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Understanding Ex-Cultists

By Janis Hutchinson

In an explosion of emotion a former cultist suddenly burst out: “If I had known what I was going to go through in adjusting to Christianity, I never would have left the Mormon Church!”

Her statement should come as no surprise. Over and over again, ex-cultists express the same distress. Whether they are ex-Mormons, ex-Moonies, or ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, it makes no difference–all former ex-cultists experience the same difficulties. Plagued with intense anxieties and bewildering disorientation, they find themselves hurled into an unexpected world of pain for up to 3 to 8 years after they come to Christ.

To those who have never been in a cult, the problematic transition into Christianity is impossible to comprehend. Why, after they have come to Christ, should ex-cultists have problems at all?

Surprisingly, the former cultist is not the one to ask. This is because while in the midst of their trauma they have no idea why. In a feeble way they can describe their symptoms, but that’s all. Some researchers report that all ex-cultists can do is make such statements as “I never knew such bewilderment, pain, and feeling on the brink of insanity, “or “I cried all the time.” As they suffer through untold stress for months, even years, after they come to Christ, many former cultists feel they are “cracking up,”

What are their problems?

New converts grapple with disorientation, religious culture shock; suicidal tendencies; and are tormented with the idea that their cult’s success proves a divine origin. In addition, they are plagued with “what if” questions (“What if Rev. Moon is really the Messiah? “What if the Book of Mormon is really true?”), all of which convinces them they should return to the cult.

In addition, they suffer numerous losses such as, the cult’s extra-biblical revelation, their leader’s claim to supernatural contact with God; friendships; community; cult goals; absolute answers; sacred myths, elite status; all of which convinced them they belonged to God’s only true church. More problematic, they enter a Christian church expecting the pastor to be a substitute for the cult leader and hope to find in the church what they had in the cult. These unforeseen losses effect a critical sense of tragedy as new believers undergo one psychological crisis after another.

Further, they experience anxiety attacks; must deal with the misconceptions of Christians who believe ex-cultists’ problems occur before conversion, not after; hide problems from those working with them, thinking they will be criticized for not overcoming problems sooner; float in and out of altered states; have recurrent nightmares; fear cult retaliation; wonder if it was a mistake to leave the cult; and lay awake at night agonizing over the emotional tug-of-war between their desire to harbor cult beliefs yet embrace Christianity.

They also go through the seven stages of grief, similar to a widow(er) losing a spouse. Hurled into a state of bereavement, they suffer the death of their cult identity, self-image, basic needs, securities, cult leader as father/mother, strong causes, heavenly rewards, and living prophets–all in one fell swoop. It is an intense, turbulent, and critical time.

To add to all this, ex-cultists must, in the midst of their trauma, develop graciousness towards family and friends who do not understand their personal crisis; struggle with an inability to identify their own problems; acquire tolerance for Christians who belittle their former cult membership; persevere in the face of emotional struggles; show bravery in stepping forth into a strange new culture; and continue in the Christian walk when no one seems to understand–not even other believers.

The seriousness of their situation is that until their problems are identified and resolved, they are unable to devote themselves fully to God or their church. If they don’t receive the help and support they need, they will do one of four things:

  • Continue to suffer but stay in the church.
  • Start church hopping.
  • Drop out of church altogether; or, worse yet,
  • Return to the cult.

How can Christians help?

  1. Perceive the trauma associated with departure from a cult. Acquire a special sensitivity which recognizes that the cultist’s first defecting step causes a severe crisis. The sympathetic Christian can then say to the new convert, “I realize you have given up everything you once held near and dear and you’re going through a difficult trial. But I also recognize that God has led you here. He won’t let you down–neither will I. I’m here for you, and we’ll get through it together.”
  2. Remember, the new believer does not understand his own problems. He needs someone to identify and define them for him, and explain why he is going through them.
  3. Don’t leave the new believer to fend for himself. He or she needs a dedicated Christian to stick with him before, as well as after, his conversion. Say to them, “My home is open to you any time of the day or night.” This is because problems often become magnified in the dark and new converts wake up many nights in desperate fear. They need someone they can call upon.
  4. Explain to former cultists that emotional turmoil is normal and that certain stages are necessary for all converts from cults to work through. It takes a long time to give up old beliefs and it won’t happen overnight. Affirm that as traumatic as these various stages are, they will pass, and the truth will eventually set them free.

Perseverance, and more …

Working with ex-cultists requires perseverance, dedication, and patience. The emotional problems of these new believers can become so severe that Christian workers may feel like giving up. Paul’s counsel is, therefore, imperative: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (Col. 3:12). This is exactly what it will take when working with former cultists. If these attributes can be maintained, it will provide a window into the collapsing world of the new believer as he or she struggles to undo cult baggage and overcome personal losses. It will aid in gaining a deeper comprehension into the pain of what it means to be a former cultist and provide insight on how to respond to deeply felt needs.

When Christians can educate themselves about ex-cultists’ post-conversion problems and become committed to this kind of ministry, new converts will gain confidence, acquire stability, and move toward full maturity.

Posted with permission. Janis Hutchinson is author of Out of the Cults and Into the Church: Understanding and encouraging ex-cultists (Kregel Pub.). Also, The Mormon Missionaries: An inside look at their real message and methods (Kregel Pub).

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