Abuse


Today marks another milestone along my journey of recovery. The abuse I experienced which resulted in PTSD, trauma, and many years of struggle occurred six years ago today. In some ways it feels like six decades of struggle I have walked through, but in other ways it feels like it just happened.

Each year has held milestones along my journey, but this year more than any other has been the turning point. It has been a year of big steps, significant change and healing, and moving clearly in a new direction.

  • Joined the core leadership team of a church plant, one that really wants to reach the lost and broken
  • Started actively serving with six organizations in my community (most of these organizations sought me out which was an answer to a prayer that the Lord would open doors when he felt I was ready)
  • Began networking with people in my community and all over the nation
  • Helped run a major medical/dental clinic to serve my community
  • Joined with a group addressing human trafficking and hoping to raise awareness in the church about trauma
  • Started a book about what I have learned through my journey
  • Recognized the roots of my issues come from deep shame and started that recovery journey
  • Began openly speaking about and sharing the testimony of the changes Christ has brought into my life this year+
  • Last week I was notified that the pastor from my last church is finally ready to meet and attempt to reconcile

As I move into next year I already know of two major milestones that lie ahead

  • I will be leading a recovery group for abuse and trauma
  • I will be a part of a special program. Through that I hope there are outcomes that raise awareness of trauma and recovery, and teaches that brokenness and “not being okay” are beautiful things.

Tonight I had a chance to share part of my testimony with a friend who didn’t know anything about my past. He listened and personally identified with parts of my journey of trauma and recovery.

As I left, he stopped me and going out of his way to make an impact he looked he straight in the eyes and said, “You are a hero. It is incredible to hear the story and learn more about the depth that exists. You truly are a hero.”

To those of you who are also on this journey of recovery, and who face the daily struggle to recover from abuse, I want to say “You are a hero!” You daily face challenges that others don’t understand. You find courage to keep trying. You stand up for others who face injustice. You take steps forward, even when you don’t want to. Thank you for your courage and strength. You are heroes, and you are making an impact and a difference.

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I do not know Ray Ortlund, or anything about his beliefs (so I am not endorsing him), but I came across a very interesting article by him today entitled What It Means To Be Truly Reformed. He believes in Reformed theology, and is discussing how even the word of God can be manipulated and twisted so that it is no longer true. If we are adding to or subtracting from the Word, then we are changing it. Many abusive churches do this, and as Ortlund says, it can even become a club used to hurt others.

I really appreciate how he closes the article, which is the excerpt I highlighted below. These four excerpts draw out the pieces I believe really apply to disillusioned and abused believers, but I encourage you to read the whole article.

Theologically, I am Reformed. Sociologically, I am simply a Christian—or at least I want to be. The tricky thing about our hearts is that they can turn even a good thing into an engine of oppression. It happens when our theological distinctives make us aloof from other Christians. That’s when, functionally, we relocate ourselves outside the gospel and inside Galatianism.

But no matter how well-argued our position is biblically, if it functions in our hearts as an addition to Jesus, it ends up as a form of legalistic divisiveness.

In other words, “When Christians, whatever the label or badge or shibboleth, start pressuring you to come into line with their distinctive, you know something’s wrong. They want to enhance their own significance by your conformity to them: ‘See? We’re better. We’re superior. People are moving our way. They are becoming like us. We’re the buzz.'” What is this, but deep emotional emptiness medicating itself by relational manipulation? This is not about Christ. This is about Self.

Whatever divides us emotionally from other Bible-believing, Christ-honoring Christians is a “plus” we’re adding to the gospel. It is the Galatian impulse of self-exaltation. It can even become a club with which we bash other Christians, at least in our thoughts, to punish, to exclude and to force into line with us. What unifies the church is the gospel. What defines the gospel is the Bible. What interprets the Bible correctly is a hermeneutic centered on Jesus Christ crucified, the all-sufficient Savior of sinners, who gives himself away on terms of radical grace to all alike. What proves that that gospel hermeneutic has captured our hearts is that we are not looking down on other believers but lifting them up, not seeing ourselves as better but grateful for their contribution to the cause, not standing aloof but embracing them freely, not wishing they would become like us but serving them in love (Galatians 5:13).

Ray Ortlund’s blog, Christ Is Deeper Still.

Sometimes circumstances leave you behind a rock and a hard place, and no option looks or feels good.

That is how it may feel to be authentic and transparent about your life.

You know your past, you know the story, you know the good, the bad, the lame, the extreme, and you know the parts that might live better hidden under a rock. Do you have any of those pieces? Pieces of your story that you are not proud of? Pieces of your story that you may be coming to terms with, but others don’t want you to tell? Do you have pieces of your story that could hurt others, and therefore you are not sure what to do with them?

When my life intertwines with others, then my story becomes our story. My story no longer exists alone.

It is hard to learn to own our story. We may be willing to accept the parts of our story that we feel responsible for, but not those parts that are imposed or inflicted upon us. When our stories involve others it is difficult to know how to own our story, and what to share with others. That is especially true if the story could hurt others.

Some of us have stories where we are hurt, disillusioned, and victimized. Church and spiritual abuse typically occurs at the hands of leaders, and many people feel it is wrong to speak against leaders or to say anything that might damage their reputation. However, not being allowed to share our stories can leave us in silence, shame, and bondage. Those things are not healthy, and they keep us from being authentic and transparent. They keep us from growing and having healthy, mature, and authentic faith lives.

Sharing our stories does not need to be a black and white issue. There are some guidelines that can help in knowing when, where, and what to share.

1) Own your story: Are you willing to accept your story for what it is? This includes being realistic about what happened, and not denying it. Accepting it means being able to state facts about what happened with little to no shaping of your own perspectives and agendas. It also means taking responsibility for your part of the story and accepting things you did wrong. In my story I had to accept my sin, my failures, my false theologies and beliefs, and my poor communication and relationships.

2) Check your heart: If you are going to share your story, take time to ask why. If you are only telling your story because you need to work through issues, then choose an audience who will help you do that. This will typically be people you see face-to-face, and I believe it is best done in community and relationships and not just in a counselor’s office. A time may come to share your story (or elements of it) to a larger audience like a bible study, a church group, in a written newsletter/article, on a blog, or in a book. Knowing the condition of your heart and why you are sharing are critical when you start to speak beyond those who are closest and most intimate with you. If you are not sharing for the right purposes, then please stop and take your heart to the Lord to have it changed.

3) Guard your words: When our stories intertwine with others, anything we say can reflect poorly on others involved. Checking our heart is the first step of guarding our words, but even if our intentions and purposes of sharing are correct, we still need to be very careful that our words are shaped in a way to redeem, build up, strengthen, give life, and encourage. Our words can hurt and destroy. Take time and make very determined effort to speak words that will bring life, hope, and healing. You do not need to tell everything to express your story, and if you are testifying about what God has done your focus will be his work, and not the deeds of other humans and how they might have failed you/God/others.

4) Seek to bring God glory: What better purpose is there in sharing our story than to bring glory to God? This actually might be the only reason to share our story beyond our closest circle, but our stories are also a work in progress and always changing. If all we do is seeking to glorify God and to bring him glory then our words, our purposes, our heart will all be focused on that. We will not have room in our heart or mouths to speak things that lash out, destroy, or bring malicious damage to others.

5) Give grace: Give others and yourself a great deal of grace. Even in the best of situations there is room for things to be misspoken, misunderstood, or shared with a perspective others do not share. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Be willing to correct and change things in your story if needed to clarify so others have the correct understanding. Be open when others are critical about you sharing, and allow them to speak their disapproval. It might be that their disapproval will change if voiced, or there could be room for compromise. Also, give grace to yourself. Sharing your story may open the door for shame, guilt, criticism, anger, frustration, or denial to surface. Take the time to feel what comes up, and to walk into the painful and difficult parts of the journey. Be realistic that you are a broken person who needs a savior, and even with all the Lord has done in your life up until now, there is still more that needs to be done.

If it is time for you to share our story and the situation is correct, then share it with a heart to glorify God. Speak with boldness, grace, and love.

Tell of how the Lord has brought you through, opened your heart/eyes, and how he is writing you a new story. You do not need to live in silence, shame, guilt, or secrecy. Be honest, be transparent, be authentic and real. Your story is your own, all of it! Sharing your story and confessing things might be the door that opens your life up to the freedom that only Christ can bring.

One of the struggles I have wrestled through during my recovery over the last five years has been the idea of revenge or retaliation. It isn’t something I have come out and shared with others. It isn’t something I feel good about at all! It is that deep dark secret I have tried to hide because it shows me the depth of my heart and how sick it is. I have carried shame and guilt for these feelings. I have felt so despicable for the thoughts, but I have also had to come to terms with the fact that my feelings were real, and if I did not deal with them now they would just show up later in some other form.

What do I mean by revenge in the context of my spiritual abuse and struggle with church leaders?

I have been tempted to want to make them pay for what they did to me. I have wanted to tell others how I have been wronged in a manner that hurt and slandered the leaders.  I have wanted to smash windows, flatten tires, destroy property, slap them in public, or pour a drink over their head. The week I was suicidal I even thought about where I could die so they would find the body and feel the guilt over my death.

First, know that I feel horrible for every thought that went through my heart and mind. The thoughts were wrong! They were sinful! They hurt my relationship with those from my past church and they hurt my relationship with God. I have repented of those thoughts and have worked with God over why I ever even had to experience the thoughts and feelings, because while the world might tell me it is okay to think and feel them, just not to act on them (some would say it is even okay to act on them), I don’t feel that God’s word agrees. Yes I had been traumatized and hurt. Yes there are things others did that I consider wrong, but I did things wrong also. I can’t cast a stone at them knowing the sin and issues in my own life.

I haven’t known what to do with these thoughts and feelings though.

They were strongest at first. I was in so much pain from how I was mistreated that pain was all I could think of. My pain, wanting to give them pain. I knew it was wrong but I still thought it and felt it. I would try to force the feelings to go away. That doesn’t work. I would deny it was there. That doesn’t work. I would try to express it through writing or some other means. That at best was a temporary relief. I would lay awake at night feeling sick because of the thoughts. I would catch myself during the day wishing something bad upon someone.

Ultimately I had to deal with my heart. I had to make a choice to forgive. I had to make a choice to love. Even if they never spoke to me again I had to forgive them for me. My pain was eating me up inside and costing me tremendously. I had to find freedom because I was trapped in pain. I had to let go and surrender my right to get even. I had to surrender every vindictive, vial, cruel, hateful, evil, malicious, angry, painful, unloving thought and feeling.

It was hard! Very, very hard!

Today, I don’t live with the burden of revenge in my heart. I do not feel the hatred, but honestly feel love, compassion, grace, and forgiveness. That doesn’t mean that I don’t experience moments where my heart wants to deceive and betray me again, especially if some new negative aspect arises. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still have to fight for forgiveness and love. It is a choice.

Every day I choose to love, I choose to forgive, I choose to hope for reconciliation.

The reconciliation likely will never come as the elders have cut me off from any further contact with the pastor, and this week they were supposed to finally present the charges against me  (that should have been given eight months ago), but that didn’t happen. However, because I have chosen love and because I have hope in Christ and the Gospel I have hope that some day their hearts will be drawn to the Lord and they will forgive.

Revenge …. retaliation … hatred … pain … … … I have given them up and am trying to live with my eyes on the Lord.

Back in November I posted about the trap of silence that can occur in situations of abuse. Will a child be believed if they share that their parent is abusing them? Will the victim of verbal or emotional abuse be believed if they speak out, especially if there is no evidence to support their claim?

Another related feeling or experience that victims can go through is feeling emotionally blackmailed. If they speak out, they may be labeled as being rebellious, distorting things, telling lies, seeking to destroy reputations, and causing damage/disunity to families, organizations, friends, etc. Often they are told by abusers that they cannot or should not share because it could hurt the abuser. The abuser has injured the victim in the first place, and then locks them into a situation of silence. This is an especially strong tool because often abuse is perpetrated by those who are close to the victim, so the victim does not want to cause pain or dishonor to the abuser.

The situation where the abuser is in a position of authority (adult over adult) and uses that authority to coerce the other person into silence or to walk out certain behaviors is similar to blackmail. Words are very powerful things. The book of James tells Christians to guard their tongues because they can be used to both praise God, and to hurt man. The responsibility of what we speak is something that should weigh heavy on our hearts. We need to be very cautious of what we say and why we share it, knowing that we have the ability to choose what we say. Things should be shared only with a heart of love, grace, and redemption but often there is so much pain, anger, frustration, and such deeply charged emotions that this is not possible.

Silence is not always the answer though. In fact, sometimes it is the wrong answer because it just covers up the issue rather than bringing it to light so it can be dealt with and so lives can be changed, healed, and brought to emotional and spiritual health. Sometimes the harder, most loving, and most important decision is to speak out, to share the story, and to walk through even more difficult things to have the truth be known. Sometimes it is the only way things change. Sometimes it is the way to forgive. The change may not be for the abuser, it might be for the victim. It might be that the victim has done some things that they need to be held accountable for or has some areas where they need to learn and grow. Whether the truth opens doors for the victim, the abuser, or both to receive help and for healing to occur it can be a good thing. Speaking out often though will bring the opposite result. It will often end any hope of reconciliation and restoration. It can scar the reputations of those involved for years to come.

The more I learn about dealing with relational conflict the more I see how important it is to deal with any issues very early in a relationship. God made us to be in relationship with each other and to walk in unity and peace. Distorted, broken, and hurt-filled relationships do not please him and make our lives very difficult. We need to walk in humility and love. This can only happen as our hearts are changed.

At times on the recovery journey things happen or days occur when our hearts are heavy, things seem out of sorts, or circumstances lead to difficult steps. How we choose to handle those times makes a big difference in where we go and how we move forward in the bigger picture. They may seem like small things but they do affect the bigger picture of where we are trying to go.

One thing I have been learning about is perception. Someone who is in the midst of the last stages of marriage expressed deep sorrow to me when they shared their spouse has a perception of injustices that were done in the past that they can not move past. This person has set their mind on a certain belief and even though others don’t agree with it they continue to stand firm in their convictions. Due to that the other spouse has found there is no further room for communication, compromise, reconciliation, or restoration.

If you have experienced relational struggle, abuse, injustice, rejection, or abandonment then what is your perception? Do you believe the others were completely in the wrong? Have you taken responsibility for your part? Are you willing to accept that your perceptions may in some ways be incorrect? Can you see ways others are holding incorrect perceptions? Could the perceptions you have be the cause of the problems in the first place? How do you respond when others have incorrect perceptions about you?

The elders and pastor of my last church hold a perception of me that is incorrect. I have tried to correct it but they continue to believe that I desire to hurt the pastor and the church. It actually is the exact opposite of my heart. I have protected them and spoken highly of them so many times. I love the pastor very, very deeply. They are Christians who are part of the family of God and as such there is no need for division, hostility, brokenness, or separation, and I do not have any intention or heart to divide or disunify God’s family. I keep trying to see the situation through their eyes, through their perception, but so far I can’t find that point. I want to take responsibility for my parts, to repent of all sin, and to rectify things. Recently I was told that the elders still are open to see my repentance and to reconciliation but the pastor will no longer be involved in any communication with me. There are perceptions held on both sides that keep us from finding common ground. I wish it was different. I wish our hearts were not hardened against God’s ways, and that we could choose love, forgiveness, grace, healing, and unity. I miss my friends and “family” that I am separated from at that church, and I am really concerned about the future impacts of this brokenness on the Christian community in Portland. May God continue to redeem this and bring repentance, truth, and life where other things exist.

At the beginning of the year many people make resolutions to do something differently in the coming year. Often these are made with good intentions but are not followed through upon. Another thing that often accompanies the change over of the year is looking at what has occurred during the past year and the marking of milestones.

Identifying and marking milestones is something that can be very important in the recovery process. It helps you to identify that you have made steps forward toward healing and away from unhealthy actions or thoughts. It does not matter if they are big milestones or small, but identifying them can help find a sense of accomplishment, success, and hope.

How you mark milestones is up to you. You may want to keep a list of them, celebrate them, record them in a journal, share them with close friends, reinforce them through some reward, or something even more creative. The important thing is to notice them! On my journey it has not always been a milestone of doing something, often it has been marking a milestone of the absence of something such as no more nightmares, no more fear of being in a church, and making it 4 hours/24 hours/2 weeks without crying. Sometimes when the negative aspects of our grief, sorrow, and journey go away, when the temptations to drink, sleep, or cry disappear, or when our anger, bitterness, hurt, and broken-heart begin to heal we feel better and do not even realize it. Take the time and make the effort to recognize those milestones. They truly are important so that you can see how far you have come, and you can stop looking at how far you still have to go.

In the Old Testament it was common to bring together a pile of stones to mark a spot of rememberance and to identify the location of something important. It was a symbol of what had occurred. You also might want to create a ritual of something like this. Place a stone in a dish or jar every time you can mark a milestone. You might want to use money instead so you can purchase something or do something to reward yourself. Even keeping a tally on the wall or in a journal can give a physical action to marking the milestone which then gives it more significance and helps lend itself to a feeling of success.

You are on a journey, but there a journey has many things to see, do, visit, accomplish, and note along the way. Don’t pass by all the scenic overlooks and picturesque spots. Take a moment to celebrate you have made it this far and all you have to do it make it to the next milestone before you get to celebrate again!

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