My Story – Part 1 The Truth that Sets Us Free

It is the truth alone that is able to set us free from the lies our enemy uses to snare us. 

Since I first published my story on this blog, a lot has happened. The hash tags #MeToo, #churchtoo and #silenceisnotspirtual have been appearing regularly in my social media feed. More and more victims have found the courage to step forward and expose the dark secrets of sexual abuse. While I am encouraged by the truth being exposed, I have also been overwhelmed by how much sexual abuse has happened to children and adults inside the church. Boz Tchividjian with the organization GRACE (Godly Response against Abuse in a Christian Environment) has stated that he believes the evangelical church has exceeded the Catholic church in incidences of abuse. This is a terrible tragedy when a place of hope becomes a place where abuse runs rampant. As Christ followers, I believe we must make every effort to protect the church from this. My own personal story is an effort to make Christians aware of what is happening, so that we can prevent further harm.

I wrote my story originally here in 2014. Recently, after discussing it with my therapist, I decided to rewrite my story and leave out some of the specific details that might be harmful to others who were not directly involved if my identity is ever revealed, as well as add some new insights that I have gained since I started the healing process.

I started attending the church where my abuse occurred in December of 2003. My husband, myself and our three kids almost immediately felt a part of this congregation after only a few Sundays. The people were friendly, the teaching was encouraging, and most of all the hurts we had been experiencing in our previous church were no longer right in front of us. My husband’s family had been at our previous church, and we had been caught up in the middle of a lot past trauma that was resurfacing in his family from a lifetime of abuse and manipulation from his alcoholic father. We needed to find a safe haven away from all of that, and believed this church was the answer to our prayers.

The pastor of this church called me out of the blue one day after we had only attended the church two Sundays. He said that he had been thinking about us and wanted to know if there was a good time for him to come visit. A few nights later, he was sitting in our den. He made us feel so cared about that we began to tell him about the hurts we were experiencing from my husband’s family. Up until this pastor came for a visit, we had not had anyone to talk to about these hurts. We were so relieved to have someone listen. And we became fast friends with him.

After a few months, when I was more comfortable with the pastor, I sent him an email asking for advice about a situation in our previous church involving a guy friend who had left the faith. I was beating myself up over the situation, because my husband’s family had told me that I shouldn’t have been close friends with a person of the opposite sex. Even though the relationship had been totally appropriate, I still felt guilty. (This was normal for me. Growing up in an abusive home, I had carried around guilt for most of my life for everything that went wrong. ) The pastor responded quickly giving me encouragement and reassurance. In the email, he also shared how he had formed emotional connections with several women over the course of his ministry, and that it had never been innapropriate. He let me know quickly he welcomed communication from women in the church.

I had never met anyone abused by a pastor before. I had no idea how much this kind of abuse actually happened. I thought it only happened in cults or crazy religious belief systems. I believed if women followed their husband and other male leaders in their lives that they would be protected by God. As our email correspondence turned into more and more phone conversations, I believed that this pastor was just being a good friend and leader to me. The attention he was giving me made me feel very special. He was old enough to be my father, and since my relationship with my adopted father had never been good, I was very happy about this. However, something about the relationship I had with him also began to bring up some past trauma that I had not ever processed with anyone. Memories of sexual abuse by my adopted father began to resurface. I was overwhelmed and confused and started to share with the pastor over the phone what I was experiencing. One day, the pastor called me and said he had developed a strong emotional attachment to me unlike any other he’d had. Even though I was somewhat taken aback by his words, I also felt more whole hearing them. As an adopted child, I had always felt somewhat disconnected from others. I thought his attachment to me meant that I had finally bonded with someone.

In the summer of 2004, the pastor and I met for the first time in his office. The pastor’s wife kept my kids in the church’s back nursery while we sat in his office on the other end of the church. I began talking to him about some of the memories I was having. He listened and told me he believed that I would be delivered from all of the trauma of the past. The pastor asked me what I really wanted meeting with him. I told him that it was to be loved. We had discussed him giving me a hug during our time together on the phone earlier. I believed if he hugged me that it would help me to heal. The moment felt surreal as I knelt on the floor next to his chair and he began to hug me. It felt like a lifetime had passed as he gently rubbed my back. When we got up to leave the room, the pastor looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “I don’t understand this, but I love you.” I was so flabbergasted by his words, that I didn’t know what to say. I think I may have mumbled that I loved him, too. I can’t really remember anything other than being flooded with powerful emotions. All I knew was I believed I had found the person I belonged with. I also believed wholeheartedly that God had healed a deep brokenness inside of me. I was so overwhelmed when I left the church that I literally felt drunk.

However, what I thought was my dream come true quickly turned dark. The next day the pastor called me with devastating news. He said his wife was upset over our hug in his office and she was insisting that he refer me to a counselor. He expressed that he wished he had not even told her about the hug, but he said he had been overwhelmed by the experience and told her without thinking. He said when he hugged me it felt like he had stepped on a rattlesnake. Needless to say, I was utterly confused. I had walked away from the experience the day before believing that God had healed me. Listening to him compare it to stepping on a poisionous snake, turned my hope to shame. I became upset and begged him not to refer me to someone else. As I look back on that time, I cannot help but wonder if that had been his plan all along. He called me a little later and said his wife had reluctantly agreed for me to be counseled by him on the phone. After a few days, we began working through the book On the Threshold of Hope by Diane Langberg. Ironically, Dr. Langberg shared in the earliest chapters of her book about appropriate boundaries when counseling victims of sexual abuse. The pastor talked about it with me. He said he knew he hadn’t kept appropriate boundaries with me. He even said others in ministry would call what had happened abusive. He said that no one could understand the relationship we had except God. And I believed him.

It was understood that he could not touch me again in front of his wife. However, our meetings continued. I’d go by the church to see him when it was safe to get a hug. He came by my house sometimes, too. Everytime I was with him those first few months, I felt like I was drunk. I had no idea at the time that what had actually happened was I had become addicted to him. As more and more memories of my past began to resurface, I became even more dependent on him. There were days I didn’t even want to move out of my bedroom as the memories of sexual abuse that came up as a result of our counseling flooded my mind. It was difficult for me to even take care of my kids I was so traumatized. He talked me out my despair, so I could get up and do what I needed to do. Sometimes our phone conversations went on for hours, and we didn’t miss one day of talking. I continued to believe it was because he was the person God had put in my life to take the place of the father I had always wanted.

As I look back on those times, I can see clearly now that I was disoriented, disconnected and sometimes even totally dissociated from reality. It’s still difficult not to feel shame over how decieved I was, and it’s important that I remind myself that I was mentally very ill and vulnerable during this time. I remember even begging him to adopt me and believing that he might actually do it. But then one day after I’d begged him to do this, he dropped a bomb on me. I say a bomb because it crushed all of my hopes about our relationship as soon as it hit. He told me, “Not only do I love you like a father would a child, but I love you like a man would a wife.” He said, “If we lived in another time and place, I would marry you.” Then he made me promise I would take that secret to my grave. He also said that we were soul mates. In those moments, everything changed for me. The lie I had always believed about myself that everything bad that had happened to me was my fault flooded my mind. I believed my adopted father’s sexual abuse was my fault. I believed something dark inside of me brought it out in him. I believed that I had done the same thing to this pastor, and that no one could love me the way they were supposed to.

I believed I was bad and I accepted the sick and twisted version of what I convinced myself was the only kind of love that I was worthy to receive; sexual abuse.

Everything went downhill from there. It’s not helpful to talk about the details to me or anyone else, but a secret relationship continued for almost a decade after that. I learned to live a double life. I learned how to keep secrets even though they were crushing my soul. Even though I tried really hard to convince myself that what I was experiencing with this pastor was love, God wouldn’t let me believe it.

My heart was in chaos and pain every single day, because God never stopped pursuing me.

I have been blogging here for four years now. Every blog has been an effort to understand what happened to me and how to protect myself from it happening again. I’ve met many others on this journey who have shared stories which have been remarkably similar to my own. They are so resembling my story that it feels like abusers all use the same playbook. However, I’ve come to recognize it isn’t actually a playbook they are following, but rather a carefully crafted plan laid out by a very worthy adversary who knows us and our weaknesses better than we know them ourselves.

It is the truth alone that is able to set us free from the lies our enemy uses to snare us.

The truth about ourselves and our weaknesses.

The truth about our legitimate needs.

The truth about how much God loves us no matter what.

His perfect love casts out all fear.

In Christ Jesus, we have been set free.

We are no longer slaves.

He must increase.

We must decrease.

No man can ever take His place.

He does not share His glory with anyone.

These truths are the treasure hidden in the field that once we know it is there we will sell everything to aquire it.

Because we know how priceless it is.

Don’t stop seeking the truth.

God is truth.

We meet Him when we are honest with ourselves.

Honest with each other.

And honest with God.

He is real.

Don’t give up.

My story is a testimony that He is a God who keeps His promises.

Even what the enemy meant for evil, God will work it for our good.

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
Matthew 11:28‭-‬30 NLT

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:1 ESV

You are Faithful Forever

Perfect in Love

You Are Sovereign over us.

Michael W. Smith

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

Belonging 

Shame disconnects us from others. Shame causes us to feel worse than anyone else and like we do not belong. When a parent’s behavior towards us communicates that we are not who they want us to be, that we are a disappointment, shame takes up residence in our hearts. 

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.”  For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Romans 8:14‭-‬17 NLT

When I was a young teen, I spilled an entire gallon container of sticky tea all over the kitchen table and it made a horrible mess. My father screamed at me words I cannot remember, but the shame of that moment I will never forget. 

Shame disconnects us from others. Shame causes us to feel worse than anyone else and like we do not belong. When a parent’s behavior towards us communicates that we are not who they want us to be, that we are a disappointment, shame takes up residence in our hearts. 

I wish that spilling the tea was the only thing I did that made me feel ashamed. At least that mess was something that I could take some blame for.  There were other things that happened in my childhood, dark and evil and dispicable things that my father did to me, that I know now I was not to blame for, but at the time I believed that they were my fault.  

Something happens to the heart of a child when they are abused rather than nurtured and brought up to be the person God created them to be.  Shame saturated my heart and made it grow hard and desperate for love and control and belonging. Desperate to receive what it was to created to receive so it could thrive and grow to be the person I was supposed to be. 

I did not know I was carrying around this kind of heart when I met my former pastor. I did not know how terribly desperate I was. When he hugged me and told me he loved me everything in my world began to feel like it was changing for the good. But the tiny sprouts of life that began to come up died when he told me he desired me in the same twisted sexual way that my own father had. My heart grew cold and desperate once again. But again, I did not know it was this way. I convinced myself that my twisted relationship with him and my adopted father who had abused me was the only love I deserved. 

Ten years later, as I was straightening up the church sanctuary on a Monday morning and listening to a sermon on my phone, God opened my ears to another kind of love. A love that was not disappointed in me no matter how many times I had made a mess. A love that called me back home to my Father. A love that said I have taken all of your shame on the cross. And the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ changed everything. 

Now when life happens and I make a mess of things, my loving Heavenly Father comes alongside to help me clean it up. He reminds me that it is OK, and that I am always forgiven. He invites me to sit down again at the table. He does not care if I spill the tea. He loves broken people and wants us to know we always belong at His table. And for the first time in my life, I want to please Him out of love and not fear. 

My heart still has a lot of healing that needs to take place. A lifetime of abuse I am sure will always cause me to have obstacles to overcome that others do not. But I am not alone. I have a loving Heavenly Father whose hope does not disappoint. Who tells me to not be afraid. He will never reject me. I belong to Him.  And that is everything. 

For more of my story, go to Caught

Resources:

The Heart Of Man: Overcoming Shame And Finding Identity

http://heartofmanmovie.com/
 

Photo Credit  

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

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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