, the judgment of others can be real. But Jesus took time away to tend to himself and connect to God and a few of his close friends when religious leaders threatened him. (Mark 9:2; Luke 11:1.) You may need to follow his brave example.
You might seek out a close group of spiritual friends to meet with regularly. Or you might choose to attend a different type of service for a season in order to create space for yourself to heal. Maybe you wade in slowly, as you learn how to trust again.
As you develop safety within, you can start to discern where you sense safety in others. You might return to this formative question:
When and with whom have I felt known, safe, or seen?
When you catch a glimpse of safety in another person, you catch a glimpse of what God is like. God will use the most surprising ways to show you glimpses of the love that he has for you.
Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture. . .I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.
For Further Reading:
3 Signs of Bad Church Leadership
Church Hurt and 4 Steps for Healing
Thanks. I put my hand on my chest and I said, I speak to you, soul, and I made it known out loud to my soul that I would seek out safe people, and be more mindful of who I hang around, and tears started flowing. I could tell I had been hurt in the trust department. I’ve been praying to God asking how do I get free?! For years. Thank you. I think part of it is also learning it’s gonna be okay to trust again when you feel they’re the right people to trust.
Alison Cook says
Praying with you for healing and restoration. I pray for glimpses each day of what goodness, kindness, love, and safety feel like.
Asha darsoo says
Sonia Franco says
I love your articles.
Alison Cook says
I’m grateful, Sonia. 🙏🏻
Psamist Steve says
This is what I heared from my dream today that My wound is heal , and I appreciate for the enlightenment
Every. Bit. Of. This. Is what my soul cries out for. Thank you for putting these into words. I have struggled so much with depression since the beginning of this year. My marriage is not where it needs to be because of some emotional trauma but my so called “disciplers” impressed on me as I am a troublemaker for bringing things up and for confusing is with a lot of religious things and for stepping down from ministry to focus on marriage and family. It’s just so painful. Your words are a comfort to my hurting soul. It would be nice if my husband and I can have you as our marriage and family counselor. I’m wishful and desperate.
Alison Cook says
Praying with you, Faith, as you bravely seek healing. And I pray for wise, compassionate people to come alongside of you. I have a list of counselors and support resources on my website here: https://www.dralisoncook.com/resources/ (Scroll down to the bottom.) 🙏🏻
Thank You…I feel affirmed…xxx
Alison Cook says
Lindsey S says
I appreciate your words of care and allowing for time to heal, but I worry about my kids. I’m in a place of distrust with the church, but I don’t want to mess up my kids faith by not attending. And my spouse is not a believer so he won’t take them. Any advice for this situation? Do I muscle through?
Alison Cook says
Such a great question, Lindsey. You can be honest with your kids about what has been painful about church, while still learning about God together. For example, you might consider: setting aside time to pray or read together each week. Maybe invite another friend or family member to join you. Is there a church that is a different style or outside of the denomination that hurt you? Sometimes attending a different type of service with an entirely different format or type of music can help when wounds are tender. Are there other programs for children available to you in your area? Above all, be honest with your children and listen to their questions. Churches, like any other institution, can hurt people. As you navigate your own healing, you are modeling for them how to manage their own hurts.
My wife shared your post with me. My initial reaction after reading what you’ve so poignantly expressed is to cling to Step 1 because it allows me to identify what had spiritually happened to me during my childhood, adolescent and teenage years as trauma. This post has my name all over it. I need a healing/safety place to practice and realize Steps 2 and 3.
Alison Cook says
Hi Bruce, I’m so grateful that this post was helpful to you. I pray with you as you wisely seek safe places to heal.
Eric (Rick) K. Sweitzer, PhD says
Hi Alison –
This posting happened to catch my interest, since I have had considerable experience using EMDR and IFS from a Christian perspective, with people who are recovering from cults or cult-like experiences. I have had an affiliation with the International Cults Studies Association, which, though not distinctively Christian, is a very solid organization. They have just recently published a book on the topic of recovery from spiritual abuse, and I thought you might be interested. Perhaps others you know could benefit from it:
Many of the authors are cult survivors themselves and are now helping others recover. I was honored to be asked to contribute two chapters myself. By the way, I met you briefly a few years ago when you presented on IFS at an annual gathering of Christian mental health professionals in Lexington, MA. I have subscribed to your newsletter since then, and have referred several clients to your book and website. Keep up the good work!
Alison Cook says
Thanks so much, Eric, for this information. I really appreciate your work and your sharing these resources!
Keya Y says
How does one pick just one most helpful tip mentioned here?
The pain of surviving shaming and twisting Truth, by the ones who entrusted to be our advocates and teachers is earth shattering. The love + acceptance + restoration that takes place with safe people is life changing. It’s permissible for either side of this to be so raw and real simultaneously. I’m not sure at this point that ever changes. The encouragement to see and tell the whole story, the biblical narrative is clear here. Thank you Dr Cook for allowing God to use your experiences for our healing and His glory.
Alison Cook says
It is earth shattering. And you are so right that the love & restoration found in safe places is equally earth healing (Love is as strong as death SOS 8:6). Praying with you for ongoing healing.