The Power of Love

A few weeks ago, I started to read the book The Power of Attachment. The book by Diane Poole Heller talks about the different ways we connect to one another in relationships, and the importance that our early childhood plays in developing these attachments.

I was born in a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers. My biological mother was raised Catholic. Her parents sent her away to give birth to me. She only held me for a few moments before I was handed over to the State and placed in the home of a foster parent for three months. After three months, I was adopted by my parents. From my baby pictures, I appeared to be a well adjusted and happy child. However, my earliest memories as a child communicate to me that I struggled most of the time with feeling like I belonged. Up until I was in my twenties, I believed that there was something wrong with me. I thought that being adopted and not being a blood relative of my family was what caused me to feel out of place. But then I found both of my biological parents, and realized that I still felt disconnected.

Reading Diane’s book has helped me to see that my lack of connection is about more than being adopted. What it is about is being raised by parents who did not know how to connect with me in a healthy way. Parents who didn’t connect with their parents either. My adopted mother’s mom died when she was just a little girl. She had very few memories of her, and didn’t talk about her father much either. My adopted father’s mother lived until I was in my twenties. He spent a lot of time talking about how she favored his brother over him. His father died when he was a child. His earliest memories were of him shooting up morphine in front of him.

I spent my childhood believing that I was the reason that I couldn’t connect with my parents. Even though they provided for my physical needs, I felt responsible for my own emotional needs and insanely for theirs, too. Sexual abuse taught me that it was my responsibility to meet my father’s emotional needs. It was also up to me to keep this secret from my mother. I had to work really hard to do my part to keep everyone happy. I felt like I lived in a minefield waiting for the next explosion to go off. I thought if I watched my every step I could keep something else bad from happening. Even though it didn’t work, I never stopped trying to make it work. It was the only thing I knew to do to survive.

Diane Heller provides exercises in her book to help people like me who grew up not feeling attached to start a process of feeling more secure. One of the exercises says to imagine having parents who had relationships with others in their lives who met their emotional needs. She said to visualize what it would have been like if our mother had friends she went out with who brought her happiness. As I visualized this, it felt like the knots in my stomach began to relax. Momma did not need me to do everything right to be happy. She was happy all on her own. I wasn’t walking in a mine field where I had to focus on my every step. I could focus on just being myself. I could see clearly through this practice that the reason I felt disconnected as a child was because I never felt the freedom to just be myself.

Other exercises in the book encourage the reader to think about the people in our lives who they felt safe around and remember how these people made them feel. I experienced relief as I thought back to an older couple who were friends with my mom. I stayed with them for a week when my parents went out of town. Their house was in the country. I chased chickens around their back yard. I sat on the porch drinking lemonade and eating homemade goodies. I went to the store and got a brown paper sack full of candy. It felt safe to be myself.

God talks about us coming to Him as little children, but I have so few memories of times when I felt like I could be a little child. I don’t know how to be a child and this has greatly effected my ability to connect with God. I am realizing that I still spend a lot of life feeling like I am walking through a mine field. There has been so much loss in my life that I wonder if I will ever find the freedom to be myself again.

I confess I struggle with feeling angry and cynical about how my life has been. Am I destined to be forever disconnected from God because I do not even know how to come to Him as a little child? I confess it feels impossible to me and with the religious abuse I experienced no where at all feels safe. The only thing I know to do is to continue to be honest about the struggles that I have with God and with others who are safe. In church it has been very challenging to find these people. Too often I hear judgment in their comments or quick fixes that sound more about control than a relationship with God. I cannot continue to sit through conversations like this. I desperately long to connect with God. I want to believe that He is a Father who wants to bring me only good. But these days I’m struggling with this. Even though our relationship with God is based on faith and not by sight, I see how much relationships play a part in revealing the goodness of God to people. Jesus had relationships with people. He didn’t tell them to just believe and walk away. He risked and really cared even though He knew that they would abandon Him when He needed them the most. When I think about this part of the story and Who God is through Jesus, I realize He doesn’t need me to do anything to meet His needs. I can be the kid who chases chickens in the back yard. I can laugh and drink lemonade on the front porch. I can find the relief of just being myself. This is the Gospel. It really is good news. This is the hope that I hold onto even when I feel like I am walking through a mine field. Truly, it’s a miracle that I even believe in Him at all. But faith is a mystery and a gift that we are not responsible for acquiring on our own. I so need God’s help every moment to give me the strength to keep moving forward, but I also need other people who are willing to hang in there in a relationship with me. People who do not need me to meet their emotional needs and keep them happy. People who love me right where I am struggling with all of my doubts and cynicism. I pray that God would help me to be this kind of person to others, too. In a world where half the people do not feel securely attached in their relationships, I believe that this is what Jesus has called us to be to one another. If all we are doing is telling others what to believe and what to do without investing time in relationships, we are missing the life giving portion of the message. I’m tired of cold and empty religion. I’m tired of just surviving. I pray that God would help us to see how desperately we need love and connection to one another. It’s the only way the world can know that we belong to Him. It’s the only way to give each other real hope.

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

Painful Reminders and God’s Redemption

And true restoration and healing is the business that God is all about

The Lord says, “I will give you back what you lost to the swarming locusts, the hopping locusts, the stripping locusts, and the cutting locusts. It was I who sent this great destroying army against you. Once again you will have all the food you want, and you will praise the Lord your God, who does these miracles for you. Never again will my people be disgraced. Then you will know that I am among my people Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and there is no other. Never again will my people be disgraced.
Joel 2:25‭-‬27 NLT

Yesterday, a friend sent me another article about a well known mega church pastor being exposed for sexually abusing women. I could not bring myself to read it, because I knew if I did I might become overwhelmed again by memories. Others might be able to disregard this information as something that happened somewhere else in another church without taking it personally, but for me it hits too close to home.

There is hardly an aspect of my life that has not been touched by the spiritual abuse our family suffered. There are so many reminders of a part of our lives that we wish had never occurred. But it did occur and things as simple as seeing a certain vehicle on the road or hearing a song played in church can remind me of the man who abused and manipulated us.

For four years we’ve have been in and out of churches struggling to find a place to belong. No where has felt safe. Every single church has reminded us of all that we have lost and caused us to be afraid of losing what little of our faith we have left.

But the most recent church we have attended has been different. People genuinely seem to care. They’ve opened their homes and lives to our family, and have made us feel a part. They’ve listened to our stories with love and not judgment. The suffocating loneliness we have felt has begun to lift. We have even made a decision to move closer to this church.

However, the fears we have of being spiritually abused again are still very much there. As a matter of fact, the closer we get to the people in this church, the bigger the fear of being harmed again. We opened our hearts before and look what happened. They were trampled and left in a bloody mess on the floor. How can we trust that the people won’t do the same?

The past four years of disillusionment with the church has left us with only God to rely on. He hasn’t wasted this time. We have learned the importance of trusting Him more than anyone else. After the wheels came off in my own faith journey, I have recognized how broken we as human beings really are. If I place my trust in man more than God, I am sure to be devastated again and again. Therefore, I continue to remind myself of the importance of looking to Jesus, the only author and perfector of our faith.

It is a huge relief to be on the other side of abuse. Sometimes I find myself longing to forget the whole thing ever happened. To put the past in the past and never look back again. But then another abuse story makes the headlines of the news. And to make matters worse after I read it then someone on a Christian podcast that I listen to regularly or someone in church reads a quote from the same pastor accused of abusing women. Sometimes it causes me to want to run as far away from the church that I can and never look back. But my heart won’t let me leave. So I continue to stay and face the problems the best way that I know how; by being honest with myself and others about them.

After what I’ve been through in the church, you’d think I wouldn’t be so surprised when abuse is exposed. But I still feel crushed when another prominent Christian leader is accused of abuse. A few names come to my mind of men who had a positive spiritual influence on my life who in recent years have had abuse exposures. Their books and sermons have taught me a lot about God. Now they are just another statistic. What can one do with this information? From what I have observed, some in the church will avoid looking at these truths all together. Some will label these stories as fake news. Some will say don’t mess with God’s annointed. Some will say never let them teach again. And some just don’t know about these stories at all. There are also many who will do as I do and avoid reading them when they do hear, because it brings up too much pain. However, I believe that the church’s tendency to avoid the painful truth about spiritual abuse is only going to contribute to it more. Problems do not go away by avoiding them or pretending that they are not there. Problems don’t go away with judgement. Darkness is transformed when it is brought into the light. Jesus did not avoid addressing corrupt spiritual leaders, nor should we.

How polarized our culture has become doesn’t help the problem either. Christians everywhere on my social media page seem to be about the business of pointing out the errors in others theology or politics and judging one another based on which side they choose to be in. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve hidden the feeds of a large majority of my friends I have on social media, because of the divisive things they post. These are confusing and discouraging times we live in especially as a Christian who Jesus called to love others. The tendency in a polarized society can also be to just point out the good. To post positive memes and pictures that communicate to me that if we talk about anything negative we have a lack of faith. This isn’t helpful either.

Those who are victims advocates are working diligently to expose abuse in the church. I have found a lot of peace and understanding by following ministries who are facing abuse in the church head on and working diligently to give a voice to those victims who do not have one. I’m so grateful for the work that they do. If it wasn’t for them I don’t know if we would have survived. But sometimes reading one story after another of abuse in the church that they post can make it difficult to believe there are actually good ministers. Just as there is a big need in me to be heard, there is an even bigger need for me to be able to be a part of a Christian community where I feel safe, and I have found the only way to do this is for me is to avoid reading too many abuse stories that make it extremely difficult for me to trust others.

The process of healing from spiritual abuse has been a long and difficult one. I have learned that one of the most important things I need to do is be patient with myself and remind myself that God is not going to waste any of our pain. He will redeem it all. I believe that we as survivors play a very important role in being a part of the solution. Each and every one of our stories matter. Because our stories reveal a desperate need in the church for change. And true restoration and healing is the business that God is all about. So don’t give up. Keep speaking. Keep believing. Keep looking for the people who genuinely care. God has not abandoned us. He is working behind the scenes in ways that we cannot understand, but I believe one day we will. He is a good Father. Though those who we believed were the heroes of our faith have let us down and crushed us time and time again, Jesus will never let us down and promises to restore all that we have lost. Keep looking to Him. He won’t let you go.

I Won’t Let you Go

Legitimate Needs

The crushing weight of our unmet needs that cause us to break are where the light of His love and truth get through.

I, with my eyes wide open, closed my eyes for years to the secret that I was looking to my children to give me more than either they had it in their power to give or could have given without somehow crippling themselves in the process. I thought that what I was afraid of more than anything else was that something awful would happen to them, but the secret I began to glimpse was that I was really less afraid for the children than I was afraid for myself. What dangerous and unknown new role might I fall into if the role of father were taken from me and suddenly the sky was the limit, if instead of trying to take care of my children’s needs, I started taking care of my own needs, some of which were so powerful and long neglected that I was afraid they might overwhelm me?

“Telling Secrets” by Frederick Buechner.

I confess that I have the same secret as Frederick Buechner.

I am afraid of my own legitimate needs.

I fear if I acknowledge that they are there that they will overwhelm me.

For so long I have taken care of everyone else’s needs, and I have neglected my own.

It seems so sacrificial, so loving, so kind.

On the surface…

But beneath all of this outward care and concern for others is a little kid who has not had her own legitimate needs met.

I have begun to realize this recently especially working at a residential treatment program where kids from all walks of life are hospitalized because of losses and unmet needs that manifest themselves in addiction, anger, or self-harm. For these kids, the wheels have run off. They have been caught in their desperation, and because of this they have the perfect opportunity to see what it is they really need and begin to heal. Some will take this opportunity. Others will not.

Recognizing the legitimate needs in our lives that have not been met can cause one to feel out of control and weak. Sometimes it feels safer to lock these needs away inside and pretend like we are fine. But we are not fine. Unmet needs can become like the dungeon Little Ease (pictured above) that Buechner describes hidden directly below a beautiful chapel (pictured below) in the Tower of London. It was an incredibly small 4 ft. square space where it was impossible to stand or even lie down. Like this dungeon, our unmet needs can feel like they will suffocate and crush us until we get them met. I know because I managed to make it until I was in my thirties carrying around an overwhelming amount of unmet needs. I had no idea that being given up for adoption caused me to desperately long for connection. My mind had also suppressed the sexual abuse I’d suffered at the hands of my adoptive father, and I had no understanding that my need for healthy love was like a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode. And one day it did explode, unleashing years of pent up anger and hurt that manifested itself in an abusive and addictive relationship with my former pastor, who I believed was the one person who could meet my unmet needs. But as addictions do, it only made things worse and I became just like one of the kids at work. The wheels ran off and I was caught. For the past four years, I’ve had the perfect opportunity to see what it is that I really need and get better. Sometimes I take the opportunity. Sometimes I do not. The hardest thing for me to do these days is recognize my legitimate needs, because I am afraid that they will be like a ticking time bomb that will explode again. A large part of my struggle is truly believing that there isn’t something wrong with me. As I look back on my life, I struggle to see the little kid who just needed to be held and loved. Sometimes all I see is a little kid who could never do anything right and who caused bad things to happen all around her.

It would seem to me after all the writing and processing I have done that I would not still struggle so much, but I do. Healing can be a long process. It’s hard being patient with myself. The other night driving home from a Bible study with my daughter, she began to talk about how difficult it was to trust others at this new church because of memories of the losses in her other church. I felt crushed under the weight of the reality that my choices had contributed to her present struggle. I realized how many times I hadn’t been there for her. These were years I could never get back. All because I was pursuing what I thought I had to have. My unmet legitimate needs had caused me to pursue things that brought me much shame.

I feel much compassion for my daughter. There isn’t much I wouldn’t do to bring her relief. To cause her to be able to feel that she is a part. To help her believe in the goodness of people again and recognize God working in their lives. I know that the lack of trust she struggles with comes from legitimate needs for connection she is afraid to have met. I know it also comes from having her own hope shattered by trusting in the wrong people and having her own innocence stolen. Betrayals that have been totally out of her control and that were never her fault. I have no problem at all loving her and reminding her that she is not alone. I can tell her over and over again that it is not her fault. However, showing myself the same compassion seems impossible at times. Frederick Buechner’s words strike a powerful chord in me:

To love our neighbors as we love ourselves means also to love ourselves as we love our neighbors. It means to treat ourselves with as much kindness and understanding as we would the person next door who is in trouble.

“Telling Secrets” by Frederick Buechner.

I confess I have not loved myself well. My default mode is self-contempt, and only the grace of God can save me from it.

But will I let Him?

Or maybe a better question is can I stop Him?

I have to believe that nothing can stop the truth that sets us free.

The crushing weight of our unmet needs that cause us to break are where the light of His love and truth get through.

The truth is there are no more fathers and mothers. There is no opportunity to live my life over and do it right the next time. The betrayals, the losses and the regret will always be a part of my story. It’s ok to be sad about these losses. To offer myself the same compassion I give my daughter. I can also thank God because of Jesus that these things don’t have to be the way our story ends.

He is a Father to the Fatherless.

He is the Resurrection and the Life.

There is no shame in our legitimate needs.

They are what drive us to Him.

Our hearts cry out to be loved and love in return and for all our fear to be gone.

He answers and this is what ultimately saves our souls.

“ALMIGHTY God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

“Telling Secrets” by Frederick Buechner

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.

Ephesians 3:16‭-‬21 NLT

Joy

Demons love to be analyzed…

Someone coined the phrase a long time ago, Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.

For the past four years, I have learned to accept that most of my days will be spent getting by, sometimes wondering if I will make it and other days thinking I might not; every day asking God to help me get through to the other side of this grief.

I did not realize until recently how very accustomed I have become to just the struggle of getting through. It has become the devil that I know. It has become in many ways what is comfortable to me.

But recently I started to experience something that has been almost foreign to me. Something that is almost impossible to experience when one’s heart has been numbed by grief. Joy.

Much more than happiness. It does not flee as fast. It takes root in one’s heart and begins to grow ever so slowly as one begins to hope.

Yesterday, after a conversation with my daughter I realized she felt it, too. And she was scared to death of losing it. Scared to death that it would slip through her fingers like so many things have.

How can one wait patiently for joy to grow? My heart cries out, Please God do not let me be disappointed again! I’d rather stay here with the devil I know than have to deal with one that I don’t. I’d rather be numb than to experience life only to have it squashed out again by death.

The doubts begin to bombard me as soon as joy breaks through.

What if it’s all a lie?

What if you are being deceived again?

A fellow blogger shared a quote yesterday. Her blog is called The Holy Absurd. I highly recommend it for anyone who’s struggling and needs to find hope and know they are not alone. The quote was from Henri Nouwen’s book Love, Henri. He said, We’ll never overcome the demons by analyzing them, but only by forgetting them in an all-consuming love for God. Demons love to be analyzed because it keeps our attention directed to them.

Demons love to be analyzed…

I analyze what I know and what I don’t know. I have indeed been wrong before. Once I believed I found joy, but it was a mirage in the desert. It only appeared to be the real thing to my dry and thirsty soul. But the pursuit of it almost killed me. The devil will not let me forget. Ambivalence sets in as doubts arise begging to be analyzed.

God, please help me!

Stop fighting.

Stop analyzing.

Be still.

Trust.

He promises living water.

Faith is the evidence of things unseen.

The devil I don’t know isn’t a devil at all.

It’s merely hope unseen.

Joy growing just beneath the surface of a heart that’s felt dead for too long.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

CS Lewis, The Four Loves

Joy comes when desire breaks through the hardened surface of a grieving heart. To care again is a huge risk. It’s more terrifying than anything I know. My daughter’s tears caused me to see this. To love is to at all is to risk losing it all again. It is not safe. But to not love is worse than death.

God, help us to not be afraid to love again.

I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.
John 15:11‭-‬15 MSG

Photo credit

Something Real

I wholeheartedly agree that it’s better to be out of church than in the wrong one.

I just finished reading Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Ester. Before I purchased this book, I didn’t have any idea how beneficial and encouraging it would be to me as a survivor of spiritual abuse. I did not know how similar our stories would be. Though Elizabeth grew up in a very legalistic cult called The Assembly in California, and I experienced abuse from a mainline denomination that puts a lot of emphasis on grace and not legalism, the effects of spiritual abuse that I have had are much the same as those Elizabeth experienced coming out of a cult. Her story was a huge comfort to me, and if you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. There is also a Ted Talk Why I Left an Evangelical Cult given by her sister, Dawn Smith, that is very encouraging. I’m amazed by the resilience of these women, and hope that I can one day experience the freedom to share openly about my own spiritually abusive situation without feeling so much fear of rejection. Elizabeth and Dawn have let me know that it is possible to get to the other side of spiritual abuse and offer hope and healing to others. I believe that one day my day will come, but I also know that right now it’s ok to be where I am in the healing process, and blogging anonymously here. No matter where you are in the process of healing, please know it’s ok, too.

Elizabeth describes her struggles in the book with severe anxiety at church. Like us, her and her husband tried attending church not long after they both left the cult. After much mental anguish, Elizabeth was encouraged by her counselor to take a break from attending church to give herself time to heal.

We, too, have struggled so much the past three years with attending church. My husband and I have visited eight different churches since leaving our abusive church, three we stayed at for a significant period of time time, five we visited once and never went back. We stayed out of church for several months and always felt like something was missing from our lives. We’ve consistently listened to podcasts associated with Keylife Network, because of their consistent emphasis on God’s freedom, grace and love. They have been a lifeline to us. But we have continued to feel that there is something missing from our lives, and we have come to realize it’s less about church attendance and more about relationships with people who truly desire to know God.

After Elizabeth leaves The Assembly cult, and begins to attend a Catholic church without her husband, Matt, who also left The Assembly, he is frustrated and declares:

After everything we went through in The Assembly, why would you want to go to a church that regularly makes headlines with scandals by men in authority?… What else is drawing you there? Why are you always looking for something better?”

Elizabeth responds:

I’m not looking for something better, Matt. I just want something real.

Her words ressonate with me in a powerful way. Ever since we left our abusive church three years ago, I’ve been looking for something that has taken us through the doors of one church after another only to come out disillusioned and empty handed. I have been looking for something real and for whatever reason have not been able to find it. Maybe because it hasn’t been there. Or maybe because I’ve been too afraid to find it.

Recently, I had coffee with a friend who shared with me about her own frustrations with the church. She’s worn out with the narcissistic leadership, codependency, and rules based religion taught in the church. She longs for something real, too, but based on our conversation that night she’s given up on finding it inside a church building. She is not alone in her conclusion. Others who have been through similar experiences are leaving the church as well. I would be the last one to tell them they are doing something wrong. My mother-in-law, after being married to an abusive man for over 20 years, came to the conclusion and said it to us regularly, “It’s better to be alone than to be married to some people!”

I wholeheartedly agree that it’s better to be out of church than in the wrong one.

The question is, is there a real one?

Honestly, I’ve almost come to the same conclusion my friend has many times in saying that true fellowship is not found in traditional church. However, when I look back to times spent with good friends who were a part of the church, I realize that this statement is not true of my experiences. I still miss the genuine relationships I had with others in our previous church. Once I began to break away from the suffocating relationship with the abusive pastor, I began to find room in my life and heart for other people. Even though I didn’t find the words to tell them the truth until I exposed the pastor’s abuse, I had very much wanted to tell these few people the truth. And I still miss them very much.

In writing this blog, I have found fellowship and understanding from others who have not judged me. You have been a safe place. You have been my church. Many of you have similar stories. Many of you long for the same thing I do. I so appreciate your support. But I’m still looking for something real in the church.

If you’ve followed much of my blog, you have walked through the doors of these churches with me. You have experienced the hope I have felt as well as the disappointment and disillusionment with the church. I think I have said to myself after every church that this is the last one. I won’t go down this path again and be disappointed yet again.

And here we are into our fifth week at our ninth church in three years. Maybe some of you are thinking we are a living example of the word insanity. Maybe we are crazy. Or maybe we are crazy like a fox as Steve Brown likes to say. No matter what conclusion you come to, this is our story – we have not given up hope.

Recently, I had coffee with a female deacon from our latest church. After the damage I’ve experienced from abusive men, it’s refreshing to talk to a female leader in the church. She listened to my story and shared her own painful one. Ironically, her and her family left the same denomination we did. This past Sunday we learned that the pastor of the same church grew up in The Assembly cult. I was blown away because I’d never even heard of the cult until I watched Dawn’s Ted Talk the day before.

I wonder what God is doing?

Maybe this church is different.

Maybe it’s something real.

“Ask and keep on asking and it will be given to you; seek and keep on seeking and you will find; knock and keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who keeps on asking receives, and he who keeps on seeking finds, and to him who keeps on knocking, it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will [instead] give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will [instead] give him a snake? If you then, evil (sinful by nature) as you are, know how to give good and advantageous gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven [perfect as He is] give what is good and advantageous to those who keep on asking Him.
MATTHEW 7:7‭-‬11 AMP

Don’t give up hope. God knows what we need!

The Fellowship of Suffering 

In the fellowship of our sufferings with Jesus and each other, we bring true relief to our pain through hope. 

​While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God. Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him. And God designated him to be a High Priest in the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 5:7‭-‬10 NLT

Last night after watching a recent episode of This is Us, I found myself wondering why we work so hard to avoid pain?  One of the main characters, Jack, in the show is an alcoholic. He shares with his wife in a scene what he is learning in AA. He tells her the only way to get to the other side of his struggle with alcoholism is to learn how to sit in the pain of his childhood, and it is clear how difficult it is for Jack to do this. Opening up our hearts to feel pains we have worked so hard to avoid in our lives, can feel like an overwhelming flood in which we will drown. The reality is pain, especially the pain of our past is excruciatingly painful and causes us to feel weak and out of control. It is understandable that we’d want to avoid this feeling as much as possible, but Jack has gotten to the place in life where he knows he could lose everything if he does not. 

I will never forget the tsunami of crushing emotions that hit me with such force when I began to open up to my former pastor about the childhood sexual abuse my mind had suppressed for over thirty years.  When the memories began to resurface, I wanted to do anything I could to get relief from the pain. 

I believed I had found my relief clinging to the pastor who said he was trying to help me, but who I later discovered was actually helping himself.  But being with him gave me moments that made me feel safe and in control of my emotions, which is the reason I stayed in the abusive situation for so long. 

I realize as I write this that probably the worst part of feeling pain is how out of control it causes me to feel. In these moments,  I become a little girl who was being forced to do things she never wanted to do. And she would give anything to escape. It was not the life she was intended to live. It was a nightmare she could not wake up from. And who does not want to escape that? But as a child, the incidious evil done to me was inescapable, and I had to cling to whatever control I had, which meant I blamed myself somehow.  As an adult, I do not live in the nightmare of my childhood anymore, but when I haven’t reconciled the truth that the pain of the horrible things that were done to me were not my fault, I continue to be stuck in believing this lie. The only way to see the truth is to allow myself to experience the pain of what someone else did to me. 

The reality is the things we cling to to escape our pain only bring about more abuse.  I know because I stayed stuck in this cycle for almost ten years.  I am grateful to be on the other side of the abusive relationship with my former pastor pastor. Grateful to have escaped the lies that were suffocating me. However, I still find myself wanting to escape the pain of it all. But just like Jack, I have come to the place in my life where I know that I cannot do it anymore.

The biggest question of all is what can I do with my pain? Where can I process it and be safe? How can I grieve without drowning in the tsunami of it all? Especially when the person who I believe was safe to process it with was not safe? 

A friend in ministry messaged me a couple of days ago offering to process some of the things I’m struggling with about the church with me.  I don’t know if anyone, especially those in ministry, can understand how painful church can be for those who were abused in the church.  As Christa Brown describes in her book This Little Light, trusting the church again feels like you are going to fall on the same sword that you were cut with.  Even working with people in a therapeutic environment every day who have given their lives to helping others does not feel safe at times, because a man who I thought was going to help me actually harmed me even more. 

Suffering from spiritual abuse can feel very lonely at times. 

Reading the last paragraph I just wrote feels a little like a pity party to me. But I remind myself it’s not. It’s me recognizing the pain that I feel inside and allowing myself to feel it.  It is part of the process that I am learning to embrace with self-compassion, which plays a huge part in delivering me from the lie that the abuse I suffered was all my fault.  

If you were abused, it is not your fault either. 

I continue to be exceedingly grateful for others in my life who share stories so similar to mine. You have suffered in the same ways that I have, and some days you are the only ones who feel safe to me. We have shared in the fellowship of suffering together. We have felt stronger when we are together. 

Today, I am reminded of Someone Else who suffered from spiritual abuse. Religious leaders got Him nailed to the cross, and that puts those of us who suffer as a result of spiritual abuse in good company.  Jesus understands our sorrow more than anyone else can. 

He offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death.

Jesus did not want to experience pain either. He prayed for relief. And His Father heard him. And Jesus became the source of our eternal salvation. He became our High Priest. 

Because of Christ’s sufferings, we are promised ultimate relief one day from our pain. However,  Jesus did not escape pain, rather He faced it for us.  And whenever we face our pain, we accomplish the same thing for each other. 

In the fellowship of our sufferings with Jesus and each other, we bring true relief to our pain through hope. 

Thank you to all who share their painful stories, who reenter your nightmares and share them with us.   Your pain has not been wasted.

That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:10‭-‬11 ESV

Helping Those Who Are Traumatized by the Church 

Traumatized people need to know first that God cares about their pain.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord ’s favor has come. ”

Luke 4:18‭-‬19 NLT

I watched a snippet of a sermon from a church in another town a couple of days ago.  My husband is considering a job change which could eventually cause us to move.  Even though church has been a source of great trauma for our family, we still very much want to be a part of a church. We believe that God created us for fellowship with one another. We agree with God that it is not good for us to be alone. But after listening to five minutes of the message from this church,  I turned it off. The pastor was doing what I have heard quite a few pastors do, and that’s criticize those who do not go to church. He actually called the person who had written an article about not going to church stupid.  I don’t know about you, but I do not believe criticizing someone who does not go to church, is an effective way to encourage people to attend church.  I believe the most effective way of getting people to come to church is providing an environment where they understand that Jesus meets them where they are.

I watched the video Hope Rising created by the  American Bible Society again last night. It addresses the issue of helping those who have suffered from trauma connect with God. The video points out that people who suffer from traumatic experiences struggle to connect with God until they have worked through their trauma. Traumatized people need to know first that God cares about their pain.

God does care about our pain. So much so that the Bible says He keeps our tears in a bottle. When I allow myself to think about this truth alone I am moved in the deepest part of my soul. The Bible also says God is near to the brokenhearted. A bruised reed He will not break. A smoking flax He will not put out. These truths are a healing balm to my hurting and traumatized soul.

I believe a lot of churches do a good job of teaching these truths to their members. The heart of the Gospel after all is Jesus loved us so much that He died to save us from the brokenness and sin in this world. However, for those of us who have been traumatized by religion attending church can be exceedingly difficult. And when pastors preach that those who do not go to church are stupid it definitely does not help!

I recognize that for those in ministry it is difficult to meet everyone just where they are, especially those who have been harmed by the church and find it difficult to attend.  How can a pastor help someone who struggles to come to the place where he has been called to teach? I think it is important to note that Jesus spent a lot of time talking about false teachers and the damage they cause. He warned that false teachers would continue to increase in the church.  The Apostle Paul also warned about the same thing.  So one way pastors can help those in their congregation who have suffered from abuse in a religious environment, is take the time to acknowledge that abuse does occur in the church and have a plan to deal with it when it does before it happens!  I am absolutely heartbroken over stories of abuse that I read about happening in the church today and the pastors who are covering it up or worse blaming the victim. This is an insidious thing. We in the church of Jesus Christ must acknowledge that abuse does occur in the church. We need to give those who have been abused in the church permission to talk about it and to grieve it.  We must bring it into the light where it can be talked about and heal. As long as we are more concerned about our reputation and not those who are hurting in our congregations, we will not be effective in carrying out the hope of the Gospel the way God has called us to.

Another thing that I believe that churches can do to help those who have suffered abuse in the church is remind them it is OK not to attend church. When someone you know has been abused by the church does not attend, let them know that you care, but also remind them it is OK to take time away, too. Send them a link for the sermon and ask them how you can pray for them.  Also, equip others in the church who are empathetic and willing to meet with those who are hurting one on one. In my own personal experience,  one on one is less intimidating than a group. We are all on different journeys and sometimes we can traumatize one another without meaning to.

The most important thing is be patient and don’t push. If a person who has been harmed by the church needs to sit on the back row every Sunday for five years or more, then let them.  Give them space, but also let them know you care by reaching out from time to time.  This will go a long way in helping with the healing process that will only come with time and gained trust.

I read a quote from Diane Langberg recently that trauma is the biggest mission field of the 21st century.   It is more important now more than ever that we in the church be equipped to serve in these areas. This includes ministering especially to those who have been harmed by religion.  I encourage you if you are in ministry, take the time to educate yourself about trauma and abuse in the church.  

Here are a couple of websites that are very helpful :

Global Trauma Recovery 

Trauma Healing Institution

Dear Pain

I know if I do not deal with my pain when it comes that sooner or later my pain will deal with me.

Yesterday,  I was given an assignment by my counselor to write about the painful emotions that I felt as a child that crop up as an adult at adult at times when I do not want them to.

Most of us avoid pain any way that we can. Some of us numb it through drugs, alcohol or sex. Some us talk ourselves out of believing that it’s really that bad. Some of us never slow down enough to feel it.

I’ve tried in every way possible to avoid pain, and I still do not want to deal with it now. I’d much rather binge watch Netflix with a large bowl of popcorn, however I know if I do not deal with my pain when it comes that sooner or later my pain will deal with me.I have learned from a lifetime of stuffing pain that the day always comes when I cannot do it anymore. 

Ten years ago, I had been strong for so long, pretending I had it together, that God was taking me to a happier place away from all of my childhood memories. That He had given me a new victorious Christian life. But I discovered I was wrong. I could not control my pain anymore. It controlled me. 

I started watching the show Rectify last night on Netflix.  It’s the story of a man, Daniel Holden,  who was on death row for 20 years. He is released on a technicality and to be retried for the murder. But while he is awaiting retrial,  he goes home. In one scene, the main character hugs his sister in law for a brief time. Daniel  becomes overwhelmed with emotion at the loving touch of another human being. He doesn’t want to let go. The desperation from not receiving touch for so many years is clear. He clings to her for dear life unleashing the powerful force of grief he felt from being untouched for so long.

My emotions were locked away for most of my life. I desperately longed to be heard as a little girl, but it was clear that my parents were not equipped to deal with my pain. I’ll never forget the night my parents were upset with me when they caught me talking to an ex boyfriend who they did not like. They jumped the gun believing that we were getting back together. My mom left the house devastated, leaving me alone with my adopted father. It didn’t matter how many times I tried to explain that I was just trying to keep a peaceful relationship with this boy, my adopted father would hear none of it.  He got angrier and angrier at me and my ex boyfriend. He eventually got a handgun out and put it down on the coffee table. He screamed that he would kill him if he came to our house.  I was so upset that I began screaming I wished I could die. My adopted father said he didn’t care and continued to rant about how he’d kill my ex boyfriend if he came.  It was clear that I was not being heard and that telling him my pain would only continue to escalate the situation. I called my cousin and asked her to come pick me up.  When she arrived at my house I stood out in the yard screaming into the darkness, but I knew if my adopted father heard that he did not care.

Even after I got married and had my first child, my adopted father was still letting me know that my pain was not safe with him. A week after having my first child, I was in the hospital with an infection.  He came to visit and I was crying. He actually got angry with me. He declared that I’d better hold it together or they might send a psychiatrist in for me.  He then said I should be grateful, because my mom was stuck at my house with my baby.  I was crushed. Not only had he made me afraid to cry but also guilted about my mother babysitting while I was in the hospital. When I look back on these times, it’s clear why I learned to bottle my emotions up.  It was the only thing that kept me safe. And it became a pattern of life into my adult years.   

But then I met a pastor who was a father figure to me.  He encouraged me to open up to him about my feelings and he responded with concern. When he hugged me for the first time I was like the character in Rectify and clung to him like a person who had been locked away for decades without love. His hug gave me life like I’d never experienced before.  But if you’ve read my story, you know it didn’t take long before the lack of boundaries turned my relationship with him into an abusive one that lasted 10 years. 

It’s clear looking back today on my life that my pain and finding a safe way to express it is crucial to my life.  The older I get the more I realize that I’m less able to stuff it anymore. It is more likely to come flooding out at time when I don’t want it to, and if I overreact around others I’m left feeling ashamed and responsible once again for not being in control of my emotions. 

My counselor told me yesterday that responsibility is the ability to respond. But when we feel ashamed we feel stuck and unable to respond well.  I realize for a large part of my life I’ve been ashamed of my emotions because of the way my parents reacted to them.  I learned at an early age that allowing myself to feel what I was created to feel produced negative results. Therefore, I learned to stuff emotions that would not be acceptable. I learned to behave in ways that kept others happy with me even if those ways were not a true reflection of how I felt. Therefore, I also took responsibility for their bad behavior, too! 

I’m still on a long journey of allowing myself to feel the emotions God intended for me to feel. Pain lets us know when something is wrong. Pain also motivates us to ask for help from God and others. I realize my relationship with God is also lacking because even with Him I try to express what I think He wants me to feel rather than what I really do, but God knows my heart. He looks past all of my trying to hold it all together and His Holy Spirit prays for me even when I don’t know how to pray for myself.  The thing that amazed me the most about God when I first felt His presence was that He heard my pain and He comforted me.  He was a safe place to release my pain, however my efforts to try to be a good religious person caused me to lose sight of that.  Also, painful circumstances in my life knocked me back into a self protective mode of trying to control things around me by not expressing what I really felt honestly to others. And it made me an easy target for a predator. 

Certainly, after all the painful circumstances our family has been through, my tendency is definitely to hold my feelings in and protect myself and others from them.  I saw how my desperate need for love took me to a very dark place. But I’m realizing these days that it wasn’t my feelings that were ever the problem. It was not being able to deal with my feelings in a healthy way that was. Of course as a child, I didn’t know another way to deal with my emotions. I could not help the situation I was born into. None of that was my fault.  As an adult who had not learned a better way to cope, there were also certain elements outside of my control. I have learned like many of us do through brokenness that my way does not work anymore and I need to try another way. I realize my fighting to escape my childhood emotions are not working anymore and it is time to give them space in my life to be expressed in a healthy way. 

I think the reason I have been so afraid of these emotions is that I think they will cripple me again. I fear that I won’t be able to function like I did when I first started to open up to my former pastor about them. But I’m beginning to see finally that these emotions can come out in healthy ways if I will allow myself to be honest about them with God and others who are safe to share them with.  

When we are able to be vulnerable with God and with others, we find that our powerful painful emotions begin to lose their power in our lives.  The shameful lies that we believe about how we should feel begin to die in the light with friends who understand and we learn to respond better. The shame we feel about our emotions  are transformed into truth when can share them honestly with those who know how to listen. My heart breaks to hear that so many leave the church because no one understood their pain, and tried to fix them without even listening.   When we do not know how to deal with our own pain, we can’t help others deal with theirs either. 

I’m learning slowly to share bits of my story with friends who are not afraid to share their story with me.  I cannot express enough how this has changed so much for the good for me. I no longer feel desperate like I did when I went to my pastor for help. I no longer feel so very alone. When others listen compassionately, it also helps to give me a glimpse of the compassion of God, and enables me to be honest with Him. 

Even with all in learning about my pain, there is still a lot that is there that I haven’t been able to release. There are still memories stuck in my subconscious mind that I am afraid of how they will make me feel.  So today I’m writing a letter to my pain (an assignment from my counselor), to give it permission to come out when it needs to, so that it won’t come out when it has to.  More than anything else I want to stop feeling crippled by overwhelming emotions that keep me stuck.

If you can relate to some of what I’m writing here, maybe you can consider writing one of these letters, too or reaching out to a safe friend who will really listen.

Pain isn’t meant to be stuffed. It’s meant to be felt and motivate us to pay attention and get the help we need.

Dear Pain, 

I know that you are there, because you come out at night when I’m trying to sleep and cause my mind to listen when things are finally quiet. I’m sorry that it takes this for me to actually listen. 

I know I avoid you when I’m craving another donut or yearning to numb out in front of the TV. I don’t know why it’s just so hard to feel what it is that you want me to. 

I am beginning to see lately that you really are not a bad thing. You help me see what I need. You help me understand the things that continue to hurt me. 

You shouted no when my adopted father touched me and let others bring me harm. You knew I was just a little girl and that this was not supposed to be happening. You were not something to be ashamed of when I felt really bad. What happened was a terrible thing and dear Pain you let me know that it was. 

I know I have allowed control to push you over and over back inside. It’s been bullying you around for too long. Control really is the adversary that I need to let go of because it’s what’s brought me harm. You have been the one who has consistently said that the harm happening in my life was wrong.  So I thank you for that. 

I also know I try to minimize what you make me feel as well. I tell myself that whatever it is it’s really not that bad, but you want me to see the reality of all that is going on before it gets any worse. Oh how I wish I’d listened to you when you tried to tell me things were really bad. 

I think I’m figuring out you are more of a friend than a foe.  I don’t like the way you make me feel but I know you are necessary for me to be healthy and whole. I invite you to continue to guide and direct me in the ways I need to go. And I will try to do a better job of cooperating with you. 

Liz

Broken Trust 

I will appoint responsible shepherds who will care for them, and they will never be afraid again. Not a single one will be lost or missing. I, the Lord , have spoken!

But I will gather together the remnant of my flock from the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their own sheepfold, and they will be fruitful and increase in number. Then I will appoint responsible shepherds who will care for them, and they will never be afraid again. Not a single one will be lost or missing. I, the Lord , have spoken!

Jeremiah 23:3‭-‬4 NLT

Recently, I was asked by an author to review his book on spiritual abuse. I had never heard of F Remy Diederich before I received his email, so I did not know what to expect. However, after reading Broken Trust,  I found myself wishing I had been able to read this book several years ago. I believe his work to be one of the best and most practical that I have read on the subject. I highly recommend it if you or someone you know has been spiritually abused.  I also highly recommend it if you are in any kind of ministry.  I believe every church needs to understand spiritual abuse and the toxic system that produces it. We like to think that because it hasn’t happened to us that it won’t, but it’s closer than we think – in our hearts so prone to wander away from our God. 

It’s interesting to note,  that recently in a conversation with a friend, I was voicing my frustration over how hopeless hearing about spiritual abuse can make one feel. I struggle to read other victims accounts and even watch television shows about abuse involving the church, because it reminds so much of the pain of spiritual abuse.  It’s not that I don’t care about other’s stories, it’s that I care so much that I cannot bear to think that this kind of thing continues to happen in the one place on earth where we should be able to find safety in – the church of Jesus Christ.  I find myself feeling angry, powerless and overwhelmed at times, especially when I hear how the church wrongly handles abuse cases. Statistics show that the majority of churches when made aware of a victimization of a member by clergy, actually bring more pain and confusion to victims.  Victims who need their churches for support after suffering from spiritual abuse many times are misunderstood and are left to struggle alone.  In a Baylor study conducted in 2015 of 280 women who were victims of clergy sexual misconduct, 92% did not feel supported by their churches after the abuse was exposed.  When I read statistics like this, it’s almost impossible not to feel hopeless, alone and afraid to trust. I long for the church to reveal the love of Jesus Christ, to teach the truth, and bring healing to those who are broken, but in the abuse advocacy world many times all I can hear about are more painful stories of abuse in the church. They are stories that need to be told. The truth must be brought into the light to be healed. However, I long to hear more stories of evil being overcome with good.  I am encouraged to say after reading Broken Trust, I see this good at work. 

As a victim of spiritual abuse, my voice was taken from me. Not only by the pastor’s abuse, but by other leaders in the church when I revealed the spiritual abuse to them. As Remy points out in the book, once victims of abuse begin to understand that those placed in a position to lead them have brought them harm instead, they discover that they have a lot they need to say.  We long to be heard and understood. However, the church struggles to just listen without telling us to quickly forgive or attempt to minimize the damage in an effort to protect the institution.  However, Remy does not stifle the voices of those who are hurting because of spiritual abuse, he listens and brings comfort as a wounded healer who has suffered in the same ways as we have. He acknowledgedes the damage that has been done and the evil that has occurred. His loving compassion is a healing balm to the victim’s  soul and reveals the love of Jesus Christ.  

Not only is Broken Trust a source of encouragement and healing to victims, but it is also a great resource for pastors and churches.  Remy does not charge into the church with guns blazing. He does not harshly criticize or condemn. He tells the truth gently and lovingly from a pastor’s perspective about the spiritual abuse without excusing, minimizing, or normalizing it.  He causes his readers to dig deep to the root of the problem, and work towards true healing for all involved. It is rare to find such a balanced and unifying approach in today’s world that is quick to point fingers and polarize. The church desperately needs this approach towards so many issues today.  

Lastly, Broken Trust has been another step in the process of healing from my own shame.  This book has helped me to see clearly the importance of placing responsibility for spiritual abuse in the right place.  Spiritual abuse is not 50/50. When sexual abuse is involved, it is not an affair. It is always the responsibility of the pastor to guard and protect the flock. When pastors use their position of power to meet their own needs through abuse, when pastors take advantage rather than serve, it is never a victim’s fault. Healing can only come by recognizing this truth and not feeling ashamed for someone else’s offense. It can only come when we have grieved over the damage that has been done and all that we have lost.  It can only come when we let go and decide to trust our Heavenly Father to make things right. 

Finally, Broken Trust helps me to find what I was looking for so desperately when I went to an abusive pastor for help; hope and healing through a relationship with Jesus Christ. 

This book is a MUST READ! 

Liz 

Monsters in the Dark 

A friend of mine once told me, Monsters hide in the dark.  

Recently I started listening to a podcast called Undone Redone by Tray and Melody Lovvorn. Tray and Melody share as a couple honestly about their divorce which resulted after Tray’s sexual addiction was exposed.  The tag line for their podcast is that their divorce did not work out, because years later after healing and the work of the Gospel in both of their lives they reconciled and remarried. Their story has been very encouraging and healing to me, because it reveals that on the other side of our secrets being exposed, God can and does bring new life.  Tray and Melody now spend their time helping others heal from sexual addiction.

Staggering percentages of men and women in church struggle with sexual addiction. According to Prodigals International:

  • 5 out of every 10 men in the church are struggling with some issue concerning pornography
  • 34% of churchgoing women said they have intentionally visited porn websites online
  • 54% of pastors admitted to viewing Internet porn in the last year and 30% admitted viewing within the past month
  • 50% of all Christian men are addicted to pornography
  • 20% of all Christian women are addicted to pornography
  • 60% of women admit to having significant struggles with lust

These statistics reveal that the church does not struggle any less with lust than the rest of the world. The way we deal with these struggles is crucial to to our spiritual and mental health. Healing cannot occur until we are willing to bring our struggles out into the light and be honest about them. Darkness will only grow if we cover it up.

A friend of mine once told me, Monsters hide in the dark.  

Several years ago, my own lust felt like a terrible monster to me. It hid most of the time in the parts of my mind that I didn’t allow others to see. It fed on the shame and self contempt that had become a part of who I was since being sexually abused as a child. Unfortunately, I went to a pastor for help who struggled with lust, too and his own hidden darkness met mine and disaster occurred. 

However, for the past three years, I’ve been able to share honestly with safe people and as a result the lies wrapped tightly around my soul have begun to unravel allowing me to experience true freedom.

Truly,  when darkness is brought into light with those who are living in the light, the monster of lust begins to lose it’s power as God’s transforming work begins. 

One of my first exposures to pornography was when I was around nine years old in a friend’s garage. She’d discovered the adult magazines hidden in some of her father’s things and could not wait for me to see them. I giggled at the images with her trying to pretend that what I saw did not bother me. Later, I would also discover the same kind of glossy magazines in a family member’s bathroom. As I flipped through them, I can still recall something stirring deeply in me that I did not understand. I had learned at an early age through abuse that there were certain things that were not supposed to be talked about, so I didn’t tell anyone that I looked at the magazines.

The sexual secrets that had begun as a stir of pleasure viewing porn for the very first time as a child grew into an insatiable appetite as a teen that I could not control when it came. Life at home was hard. My adopted father was severely depressed and anxious, and let everyone to know it. My mother and I walked on eggshells to spare ourselves from another outburst, but still they eventually came, and I escaped to my room to a fantasy life that sometimes took me to dark places. I shudder to think where I would have gone if I’d had Google, but thank God I didn’t, so the worst I could do was inside my own mind, which was bad enough. As I got older and had boyfriends, my fantasies had opportunity to be acted out, and my shame only grew. I believed when I married a good man and we went to church together that my struggles with lust would finally go away, but they only got buried more deeply in my soul.

Although as an adult,I wasn’t viewing pornography or giving into sexual temptations every week or even every month, the shame over my sexual sin from my younger years was still there. My tendency to give in to lust and escape the monotony and the pain of life was still there, too. Again, the lust was only inside my mind, but I feared one day that I might go too far.

Several years into our marriage, relationships in our extended family began to spiral out of control. In the middle of this family chaos, I was suffering from post partum depression and my husband was exhausted much of the time from dealing with his own pain by working too hard. And if this wasn’t enough, our church was experiencing problems that involved family, too. We were hit by so many forces at once it felt like a category five hurricane. We desperately needed relief and support from somewhere and decided to attend another church that some friends had told us about.

This church that was thirty miles away from home felt like a shelter from the storm. The people were friendly, the pastor appeared to be a smart and strong leader who would provide us with support.  Two weeks after visiting this church he visited our home and comforted our hearts with the assurance that God was near.

Because my life was in such chaos, the desire to escape the emotional pain was overwhelming. Lust cropped it’s head up and the shame that followed it did, too. The darkness overwhelmed me like it never had before.

I still don’t understand why things got so dark so fast, and why the lust that had been somewhat under control decided to come out again. Maybe it was because the wheels had run off with so many things I’d placed my hope in. Maybe it was because of so many failed relationships.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love my husband. I truly did. When I made a commitment to him for life, I meant it as much as I was capable of understanding what commitment meant at the time.

But I wasn’t aware of the ticking time bomb inside of my soul.  I wasn’t aware of the desperation in my heart and the growing monster of lust inside.

I had no idea how powerful the sexual abuse I suffered as a child was in it’s ability to produce self-hatred and how much it had crippled me. I desperately longed for someone to tell me that I was loved.  But strangely enough when they did, I found it almost impossible to believe.  I just could not overcome the lie that I wasn’t worth anything.

The pastor seemed genuinely concerned for our family’s well-being.  He reached out with kindness every opportunity he had to. I’ll never forget the first time he took my hand and asked me if I’d be willing to help teach the youth at church.  It was strange that even in this short conversation I felt drawn to him. There was just something in his eyes that communicated he wanted to know me more.  One email led to another and then the phone conversations began. It wasn’t long after that I confessed on the phone with him about the struggles with lust and the surfacing memories of childhood sexual abuse, and we agreed to meet in person to talk face to face.

Looking back to my first meeting with him, I should have known something was wrong because of how badly I yearned to be with him, but my heart clung desperately to the hope that he was going to help me heal.  It felt like the most beautiful moment in my life when he wrapped his arms around me after listening to me describe what my adopted father had done to me. I thought I’d met God for a moment when I stood up to leave and he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said he loved me.  But then a few months later, he shared with me his desire for me sexually, and asked me to keep it a secret. The ticking time bomb inside of me went off and the monster grew.

Lust isn’t just some dirty thing we do when no is watching. It comes from a place of longing in the deepest parts of our soul to know that we are wanted, but also to know that there’s something good about us that’s worthy of being loved.

A bad connection can feel better than no connection when one’s heart feels all alone.

Dark secrets shared between two desperate souls can feel an awful lot like love.

But it’s not love, it’s abuse when it’s with someone who’s been placed in a position to watch out for your soul.

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Galatians 5:13‭-‬14 ESV

I realize looking back on things, that the reason my lust felt like a monster, was because before I met my former pastor, I’d never been forced to look it in the eye. I was too ashamed. But time after time of giving in, standing in front of the bathroom mirror before and after I sinned, I faced the monster and saw a broken little girl behind it’s eyes. A little girl desperately longing to be loved and belong, relentlessly seeking to know she was worth something and clinging tightly to whatever control she could find through five minutes of pleasure that she was willing to risk everything for. She knew it was self-destructive. She knew she could destroy everything. There was a part of her that believed it was what she deserved. Maybe when she lost everything she could finally rest in the truth that she was the awful person she’d been fighting not to believe that she was.

The saddest and sickest parts of the abuse I experienced from the pastor was his rationalization that it was OK to give into lust a little bit to find relief.  Just so it wouldn’t take over and consume. He normalized the behavior, made some of it feel like it wasn’t a big deal. We all struggle with lust. We just don’t talk about it. It keeps us humble and compassionate towards others who are in sin.  And this went on for years. He was desperately clinging to his control, too.

But it was never OK to give in. It was never OK to hide. God was not tempting us to sin. He did not call us to continue in sin so that grace would abound.

You were running [the race] well; who has interfered and prevented you from obeying the truth? This [deceptive] persuasion is not from Him who called you [to freedom in Christ]. A little leaven [a slight inclination to error, or a few false teachers] leavens the whole batch [it perverts the concept of faith and misleads the church].

GALATIANS 5:7‭-‬9 AMP

I’m so thankful for the Gospel that one day finally cut through all the lies and called me out of the darkness into His holy light. I will always wonder why it was listening to Tullian’s sermons on the Ten Commandments that God used to ultimately get through to me, especially since not too long after that he was exposed for clergy sexual abuse. But regardless of who it was who read the scriptures, God used his message to remind me of His law summed up in only two commands.

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:37‭-‬40 ESV

The scriptures finally cut through the lie I believed that day that deceived me into believing what I had with the pastor was love.  It wasn’t love. Love does no harm to it’s neighbor. Love does not lie. Love rejoices in the truth.

It’s been a long road of healing since that time. My confession brought an overwhelming amount of confusion and pain to my family, the pastor’s family and the church.  It resulted in so much loss. I will always deeply regret these things.

But the monster finally died in the light. And because of the Gospel I have been set free from it’s power over me.

However, I admit I still have a long way to go in healing from all the shame. I need the Gospel daily to constantly remind me that God is not judging me.

For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize and understand our weaknesses and temptations, but One who has been tempted [knowing exactly how it feels to be human] in every respect as we are, yet without [committing any] sin.

HEBREWS 4:15 AMP

Jesus knows our struggles. He sees the pain we want to escape. He knows the longing that’s behind our lust and His desire is always to set us free by satisfying our souls with His love. Jesus is not shocked or appalled by our sin. He knows where it comes from. He knows what we really need. He sympathizes with us. His love relentlessly pursues us until we cannot run from Him anymore.

A good friend once reminded me that in the church the greatest need is for broken people to preach the Gospel to each other. I might have given up on the church all together if it hadn’t been for people like him reminding me of what church is really all about.

When one has been spiritually abused, fear of the church is the most difficult thing to overcome. But I’ve come to realize that the thing I fear the most, is also where my healing lies and my story has an opportunity to be redeemed.

I shared with my counselor recently how I would really like to be able to write about something else.  Let’s face it, sharing about dark battles with lust and sexual abuse aren’t things to be proud of.  But then she pointed out if my story wasn’t told that there would be a big void, and reminded me how other’s broken stories have helped me. She jokingly said that she and I unfortunately had not been called to be a Joel Osteen! Her own broken story of alcoholism is what caused me to reach out to her, and I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t! So I know that she is right.

If you’ve got a similar story, I encourage you to find others to tell. Without it there is a big void, too.  Our brokenness is where His light shines through and transforms the darkness in other people’s lives.  I thank God for people like Tray and Melody and others like the ministry team at the church we attend now who do that so beautifully.

If you are struggling with sexual sin, please know that you are not alone, but also know that God’s desire is also to set you free, not keep you trapped in the dark. Run to Jesus. Cling to the Gospel. Preach it to one another. He’s a lot closer than you think.

Inasmuch then as we [believers] have a great High Priest who has [already ascended and] passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession [of faith and cling tenaciously to our absolute trust in Him as Savior]. For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize and understand our weaknesses and temptations, but One who has been tempted [knowing exactly how it feels to be human] in every respect as we are, yet without [committing any] sin. Therefore let us [with privilege] approach the throne of grace [that is, the throne of God’s gracious favor] with confidence and without fear, so that we may receive mercy [for our failures] and find [His amazing] grace to help in time of need [an appropriate blessing, coming just at the right moment].

HEBREWS 4:14‭-‬16 AMP

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