Haunted by Cult Guilt – Q&R with Greg Albrecht
I spent 20 years as a Jehovah’s Witness. My problem is that I still have dreams and feelings of guilt for robbing my ex-husband’s parents (who are now deceased) of all the holidays my husband and I refused to celebrate because we followed Watchtower teachings. My ex was an only child. Ten years after I became a Witness, he also became one. After his parents died, for various reasons, I left the marriage and am now remarried and a member of a Christian church. My ex is still a JW. I can’t get rid of the feeling that I have. His parents were very patriotic and my husband gave up that belief when he became a Witness. Now I am celebrating birthdays, holidays and national holidays—but with a lot of guilt. If my ex could see me now, he would be sickened that I “returned to the vomit,” as he would put it. I feel “icky” inside because of the pain I caused from living the beliefs I once had. I love my current husband immensely. This is a good marriage. But the past haunts me where I cannot fully enjoy my new relationship with Jesus without feeling like I am doing something wrong.
When a person who was once trapped in cultic teaching realizes the enormous errors they accepted, and the practical, life-decisions that were influenced by bogus teaching, there is a great deal of regret and grief. Those who leave a group who claimed to be the exclusive, one and only “true church” are in pain. They experience the loss of many close and beloved friends, most of whom will not even talk with them, for a former cult member who has renounced cultic teaching is usually shunned by the group they once regarded as their spiritual family.
Life within a cultic group can be somewhat like living in a false, alternative universe. Cultic groups have a culture all their own. They offer alternative social lives; they offer safety from “the world.” Some cultic groups refuse to allow “inter-marriage” with “outsiders,” so the world of potential spouses, and thus social life that can lead to marriage, is severely limited.
Cults often offer previously disaffected, disenfranchised and dysfunctional people an accepting environment—a family-like atmosphere many new converts have never experienced before. The idea and imagery of family is commonly used in cultic movements to speak of the larger entity, and the prerequisite obedience and loyalty one should give to that family. It is no accident that cult leaders and their immediate subordinates encourage, or at least “allow” themselves to be spoken of in paternalistic and maternalistic terms. Cultic groups offer a false sense of unity, a false sense of a unique and special place in the world, as well as one’s relationship with God. There is often a false sense of history, as it is often revised by cult leaders to fit the new reality they offer.
Because cults demand allegiance, they demand a new life, which effectively ends the former life of new converts. Cult members often have no option but to burn all bridges in their past, including career, education, professional affiliations, family and friends. Then, when a cult member leaves the false environment in which they have lived, they can experience feelings of grief (because of their losses), anger (because of what they see as their gullibility in allowing themselves to accept falsehoods), and enormous regret at what they believe could have been had their lives not been consumed and defined by the cultic movement.
Former cult members are often astonished at how they believed themselves to be elitist and exclusive, better than anyone and everyone. As they look back on life within a cult, they see the incredible isolation, and often have major challenges adjusting to a normal society and culture. It can take some former cult members years to escape the overwhelming judgmentalism and condemnation of others (as well as themselves) that permeates cultic life. Former cult members can have problems accepting reality, as cultic life often involves a denial of reality, with culture shock being experienced as they either re-enter society or enter it for the first time. Think of Rip Van Winkle awaking from a long slumber. Some have described the shock they experienced at entering the real world after a cultic experience as leaving a cave and rubbing their eyes because of the light or as leaving a climate-controlled room and experiencing weather for the first time.
Some believe, based on studies of former cult members, that it may take up to eight years for former cult members to integrate into society at large. Some believe that we never get over our past, and in some ways, regardless of the kind of past we have had, this is a true statement. In Requiem for a Nun William Faulkner had one of his characters say, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The guilt you speak of is also a real and present spiritual enemy for all of us, but especially so for those who have recently escaped from the swamps of cultic teaching. Survivor guilt haunts some who were able to escape. Those who made it out of cultic teaching and belief may ask, “Why me?” while many former friends continue to be held captive spiritually with seemingly no hope for an escape. Sometimes guilt is experienced because the former cult member can’t really believe that they are free—free to, in your case, celebrate birthdays, salute the flag, celebrate Thanksgiving or worship God at Christmas and Easter. Even though they know that certain prohibited activities, food or drink or behaviors are not wrong, they often feel guilt when drinking a Coke, eating meat, wearing cosmetics or jewelry, or giving blood.
And there is tremendous guilt, such as you speak of, when family members are considered—when one thinks of what was denied and missed, what young people could not participate in or qualify for given the restrictions of a cult.
Many former cult members have found that they have “graduated” from a great deal of the pain, sense of loss, anger and regret when, by God’s grace, they learn to accept their own past—that it happened, that it will not change, and that to some degree it will shape the rest of their lives. Such a step can enable them to move beyond regret and remorse about what might have been, about what their children could have done, about the family holidays that could have been enjoyed, about the community and family involvement that could have been enjoyed.
Sooner or later forgiveness comes into this picture—forgiveness of self for having swallowed unbiblical teachings hook, line and sinker—forgiveness of others in the cultic movement who were also deceived and passed on bad teaching and contributed to painful experiences. Often a former cult member blames God, so God is also part of forgiveness. And it is in this experience many find a real relationship with their loving Lord, with Jesus who died for them on his cross (a cross that is so denied by some cults they refuse to use the term but instead substitute the word “stake”). Who are we to forgive God, as if God needs forgiveness? But in our pain and anger we often blame God, and in this search many come to know God as they never have before.
Recovering from legalistic, authoritarian oppression in the name of God is complete when the real Jesus is discovered, when a relationship with Jesus takes the place of a relationship with a cult, when authentic Christianity is experienced, when growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord takes place. Replace the guilt, shame, pain, anguish and rage with Jesus, who bears all of our sin, who takes our own burdens, and returns to us his divine rest. Rest in him! Come to know him! Enjoy him! Trust him! Replace the fear and manipulation of cultic teaching with the love of God, which passes all understanding.
Remember that great passage in Romans 8:1: “…there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” All of your guilt and shame, all of the condemnation you have felt, is gone in and through the blood of Jesus. Let it go, for it is gone. You are white as snow, free in Christ, and no human can condemn you. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
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