This piece was written by a friend I have known for almost as many years as I haven't. I consider him a brother, and his words are a gift. It wasn't until I left MSC that I had any idea that he shared a similar spiritual/church experience as mine, just a few thousand miles away, and beginning around the same time that I began to get involved with MSC.
When he and his wife first shared this story with me I was only a few months removed from the church, and I cannot tell you how encouraging and helpful it was for me. For starters, it helped me realize that I wasn't alone. I wasn't the only one to get caught up in this kind of spiritually abusive situation. Some of my shame for getting so tangled in MSC, in idolizing Stephen Foster, began to lose its grip.
Too, they gave me a safe place to share my story, a different one for sure, but one with so many similarities. Spiritually abusive systems have familiar characteristics. In the safety of our friendship, we were able to open up and explore what had happened to us, where we had ignored red flags, where we had become isolated, where we listened to the voice of our "supreme leader" instead of the voice of God.
The truth is, these stories are more common than they are not. We need to talk about them. These experiences need to exit the darkness so that they can enter the healing power of the light. God has given us the gift of each other, and I believe people are one of the primary tools He uses to heal our hearts. May He heal yours a little bit more through this story.
You can call me pilgrim…
Because sometimes that’s what I feel like. If you grew up reading Pilgrim’s Progress, or the children’s rendition, you will recall that throughout Pilgrim’s journey to the Celestial City, he is often waylaid by his own temptations and desires. Sometimes however, he is ensnared through no fault of his own. It is the latter of the two situations I found myself in, and I would like to share that experience with you.
You may be reading this with all kinds of conflicting thoughts and feelings arising internally. Maybe this has been going on for a while. Maybe, if you are like me, you’ve seen or felt in yourself a painful splitting of identity and character, in which you begin to forget who you are and where you have come from. Maybe you feel almost as though you are hiding a secret from yourself. Maybe you feel you are going insane. And maybe, just maybe, this clamoring dissonance grows louder and more maddening when you are around one person in particular. One special person. One very important person. In my case it started with one, and became two, and became four. And then the meltdown happened.
Let me give you a bit of context, and then we’ll get to the interesting part.
I had a pretty happy and safe childhood. No big traumatic events. No gaping wounds to manage. But I did spend a lot of time alone. I was almost six before my first sister was born. I was homeschooled until high school. We moved around the country for my dad’s career. I often felt like the odd kid out. I didn’t know much different at the time, so I didn’t think a whole lot of it. I carried this mindset through high school. I don’t think there is anything really unique about this, but I want you to know where I was coming from.
Fast forward to my late teen years. We had just made a move to a warm, southern state, and I was beginning community college. I was missing friends from our previous community and it was taking me a while to find new ones. Eventually, I found a small church and began to plug in. There were young adults there my age, and I began to spend a lot of time with them. Over a couple years, I got very close to a few of them. Things happened, as things tend to do, and I ended up feeling hurt and ostracized. I could have given you all kinds of explanations at the time, but the truth is that I had no tools or ability to work through pain, and I shut out everyone in my life. I spent another year or two wallowing in hurt and self-pity until it turned into depression.
If you’ve never been depressed in your life, I’ll be honest, I envy you. Most of us are at some point in our lives, however, and it feels like there is no escape. Once you’re there, how you got there doesn’t seem to matter. It’s hard to function when food doesn’t taste good, people’s words sound like a white noise machine, and sunlight doesn’t feel any better than darkness.
I decided to make a move to the West Coast for a little adventure and fresh air. I have a cousin named Riley*, who I consider my adopted twin brother. I lived for several months with my aunt, uncle, and Riley until he and I got an apartment together with two other guys. Things were good, and then I met Carrie.
The Interesting Part
The evening I met Carrie, I was attending a wedding with Riley and my other roommates. She was small in stature with intense, piercing eyes. I instantly felt like there was nothing in me she couldn’t see. So when she told me she was a prophetic seer, I believed her. She told me she could see things in the spiritual realm, and that she could see that there were scratch marks across my heart, that I was wounded and hurting.
How can she know this? Questioning thoughts were rising in my mind, but were overpowered by the pounding in my heart. As our conversation continued throughout the evening and she prayed for me, I felt relief and raw emotion welling up in me. I felt alive, renewed, and reborn.
Sound familiar? Sound like a conversion story? Or an altar call? I was always told growing up that that pounding heart, that feeling of excitement in your gut and chest is the Holy Spirit. So I dutifully responded. This must be God leading me to healing. It was intoxicating, and I was hooked. I wanted more.
Over the following days and weeks, Carrie took me on as her project. Every opportunity to further my “healing”, she was there. She coached Riley and the others on how to free me from the demonic influence over my life. She shared with them the visions she had of all the demons who ruled me, since she was the only one who could see them. I was amazed at how many of them there were! It all began to make sense. No wonder I was so depressed when demons with names like Depression, Heaviness, and Anger had their tendrils in me.
My healing process was quite dramatic, and our whole group became involved. I felt like I had advocates to help me, true friends who could see the war taking place for my soul. One weekend, Carrie took us all to an evening meeting at her church, The Vine. During worship, they began to pray for deliverance for me from all the demons afflicting me. What came next seemed to confirm it. I felt a heavy blackness over me as I spoke the name of the demon that came to my mind. The name that came to mind was Black Death. When that happened I slumped over onto the floor in a sort of stupor. They prayed until we all felt the spirit pass, and when I rose there was a pool of blood beneath my face. My nose had begun bleeding intensely.
Over the next few months, I grew emotionally attached to and dependent on my prayer partner, Carrie. Soon our prayer began transitioning to more subjects than just my healing. And amazingly, I began to see spirits myself. When I say “see”, I would have mental images that overlaid whatever person or location I was looking at. The mental images ranged from demons to angels to spiritual objects and substances. It became very fun. Everything that was once dull and flavorless became infused with this new spiritual world I was seeing. And what insights I was having! My empathetic intuition was becoming razor sharp. I could slice through to the problems in one’s soul like an expert surgeon cutting through to the tumor.
My friends began to marvel at my transition, the confidence and spiritual maturity I had gained in such a short period of time was clearly apparent. And I felt free to offer the divine insights I was having at every opportunity.
I soon decided to make a permanent transition to The Vine. Carrie had eclipsed Riley and the others as the most important person in my life, and I would soon meet another person around the time of this transition. That person was the founder and pastor of the church, Wayne. Carrie made it clear to me how deeply she admired the wisdom and spiritual mantle that Wayne had over his life. And I couldn’t deny that I felt the same. His teaching opened my mind to deep concepts, and after every one of his teachings, I felt wise beyond my years. This man is very gifted.
As my relationship with Carrie and The Vine grew, I found I had less and less time for my family, Riley, and my other roommates. While they trusted Carrie, they expressed misgivings about The Vine. I grew angry and defensive. After one particular encounter with them, Carrie came away reassuring me that we simply need to pray for them to see that The Vine’s style of open visions and heightened spiritual activities was God’s will for them.
The feeling of superiority began to get positively dizzying. At one point I recall having the divine revelation that I was to become an “apostle”, which Carrie confirmed with her own revelation. She said that Wayne was an apostle and that I should look to him as a mentor. I voraciously consumed Wayne’s teachings, and the teachings of any other speaker who could continue to open my eyes into the spiritual world.
My parents, who still lived out of state, were growing increasingly concerned about this Carrie I was spending so much time with. When I described the Vine to them, they were not impressed. I expected them to be thrilled, and was rather offended when they were not. I figured they just needed some time to see it was the best place for me. From then on I made a point to avoid conversation with them about the church.
Around this time, Carrie introduced me to Stan and Lisa, a middle-aged couple at The Vine. They were small group leaders and elders in the church. From the start, I was amazed and how spiritual they were, and how many miracles they had seen. Stan would share story after story about healings, spiritual encounters, and divine provisions. They owned a home and property in a remote suburb, and Carrie and I began driving the hour and a half to visit nearly every Friday night. Stan and Lisa had been given a vision from God about their property being a place of miraculous spiritual happens. Even their horses were spiritual; their eyes were alive with God’s light.
Stan and Lisa would share about their vision, and I could see Carrie and me in it. We would be a prophet and an apostle helping these spiritual champions build God’s predestined ranch of miracles. Everything else in life seemed so incredibly drab and unspiritual. Embracing this project was looking like the best way to make this spiritual life a permanent reality.
By this point I had become extremely attached to Carrie. I felt emotionally linked to her, despite the fact that I found her unattractive and abrasive. Her obsession with me seemed to make those qualities moot, as I basked in her attention. Before long I admitted the fact that I was interested in her romantically, and she seized the opportunity and encouraged those feelings. In her eyes this was all part of God’s plan.
When her family visited a nearby town, we went to see them. I had a growing feeling of panic as I met them. Something didn’t feel right. I even consciously neglected to tell my parents about this visit, assuming they would think it a bad idea. I must not be praying enough, I thought. There sure is a lot of spiritual warfare going on right now.
To use the analogy of a sea captain, my compass was spinning in circles, and I interpreted that as needing to sail faster.
Within weeks I had proposed, without preparation and without a ring. I ignored the searing pain in my stomach that made me want to curl into the fetal position, and the fact that I didn’t want a single person to know what I had done. Surely a marriage proposal warrants feelings of joy, yes? Instead all I felt was anxiety, only mildly alleviated by relief that I had appeased Carrie, Stan, and Lisa. Then I made the call I had been putting off. I dialed my parents to give them the news.
My news was met with shock and dismay. My proposal was out of the blue, and my behavior so uncharacteristic. As emotions grew heighted, the weight of the last several months felt so crippling, I became dizzy and slowly collapsed to the floor in exasperation and sadness.
Eventually I had to give Wayne the news, and I also told him how upset my parents were about the situation. He decided to call a meeting with Stan, Lisa, Carrie, and me to discuss the issue. Eventually we determined it best to call off the engagement for a period of time so we could better focus on an upcoming mission trip to Indonesia.
A few weeks later, with feelings still raw, Carrie and I flew to Jakarta with Wayne, his wife, and three others. While the experience in Indonesia was eye-opening and meaningful, I was still caught in the delusion that miracles trump true heart change. I was trying desperately to achieve the initial high I had during my “healing process”, but nothing was quite the same.
When we returned home I continued to minister on the prayer team, traveling multiple times a week for church events, but I was burning out and losing motivation to continue. I also finally told Carrie I was breaking the relationship off permanently.
It was around this time that I met the woman who would later become my wife. She was beautiful, smart, and creative. She was also a Christian, but had no association with The Vine, and this was the best thing that could have happened for me. She was like a breath of fresh air, and was incredibly patient as I slowly began the process of disconnecting from The Vine. Each step was painful but freeing, and she was there gently supporting me, but allowing me to withdraw of my own accord.
Continuing to distance myself from the group was very difficult, but it paid off. Six years later I feel incredibly happy and free. It has taken a lot of work, but I have developed a healthier relationship with the collective church of Jesus and am more grounded in orthodox Christianity.
• • • • • •
I’d like to leave you with some lessons learned from this adventure.
You don’t have to be in a cult to have a cultic experience. If your group doesn’t fit the parameters described of a cult but you find yourself under the emotional influence of its leader or leaders, consider that a red flag. No, your church is not the only keeper of salvation. There are hundreds of thousands of healthy local churches whose members are free and thriving.
The fact that you are saved by Grace does not mean it is acceptable for others to treat you like dirt because of your flaws. Remember Proverbs 17:9, “He who conceals a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends.” Is there a place for addressing sinful behavior in the church? Yes, absolutely. Is correcting people’s sinful behavior appropriate on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis? No, most definitely. We are stewards of vessels to whom God is showing His redemptive power over the course of a lifetime. If you or your fellow members come away from meetings burdened instead of uplifted, beware.
God will not “remove His Grace” from you for leaving your group. If it were dependent on some behavior of yours, by definition, it wouldn’t be Grace. This is, quite simply, fear disguised as wisdom.
• • • • • •
Take courage, Friend. Right behind the clouds that encompass your mind and emotions lie the light and clarity of true freedom. I urge you to take the first step: allow yourself to consider an opposing viewpoint. Secondly, ask for the help of someone you trust outside of your group. Thirdly, trust that God will guide you as He promised He would. He did for me, and He will for you.
*Names have been changed