1991, 12/02. Justified By Faith Or Just Abused?

The subject matter on this tape is mostly two things. The first is that I was on the treadmill of COBU’s business, Christian Brothers Carpet Cleaning. This business ran at all hours and occupied my time from the moment I woke up and often to the moment I got to bed late in the evening. That was because there was a major drive to bring income into the church, or really, to the leader of the church, Stewart Traill. (A small portion of our earnings went to our own expenses, food, building maintenance, etc. We lived in a dirty overcrowded apartment building, drove old vans and got 30 dollars a week for allowance.) And Stewart was driving us hard to let go of every desire and goal in our lives and to serve only the needs of the organization, though teachings on subjects such as suffering, denying ourselves, putting our lives in this world to death and constant talk about hell and God’s wrath. The intense schedule of Christian Brothers acted as a method to reinforce this self-denial, because even when I did get a few moments to myself, it was hard to detach and to get into anything else.

I also talked about how the brothers and sisters in the church could not have relationships or get married. Stewart was always telling us that we were unable to get married, because we were unfaithful to Christ, these and many other things were easily enforceable because we lived in a communal society. The brothers and sisters did get to see one another in the business office and this interaction provided a substitute form of human society, where the church members could feel like they had something to do with one another – but in reality, all forms of interpersonal communication, especially between the men and women, were tightly controlled and regulated by all sorts of prohibitions.

I also talked about how hard it was to get close to God or to have any peace in him, or to feel like I had “received justification.”  According to the Stewart, justification was a gift to be freely received, yet at the same time, he constantly pounded us about God’s wrath and hell. It was hard to believe that the same God who was intensely angry at me also wanted to forgive me. Adding to this feeling of duress was the way subjects like justification were dealt with among us. No one was concerned that I receive justification. Instead, we had meetings to make our speeches and to vote on one another to decide who we saw as having received their justification – and to find out who had not, and why not. Those who had not were considered to be the enemies of those who had received justification, and so a tension was set up inside the church in which it appeared that there was a war going on between light and darkness, with the church members set up to play these opposing roles. All I wanted was a sense of forgiveness and some rest from the intense struggle, but I had to watch my back at all times to guard against the others who were giving me a hard time about my spiritual condition. Such tensions were used by the cult leader to keep us in a state of constant imbalance and turmoil, as he pitted us against one another as pieces on his chessboard or opposing sides in a war.

I should have relaxed, because after all this effort, Stewart as usual was going to declare that we were all unfaithful and that none of us had received justification by faith.


Well, here’s another logbook of my thoughts. I thought about doing this once a week. I was listening back on a tape I made around November 13th or 14th. Some of it is kind of rambling. On the other hand, as I listen, I realize there is a method to my madness. There is some benefit in making these tapes. I can get the things on my mind out in the open.

I’m sitting here on the night of December 2nd. It’s a rainy night. I’m looking out my window. I see the bare branches. I like the sound of rain. It’s a nice sound. This is a little bit of quiet time I have. I’m hoping to use it to my benefit. Where do I even begin? I don’t know what I’m going to talk about, but there is, as always, a lot on my mind. It may do me some good to talk about it.

Well, overwhelmingly right now, I just feel like relaxing. I was going to read a book by Martin Luther. The strange thing is, I just happened to put in the tape from November and the first thing I heard on the tape was, “I’ve been reading Luther and Calvin books and they haven’t seemed to do me any good.” I was about to read the book onto tape. I don’t know whether that’s prophetic or not.

Well, let’s run the gamut of my thoughts today. I was thinking about how the church business is an overwhelming burden. I feel crushed under the weight of it. And I don’t get much time for anything else.

(I would have been considered to be whining and complaining if Stewart or anyone heard me say this. “The business” means Christian Brothers Cleaning, the carpet cleaning business owned by The Church of Bible Understanding, in which we were working all day, and often all evening and at night.)

I got two free periods today. One in the morning when I was dropped off by the circle to get the van a few blocks away. I was walking down the street by myself on a nice cool rainy morning. I realized how much I liked that and I wished I could walk all the way down Coney Island Avenue to the ocean. So I got about ten minutes like that. It felt good. I got off my leash for a minute, I felt like running around.

And the second time, I was driving home, the night was over. I was driving back from Waverly Place on a rainy night and I was behind the wheel and this is sort of another free period. I like driving in rainy weather. But it was like going from the kennel to the dog house. I got to run across the yard for a minute.

I was thinking about the business today, and how it’s a substitute society. There are a lot of sisters who work the office and I thought about how they get into that and about how we brothers get into the business. It’s a way that brothers and sisters can be around each other. There are benefits. It’s not a job in the world and we work together, and that’s good. But I don’t think anyone really talks to one another. Or if there is inter-office banter between brothers and sisters, there are tightly proscribed rules by which we can speak. We may only speak in certain ways and we may only talk about certain things.

Yes I know, for a Christian, it’s true in another sense. The usual office behavior in the world is a lot of immoral things or off-color jokes and it’s good to avoid that, but that’s not what I’m talking about. There’s extreme censorship among us that doesn’t need to be there. This is what occurs to me.

There’s a substitute society and getting into the business is a substitute for a relationship with Jesus. I don’t picture any one of us having a real strong relationship with Jesus, but if we get into the business, it gives us something to do. We do the business. And the brothers and sisters, by working in it, can be around each other and act busy around each other. But we really don’t come in contact with one another, even though we are in the same room. It’s a substitute for something real we could have between us. And even between brothers, the business is the thing we do, as witnessed by the fact that when we wake up, the first thing we do is have a business meeting. And when we go to sleep, it’s been business from beginning to end, with maybe some sweeping during the day.

(Sweeping was the word we used for going out to gather new converts, these people were almost always homeless people we brought in from the bus stations and train stations in the city.)

Everyone is really bought into the business. It’s our society, our thing, and there are a lot of us who really get into that. And I was thinking of the downside of it: the opposite side is that if you don’t look, act and smell like the business, you’re not acceptable. It’s like human society, where if you don’t have the same kind of hair we all have, or if you talk funny, you have an accent, you’re not one of us. And if you’re not gung-ho for the business, you’re not very acceptable then.

I myself have a hard time buying into the business and the society of the business. It’s not that I don’t work day and night, or that I’m not doing something related to the business day and night. As far as making it my home (and even if I am doing so), I’m a reluctant dweller, more by default than really buying into it. I can see that all the way back to my high school days and the way I was then. I was never in the society. Everyone was into high school and you can’t blame them. And even at home, I was called the black sheep. I was never really bought into my family. I was the reject of the family. So, I’ve never been bought into a society. I’ve always been on the outside looking in. I have always in some way despised those who are so caught up in society that they can’t see the forest for the trees. I always felt I was on the outside looking in, and that therefore, I can see things better. Others are too caught up in their drives, but I can see. I thought that in college too, that the others are into socializing, into sports, and I thought, this is crazy, this is a rat race.

And I was also thinking about how, in the business, no one will bother me until I do something wrong. If I forget to pick up a check, or if customer calls to say they didn’t like something, then I’ll get the stick. But whatever I do right doesn’t matter.

Well, I don’t want to go into great detail, this is just an overview of the business.

We had a meeting yesterday in Philly. Stewart was talking to us about confessing our belief. The point was that if we notice we’re able to say that we believe that Jesus died for our sins, it encourages us. (I figured this should be encouraging, but maybe my mind is on the business too much. I say that I’m not into this society, but I’m so caught up in it.) The Stewart said that we’re going to find out who’s not encouraged! And if not, why not?

(We had an inquisition to find out who was not encouraged by the meeting. This wasn’t unusual. We had a “hopeful” meeting, and then Stewart would want to find out all the ones who were not encouraged by the talk he gave us. This produced a lot of shouting and speech making by brothers and sisters who wanted to make sure they were not considered to be in the “not encouraged” category.)

Already, I’m anticipating purges. We’ll have voting about “Who’s been doing it? Who do we see who is not doing it?” And then confessing your belief in Jesus becomes something to avoid getting come down on about, or just to avoid problems, instead of doing it for your own benefit – which is what I understood it was meant to be. It’s for me, you know. It’s something for me to do.

Deep down inside, I really do believe that Jesus died for my sins. I’ve been pretty cold though. I’ve been really turning away and I have to dig to find it, but I think my faith is there. Or I think, I’ve sinned too much, so there is no more forgiveness, so I’ve got to be cold and callous. That’s not really what I want to be, but there’s no real hope. I could pray, but I won’t get my prayers answered, so I just have to settle for this way of life, because this is the way it’s going to be. I don’t want to leave our church, so I have to make the best of life here, because that’s all there is. I have to go underground and keep all my desires, my thoughts and myself secret. And live a double life, like a spy in hiding.

Today, I overheard Joy and a few others talking about dividing the carpet cleaning squads. I thought about chiming in, “Yes, Paul and I were talking about that on the way down to the meeting!” And I thought, that’s not going to be too good. So I just listened in on it. There’s a way of finding out information without directly partaking in things. Like, if I want to know if somebody does this or that, I just wait until I hear somebody talk about it. It almost becomes a little game. There was something like that in the Diary of Frederick Douglass. He wasn’t able to ask people what words meant because that would reveal that he was learning how to read, and slaves weren’t allowed to learn how to read, so he just waited until he heard the word used in context. There’s a lot of things I can find out without having to ask. And if I tune into the talk going around me, I can pick up a lot without having to ask.

There’s more I could say, but that’s the main point of what I’m thinking about.

I’m trying to make this tape diary, but I don’t really have a whole lot to say today. I feel depressed. I want to sit here at the window and look up at the sky and have a talk about my life and what’s going on, and about the deeper inner things I’m thinking about and why. I imagine this as being a comforting thing. It occurs to me that I ought to do this once in a while as a way to work out what I’m thinking and what I believe, and what I believe about Jesus.

Giuseppe left today, and I just mark that as a date on the calendar. I don’t know if he’ll show up again or not.

(Giuseppe was an Italian man who was with us for about a month, and who, like all new inductees to the church, was thrown into the carpet cleaning schedule. He was assigned to me a few times as a helper.)

I’m trying to do something with my time. I came back and I realize that an hour has fallen in my direction. I remind myself of those Japanese executives who are so geared up for work that when have time off, they don’t know what to do with it. Instead relaxing, they pursue leisure with the same intensity they pursue their work with. They do ten rounds of golf, then they speed over to the marina and go sailing. Then they run over there and do the next thing. They don’t know how to unwind and they don’t know how to stop. So they actually have people who teach them how to relax, because they don’t know how to.

They pursue their time off with the same relentless zeal as when they’re making a business deal and they end up getting ulcers and heart attacks, because they don’t know how to just sit somewhere. The Newsweek article was reading about this had a picture these guys fishing. They were trying to teach them to sit still with a fishing pole and just wait for a nibble. It’s not an aggressive activity. They might have to wait half an hour, just sitting there.

And there was a time in my life when I was perfectly content to sit there and maybe that’s what I’m trying to do now. I’m just trying to sit here, and not trying to cram something in. You know, like I’ve got to read some books on tape! Maybe I’m going to study some languages! Not that I don’t want to do those things. If I had more free time, if I could get afternoons off, it wouldn’t be so bad. But when I come back from work now, I’m trying to cram. It’s horrible. I never even stop to face myself or what I’m doing, it’s work all day and cram an hour of something in, and then drop into bed, and I’m forgetting to pray and I don’t even want to pray.

It’s hard to get unhooked. It is really, really hard to get unhooked from this driving madness. It takes me by the scruff of the neck and shoves me forward. And then I pursue so-called leisure time with the same intensity, because I’m angry that I miss out on things and don’t get time for them, so I’m going to try to do them all at once. And, it’s just not going to work.

And I was thinking, in the light of last night’s meeting, well maybe there is forgiveness for me. And maybe there is justification as a free gift for me. It would be a new beginning. I really have written it off, deeply written it off. That’s why I’ve been acting the way I have and have gone underground. I’ve been like a hardened, callous person, even toward God. I’ll think, what’s the point of praying? I don’t get anything out of it.

(It wasn’t clear to me at this time that Stewart was driving us to live this way (and of course, we were reinforcing one another in it as well), while at the same time talking to us about our need for faith, and that we needed justification in order to have peace. That one hand was beating us while the other was feeding us.)

I’m trying read some books by the Reformers because they seem hopeful and trustworthy. They’re not like these new authors who flip flop a lot. Even now Stewart seems to flip flop, though I guess not lately.

(At this time, Stewart Traill often changed his teachings (which were supposed to be the absolute and unchanging truth) every week or so. I felt that I could not put my trust in or depend on his teachings if he kept changing them. If I did, I would be “blown about by every wind of doctrine.” So I began to read the books written by authors from the Protestant Reformation, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, because their writings had stood the test of time.)

Calvin’s and Luther’s books, like The Commentary on Galatians or The Bondage of the Will, seem like the right and comforting books and I want to know what they say. I’ve had these books for two years and I have not even read one of them all the way through. Even a worldly person or a so-called church Christian who has his own study, like in the office of the Episcopal church where we cleaned the rugs today, probably reads books all the way through. And me, I can’t even read a book all the way through.

(Not being able to read much wasn’t because of my lack of discipline, but the treadmill of the Christian Brothers carpet cleaning business. Being exhausted made it hard to concentrate on anything.)

It is hard to get time, and when I do get time, it’s hard to get detached enough to actually pursue that. I feel so unsettled and guilty. Probably guilty because of sin and it’s hard to even sit down and read the right kind of book. It’s extremely difficult. I often wonder, how am I ever going to get justified enough just to be relaxed? Enough to be able to stop, to do what my mind tells me I know I ought to be able to do – to take time to read. So what if I do kick back and read a few pages of The Commentary on Galatians? Is it really going to comfort me? No. I won’t be the better off for it. That’s my conviction, to tell you the truth! Because later, I probably won’t remember what little I managed to read anyway. And the little bit of it that comes back to me as I’m scrubbing away on a carpet, really doesn’t do me any good. And I’ll think, hey that was a point from a book I read, and then it’s gone! It doesn’t really stay in my mind anyway.

I feel like I ought to read these books. These books had a huge impact on John Bunyan. But maybe they don’t help me, because I’m supposed to be reading the notes from here.

(If I wanted the Gospel to change me, like it did for John Bunyan when he read Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, I wondered if I should be reading notes taken at meetings of Stewart Traill’s monologues, diatribes and ranting. Instead of these books, maybe Stewart’s words were the Gospel message that could change me on the inside so that I could finally have peace and rest?

The official COBU belief, as well as Stewart’s claim, is that he had special understanding of the Bible that no one else had, and that the truth of the Gospel had been lost over the centuries, but God had entrusted Stewart with the true Gospel. So really, I should just be reading the notes I took of Stewart’s talks at the meetings, because these were better than all the books which had ever been written by Christian authors throughout time.)

It does seem hard to believe that justification could be a free gift and that I could just be forgiven. It seems too easy. Or, I’m past the point of being able to receive this, or it’s because judgement is too terrifying to think about. It’s just too overwhelmingly terrifying to think that the same God who is ferociously angry at me also loves me and wants to forgive me. From what I know, it means I need to look to Christ as the one through whom we are forgiven. God is angry at me in his wrath, but yet if I look to Christ, he accepts Christ’s finished work in as atonement for my sins.

I’ve heard these things a long time, yet it seems hard to appropriate them for myself. Maybe knowing what I am really like, or maybe some of those really bad dreams I had about hell seem to close off any possibility for me. I’ll never receive justification. Although I’ve received just as many good uplifting dreams. But, yes, I see myself getting worse and I’m on the run from God. I could only imagine that if God ever did catch me he would kill me, right? And the other thing is, if he catches me, he wants me to smash up and get rid of everything I ever liked and loved to do.

(I wasn’t saying here what the source of these negative beliefs was. These were Stewart Traill’s teachings about breaking up and putting to death our lives in this world. And also about how we were headed straight to hell and that God was angry at us.)

What’s God going to do when he gets ahold of me? This image I have of God is that not only is he trying to destroy everything I like, have, own and desire, but then when he gets ahold of me, he’s going to destroy me. It’s hard to settle into a God like that and to desire to be around a God like that. Even if I know I can get Richard Wurmbrand books and can read how he was toward God and read about this comforting God that he writes about. It sounds really good, and it feels good for as long as I am reading the words and the book is in my face. The moment I put the book down, I’m back to my terror and the COBU controversy and whatever other things.

The things in these books sound so good. You know, Christ came to save poor lost sinners, the worst sinners. These are the ones Christ came for, because those who are well have no need of a physician. All these things that are the Gospel and I’ve heard of the Gospel. But when it comes down to me, it just seems hard, and the jigsaw puzzle piece doesn’t fit together somehow. And I think, well, it’s because I still have my possessions, I haven’t sold all I have. And until I do, I’m never going to… I don’t know, I just don’t know.

(Stewart Traill was driving us hard about “smashing up and killing everything” that we desired in this life and “not living out the things that seem to be there in you,” which meant not following our desires and ambitions… or as some Christians would say, not finding out what our own gifts and calling from God were. We were supposed to subordinate everything, even our very lives, to COBU instead. And it was hard for me to take comfort in God, because according to this view, Gos was trying to destroy me and everything about me.)

This is the core of it, what’s underneath it all. This is what I intended to do as I set out to make this tape – to get to the bottom of things. It’s that kind of thing, that it’s so easy, yet it’s so hard, to get justified – let alone the fact that we may have an inquisition about it, to find out those among us who have received justification, and to find out who has not.

And the idea that no one is going to ask, how can we help you on this? No one is coming from that place. Instead, it’s, “Line these ones up! These are the troublemakers! Keep your eye on them! These are the ones trying to break everything down. These are your enemies!” It hasn’t been quite like that lately, but that’s the place where it seems to be coming from. I never see anyone asking, “Well Jim, I really want to help you. How I can help you?” Instead it’s, “Hey, you’re not doing it.” You don’t get a helping hand. If I want to be justified, I’m on my own. It’s on me to go to God, which, I guess there’s a lot of truth in that, but I’ve got to defend myself against all the others. Something to that effect.

Right now, there’s an organizer meeting going on downstairs. That’s for the church business, and I thought, well, if I really cared, I would be down there. And it’s still the business, 24 hours a day. I wanted to walk away from it, to just get away. Then I think, the others who are downstairs at the meeting are going to decide my life. They might say, you complain so much about everything, why aren’t you down here trying trying to forge out the new way? And if I don’t go to the meeting, others are going to decide what I do tomorrow.

Well, I don’t know. I’ve just got to walk away. It’s a hassle and I can’t deal with it. It’s too much, too all-pervasive. It’s hard for me to willingly go for any more of the business than I’m required to, whether it’s an extracurricular meeting or a job extension or we need some brothers to go on a night job, are you willing to go? Even though it’s my own home and I want to build up the business. Ultimately, I do want to work in it, but it’s done to such an extreme that I want to sign off. I guess I should go to that meeting, but then it’s just so much of the business, it makes me sick. It’s like your favorite song. What if you had to listen to it one thousand times? You would probably get sick of it. Things you could even really like, you can get sick of them if you do it too much, because it’s just too much.

Well now, maybe it’s time to wrap up this little talk for today, December 2nd. If I think of more, I’ll add it on. If not, proceed to the next entry.

Read the next section of Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry Cult Leader here: The Stewtape Letters.

(These pages, as well as my other pages, A Day In The Life Of A Cult Member and The Tangled Web, are part of the source material of my book, Captive Congregation: My Fourteen Years in the Church of Bible Understanding, which is available as a Kindle book or in paperback.)


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