It took me about three minutes after receiving Carol Howard Merritt’s new book Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church to realize it was a book for me. It took me seconds longer to realize that it was a book for so many of you, as well. As I read this book, I became aware of parts of me that haven’t healed, even though I’m now worshipping in a church I love. As I read this book, healing seemed possible in those hidden corners than it ever has. If your story includes being hurt by the church, or by religious people, this book might be just the balm you’ve been looking for.
Carol Howard Merritt’s book releases today, and I caught up with her to talk about it. Listen in, or read along below.
Cara Strickland: Hi Carol, it’s so good to talk with you today.
Carol Howard Merritt: It’s great to be here. Thank you so much.
CS: Tell me a little bit about your book.
CHM: Well, I wrote Healing Spiritual Wounds for two reasons. One reason was because I was going through a time in my life where I needed to really begin to dig deeper into what had happened to me in the past, the ways in which religion had hurt me. I was working with a lot of people who echoed my experiences and I began to hear my own story in their experiences. It would happen over and over again; I would hear about how a church wounded someone, or an organization wounded someone, or a faith community hurt a person.
I found as a pastor, as I was working through and walking alongside different people, we continued to go back to this problem. I thought it was such an interesting intersection because both in my life, and in the lives of the people I was working with, we were going to religion to heal wounds that religion had caused.
So, I started writing and thinking about that. Why would we stay connected to the church? Why would we stay connected to spiritual communities? And also, why does the church hurt us? What does that look like? How does that feel? So, I wrote it to explore that place.
CS: Will you talk a little bit about who you wrote this book for?
CHM: Well, I grew up as a very conservative fundamentalist. I went to a fundamentalist Bible school and had planned to become a missionary. I quickly learned that my role would be very limited as a woman.
I also run into a lot of people who have gone through that experience, either as a woman or as someone who has grown up in a very conservative fundamentalist background. So, I guess the main audience would be the person who knows that what they grew up with may have been unhealthy, not life-giving and yet, they really can’t break it off with God.
You know, I have a friend who told me once that she would be an atheist, but she just kept backsliding. So, it’s that person. We try to leave, but we just don’t know how to leave so we’d just rather have a healthier religion.
CS: One of the things I think is true is that the hurt caused by the church and people who represent faith or religion to us, seems insurmountable. What encouragement would you offer those who feel they don’t have the energy even to begin?
CHM: Well, it’s true. Sometimes the pain can be so difficult that you just want to leave. I have experienced that before. I felt like, why am I staying in this relationship? Not necessarily the relationship with God, but the relationship with the church. Why am I still engaged with this? And it can feel exhausting.
But when that moment comes and you just feel drawn, I think that’s when we can begin to open ourselves up to that engagement. And that moment, it’s different [for everyone]. For some people, they’re walking along and they see an incredible sunset and they’re so overwhelmed by beauty. Or for some people, they have a child. And they’re looking into that child’s eyes, and their whole body is vibrant with hope and joy. And for other people, it’s being able to connect with God in some way; you realize you can’t leave it behind. These are moments where we’re waking up to God.
So, I would encourage, just be open to that moment when it happens. If we can be attentive to that moment when we’re open to the presence of God, I think that’s when the energy will come.
CS: At the end of each of your chapters, and you structure them around different practical guides for healing and moving towards wholeness, you recommend some exercises around that topic. Would you give an example of one of these?
CHM: Well the book is structured so that in the first part we’re thinking about God. It’s structured around Jesus’ words, love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And so there’s a sense that you really can’t love your neighbor unless you love yourself. So there are three parts to this; you’re healing your relationship with God, you’re healing, or learning again, how to love yourself, and you’re learning how to love your neighbor.
At the end of each chapter, I try to get people to reconnect with God, themselves, and their neighbors. When we’re talking about God, oftentimes, we need to reimagine who God is. So if we grew up thinking of God as being angry and violent and vengeful, ready to send you to hell at a moment’s notice, then we have to explore that idea of God. Begin to think of God as a loving God who loves you, who embraces you, and a God whom you can love.
Then I move into love of self. For many people, especially if they’ve been abused by the church or by the church’s teachings, they have learned to disconnect from their feelings. So we may not be able to express happiness, or express sorrow, or express anger.
And then there are exercises, as we think about love of our neighbors and love of others. This has to do with justice and our economic situation and how we treat ourselves and each other, when we come to social justice matters.
CS: You write about reconnecting with earlier versions of yourself and being tender with who you used to be. Why do you think that is an important step in healing?
CHM: Well I know for myself, oftentimes when I’m digging deep into the work and I’m thinking about what I used to believe and who I used to be, I think back and cringe. Like, ugh, she was so stupid! I can’t believe I believed that! How could I have been so hateful? I was constantly trying to cut myself off from who I was in the past.
[When I was] dismantling my [old] beliefs and imagining my new beliefs, and imagining who God was, I realized when I was in a group and people would ask me certain things, I would fudge on the answers. I wouldn’t lie, but I wouldn’t say, oh I went to Bible school or I wouldn’t say, oh, I grew up in this church. It was because I was embarrassed of myself. I was embarrassed of myShalom
So part of that healing process was to be able to reclaim my past, to understand okay, I may have really believed this, but this is what happened when I believed this, and this is how that belief helped me in my journey at that moment. It was helpful for me to reclaim my history, to reclaim who I was, to not be ashamed of who I was, to be able to bring some wholeness to my life.
There’s a beautiful Hebrew word that’s used over and over again in the Old Testament. The word is Shalom, a word for peace, but it’s also the word for wholeness. I love that idea; so many times when we’re wounded by the church we end up like scattered pieces on the ground. And part of this healing process is to be able to pick up those pieces, look at them, reclaim them as ourselves, embrace who we are, and to have compassion for that person who believed things we would never believe now.
That was a very important process for me and I think it helps us become more whole, more human, and leads us to peace.
CS: What is your hope for readers of your book?
CHM: Well you know, I love the title because it says just what it is, Healing Spiritual Wounds. I really hope that people will be able to use it and to dig deep into it. Certainly, people don’t have to agree with everything I say, they don’t have to believe everything I believe. But I just hope that it’s a tool for people to reconnect with God, and reconnect maybe even with a spiritual community, and to begin to have that rich, life-giving wholeness.