After my counseling session today, the song I am Not Alone by Kari Jobe came on the radio.
I am not alone I am not alone You will go before me You will never leave me.
The words brought much needed comfort to my heart, because I’d just been telling my counselor how alone I felt. We’d talked a lot about church today and how difficult it was to go. My counselor explained that after what my husband and I had been through in recent months church was going to be particularly hard place for us for a long time.
This was the place where we’d been betrayed. It made me feel sick to my stomach.
How could the place that was supposed to bring us hope be the source of such pain?
And some of those people in my former church that I believed would always be there for me made it even worse by giving me the silent treatment. My counselor made a very valid point today. It seemed that some of those relationships I’d had in church weren’t really deep enough to last.
When she pointed this out I felt a deep sadness in my heart, because I knew what she said was true. For years part of church for me was keeping up a persona that communicated to others that I could hold my act together and look good on the outside. Like the Pharisees I had focused on keeping the outside of the cup clean, when on the inside I felt dirty and like my life was falling apart.
I was like everyone else. I could sit in Sunday school and share prayer requests, vague struggles, but when it came down to it I didn’t believe I could tell anyone what I was really struggling with… Except the man who was spiritually abusing me.
The other day I looked at churches on Google maps in my area. The tiny red dots within a thirty miles radius were overwhelming. Churches, churches and more churches. And I wondered was there even one I could feel at home in? I wondered why with all these churches there were so many people in the world hurting?
I can’t answer my own questions. I recognize I’m really hurting right now and things seem pretty bleak.
My counselor had another interesting comment. She said, “Maybe God wants to know that you’ll still love Him even when you aren’t involved in church.” Ouch. That hurt, too. Because I recognized still how important the approval of others is to me. While I was working in the church and attending every Sunday and Wednesday I felt respected by others. I was the church administrative assistant. I felt a part of the ministry. And I did do a lot right. The last couple of years in particular after my former pastor retired I took a lot of pride in my job. I also started to be myself more.
But I think maybe it was too late. For years I’d worked so hard to cover up what a mess I really was in. I got close to some, but there was so much I didn’t believe I could tell them. I knew the secrets I was keeping, the persona I was wearing to keep others thinking I was “fine” were wearing me out. I longed for years to be free from the feeling that I was living a lie. But I didn’t believe there was anyone I could trust enough to tell the truth to.
My life growing up was much the same. From a young age I’d been asked to keep secrets, because that was just what everyone did. Everyone does it, but no one tells my abusive father had told me. My heart yearned to be free. I believed telling my former pastor all of my secrets would give me that freedom, but instead it just further imprisoned me.
I can’t tell you how many days I told him I wished there was just one other person that we could be honest with about the relationship we had. A relationship I believed at the time was overall good, but where we’d just struggled against sexual sin. I had no idea at the time how enslaved I really was to this man even when there wasn’t sexual sin. He continued to tell me that no one would understand if we told and that we’d lose everything.
So I kept going to him with all of my struggles and fears until the day came that I just couldn’t carry the secrets anymore. And when I did tell, I found out that the pastor who’d spiritually abused me was right, much was lost. He was deposed from the ministry and you might as well say I was too, at least in that church.
The church leadership did not want me to continue working there. The current pastor believed it wouldn’t be good for the church to have me there after they told everyone in the church what had happened. I guess I was really naïve to think maybe the church was exactly where I needed to be working. I was a victim of spiritual abuse. I had taken a tremendous step of courage coming out of darkness into the light. I had totally repented. I told my husband and then all of the elders about the secrets the former pastor had asked me to keep. But what I’d admitted was just too much for the church to handle.
Maybe you get it, but I don’t get it. I don’t think I ever will. Jesus calls us to come out of darkness into light. He came to set the captives free. He says we are all sinners and He is our Savior.
So please someone tell me why in the world can’t the church handle the truth?
Maybe it’s because so many in the church live in denial just like me of what a mess we really are on the inside.
When I was in the ninth grade, my algebra teacher asked me where I went to church, and I told her I didn’t go, and I should have stopped right there, but I didn’t. I then said that most of the people who went to church were no different from the people who didn’t. I was mainly referring to the boys in my class who enjoyed putting their hands all over me and making sexual gestures at me. She didn’t appreciate my comment and blurted out to the entire class that I was a heathen. I carried that nickname for the rest of the year. And most of those kids chanting that name went to church. However, one guy never called me that and he attended church every Sunday. He was the class nerd and was called Egghead. He treated me with respect and I still follow him on Facebook and consider him a friend. He went on to work and travel all over the world as a missionary and earned his PhD. He’s still in the ministry now. That Egghead has made a real difference.
So I know everyone in church isn’t the same and many do make a tremendous difference. And I want to be one of those people who do make a difference.
And I know that’s not going to happen if church is the place where I wear my Sunday best and say everything is fine when its not.
I like to imagine what it would have been like if the church had allowed me to keep my job and had educated people on the spiritual abuse that had taken place. If they’d protected my identity, and given me the opportunity to tell my story in my own time. It’s possible it would have communicated that the church was a safe place for people with messy lives and it might have provided the opportunity for more people to come forward with their own messiness.
It certainly would have communicated to me that I wasn’t alone. But instead I felt more messy than anyone else and that my problems were too much for everyone to handle, an unneeded interruption in their life.
My last pastor, the one who wasn’t abusive, used to emphatically exclaim, “This is not the way its supposed to be!” He was absolutely right. But how’s it going to change?
Maybe by allowing people like me to keep my job. Maybe by telling people the truth about our own messes. Maybe by acknowledging that spiritual abuse takes place in the church and it often happens because church is the place where we feel the pressure to look good on the outside and have to keep secrets to do it. Sin grows and festers in the dark. So hiding them only brings about more sin, which what we are trying to save people from!
I’d really like to believe that my former abusive pastor might have made different choices if he’d actually felt free to admit his own weaknesses in his leadership role before he got to the place where he was so desperate that he needed to abuse one of the people he was supposed to be leading to freedom.
I believe most of us want the same thing. To know we aren’t alone. To know we matter. To know we are making a difference. To know that people will still love us when we show them our scars. Jesus does. And He says we aren’t alone. That He’ll never leave us. He wants us to be there for one another. Not to impress. Not to earn approval. Not to cover our weaknesses. But to love one another even when we are unlovable. To help clean up one another’s messes even when it means we might get dirty ourselves.
This is what it means to love one another. This is what God says will reveal His love to the world. This is what we need in the church.