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.