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One of my earliest memories was walking down the hall from my Sunday school class to the sanctuary, pondering in perfect happiness the most important thing I knew: Jesus loved me, and his Father, God, loved me. They loved me even more than my Mommy and Daddy loved me. And that’s how much I loved them back.
My relationship with Jesus was so simple in those early years. It was simple Bible stories. Simple truths. And simple faith. When I remember how it felt, the word that comes to mind is peace. Perfect, joyful peace.
When I was about five, my parents joined Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute (ATI) homeschool program, and they pulled my older sister out of public school. Mom and Dad seemed really excited about it, and it was mostly pleasant for five-year-old me. Being an ATI family was not something I questioned, let alone resented. I embraced this whole “New Approach to Life.” I loved attending the Children’s Institute. I could not wait to be old enough to teach CI’s, serve at Training Centers, and go on ministry trips with the Institute. I not only drank the Kool-Aid®, I had my own little Kool-Aid® stand, spreading the “truth” to other young people when I got the chance.
When I was about eleven years old, I remember looking at all the many Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) publications on our bookshelves. I was pondering those verses about “testing” every teaching against the Bible, and being wary of false teachers. We were constantly on guard against anything that might pollute our minds, including Christian material (at least that was my childhood impression). Everything was suspect. That danger lurking everywhere was unsettling to me. So my young heart overflowed with gratefulness for ATI. I said a prayer of thanks that we were part of that program, because at least we knew everything that came from IBLP was true – in fact, it was as trustworthy as the Bible itself!
Seriously, that’s what I prayed. That memory triggers nausea these days. And it’s so very telling.
In retrospect, I’m sure that if I had said any of this out loud to my parents, they would have explained that IBLP publications were not, in fact, on par with the Bible. But if my parents, ATI pastor, or any of the rest of the ATI parents in our circles had communicated that Bill Gothard was just as fallible as anyone, and he too had to be listened to with discernment—well, I missed the message entirely.
As a teenager, I achieved my childhood hopes of serving with the Institute in various capacities. I personally observed Bill Gothard at conferences and in our staff meetings. That’s when I saw a man who quietly ate up the adulation when the crowd frequently interrupted him with lengthy standing ovations. I saw a man who cared far more about his preferences, and the appearance of IBLP properties, than the physical needs and limitations of his volunteer staff. I saw a man who flashed thinly veiled anger when he sensed that his staff and students weren’t reverently hanging on his every word. This “man of God” looked more and more tarnished as time and experience went on.
At nineteen I attended my fourth Basic Seminar, this time with a notebook that was already filled out, and my Bible open. I looked up the “supporting” verses for each point and quickly realized that the verses were taken out of context, or twisted to mean something they clearly did not. Not all references were misused, but far too many to be excused as isolated mistakes.
By the end of that year I had resigned my staff position. Although I stayed loosely involved with temporary programs, I would never serve on staff under that man, or trust anything he said, ever again.
But some ideas were deeply rooted in my thinking. Throughout my youth I had believed with all my heart that if I followed the Basic Principles, and kept “the standards,” God would give me the “Life Success” He had promised. But then He didn’t perform as expected. I realized in time that, while there are a number of “dos and don’ts” in the New Testament, smoking, drinking, music genres, clothing specifications, and birth control were conspicuously not mentioned. At all. And ironically, those were the standards by which I measured my righteousness before God. It followed that the Life Success “promise” for following those standards was similarly bogus. And maybe my entire understanding of God was bogus.
The memory of my early faith in Jesus came back to me, and I longed for that simplicity and peace again. But my entire Christian upbringing was deeply intertwined with IBLP and like-minded teachers. I had been tricked, manipulated, and just plain lied to. I didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t, and I had never felt so lost and scared.
Over a decade later I’m still struggling. Like many of my former ATI student peers, I can’t sit through a church service anymore without having a panic attack. Reading my Bible is similarly troublesome. Both activities are so strongly connected with manipulation and deception that they can trigger an avalanche of negative memories, doubts, and fears.
I try to listen to sermon podcasts while doing housework. The more casual setting minimizes the associations. I can pick preachers who don’t sound like the ones I grew up with. But I have trust issues now, and trying to vet a “safe” preacher is an emotional adventure all its own. When critics claim, “All you have to do is go to the scripture, and see what the truth is! And this man is not preaching the truth!”, it just makes me shake my head. I know all too well that with a little creativity you can make the Bible say any “truth” you want it to. I also know what it’s like to know a teacher is “off,” but not be able to clearly articulate how or why. So maybe the critics are crazy, or maybe they should be heeded. I don’t know.
I feel deeply inadequate to discern truth or error. The fear of being led astray again always claws at the insides of my chest. It would be sweet relief to just shut my brain off on the whole topic of spirituality. But I can’t, because I still need to know Who is Jesus? Really?
Others who have shared my struggle with church services and Bible reading recommend reading different Bible versions from the King James Version that we were immersed in during IBLP years. Reading a verse in different words can help break free from negative associations, and (hopefully) false teaching that was attached to the verse. But years of indoctrination leave me with a deep seated concern that other Bible versions are adulterated and dangerous, so there’s just a different kind of anxiety reading non-KJV options.
If it looks, sounds, or feels like the brand of Christianity I was raised on under IBLP, it makes me want to run. If it looks, sounds, or feels like the brand of Christianity that IBLP taught me to fear (which is basically anything not in the conservative fundamentalist camp), it makes me wonder if I should want to run, because maybe this was one of the things they were actually right about? The confusion is maddening.
It sometimes feels like riding out a hurricane. The fear. The awe. The anger. The sorrow. The desperate hope. The complete overload of all senses. And I find myself asking God to simply give me peace. To make the spinning stop. He hears my cry, I’m sure, but the spinning hasn’t stopped. Apparently my storm must go on for a while.
So…how do we find Jesus? Thousands of us raised under a false teacher are desperately asking that question. We’re out of the cult, but how do we quiet all the voices in our heads, both subtle and loud? How do we return to the Bible that was used to deceive us, and learn the truth about the Man from Nazareth?
I really want to know. But even if you were to tell me, I probably wouldn’t trust you. I’ve been sold a formula before.
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