Reconstructing My Faith
A guest post by Sarabeth Kapusta
Ten years ago, I fled the only life I had ever known and escaped the abuse and control of the church where I grew up. For more than 25 years, my entire world revolved around church and what the leader told us to believe and how to live. Although we identified as an independent, fundamental, spirit-filled Baptist church, we had all the hallmarks of a cult. I never imagined that I would end up questioning everything and leaving it all behind. In fact, I did everything in my power not to become like those who stopped attending during the years I was there. Those who left were made an example to us of God’s judgment and their characters were maligned severely. But, in February of 2013, I did the unthinkable thing.
Up until that point in my life, I existed in the tiny world of the controlling cult I grew up in. If you met me back then, you might have just thought I was a very conservative Christian with some weird rules, and I did the best I could at seeming “normal” to the outside world, mostly because I knew intuitively that I had to represent my pastor well or I would be in trouble with him, and God. If you could have dug a little deeper, you would have found out that I didn’t do anything without someone in authority telling me to. I learned through one too many times of getting in trouble with the pastor that it was wrong for me to make decisions on my own and his role was to tell me what to think and how to behave. I also learned not to ask questions. Even my private journals were full of stilted language, full of fear that if I wrote the wrong thing, someone might find out. If I had a lucid thought questioning the system I was in, I would usually quickly stuff it down, and repent to God. Surely, that kind of thinking was Satan trying to deceive me.
The good news was that it was not Satan, and that eventually, those questions and doubts flooded my mind with the undeniable truth that I had to escape the group—but that first step of leaving wouldn’t be simple, and the fallout would be devastating. I wrestled with the decision for a full year, but it became overwhelmingly clear in the early part of 2013 that it was time to go. However, I didn’t want to lose my family, and I thought maybe I could just stay for them. It became abundantly clear to me one morning as I was reading in the Gospel of Matthew, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…” (Mt 10:37). Those words helped me realize I couldn’t follow Jesus and stay at this church any longer. It was then, with tears falling down my face, that I wrote an exit letter to the pastor.1
Although I was almost certain I would lose everything, I still held onto a little bit of hope that I wouldn’t. For a long time, my biggest fear was being an outcast of the group and losing family, community, and love itself, something I was told didn’t truly exist outside of our group. According to the leader, I was being turned over to Satan and my life would be one full of judgment and destruction because of my rebellion against God. My family was not allowed to have a relationship with me unless I repented of my disobedience and disregard for what we learned was “biblical” spiritual authority. The pastor, who knew my family since before I was born and prided himself on remembering me when I was baby throwing green peas on the floor from my highchair, turned on me in an instant and told my family and friends ugly lies, including the idea that I had a mental breakdown and was sleeping around. He also took to our church’s private social media to talk about what a victim he was because he was a faithful man of God, and people like me were attacking him. When I saw that my sister had posted words of encouragement to him, I knew that I had indeed lost everything, and deleted my account.
At the time I left, my faith was mostly based on the idea that I had to conjure belief and feelings from within myself, but a small bit of it, perhaps a mustard seed-sized bit, was resting solidly on what little piece of objective truth I could recall from scripture. There were many waves of doubt and fear that kept crashing over me. Of course, one of them was, What if they are right and I am just a rebellious jezebel? But then I would swing to the other side and worry, What if they somehow convince my new friends how evil I am and they believe them and abandon me too? As I began to realize the depth of deception and abuse I had been under and what a manipulative liar the pastor had turned out to be, I couldn’t help but also wonder if Christianity itself was a lie, or whether I was simply a Christian because I had to be in order to survive within the group.
My own assurance was basically nonexistent, and I frequently doubted my salvation. I also doubted whether salvation itself was real. I had always heard the saying, “Do you know that you know that you know?” and that the way to really know would be to inspect my “testimony” of faith, and feel the Holy Spirit confirming my salvation. Mostly, I questioned whether I had ever really done enough to be saved. Specifically, I wondered if I had repented fully, sincerely, and with a heart totally surrendered to the Lord. A common practice in the cult for a person struggling with sin, which often meant disobeying leadership or questioning authority, was to have them sit with the pastor who would inspect their testimony of salvation. Many people I knew sat with him in meetings where they recounted their profession of faith and he told them they had not actually repented, which meant that they weren’t saved. I never had one of those meetings, but I was terrified of them, and those ideas stole away the preciousness of the gospel almost as immediately as it was presented to me. I spent a lot of time obsessing over what I did to ask for salvation and noticing just how much I kept sinning, rather than thinking of the finished work of Christ.
When I left, I would continue to dramatically swing from assurance to doubt, and part of what I was looking for was a list of rules and a lifestyle that set me apart from everyone else—including other Christians—that could help me feel like I was pleasing God. I immediately found a new church that had all of that. I figured out their beliefs and rules, which were especially heavy-handed toward women and gender roles. I assumed the role of a stay-at-home daughter, although I was an adult single woman living on my own. That meant I started two home businesses and the church financially supported whatever my businesses couldn’t cover to keep me from working outside my home. That was considered a godly, biblical lifestyle for me as a single woman. Initially, I unsuspectingly and eagerly wanted to force myself into this mold, but very quickly the weight of their version of legalism became unbearably crushing. As I continued to read scripture for myself, I began to question their teachings as well. I kept finding various contradictions and ultimately realized that many of their defining beliefs were unbiblical.
After leaving the second group, I got a job outside of my home, wore pants, dated and married my husband, finished law school, and slowly began to enjoy my life. Nothing but faith in the work of Christ set me apart as special or having a better standing with God. I no longer belonged to a select group that prided itself on its special knowledge or legalistic practices. I was “just” a Christian. The simplicity felt scary and too good to be true, but what I found in scripture led me to just keep pressing into this and to turn from the pride of thinking I could be better than other Christians or merit more of God’s affection.
I continued to struggle with doubts, but the worst part was I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about them. I thought my questions were indicative of something deeply and darkly wrong with me, something that I should just ignore as rebellious unbelief. I had heard my pastor say over and over again in order to shut us up, “You don’t need to understand. You need to stand under,” and I thought God was just like that, angrily dragging me around and scolding me whenever I asked a question.
I treated those doubts and questions like the contents of a cluttered closet of things that have no home, that no one wants to sort through, and I tried not to think about them, afraid that the doubts would take over. Perhaps I would become their next victim and would walk away from Christianity completely. But eventually, my curiosity and desire for truth overrode my fear, and I just kept reading the Bible straight through, digging into all my scary questions and doubts. God kept on showing up in those pages, answering in unmistakable ways.
Just a year or two after leaving the cult, I took a philosophy of law class where we looked at different ideas from various philosophers and questioned them until their premises fell apart. Christian philosophy, I noticed, stood up under scrutiny. I learned in that class that God could handle my questions. (Although that was not the point of the course, whatsoever!) I was thrilled to learn this, and I asked God questions all the time after that, mostly praying about things I read in the Bible, and asking for understanding. I remember telling one of my professors that I just like to ask God questions, and he cautioned me that I wouldn’t always get an answer, but that didn’t discourage me at all. I was just happy to know I could freely ask!
I was still unsteady and struggling in my faith, but two things shifted dramatically in my life that brought deeper stability. I learned to read scripture methodically, in context, as a cohesive book about God and his plan of redemption from Genesis to Revelation. We also moved to a new state and settled into a community with other like-minded believers, where I felt safe to share in my struggles. Over time, I became more stable in my faith, as I learned to read the Bible in context, but also as I learned to trust a believing community once again, as we studied and shared in life together.
The proper understanding of scripture and how to read it began to transform and heal my heart in innumerable ways. I stopped focusing on myself and my own ability to conjure faith and began to look at what Christ did for me. I started to understand that it was not the strength of my faith, but it was the object of my faith that saved me. Passages in the New Testament where Jesus spoke of faith took on new meaning, and I began to lean more and more heavily on the grace of God—something the cult taught me I should need less and less as I matured in my faith. I also began to see everything so much more clearly, and the Bible made sense as a unified whole. It also ceased to be a mystical document, almost like a spell book, and something I had difficulty studying without an emotional “quiet time” experience attached to it.
One of the latest things to settle and calm me has been my own assurance of salvation. Living in daily doubt, wondering if I had repented well enough when I first believed as a child plagued me until I learned that I was meant to have confident assurance in the work of Christ on my behalf. I stopped looking so much at myself and my accomplishments and started to fix my eyes on Christ and his work, learning to go to him with my sin instead of trying to fix it myself, and then resting in my status as a forgiven child of God.
Over the last several years of studying the Bible carefully, asking lots of questions, and noticing that our faith is based, not on our own internal feelings, but on the well-documented historical event of the resurrection of Jesus, I have settled even more into the knowledge that God has not asked me to blindly believe. It is comforting to know that our faith is based upon the testimony of so many credible eyewitnesses. I am thankful that my former need for emotional experiences to prove my faith has been put into proper perspective by the objective truth of the Christian faith. What I found along the way was a deepened relationship with God and a love for him and his word that I missed while I was busy looking for new experiences. In the aftermath of many years of spiritual abuse, followed by many doubts and questions, reconstructing my faith has taken a long time and quite a bit of work. As I rebuilt each piece, I stood on a firmer foundation. Now when I do experience doubt or I am reexamining a long-held belief, I no longer feel these things threaten to topple the entire structure. I know, I can confidently go back to the source with my questions praying, “I believe; help my unbelief,” as I continue to reconstruct my faith, bit by bit.
Sarabeth Kapusta is a wife, mother, podcaster, and survivor of over 25 years of spiritual abuse in a cult masquerading as a Baptist church. After working as an attorney and in curriculum development, she decided to stay home with her daughter and then started the Reconstructing Your Faith podcast out of her desire to help others rebuild their faith after abuse, hurt, and doubt. You can listen to an interview with Sarabeth Kapusta on The Humble Skeptic podcast here.
I do not recommend that people in abusive groups or relationships write letters; rather, you are free to flee in the safest way possible. This step just made sense to me at the time. I was still operating under the perception that I was dealing with just a difference of opinion or convictions, and I was trying my best to “do a good job” of leaving, since so many before had purportedly left in an inappropriate way. Little did I know then that there was actually no “good way” to leave.
The Humble Skeptic is a listener-supported podcast. To support this work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.