Recovery Room: The Bible as an Instrument of Self-Harm

In Coming Clean: A Story of Faith, I explore how theology or Scripture can serve as its own sort of addiction, how we might use either to numb or soothe pain without communing with God. Even good things can play tricks on us; yes? 

Today, Heather Caliri explores the flip side of that coin. What happens when we use Scripture as a weapon against ourselves, when we use it as a torture tool that causes pain? Do you know this bag of tricks, this way of using Scripture for shame instead of freedom?

This is, perhaps, one of the most honest pieces that’s been submitted to the Recovery Room. Please take the time to read it, and then visit Heather’s website at heathercaliri.com.

***

The stack of books glared at me from my nightstand. Nearly 2 p.m., time to go to class, and yet I hadn’t picked up my Bible that day.

Lazy, I said to myself. When will you start making God’s Word a priority?

I sighed. If I hurried, I could get in fifteen minutes.

Cross-legged on my single bed, I set my notebook in my lap, and my Bible and quiet time idea book by my knees on the mattress.

Hosea again. I glanced at the Bible study prompts. Another two days, and I’d be done, finally.

I read: Do not rejoice, O Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations. For you have been unfaithful to your God; you love the wages of a prostitute.

Oh, God.

I was so tired of verses about unfaithful prostitutes. Sure, I knew I was unfaithful to God—just look at my laziness this morning. I was sure the verses were talking about me. I was the unfaithful prostitute. I was the ugly sinner.

But I was desperate to read something else.

I sighed. Surely even this wish showed my unfaithfulness.

I forced myself to keep reading. I forced myself to see myself in the Bible’s harshest words that day, just like I’d done the day before, and the day before that.

I thought this was what God expected of me.

***

Twenty years later, I came across that notebook in a box in my garage. I’d saved it through a dozen moves, but had never looked inside. I’d never been brave enough.

It didn’t look very scary: an unlined drawing notebook, a magazine photo of a sunset taped to the front, with a verse from the Psalms layered over it: Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desire of your heart.

I wondered, with a quickened heartbeat, if I was ready to read it.

No time like the present, I thought, and opened the cover, bracing myself as if it concealed shards of glass.

I squinted at pages crowded with the tiniest cursive. The tiny, smashed-together words shouted out the desire of my heart back then: a desire to do more, be more.

I had longed for God’s word to set me free. I had hoped it would fix me, scrub my insides, and cleanse me.

And don’t get me wrong—I believe God’s Word can do those things. It is a transformative book; reading its words can bring life.

But it’s also described as a double-edged sword, isn’t it?

What I realized, re-reading that notebook, is that I had used God’s powerful Word to cut myself.

I sat down on the floor of my garage, reading entries filled with shame instead of God’s grace. I was astonished at how my self-loathing shone through each page.

I’d always identified with the worst character in each prophecy, always assuming I was the evildoer, the harlot, the beast. In my naiveté about the Bible, I’d missed that the prophets were almost always speaking to communities, not individuals, the powerful, not the broken-hearted.

I missed that things others had done to me—abuse, trauma, loss—were crying out for justice. I missed that God preached freedom for me, not condemnation.

In page after page, laser-focused on my own shortcomings, I had missed God’s relentless, overwhelming grace. Instead, I had taken His powerful Word and used it as a weapon to punish myself. I am still recovering from reading the Bible that way.

After college, long after I finished reading the book of Hosea, I stopped reading the Bible altogether, my heart a despairing, cooling cinder. I loved God, but I couldn’t keep going.

Ever since then, I’ve struggled to pick it up the Bible at all. Every time I did, I’d be met by waves of anxiety.

This baffled me. Why couldn’t I read it like everyone else could?

Now, on the floor of my garage, I realized why. My heart was crying out: No more.

For me, recovery from self-harm means affirming that though God’s Word is good, it is also powerful. It means letting go of the idea that I have to read it every day to be a “good Christian.” It means changing how I read it, and finding other ways to connect to God. It means putting my soul’s safety over any to-do list.

But most of all, it means paying attention to how my time with God feels—whether I anticipate Him, or dread Him. It means listening to what my heart has to say about my faith.

It means trusting the verse I ignored so many years before: that while delighting in God, my heart will find its deepest desires.

***

Heather Caliri is writes at HeatherCaliri.com. You can find her on Twitter @HeatherCaliri. Follow along with her work. You won’t regret it.

 

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  • Heather, yes. Thank you for sharing here. I remember loathing the checkboxes in my Bible reading plan when they were blank and not dutifully checked off. I get it. Thank you for showing so many of us recovering Bible abusers that there is life on the other side.

    • Thanks, Ashley. I’m amazed at how God can absolutely transform something when we admit how much it has hurt us–and ask, desperately, for his help

  • John ray

    Absolutely. “Change the way we read the Bible” not much is ore essential in our culture

  • Joanne Peterson

    Heather, I identified with the way you read the bible too. I also couldn’t accept the love of God as always, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop and I would be punished. Religion was toxic, I could never measure up, and any sermon I saw as being unable to attain. I was stuck. When I had some really painful and life changing experiences about 8 years ago, that was when I was given new eyes to see God differently, and now still do. I also grew up with a painful childhood. Thank you for this reminder of God’s grace. Joanne

    • You’re welcome, Joanne, and thank you also for affirming that I’m not alone in feeling stuck. It’s amazing to find freedom when you’re used to stuck-ness.

  • This is beautiful. I learned to read the verses from a personal lens, rather than communal. How different it is… This year, I decided to read the Bible again. I’m going slowly (so slowly!) but I’m reading it. I decided not to do a study but just read the words as they are, as I am and to see what happens…. Thanks for this.

  • Wow, yes. That’s pretty much how I used to read the bible- and reading this blog post makes me think “wait, isn’t this the NORMAL way to read the bible? ……. oh.” I have also come to the realization that I don’t need to read the bible every day in order to be a good Christian (and I don’t need to feel guilty about it either).

    And on some level, I still believe the bible is really awesome and worth reading- I hope sometime in the future I can read and learn from it again, but I can’t right now.

  • pastordt

    Thank you, Heather. This is a huge issue for far too many Christians, many of whom do not yet recognize the damage they are doing to themselves. It is, in its own perverse way, a twisted kind of bibliolatry, giving power to the written word that God never intended — power to wound and inhibit rather than power to release and transform. Powerful truth here – thanks so much.

  • Elizabeth F

    What you describe is exactly how I used to read the Bible, and it was so wounding for me. Thank you for speaking out and sharing this.