A House of Mirrors
With the demise of old-fashioned amusement parks, we have seen the disappearance of houses of mirrors. These houses comprised maze-like passageways where customers walked, becoming increasingly disoriented and set off-balance by the mirrors that surrounded them because the mirrors functioned as the actual obstacles in the maze. Distorted images made it nearly impossible for customers to be sure that what they were seeing was real and not a mere image.
The mirrors were of all shapes and sizes. However, what they had in common was that they all lacked a flat surface such as that in any normal household mirror. Instead, they were convex, concave, bloated out, and punched in and twisted so that they did not yield a true reflection of their subject. Instead, the image they produced was distorted—sometimes a person would laugh at his image, and sometimes just look away. The reflections ranged from comical to grotesque. instead of the beholder’s true, 6-foot height, one mirror might portray him as only 4 feet tall—and 3 feet wide! Another mirror might present the body’s frame as resembling an upside-down bowling pin. Another might take a 210-pound man and slim him down to what appeared to be a solid, lithe, 175 pounds.
To add to the experience, a person often saw his companions’ images in the distortion of the misshapen mirrors. Nothing, and no one, were what they appeared to be in the House of Mirrors.
Once a person finally completed the journey through the house of mirrors, stepping into the daylight of the real world seemed a bit disorienting. Were buildings truly flat and solid? Was the ground moving? It often took a couple of minutes to gain one’s bearings and return to the world of trustworthy, solid images.
People who belong to abusive churches are living in a spiritual house of mirrors. Reality is distorted, twisted into a confusing, off-balancing existence that, sadly, becomes normal for members. In this spiritual maze of mirrors, leaders appear to possess more power and authority than the rest of the world would ever accord them. They become giants, towering over those they control; and as the juxtaposition of many mirrors focused on one object appears to make that object seem omnipresent, so the leaders seem to be everywhere in the lives of their followers, controlling day-to-day thoughts, actions, and decisions. In every direction one turns in the spiritual house of mirrors, pastors and leaders are ever looming, ever providing their own, personal explanations of truth and demands of loyalty implied in expectations of immediate obedience. There seems to be no escaping these powerful influences.
Sadly, in every mirror members see themselves as small, distorted, frail, weak, and needy—every mirror, without exception. For the leaders are themselves the architects of these spiritual houses of mirrors. Moreover, just as a literal house of mirrors is designed and constructed to make escape seem mildly difficult, these spiritual houses of mirrors are not constructed for members to find it easy or comfortable to leave. Rather, those who are caught within must stumble out, sometimes knocking over a few mirrors in the exit process, simply resolving that they will ... keep ... following ... that sliver of brightness that has invaded their souls’ darkness.
Abused members often feel as timid as mice and as dead as stones. They wonder if there is truly another world that even exists out there, and if that world will allow, welcome, or embrace them back into its light. Sometimes the pain of staying overpowers the fear of leaving. They are, finally, people with nothing left to lose; and so they take the risk and flee the house of mirrors.
Christians who escape abusive churches often suffer a state of disorientation and confusion regarding their faith, the church, the Bible, Jesus, God, prayer, marriage, children, careers, food, and traditions. The list is long, and it grows as more people who escape abusive religious groups share their stories. Like the visitors to a house of mirrors who have stumbled out its back door, blinking in the sunlight and unsteady on their feet, those who leave the dark churches often remain in a state of spiritual funk, and dizziness, and uncertainty for a long time. They wonder if they have just wasted months, if not years of their lives. They wonder if they can ever trust any church, or pastor, again. They wonder if their marriages and families can ever, possibly, recover from the assault and trauma endured. They wonder if their lives will ever seem put together again, functional and healthy. They wonder if up will every truly seem like up, and down truly seem like down, and if they can ever trust their ability to judge truth again. Parents wonder if they will ever be able to effectively lead and protect their families again. Children wonder if they can trust their parents and if they will forever bear the stigma of belonging to a troubled church, not of their own choosing, but of their parents’ choice!
As a survivor of an abusive church, I found that it is at the very point of these fears and anxieties that the grace of God took on its full, flesh-and-blood meaning. In many ways, the most profound doctrines of God Himself—His love, grace, mercy, kindness—weren’t so much revealed as they were embraced, like the floating timbers of a sinking ship.
If you are in an abusive church or religious system today, I hope you will begin that small, private, secret, subversive work of asking God to rescue you, and that you will look for a small crack of light from the back of the house of mirrors, where an unseen Friend has left the door ajar for those who will to leave. I still squint at the brightness of the magnificent, healing sun that awaited me on the other side of the house of mirrors.
About the Author
Ken Garrett, DMin, is pastor of Grace Bible Church, Portland, Oregon.