Why Is Leaving So Difficult

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Why Is Leaving So Difficult

Every year, in various ways, there are hundreds of people leaving the Organiza-tion. Some just become inactive, others officially disassociate themselves. Still others are formally disfellowshipped for reasons that range from Scriptural wrongdoing to just talking to another disfellowshipped person about spiritual matters. Anyone who's been a Witness for any length of time knows it's never easy to just walk away. Feelings of anger, frustration, loss and confusion are common. It is normal and to be expected.

Jehovah's Witnesses are indoctrinated or taught to accept a system of thought uncritically. But indoctrination alone is not enough to hinder a Witness from leaving should he or she choose to do so. What is an effective deterrent, however, is the social, psychological and intellectual isolation the Organization manages to create in the lives of its members. Understanding how they produce this isolation and how it affects the individual, is useful in understanding one's own conflicting feelings and confusion upon leaving.

From a person's first contact with Jehovah's Witnesses, usually through a home Bible study, the isolation process begins. For the Witness conducting the Bible study does more than just instruct his or her student in the Bible. He or she prepares that person to become a member of the Organization by teaching him or her the Organization's thinking on Biblical matters. The student, even the Witness teacher, is unaware of the subtle difference between using the Bible as a prop to back up Organizational ideas and actually instructing a person in the Bible itself. And so, with the help of the Organization's literature, the study conductor communicates a way of thinking, a whole way of life that subtlety alienates the student from anyone or anything that is non-Witness. The student soon comes to view whatever is taught as "obviously" the Word of God, for does not the Bible support everything the literature proposes?

On the surface this seems reasonable enough. But what is not so easily detected is that there can be a great difference between an interpretation of what the Bible says using selective information, and what the Bible really says. And so gradually, without the student realizing it, he or she comes to view Jehovah, the Bible, the Organization and its literature as all interconnected. In the person's mind the Organization becomes God's Organization and to challenge or question it is to challenge God Himself.

After a time, the Witness encourages the student to attend the five weekly meetings. At those meetings, and at every other Witness activity, the Organization sees to it that certain ideas are presented and reinforced continually. One of these is the teaching that the Witnesses have the "truth" and all other conflicting ideas are in error. When a person accepts this idea, he or she begins to perceive others with contrasting beliefs from an "us and them" viewpoint. The Witnesses are seen as the in-group and the rest of the world, family, friends, co-workers, everyone else, is perceived as the "worldly" out-group. Quite naturally, any further association with this out-group becomes limited to work, business or proselytizing.

To strengthen its teaching that only Jehovah's Witnesses have the "truth," the Organization, through the literature, meetings and assemblies, makes sure its members are well informed of the negative side of people and events on the outside. As a result, Witnesses see almost everyone and everything outside in an unfavorable way. A Witness categorizes outsiders as either "sheep" (potential Witnesses) or "goats" (everyone else). He or she perceives the outside as Satan's domain and firmly believes any affiliation with it will weaken him or her spiritually. He or she is no longer interested in world, national, or local events other than to observe how such events support Bible prophesy (according to the Governing Body's interpretation of those events). Trust and communication with outsiders is severely limited. Consequently, the person draws closer to fellow Witnesses. In time he or she develops a strong sense of loyalty and identification to the Organization and to other Witnesses.

Another teaching that strengthens the Organization's influence over its members is that the Governing Body is the one and only channel through which a person can receive anything from God. The Organization teaches that this body of men alone have been appointed by Christ to feed God's people spiritually. Any person who rejects or questions their interpretation of the Bible or their version of the "truth" is seen as prideful, thinking him or herself as knowing more than those "appointed by God." The Organization brands such ones guilty of "independent thinking." Believing this, the Witness has no other recourse than to rely upon this body exclusively for all information of a spiritual nature. For not only does he or she view outside sources as untrustworthy, but a Witness is suspicious of his or her own thinking process as well. And so, through a logical, subtle, gradual process, the Organization succeeds in isolating each Witness socially and psychologically.

The Organization uses Jesus' instruction to "make disciples of people of all the nations...." as a further way to isolate the individual. It does this by channeling the preaching work into a structured activity under the supervision of Organization leaders. This way of doing things keeps the Witnesses properly supervised and working together. This common activity, because rejection is the norm, serves to further bond them together. It also reinforces the "us and them" mentality. As a result, Witnesses turn to fellow Witnesses for a sense of self-worth, security and acceptance. Understandably, they also feel obliged to conform to the thinking, actions and expectations of other Witnesses rather than to risk alienation.

Since the Society considers the door to door preaching work of the highest priority, a Witness could not, in good conscience, spend time seeking a higher education or a career. The Organization warns that pursuing such activities takes away time that would otherwise be spent in the door to door work helping others. It also warns that association with outsiders unnecessarily exposes a person to "worldly knowledge" and conflicting beliefs. The Organization strongly discourages its members from engaging is such "dangerous and selfish" wastes of time. By accepting the Organization's priorities, the Witness has shut off another avenue of outside input and influence. And the Organization has once again succeeded in cutting him or her off, this time intellectually. It now has complete control of all the information a Witness, in good conscience, will consider. Regrettably, most Witnesses are completely convinced that this separation is exactly what Jehovah wants. For, as the Organization is quick to point out, "Did not Jesus say that his followers were to be no part of the world?"

The danger in cutting off all sources of information, save the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, is that a person sees matters only from the Organization's point of view. He or she has no comparison for judgment; all information received is one-sided. As a result, what a Witness learns does make sense but his conclusions are not valid because they are based on incomplete information. For the Organization not only makes available only what is necessary to support its position, it also distorts and changes information according to its purpose.

Of course a Witness finds even the possibility of such an idea difficult to consider, for he or she strongly believes that Jehovah is teaching His people through the Organization. Therefore, as long as a Witness sees the Organization and Jehovah as inseparably entwined, he or she will reject any evidence that presents the Organization in an uncomplimentary light.

To be honest, a Witness must admit that he or she pays a price (higher than is realized) for being "in the truth." Besides the obvious alienation from non-Witness family, friends, neighbors, and community, a Witness must give up much of his or her own identity as well. Life is very matter-of-fact in the Organization and the Society frowns upon individual expression. People are like bees in a hive, all doing the same thing, all thinking and speaking the same way, all giving their lives for a cause they believe is God's. There is no place for personal dreams and goals, the development of talents and gifts, or even free religious thought and expression. These things must all be postponed until after Armageddon which, for the Witness, is always just around the corner.

A Witness pays a still higher price, one in which he or she is not even aware. Because the Organization restricts a close, loving relationship with Jesus Christ to a comparatively few, select ones. A Witness never truly comes to know his or her God. Jehovah is seen not through the eyes of Christ but through the eyes of the Organization. He is perceived as hard, unsympathetic, judgmental and destructive toward those who do not adhere to the dictates of the Organization. A Witness always feels that he or she is never doing enough, never quite measuring up to God's (in reality, the Organization's) standards. A Witness never experiences the unconditional love of God and, as a result, learns to evaluate every individual, including him or herself, according to that person's standing with the Organization.

Because a Witness is so thoroughly indoctrinated and psychologically isolated, he or she finds it extremely difficult to leave the Organization and remain psychologically intact. For a long time he or she has equated leaving with turning one's back on God. Such thinking does not go away overnight. In addition he or she knows that leaving means being shunned by family and friends. For no "strong" Witness will speak to or even acknowledge the presence of anyone who has left the Organization. In most cases, this includes parents, if the disfellowshipped person is a parent, or disfellowshipped children if the child is of age. If a person leaving had other close friends, the shunning might be a little more bearable. But, because the individual was part of a group that strongly discouraged outside association, he or she has few, if any, close friends or associates outside the Organization.

In addition, when a person leaves, he or she finds life has lost its order; all rules and restraints are gone. Many ask themselves, "If the Witnesses don't have the truth, who does?" Or "Is there really such a thing as 'THE truth?'" Adding to this doubt and confusion, the person suffers the impact of leaving a group he or she has associated and identified with for a long period of time.

The Organization's standards still have impact long after a person has ceased to be a member of the group. Even if the individual leaves on his or her own, feelings of condemnation and guilt can still persist. It's much worse for a person who has been forced out due to unchristian conduct. For deep down, the belief persists that somehow he or she deserves the punishment meted out and that God, along with those whose association and support mean the most, has turned His back on him or her. The individual may not even admit this idea to him or herself consciously but, subconsciously, there exists a nagging feeling of worthlessness and dishonor. As long as any ex-Witness believes that the Organization does indeed represent God, he or she will always feel this way at heart. And that person will find little rest until he or she goes back to the Organization, "repents" and is reinstated.

Many times rejecting the Organization and its control consciously and intellectually, is not enough. An ex-Witness needs to be with those who have been there, who have gone through the same things and who can relate to what he or she is going though. An ex-Witness needs to talk, to be heard and understood. And most of all he or she has to find God all over again apart from the Organization. This can be a difficult task because an ex-Witness has a tendency to go about the search in the same way any Witness would, intellectually. However, finding God is a matter of believing in Jesus, a matter of heart. The sooner a person realizes that the faster he or she will really find Him. Jehovah did not say, "you will find me when you seek me with your mind." He said "you will find me when you seek me with your heart." "I will give them a heart to know me." (Jeremiah 29:13; 24:7 NIV)

(This article is taken from chapter 4 of the book A Hand In The Darkness. To obtain a copy, see the "Books and Materials Available" page)