The Problem with Faith-Based Approaches to Trauma
Note: I originally only posted this snippet from an online course I’m writing about supporting multiplicity, for the sake of sharing my thoughts with a friend, but realized perhaps it needs to be a stand-alone post. The original post below has been edited and updated.
The Roots of Inner Healing
Inner healing prayer ministry as a faith-based approach to emotional healing has gained traction over the last 20 years, which I have extensive experience with since that’s about how long I’ve been in my own healing process. It started to shift further into public awareness with Ed Smith and theophostic prayer ministry in the late 1990's, and then several other…modalities…(if you want to call them that) joined theophostic prayer on the ministry stage. Sozo prayer, inner healing prayer as an umbrella term for a mash-up of spiritualized pseudo-therapeutic and religious healing theologies, and then HeartSync prayer ministry in the early 2010's.
I have kept pace with it because it has been a central method by which I myself tried to recover from a lifetime of abuse of varying types. Sadly, it not only didn’t heal me, but for better or for worse, it also brought about the destruction of my faith altogether.
For those who are unaware, inner healing prayer ministry seeks to help people recover from what they would call ungodly beliefs about the self that (they believe) originate from trauma during childhood. Other non-religious (e.g. coaching) groups would call them self-limiting beliefs. But leaders in both lanes, 9 times out of 10, are not always in possession of many legitimate tools to do this work, and play around with people’s trauma and psyches like kids who found their dad’s gun. Most layman industries like these are without adequate accountability or oversight to enforce consequences for people who — acting with the best of intentions — harm others, and then deny all culpability.
I have actually been trained in HeartSync prayer ministry (levels I, II and III), and my roots were in theophostic prayer ministry before HeartSync rose to prominence in the groups I used to associate with. I was also the recipient of about 7 years (cumulatively) of inner healing prayer ministry (theophostic and HeartSync). So my perspective is not as an outsider, but one who has been intimately acquainted with the ideas and types of experiences represented by the information.
My ultimate criticism of faith-based approaches is less about the specific approaches themselves and more about the fact that the religion/spirituality that the approaches are grounded in is inherently unhealthy and abusive, so the recipe doesn’t matter; it already contains toxic ingredients by default. Mix them up however you like; they are still toxic regardless of the exact composition. Combined with no ethical oversight or accountability for those who do “ministry” of this nature, it poses a significant danger of harm to vulnerable people who are already at risk of being further traumatized. Adding in the possibility that the experiences intrinsic to “inner healing” are orchestrated by God, and you are truly playing with fire, and the consequences to real people can be very grave (see also: my other stories).
Most people who have been abused do not recognize that the conservative evangelical version of Christianity mirrors/ echoes abusive tactics and concepts. Many churches do not do a very good job preventing or addressing abuse because they have a vested interest in keeping members in the dark about the topic. They would not want their members to be able to start recognizing abuse because then the members would necessarily have to start questioning the very beliefs that are being preached and demonstrated from the leaders in the church. And we can’t have that, can we?
I am not here to rail against Christianity in detail, but overall I have not found Christianity to be helpful in trauma recovery because it recreates trauma by the very nature of the beliefs people have to commit to in order to be part of the religion — at least the conservative branch. Liberal Christianity is such an interesting beast, it’s difficult to say how many theological tenets you can throw out and still call it Christianity…but that’s another discussion for another day.
Creating Attachment Disorders
The following are a few of my opinions about religion, and I am sharing them to set up the way faith-based approaches can create and reinforce disordered attachment in trauma survivors.
Note: these aren’t even beliefs from some of the more extreme forms of religion. These would be considered middle of the road, at least in my opinion.
- Telling children that they have to ascribe to certain beliefs and behaviors or else they will be subjected to eternal torment when they die, is abusive.
- Telling children that they have to convert other children to their beliefs, or the other children will be subjected to eternal torment when they die (with or without throwing in that it’s the first child’s fault for not trying harder or succeeding in the conversion), is abusive.
- Teaching children that they are born evil and sinful, and need someone to ‘save’ them from themselves, is abusive.
- Teaching people that women are lesser beings that should have to submit to the authority of men for literally every move they make, is abusive.
These types of teachings set parents who believe them up for a behavior- rather than relationship-centered approach to parenting, which puts the child at risk of developing an attachment disorder from a very young age. Parents who believe that children are sinful from birth believe that babies cry in order to ‘manipulate’ adults rather than just as a way of expressing a need and asking for it to be met. Rather than consistently meet the baby’s needs, the parents believe it to be a power struggle that they must win on pain of losing their child’s respect and ultimately forfeiting the child’s very soul.
Tragically, this sets the baby up to be insecurely attached when their parents are either inconsistent in response or are blatantly scary/ threatening in the face of the child’s cries for attention.
As the child grows up insecurely attached, they join the religious group comprised of other insecurely attached people and they all form trauma-bonds from their religious tenets. At that point no one is capable of noticing that God is the ultimate replication of Ainsworth/Bowlby/ Main’s “fright with no solution”. (A primary experience of those with insecure/ disorganized attachment because they experience their greatest source of comfort/ survival as simultaneously their greatest source of fear/ danger; therefore the internal conflict often induces dissociation because it cannot be resolved.)
Even the more modern rebranding of religion of “It’s a relationship, not a religion” doesn’t mean anything because that is literally the whole entire problem. Abuse is being construed as a normal and even holy aspect of relationship, and no one who is familiar with it knows any different. People who are raised in abusive, behavior-modification focused environments that use fear and shame as control tactics think that those environments are normal. They conform as kids as a matter of survival, and then continue to conform as adults because it’s all they’ve ever been taught to do and they don’t always realize they have another option or that other options exist.
Universalism May Be a Healthier Option, but I Kinda Doubt It
Even more liberal forms of Christianity cannot avoid the concept of hell forever, unless they throw it out all together. For those who do not teach their kids about hell from a young age, and those who ascribe to a more relationship-centered, even egalitarian approach to family life, the attachment piece may not suffer quite as much. To me this is a best case scenario, although the potential for psychological trauma due to cognitive dissonance is still present no matter what age you introduce the concepts of penal substitutionary atonement (redemption through suffering) and eternal conscious torment (hell).
Getting rid of those things kinda begs the question… when you get rid of hell, what do you need Jesus for? If you don’t need him, do you keep him or throw him out too? How many things can you throw out and still call it Christianity?
Perhaps there is a way to incorporate the core concepts of Christianity in ways and at ages that do not risk inflicting psychological abuse on constituents. I have not found one and do not believe there is one. Abandoning organized religion (which does not exclude spirituality altogether) was the only road to freedom and peace I was able to find. Others may be able to achieve a different outcome.
Either way, I wish those who are seeking answers peace on their journey.