I love it when friends of mine find their voices and speak. I love providing them with a safe space to speak about what God has done in their lives. This one is from my friend Ruth.
I’ve not ever been in what is considered formal therapy. Sadly the “biblical counsel” my church leaders and Bible college leaders gave me as a teen almost killed me.
“Never question authority”
I was raised in an environment where authority was absolute. Obedience without question was expected to be given to any “authority” in my life. I learned that they were chosen and ordained by God to communicate God’s plan and design for my life. If any authority figure pointed out anything other than unquestioned obedience on my part, I would be punished.
“Adults do not just sit around making up lies just to create trouble for children.” I heard that time after time.
Even asking questions was wrong, because that might lead to challenge or outright disobedience, and that would be a symptom of a rebellious heart. And of course rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft and must be avoided at all cost. (Rebecca’s blog post on that is here.)
Men were elevated, and women and children were expected to willingly and completely submit. The “umbrella of protective authority” insisted that children, especially female children, were to be under their father’s authority unless and until they married, at which time authority over her would be transferred directly to her new authority, her husband. (Rebecca exposes the problematic issues with this teaching in her blog post here.)
My cognitive dissonance
All these teachings, as you can perhaps imagine, produced traumatizing cognitive dissonance and a sense of “no recourse,” when for several years of my childhood I was sexually, physically, and of course emotionally and spiritually abused by the man who was our family’s pastor—and a good friend of my parents.
I entered my teen years obedient, high functioning, and compliant, a Scripture memorizer, a strong and successful student, an accomplished athlete, a good friend, and a committed and loving daughter. Perhaps this was an attempt to compensate for my trauma and to find the acceptance I so desperately needed.
But I could never find rest in any of those places, because inside I felt “never enough” and always too close to failure. By the age of 20 I had become exhausted from the pursuit of approval. I felt I would never be enough for the people in my life or for God.
Four years earlier when I was 16, I had finally disclosed to my mother the years of childhood abuse that I had endured from our family’s well-loved pastor. This had resulted in an extensive cover-up from our family, our church, and the denominational leaders, along with the predictable shaming and blaming.
Now, at 20 and in what my parents considered an “unapproved college,” I felt ostracized and isolated from both my family and my church, who would have been my only support people.
The compassionate counselor
In desperation, I sought wisdom from a university professor I respected. He was the first “authority” in my life to actually compassionately listen to me rather than simply point out my “sins” of bitterness and unforgiveness. He heard how many times I had asked–even begged–my family, our church, and even child protective service officials for help, but had been denied.
As a result, he agreed to meet with me, hoping at least to be able to help me stabilize my life. He wanted to get me to a counselor trained in PTSD but was graciously willing to help me work through some of my misunderstandings about God, suffering, and life.
God used him to impact my life in ways I do not yet have words to articulate.
So many selfless hours this counselor gave me–sometimes just sitting in quietness or praying with and for me, neither of us knowing where to go next. Over the course of two years, he encouraged me, provided many helpful suggestions, and gave much sound, godly advice that guided my decisions and helped me build an effective tool box of coping skills that eventually helped me in my marriage and the raising of our children.
But, the most often-used emotional strategy I took away from that time came as a result of a question he would regularly ask.
The question…. “SO WHAT?”
At so many crossroads in my life, FEAR had become an incredible obstacle for me. . . .
Fear of sin in my heart that would cause me to be a disappointment to God, my family or my church,
fear of rejection,
fear of rebellion,
fear of fear itself,
fear of authority and power,
fear of giving up on a pursuit of God,
fear that God would give up on me,
fear of the disapproval of those I was subject to.
It had all kept me in a place of bondage (and to be honest, sometimes still does).
This wise counselor (who had been trained in a different kind of grace-filled system) would sometimes suggest that I find some independence; seek emotional, spiritual, and physical safety for my healing; or step away from my parents for a time.
Then he would listen compassionately as I struggled against this advice, explaining to him that this was not an option in my family. My parents had already withdrawn financial support and communication to punish me for enrolling at this university they disapproved of. I couldn’t risk losing relationship altogether.
My counselor would patiently allow me to paint with words my mind’s worst-case scenario, explaining why I could not do what he suggested, or what it would cost me, and how afraid I was to lose my family and be alone.
Then when he was certain I had explained the worst possible outcome, he’d quietly ask, “So what?”
I remember the first few times I heard those words, I thought, “Aren’t you a counselor? Aren’t you supposed to be compassionate and gentle? Aren’t you supposed to be ‘for me’?”
What I came to understand, and what for almost 25 years has stuck with me, was his reminder after I let the “so what” soak in. What he was really asking was, “Even if your worst-case scenario plays all the way out to its worst conceivable outcome, is that where God—who has, by your own admission, faithfully carried you through all that you have already survived—will now stop and say, ‘Well that’s it. You crossed the line. You went too far. I give up on you’?”
The simple “so what” became an opportunity for my mind to run to the end, and it always resulted in pointing me back to God’s promised never-ending mercy and His promise to be with me no matter my circumstance.
“…for He Himself has said I will never leave you or forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5b
“The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22-23
God’s mercy and grace, both past and present, are evident in my life. My adviser reminded me often that so long as I was pursuing Jesus in truth, my fear of making a big mistake, taking a chance, or just stepping out in effort to make a scary change that others in my life might not approve of, need not be determined by the voices of fear. I might “feel afraid,” but nothing was really stopping me from moving forward even when I was afraid, and God would go with me. I could even make mistakes and survive, without fear of being crushed by God in anger.
Hope in the “so what?”
Perhaps someone reading this feels similarly stuck and needs a gentle “so what” to help make that first little step toward healing. I hope you can honestly speak your burdened heart to the Lord. Look for a safe person who will stand beside you while you take small, difficult steps and dare to trust the true and loving Jesus. Take a risk and share your fear, confusion, hurt, maybe even anger or disappointment, without fearing His punishment. His grace is greater than any place you have been or will go, and after you have envisioned your worst-case scenario, He will still be there waiting.
“So what?” Take a risk. Do as He leads. He will go with you too.
May you find hope in the reality that if Jesus is glad to be with you, even in what seem to be your most hopeless places, you’ll find that it will be enough to carry you through.
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.
So glad you found your way out of bondage and into freedom. “It is for freedom that Christ set us free.” May your story help many others find their way to the freedom intended for them, too.
Was that pastor ever made accountable.. I hope so .
Thank you, Ruth. Your professor friend’s “So what?” question is profound. Combining that with your courageous, God-supervised efforts to heal offers great strength. Thank you.
Well, this piece had me in tears. I am so horribly grieved to read of all that your guest author endured, and I know that a couple of paragraphs can never capture the magnitude of pain that colors her history.
Yet in what she shared, I do not see a hardened, angry woman, but a woman of great compassion, tenderness and a most gracious faith. A part of me wonders how she did it, how she made it to this place in one piece. I thank God for that man who came alongside her and let her pour out her painful truth and gave her permission to wrestle with it until she found herself standing on absolute bedrock, an immovable, unshakable foundation of freeing, life-giving truth.
It’s incredibly hard to revisit these kinds of things, so I deeply appreciate Ms. Harris’ willingness to go there in order to reach and minister to others who have suffered – or may still be suffering – under a similar weight.
For that, I wish to just say, “Thank you.” I know that really doesn’t cut it, but that’s the best I can do at the moment.
Thank you so much, Cindy. She is a beautiful soul (as are so many of the people I know), and I am privileged to call her my friend.
Again, I am so glad to read these posts and someone articulating what is taught in these religious, conservative, Christian circles.
Unquestioning obedience to authority.
Women’s submission is required.
To merely question things is to be rebellious.
Those in positions of authority are considered placed their by God and thus to be obeyed without question, and they are believed to never do any wrong.
Combine that with the overarching beliefs that people are good, we are duty bound as Christians to look for the best in everyone, and forgive, forgive, forgive (despite no repentance) or otherwise you’re a bad, bitter, unforgiving person. Turn the other cheek. Be a doormat. Don’t judge. Suffer for God (take up your cross and quietly, silently endure abuse — while searching your heart to figure out how you caused it).
Then comes the courts. As though to litigate is sin. No matter what anyone does, we are to never be involved in any court battle. And judges are to be seen as mini-gods, as though they cannot do any wrong, no matter what.
Also, the labels of “rebellious” and “bitter” are almost exclusively used against women. I’ve yet to hear in current times of men being shamed in the way women are, especially at the extremely high frequency it’s used to silence, shame, and guilt women.
Thanks for sharing, Ruth Harris. I’m sorry for what your pastor did to you. I’m sorry for it all. Blessings to you, Ruth.
I’m still trying to come to grips with the (very sad) fact that the Good New is twisted by bad people into something unrecognizable. It almost makes me grateful that I didn’t grow up in the Church… as least not the kind of church as described by this guest writer! I found Christ, alone in my room, when I was seventeen. I simply believed, and His love pored in, simple and pure… no one used scripture to subdue or abuse me. That was a long time ago… and I have since learned that, sadly, Christendom can be a minefield of false doctrines, oppression, and abuse… all in the name of the good, kind, loving, and true God that I fell in love with as a teenager. Thank God there are people like Rebecca who are sounding the alarm, calling out the sick perversions of – of all things – the greatest love the world has ever known!
“HUSBANDS, ARE YOU DISCIPLING YOUR WIVES TO BECOME PRAOVERBS 31 WOMEN?”
Beautifully written and expressed Ruth. Thank you for sharing such profound truth. I totally resonate with your experience. It is refreshing to hear your voice talk about how much you danced around this issue attempting to gain acceptance. I have done the same. My experiences are so complex I have found nobody who understands, to share them with yet but I have begun to express them in a somatic way through my art for the world to see.
Where can we find your art?