Caught – Our Unseen Hope

And yet He still whispers it is finished.

Four years ago, I wrote this post right after I’d confessed my most shameful secret to my previous church. I had been involved in a spiritually abusive relationship with my former pastor. What I wrote revealed a deep shame that I had been carrying my entire life. A shame that had sucked the life out of me, causing me to be desperate to receive acceptance and love, and perfectly ripe for abuse.

Recently, the words from this post came back to my mind when a family member began to shame me for things I had not done what he believed I should have done in support of my family. The old familiar weight of crushing, painful shame felt heavy on me again. It felt like I had walked back into a war zone where the bodies of all those I had harmed were strewn all about. My mother passed away last week suddenly. The shock of losing her triggered a lot of painful emotions and words that may have been more about my brother’s grief than wanting to hurt me. Still those words hurt so much that I made the decision not to go to my mother’s funeral that would take place in the middle of the town where the I’d be bombarded with painful memories of the past.

My choice not to attend her funeral was one I deliberated about with my husband, my friends, my therapist and even my coworkers for hours. I wanted to be strong enough to go. I wanted to not be in that old familiar crippling pain again. I wanted to walk in the strength of the Lord and not believe the lies that were screaming in my head about what a bad person I had been. I wanted to be there for my brother and put the past behind. I wanted to say goodbye to my mother. But after much ambivalence and many prayers, I decided it was just too much.

When I read this post again this morning, I was reminded that none of us are able to carry the weight of our sin and shame. Nor can we carry the weight of the shame that others place on us. Only One is strong enough to carry it.

I wish I was a better representative of Jesus. I wish I was more of a reflection of His righteousness. I wish I didn’t take back the shame. I wish I wasn’t so afraid of what people think. I wish I didn’t still avoid my pain. I wish I didn’t listen to the lies. But I still do. And yet He still whispers it is finished.

Thank you, Jesus for understanding when others do not. Thank you for praying for me when I do not know how to pray for myself. Thank you for not stopping the work that you are doing in me even when I want to give up. Thank you for always being faithful no matter what. Give me the grace to move forward in the truth of who you are. To trust that you are a good and perfect Heavenly Father. Heal my heart so that I continue to receive the love that casts out all fear. In my weakness give me your strength. In my discouragement, give me your hope. I can do nothing without you, yet with you I can do all the things that You have given me to do. Bless those who read this post with the knowledge of who you are and the greatness of your love that knows no boundaries. That we could look past our sin and sorrow, our grief and pain and see only you.

https://ourunseenhope.com/2014/11/01/caught/

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

Real Redemption

In order for something to be redeemed, you have to acknowledge how broken it is. Sharon Hersh

I don’t like to talk about how broken I really am.

I don’t like to think about the damaging effects sexual abuse has had on my life.

I don’t like to acknowledge how dark my thoughts have been.

I’d much rather put on a positive front and pretend I’m much more together than I really am.

I’d much rather you think it’s all in the past and that those things don’t still effect me.

But the truth is, I am still very much broken, hurting and needy.

Sometimes I just manage to convince myself I’m a lot better than what I really am.

But then things come up that remind me of my past and I remember.

I’m hit with the cold, stark reality of how broken I really am.

And it’s really messy.

So messy that I throw my decision to eat healthy once again right out the window and pull through the drive in at Dunkin Donuts. Two chocolate cream filled donuts provide two minutes of sweet pleasure and relief, followed by a stomach ache and thoughts that just return.

Why is it so difficult to face the pain of how desperate and needy I really am?

Why do I run to everything else before I run to Jesus?

Because I like to be in control.

But I’m not really in control.

And that’s what terrifies me the most.

People can and will hurt you.

I can and do hurt myself.

My body longs for redemption and relief.

My soul longs for a world where all the wrongs will be made right, where little boys and girls won’t be abused anymore.

Where our perfect Heavenly Father will meet our every need.

The dark, unimaginable horror stories I’ve heard and seen in my own lifetime in even small glimpses cause me to realize why Jesus had to die.

Sin indeed leads to death.

It is horrible. More horrible than our minds want to imagine.

We desperately need redemption.

This truth is never more clear than when things are falling apart.

When we try to cover up our pain what does the rest of the world see?

Do they see broken people made whole?

Or do they see people who manage so well on their own that they don’t need to be redeemed?

In order for something to be redeemed, you have to acknowledge how broken it is.

Jesus, grant us the courage to acknowledge our pain. To cling to your righteousness for our covering alone. The world is desperate and hurting and needs to see your real redemption at work. May our brokenness be the cracks where your light shines through.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
2 Corinthians 4:7 ESV

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life…
2 Corinthians 5:1‭-‬4 ESV

The Megaphone of Pain

He is a good Father who knows just what we need.

Every time I finish a blog and press publish, I wonder if it was the last one written about a very painful chapter of my life. I wonder if I will finally be able to move on past it. But then something else comes up and I write another one.

Maybe we never stop retelling our stories.

Maybe they have to be retold in order for our hearts to acknowledge just how broken we are.

Maybe facing our brokenness and pain is the only way we can know just how much He loves us.

After writing here for four years, I have come to realize that it is the painful parts of our stories that we work so hard to escape that are actually where true relief and healing lie. It is when I distract myself from my pain, that I actually prolong healing.

Yet, I still distract sometimes.

But thank God He doesn’t allow me to do it for long.

He arranges situations, people, places and things together in such a way that I am unable to avoid what it is He wants me to see.

He is a good Father who knows just what we need.

I had never met the couple who sat at the poolside table with me on a church youth trip a couple of days ago. I can’t even explain how our small talk over pasta turned so personal so quick.

She was a pastor’s daughter with her own broken story to tell. Betrayal. Loss. Deception. Lies. Our stories collided as each of us shared. She did not appear bitter. Rather, it was clear she had worked hard to forgive her father for not being who she thought that he was. She did not judge me either. Instead, she and her husband voiced condolences over what I had experienced and prayed for me.

Lately, I have been exhausted and overwhelmed by so many stories of abuse in the church. With every story I read, I am reminded of my own pain again. Sometimes I just cannot go on reading. Sometimes I just want to put the past behind. To move on into what God has in the next chapter of my life. I had hoped this church youth trip would be an opportunity to take a break and maybe even start fresh.

But pain rose to the surface again. A deep sorrow over how my choices had hurt another pastor’s daughter. The overwhelming emotions caused me to a hug the stranger in front of me and tell her how sorry I was for what she had been through. I felt my heart heal a little more. The pain began to fade away. Other emotions followed. Grace. Love. Mercy. Peace. Redemption. Gratitude.

Why does He love us so much?

Why does He keep pursuing us even when run away?

I don’t know.

But He just does.

Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. C.S. Lewis

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Romans 5:1‭-‬5 ESV

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

God, PTSD and Choices 

And despite my PTSD, in the depths of my soul, I know that He is a safe place for me.  

Show me the right path, O Lord ; point out the road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you.

Psalms 25:4‭-‬5 NLT

I struggle with PTSD. I have for most of my life. I did not want to believe that this condition was something that I would have to learn to live with, but the more I’ve learned through counseling and reading about PTSD, I have had to accept that it is something I suffer from.  I read a New York Times article recently about PTSD and it’s causes, symptoms, and the new treatments that are proving to be successful. Bessel Van der Kolk, a psychiatrist whose whole life has been been spent learning about trauma, also author of The Body Keeps the Score, has made a lot of headway in helping people with PTSD live with trauma. I’ve come to understand from his work how being exposed to trauma can cause even the normal things in life to be exceedingly difficult at times for those who suffer with PTSD.  Those of us struggling with PTSD have to learn how to live with memories that sometimes play on an endless loop in our minds. Treatment often involves dealing with the traumatic memories in an environment that is safe until one becomes desensitized to the dedlbilitating effects of the memories.  I am still very much on a journey of learning how to live with PTSD. The more I’m learning to deal with the pain of the trauma from my past with my counselor and with safe people who understand, the more hope I have that I can function in life with PTSD.  I’ve also discovered the more I am able to remind myself of God’s presence constantly with me and keeping my soul safe, I also find the effects of PTSD are becoming more manageable in my life. But I have to be honest, living with PTSD is still difficult, and what makes it even harder is that others who are not struggling do not understand why simple choices can be so hard.  Please know if you are suffering with PTSD that God understands your struggles and He does not ever condemn you for what you are having to overcome.  He has compassion for you and grieves with you in your pain. I believe that knowing this is the most important truth that we can cling to when the effects of trauma feel overwhelming. 

I have discovered that a sure way to trigger my PTSD is to give me an important choice to make.  It’s about way more than choosing what flavor ice cream or what kind of K-cups I want for my coffee machine, even though sometimes I find these simple choices challenging, it’s about deciding about something that will totally disrupt my daily routine. Ultimately, the serious choices we are called to make at certain times in our lives remind us how really out of our control circumstances can be. And for those of us who desperately cling to control for security that is tough! 

Very little about our circumstances have been predictable since our family left the place we’d lived our whole lives.  I took it for granted how much the familiarity of the place I’d always called home gave me the comfort of predictability. I believed that moving would give our family the opportunity to start fresh, but I had no idea how difficult starting over would be. Just because we change location does not mean that we change who we really are and the obstacles we must overcome. As a matter of fact, changing location produces a whole new set of problems. 

I don’t mean to be discouraging if you are considering a move. Moving was the only choice I believe that our family had to keep ourselves together and sane. We desperately needed to get away from the people, places and things that triggered so much pain in our lives. God had not given us the grace to stay there, and He was compassionate to our cries to get out and opened the door quickly for us to move.  

However, so much has been unstable since we moved. Our children have struggled to make friends. We’ve drifted in and out of churches that we’d hoped would be where we belonged. We’ve felt like strangers in a strange land having lost the familiarity of the place we had always called home. Although our children have begun to make friends and we believe we’ve finally found a church where we belong, my husband is on his third job and has recently had to cut back on his hours due to recent back surgery and his continued struggles with depression and anxiety. I’m currently out of work after quitting a job in a work situation recently that triggered me terribly, and now I am faced with the dilemma of where to go to work again. 

I was asked to make a choice last week about going back to place I’d worked a year ago that I had grown to feel a part of, but due to budget cuts I was laid off quickly with little notice. It was a change that took me by surprise and yet another loss that I had to grieve.  The amount of hours I’ve been asked to work this time are not certain. I’ve also been warned that the things may still be unstable there. Although, I need the work I became overwhelmed by the possibility of going to work and things being unstable again. I’m so very tired of things changing. I long for some consistency and stability in my life. 

When one suffers from PTSD, triggers cause the warning system of our brains to override the thinking parts of our brains. This has been the case with making a decision about this job. My fear of change and losing control kicked my amygdala into overdrive, but finally after talking to my husband he was able to get my prefrontal cortex operating again. He encouraged me to take my time in making a decision and not to jump into anything I was not certain about.  I’ve applied for other jobs that have the potential to provide tasks more consistent with my talents and offer the potential for more stability and potential growth. This week is the last full week that our children are out of school.  It’s also the week that I have asked the Lord to open opportunities for another job that He may have for me or encourage me to go back to where I was and trust Him with the uncertainties. Change is coming whether I want it to or not! 

Trusting God with major choices is really difficult for me. There’s so much about His role as Father that I am still seeking to understand.  The traumatic relationship with my own adopted father is almost impossible not to project onto God at times. How can I learn to trust God as a good father when the man who raised me caused me to lose so much of who I was? Also, how can I trust Him as a good Father when a man in a position to teach me about Him also led me astray?  Sometimes it seems impossible. 

But yet for some reason God has given me the grace to hold onto my hope in Him. My faith, though miniscule it may be at times, continues to keep me moving forward believing that somehow He is directing me towards what He has for me. And despite my PTSD, in the depths of my soul, I know that He is a safe place for me.  

Surely God hasn’t brought me this far to leave me hanging in uncertainty. 

I love Daniel’s words in the closing season of Rectify.  Daniel is also a sufferer of PTSD as a result of trauma he suffered from being on death row for 19 years.  Daniel has struggled to adjust to so many changes in his life after being released from prison. Much is uncertain about his future, but he holds onto hope that something better is ahead. 

Daniel:  Somewhere in all of this I’ve managed to fight for myself for some reason – to fight for my life for some reason and I survived for some reason and here I am still for some reason and me not knowing that reason doesn’t diminish or invalidate it or disprove its existence and that’s what I’m going with today, Mr. Stern. No promises beyond that.

John: Words to live by, Mr. Holden, for today.

We are here for a reason, even though sometimes that reason isn’t clear. The pain we’ve suffered has not been in vain. We are still here despite what we have been through. Today, we can move forward trusting that God is with us and promises us a future and a hope. Today, we can rest in the fact that He is transforming what the enemy meant for evil into our ultimate good.  

And even though I still don’t know what choice I’m going to make, I know when the time comes God will direct me in the way that I should go. 

Who are those who fear the Lord ? He will show them the path they should choose.

Psalms 25:12 NLT