This guest post was written by Lyndall Cave. Born and raised in Australia and now a resident of Canada, she writes with passion about the chains of legalism that began to grip her heart at only fourteen years old. Listen as she shares her eight year journey through the darkness of spiritual abuse during her teenage years.
I was in the process of writing a general autobiographical post on the damage that fundamentalism can cause. Then I started to think deeply about my own personal journey and the destruction that legalistic, patriarchal thinking brought to my life. I decided to tell my heart’s story instead. I’ll begin at the part when I first started reading those books…
They were books that guaranteed young women like me happiness and fulfilment by living according to God’s design for women (one-way submission). They talked about the contentment and protection that comes from living according to God’s way (rules for holiness). Those books promised me so much, but they were all empty promises. Worse, actually. They were prisons and cages and burning chains of guilt and perfectionism. I lived life in fear that I would do something wrong and make God unhappy. My entire existence was devoted to doing the right thing, and if I made the smallest misstep, I would suffer from guilt for days. There was no grace. Only condemnation. I became a shadow of myself. I was so stiff, so repressed, and so afraid. But if you had talked to me then, I would have said I was happy. I was following God’s way and struggle and suffering were a part of that. I genuinely believed I was content, though in hindsight I see I wasn’t.
Those books promised me so much, but they were all empty promises. They were prisons and cages and burning chains of guilt and perfectionism.
It took me years of trying to fulfil the requirements of legalism before I realized it was a bottomless pit. Legalism will never be satisfied. You can always be doing more. You are never holy enough. You are never enough — period. God won’t love and accept you until you’re perfect, and you never are. Because your heart is deceitfully wicked. There is no hope. Just the daily slog, scraping by, hoping and praying that God will be satisfied. Oh yes, we know God “loves” us and that we “can’t earn” our salvation because it’s a free gift. But this supposedly free gift came with a lot of conditions. Because now, you sinner, you have salvation in Christ, you should repay him for all he’s done. Give thanks. Don’t complain. Smile. Share the gospel. Show your new status as daughter of the king by dressing modestly. Don’t corrupt yourself. Stay away from boys; stay away from secular movies; stay away from bad influences. God loves you, BUT now he wants to see that you know it. Show that you love him by doing all this stuff. Otherwise, you’re not properly thanking God for his grace. You’re not worthy of his grace. Ungrateful wretch, show your allegiance to your master. Don’t you know he made the universe? Don’t you know he is good? Don’t you know he is holy, perfect? Don’t you know he’s omnimpotent, omnisicient, omnipresent? He deserves your worship. And your service. “How can you repay the Lord for his goodness to you?” By living a holy life.
And I bought it. All of it. For eight years, this was my life.
Always flinching away from life. Scared that I would do something to make God unhappy. Studying the law closely, reading God’s requirements to make sure that I didn’t mess up. Daily asking forgiveness for that thought about how the guy was cute, for feeling grumpy, for saying something to my sister with less than a smile. Working to show God he made the right choice when he saved me. Striving to be worthy of the grace he had given. Earnest to prove myself, and yet never enough.
I wanted so desperately to please God. And the books told me that living a holy, “set-apart” life was the way to do that. Submitting to my father and my future husband. Reading the Bible and praying daily. Avoiding corrupting influences. Living the purity lifestyle, saving my virginity and my first kiss for my husband. Living out Biblical Femininity. This was how to please God. This was, apparently, what he really, really cared about.
I know now that grace, real grace, cannot be repaid any more than it can be earned. But I am haunted by the questions. Why did I fall for this? How could I have believed such hogwash for years? How could I have been so stupid?
I know now that grace, real grace, cannot be repaid any more than it can be earned.
I started reaching back out to people who I trusted with my story. One friend asked me, “How old were you when you first picked up those books?” Fourteen. I was fourteen. She reassures me it’s not my fault. I was young. I was impressionable. I had just moved from Australia to Canada and lost all my friends, my entire support network. I was hungry for more of God. The books told me this was real food, and would satisfy me. It tasted good for a little while. It sort of satiated my hunger for God. But it was a drug. A poison. Numbing me. Controlling me. Slowly poisoning and killing me.
My parents, my education, my teachers had all warned me of the dangers of drugs and drinking alcohol in excess. But they never warned me about the seductive power of religious words and legalism in the name of God. I had heard vaguely of physical abuse. But I had never heard about spiritual abuse.
Dad read the books. Mom read the books. Dad said he didn’t agree with everything they said. But that was it. Mom gave even less comment. I wonder how different my life would have been if we had discussed and actually examined what the books said. But they were as blind as I was to the danger of legalism. Still, they didn’t buy into the system. Thank goodness Dad was never on board with the whole father-as-the-head-of-the-house thing. Thank goodness they pressured me to get a college education, although I had been told colleges were houses of sin meant to derail young people in their Christian walk. I battled so much guilt and fear while being at a secular college. I was so afraid it would destroy my morals, as the books warned. What I didn’t know at the time was that those “morals” were legalism and being around real people in the real world would start to expose them for what they really were. The books were right. While I was at college, barely perceptible hairline fractures began to form on the chains of legalism.
I still wonder why it took so long for me to come out of legalism. Why did I live with this for eight years? I hear other stories of women caught in the system of patriarchy, complementarianism, and fundamentalism for fifteen, twenty, thirty years. And I am glad that I got out so soon. I am glad that I am only twenty-four, and I’ve been healing for two years already, but it still left scars on my heart and mind that will take many more years to heal.
I feel like I lost eight years of my life. Abuse does that. It freezes you in time, emotionally and spiritually and developmentally. I’ve only just started doing things in the past couple years that most people do in their teens: leaving home, becoming independent, asking “who am I?”, pursuing my passions.
I ask God, “Why?” Why did you let me stay in this for so long? Why were my desires to please you twisted in such a hellish way?
I don’t know the answers. I know that he was with me every step of the way. I know that he weeps for my brokenness and all the ways my thinking has been twisted. I know that he is bringing healing and life, and I know those eight years of restriction and repression were not his desire, not his heart for me.
But it still happened. And I’m asking why.
Why? Because that’s what abusers do. They take advantage of victims in their weakness. They look for the injured, the innocent, the weak, the ones with desire to please, but who have not yet gained wisdom. Fourteen year old me – innocent, desperately wanting more of God, hurting from the loss of her country and friends and family and needing stability – I was the perfect target.
I have no doubt that God is using and will use this for good. Because he is good and that’s what he does. He takes the most twisted work of the enemy and turns it into a thing of beauty and healing. I now KNOW what God’s grace feels like now. It is the most freeing thing in the world. Mistakes don’t matter, because God’s grace is bigger. I can relax. I don’t have to do ANYTHING to earn or repay his love. The gospel really is good news.
If what you’re being told is the gospel doesn’t bring life or freedom or joy, I can tell you, it’s not really the gospel. Don’t settle for that counterfeit. Don’t settle for less. There is more love and beauty and freedom and light and GRACE in Christ than you can ever imagine.
I’m just starting to see it, and it is glorious.
Written by Lyndall Cave
Edited by Katie Pridgen