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My family joined the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) in the early ’90s, shortly after attending a Basic Seminar, at the invitation of a family which has in recent history become a household name. I was in my early elementary years at the time. I didn’t really understand why we were making so many abrupt changes in the way our family operated. I was young. I was trusting. Trusting blindly the parents who had us in church every time the doors were open — which was fine by me because I loved being in church. In fact, since I was 4 years old all I ever wanted to be was a pastor. I would preach to family at any and every gathering we had. I’d even offer to baptize people in the bath tub. So at first it seemed like all of these “changes” were to make us a better Christian family. How could anything being used to make us better Christians be a bad thing, right? So of course I embraced everything that the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) taught. I memorized Scriptures, character qualities, principles, and standards that, as I got a little older, I knew I could never live up to. To my own shame, I would raise ideas, topics, and Scriptures in Sunday School just to subtly show everyone in the class (leadership included) just how low their standards really were.
I learned this behavior from my parents, who, after implementing these new “standards” seemed to forget that they even had any sort of a past. My father, who really dove headlong into everything IBLP/ATI/Bill Gothard, was always quick to point out the standards which he had adopted to others, and my mother was a little more subtle (manipulative as I would learn later) about it. The mega-church we attended wouldn’t embrace these teachings. Mom was a Sunday School teacher and would have gatherings with her ladies at the house, and it was there that she’d mix in all of what they were lacking from church. Every time she’d host one of these gatherings, my sister and I would have some role to play — as though we were trophy children meant to show these women what “truly godly children” should act like. Which, until I was in high school, was fine by me. We’ll get to that part soon. I remember on numerous occasions reciting large passages of Scripture (always with hand motions) or serving food or holding wisdom searches as a means of babysitting kids so that the women could learn of “true godliness.” What’s wrong with that? You learned to serve. You learned so much! I wouldn’t discover the answer to that question until this year. I’m now a 29-year-old man with a wife and two beautiful sons.
As I got into my high school years, developing in mind and body as all young men do, I found that I had a weakness for the opposite sex. I thought that all I really wanted was a girlfriend, which of course was taboo. My parents had spies all over this 10,000+ member church. I couldn’t even speak to a girl for more than five seconds without mom and dad knowing about it and questioning me about it later. They wanted to protect my emotions. They wanted to protect me from the “immoral” girls in our youth group. I could count how many of those girls there were on one hand with fingers left over. I’d had brushes with pornography earlier in life and, as inadvertent as it was, they felt I was in great danger. We were to be the “best of the best,” as Mr. Gothard had so often told us. I wanted to please my parents, but, more than that, I was deathly afraid of the consequences of stepping out from under authority, so I obeyed cheerfully and without question. By this time my dad had become the Area Community Coordinator for all of the Institute’s seminars in our city. We even had opportunities to meet with Mr. Gothard personally and hear him comment to my parents about how bright our eyes were. This made us even more of trophy children, and thus, increased the pressure.
My sister and I were sent to the Indianapolis Training Center on several occasions for various seminars and training. My dad was especially proud when I went through Children’s Institute (CI) training. I traveled around our state doing several CI’s, and that was the first (and sadly the only) time I ever saw pride in my father’s face toward me. When I had played little league baseball he was there and involved until I began to get passionate and emotional about it. My father was pleased with me most of the time, but this was the only time I could see the pride in his eyes. It didn’t have anything to do with what I was doing, but rather who it was associated with. My mom was the disciplinarian. I can remember some serious spankings up until I was 15 years old. Nothing was ever quite good enough for her. I’ve still yet to see pride in my mother’s eyes toward me. They faked it very well, putting up a front for others — especially those in the church that they meant to have influence with or among the rank and file of ATI families. When I turned 16, I started working part-time at our church as an audio tech, and I inherited a hand-me-down car from my sister. It wasn’t much — but it was enough freedom for me to wiggle out from under the thumb of my parents.
It was around this time that I began noticing things about our family that just didn’t seem healthy. And this of course led to questioning, which was not welcome in our house. One of the things that I began to wonder was, “why is it that everything about our family is considered ‘private’ and isn’t to be discussed outside of the family, but inside the family we were allotted no personal privacy?” We were told “not to give a bad report.” But to me this seemed to fly in the face of “truthfulness.” Why was I being told that it’s okay to lie to others about something if it protects the family, but within our home there was to be no lying about sin, struggles, or anything else? We weren’t even allowed to have the door to our bedrooms closed unless we were dressing. Everything in our rooms was fair game for mom and dad to go through and/or take for any purpose and without question.
As I began to realize these things, I knew that I was going to have to become a master of keeping secrets from Mom and Dad. This really caused a deep wound in me, because we had it drilled into our heads that the main tactic the enemy uses is to keep information from our parents. I felt like no matter what I did or which direction I went, I had no choice but to live in what I knew was sin; I was going to lie to someone. I began to develop an ever-growing questioning spirit and mind. This was soon classified as rebellion and ultimately led me to leave home.
By the time I turned 18, I was in a full blown “rebellion.” I had met a great young lady and began dating her, much to my parents’ dismay and disapproval. They mostly disapproved because her family didn’t meet their standards and because I was not going through the courtship process. I ended up leaving home and moving in with her family for what I hoped would be a short time. But the more pressure I got from my parents, the more I resisted. I ended up living with this family for a few years. My biggest problem was that, because of my lack of training on how to be in a relationship, I reverted to what I was most comfortable doing: touting myself as a super-Christian. And I ended up doing shameful things to this wonderful, loving family — things that I somehow justified in my own mind, and that ended up ripping that family apart. If for some reason they ever read this, I would like for them to know that words can never express the sorrow that I feel over my actions, because I spoke and acted not only out of ignorance, but out of arrogant ignorance. I understand that my words cannot mend the wounds, but I pray continually to the God of ALL healing, that in mercy He would heal the wounds which I left.
By the end of that relationship I had gone off the deep end and wound up back home. I knew that, in order to be there, I had to conform to what Mom and Dad wanted, so I did. I felt as though I was a prisoner in my own home. Confined — not physically, but mentally, emotionally, and most of all spiritually. Suicide crossed my mind often, because if this was all my life was destined to be, then it wasn’t worth living.
One morning in 2004, I remember just breaking down during my prayer time, asking God what He wanted from me. I had been told what His way was and I tried it, but there were too many holes in the theology for it to work. I remember the most peaceful voice rang to my heart as though it were whispered in my ear: “Think for yourself!” I’ve never let go of that! My response was simply, “How?”
I had been taught what to think, but I had never been taught how to think. It was then that I realized — the true stronghold that had been built in my soul wasn’t there tormenting me with temptations and sin, but rather it was there to cripple my mind so that I couldn’t reason correctly. Satan didn’t need me to commit more sins, he needed my mind to not function correctly so that I would have a distorted view of God. After all, that is his main goal isn’t it? If he can distort our view of God, we’ll become frustrated in our relationship with Him and abandon it altogether. I began to study Scripture in a new way. I began to look for who God is and what He is like. In searching for these things I began to learn about the character of my Heavenly Father. Discovering the character and nature of God brought a trust which cannot be shaken. I’ve learned how to really forgive without surrendering my personal boundaries.
My parents remained a part of IBLP until my father passed away a few years ago. After his passing, my mom left the Institute for a while, but now she and her new husband attend a church which is tightly knitted with IBLP and its dangerous teachings.
While not all of my upbringing was bad, I would say that it’s only by the protective hand of God that I made it to where I am now. I may not have been physically abused, but I grew up in a dangerous environment.
When my dad died, there was no mourning in my heart. There were only raw emotions which I was never allowed to express. Hurt, disappointment, and anger were all I could really feel. See, for all of our training on truthfulness, we had never been allowed to be honest. There’s a big difference, I’ve learned, between truthfulness and honesty. You can be truthful without being honest, but you can’t be honest without being truthful. All I wanted was to be able to have one truly honest moment with my father, but I knew he wasn’t a big enough man to handle it. That’s not a knock on my dad; I don’t blame him. God will hold responsible the man whose false teachings created these problems.
As I sat by my dad’s bed in his final hours, longing for the moment that would never come, that’s when that peaceful voice rang to my heart once again, “Ray, all I want from you is one moment of sheer, pure, raw honesty!” My Heavenly Father wanted with me what I longed for with my dad.
Oh, what love was this that was big enough to take my anger, my hurt, my screaming and shouting, my pain, my joy, my hopes, and my dreams? Without fear of retribution, I unleashed all that had been bottled up for so long with viciousness, passion, and joy! For the first time ever I knew what it was to “Cast ALL of my cares on Him, for He cares for me.” I got to thinking about that verse that day. You know, if you’re trapped under a heavy rock, you can’t cast it off by just pushing it. It requires every once of strength and adrenaline. You’ve got to give it everything you have. That’s what our Father wants us to do with our cares. Unload them on Him because He big enough to take it. He’s God enough to take it! Thank you, Lord Jesus, for your incredible heart of mercy and love!
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