Religious Trauma: The Devastating Effects and How To Heal

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Dear Selfless Esteem,
I think I’m a victim of religious trauma because I’m such a perfectionist. I’ve been this way since I was a child, and although there’s some things I’m grateful for in my upbringing, religion isn’t one of them. Whenever something bad would happen to me, a church leader or a church member would say God’s punishing me for some unconfessed sin. I don’t go to church anymore, but I still feel pressure to be perfect and I still feel guilty over every little thing. How can I heal from religious trauma?

Dear Unholy,

Thanks for bringing up this harmful problem in some places of worship. Let’s explore what religious trauma is and how to heal from it. ❤️‍🩹

Religious Trauma

The North American Committee of Religious Trauma Research has defined religious trauma as “results from an event, series of events, relationships, or circumstances within or connected to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that is experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive and has lasting adverse effects on a person’s physical, mental, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Your negative experience seems to fit that definition because the false doctrine in your church has caused lifelong guilt.

The Bible warns us about false teachers and false prophets. (See 2 Peter 2). Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15).

Signs of a Healthy Church


Two hands of people toasting glasses of water with cucumber slices in it.

Jesus said that we can recognize His disciples by their love for each other (John 13:35). One of the purposes of the church is fellowship, in which the leaders and members comfort, edify, and encourage each other (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:24). The interactions should promote spiritual growth in love (Ephesians 4:15-16).

The Spirit of God

Another function of the church is hearing God through other believers. Rooted: Connect with God, the Church, Your Purpose (Rooted Network) gives examples. “For instance, Jethro gives his son-in-law, Moses, godly leadership and wisdom in Exodus 18. Deborah tells an Israeli general named Barak that God wants him to attack their enemy in Judges 4. Samuel is God’s mouthpiece to tell Jesse that his son, David, will be the next king in 1 Samuel 16. Daniel communicates God’s plan for the future to King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2. In the New Testament, we see that Peter speaks for God when he insists that new converts to Christianity don’t have to first be circumcised in Acts 15” (2020, p. 43).

To discern whether a message is from God, check the message’s alignment with the Bible. Furthermore, God won’t speak in an abusive way through another person. (You may be interested in “5 Must-Know Ways to Hear God’s Voice.”

The Gospel

A healthy church teaches the Gospel, which essentially is that we don’t have to be good enough to be accepted by God. In his post, “Accepted in the Beloved,” Pastor John McKay makes an eloquent statement, “When our faith is in the Son of God and His death for our sin, grace makes us immediately acceptable to God because of the infinite merit of Christ, and His righteousness to us by that faith!”

Jesus emphasized relationship over religion (John 17:22-26). He said, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-29 MSG).

Jesus chastised the self-righteous Pharisees instead of people, whose sin was exposed (John 8:2-11, Mark 12:38-40Luke 11:37-5220:45-47). In the midst of our sin, God sent His Son to redeem us (Romans 5:8). Thus, salvation is a gift from God. (See Ephesians 2.)

The Path to Healing

For this reason, the first step to heal is focusing on God’s unconditional love. (See the posts, “The Real Truth About God” and “Why Selfless Esteem Is Better Than Self-Esteem.”) Be sure to spend time with your perfect Heavenly Father. (See “How To Pray in 5 Simple Steps.”)

I also recommend finding a competent therapist and a support system of nonjudgmental family and friends. The therapist can also help you find a support group. (See “What Is Wise Counsel and Good Therapy?” and “Why You Need To Get a Therapist ASAP.”)

Between therapy sessions, be compassionate toward yourself and do self-care. See “6 Effective Ways To Manage Stress” and “Defeat Self-Criticism.”

I close with the song, “Redeemed” by Big Daddy Weave. As you listen, feel God’s loving embrace. 💖

Beshore, K., Wanjau, M., Kasirivu, P., Metelus, S., Ntoto, C., Ntoto, E., Núñez, D., & De Visser, A. (2020). Rooted: Connect with God, the Church, Your Purpose. Rooted Network.

All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New King James Version®. Copyright © 1984 by Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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  1. TC

    Thank you for touching on this important topic, Gina. I can only imagine how much stories such as this one grieve the Holy Spirit. May the Lord bring them healing and drive all of the wolves in sheep’s clothing and false teachers out of the church. 🙏🏽

    1. Gina Leggio

      Thanks so much for your comment. Amen! Healing and wisdom for all, including the false teachers. May God fill the Church with His Spirit.

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