A few years ago, my kids and I and pets escaped my abusive husband and home with just what we could carry out in a few vehicle trips.
Panicking and floundering, I thought, Hey, the people in my church will help me, right? After all, this was my home church. I had grown up there. They knew me. They knew my parents. They knew my kids. Their kids had played with my kids. They had been my kids’ Sunday School teachers. I had been their kids’ Sunday School teacher. I had served with them. We’d done Bible studies together.
Of course they knew him as well. But surely, they would be able to see past his polished exterior once I finally let them know what he was like behind closed doors, right? Once I finally broke my silence and told what was happening to us — what was being done to us — my church family would be shocked into action and would defend the beaten down. They would stand with and defend the widow and orphans of abuse, right? After all, that’s what the Bible says is true religion.
If the reader has seen any of my other blogs, I think we all know where this is going.
I cried out to them for over a year. They met me with “Biblical counseling” that always focused on “my sin”, but never spoke about what X had done to me and my kids. I begged for understanding. They forced me to “confess” any bad thoughts I had had about him AND any bad thoughts I had about them for all they were putting me through. Wrecked, I even lied and made stuff up to make sure I “confessed” enough so that the “counseling” session could be over. They told me I must cry tears of “genuine remorse” over my “bitterness” before they would end the session. They insisted that there must be tears. Readers of George Orwell’s 1984 may feel a bit of deja vu.
I did cry.
While my mouth was “confessing” the list of people I was supposedly bitter against, my insides were crying out to Jesus. I was broken… shattered… crushed. The realization finally cut through the decades-thick fog in my brain. My church, my friends, my spiritual home, were not going to do a thing to help me. They were only going to pile on and crush us under.
Even worse, I slowly realized they were actively breaking me down to compel me to return to him. They smiled through feigned-benevolence masks and dripped poisoned-honey words. “This is for your good.” “We love you.” And “Only we have the answers. Don’t seek help anywhere else. Otherwise, you are outside the will of God and He cannot bless you. You don’t want God angry with you, do you? You’ve got enough problems on your plate. You don’t want to add God being angry with you to your troubles.”
They allowed me to make a list of some of the things he had done to me, if I wanted to. Relief flooded my core. Finally, someone was going to hear me! Finally, someone was going to listen! And I hoped that when they heard what sinister things we had been subjected to, they would finally “get it.” Human compassion would wash over them. They would not be able to stop themselves from stooping down to where we were, finally look full into our faces, finally say, “Oh, how you have suffered! You poor, brave souls. How can we help you?”
When I brought them that list, haltingly hopeful, they said the fact that I had even made that list demonstrated my ongoing bitterness, my unwillingness to forgive (even though he never asked for any forgiveness), and they refused to even look at it.
I went to pastor after pastor on staff, people who I thought were my friends. I searched for compassion. I was hoping for a Job 2:13 experience.
13 Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (NIV)
The response was the same no matter whose door I staggered in to. “Why are you talking to me about this? Not my department. We should just force you two into a room together so you could get “this thing” worked out.” I even handed a pastor a pamphlet from FOCUS Ministries (https://www.focusministries1.org/ ) about how a church should correctly treat the victim of domestic abuse — listening to her, aiding her and her children. This was a pastor who had been a friend for a few years. He had been to our house countless times. We had been to his. Our kids played together. We worked on projects together.
This pastor – this friend – glanced at the title, slid it right back to me unread. My friend looked me in the face and told me this wasn’t his department. My friend told me to take it somewhere else. And like all the others, my friend also chanted the chorus that they should lock me in a room with my abuser so that we could “get this thing worked out.”
After reading umpteen other stories from other women who had been abused in their homes, only to be betrayed and re-abused by their evangelical churches, it finally dawned on me that it wasn’t just my church. I absorbed literature from Focus Ministries. Their mission is to implore churches to start helping the domestic violence victims in their midst and to provide them literature if they should ever start. I contacted them. They said couldn’t get churches interested. I read Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? He is one of the secular experts in domestic violence, and from his years of experience, he knew that churches almost always betray the victims who come to them for help. This wounding betrayal of, and piling more abuse on, abused and battered women and children was systemic. My case wasn’t just some isolated aberration. What happened to me was the norm.
I just want to say, I am not generalizing my following points from my isolated dealings with my one church. We tried other churches. I talked to loads of other evangelicals. I am also drawing the points from the huge number of stories I’ve read from other women in situations like mine. I am gratefully stirring in clarifying teaching from abuse victim advocates, bloggers, and (yes!) even great pastors who have come to understand how evil operates in a domestic violence situation. More importantly, I am mining information from an “insider.” After all we went through, my son wanted to become a pastor in order to “do it right.” He wanted to really help people in a similar situation who would come to him as a future pastor. He wanted to get abuse victims to the help they would need.
So, he went to a big, evangelical Bible university. He sat under the teaching of evangelical professors. He studied books written by big-name evangelical preachers. He wrote papers and took exams over the accepted thoughts, trends, and practices of evangelical writers. He did all this until he couldn’t take it anymore. He endured their teaching for three, long, (and as he called them) dark years. And he shared with me all that they were dousing him with.
So… What lessons did I learn from Evangelicalism?
- I am not important.
I learned that my feelings weren’t important. My counselors and pastors insisted that my feelings deceived me. All that X had done to me and my children truly didn’t matter, and that I needed to believe them when they said that my sin was the root of my pain. I just needed to make myself act happy and positive. Change my actions. Fake it til I make it. That was the driving train engine. Then, my thoughts would change. That was the coal car in this little train. Lastly, my emotions would then be dragged along to start running on the right track.
When I tried to explain again what X had been doing to us, they always circled back to, “But what about him? Try to see things from his perspective. Put yourself in his shoes. Walk a mile in his moccasins. Let’s remember he must have had a bad childhood. Let’s remember that he’s had to deal with an unhappy wife for a long time. Just think about how much he is hurting right now. You broke up his family.”
I. Didn’t. Matter. My kids’ pain didn’t matter. It was all about him. That old Y chromosome gave him value — value I could never have with my double X’s. And even though my sons had Y chromosomes, they were young enough not to have wedding rings. They were singles… young men. Therefore, their Y chromosomes had less status, less value. As single young men, their function was to silently obey and offer “respect” (obeisance, fealty) to their sire, their father. And more importantly, without wedding rings and without attaining the status of being “a family man”, their word was suspect when they corroborated my story with stories of their own abuse.
Along with this…
- God just wants to use me.
I know that this is a line so often preached from the pulpit with a warm voice and a smile. “God wants to use you. You just have to make yourself available. The only ‘able’ you have to be is ‘available’.” They said that it should be our greatest joy to be used by the God of the universe and our Creator.
But…somehow this line always seemed to “not fit.” If God is a relational God, who wants to be our best friend and the Lover of our souls, why would He want to “use” me? How was this any different from the abusive people in my life? These people all claimed to love me, like God claimed, often using flowery language that I inevitably was a sucker for because I desperately wanted their words to be true. But, then in the day to day, these people just used me. Used me for their own needs and purposes.
So how was “God wants to use you” supposed to be a good thing? How was He supposed to be different from all these people? The preachers said it was because God was perfectly good. So being used by a good God would be good for me, since He loved me perfectly. But… all these people claimed the same thing. That they loved me like no other. That they nit-picked, scrutinized, criticized, and “disciplined” me for my own good. They claimed that they loved me so much that they were (sigh) giving me lessons in serving that would make me better in my future. That they loved me so much that they had to relentlessly insult me, hurt me, and tear me down in order to “toughen me up,” therefore helping me (helping me?!) survive in a harsh world.
But really, if God wants to “use” me, then I am just a means to an end. I am simply a link in the chain that will eventually reach the next “trophy of grace.” According to this point, I am nothing but a stepping stone in Providence’s path whose true destination is the front door of the next Billy Graham or J.D. Greear or whichever Y-chromosome-carrying, high-profile preacher is God’s real next target.
- Everything is my fault.
This may sound to some as completely hyperbolic. However, it is what I was taught. In one church that we attended, the pastor taught from the pulpit that the correct Christian answer to the small-talk question, “How’re you doing?” now had to be, “Better than I deserve.” Because we were all such rotten sinners. He even had us practice the response antiphonally over and over. Call and response. “How’re you doing?” We droned back, “Better than I deserve.” This was in a church where the expectation was that the congregation was mostly born-again Christians. This was in a church that preached that Christ saved us completely. But apparently, we were still rotten.
My “insider” informed me though that this is how evangelical universities and seminaries teach their future-pastor students to treat their congregation. Preaching-class professors taught my son that every week a good preacher must pick a sin, accuse the people in the congregation of that sin, and then offer a plan to overcome that sin, usually using a catchy mnemonic device to help the sin-laden congregants remember the plan to make themselves better. However, he gave a sermon in class called “You are a Pearl,” geared toward Christians to remind them of how God had sought them out because He, God, declared them precious. He reminded the students that they are greatly loved.
My son was graded down because he did not nail his fellow Christian classmates with an accusation or present a plan on how to fix the accused sin-problem. You see, the prof explained that evangelical preachers must point out a sin every week. That way, people who want to please God, and who have a tender heart for Him, will feel compelled to come back to church week after week, afraid that they might miss a hidden sin that is secretly perturbing and angering the God they love.
But, some girls in the class came up to him afterwards and whispered, “Thank you. Thank you! Your sermon meant so much to me.” (By the way, females in the preaching class were not allowed to graduate with a Biblical Exposition degree, even though they took all the same classes, wrote the same papers, and took all the same exams as their male counterparts. They gave “speeches” and not “sermons.” Diplomas in the hands of double-X’ers read “Major in Communications.” Y-chromasomers’ diplomas read “Major in Biblical Exposition.”)
Evangelicals teach over and over that there is no good in us, even after we’re saved. My life is “better than I deserve.” My “insider” had profs teach that Jesus’s payment on the cross only “counts” towards the sins a person sinned before the point of salvation. But from that point on, any new sin remains on his or her account. We must constantly on edge, looking inward. We must be constantly introspective, must be constantly searching for sins in thought, attitude, or in deed, and must be confessing at all times. There is no good in us. What adds another layer of disturbing is that the main prof who taught this was a student favorite.
- God hates Christians. He only loves the lost.
Really? That’s extreme! Surely evangelicalism doesn’t teach that! But… yes, yes it does. My “insider” student had this taught to him in Christian college by his professing-Christian professors. Their point was that God loves the lost so much that He seeks them, pursues them, died for them in order to save them. But, the profs also teach, God hates the people already in the kingdom because they continue to fail Him and they continue to sin. This point was actually written in a book the students studied in their Systematic Theology course — a core course that is required for all pastoral students.
When I sat under such evangelical teaching in my churches, I always thought the “God loves you”‘s they threw out from the pulpit sounded so fake and hollow in their mouths. The pastors had just spent a half-hour to forty-five minutes accusing me, telling me how much God was disappointed with me. Very often, they would rail against “secret sins” I couldn’t even know I had on my account. I had secret motives, agendas so well-hidden, even I didn’t know I had them. I was that sinful. Then they would lay down the three R’s, or the five P’s, or the four Q’s of this week’s plan so that I could fix this sin I’d been accused of. They would hammer on signing up for accountability groups so that someone could be checking up on me to see if I was implementing this week’s plan to fix this week’s sin. Because God hates sin. And I’m a bad sinner. So, even though they wouldn’t go as bold as what their Systematic Theology college text said, I didn’t miss the message. I had taken basic algebra. If A=B and B=C, then A=C. God hates sin. I’m a bad sinner. Then God hates me.
But at the end they would throw out a few, “Remember, God loves you”‘s, smile at us, people would drone amens, and the pastors would raise their hands in blessing. Now, go. Be better. You sinner.
I often left empty, down, and not a little hopeless. And confused. God obviously hates me. But I’m supposed to remember God loves me.
Sometimes we would wrap up the haranguing – I mean the service, by singing “Amazing Grace.” But somehow, even though people around me are wiping nostalgic tears, I could never figure out why this grace was all that amazing. I just felt weary as I left, holding my notes full of the seven L’s that I’d have to work on this week. “Smile! God loves you!” Yeah, I suppose…
- God has a plan for your life! (But He’s not telling you what it is. You’ve got to guess. And He’ll “discipline” you if you guess wrong.)
I can’t tell you how often I would hear from the youth pastors and from the pulpit in “big church” that God had a plan for my life. But no one seemed to have any answers of how to figure out what that plan was. As a church, we — adults, tweens, and teens alike — were all compelled to take a “spiritual gifts” test every few years. Then when we received our answers, the leadership would start phone calls trying to recruit congregation members to volunteer based on the “giftedness” that individual’s test results showed.
But other than using personality tests to try to fill babysitting spots in the nursery, or to find someone to run the PowerPoint, no one in the church had any ideas of how to figure out what God’s plan for your life was. As a teen, this created a ton of anxiety for me. Because there were other Sundays when the pastor would preach on how Christians often step outside of the will of God. Sometimes they might not even know they did it. And if Christians did step outside of God’s will, they opened themselves up to God’s discipline. His discipline might include removal of His blessing, bad things happening to you, mental health issues beginning or increasing, serious mental illnesses, physical illnesses, or even death. Sometimes, we were told that because of our sin, our hard-heartedness, we could be responsible for the death of someone we loved.
I agonized over this for years. I didn’t want make God mad at me! I didn’t want to lose God’s blessing on my life! I didn’t want bad things to happen to me! Or even worse, to a family member! I remember so many times in small groups when I was a teen, that other girls (most often girls, but not exclusively) would also exclaim that they just wish God would let them know what His will was for their lives. Wishing for divine skywriting was mentioned so often!
Even as an adult, when I helped out in the high school ministry (before I was “church disciplined” out of the position, post-separation and divorce) teens were still saying the same thing in our evangelical church. “I just wish God would sky-write what His will is. I don’t want to get it wrong!” they would agonize.
I knew exactly what they were going through. Weariness. Anxiety. Frantic verse-searching. Underlining. Highlighting. Searching for answers. Hours of praying, saying the same words over and over, hoping this time to finally have a clear message from above. Reading the next teen-geared evangelical book that was sold in our church’s bookstore and passed around the group.
We couldn’t afford to get this wrong!
Like the Christian music group MercyMe sings in their song, “Best News Ever,”
“Some say, ‘He’s keeping score’
So try hard, then try a little more
Hold up, if this were true
Explain to me what the cross is for” (italics added)
What I’ve learned since leaving evangelicalism
I have learned that “God loves you” is not a fake and hollow tagline to follows the blistering rhetoric from the pulpit.
“God loves you” is the wellspring of life.
I have learned that God doesn’t hate Christians.
I learned that God loves His children. He loves them so much that He seeks them, pursues them, died for them in order to save them. And once we accept His irresistible gift of Himself, we are clean and wrapped in Christ’s clothes. Christ’s lifetime of perfect actions is written permanently on our account. He gives us His perfect human life here, and says, “Here, this is now your life as far as Divine judgment is concerned.”
I learned that Jesus did it all for us. He lived a perfect, acceptable life in our place. He was beaten, tortured, and was painfully killed instead of us. And He rose to new life to show us that the death penalty payment was finished. He rose to show us what our resurrection would look like. He could have straight to heaven to His Father when He died. But He rose so that we will too.
I learned there are no three R’s, or six S’s, or four B’s that we have to remember to try and straighten ourselves out. We can’t make ourselves clean. If we could make ourselves better, then “hold, up, if this were true/ explain to me what the cross was for.” We can’t make ourselves better. In fact, if we’re trying to clean ourselves up, instead of coming to Him with our sin and mess, we’ve already done it wrong. We can only come to Him, without excuses, without a plan. We thankfully and gratefully accept His sacrifice as being in our place. We tell Him about our ongoing sins and failures and hurts and thoughts. We tell Him all about it and ask Him to fix us, to give us His clean heart. We don’t need a plan. We need a new heart. And God, with holy hands, will shape and mold our hearts slowly to have new desires, new sensitivities, and new loves. More like Him. And one day, we will be wrapped in the loving, tender, joyous eternity of God Himself. It may be scary, and we will feel powerless, but we’ve never had the power to change our hearts to begin with.
I learned that I am important. The eternal God, who holds the entire universe in the palm of His hand, took off His God-ness, while losing none of it, none of Himself, and squeezed His eternity into a two-cell human flesh zygote/embryo. He was born the normal way, had human skinned knees, had a human runny nose, had a human mother and a human father who made mistakes. This God, who walked among the galaxies, naming each star — most that humans would never see — this God struggled to learn how to make His tiny baby body roll over. He was probably bullied in school. No one that perfect could get through the “junior high” age without having some big kid pick on Him. He had zits. He had a squawky voice and too-big feet for a while. We know that even His brothers gave Him lip and attitude. God lived a day-to-day human life. Perfectly. And He died in my place, taking my death penalty. And He rose again so that I could too one day. God did that for me. Yes. I am important.
I learned that God does not just want to use me. He doesn’t have some future big-name Y-chromosomed preacher in mind down the line somewhere that He needs me to link to. He doesn’t want to use me to be just a cog in His divine machinery. He wants me. For some reason, I am His goal. I am His lost coin He rejoices over. I was His lost sheep. I am the pearl.
Sure, other people might hear me talking about Him. I mean, how could I not? Hopefully, they will gratefully accept His sacrifice, His death, His blood, His gift, for their own. But, I am and remain the apple of His eye, not a cog in the works. And whoever else accepts Him as his or her Savior, you are His goal. You are His lost coin that He rejoices over. You are His lost sheep that He went looking for. You are His pearl. He can focus all His attention on me. And on you. You see? He’s that big.
I learned that not everything is my fault. Sure, sometimes bad things happen in a broken, Satan-ran world. That doesn’t mean everything is my fault. But, even if things were my fault, Christ’s payment effected my end-of-life-judgment account to be stamped, “It is finished. Paid in full.”
But, once I learned from my “insider” that pastors are trained to accuse their congregation of new sins every week, I realized that this false guilt that had been heaped on me was a manipulation tactic to keep me returning to their pews out of fear. But I finally understand this verse.
1 John 4:18, There is no fear in love because perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. ESV
I should not have to come to church out of fear of missing some sin that will knock me out of God’s will. I should not have to come to church because of some ginned-up, manufactured “love” — meaning because I have to. I should come to church because I want to out of real, felt love for God and for His fellow sheep. If I come to church out of guilt or fear, then that church’s teaching is not perfecting me in love. And I need to leave there.
It is a blind goose that cometh to the fox’s sermon.John Lyly, English writer 1553-1606
I don’t want to be a blind goose anymore. I want to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) And alluding to the fable of the North Wind and the Sun, I don’t want to be buffeted by their gusts of guilt and shame. I want to walk in the light and warmth of the Sun.
God has a plan for our lives! And He told us what it is.
Come to me, all who weary and heavy-ladened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself up for me. Galatians 2:20
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore, keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1
Therefore, there is now no condemnation at all for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. Romans 8:1-2
His plan for us is to rest. If we are in Christ, if we’ve accepted Christ’s work on the cross as being in our stead, then we are new creatures. We are no longer under divine judgment. So, we rest. We rest in His work, His love, His life lived perfectly in place of our lives which our sins and others’ sins against us messed up. Live. Just live. Pray. Make decisions. Follow your new desires. If it doesn’t pan out, you are forgiven. If it does pan out, you are forgiven. Rest. Life won’t be easy in this broken, broken world. But He knows. He’ll get you through. He’ll get you home.
Of course, when sinful, selfish, or destructive actions and desires crop up (which they still do), we come back to Him. We tell Him all about it. He already knows. No excuses. No plan of how to fix it. We ask Him to forgive us again. We ask Him to continue His good work He began in us, creating our new, clean hearts. But we rest in the fact that Christ’s perfect eternal life is on our accounts. If our trust is in Christ and that His work done on the cross counts for us, then we are in Jesus, and God cannot cast us out because God cannot cast out Jesus. Jesus is God, and God cannot cast Himself away from Himself. We are secure.
Isaiah 54 snippets
4 – Fear not, for you will not be put to shame; And do not feel humiliated, for you will not be disgraced; But you will forget the shame of your youth, and no longer remember the disgrace of your widowhood.
5 – For you husband is your Maker, Whose name is the LORD of armies; And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, Who is called the God of all the earth.
10 – For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, But My favor will not be removed from you, Nor will My covenant of peace be shaken,” Says the LORD who has compassion on you.
15 – If anyone fiercely attacks you, it will not be from Me. Whoever attacks you will fall because of you.