The Institutional Church Is Not God

Our wounds are where His light gets in and out.

Last night there was a post on Facebook reminding me that seven years ago I became friends with my therapist on social media. Words cannot express how grateful I am for the years of work we did together and the relationship of trust we built. I am not sure that I could have survived without her. Thank you, Sharon.

I also want to take this opportunity to say if you have experienced spiritual abuse, you deserve to find relief and experience healing. Going to a therapist does not mean you are weak. It means you are taking care of the valuable person that you are. It means that you want to live and thrive. It means that you are strong and brave. Good therapy is a gift from God, but sometimes that hasn’t been the message I have received from the church.

Many times I have walked away from a church service believing that if I just had enough faith I would not need therapy. It’s not that anyone says it directly. As a matter of fact, most people in church would probably tell me that going to therapy is a good thing to do. Rather, it’s a message I walk away from conversations, prayers and sermons feeling about myself. It’s a feeling that can cause a deep anger to rise up in me against religious things.

I have learned in therapy that the only way to get better is to honor my feelings, acknowledge them and express them in a healthy way. Writing for me is one of the most important tools I have for expression. I am one of those people who carry around emotions inside myself without even realizing it until my stomach starts to hurt and tell me something has to give.

A consistent painful emotion that continues to come out for me is one of anger and frustration towards religion. This time of the year especially brings it back up again. Five years ago during this time of the year, I couldn’t convince the church that abuse took place. The church leaders wanted that word to go away. They embraced half truths and false peace. They chose denial in an effort to protect the reputation of the church.

Even as the anger rises up in me towards my previous church leaders, so do other emotions; shame, guilt, and regret for the lies that I believed when I was being abused and the lies that I told to protect my own reputation. The words, Forgive them Father for they know not what they do resonate deeply inside of me. The shame and guilt begin to subside when I recognize just how broken and needy we all are; when I realize forgiving others is the only way to forgive myself. However, even after recognizing my own need for continual forgiveness, I still experience feelings of anger and frustration towards the institution of the church. Even as I write this, I hear a voice inside my head say that maybe I am angry with God. I have no doubt that hidden within my heart there are still so many emotions God has yet to bring to the surface, one of which is anger towards God. However, in this case I do not think that much of my anger towards the church has anything to do with a hidden anger towards God. I learned early in my healing journey from spiritual abuse that the only way to keep my faith in God was to separate the institutional church from Him. I have had to allow God to reveal Himself to me in other ways, because it has just been too painful to look for Him in the ways I did before in the institutional church.

Before I was spiritually abused, I was committed to the church. I was there almost every Sunday and Wednesday. When I wasn’t there, I was thinking about being there. I realize as I write this that in many ways the church was a home for me. And therein lies where the deep pain of betrayal is. The place I once believed was home let me down in ways I never believed it would. As an adopted child, I had always longed for a place I could belong. For a long time the church felt like that place. As I reflect back on those days, I realize that in my own desperation I made the church a lot more than what it was ever supposed to be. The church was never supposed to be home. The church was only supposed to be the place that reminded me of my real home in Him.

In some ways, the institutional church is like a movie about Jesus. Whenever I have watched a one, (even with Mel Gibson, as amazing as his portrayal was) it registers with me that no human actor will ever be able to portray the picture of who God really is. Our human understanding of Him will always fall short until we are fully transformed into His image.

We see things in a mirror dimly, but one day we will see him face to face. Nothing on earth reveals Him in all of His fullness, not a movie, not a pastor, and not the church.

Creation longs for redemption. Our hearts long for home. The best we humans can do is reveal Him through our flawed and fractured love for one another while we are here on earth. I think where a lot of my anger comes from is that the church sometimes communicates that it is the only way to God. At least that’s what I believed for a long time.

Sometimes when we believe this lie so much we turn to the church for help that they are not equipped to to give and sometimes are too proud to admit it. When this happens, tremendous damage is done. God created doctors and therapists to do His work. One should never look to the church to replace the work that God has gifted others to do. I’m not saying pastors can’t help, they do. But what I am saying is sometimes they are limited in what they can do. I believe every church should work with doctors and therapists and support their work as part of God’s redemptive plan.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the institutional church has all the answers. Don’t let a sermon make you feel like you don’t have enough faith in God because you are struggling with anxiety and depression. Don’t let another’s prayer make you feel guilty, because sometimes the only prayer you know how to pray is, help. Don’t let another’s facade that they have all the answers make you feel like there’s something wrong with you because you do not know what to do. Don’t think that just because you have been spiritually abused in church that it was God that brought you harm.

Broken humanity disguising itself as an angel of light truly does the destroyer’s work. However, humanity that knows and acknowledges that it is broken reveals the true light of Jesus through the cracks of our souls. Our wounds are where His light gets in and out. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. The Institutional church is not God. It’s a place where we can learn about God, worship God, but it was never intended to replace God.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9‭-‬10 ESV

A Healing Response

“Research has shown that the ability of a victim to heal from sexual assault is definitively linked to the response they receive when they disclose.”-Rachael Denhollander

Find out more about this research at: https://buff.ly/2KWRK2M

#EndAbuseEverywhere #SurvivorCare

I had a nightmare last night.

I was being abused again by a man who was supposed to be helping me.

The old familiar feelings of longing for a father’s love, mixed with desire and confusion came flooding back.

It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced these same emotions.

Where did they come from?

Are they still hiding away inside waiting for the right time to come out and pounce on me, my fear is quick to ask?

The only way I know how to deal with these emotions is to write them down.

To bring them out into the light.

To not give my mind a chance to ruminate on them.

To not allow shame to take root.

Darkness is transformed into the light when it is brought out into the light.

I remember that I heard a story yesterday at work that is currently being investigated about a child who is possibly be being abused by a family member.

Her story reminded me of my own.

I felt pain and anger hearing it.

But I didn’t talk to anyone about it.

My mind needed to release what I felt.

And the dream came.

Working in a residential treatment center has taught me how to pay attention to what I feel and find ways to deal with my emotions in a healthier way than I did fifteen years ago when I was abused.

No matter how far away I get from the experience, I still remember the relief from pain that being abused brought.

That’s a hard thing to confess.

I cannot express enough the importance of having safe people in our lives to process our pain with.

Pain creates a deep need for relief.

True relief is not escape.

True relief comes from being honest with myself and God about where my pain comes from.

It comes from a desire for true connection with people who will look out for me and keep me safe.

There’s a big void in my life where a loving, protective father should have been.

Instead, I had a father who brought me harm.

It’s a loss that I have spent a lifetime experiencing.

It’s a loss I continue to grieve.

We do not have an opportunity to grow up and be parented again.

We can only start where we are with the people who are around us.

I confess trust is still hard for me.

But I have come to realize that trust is crucial to my healing.

Trust enables us to receive goodness and hope again.

Without trust and others to connect with my world becomes dull and cynical as my heart grows harder.

But thank God He doesn’t ever stop working the soil of our hearts, so that hope can grow.

People are often the tools God uses to work the soil.

A therapist who lovingly walked and processed with me through my darkest secrets and most horrific pain.

A kind friend sitting across the table in a coffee shop listening to me with compassion and empathy.

A pastor’s wife who believes and accepts me despite my past.

Coworkers and supervisors who have kept healthy boundaries and treated me with dignity and respect consistently day after day.

A husband who has forgiven me time and time again.

Children who love me unconditionally despite all the ways I haven’t been there for them.

All of these and others have been God’s tools and a testimony of His hope.

They reveal to me how much our loving responses to one another bring about His healing and relief.

“Research has shown that the ability of a victim to heal from sexual assault is definitively linked to the response they receive when they disclose.”
-Rachael Denhollander.

I agree wholeheartedly with Rachel.

My own experiences have taught me that the way people respond to our abuse disclosers tremendously impact our healing.

God, grant us the wisdom and grace to learn how to respond well to one another.

To love with healthy boundaries.

To report abuse to the police.

To love without judgement or condemnation.

To listen and learn from one another.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord ‘s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord , that he may be glorified.
Isaiah 61:1‭-‬3 ESV

Once you see the scriptures through a lens of abuse, Hankel told me, you can’t unsee it. This lens makes us cautious to use biblical phrases such as “turn the other cheek” and further complicates traditionally venerated biblical figures—even the “great King David.”

When we preach or write or offer counsel, this lens prompts us to ask ourselves, Would these words be healing and empowering to a person facing violence? And this lens changes the way we see Jesus: publicly abused, but wholly liberated. And if this is how we see Christianity’s central figure, how might we re-center the vulnerable at every level of the church?

Let There be Light by Jenna Barret

Photo credit

Changes

“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Isaiah 43:18‭-‬19 ESV

Lately, I’ve been thinking that God is going to change some things in my life, and I am scared to death.

Why do we resist change?

What is it about it that feels like such a threat?

Change means that we temporarily will be in unfamiliar territory where we will feel out of control.

But newness cannot come without change.

As I think about changes, my mind goes back to situations that have not turned out at all like I thought they would.

I was so full of hope when my pastor told me I would be delivered. I believed that God was going to heal me. But then I was harmed even more.

Remember not the former things…

But how can I forget?

I long to forget.

To grab hold of the new.

But what keeps me from it?

Fear of more disappointment and pain.

Is God playing tricks on me?

Can He be trusted to really deliver on His promises?

The conversation in my head sounds all too familiar.

The garden.

A serpent.

Filling her head with lies.

And she listened.

So did I.

So do I.

But how do I not listen and believe his lies?

Especially when changes come.

Especially when I have lost so much.

What is holding me back?

Grief.

So much.

Why can’t I let go?

What do I need to let go of to grab hold of something new?

Control of my emotions.

It is OK to admit that I am not strong.

That I need help.

Getting help makes me vulnerable.

How do I know that I won’t be harmed again?

I don’t know that I won’t.

But I do know now that I have choices even if someone tries to abuse me.

God has given me a voice to stop it and to ask for help.

Not everyone is out to abuse.

Some people care.

It’s ok to let them.

Help me, God.

Help my unbelief.

Help me to let go.

To accept change.

To receive the new.

To hope again.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

Learning to Live with Losses

When someone loses a limb, everyone knows they won’t grow another to replace it. Learning to live with this reality is challenging, of course, but there’s no emotional energy wasted on waiting, hoping, trying to grow a new one. Odelya Gertel Kraybill Ph.D., The Pain of Trauma, Psychology Today

If only we could see clearly what we have lost due to trauma in our lives, maybe we would be easier on ourselves. However, when we look in the mirror we look just like anyone else, and we wonder why we can’t just function like everyone else.In faith communities especially, we hear about overcoming our fears with faith, doing all things through Christ who gives us strength, pressing on towards the goal of our upward calling, and sometimes we walk away feeling like failures when we struggle.I want to be stronger than what I am. I want to go back to being the person that I was before I was spiritually abused, but the reality is I can’t.Making this statement is not about feeling sorry for myself. It’s not about wallowing in self pity. It’s not about being a victim. It’s about being able to recognize my losses and move forward, accepting the fact that I am not the same person that I was. I have new limitations. There are painful reminders that will continue to remind me of the things that I have lost. I cannot just suck it up, fake it til I make it, and move on. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work. Everytime I wind up biting off more than I can chew and regretting it later on.The only way to move forward is to honor my pain and accept where I am in my healing journey.I realized recently that I push myself too much in church. I sit through conversations that bring confusion and pain about God. These conversations cause me to slide back into fear, apathy, and the feeling that I’m struggling alone. An important part of my healing journey has been learning my limitations and giving myself a lot of grace when I am not where I wish I was in my healing journey. It really is ok to struggle and feel weak. These are the times God says we experience His strength the most.Today I deleted half of my friends on Facebook. People who were a part of a very difficult season of life. For my own healing and peace of mind, I needed to let them go. Saying goodbye to some of them was especially hard. I didn’t want to let go of the hope that one day we would have the friendship we had before. But I knew it was time to trust God with what is ahead.Wherever you are in your healing journey, know that God is right by your side and that He is kind, compassionate and loving towards you. Embrace His comfort. Be kind to yourself. We will see the goodness of God in the land of the living again. He promises.

A Good Father

I want my children to know who they really are.

I want them to recognize those things within themselves that make them unique in a way no one else can be.

I want them to feel connected to themselves and their Creator.

I want them to not struggle with knowing who they are.

I want them to know they belong always with us and to God.

I don’t want them to be lonely or afraid.

I want them to rest in knowing we are always here for them and we will never reject them no matter what.

This is love.

It isn’t dependent on anything.

It doesn’t require anything.

It simply just is.

Why do I struggle so much with knowing God wants all the same things for His Children?

Why do I feel so much fear about the uncertainty of things?

Why do I get lost and confused when the outlook is bleak?

The nature of our humanity wants to be in control.

It does not like to wait.

It wants to see the solution.

It experiences great pain when it can’t.

God knows that our humanity is dust.

We get blown away by every wind of change.

For those of us who have not experienced a good example of earthly parents, God knows especially how strong our need for control is? He sees our despair when we just can’t hold it all together anymore.

He is a Father to the fatherless.

He keeps our tears in a bottle, because we are the apple of His eye.

Deep in my heart I know this, but my brain shouts so loud at times I can’t hear it.

I need to be kind to myself and wait for the voices in my head to die down.

How can I trust Him when all I’ve ever been able to trust is myself? When so much in my life has ended badly? My own control hasn’t worked out so well either.

How can I know who He is really when I am regularly reminded of a man who taught me how to twist His words in the one place I learn about Him the most in church? It’s very hard to get past ten years of verses, experiences and songs that ended in such a bad way. Our memory is such a part of our everyday lives. So many of our decisions are based on good or bad experiences that we have had. The profound life changing experiences I’ve had with God are what keep me going back despite all of the memories. The relationships with others in the past who have brought me joy keep me encouraging me to not give up on the church.

Gradually I’m beginning to see that God is a good Father who wants to give us good gifts.

He wants us to know who we are.

He wants us to see our uniqueness and know that we matter.

He wants us to know we belong to Him.

He expects nothing in return.

His love isn’t dependent on anything.

It just is.

Perfect love without fear of punishment.

Dust brought together.

Wholeness.

Life.

The wind blows away only what isn’t necessary anymore.

What’s left is who I really am in Him.

If I chase the wind to catch what is blowing away, I am bringing more pain to myself.

New life calls me to move forward despite the past.

It is hard.

But it is the only way.

To find myself.

To find others who care.

To find Him.

Father, light the path and lead the way with your goodness and mercy.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.
Matthew 7:9‭-‬11 NLT

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

Letting Go

I don’t want to let go.

Because I am afraid of what will happen if I do.

I let go before.

I trusted him.

I fell into his control.

And I gave him everything.

What came out of me terrified me more than what I saw come out in him.

My most desperate needs were like a vacuum that pulled him into the place that he had sought to go.

A place of emptiness.

Cold.

Dark.

Lonely.

Dying to be filled.

And he wanted to fill it.

Be the hero of my story.

The same emptiness was inside him, too.

Emptiness can never fill emptiness.

The hole just gets bigger.

And real life gets consumed.

But God did not let go of me.

He flooded the darkness with light.

He showed me what was really happening.

And I cried out to Him for help.

He was faithful to save me once again from myself.

I have to let go.

Not to fall into my own control.

Or someone else’s control.

But into Him.

His goodness.

His faithfulness.

He alone can transform darkness into light.

And heal the emptiness in our souls.

And you will, through your own fault, let go of your [grip on your] inheritance That I gave you; And I will make you serve your enemies In a land which you do not know; For you have kindled a fire in My anger Which will burn forever. Thus says the Lord , “Cursed is the man who trusts in and relies on mankind, Making [weak, faulty human] flesh his strength, And whose mind and heart turn away from the Lord . “For he will be like a shrub in the [parched] desert; And shall not see prosperity when it comes, But shall live in the rocky places of the wilderness, In an uninhabited salt land. “Blessed [with spiritual security] is the man who believes and trusts in and relies on the Lord And whose hope and confident expectation is the Lord . “For he will be [nourished] like a tree planted by the waters, That spreads out its roots by the river; And will not fear the heat when it comes; But its leaves will be green and moist. And it will not be anxious and concerned in a year of drought Nor stop bearing fruit. “The heart is deceitful above all things And it is extremely sick; Who can understand it fully and know its secret motives? “I, the Lord , search and examine the mind, I test the heart, To give to each man according to his ways, According to the results of his deeds.
JEREMIAH 17:4‭-‬10 AMP

“I did not send [these counterfeit] prophets, Yet they ran; I did not speak to them, Yet they prophesied. “But if they had stood in My council, Then they would have caused My people to hear My words, Then they would have turned My people from their evil way And from the evil of their decisions and deeds. “Am I a God who is at hand,” says the Lord , “And not a God far away?” “Can anyone hide himself in secret places So that I cannot see him?” says the Lord . “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord .
JEREMIAH 23:21‭-‬24 AMP

“Then I will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries to which I have driven them and bring them back to their folds and pastures; and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will set up shepherds over them who will feed them. And they will not be afraid any longer, nor be terrified, nor will any be missing,” says the Lord .
JEREMIAH 23:3‭-‬4 AMP

For I [fully] satisfy the weary soul, and I replenish every languishing and sorrowful person.”
JEREMIAH 31:25 AMP

“He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need.
Acts of the Apostles 17:24‭-‬25 NLT

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

My Story – Part 2 A Victim’s Responsibility

It means looking at all the fall out, the pain and the blood and recognizing that God looked down and saw the same thing when Jesus was on the cross and said, Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.

Sometimes people don’t look or act like victims on the outside.

Sometimes our wounds are hidden on the inside.

After I confessed to the church and my husband about the secrets I had kept for almost a decade with the former pastor, the biggest challenge for me was understanding my responsibility.

An elder in the church made the statement to my husband when referencing what happened to me, “She was not a victim.” His words shook me to the core and saturated me with shame. If I wasn’t a victim of sexual abuse, it meant to me that I was responsible.

Another leader in the church accused me of shirking responsibility when I called what happened to me spiritual abuse. He reminded me of how I had deceived others, too. I wondered if I was just fooling myself and blaming others for my sins.

My therapist defined responsibility for me a while back.

She said responsibility is the ability to respond.

I wish I could understand why it took me so long to respond.

I wish I could somehow go back and change how everything happened.

The truth is, all I can do is take responsibility for the things that I did and did not do and let God sort out the rest.

But what I can say, is that when I really heard God’s voice, I responded and told the truth about the lie I had been living for way too long.

It was a Monday morning staff meeting at the church that caused my wounds to reveal themselves to the pastor and the youth pastor at the church. The former abusive pastor had retired the year before, and I was now working with two other men who were not abusive and who I considered friends. The power the former pastor had over me had slowly began to diminish. We were still “friends,” we still talked every day, but the intensity of the relationship had died out.

The new pastor had been to an annual denominational meeting and was sharing with me and the youth pastor about a resolution all the ministers had signed that stated they would work together to effectively minister to those in the church who had been sexually abused. Here is part of what it said:

Be it further resolved that we urge all church leaders to use their influence for the protection of children, by any and all godly means, including preaching and teaching against the heinous sin of child sexual abuse, warning anyone with knowledge of these sins to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Ephesians 5:11), and by supporting victims who often suffer in silence and shame without the vocal and compassionate support of the church;

The pastor wanted us to take turns reading sections of this resolution, but when he asked me to read my part I shouted out in a burst of anger instead, “If only this had been signed earlier.” I don’t remember what I said after this. I just remember shaking all over. Both pastors knew something was very wrong and strongly encouraged me to find a counselor.

I emailed a therapist in another state whose books I had read to see if she would counsel me over the phone. She responded and made an appointment to talk the following week. I tried as best I knew how to continue to try to do my job at the church, however on the inside I felt like I was falling apart at the seams. While I was cleaning the sanctuary of the church after the Sunday service, I was listening to a sermon podcast on my phone. The pastor was talking about loving our neighbors as ourselves. Hearing his words caused another wound to rise to the surface. I realized that I had not loved my neighbors. I had been deceiving them all. It was in that moment that I knew God wanted me to tell the truth. I fought Him hard. Ten years of lies seemed like too much to confess. But I could not rest or sleep until I agreed with God that I’d tell the truth.

During the first appointment with my therapist, I finally uttered the words I had not spoken to anyone before. I told her that I had been involved in an inappropriate relationship with the former pastor. When I shared with her the details of what had happened, she shocked me by calling it abuse. She also said it was possible that the former pastor was a predator. I did not know what to say. I listened to her talk about abuse of power, appropriate boundaries, and the responsibility of someone in a pastor’s position to keep relationships with those they were ministering to healthy. The truth hit me hard. I had been abused again.

When the phone conversation ended, the new pastor walked in the door of the church. He asked me how the therapy session went, and we sat down in the sanctuary of the church to talk about it. I was so overwhelmed that I told him everything without thinking about the implications. It was the new pastor’s first church and he had only been there for a year. He placed his face in his hands overwhelmed himself.

The following week I met with the new pastor again. He had reached out to the president of the seminary he had graduated from for help. The president reached out to ironically the same therapist whose book the former pastor had counseled me with, Dr. Diane Langberg, for help. Dr. Langberg responded after hearing my story and agreed with my therapist calling it a severe case of spiritual abuse. She mailed the church educational materials to help us understand what had occurred. She also talked to the pastor on the phone advising him on how to proceed in exposing the abuse. The first step was to tell the leaders in the church. The next step was to tell my husband.

The next parts of my story are some of the most painful to tell. I will never forget the night the new pastor told my husband. We had arranged to meet at our house after he got off work. The kids would spend the night at a friend’s house. The hours before the pastor came and my husband got home are permanently stamped in my mind. The house was empty and so very quiet. But a storm was raging inside my soul. I feared everything in my life was about to fall apart. I walked down the hall of my house stopping at each of my children’s rooms. Would things ever be the same again? Would my husband divorce me? Would my children hate me? My heart was overwhelmed with fear. Please, dear God, help me.

My husband came home soon after. He was tired from a long day at work. He did not know why the pastor was coming over to talk to us. He went straight to the shower to get ready for his visit.

A short while later, we were all sitting in our den when the pastor broke the news to my husband. He was speechless for a moment and I braced myself for the worst. Finally, when he did speak, he said these words, “I knew that something was about to happen when I was in the shower and heard the words, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.'” And he got up from his chair, walked across the room and hugged me saying that he forgave me. I knew for the first time in my life I had witnessed a miracle.

The relief I experienced over the next few days was unlike anything I’d felt before. The truth had indeed set me free and my husband had forgiven me. I began to believe that everything would be ok. I had no idea how bad things were about to get.

In the following days, the leaders in the denomination would meet and make a decision about how to handle what I had exposed. There were emails and other correspondence that were turned over to them. The day finally came that they confronted the pastor with the news. On that day, the former pastor and his wife tried to call me and I blocked their numbers on my phone. I was scared to death and drove an hour away with the new pastor and his wife to another town to later meet my husband. In the days following this, the former pastor was deposed from ministry.

The church sent me and my husband away for several days of intensive counseling in Colorado with my therapist. While we were there it was decided by the church leaders that a church meeting would be held exposing the reason why the pastor was deposed. I did not want my name to be given at the meeting, but the leaders in the church insisted that the entire story be told in an effort to protect the church from gossip. My husband and I agreed on the grounds that a letter my therapist and I had written would be read and the church would be educated about spiritual abuse. On a conference call with our therapist, these terms were agreed upon.

My husband and I were still Colorado for counseling when the meeting happened. Not only were members of the church invited to attend the meeting but visitors were, too. We received a call after the meeting was over from the new pastor of the church. He said that the meeting had been peaceful and that people seemed to take the news better than expected. A text I received from the pastor’s daughter confirmed that people were going to try to forgive and move on. The news should have given us peace, but my husband and I both were unsettled and we did not know why.

We returned home and attended church the following Sunday. I knew if I did not go then I probably would never return. The former pastor had been told not to return to the church and had been assigned to another one. We walked in to church after the service started and slid into a back seats. I was so overwhelmed sitting in church that I don’t remember a word the pastor said. I was way too aware that everyone in the church knew what had happened. I was so afraid of the responses I would receive when the service was over. When it ended several people walked up to us giving us hugs and telling us they loved us. Some came by and spoke silently that they forgave me. I didn’t know what to say to this. I was confused that they forgave me for being abused. I wondered why no one said I am sorry for what we had been through. A text later from another member gave further clarity. She texted saying everyone messed up and it was OK. She said I shouldn’t beat myself up. What! I was shocked. It was clear that major facts from my story were missing. My husband and I asked the pastor if abuse had been explained to the church and if the letter from my therapist had been read like we had agreed. He stated that in the meeting what that what happened between the former pastor and me was not called abuse or an affair. We placed a call to the head of the denomination who had been in charge of the meeting asking him why a large part of the story had been left out. He accused me of shirking my responsibility by trying to call what happened to me as abuse. He brought up what I had done to deceive others in the church. I was crushed. Over the next few days we met with leaders in the church and they finally admitted that they edited my letter and that the church was not educated on spiritual abuse. They also told us that as far as everything went the matter was over. They offered to help our family deal with the fall-out, but they would not change the story of what was told to the church. They were satisfied that the damage to the church had been minimal and bringing it up further would only do more harm. Even though the new pastor did apologize to us for not being truthful, our family was so hurt that we left the church and never returned. In the following months, I was so overwhelmed by shame that I did not want to leave the house. My husband and I decided the only way to survive as a family was to move.

A year later my husband and I wrote the church a letter requesting that they remove our names off the membership role at the church. We began to attempt to rebuild our lives and trust God with what was ahead. It has been incredibly difficult and lonely. Not only did the pastor deceive us but the church did, too.

As I have said earlier, this blog has been a journey to sort through all the confusion and pain, an outlet for me to be honest with myself, others and God. Writing all of this has been like opening up wounds all over again. Why would I want to remember such pain? Because I believe the only way to move forward is to somehow reconcile the past and grieve all that has been lost.

Four year later, I realize it’s time for me to forgive myself and the church. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Nor does it mean pretending everything is fine or minimizing the damage that was done. It means looking at all the fall out, the pain and the blood and recognizing that God looked down and saw the same thing when Jesus was on the cross and said, Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.

Sometimes people don’t look or act like victims on the outside.

Sometimes our wounds are hidden on the inside.

We are all fighting difficult battles.

We need to be kind.

We need to speak the truth to one another.

We need to protect one another.

We only have the ability to respond to the things that we have control over.

That’s what I did when the time came.

I need to forgive myself, too.

But Joseph replied, “Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, that I can punish you? You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” So he reassured them by speaking kindly to them.
Genesis 50:19‭-‬21 NLT

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