When children or adults are physically, sexually, verbally, emotionally or spiritually abused, the following messages are not only communicated, they can become imprinted onto their identities:
- "I'm bad": For abused children who never experienced consistent praise and punishment in love, it is common for them to see themselves as essentially bad. They may try to strive to earn the love of God, but cannot receive it because they see themselves as sinful and incapable of being loved. This is also common in spiritually abusive homes or churches where God's character is primarily portrayed as angry, vengeful, and punishing.
- "I'm worthless": Abuse also communicates that the person is not worth loving. It is difficult for anyone to receive God's love when they don't understand how God could love someone worthless.
- "I'm never good enough": Those children who were judged by their performance or constantly compared to others can spend years striving to earn favor with God. If genuine love was seldom expressed by their parents, it will be difficult to receive care from God and others.
- "I'm a thing to be used": This is common for those who were sexually abused. They may only feel that they are valuable when a ministry uses them for some task, but can never truly receive love from God or others.
Abandonment and Neglect
Children of divorce or adoption, or those with parents or spouses who ignored or abandoned them often struggle with different issues of identity along with many of the ones listed above:
- "I'm not worth staying for": Children often blame themselves when they are adopted or a parent leaves or divorces (this is related to "I'm worthless" and "I'm bad"). A spouse can also absorb this message when the other abandons the marriage. It is difficult to trust the love of God when he is expected to walk out.
- "I'm alone": Those who grew up with limited parental influence have trouble trusting in God or anyone else to care for them when they feel like nobody will look after them.
- "I'm responsible for my parents": This is common for children of divorce who have to navigate the dynamics of visiting both parents. They do not expect care from God but feel obliged to love God.
Wounds warp our concept of God
Abuse, abandonment and neglect from parents, pastors or other authority figures affect how the emotionally wounded see God as well. If they were abused, it is assumed that God is angry and punishing. If they were neglected, it is assumed that God is absent or disengaged. For those who feel like they must always work harder to win God's approval, either of these factors may be relevant.
God works through our lives
Most people who experience spiritual dryness have emotional wounds that affect the way they see God and themselves. For many years, I didn't take my own wounds seriously because I thought of my experience in black and white terms - either God was doing something in me through spiritual dryness, or I was crazy and didn't need God, but a psychologist. Inevitably, I realized that God doesn't work around our lives, but through them. God was fully at work in the dryness, and my own emotional healing was a part of this process.
God wants to be invited into the healing process because untreated emotional wounds often fester and create more damage for the person and those around them. For this reason, the pain caused by spiritual dryness is often related to God's tendency to "poke" the person where they hurt the worst so the pain will be addressed instead of ignored. When God seems distant, he may be trying to make space to address these wounds.
Destroying Emotional Strongholds
Paul described arguments against the truth of God as "strongholds" (2 Cor 10:4-5) - fortified and defended positions that are not easily destroyed. We can find that our false perceptions of ourselves and God are so rooted in us and fortified by anger, fear and shame that it is remarkably difficult for them to be dismantled. In this passage, Paul says that we must destroy these arguments and opinions and "take every thought captive to obey Christ." This happens by immersing ourselves in scripture, learning how God truly loves us and sees us and is worthy of our trust and obedience. While this process is difficult, we were never meant to journey alone.
Counselors and Community
Professional counselors are trained to help people see and respond to their emotional pain, and can be invaluable in the healing process. However, staying involved in Christian community is essential. For those struggling with spiritual dryness, they may find that their greatest experience of God's love is the way their community cared for them in their vulnerability and mess. It is important to be involved in a church small group or bible study where Christ works through the various gifts given to members of his body (see Rom 12:4-8) to bring healing and restoration.