A cult is a mind-boggling mixture of the heavenly and the hellish. People are close-knit in a warm, wonderful, better-than-family way. If you have family relationships like I had back then, this is an amazing, affirming experience. You're never lonely, ever. Many people have one or two best friends. I had about thirty. Everyone around you believes, and continually reinforces the idea, that you are God's favorite children, and that He has chosen your group to accomplish His purposes on the earth. To people who have wasted years, and made terrible, irreversible life choices back in the fields of sin, this kind of teaching is a life raft, and we all clung to it with a frenetic, slightly crazed desperation.
There is a darker side to life in a cult, of course. We lived by standards that even then were embarrassingly legalistic: No TVs, movies, or Internet. These were tools of Satan. Attendance at all church functions was compulsory, and occupied at least five - and often all seven - days of the week. If you missed church, someone came knocking on your door. If you didn't have a good reason for staying home, you could be removed from ministry. Divorced men were encouraged not to pay child support, but to give that money to the church instead, and many of them did. Friendships with people outside the church were discouraged, as was close contact with extended family members. Vacations out of town were subject to the approval of the pastor. The pastor decided who married whom, and when. The list goes on; it's not pretty.
People who have never been in a cult can't understand how others are drawn in. If you haven't been there, you're possibly one of the majority who rolls their eyes at stories like this, and says "Oh, puh-leeze! How could anyone fall for that?" Which I should tell you sounds very sanctimonious and unhelpful, and is one of the main reasons that people who come out of cults suffer and die alone, spiritually speaking. God's people are sometimes more interested in asserting their own doctrinal superiority than in helping to heal the wounded. That's just some food for thought.
The lure of a cult is subtle. For one thing, there's a percentage of truth in much of what's taught, and the rest may be an ever-so-slightly-twisted variation on Scripture, so it's easy to get lost and confused. The Pastor and the Holy Spirit begin to sound a lot alike, and the whole messy deal is sealed by a great whack of fear that if you miss God by questioning the teaching or going elsewhere you will be turning your back on God's plan for you, and then He will curse the snot out of you in a lot of very bad ways.
Coming out of the cult was a long, horrifying process. It is, without exception, the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. In one great leap of faith, we lost all of our friends, all of our children's friends, and everything I had ever believed was in our future. Worse, I had to admit to myself that I had spent eleven years deceived by my own need for self-righteousness, and my desire to atone for my own sinful past by becoming a super-achieving "Christian," because I secretly could not believe that Jesus was enough.
My husband was some help during this time, but he hadn't been as involved as I was, and he was able to move on with life. My children also got over it, much more quickly than I would have thought possible. Eventually, we saw other families that we had loved come out of the cult, and they all seemed to find good churches and to pick up a normal, healthy existence after only a few weeks of recovery.
I, on the other hand, fell apart. I got drunk and stayed that way for four years. I was a misfit in any church we tried to go to. I couldn't speak the language, couldn't seem to find a niche, or make real friends. At potlucks I would stand around with a plate in my hand and a big, frozen smile on my face, hoping someone would rescue me. They didn't, or couldn't, so I would slip away early, and go home and drink more than I had the day before. I tried to go to women's Bible studies, but the women there always seemed to be scared of where I'd been, and I didn't dare tell them where I was now. I was a Pod Person in a world of well-adjusted believers. I learned to keep my mouth shut and act happy, which I think is what the Church likes its more screwed-up members to do.
I desperately needed God, but I was afraid of Him. Who knew what He was going to do to me next? I was raw, and burned, and alone. And my huge, gnawing fear was that if I surrendered myself back over to Him, God would turn out not to be enough. It was a thought too terrifying to consider, and so I ran around on the backside of the desert doing the spiritual equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and humming loudly. From time to time I would take my fingers out, look up to heaven and shout to God that I was ready for Him to rescue me now. Then I would stick my fingers back in my ears and run around some more, because I was really, really scared that even He wouldn't be able to help, and if He couldn't be enough for me, then I knew I might as well pack it all in.
I had been around religiosity enough to know that I was not following the approved Spiritual Crisis Timeline. Four years was ridiculous. It was high time I got it back together, found a good church, and got back into the swing of things, or so I kept telling myself. It was sort of like a quadriplegic stating that now that the accident was over, it was time to jump up and start back on that jogging program again. What we want to do, and what we're able to do are not always remotely similar. I want to tell the story of what the journey looks like and God's grace to me during this time. I don't tell it for the pure, cathartic joy of placing myself under the microscope of other Christians, believe me. I want to tell this story because I am one of the ones who fell through the cracks in the Church, and there are far, far too many people who do. I want God's people to realize that there are Christians out there who are bleeding and dying, and afraid to say anything, because the Bride of Christ can't, or won't, handle the unpleasantness. I want those who are the wounded to stand up and force someone to listen to them. I want the Church to recognize God's troubled foster children, and to finally make a place for those who don't fit, and who shake up the cosmetics of what is churchy and acceptable. And I want the Church to put aside her superficiality, and do what she is here to do, which is to rescue the perishing, many of whom are right inside her own doors.