You don’t have to spend much time in the Christian blogosphere before you encounter the stories of those who have been hurt by the Church. These first-person narratives are often raw and unsettling—they include details that most of us would rather not know, and ones that once we do, we can’t easily erase from our minds. These stories are unusually transparent and reveal a pain that is clearly lingering. Because of this, it’s easy for some to discount them as exercises in self-absorption and unhealthy introspection. After all, shouldn’t we leave the past in the past? Can’t we just move on?
And we could do that, we could let things lie if spiritual abuse weren’t an ever-present reality, if it didn’t regularly make headline news. We could move on if pastors didn’t tell seventeen-year-old girls that they were “God’s gifts”
to fulfill them sexually. If victims of such abuse were not made to feel that they were somehow responsible or that they would hurt “Christ’s cause” to speak about it.
And I guess we could leave well enough alone if spiritual abuse didn’t cut both ways. If ministries didn’t routinely supplement budgets by underpaying staff with the caveat that they’ll be eligible for welfare. If pastors’ wives and children weren’t targeted for the sake of simply existing. If 1,700 pastors didn’t leave ministry every month
—many out of despair and discouragement.
But they do.
And so we must talk about spiritual abuse, because we must remember that the danger isn’t in how dramatic it is but in how common it is. The danger of spiritual abuse isn’t simply in the extremes but in how quickly, how easily any of us can use another person’s love of God to pursue our own goals and our own agendas.
I myself don’t have a salacious story to offer—no tragic account of childhood abuse or breaking away from some cult-like congregation. And yet, my husband and I have wrestled through the pain of working in the Church, of rejection and false accusation, of feeling abandoned by those to whom we looked for advice and care. We’ve also watched as friends have walked darker paths and still bear scars from those who wielded power over them. And we’ve watched as they have wandered from church to church—not because they’re troublesome—but because they’re looking for Jesus and He’s simply not as present in most churches as He should be.
So when I speak about spiritual abuse within the Church, I do so from a place of trying to grapple with the brokenness of Christ’s body. It is not about adding fuel to the fire or airing grievances. It’s not about “getting back.” (Although this will be a legitimate temptation for people who have been deeply hurt.) When I write about spiritual abuse, I do so with the express purpose of finding healing, of learning to be whole again.
Because while my husband and I have chosen to stay
in the organized church—even to make it central to our lives--the choice didn’t come easily. It came through tears and brokenness and times of angry questioning. It came through feeling abandoned by God and wondering why He thought it was such a good idea to gather a bunch of dysfunctional people together in the first place.
Yet, for all that I don’t understand, I do know this: Jesus is the only answer to the brokenness.
Rejecting the Church will not heal the pain.
Harboring bitterness will not heal the pain.
Denying these stories will not heal the pain.
Only Jesus can.
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across Ezekiel 34
in which God speaks against those who have abused and scattered His flock. He speaks against their greed and self-service and warns that He is coming against them in judgment and vengeance. But to the broken, hurting lambs, He says this: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out... I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered... I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.
This is where you find healing. This is where you find wholeness. This is where you learn to love again. You find it in the tears that flood your pillow as you cry out to Him. You find it in the questions that you bring to Him. You find it in His love and you find it in His justice--in arms ready to hold you at the same time that they are ready to fight to protect you. You find it in Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
And when you do, when you find His healing, you may also discover that you can return to His broken, messy flock. Because in returning to His Church, you’re not so much expressing confidence in His people as you are expressing confidence in Him. And in returning to His Church, you may also find that you can point the way for other hurting, broken, dirty sheep as well. You can point the way to the true Shepherd of their souls.
This is what has happened for my husband and me. By committing ourselves to Jesus, we’re learning to open ourselves again to the love and beauty of His people. We’re learning to trust Him enough to walk into the arms of a congregation who loves well. We’re learning to trust Him enough to receive the healing and restoration that only His body can offer. And we’re learning that even though we may walk through dark valleys, He will always come find us, and He will always lead us home.
It might be that I was finally bottoming out from the adrenalin rush of the holidays, my New Year’s inspirations had reach their last fizzle and pop, or I was at my limit of small children cooped up for one month too long. It probably was a combination of all of them. Call it the winter blues, but these last dreary days before spring are always hard for me. I find myself exhausted, drained, and generally out of sorts.
My husband is quick to pick up on it—usually after the third night in a row that we’ve had hot dogs for supper—and so this weekend, he came home from work, packed me up, and shipped me off to a guest bedroom in a friend’s basement. My instructions: to sleep, read, and most importantly rest.
It was quiet, dark, and cool. It was lovely.
We human beings sure have a hard time taking a hint. Winter is the perfect time to hibernate. But instead, while the earth around us is shutting down and going dormant, most of us (myself included) actually insist on INCREASING our productivity. Shorter day-light hours? No problem, we’ve got Day Light Savings Time and electricity. Cold weather that invites you to snuggle up in a blanket and read? Nope, got a heat-pump for that one. Now get up and be industrious. Bad road conditions that any sensible being would take as a sign from God to stay inside? Snow plows, four-wheel drive, and tire chains.
We’re really just like children.
One of the infuriating ironies of parenting is that children simply don’t know how to rest. After those first new born days of sleeping for what seems like 24 hours in a row, they come out of hibernation and no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to convince them to go back. This world is just too interesting, mommy is too warm and snugly, and feeding is too satisfying to be interrupted by sleep. Even if we can eventually get them on some kind of healthy sleep rhythm, when they get a couple years older, they inevitably fight bedtime and wake at ridiculously inhumane hours asking for breakfast.
You’d think that something as inviting, as refreshing, as sweet as rest wouldn’t be so hard to pass up.
But it is. And it is one of the very first things that we adults abandon in our self-sufficient quest for productivity and success. So much so, that God Himself--who doesn’t actually need rest – had to model it for us in case we missed the point. (Which we did.) From the seventh day of Creation, to the Sabbath mandates of the Old Testament, to the promises of eternal rest, our Father has been on a quest to teach His children how to sleep through the night. And just like our children, we have resisted Him, confident that there are better things to see and do in this world than rest.
But just like our children without proper sleep, when we refuse to take His cues about our limitations, we become cranky, out of sorts and nearly impossible to deal with. And just like our children when they become that way, the best thing to do for them is to impose nap time--to force them to rest. So if, like I was, you’re feeling that generally displaced moodiness that comes so often this time of year, maybe it’s time you found a guest bedroom in a friend’s basement. (You can drop your kids off at my house on the way.) Turn off the lights, cuddle up under the covers, and do what your Father has been trying to get you to do along. Rest in Him.
I've just emerged from a husband-imposed, 24-hour period of hibernation.
My daughter, not surprisingly, appears to have the same philosophical bent of her scatter-brained mother. On her first day of second grade after being homeschooled for nearly two years, when her teacher asked if anyone had any questions, she raised her hand and asked,“Why are we here? I mean, why are we made the way we are—why do we have hands, why do we have feet? Why do I have to go to school? Why do we sit in seats? I mean, WHY?”
He’ll never make that mistake again.
As long as I can remember, she’s been this way, and whether it’s nature or nurture or some complicated interplay between the two, I don’t know. But just like me, she prone to distraction and going “off with the faeries.
” A couple years ago, while she was swinging, gazing up into the sky, her baby-fine hair blowing in the wind, legs pumping against the air, she abruptly exclaimed: “I know-- maybe… maybe the world is like a great big dollhouse. And people are God’s dolls. Maybe we’re just God’s dolls!” Or maybe, like her mama, she needs to learn how to have a little fun now and again without over-analyzing everything.
But what if she’s right—are we just God’s dolls? Over the last
few years, many of us have gained a renewed vision of God’s sovereignty and His overwhelming majesty. We’ve
If you're interested in good book that handles a controversial subject with grace and balance, hop on over to The Gospel Coalition and read the review
I did recently of Dealing with Depression: Trusting God through the Dark Times
. It was written by Sarah Collins, a former teacher and Jayne Haynes, a family doctor who recognized that many of their Christian friends and family were ill-equipped to respond to depression in the church. Here's an excerpt of the review:
As we support those suffering from depression, we must gently assure them that there is hope and purpose even in the midst of their pain. God has not abandoned them; Christ himself is a Great High Priest who intercedes for them, and ultimately he is drawing them closer to Himself. That’s good news for anyone lost in depression’s maze of doubt, pain, grief, and uncertainty.