A Letter to All Child Survivors
Growing up in a controlling, high demand group has had a devastating affect on you and to break away emotionally is the hardest thing you've ever attempted. The tragedy is that children were exploited and suffered through no fault of their own. You endured humiliations, being judged, left out, and abused in every way possible. How tragic it is when parents put an abusive leader and his teachings above their own innocent children. How evil it is when little children are sacrificed in the name of a false god, their cries and agony going unheard. Many of you are still suffering in spite of leaving or being thrown out years ago.
Note: If you are suffering with severe problems, read: Surviving.
Growing Up in the Group:
Most of you grew up trying to please your parents, but in spite of all your efforts you felt you could never do it right and were called the "black sheep of the family," "the bad apple," "rebellious" or "selfish." Many of you cannot even remember receiving any love, but you never lacked for punishment. You may have even thought about ending your life or running away. You were isolated from healthy connections with the outside world and kept from experiencing a fuller and richer life. Multitudes of you endured the nightmare of the group destroying all vestiges of a happy family for you because one of your parents was inside and the other wasn't. You were anxious and distraught as you witnessed the one parent that didn't attend services being called "evil," "of the world," "lost," or "demon-possessed." Others of you finally suffered through a divorce because the doctrines of Herbert Armstrong split the family up. You have known much anguish and had your hearts broken because you will never have the family or childhood that you yearned for.
These things discouraged, angered and wounded you, finally breaking your spirit. Many of you still have flashbacks of memories in the group and feel much guilt and fear because of the condemning words that were continually ingrained into your minds from a tender age. Countless numbers of you felt that you would never have a chance to grow up and have a normal life because you were destined to either go through the Great Tribulation, or be left behind to perish, perhaps even in the lake of fire. Some of you just gave up and stopped believing in God, a God that demanded too much and who only brought terror to your souls. This has carried over into your relationship with the real God today and many of you say you can't feel, let alone understand, His unconditional love.
Understanding What the Group Was and Was Not:
The group was never "God's one true church." A true church is not a particular church, but a spiritual organism composed of people from all nations that have placed their faith in Jesus as their Savior. What you were in, on the other hand, was an extremely unhealthy and destructive group known through the decades (at least since the 1970's) as a Bible-based "cult" that used coercive persuasion and sophisticated thought reform techniques to recruit and retain members. All mind-manipulating groups teach their members almost identical ideas which they call "truths": "We are the one true church"; "The end of the age/Kingdom is coming soon"; "God is working through the Apostle, Elijah, that Prophet, etc."; "We are God's elite," "Only we have the truth"; "If you leave this church, there is no hope for you," etc. These false, damaging lies played a big part--and still do--in deceiving and controlling all who follow Herbert Armstrong's teachings today. Even though you may never have been completely under the mind control of the group, you were undoubtedly strongly affected by it if you ever went to S.E.P. (Summer Education Program), Philadelphia Youth Camp, etc., or to Ambassador College or Imperial College (the latter now known as Armstrong College).
If you are still questioning whether HWA could have been right, take time to analyze his character and the fruits that were produced. Research shows that HWA preached an eclectic gospel, copying what he wanted from the Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Church of God (7th Day), Mormons and others, and then pieced it all together with fear, shame, guilt and false prophecies for the purpose of control and financial exploitation of others. His religious roots were not what members thought. Educating yourself on how the leaders used coercive persuasion and thought reform on the naïve will help you break free of any ambivalent feelings you may still have toward the WCG, PCG, etc., or your thoughts to perhaps go back to the "new" WCG or another offshoot with similar Armstrong teachings and methods of control and fear.
Talking to Those Who Understand About Your Pain:
Many times it is very hard to be able to open up to anyone about your experiences since you may have kept your emotions deeply buried for years. Or you may be having so much pain that you doubt if anyone could understand, or even believe you. If you find that you are having a very difficult time coping with day-to-day life, or unable to move beyond thinking about your experience, don't hesitate to talk to a safe person that you can confide in, even another survivor. It is painful to remain alone and isolated. Connecting with others that are willing to listen, believe your story, and who care about you can be a vital source of strength and encouragement and offer the validation that you are indeed not crazy. And, unlike in the group, you are free to speak out and expose the abuse and shame of your past.
If you decide on counseling, I encourage you to find a counselor that has a knowledge of abuse and trauma; someone that is warm, accepting, considerate, non-judgmental and who will validate your experiences. Don't stay with one that tells you to "forget your past and move on" or insists that your problems are solely from "growing up in a dysfunctional family." Your counselor needs to be very patient and non-controlling with you. When you feel you have no hope for yourself, this kind of counselor will continue to have hope for you and not fail to remind you that you have worth. These kinds of counselors are rare, but they can be a very vital component in our healing.
If you are struggling with any kind of destructive behavior; i. e., suicidal behavior or self-injury, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has been found to be helpful. This kind of therapy helps survivors to use tools to control moods that can go out of control very rapidly. As one child survivor (who underwent DBT) told us: "When you feel powerless, you feel hopeless. Once you realize that you have the power to change things in your life, you will not feel you have to wait for people to be good to you. You have the power to choose a better option."
Writing Your Emotions and Memories:
It can help considerably to write about your feelings--your anger, your sadness, your memories, your loss, your grief, whatever is on your mind. When thoughts stay in our head, they have a tendency to go around and around and it is hard to make sense of them. Writing in a personal notebook will help you sort them out. (See: Where Do the Feelings Go?) Some of you may feel that you would rather express your thoughts or memories in poetry or drawing, and that is also good. Designating a specific place, and having certain time limits, enables you to deal with the memories in a controlled fashion. If you have suffered some very abusive experiences during your childhood and find yourself becoming overwhelmed with traumatic memories, dissociation, or any intense feelings such as panic or anxiety, don't hesitate to seek outside help from a qualified professional. And be sure to make yourself safe before you start writing. [Read: Surviving for help on this, especially if you have suffered extreme abuse and are having a difficult time recovering.]
Anger and Struggles With Forgiveness:
It is normal to feel anger toward your parents for raising you in this abusive group. Many of you believe it will never be safe, or even possible, to have a good relationship with them, especially if they are still in the WCG or an Armstrong offshoot, such as Philadelphia Church of God, Restored Church of God, Living Church of God, or others, and if they have refused to acknowledge what was done to you and sincerely apologized. Realizing that you were abused in many ways that were never your fault is necessary before you can even think about forgiveness toward your parents or others. You may need to first write private letters to your parents, the ministers who abused you, or others in order to express your pain, outrage and grief--but it's best not to mail them, especially if you know that doing so will cause further guilt to be heaped upon you. Forgiveness is hard and it doesn't come overnight. To forgive does not mean condoning, justifying, excusing or denying what was done to you. It does not mean that you will never remember the pain, and it does not mean that you have lapsed back into forgiveness again if you do so. (More on this subject is covered in: Recovering After Exiting a Deceptive, Exploitive Group.)
Replacing Lies With the Truth:
To believe in the "WCG god," or "PCG god," etc. was to live in fear and dread. It was to experience nightmares and despondency. You were taught that this "god" was somebody out to get you and that if you didn't measure up you would be severely punished or lose out forever. Many of you agonized over whether the end of the age would come before you were grown up and leave you behind, while your parents went to the "Place of Safety."
Child survivors have tremendous struggles with belief in God and His unconditional love. It takes even adult exiters a long time to feel that there is a true God that really loves them. It is important to realize that the WCG and PCG (and its abusive splinter groups) have always been considered a deceptive, abusive, controlling group that ruined people's lives with their system of lies, trickery, shame, fear and guilt. They used the Bible in order to control others. (Understanding how mind control was used is an important first step.) The concept of "God" that Herbert Armstrong fostered on people was nothing but a twisted and ugly lie. Everyone in the group unknowingly correlated this "god" in their minds with the leader and his "government of God" and feared to question or doubt. Harsh and powerful messages from the leader telling how he received these "truths" and "revelations" from God were repeated over and over again. Repetition is used in all mind manipulating groups, whose goal is to control and exploit. Such leaders turn out to be a very cruel and unmerciful "god" themselves. As a result, you grew up believing that God was like the hateful and punishing, wrathful "God" taught by HWA. This was the "god" that gave a stone when you asked for bread.
So many lies were embedded into your mind layer by layer, until today you feel the crushing effect of them in the form of guilt, shame, inadequacy and fear. Your abusers told you that if you didn't do thus and thus, something very bad would happen to you, especially in the near future, because they said the end was "coming soon." This was a fear tactic to keep others from leaving. Some of these lies were, "God won't love me unless I'm obedient to those in authority"; "I must please others in order for them to love me"; I will die if I don't measure up"; "God is keeping track of all the bad things I do"; "I am worthless"; "I will never amount to anything"; "I'm a failure"; "God is going to punish me"; "Why should I try anymore?" "I have no future." These are all lies and it takes much time to work through such mistreatment and abuse.
Sorting Through Spiritual Issues:
The "Jesus Christ" of the group was nothing more than a cruel invention preached by evil leaders for the purpose of controlling those inside, making them afraid to ever leave. As a result, child survivors' spiritual foundation has been shattered and many of you probably feel that you cannot even attempt to rebuild it at this point. While some of you may wish that a God that loved you was in your life, it may be almost impossible for you to grasp that love. Many of you were unloved and abused by your own parents and you find it inconceivable to think that there could be a Heavenly Father that loves and values you for yourself, understands your pain and anger, and will not demand that you get over it quickly.
When you were growing up, you were taught that "God" was someone way off up high that could only be reached through the leadership--and only if you were obedient to everything they said. You were never taught that you could have a personal relationship with a God who loved you. The truth is there is a loving God who does not place false guilt, shame or fear on us. Neither will He force Himself on anyone. He offers the free gift of eternal life and unconditional love not because of anything we do but because of what He has already done for us. Try to recognize the lies you were taught. A good article you may want to read is: Getting the Group Out of Us.
"Abba" is a very intimate word for God as opposed to the formalism of legalism. It is the diminutive form used by small children in addressing their father. The deep love that the real God has is absolute and His desire is that we might come to know Him so He can meet our deepest needs, not force us to do something. You don't need to follow some ritual to pray to Him, or feel ashamed that He will be too angry to hear you. You can tell Him exactly how you feel from your heart and He will listen and understand. He is very near and cares for you. Nothing can compare with His love. He is the Friend that stays closer than a brother; the kind Shepherd that watches over His lambs. The more we know about Him, the more amazed we can be with His love and patience.
The group never taught true grace. Instead the leader added works to grace, which is impossible. Growing up in this kind of false and heretical belief system only kept you striving needlessly to measure up, or discouraged you from even trying. The leader twisted the Scriptures so much that you were unable to comprehend the true grace of God and how He loves you unconditionally and accepts you wholeheartedly. This kind of relationship is based on love, not fear and knowing you are loved, accepted, and secure forever. It is understanding that your Heavenly Father (who is Love) does not see you in the condemning, punishing way that the group taught. It takes time to grasp these things, but once you do, you won't feel like you have to do something to earn God's love and acceptance, and you won't feel that you are to blame or that you have failed.
Asking questions concerning what you were taught, where HWA's teachings came from, and what the Bible really says about certain subjects can be important in order to begin to undo HWA's fear programming. It is common for most child survivors to find it very difficult, if not impossible, to even open a Bible, without hearing Armstrong's, Gerald Flurry's, or another authoritative leader's voice shouting out what they say the Bible teaches. It is helpful to read books that survivors from other cults (i. e., Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.) have written. You will read about the emotions they felt when they left out, and how what they experienced is similar to your own feelings.
If you do eventually feel that you have a desire to learn and understand how false leaders twisted the Word of God, but you know you have too many triggers (due to past fear programming) to read it at present, you might be able to read a Bible commentary or a Bible dictionary such as Unger's Bible Dictionary. Also see our section on Healing From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse. Keep in mind that reading the Bible does not mean that you have to do "Bible study," which can be a distressing thought for many survivors.
If you are interested, there are also some reliable books we list which help someone see how Armstrong's doctrines were false, eclectic beliefs. Two that proved helpful to me were, Armstrongism: The Worldwide Church of God Examined in the Searching Light of Scripture by Dr. Robert L. Sumner and Ambassadors of Armstrongism by Paul Benware. (see our Booklist for more). These books examine the major doctrines that HWA taught, and which leaders of other WCG splinter groups continue to proclaim, and can be helpful for you to refute Armstrongism.
Also, we have a critical review of Mystery of the Ages by a WCG exiter. It's purpose is to: 1. Help those who come into contact with this book to understand the true agenda behind it; 2. Show how Herbert W. Armstrong substituted the true gospel of Jesus Christ with a false gospel; 3. Help those who have exited from these groups to understand how they were snared and help them untangle themselves from the falsehoods, and 4. Prove that HWA was a false prophet and deceiver, who copied and plagiarized from other groups.
It takes much time and effort to uproot false teachings especially those taught with fear and condemnation, but it is possible to eventually see a different picture.
Renouncing your Past Group Involvement:
Although this may be something that is easily overlooked, renouncing your involvement with the group is like drawing a line in the sand between your past and your future. It puts a separation in your mind that your past in the group is over, even though you still have to heal. It's being able to say you understand that this group you were raised in wasn't of God and was destructive. If you have come to see that God loves you, you may feel that you want someone to pray with you, or you may decide to pray by yourself. If so, all you need to do is pray out loud and renounce your past involvement with the group and the leader's teachings, and for God to break all harmful effects off from you that may have come down through your family as a result of the group you were in. Although this type of prayer should not be construed as a ritual that will bring quick healing, many have found this to be effective in becoming free of the emotional ties with the abusive group and in breaking spiritual and occult strongholds. If you're having difficulty praying during this time, reading Scriptures out loud can be good, especially when you have fears or anxieties.
Set Free From Your Past:
Most of you have suffered deeply as a result of growing up in the Worldwide Church of God, Philadelphia Church of God, or other totalistic, high demand offshoot. You have a lifetime of losses to grieve and it will take much time to be able to integrate your experiences into the whole of your life, and to be able to trust again. The healing journey is far from easy and fraught with ups and downs, but I pray that you will come to see your intrinsic worth and value as a unique individual and to realize the depth of the love of Jesus for you and how He will never leave you, nor cast you off. To be fully loved by Him is to be fully known, with no fear of rejection. May you receive comfort for all your sorrows, and peace from the shadow of your past.
By D. Williams (former WCG member)
Exit & Support Network™
Last updated September 17, 2013
NOTE: To read how psychologically and physically destructive cults are to the children raised in them, read Captive Hearts; Captive Minds, chapter 22: "Children Raised in Cults"; Recovery From Cults, chapter 17: "Children and Cults"; Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace, Part 3: "Rescuing the Children" and Take Back Your Life: Recovering From Cults and Abusive Relationships, Part 3: "Families and Children in Cults."