I met Emily Elizabeth Anderson in January of this year, when she told me she had appreciated my Untwisting Scriptures books and asked to interview me on her blog, Thriving Forward. (You can find that interview here.)
I knew she had come out of the Bill Gothard cult (Advanced Training Institute, ATI), I knew she was now free from it, and I knew she loved Jesus. (A rare combination, it seems, for young people who grew up Gothard.)
But it was when I heard her being interviewed in a Called to Peace Ministries Facebook Live that I heard that story. I asked her to share more with me about it, and she sent me her testimony.
The thing is, my friends. The thing is, I was sure that the people who leave cults and also leave Jesus don’t really know who He is. I figured they couldn’t have really found out who He is, clear through, as He’s presented in the gospels.
And Emily confirmed these suspicions.
In her interview with Called to Peace Ministries, she described that growing up Gothard she and her mom had read Psalms and Proverbs, and they had studied the Sermon on the Mount—or at least Gothard’s version of it—because that’s what his teachings were supposedly based on.
But in all those years, when she and her mom and other ATI’ers were trying to be SO GODLY, she had never learned who Jesus really is!
This part of her testimony begins in 2015, at age 23.
A few months into intense counseling, I began to realize that most of what I’d been taught by the cult leader [Gothard] had been lies. The shock and pain was overwhelming. Suddenly I had to question everything I knew. I didn’t know how to function anymore. I felt like I lost my identity.
I went through intense grief and suffered through panic attacks, sleepless nights, and emotional and physical breakdowns.
My physician eventually diagnosed me with PTSD. I lost nearly everything that was precious to me.
But what I didn’t know at the time, was that Jesus was holding on to me, and that my security in Him was based on His grip on me, not my grip on Him.
One year into my journey, I joined my very first group Bible study and started working through the Gospel of John. I hadn’t read the Bible or gone to church in recent years as they had both become so triggering to me.
[And she had never read the gospels to learn who Jesus really is.]
But studying John was like a healing balm to my many wounds. I began to learn about a Jesus I’d never known before. One who is a good Shepherd who is kind, and patient, and oh so forgiving.
Still, even as I was starting to learn about the true Gospel, the old Pharisee within me continued to try to fight to fit in all the legalistic rules.
I came to a huge turning point one night in February 2017. I had been on my bedroom floor, sobbing and wrestling with God for hours, begging Him to tell me the truth about my legalistic rules.
Desperation engulfed me, and I finally saw reality.
Instead of a stream of living water, my faith had become a barren wilderness, slowly choking out every bit of life within me. Instead of freedom, I lived in constant fear, and I was being suffocated by my perfectionism.
[Emily and I didn’t know each other in those days. But here she is describing exactly what I wrote about in that same year, 2017. That the families who followed a patriarchal cult-like leader were replacing the springs of living waters with choking cisterns.]
And so, finding myself lost in this wilderness, I cried out for help.
“I am lost, Jesus! I have wandered away from the flock and I cannot find my way back. I have tried to walk out of this cult for months now, but I can’t do it. I can no longer walk. I need you to CARRY me out, Jesus. Carry me back to your fold!”
It was a prayer of rock bottom. A desperate plea to my Shepherd.
And I’m here today, as a free woman, to tell you—I didn’t walk out of that cult; Jesus carried me out!
With the burden of perfectionism lifted for the first time, I finally found the courage to start attending a new church. I had visited this specific church a few times before but was too terrified to continue to come as it didn’t line up with the extreme fundamentalist standards.
But oh my goodness – I never dreamed how God would use it! As I attended each week, I heard a Gospel of GRACE preached for the first time! I began to understand why the Gospel means Good News! The things I learned seemed too good to be true!
I learned that I have an incredible Father who LOVES me—unconditionally!! His love isn’t BASED off me, it’s PLACED ON me. There is nothing I can do to make my Father love me anymore or any less.
I learned I can come to my Father any time, with any pain. He is always there, offering comfort and security. He doesn’t get mad at me when I wrestle through my faith and ask questions. He is ever so patient to allow me rant and rave to Him and throw out my questions of uncertainty. But when I am broken down and finally admit that I am too weak to walk? My Father scoops me up and carries me.
I learned that Jesus is Truth. I had no idea what the truth was after being lied to and deceived for so many years. But now I know. Jesus is truth. His Word is truth. I can trust Him.
And, as I continue to seek Him and dive into His word, I can trust that the Holy Spirit will guide me to the true Gospel.
For the first time I learned that I am no longer dirty rags in the eyes of my Father! Jesus removed the stain of my sin and clothed me in his robe of righteousness. When God sees me, He sees His Perfect Son Jesus and what He did and so my Father now declares me righteous!
And I learned that I am enough. Not because of anything I do. Not for following a legalistic list of “do’s and don’ts”.
i am enough solely because Jesus is enough!
THIS is freedom. THIS is the heart of the true Gospel! THIS is GOOD NEWS! And it’s amazingly beautiful.
Jesus came so we may have life abundantly!
The cult leader [Gothard] was all about the abundant life, or at least his version of it, which was all about material success and achievement. But that’s not at all what the “abundant life” actually means. The abundant life is not about our comfort, or our health, or the things around us, or even the relationships in our lives.
Because if we believe that, then we are left constantly wondering what we’re doing wrong and why God is mad at us when the painful trials of this world come our way.
Since leaving the cult, I’ve facing some of the darkest times I’ve ever experienced. I have lost so much.
But as I have wrestled through the pain of the loss, I can honestly tell you that I actually never felt more abundant! That is because our abundance is found is Jesus and Jesus alone!
All things truly do work together for good, for the more we lose in our life here on earth, the more we will reach out to Jesus in our desperation and in turn develop a richer relationship with Him. And THAT is what makes our lives exceedingly abundant!
I’m still in the midst of many painful trials. But I am filled with more joy and peace and security than I’ve ever felt before. Only Jesus can do that.
And as far I my identity? I mentioned earlier that at the beginning of this journey I felt like I had lost my identity.
But now, after discovering the true Gospel, I finally realize that I never lost it. My identity has been and will always be in Christ. I’m finally discovering it, and living it.
For those who left a twisted Christianity and left Jesus too, thinking that Christianity is just a sham?
I continue to pray, as I have for years, that you will come to know who Jesus is, through His Scriptures, especially the gospels (at least at first). I pray that you will cry out to Him to rescue you from your place of darkness and confusion.
He wants to do that for you, to bring you into life more abundant, in Him.
Praise the Lord and amen. The Lord has really been emphasizing to His bride over the last 5 years our identity in Him. Not based on anything we do but based on who He is and what He has done. You are precious and priceless. He delights in you. you are His beloved. you are His Royal children. You are one of His holy saints. You are part of His priesthood of all believers. You are blessed
I’ve been seeing this over the past 5 years, too. The belief that it’s not about doing but about being.
Interesting, as I have grown up under the influence of a cultish group as well. very different story than here (I came to know the Lord mostly through His Spirit and presence, not directly by reading the Bible). Hope to find a few more words later on.
So i just finished reading your book entitled, “Untwisting Scriptures.”
My only regret is that I didn’t read it 27 years ago. The Cult that I left not 3 months ago has all the ear-marks of a power and control, top down heavy structure. While there are a number of items I could bring up here, it was the teaching on spanking that made me begin to question things. My wife and I have homeschooled our six children for 19 years in a church where everybody homeschools. The head pastor who’s “governmental oversight” is his father in law, instructed us fathers to spank for every rebellion and disobedience in our children. Like a good little lemming I complied and watched my son’s heart turn angry towards me. He hated my guts. I would repeatedly go to the pastor (who is the main discipler) and express my objection to his counsel. His response to me was that I needed to press in and “break that spirit of rebellion”. I complied, it got worse and something snapped in me. I told him that I rejected his spanking doctrine and I wasn’t going to do it anymore. I got on my knees before my son and repented. And then I began systematically reviewing all that I had been taught over the past 21 years. That was 6 years ago. It took me 6 years of wrestling through it all and finally leaving (3 months ago). Since then I have been labeled, “The bitterness of Dave” Friends we have been in relationship with for 27 years wont even discuss our reasons for leaving with us. My wife and I have reached out to them but they refuse to even have conversation. They are feircely loyal to the head pastor and refuse to hear anything but what they believe about him. It sucks. We have been 27 years in one church. Going forward, I want my daughters to know that their “calling” is so much more than marriage and motherhood but they are still in the cult. I want my sons to treat their wives with dignity and respect and not to put their thumbs on their heads, thankfully they have left. And I want to have an elongated second honeymoon with my wife of 27 years. Thanks Rebecca for writing the book. I had already come to my conclusions about my church being a cult, ideologically driven, and excessively patriarchal. I just helped somehow to be supported by someone who drank some of the same koolaid.
Dave, I’m so sorry for your lost years, and especially for the loss of your longtime friends. I know that cuts like knife. I’m thankful you and your wife have been together in these decisions, and I pray your relationship with your son will be restored.
The second “Untwisting Scriptures” book addresses church authority, so it might be helpful as well. https://amzn.to/3iBfoBl
Suzanne ordered it sometime last week. It looks like a good one.
I am thinking a lot about this lately, as I see others “deconstruct.” I am looking at those who seem to lose faith altogether, as opposed to those who still have some real faith underneath, and are able to recover it.
I am currently reading “Leaving the Fold” by Marlene Winell. It’s a great book, very well written. I think she does a great job articulating problems within fundamentalist churches and family systems, but she leaves the faith altogether. It’s clear that she never had a spiritually inspired understanding of the Scriptures, and it shows up in her writing. Some of the twisted scriptures that she mentions are ones I would never have thought of, but perhaps that’s just how she experienced it. I know that I’ve had some Scriptures twisted against me–both by others and by my own distorted thinking– that others may have never experienced.
One of the teachings I untwisted on this website was “Can God be in the presence of sin?” I thought it was a pretty obscure teaching, but a friend needed some help with it. To my surprise, it has been one of the most searched-for topics that I’ve written about. So you just never know–it could be that there are others out there who are struggling with the same things this author talks about or that my readers think are unique to them.