Mopping Up the Mess
By Sharon L.
For all of us whose minds are still in a state of post-WCG clutter
Still Messed Up
In reading letters from Painful Truth readers I have received over the past month as responses to "Do or Die," I sense I am not alone in feeling a bit hollow, cynical, and unbalanced since exiting the Worldwide Church of God. Fully coming to terms with our exposure to it is elusive to many of us, even 5, 10, 15, 20 or more years out of the Worldwide Church of God. Although most of those with whom I have had contact have jobs and families, there is palpable emptiness to what they are currently experiencing in their lives. Various individuals sent me emails indicating that they still have not yet recovered from their exposure to the Worldwide Church of God-on a personal level.
While most of us can view the cultic mishap behind us with a healthy degree of revulsion, a lot of us are handicapped in visiting our current stance on spiritual issues. In fact, the mere mention of the word "spiritual" can make us cringe, thinking back on the word's usage in the Worldwide Church of God: "spiritual" fruits, "spiritual" maturity, "spiritual" blessings, "spiritual" meat, "spiritual" drink, etc. Many of us have completely shut down the part of our brain that once processed spiritual topics.
To illustrate this, some people have written emails to me from an embarrassed, fearful perspective (often remaining anonymous), clearly uncomfortable expressing any intimate thoughts in relation to Worldwide Church of God. Yet their unsettled minds compelled them to write. Practically all correspondents wanted to know my personal beliefs about religion, as I kept them intentionally vague in "Do or Die." Yet several of these inquisitive correspondents were not ready to share their own beliefs. I (still) don't think it's particularly relevant to anyone except me what my personal beliefs are . . . or maybe I really haven't yet sorted them out at all.
Others of us have had difficulty adapting to people and traditions outside of the cult. Most of us experienced a rude awakening when the Worldwide Church of God chapter of our lives came to an end. We needed to make new friends or take up new hobbies and pastimes to fill all the time we had devoted to the Worldwide Church of God. Equally tiring and frustrating for some of us can be the search for new motivation and drive for living out our lives.
"Mopping up the Mess" presents plausible reasons we may be preventing ourselves from leading more fulfilling lives. The "leftover instincts" below relate to observations I have made of my own behavior as well as that of friends, family, and acquaintances through the PT website who were once part of the Worldwide Church of God.
Our Leftover Instincts
The following list of instincts reflects common outlooks and perceptions we may share as ex-WCG followers. More than any of us can personally appreciate, our mindset was ruthlessly altered and conditioned first and foremost to support the survival of a cult, not our own. Some instincts may be healthy to have in moderation, but a lot of them cloud our judgment and keep us as closed-minded as we once were in the cult. Below are items to consider because, if applicable, they may just be working against us more than we realize.
£ The instinct to think and live in terms of being "in" or "out" of the Church
In the Worldwide Church of God we were told that we were "not of this world." People inside the church were good. People outside were bad. All things "in the Church" were of God. All things outside of the Church were controlled by Satan. We heard these messages so many times that we actually started to separate the "Church" and everything else into two distinct and illogical categories. We describe ourselves to this day, in many cases as either "in" or "out" of the Worldwide Church of God. Just what does this artificial distinction mean? We were and still are a part of the world, and we will always remember most of our Worldwide Church of God experiences. Our experiences remain a part of us. And the "church" was really just a bunch of people that attended the same type of services and social outings out of free will. Our degree of affiliation with the church was (and is) determined by the degree of our mental attachment to it.
Having rejected the Worldwide Church of God, we must all recognize by now that we are (and always were) part of "the world." But should we resume engaging in all of our pre-WCG habits just because being "out" of the Worldwide Church of God in and by itself is so much better than being stuck in it? Are bad habits or lifestyles we may have given up to enter the church such as smoking, gambling, alcoholism, philandering, workaholism, hedonism, etc. now all of a sudden acceptable things in which to engage being "out of the church?" Are we doing what we do now just to "rebel," having liberated ourselves from ministerial surveillance and salvation based guilt? Should we necessarily attend the same kind of church services or adopt the same religious beliefs we had pre-WCG, or should we throw out religion and spirituality entirely? Maybe yes, maybe no. But it makes a lot of sense to consider carefully what we are doing first and why rather than to fall into the knee-jerk "in" or "out" behavioral routine.
Living a post-WCG life should not mean that we forget our entire cultic experience. All of the hard-learned lessons and wisdom gained from our Worldwide Church of God days will be valuable to reflect upon in the years to come. Most of us, for example, would never again devote considerable amounts of our time and money to support an entity we have not fully investigated. Hopefully, we have developed a more humane approach in treating relatives and a more rational approach to financial and educational planning since exiting the cult. A lot of us, especially those who grew up in the church, appreciate the nauseating consequences of having beliefs and opinions shoved down our throats and the injury we could inflict on others in doing the same. There are many things we know now not to do or repeat.
£ The instinct to distrust people and, as a result, find it difficult to make new friends
Most of us in the Worldwide Church of God formed close friendships and strong bonds of trust. At least we thought people in the Worldwide Church of God were really our friends . . . until we or they left the church-then we became (in a lot of cases) an object of each other's worst fears. In the interest of our own protection and safety, we dropped contact with all our Worldwide Church of God friends abruptly, in many cases, never to speak to or hear from them again. How much of the hurt we have felt since becoming divorced from the Worldwide Church of God is ascribable to our disappointment in people-be it with regard to that of our spouses, families, friends, or the ministers?
Have we ever stopped to examine our own motives for joining or staying in the cult for as many years as we did? Why were we really attending the Worldwide Church of God church services, holy days, and activities? Are some of us prepared to admit to ourselves that we were really there just to make friends and have something to do with our time? Joining the Worldwide Church of God was a way of making hundreds of instant friends. We were taught to accept and love everyone in the congregation as brothers and sisters in Christ. It was first and foremost a social club to many. But for others, we joined the Worldwide Church of God out of interest in understanding the "truth" of God and sincerely believed that the ministers and founder of Worldwide Church of God were the commissioned servants of God, whom we were commanded to follow. Many of us interacted with people as minimally as possible outside of the faith just because we felt they could spiritually contaminate us. To those of us who were true believers, "God's people" were only to be found within Worldwide Church of God, and that was where our social life had to be, like it or not.
It is no wonder that many of our "friends" in the congregation let us down, or we let them down, when we encountered problems that led to being disfellowshipped or becoming "marked." For those of us who were committed to being true friends of our fellow brethren, it was difficult for us to act as true friends in practice-our membership in the social club would have been strained or terminated had we supported those who were cast out of the body. Likewise, it was unthinkable for the "believers" to retain contact with individuals who were cast out because individuals in the Church were viewed as God's people and deserved unconditional loyalty as human beings. As soon as people left the Worldwide Church of God, "believers" dropped contact with them as they would hot potatoes. Without a shred of human decency, many of us were either dropped or were guilty of doing the dropping.
We can make "real" friends and develop rewarding human relationships post-WCG. We just need to be sure that our real motive for seeking contact with others is for human companionship and that our motive is congruent with that of people with whom we seek friendship. We should approach "friendships" within a social club or religious community with caution-friendship and trust may be conditional upon our membership or group standing.
£ The instinct to hate and distrust human authorities of any type
We have all had our share of being the object of abusive authorities in the Worldwide Church of God. For graphic examples of abuse, we can turn to any number horror stories in the Painful Truth postings. In many ministerial instances, the abuse of authority was not even offset by the transfer of any useful knowledge or accurate information to the victims. The Worldwide Church of God was and is a complete scam. And just as in other religious scams, victims not only lose their money, but also their time, families, friends, and reasoning ability to the authorities and perpetrators. Surrendering our natural reasoning ability and instinct to seek truth based on evaluating evidence and experiences was likely the biggest loss we incurred from the cult. We voluntarily "checked" our minds at the coat closet when entering the Worldwide Church of God. How many of us have truly reclaimed them since leaving the Worldwide Church of God?
"Trusting" (i.e. relying on the truth, character, strength, or abilities in) anything or anyone is a dangerous prospect. Individuals and organizations are all subject to corruption, error and imperfection. We had all placed our trust in authority that we believed to have been commissioned by God to serve and teach us. We entrusted the Worldwide Church of God ministers and others in authority with solving our most intimate personal problems that might have interfered with our salvation. We applied their opinions and advice to everyday family life, trusting that ministers were our lifelines to God. We wrote Worldwide Church of God authorities a carte blanche of trust that they richly exploited. Ministers warned us not to consult professionals (e.g., medical doctors, lawyers, psychologists, Ph.D's of any type). Even consulting general reading material (on almost any topic) other than Worldwide Church of God literature, the Bible (in prescribed translations) and concordances was discouraged. We accepted their advice that all human government was evil and its inner workings (and elections) should be ignored. Man was allegedly incompetent in any of its attempts to try to govern or improve itself. Everything human was allegedly worthless and devoid of evolution or progression.
Discrediting all "wordly" authority at the recommendation of the Worldwide Church of God allowed us to remain comfortably ignorant and avoid the laborious process of thinking. But what do we do now when we need advice, help, or sources of factual information? Trusting in purely our own minds for navigation in life (i.e., writing off all forms of authority) is almost as bad as buying into one single, arbitrary source of authority. After disposing of the Worldwide Church of God as an authority source, what have we done to replace it?
Contrary to Worldwide Church of God teachings, there are all sorts of authorities that can help us answer questions or at least serve us in a constructive way-as sources from whom we can obtain knowledge or factual information. The more we read, research, investigate, and critically think through things, the more skilled we can become in discerning what is worthwhile and what is not. Through our unprecedented access to information via the Internet (as well as conventional libraries), it is much easier to inform ourselves than ever before in human history. With a little investigation, we may come to realize that there may be an iota of slow but positive evolution in the human experience-in the realms of science, medicine, government and human rights, agriculture, communications, even philosophy and metaphysics. Humanity has many destructive instincts, hurdles and challenges to overcome, but progress has only been made when humans have tried to loosen their shackles of ignorance.
£ The instinct to hate "God"
The "God" of Worldwide Church of God may well be one we would like to forget, or even apprehend and prosecute. But is this really "God"? Are we holding a grudge against something that may never have existed? Just what do we consider "God" to be, post-WCG? Have we ever considered redefining the concept of God or do we believe we must erase any thought of "God" or "gods" out of our minds? For some, becoming atheistic may do the trick, but for a lot of us it will not.
Avoiding the "God" question entirely is likely to leave us feeling at least latently curious about it. It is difficult to transition from having total devotion to pleasing God to completely rejecting "its" existence or importance. Even if we feel quite certain there exists no "God" in the form we once believed there was, we are at least left with the perennial questions relating to our existence-i.e., What is "God" really like? Where did the universe come from? Why are we here?
Redefining "God" may allow us to sort out all our messed up feelings about the existence of a Supreme Being or infinite reality. It helps to stop ascribing human characteristics, instincts, and feelings to "God." The Worldwide Church of God ministers commonly spoke of the scornful, wrathful, avenging or hateful features of God by illustrating how "He" (the Worldwide Church of God's God was always a "he") viewed disobedient members or sinners. How often do we still think of "God" in terms of a force that is out to punish the disobedient? Erasing the fear-inducing images of "God" in our past, whether they were created by the Worldwide Church of God, other religious leaders, parents, teachers, or even ourselves can be a liberating first step in trying to understand what "God" might actually be. The more we recognize that the majority of religious leaders that assert they act or speak in God's name are probably some of the least inspired individuals attempting to do so, the more we can distance ourselves from the primitive "human" concept of God.
Of course, as mentally and physically frail humans, it is natural to feel awe towards an infinite "God." But if "God" is really infinite and spans the entire universe, then we are all part of God. It follows that if we hate "God," we hate ourselves. Rather than viewing "God" as omnipotent and ourselves as immoral physical beings that are illogically and detached from "God's" infinity, it makes more sense to view ourselves as tiny (and incomplete) manifestations of "God." Through this vantage point, we all contribute in various ways to the physical life we live, based on the talents and skills that we have chosen to develop. It is up to each of us individually to develop ourselves and experience more of the rest of infinity ("God").
£ The instinct to become interminably obsessed with bashing the Worldwide Church of God and its hirelings
Dissecting the cult with all of its evil organs and personalities (even in vivisection, for many cults still exist today) satisfies our curiosity, confirms our darkest fears, and entertains us for a time. Record of vile wrongdoing should be captured in print for posterity and for deterrence of future membership. Personal accountability should be established, if for no other reason to alert others to danger of coming into contact with the known perpetrators of evil and their works. But the amount of benefit we can ultimately realize from scrutiny of the Worldwide Church of God is finite. The more we understand of it and the more equipped we are to avoid reentering a cult, the more reason there is to try to devote more time to other activity that can replenish our minds with that which is constructive.
The Worldwide Church of God is but one of many thousands of cults that have existed and attracted large followings in human history. The founders and benefactors of the Worldwide Church of God are just a few of the scores of individuals who have scammed and fleeced the masses over the ages, whether in the name of religion, "God," business, ideology, government, health, or under a plethora of other guises. Likewise, each of us is only one tiny pawn of manipulative cultitst techniques-rather insignificant in the scheme of things. Understanding the phenomenon of cultism is perhaps the greatest lesson we can hope to learn from the Worldwide Church of God. Through understanding the menace of cults, we have been immunized against further abuse. Moreover, we can help others recognize the danger of cults.
After we have properly documented the Worldwide Church of God for posterity, immunized ourselves (and hopefully others) from entering the same or similar cults (this may take many years), is there something more edifying we can begin doing with our time other than perpetually rehashing the past? Just as there are many people out there who should be warned about religious cults, there are at least as many people out there who could benefit from hearing/reading edifying thoughts about our pursuit of truth and the constructive side of life after a cult. If any of us has talent in providing much needed solace to people who have given much of their lives to seeking "truth," how much more valuable can time be spent on trying to articulate the positive rather than reiterate and magnify the evil in our pursuit of "truth"? Most of us have a desperate need of reassurance that our pursuit of spiritual reality was not all in vain and that it, in fact, should continue post-WCG.
In the alternative, amplifying our brush with evil (as manifest in the Worldwide Church of God cult) over protracted periods of time is bound to direct our general focus and disposition to the malign or sinister of human existence. Just as, for example, a protracted study of Hitler and Nazism or of the exorcism of demons might leave a professional researcher unbalanced or morbid, we can become absorbed in the deep recesses of spiritual darkness by mulling over the baleful capabilities of misguided theologians and scam artists. Time consumption alone involved in exhaustively researching the Worldwide Church of God or HWA crowds out time that could be spent on edifying ourselves or others. In rare instances where someone is professionally engaged in researching and documenting the Worldwide Church of God, it may be wise to counterbalance the pursuit by devoting some time to investigating less tainted forms of human philosophical endeavors.
£ The instinct to avoid all religious or spiritual materials or religious organizations of any type
In the Worldwide Church of God, we were carefully conditioned to believe that the Worldwide Church of God had a monopoly on truth, as it was God's one true church. Ministers of the cult tried to put blinders on us by ridiculing and denouncing individuals (as well as their literature and organizations) that were at all engaged in spiritual pursuits. We were taught that the entire world, but for Worldwide Church of God, was deceived and blinded by Satan. In most of our instances, we obediently complied with the ministers' teachings and even dutifully reported those who purveyed non-WCG materials at services or privately.
But, at least in part, our aversion to religious or spiritual materials of any kind at this juncture may be well founded. Many of us became sucked into the Worldwide Church of God because of all the free religious pamphlets and Plain Truth magazines that once littered public spaces. Our curiosity got the best of us and we started reading. Our whole sorry experience in the Worldwide Church of God in many cases began by innocently perusing literature that seemed to provide answers to key questions that have baffled humanity for ages. Those who distributed the "gospel" appeared to be genuine in their beliefs and motivated to help us learn about "God's plan" for humanity. Even H. W. Armstrong looked benevolent on television, boasting that he asked for no contributions on the air.
There are just as many pernicious religious leaders and groups out there today as there were when we bought into the Worldwide Church of God. Of all the published material floating around on world religions, philosophy, new age, healing, diet, psychic reading, yoga, metaphysics, etc., a good portion of it has been published merely for the sake of generating profit. Equally disturbing is that the content of many publications is at best questionable, if not plain incorrect, from either a factual or logical perspective. But the wider and broader we read on various topics, the greater the ability we achieve in being able to discern the well written and instructive from that which is worthless.
Fortunately, should we decide to reexamine the philosophical realm, our minds will be more resilient to absorbing materials that are potentially damaging, especially those that mirror the works of the Worldwide Church of God. We have the advantage of being acutely aware of the dangers of exploring the spiritual realm and trying to implement the teachings of any particular individual(s) in an organized group setting. Exploring diverse material may at least satisfy some of our curiosity. We will learn if we have not already, that humanity has always marveled at the same natural phenomena and pondered its existence. It might even be comforting to know that in certain respects, humanity is no closer than it ever was in appreciating many aspects pertaining to the true meaning of our existence.
£ The instinct to feel embarrassed to think about or express our personal spiritual beliefs
To many of us, the time we spent in the Worldwide Church of God remains a source of great embarrassment. Be it relatives, friends, employers, colleagues, or teachers outside the Worldwide Church of God with whom we had major clashes over the years, we have all experienced some degree of regret for how we treated people while under the influence of the cult. There is much to be embarrassed about, no doubt. Many of us no longer broach the topic of religion or spiritual thought with our families or friends, especially those who were around before and during the cult experience. Having been "wrong" about our beliefs in the past, we may no longer feel capable of having any more worthwhile thoughts on the spiritual side of things.
Most of us, while involved in the Worldwide Church of God, "believed" the exact same things. We adopted the exact beliefs that HWA taught. When queried by outsiders about our religious beliefs, many of us would parrot exactly what we had heard from ministers and read in H. W. Armstrong's booklets. When questioned further, many of us could not defend our beliefs from attack through historical debate or even through biblical knowledge. We had just swallowed the entire belief system whole without giving it critical thought or using our own minds, experiences, or common sense to scrutinize what we were being taught. In short, Worldwide Church of God beliefs were not really our beliefs-they were borrowed from those who espoused them (and may not have even bought into them themselves).
Assuming we have any interest in developing and refining our own beliefs, how do we go about doing so? Reading about the spiritual ideas of others can be a timelessly rewarding endeavor. We will realize that in almost any human culture or society, man has pondered the same spiritual topics, written about the same human dilemmas, and come up with the same types of explanations for our actions and emotions. Libraries of materials exist in every country that pertain to philosophy and religion. Each of us can find comfort in the fact that we have great company in searching for truth and meaning. We will gradually read more selectively with time and gravitate towards that which is edifying and applicable to our own personal lives.
For the information of those who are repulsed by organized religions and will not read anything written by individuals affiliated with them (historical or contemporary), many of the greatest world philosophers rejected organized religion during their lifetimes even though they had studied theology in their young years. There are many different approaches out there to spirituality and philosophical reflection. It may pay to investigate a bit before resolving to never again dabble in religious or philosophical thought.
* * * * * * *
For what it's worth to readers of "Mopping up the Mess," I'm still trying to get over my own aversion to exploring spiritual themes. It took me several visits to the Painful Truth website not to become physically ill reading discourse on religion. It was an irrational reaction that I had to overcome in order to enhance my ability to learn and to look beyond my negative exposure to religion as a child.
Below is an interesting passage of a book I recently read by Joel Goldsmith, The Infinite Way. Goldsmith's reference to a spiritual "floormop" inspired me to write (and entitle) this article for the Painful Truth website. We can all relate to having been used as spiritual floormops in the Worldwide Church of God, especially those of us who were not in positions of authority.
The passage illustrates how a human who tries to follow a spiritual path towards enlightenment does not have to become a non-thinking, submissive individual, suffering under psychological abuse from a self-asserted enlightened party or group. We are by nature free thinking individuals, according to much written in the tradition of Eastern and Buddhist thought. Our true spiritual nature stimulates us to strive towards oneness with our fellow humans, the environment, and the spiritual realm.
Joel Goldsmith is the author of many books on spirituality and devoted decades of his life to the public practice of healing, counseling, and studying the world's major religions and philosophies. His writings have provided solace to many people. Although they contain some archaic examples and predominantly Christian/biblical analogies, reading some of his thoughts can nevertheless be very healing.
The small "I" concerns itself primarily with its personal problems and affairs, enlarging its borders to include members of the immediate family or circle of friends. Personal sense often goes further afield into charitable works or community welfare, but we know that it is personal sense when we analyze the motives which govern. The real sense of Self lives out from the center of its being, blessing all whom it touches, and is recognized by its selflessness, by its unselfishness, by its lack of seeking recognition, reward, or any personal aggrandizement. It is not a spineless entity or floormop to be pushed around by mortals-it is never even seen or known by mortals.
--- Joel Goldsmith, in The Infinite Way, published 1947, p. 46
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