After returning from the Southwest, I loaded several photos and videos of sites at the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park, the Painted Desert, and Zion National Park onto the iPads my students use in my music classes. Their assignment is to select photos and videos, put them in a sequence to tell a story, write the story, and then compose background music.  As the students have been searching through the photos and videos I gave them, many have asked about a picture from Arches National Park.  It isn’t until a scroll down to the bottom of the picture and they see the tiny form of a person standing under the arch that they start to get an inkling of the enormity of the arch in the photo.

One of the things that I have learned as I travel this journey through and out of spiritual abuse is that it is very difficult for those who listen to or read my story to wrap their head around it if they haven’t been there themselves.  Especially if they are familiar with the church I attended for nearly twenty years, with the pastor, leadership, and people who go there.  And I know it must be hard because it was hard for me even as I was going through it myself.

There have been people who, try as they might, simply cannot accept that what happened to me was “as bad as” I have claimed.  At best, they will respond with, “I just don’t understand.”  At worst, they try to rationalize on the side of the pastors and leadership saying, “Well, they have so many other more important things to deal with that answering your questions or explaining their reasoning probably just wasn’t in their list of priorities.”

I have been met with attitudes of superiority:  “Well, if it had been me, I would have (fill in the blank).”  I have been met with arrogance:  “I would never have put up with that kind of treatment!”  I have been met with people who think they have 20/20 ‘fore’-sight:  “I could have told you years ago that this was going to happen.”

There are some who appear to have a need to be right at any cost when they express their opinions about my blog, my writing, my story, my experience.  They think they have all of the answers.

And all I can say to those people is, “I guess you had to be there . . . ”

Because unless you’ve been there, you really can’t understand.  Unless you’ve been there, you can’t know what it’s like to be bludgeoned spiritually.  You can’t know what it’s like to try to live a life that is faithful to Jesus while dealing with the tyranny of judgment and ostracism.  You can’t know what it’s like to offer grace and forgiveness in the form of long-suffering and unconditional love to those who would torment you endlessly and without explanation simply because you believe that since God never leaves or forsakes us, we should not leave or forsake one another.

So, may I respectfully say to those who really can’t understand because you haven’t really been there (and some have been there, but in such a different way that they, too cannot understand):  Please don’t tell those of us who have suffered spiritual abuse what we should have done differently.  You weren’t there.  You can’t possibly know.  Please don’t tell us that we are wrong – whether it be in how we handled the situation, or even if in your estimation, spiritual abuse was not what happened to us.  Again, you weren’t there.  You can’t possibly know.  And please don’t tell us (in so many words) how much “better” you are than we are because you would have seen it coming and would have had a better response.  You weren’t there.  You can’t possibly know.  And as one person who emailed me said, “Hindsight is something nobody has at the time!!!”

Those of us who share our journeys have suffered enough without being met with insensitive comments, advice, and judgment.  If you need some advice on how to respond, try this:

“Wow, I had no idea.  I am so sorry you were hurt that way.  It must have been very painful.  I’m glad you shared your story with me and any time you want to share more, I’m willing to listen.”

And for those of you who have been spiritual abuse victims:  When people start telling you all of that other stuff, just quietly and politely say, “I guess you had to be there . . . ”




  1. Lin says:

    excellent advice on what to say to those that can’t identify (or won’t) with
    the spiritual abuse we’ve endured…..”I guess you had to be there…”. It
    shows them immediately that since they were not there every step of the
    way they can’t possibly know what it was like. I’ve never been raped, but
    I do know this…I would never tell anyone that has been attacked that way
    that “it wasn’t that bad”, or “you are just too sensitive”, or “you should have
    done this or that”….No one knows exactly how they’d respond in a given
    situation unless they experienced it themselves!

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