Lies in Sunday School~ One Aspect of Spiritual Abuse


Have you ever felt this way? It’s a feeling of running free in one direction and then suddenly being whipped around or tripped by something across your path. One minute you feel confident and know where you’re going; it feels good. The next moment you feel jarred, disoriented, suddenly confused. In these kinds of moments, we are vulnerable to believe what is not true about ourselves because we suddenly doubt if we can trust our own direction, our own selves. Insidious lies can take root in these little moments of vulnerability. I grew up going to church every Sunday, and one of my strongest memories of this kind happened to me there. I have to use some religious phrases as part of this story, and I hope they won’t confuse the heart of what I want to say.

I was sitting at the table in the kitchen of the church basement, where my Sunday School class met every Sunday. I was probably 8 or 9 years old. The church I grew up in was very focused on “spreading the gospel.” As kids, we were taught in Sunday School and special summer camps that we should tell our friends about Jesus (aka “spreading the gospel”). We were taught about it in simple terms: there was heaven and hell, and if a person prayed to Jesus (also called asking Jesus “into their heart”) then that person would go to heaven. We were encouraged and rewarded if we brought friends to church or special church events. We were taught that if we really cared about our friends, then we must tell them about Jesus somehow. What if they died and they hadn’t asked him “into their hearts”?

My sensitive heart took these teachings very seriously. I cared about my friends and when I thought about them not going to heaven, I felt so sad and so responsible. And how ashamed would I be (or rather, how ashamed would other people be of me?) if my friends missed out on heaven because I was too afraid to tell them the truth that I knew! So I did my best to tell them. I even went so far as to start a “church” during recess at my elementary school.

I had a best friend at school, and I don’t remember if she came to my “recess church” or not, but I do remember that one day during recess I helped her to say a certain prayer and ask Jesus “into her heart”. I was so excited… I remember getting off the bus at home and telling my Mom all about it. I felt happy that my friend was going to go to heaven… And I felt happy that I had helped her. I was a little girl trying to do what I was taught was a very good thing.

Sitting around our Sunday School table that morning, the teacher asked us about our week. Though I was usually shy, I excitedly shared with her and the class that my best friend had asked Jesus “into her heart” and how I had helped her do it. I was running along with that happy confidence… I had innocently and with simple faith acted on what I was told was a good thing to do, out of the goodness of my heart. Expecting a joyful, excited response, I was crestfallen when my teacher simply snapped, “Well, YOU didn’t actually do it Carla. It was GOD who did it.”

To a little girl or boy who goes to church every Sunday to learn about God, pastors and Sunday School teachers are pretty much God… They are older and teach from underlined, well-worn Bibles; they must really know who God is, what he is like and how he relates to us. Translating my teacher’s response in my 8 or 9 year old’s mind, the words I really heard her say were, “Carla, watch it… Don’t think that anything good can come from yourself. Don’t be proud or pleased with yourself, and don’t you dare take credit for something good because only God does good things.”

I was tripped and vulnerable and that’s when the lie wedged itself in there. It is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” twisted lie which shows up in all kinds of abuse. It says: Carla, what comes out of your own heart is not good enough. What you want, what you decide to do, is not good enough. You thought doing this was a good thing, but you didn’t do it right, you took too much pleasure in it… Be ashamed for being proud because God is not pleased with proud people. Even if you do your best, you cannot trust yourself.”  This lie taught me that I had to dance a certain way (a very narrow, restricted, apprehensive way) in order to be pleasing to others and to God, and eventually, even to myself.


15 response to "Lies in Sunday School~ One Aspect of Spiritual Abuse"

  1. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 23rd June

    Darlene~ I like your point that this is “plain old devaluing”. There are many ways to tell a child that they aren’t “good enough”, and this story of mine happened to happen in church. But the feelings and the effect would have been the same in a similar situation anywhere else. I agree- it is about the healing…

    Thanks Darlene
    Hugs, Carla

  2. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 23rd June

    Jimmy B, as I wrote this post the same awareness came to me of what a huge responsibility they put on us as kids. You describe that pressure so well. That pressure is there in all kinds of abuse, spiritual or psychological or emotional… I like your analogies of being slashed in hockey or swept up by a tree snare- absolutely. And I really love the truth in your words: “Never being good enough is too hopeless and depressing.” That’s the healing truth that brings freedom, and thanks for saying it so plainly (in a good way!) and to the point for everyone here. Thanks Jimmy B.

  3. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 23rd June

    Nikki, the story about your young friend is so sad!! I really agree with you when you say “pounding it in a child’s head that there is no good in them does not lead them to embrace God instead it pushes them away from God and it can lead them onto a very Godless path.” It just strikes me now how absurd it is to try and teach a child to be good by telling him he is not good… Wow! Thank you for sharing Nikki, and hugs to you too.

  4. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 23rd June

    Lisa, that was another sense I definitely grew up with in church too, that we should somehow be suffering for God… Thanks for bringing this point into the discussion. I think a lot of Bible verses have been twisted to teach people this, and many times that idea has been used as a way to keep people “in control” and out of freedom. I really like how you say that the hope in suffering is the redemption on the other side. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts Lisa!

  5. By: Darlene Ouimet Posted: 23rd June

    I love this post Carla;

    Once again, this can be applied to more than just spiritual abuse, it is a great example of plain old devaluing and controlling children. The more that you make a child try harder, the more control you have.. and it isn’t easy to break out of that control when it has began so young.

    I don’t remember much about Sunday School myself.. my parents were so conflicted about my father being Catholic and my mother not being Catholic and I honestly don’t’ think either of them “got it” anyhow, but I can relate to this story anyway, it is all about “doing it wrong” and not doing it good enough and on and on…

    This is exactly what I am talking about all the time in my post about how the belief system develops in the first place. The first step to freedom is to realize those things.

    It isn’t about resentment, or blame, it is about healing!

    Way to go Carla!
    Hugs, Darlene

  6. By: Jimmy B Posted: 23rd June

    Quite a heep of pressure and responsibility to put on an 8 or 9 year-olds shoulders. Adults don’t relize how much they dis-credit or discourage kids in this kind of abuse. When we were children all we wanted to do is please the people in our lives that we looked up to and loved. We tried harder and harder to do the things that they wanted from us with enthusiam and viger. Work harder! Pray harder! Be better! The thing is we never knew is when we were going to be rewarded or shut down. I thought your analogy of being tripped was a great visual. I personally think that it is more like being slashed in hockey or stepping into a tree snare and being flung around by the ankle and realizing you are up side down and can’t do any thing about it.
    With this kind of system we are never good enough. We can never achieve calmness and contentment in our endevours. We are always in termoil, self doubt and depression.
    This post is great to share to point out, we as adults have the chance to break this cycle of abuse and discouragement. People shouldn’t be carring hugh loads on our backs not knowing where the load should go or be dropped or if it is to be carried all of our lives. Never being good enough is too hopeless and depressing.
    This system has to stop. I am very proud of you and Darlene for sharing messages of truth and wholeness through your own experiences and letting us connect with these examples. There is hope for a better world.

  7. By: Nikki Posted: 23rd June

    I honestly connected with this post … it is horrible when you do something that you are taught to do and yet when you do it instead of receiving positive loving feedback what you get in return is pretty much a slap on the face. It was your desire to see your friend come to know the Lord it was thru that desire that God touched your friend. Yes indeed God did do it but it was your heart!

    What your Sunday school teacher should have said to you is “Wow Carla you lead someone to the Lord that is awesome and how wonderful it is God worked thru you to touch someone else I am so glad that you let your heart be open and full of compassion towards your friend!” You see then she would have given God praise and also validated you as a person with a good heart and a choices. but the response you got is not foreign to me whatsoever it is drilled into our heads that there is nothing good about us … I think many churches play on this for various reasons however it is true that we are sinners but Christ did not come into the world to condemn us but to save us .. pounding it in a child’s head that there is no good in them does not lead them to embrace God instead it pushes them away from God and it can lead them onto a very Godless path.. sharing the truth about sin in a loving manner can change a life but never when we do it out of religion .. religion has never lead anyone to know God it has always been through God’s kindness that He draws us unto repentance..

    Spiritual abuse is often so subtle we often don’t realize it at first! Especially when we are children.

    I knew of a little boy who was much younger than me he use to ride my school bus and he did attend VBS at our church some during the summers. His mother would tell him that he was so mean that God did not love him, that there was nothing good about him at all. He is now a grown man and he is constantly in trouble with the law my heart goes out to him literally .. I can remember a conversation I had with him when he was only six years old. one morning going to school I had to sit with him on the school bus due to seating arrangements and he had his little head leaning against the window and his face was very sad .. I asked him what was wrong and he said he wanted to die. He was only six when he told me this .. so many people have tried to reach out to him my uncle even tried to take up time with him. by this time he was a teenager I believe he loved my uncle but he didn’t know how to respond to the attention my uncle gave him instead he would stalk my uncle and my aunt he would sit in their field and watch them from a far my aunt was afraid that he would try to break in and do something to them because of his anger issues! At one point he did steal from them.

    When you raise a child telling them that God hates them you kill them they may still be alive physically but spiritually you murder them!

    I am sorry your Sunday school teacher responded to you that way from one child at heart to the child in you (((HUGS)))

  8. By: Lisa Posted: 23rd June

    I have felt this way, not just with religion but with many of the other things that used to excite me as a kid. Always there was that pin ready to burst my bubble.

    The other religious myth that I’m still living down is that God is somehow happier if we are suffering just a bit. While I believe that suffering can be redemptive, it is really on the other side of it that it becomes so. God is happier if we’re suffering??? What kind of sadistic God is this?!

    Thanks as always for your frank and honest post, Carla.

  9. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 22nd June

    Mom, that is a really good point~ it’s not that there was something wrong with “Sunday School” or church altogether, but some of the people in those places used their position to squash me instead of using their position to build up the real truth in me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Mom. It’s true- there is healing from the lies. Love, Carla

  10. By: Debbie Posted: 22nd June

    I remember the day you came home from school with this news and I smile to think of it. You were happy with what you had done and I was proud of you for it…still am. Just imagine if you had received a positive response when you shared it in Sunday School…if you had been validated for what you had done because your heart is good, what a difference that would have made! I can understand how confusing it was. You were being taught about God in Sunday School and when you did something Godly, you were given a message that you were being proud and that was wrong. My heart feels sad for the little girl but glad that you are learning the truth and breaking free from the lies.

  11. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 22nd June

    Hi Laurie! I hadn’t heard of that book~ thanks for the recommendation. ~Carla

  12. By: Carla Dippel Posted: 22nd June

    Shanyn, I am touched and really happy that my story inspired you today. I heard so many messages (like the one in this post) throughout my church-going life and I know so many other people have too. I love your invitation to dance! Thanks for dancing here with us and sharing your freedom… Hugs to you! ~ Carla

  13. By: Laurie Johns Posted: 22nd June

    Have you ever read the book “so youd don’t want to go to church anymore”? It’s great and I highly recommend it!

  14. By: Shanyn Posted: 22nd June

    Carla, I know for a fact that it was through your wonderful heart that God acted, and continues to act. Bless you for your courage and in your innocence for caring. Thank you for sharing this, the lesson in this should encourage all of shackled by other’s expectations and rules to shake them off and dance with abandon. Skip a step, make up your own counter rhythm…dance and find that joyful place again. You are helping now and I wish I could tell you how much you have helped me today. Your blog post was an answer to a prayer, I know what to do about something that I have been tortured with for many years (and yes it actually did start at a church youth event, and it does have to do with my former pastor). Bright blessings…

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