Salt or Salve: Exploring the Link between Spiritual Abuse and Complicated Grief

“When exposed to an individual or system which abuses, deceives and takes what does not belong to them, it’s important to examine how they accomplished their destruction lest you not be duped, abused or conned again.”- Katherine Marcoccia, Certified Grief Educator,Spiritual Abuse Survivor

I recently shared that the word “magic” was a forbidden word, deemed dangerous by Bill Gothard and any pastor or leader who followed his teachings. Gothard had scripturally articulated the idea of magic being harmful by connecting possible demonic influence in childhood to whatever harm had come my way in life.

He had a list of magical or demonic dangers, which included: indigenous and native masks, carvings, and art, Celtic images, any sort of folk custom was suspect, and definitely anything Asian having to do with Buddha, yoga or martial arts. I wonder now, if there was anyone in his audience who didn’t have at least one of these supposedly “demonic” influences in their lives. All of these are an important part of people’s history and culture he intentionally, “scripturally” demonized and weaponized, with the strategy to detach people from their own stories and create fear around the supposed power they held. Just this morning I read responses of almost 400 people recounting things they were taught to fear as demonic or satanic. This is a tactic, used for hundreds of years that continues to be employed to manipulate and terrorize.

Along came the cultural phenomenon of Harry Potter in the late 90’s whose protagonist is a young warlock. I distinctly remember unsuspectedly sitting through an hour-long sermon at the mainstream evangelical church we regularly attended, where the pastor referenced various Bible verses to explain his take on whether or not one could read Harry Potter safely as a Christian. At the end of his sermon I felt more confused than ever. I looked to an older mom of eight for help while in the church nursery, “There are so many other books to read”, was her advice.

And there were.

So we did.

However, Gothards intention to alienate our family from the very culture we were living in, worked. By preying on my fear for my children’s spiritual well-being and counting on the fact that pre-reading these lengthy books while homeschooling and parenting several little children was impossible, he succeeded. His tactics were to create fear, prey on those fears, then offer supposed safety.

Another book that was deemed dangerous and forbidden was “The Gnostic Gospels” by Dr. Elaine Pagels. The IBLP pastor called it heresy, joking the author’s name was Elaine Pagan. A heretic. I didn’t have time to consider researching, I was far too busy mothering and homeschooling back then.

Soon after my husband passed, I found myself at the library struggling to read book titles through my tears, trying to find answers about the afterlife. The only book I had in my possession was “Heaven” by Randy Alcorn. I read it and underlined a few passages, but by the end I felt I had wasted precious time and energy I didn’t have to spend needlessly. The author had taken just a few Bible verses and written several hundred pages about what will be happening in heaven: coffee, golf, friends etc. It was disturbing and disheartening to find that this was being put forth as something trustworthy for those who are trying to understand what happened to their loved ones after death.

Gothard induced panic set in as I looked through the section in the library dedicated to books about the afterlife, which also housed books on various religions, on psychics and mediums, on NDE's ( Near Death Experiences) on heaven, and there in the midst of them was “The Gnostic Gospels”.

I stood for a long time looking at that book.

I was frozen.

In fear.


In the midst of my overwhelming grief, the terror of widowhood I had to ask my mind, and my body and my emotions to calm down and to figure out if there was truly something to be afraid of. Out of the PTSD responses of fight, flight freeze or fawn, I was experiencing freeze by just considering touching the book. This is what spiritual psychological abuse looks like. (I didn’t understand that then.)

Remember how the person who demonized this book isn’t trustworthy? Taught toxic theology?…and did not have your best interest at heart ?

Shaking , I pulled the book from the shelf deciding I could read it and figure out whether it was dangerous or not. That also meant I would have to trust myself and my heart, both ideas Gothard taught were unscriptural. Both ideas that keep people trapped by his and others like him, with scriptural references anyone who’s been oppressed by them can quote from Jeremiah 17 and Isaiah 55.

While Gothard hadn’t yet been exposed to the extent that he has been now, the idea occurred to me, that not only would reading whatever he prohibited be possible, it was actually probably extremely important. When someone is psychologically and spiritually abusive and they have a list of things not to do, in order to terrorize and control you, it’s best to examine what is actually true.

Lest you think I embodied such confidence as to trust myself, I actually was grateful to hide behind my Covid mask in case the librarian seeing my "demonic" stack of books might tell someone.

The author, Elaine Pagels is a person beyond worth listening to. She has several interviews online that are easily accessible, is Harvard educated, a professor at Princeton, honored with multiple awards, author of several meticulously researched books and an individual who has lived a full life and suffered greatly. She isn’t someone making up theologies to control people, rather she has spent her life researching and teaching, without denominational influences or an agenda to convert people.

When I opened “ The Gnostic Gospels” I wasn’t reading it to spite the toxic theology I had suffered under. I wasn’t reading it from a place of curiosity. I was reading in agonizing desperation in order to make any sort of sense in my spirit. I began reading in my Dark Night of the Soul , an experience where all previous beliefs, frameworks and foundations have crumbled and are of no use to the place one finds themselves in. I read Dr. Pagel’s research having no clue where it would take me.

She begins by explaining The Nag Hammadi texts which are over 4000 years old and were discovered in the 1940s , kept under lock and key until the 1970s at which point they were made available only to scholars to study. Previously unknown texts which were deemed heretical and left out of the canon decided upon in the 4th century became available to consider with the Nag Hammadi discovery. Comparing what made the "biblical" cut and what didn’t , looking carefully at the historical power plays and understanding abuse of power and manipulation are realities which contemporary Christians must consider if they hold scripture as a compass, infallible or believe it is actually the word of God.

Or not.

According to Gothard and those who would prefer continued ignorance for their followers this information is heresy, forbidden.

Dr. Pagel’s work brought incredible comfort to me. The “heretical” texts contain comfort for the soul who knows that there is far more than the toxic theologies that currently pervade the American landscape. However, not as an alternative prophet, pastor, church or system to follow with the "right doctrine".

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Jesus, from the Gospel of Thomas

The truth of her research has gently made its place in my heart and mind , a comfort when there was no comfort to be found in anything I had previously believed. How cruel that Gothard and his minions would withhold and demonize important life sustaining information, written by a woman who was widowed young, who experienced the death of a beloved child, has spent her life researching and has so much to offer, not only to other women and grievers, but to all others who value knowledge, history and discovery.

I went on to read her other well researched books on the Origin of satan, Revelations and Why Religion? It is clear why abusive leaders would prohibit these books. It isn’t out of concern for scriptural integrity or your soul, but out of a need to continue to manipulate and control.

In a most recent interview Dr. Pagles recalls the inescapable feeling of guilt after her young child died through no fault of her own. She points out that not all faith traditions add the cruelty of guilt and blame to death, citing Buddhism as an example. Christianity, however, introduces death as the consequence of sin, specifically Eve’s. I hadn’t quite thought of the inescapable nature of that story slyly getting under one’s skin. The pastor who mocked Dr. Pagel, at another time had pointed out how it was Eve who had been especially susceptible to deception and so I, being a woman like her, was also. I needed to be especially careful for my children’s safety and my husband’s wellbeing he exhorted. Comparing him to a snake would be too much of a compliment.

Wrestling with false guilt is a recognized “stage” of grief, I believe it’s more accurate to call it an experience, rather than a stage. Some studies show up to 70% of grievers experience this agonizing false guilt. Normalizing it can begin to lessen the intensity. As rational thinking returns following shock, the mind’s ability to comprehend one is not to blame also becomes clear. When religious psychological abuse is involved, the agony of false guilt is prolonged intense and does not melt away.

What is the cost of believing in something so self destructive?

I have lived it. It is needless suffering beyond description. For a soul to survive, it simply cannot continue to willingly destroy itself. It is impossible.

To completely turn from all things spiritual was just as impossible, because I knew this is where my relationship to my beloved resides.

My soul desperately longed for connection with the sacred, with him, and to find others who had refused to let toxic theologies and abusive leaders destroy their wonder, and their deep knowing of the holiness of existence.

My midwife and friend gave me a book, an offering of comfort. A collection of dozens of short stories, in one of which Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. recounts her grandfather offering his Kabbalist rendition of Eve taking the fruit. (Kabbalah is a Jewish mystical tradition that Gothard definitely would have prohibited.)

After growing in the loving abundant care of her Heavenly Father, as a teen Eve naturally becomes curious, yearns for wisdom and to understand the unknown and mysterious. The snake, a symbol of curiosity, wisdom and mystery, speaks to the part of her which seeks all of these. He is not a symbol of sin in this story, but of wisdom. The apple she eats is the wisdom of God, which permeates every cell of her being, each cell now containing a compass directed by God’s voice. As her descendants, we share this gift.

Sacred wisdom within every cell of our being.

This rendition is life giving, curiosity affirming and involves no shame.

She was not shunned, but safely grew and moved carrying God's voice within, experiencing the complexity, responsibility and adventure of adulthood. The prohibition of eating the fruit, her grandfather explained, was spoken to her as a child. Listening to God, he continued, isn’t a once and done, but an ongoing daily conversation in which one matures and the words and concepts change accordingly. Dr. Remen is the co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program and a Clinical Professor at the UCSF School of Medicine. She did not learn of the Eve story most of us know until adulthood.

I find that fascinating.

Her book Kitchen Table Wisdom was another beautiful source of comfort in my grief I would have never accessed if I had not identified and cut off the toxic teachings from my psyche. Gothards taboo against mysticism, and any other telling of this story would have disabled me from engaging in the depths of its lesson. This cutting has not happened in one fell swoop, but countless snips and cuts while unraveling a tightly bound gnarled mess that was both exhausting and painful to unwind.

Botanist Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks of a compass as well, given to us in our creation stories, an orientation we apply to our lives and beliefs. (This indigenous author and her wisdom also would certainly be restricted by the IBLP.) In the first chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass she contrasts Skywoman of the American indigenous peoples with Eve. Skywoman fell from the sky, bringing every seed in her hand from the heavens, the animals cared for her and she for them as she created a garden for the well being of all. The fruit was a gift for each other they worked for together. Eve, on the other hand, was banished from the garden, forced to labor for fruit and told to rule over the animals. The offspring of these two women met, American history unfolded accordingly and the echoes of their stories are still reverberating as modern Americans consider, discuss and debate how to care for the land and the animals and make amends for the harm done to our fellow humans. The effects of these stories on our existence are both significant and ongoing.

Obstructing such stories from being explored keeps people isolated, their empathy and compassion stunted and their imaginations dull. Imagination and curiosity are gifts. Discoveries are realities to be explored, even if they challenge beliefs.

Each author offers lessons in learning to trust one’s own mind and heart and to find safety within, core needs in order to experience well being…...and this is why they would be discouraged, banned or called demonic or heretical.

Those who perpetuate toxic theology would have followers believe they are offering some sort of scriptural salve for the soul, knowing full well they are pouring a never ending stream of salt on their victims. They’ll pass the salt around, encouraging others to pour it on too. It was only when my wound was so profound, and the agony unbearable that I had to identify the culprit.

“Do unto others what you would have them do unto you”- I would never intentionally pour salt on someone’s wound. Why would I do it to myself or allow others to do it to me?

I would offer salve.

Exploring what was prohibited I discovered they had been withholding the salve for my soul all along.

This amazingly healing sound bath experience would never have been allowed. The first time I scheduled an appointment for myself, I had to overcome feelings that I was sneaking to do something wrong, and breathe in the truth that I was taking care of myself, and I was not causing harm to others I shared it with.

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